41. the last goodbye
after 38 years, families of four soldiers lay their hopes and a war to rest
by lynne duke, washington post staff writer
they lie in a pile on the red clay of vietnam.
four dead men. one already is smoldering. the elephant grass is on fire. three other marines are still alive for now, but if the north vietnamese army doesn't get them, the fires surely will. it is late morning, may 10, 1967, on hill 665 northwest of khe sanh. a marine reconnaissance patrol named breaker is in trouble, picked off or blasted apart for 12 hours by nva snipers and grenades.
u.s. forces throw hellfire onto that hill. jets crater the area. gunships rocket enemy bunkers; gatling guns fire 6,000 rounds per minute, pulverizing flesh and bone. and the napalm fires burn. but the nva is relentless. it turns chopper after chopper into swiss cheese. one takes 182 hits, wounding the whole crew; in another, a pilot dies. suddenly a huey flies in fast and low, just drops from the sky, slips in under a blanket of ferocious cover fire. the chopper slides onto the hilltop, within feet of the marines. ron zaczek, a marine crew chief, jumps out with a crewmate to haul the survivors aboard. it takes only seconds.
the young marines are sprawled on the deck. clarence r. carlson and steven d. lopez are bloodied and dazed. carl friery is clinging to life. zaczek tries in vain to stuff friery's intestines back into his gaping abdomen. then he just rocks him gently, whispering helplessly, "there, there. there, there."
the chopper struggles for lift. it skids and bounces, nearly crushing the four dead men on the ground. zaczek remembers one face. oddly clean, calm, facing the sky. its blond eyelashes flutter as the huey's rotor whips the air and finally lifts the bird.
the dead remain where they lie. it is the last time any marine will see the bodies of heinz ahlmeyer jr., james n. tycz, samuel a. sharp jr. and malcolm t. miller.
they recede into the distance, into the past, already a haunting memory. vietnam's red earth has claimed them.
finding the fallen
if they have had no proper burial, the spirits of the dead wander. that is what buddhists believe. to bring them home, to put them to rest, the spirits must be guided -- with prayer, with incense.
so a villager from huong hoa district in south vietnam placed burning incense around the mesa of hill 665 on an april day in 2003 when the red earth would start disgorging its buried secrets.
ahlmeyer. tycz. sharp. miller. today their families will finally mark their return. for 38 years, their families have waited. they have waited for some physical remnant: a bone, a tooth perhaps, even just a dog tag. something to bring them closure. today they will have their wish, with full military honors for the fallen soldiers, at an arlington national cemetery ceremony that will end their uncertainty and close a bitter chapter of the vietnam war.
lost in the infamous hill battles of khe sanh, the missing men of breaker patrol were among the many abiding mysteries of a war from which there are still more than 1,800 listed as missing in action. the job of finding them was left to anthropologist sam connell, who specializes in the ancient civilizations of the maya and inca. he'd signed on with the pentagon's joint pow/mia accounting command (jpac) in 2002 to lead excavation teams. the work is a blending of archaeology and forensics, not unlike a criminal investigation. the search for remains is never simple, especially with the passage of time. remains of almost 750 u.s. mias have been found since the vietnam war's end. the cases that linger are the most challenging. "so now," says connell, "it's the cases like this, where you're on a cliff face or you're piecing together a more complex history."
hill 665 was indeed complex -- a troubled place, its terrain disturbed.
near the old demilitarized zone and the laotian border, 665 had been bombed and cratered repeatedly. it had been picked over by scavengers searching for scrap metal or by bone traders looking for human remains to sell or barter. the secrets of hill 665 had eluded investigators for years. there had been but a few random clues and no dots to connect them.
u.s. officials in the capital, hanoi, met with a steady flow of local people trying to sell information or human remains, though u.s. policy prohibits investigators from buying. often, the clues offered little beyond the obvious: someone died. but who? where? in which battle?
and those questions weren't easy to answer, because the location of the breaker incident was in dispute for several years. in 1993, a search was mounted, but it turned out that the coordinates were wrong and investigators found nothing.
the case was shelved until 1998 when a villager scavenging for metal found boots atop hill 665.
but a backlog of hundreds of other vietnam cases delayed the breaker investigation. (not to mention the 78,000 mia cases from world war ii or the 8,000 from the korean war that jpac is also investigating.) delays were as simple, sometimes, as the weather: investigative trips are limited to those few months each year that aren't in monsoon season.
finally, in 2002, a test excavation was conducted atop hill 665. it turned up a few boots.
"so i come in the next year thinking, 'oh, they already have [their] boots,' " says connell.
launching a more extensive dig, "immediately i find three or four other boots. then we began excavating, and i find 11 boots, which is more than the four men had."
the team also found c-ration containers, combs, toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, bits of socks, artillery casings, sandbags.
the discoveries, at first, made no sense. obviously, other battles had been fought there. other u.s. troops had occupied that hill. (later connell would learn that the 101st airborne division had set up a firebase on hill 665, unknowingly atop the breaker patrol's remains.)
"in warfare," says connell, "things are messy like that." connell's team hired about 50 villagers to sift the dirt through mesh screens that would tease out even the smallest fragment. they found snaps, a 1964 penny, cartridge casings, wing nuts, a battery, a ballpoint pen case, belt buckles, fragments of a plastic insect-repellent container. and by the end of the two-week mission, the searchers also had found 31 individual teeth or tooth fragments, plus fragments of bone.
connell could tell right away that the incisors did not have the shovel shape of asian incisors. and dental fillings, which some of these teeth had, are not commonly found in the less developed world.
in hanoi, a review panel of u.s. and vietnamese experts agreed the teeth were american. the teeth fragments were stored inside evidence bags, placed in a flag-draped casket and flown to jpac headquarters at hickam air force base in hawaii. there, the jpac laboratory would try to identify them.
last letters home
dear mom, dad and sis:
well, i'm just fine. they took hill 861 and 881 and things are beginning to quiet down. we can sit on our chairs out in the back of the tent and watch the jets and b-52s make the runs on 811.
lance cpl. samuel a. sharp jr.'s last letter home to san jose, calif., sounds like a vietnam picnic -- watching the bombing runs. it was dated may 7, 1967, as the infamous hill battles of khe sanh were ending.
he was 20 and tall, son of a navy man, and a worshiper of john wayne. he joined the marines to be with ed, his best friend. from vietnam, he sent his little sister a fiver for her 18th birthday. janet caldera, 56, of spokane, has kept it all these years. love, frozen in time.
dear mom and pop ... our company has been hit pretty hard, too, with casualties; 100 percent casualties in one of our eight-man patrols hit by mortars while waiting for helicopters to pick them up... . mom and dad, i have had opportunities to write sooner than tonight, but i hope you will understand that writing about an unpopular war like this one is not easy... . i had an interruption just now. our lieutenant passed me the word that we go in at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow. none of us want to go, but that's our job and i pray i will never fail to do it.
your marine son, neil.
sgt. james neil tycz was a soldier's soldier. the men trusted him. he knew the jungle, had been on several patrols. back home in milwaukee, he ran cross-country, played some tennis. he'd thought of becoming a priest. in vietnam, he sometimes led the men in prayer before they departed on patrols.
tycz's last letter arrived home in milwaukee on may 9, 1967. he died the next day, at age 22.
they all have their stories, these families. they are wonderful in their ordinariness, precious with each recollection.
how navy petty officer 3rd class malcolm t. miller, the hospital corpsman, didn't have to be there in vietnam, could have avoided it by taking advantage of the sibling rule, since he had an older brother already stationed at tan son nhut, says their sister, sandra miller keheley, of madison, ga. (his brother, air force sgt. wes miller, returned home alive.)
second lt. heinz ahlmeyer jr., a graduate of the state university of new york at new paltz, had completed officer candidate school when he was shipped to vietnam. hill 665 was his first patrol. guts and devotion were his defining traits, says his big sister, irene healea, of watertown, tenn. since his death, suny new paltz has given out an award each year in his name, for a student with just those attributes.
the families received their telegrams long ago, confirming the deaths and the marines' inability to recover their remains. the families held their memorial services. they gathered up their memories and assembled them in photo albums, on walls, in keepsake chests. they carried their heartache. the years did not erode their longing, their unspoken wish that it was a mistake.
"in the early days, after the war ended, anytime prisoners of war were brought home you'd always hope," says tycz's older brother, phillip d. tycz, 62, of plano, tex. "you're told it's a definite killed in action, but until you have remains, you never know."
the vietnam war mushroomed into a broad social and political force. but for these families, it remained deeply personal. they received briefings over the years from jpac or its predecessor agencies. they knew the contours of the search, its ups and downs.
life went on. and yet they remained emotionally tethered to hill 665, khe sanh, 1967. for keheley, when the phone call came earlier this year with word that the remains had been positively identified, it was as if her brother had died all over again. "i had to leave work. i couldn't deal with it," says keheley. "i thought after all these years it would be easy. but it's like knowing that someone you love is dying and even when the time comes it's still hard to take. that's how it was. i just started crying, and i had to go home."
they roll themselves in their ponchos and sleep in a circle in the tall grass. one man keeps watch.
technically, they accomplished their mission: put down on hill 665 by chopper at 5 p.m. on may 9 to check enemy movement into the area. breaker patrol had radioed back to the khe sanh base that it had found a series of empty but recently used nva bunkers and spider holes, perhaps for a company-size contingent.
that's well over 100 men. and they are only seven. they could have left the area and hunkered down elsewhere. but they didn't. and around 10 p.m., the nva return. they walk right up to breaker patrol's position. pfc. lopez sees them.
"they walked up to the side of the circle that i was facing, and the first one or two people that came in, i shot them," recalls lopez, now 56, seated in his kitchen in la plata, uncomfortably recalling events he's rarely spoken about in 38 years.
hill 665 lights up and stays that way for 12 hours. ahlmeyer and tycz get hit in the first volleys. tycz was the patrol leader, showing the higher-ranking ahlmeyer the ropes on his first patrol.
"ahlmeyer was hit harder than tycz and started moaning, and they threw grenades at the sounds," says friery, now 59, on the phone from longmont, colo., where he lives on military disability after a long struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
the recollections of friery and lopez complement the account of the battle written by lawrence c. vetter jr. in his 1996 book, "never without heroes," about marine recon units in vietnam.
"grenades were flying around and rolling right around the position," says lopez, a radio man on the patrol, who today is a public school behavioral specialist. tycz, like them all, is throwing back grenades. one explodes near his head. soon he is dead. lance cpl. clarence r. carlson takes shrapnel from the blast. both radios are hit.
carlson mixes and matches parts and rigs up a working unit. he starts calling for artillery support. he hands the radio off to lopez, who is shot in the chest but stays on the air. sharp takes a round to the chest, too. pfc. friery crawls over to him. his best friend in vietnam is beyond help. a grenade lands next to friery. he throws it back and is hit with gunfire in the gut.
then miller, the corpsman, takes a round, gushing blood from a femoral artery. carlson tries to stanch the flow from miller's leg and another grenade blast wounds them both. miller asks to be propped up with a gun, which carlson does. and miller slumps over. dead. all ears in the region are on the hill 665 radio traffic. marines back at the khe sanh base are virtually begging to be sent in to help the men of breaker.
so many u.s. rockets and gunships are shooting at nva positions on 665 that huge globs of damp jungle soil rain down on the patrol, recalls friery, the other radio man. he passes out when he is hit again by another grenade.
carlson and lopez scrounge among the fallen for more ammunition. they pile the dead -- their own and the enemy's -- as a barricade around their position. they kill many nva, says lopez, but they are outmanned.
carlson tries to throw a grenade, is shot in the arm, then drops the grenade and takes shrapnel in the back when he tries to dive away from it. he injects himself with morphine. then he is shot in the leg.
the nva troops are so close that lopez can hear them talking, hear them dragging their dead through the tall grass. he is calling in air support all the while. "drop it closer! drop it closer," he was quoted as saying in a wire dispatch in the washington post on may 11, 1967.
though he doesn't remember all the details now, lopez says, "i know that i asked for napalm. i was asking for anything i could get. and then i asked for more and more."
by daybreak, the fires are menacing.
"scarface, this is breaker," lopez radios at one point, according to ron zaczek's 1994 book, "farewell, darkness." lopez's pleading transmission would haunt zaczek for decades: "we're burning. you gotta get us out. scarface, you gotta get us out. we're burning up."
lopez explains: "we were all pretty much engulfed in flame, but it wasn't a roaring inferno. it was spots of fire and you could negotiate it, if you were on your toes." a very big "if."
by the time zaczek's huey flies in, lopez has chest, leg, head and abdomen wounds. carlson is equally shot up and blasted. friery is effectively disemboweled and will be hospitalized for nine months. after the rescue, the khe sanh marine command orders the all-out bombing of hill 665.
the men received purple hearts, including the dead. carlson was awarded the silver star; lopez and tycz won the navy cross.
the four flag-draped caskets arrived sunday at dulles international airport on a united airlines flight from hawaii. four hearses awaited them. military escorts saluted. the caskets of ahlmeyer, tycz and miller each contained a folded green blanket.
wrapped inside were a few teeth, positively linked to each man by the jpac. atop the blanket lay a dress-blue uniform, pressed and laid out with all their ribbons and decorations. sharp's remains were put to rest beside his father last month in san jose. the fourth casket at dulles represented the group, and held teeth and bone fragments found on hill 665 that were circumstantially linked to the four men.
the hearses left dulles in a convoy, carrying the dead from a long-ago war.
the caskets will be interred today at arlington national cemetery.
friery planned to be there today. lopez said he, too, would go. other men of alpha company, 3rd reconnaissance battalion, 3rd marine division, have looked forward to this event for weeks, and so have zaczek and those who manned the gunships for the breaker rescue. mission accomplished, they want to say: breaker patrol is home. they want to put to rest their private demons from hill 665, too.
from each family, scores of relatives and friends have come. they will receive the folded flags and hear the volleys of rifle fire, the sounding of taps.
they have waited so long.
so long to say goodbye. again.miami herald may 10, 2005