Memorial Day Question: How Many More?

This is a column I wrote in 1969, for a small Illinois daily newspaper, of which I was the editor. I've resisted the urge to edit it. I think it could be greatly improved, but let it stand the way I wrote it when I was 26 and the memory was still fresh. 

 I visit Bob Davis at the Vietnam Wall every time I am in Washington, D. C. The casualty numbers are smaller, but I feel the same way today about Iraq as I did about Vietnam when I wrote this 38 years ago. -- Bill Christofferson.

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Bob Davis was so easygoing it was hard to believe he was real.

Even Marine Corps boot camp didn't get him down. His only comment, no matter what ridiculous experience or torture we were undergoing, would be, "I don't believe this."

He was proud to be a Marine. Even had a "USMC" tattooed on his arm. Unlike most, he didn't apologize for it or say he got it when he was drinking.

He couldn't wait to get to Vietnam. After all, that's what he came in the Marine Corps for -- to do his bit, get out and get back to Alton (Ill.) and his girl, Sue. I was supposed to meet Sue on my next leave, when Bob and I returned Stateside. We didn't know he'd be coming back much sooner than I would -- in a rubber bag.

Robert N. Davis, Jr. became our battalion's first casualty in Vietnam before he ever had a chance to see a Viet Cong. We'd been there for thirteen days.

It wasn't his fault; someone else stepped on the booby trap while on patrol. But Bob Davis caught the blast. I remember when the word filtered back to our tent that our unit had its first KIA - killed in action.

 "Who was it?"

 "Some guy from Foxtrot Company. Davis, I think, from Illinois."

"You know Davis. He's got a funny accent and big ears that stick out."

 Yes, I knew Davis. We'd been together almost a year to the day, since the first day we reported to the recruit depot at San Diego.

So why talk about it now? Because LIFE magazine brought the memory back with its June 27 issue. Did you see it? If you did, you'll have to agree it wasn't too entertaining.

 LIFE chose to explore death - death in the Vietnam war. To go beyond the daily statistics from Vietnam, that all too often now begin to read like the box score of an athletic event, the magazine presented pictures of 242 Americans killed in one week of fighting in Vietnam.

The pictures are printed almost without comment - just name rank, service, age and hometown under each. They seem to go on forever - 11 pages in all.

At the end, LIFE offers a little personal glimpse into the lives of the men behind the pictures. Each one has his own story - the PFC killed on his 21st birthday, the fiance of a girl who had just bought her own wedding ring, the GI who had considered going AWOL but instead returned to Vietnam.

LIFE didn't try to tell all 242 stories. And that's fine, because there are 35,000 other stories that have never been told - one for every American who has died in Vietnam.

I happen to know Bob Davis' story, and a couple of dozen others. But every one is just as important, whether we know them or not.

Unfortunately, to most people the daily figures represent the real unknown soldiers. LIFE helped somewhat last week to make the official reports more meaningful. The week LIFE chose had 242 Bob Davises. There were about the same number last week. And there will probably be as many next week.

The question is: How many more Bob Davises must there be?

One more is too many.

* * *Update: One Wisconsin Now honors Wisconsin service members who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.


May 27, 2007 - 4:11pm