A couple of weeks ago I was listening to "Fresh Air" on National Public Radio. Substitute host Dave Davies was interviewing Mark Bowden, the author of "Black Hawk Down," about his new book, "Hue 1968."
Hue is the city at the center of the action in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." I was going to post a YouTube video of a scene from it, but I can't even watch it without grimacing, so I won't subject my handful of readers to it.
During the interview, Bowden read a passage. It's a gripping passage describing a scene I've heard variations of in my interviews with World War II veterans.
It also contains an error, the kind an author with all the resources at his disposal of a Mark Bowden shouldn't make. If I can confirm the error with a few clicks of a mouse, you'd think Bowden would have been able to, especially if it's in a passage he's going to read in interviews and cite as one of the key moments in the book.
Maybe the error shouldn't bother me -- after all, Steven Ambrose was famous for some of his miscues and Cornelius Ryan gave the world the impression that the D-Day assault on Pointe du Hoc was for naught. The reason this error bothers me is that Bowden is talking about people with real names from real places with real families who may or may not have known how their loved ones died, or what was or wasn't in the casket that came home.
This is the passage. At first I didn't sense an error. But being a newspaperman at heart, I'm always looking for a story angle, and for a moment I thought I found one.
Dave Davies: Well, Mark Bowden, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to begin with a reading of your book. This is a moment where we meet an American soldier who is with a unit that is pinned down by North Vietnamese soldiers. He's in a foxhole. Do you want to just set this up and read us this portion?
MARK BOWDEN: Yeah. His name is Carl DiLeo, and he was an infantryman with an Army Cavalry unit that had been sent out to push toward the Citadel from the north. And they got trapped in the middle of a field where they were stuck for a day or two essentially with the North Vietnamese taking target practice at them. And it was a - they lost half of their men. So it was a harrowing and terrifying experience for him and for all of the men who were there.
(Reading) The worst thing was the mortars, which rained straight down on them. They were being launched periodically from only a few hundred yards away. DiLeo could hear the pock and then the whoosh of its climbing. If he looked up, he could actually see the thing as it slowed to its apogee. From that point on, it was perfectly silent. There it would hang, a black spot in the gray sky, for what seemed like a very long beat, the way a punted football was captured in slow motion by NFL Films, before it plummeted straight down at them.
(Reading) The explosion was like a body blow even when it wasn't close. All of these were close. You opened your mouth, and sometimes you screamed out of fear, and it kept your eardrums from bursting. It was hell, a death lottery where all you could do was wait your turn. If you stayed down in the hole, you were OK unless the mortar had your number and landed right on top of you.
(Reading) This is what happened to DiLeo's good friend Walt Loos and the other man in his foxhole, Russell Kephart. They were one hole over. They got plumed. They were erased from the Earth. DiLeo watched the round all the way down, and it exploded right in their hole, vaporizing them. One second, they were there, living and breathing and thinking and maybe swearing or even praying just like him.
(Reading) And in the next second, two hale young men, both of them sergeants in the United States Army, pride of their hometowns - Perryville, Mo., and Willimantic, Conn., respectively - had been turned into a plume of fine pink mist, tiny bits of blood, bone, tissue, flesh and brain that rose and drifted and settled over everyone and everything nearby. It, or they, drifted down on DiLeo, who reached up to wipe the bloody ooze from his eyes and saw that his arms and the rest of him were coated, too. Then there would come another pock and another whoosh.
DAVIES: And that is Mark Bowden reading from his new book about a pivotal battle in the Vietnam War, "Hue 1968." You know, that's such a vivid description of the brutality and terror of war.This is where my ears perked up. I work part time for a small newspaper in Connecticut. The newspaper's parent company, Central CT Communications, recently bought the Willimantic Chronicle. I thought hey, Russell Kephart might still have family living in Willimantic and the fact that his death is described so powerfully in a bestseller might make for a good story.
Thanks to things like the Traveling Wall and various other sites, there is a good deal of information on the Internet about the 58,000 young Americans who died in the Vietnam War.
According to HonorStates.org, Thomas Walter Loos died "through hostile action ... small arms fire." So far so good, except for the difference between being killed by small arms fire and taking a direct hit from a mortar in your foxhole. Loos also was awarded the Silver Star.
Now imagine my shock when I looked up Russell Kephart and found at the Virtual Vietnam Wall (vvmf.org) that his place of birth was not Willimantic, Connecticut, but Lewistown, Pennsylvania.
There was a third sergeant killed from the same unit that day, Robert E. Hopkins. He was from Willimantic.
In the fog of war it might be easy for a combat veteran to mix up the hometowns, if that is what happened. But if a researcher or Bowden himself were responsible for the mixup, it would be unconscionable.
I sent a correction to "Fresh Air," but since it was the author's mistake and not the show's, they apparently didn't see fit to make a correction, although they did point out that they misidentified a war correspondent in a clip they aired at the beginning of the show.
In the last few days I've heard from the granddaughter of a person I interviewed some 20 years ago and was able to send her some anecdotal material about her grandfather, as well as the audio of the interview with her grandmother. And I heard from a young woman with the same last name as Max Lutcavish who is trying to determine if she was related. I sent her a couple of stories about Max, including one in which he told his buddy Dess Tibbitts he was going to go on a "careful drunk," mixing sterno with grapefruit juice, and a half hour later he couldn't stand up. Also, Lutcavish was responsible for one of the high water marks in the history of the 712th, knocking out a Mark V Panzer with the .37 millimeter gun of his light tank. No wonder his nickname was Lucky.
I'm not perfect. Years ago I posted on my web site a very convincing interview with a veteran who described in great detail how he survived a massacre, having his chin shot off when he turned his head as the German shot him in the head. Exhaustive research proved that such a massacre did not take place. That description got picked up in a book about Normandy, and will probably be rewritten in other books in future years. I believe the veteran had a form of Munchhausen syndrome, and was brilliant at making bizarre scenarios seem plausible. When I interviewed him the medic who treated him was there and I asked what he looked like. The medic said he looked like Chester Gump, a popular cartoon figure who had no chin. The veteran said to the medic, "You know, only a little while after you left the dressing you put on fell off." To which the medic replied, "I didn't charge you much, did I?"
esident of the United States takes pride in presenting the Silver Star Medal (Posthumously) to Thomas W. Loos, Sergeant, United States Army, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against a hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam. Sergeant Loos distinguished himself by intrepid actions on 4 February 1968 while serving with Company D, 2d Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. His unquestionable valor in close combat is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the United States Army.