Jan. 8, 1969 seemed like just another night. My platoon was dug in immediately adjacent to An Dien, the only active village left in the Iron Triangle of Vietnam.

We were positioned there to provide security to An Dien’s citizens. We had two Vietnamese interpreters assigned to our mechanized infantry platoon of the First Infantry Division. We surrounded the village with concertina wire three rolls high. We sent out mechanized squads on security missions each morning. We talked with and met with villagers every day. As part of the Vietnam pacification program, “information” units regularly would come by from headquarters and do whatever pacification protocols prescribed – movies or gifts for the villagers.

We had been at An Dien long enough to be completely dug in, with fields of fire preset from our foxhole positions. We had surrounded ourselves with concertina wire and trip flares. We had no sense of anything awry. But just before midnight on Jan. 8 we suddenly were under attack. All hell broke loose. Incoming rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and AK-47 fire, and our own M-60 machine gun and M-16 rifle fire in return, filled the air with smoke and light and endless crackling. Much later I would recognize the determination of the Viet Cong and NVA fighters who crossed a nearby river with individual small orange inner tubes to get to us. Some were shot and died trying to cut their way through our concertina wire. One was left dead tangled in the wire, another was found the next morning in a ditch a few yards away. Others left their weapons and inner tubes and blood as they retreated.

Some of our own were wounded and medevaced out in the dark when the firefight ended. One man, an M-60 machine gunner from a small town in Illinois, died from his wounds. By then it was Jan. 9, 1969. He had been struck in the head by an RPG that pierced a barrier wall built of sand-filled ammunition boxes. Michael had just turned 23. He was stereotypically Midwest nice. 

I wrote a letter to his parents when Michael died, then years later, older and wiser, I tracked down Michael’s family and spoke on the phone with his father and sister in Illinois and his widow. Michael’s sister told me his father wanted to know more. His father wanted to try to understand what happened. But, she said, Michael’s mother never recovered from his death. His mother died some years after Jan., 1969, “of a broken heart,” Michael’s sister said.

When I spoke with Michael’s widow she told me about the day he left for Vietnam.


She said he was inside a closet gathering together his belongings, and his voice from inside the closet said, “If anything happens to me I want you to marry again.”

She said back to him that she could never do that, but she told me that after his death his words freed her to go on with life.

It seems like yesterday that Michael died, but It has been more than 53 years. Every Memorial Day that has passed since then has deepened my understanding that each Gold Star family’s loss seems always like yesterday.

I remember, and I know Michael’s family remembers. I think it is important that the rest of us remember what these families had to shoulder and what they continue to shoulder, year after year, no matter how many years go by.

— Special to the Press Herald

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