A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
I never saw Saigon. In 1970, I was stationed at Camp Radcliff next to the village of An Khe in the Central Highlands. I was assigned to the army’s 4th Infantry Division Band. The 4th lived way north of Saigon.
But in April of 1975, just before The Fall Of Saigon, I lived in Dallas with Debbie Dugan. We met at Southern Methodist University, where we were both studied history. Debbie was a smart, sexy and truly beautiful woman with a gentle and generous heart.
I left Vietnam in December of 1970. I was twenty. Those years, between my participation in the war and The Fall Of Saigon, were a time longer than America’s entire involvement in World War II. This was the whole of my undergraduate years, the early 70′s. Dallas was a long way from An Khe, but the war was never far from me. One night, it occurred to me that, for the first time since my discharge, I had gone 24 hours without dwelling on the war. I was a junior.
In my senior year at SMU, in 1975, the North Vietnamese invaded the South. I knew the South wouldn’t fight. Not that I blamed them. Who wants to be the last man to die?
Every evening that April, I watched the TV news. I watched for the map. As the North captured another chunk of the South, that bit of the map was painted red. One evening, An Khe was red
Camp Radcliff fell without a fight. The South Vietnamese Army just ran. Not that I wanted anyone to die. But An Khe fell without a fight. And I wept bitterly.
I thought of Williams Bridge. Williams Bridge spanned a small river in An Khe. Specialist 4th Class Eric Williams died while building that bridge. I never met him. He died four years before my tour of duty. Every time I passed that way, I read his plaque. I identified with him. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because we shared the same rank. Perhaps, as the Good Book says, “There, but for the grace of God …”.
As I watched the news in April of 1975, I thought about the death of Specialist Williams. Somewhere, in all that grief, were all the deaths, Americans, Vietnamese, the French and all the rest. But I fixed on The Spec. 4 Eric Williams Bridge. And I wept bitterly. Because it was all in vain.
Twice in my life, I have wept like that. The other time was when my father died.
Debbie did her best to comfort me, something for which I remain grateful. But my grief confused her. I was the only veteran she knew. I’ve heard of Nam vets being spit on and such. Their sadness notwithstanding, my experience was one of isolation. I was the only Vietnam veteran I knew at SMU.
The next day was an ordinary weekday. I just went to class. I remember listening to a lecture in Dallas Hall. And knowing I was alone. Because, of all my classmates, my teachers, friends, people I liked, people I loved, of all those folks, I alone wept for Eric Williams.
Copyright 2017 John Samuel Tieman
The sign in the above photograph stood adjacent the Bailey Bridge over the Song Ba River near An Khe. The bridge was named Williams Bridge, and the sign reads:
IN MEMORY OF
Specialist Fourth Class Eric Williams
511th Engineer Company (PB)
Killed during the initial
reconnaisance of the site
That is all I knew of Eric Williams for 30 years. I have since found out that Eric was 20 years old when he died on April 4, 1966. I took the above photograph 1 year later as I was doing routine maintenance on the bridge. Hanging out over the edge of the bridge with the monsoon-swollen river racing beneath me, I thought about how miserable a fate it would be to die by drowning in murky waters in a foreign land. Only recently did I learn that is how Eric met his fate. He was a young black man whose home of record was New Orleans. He was Roman Catholic, and he was married.
I dedicate this page to the memory of Eric Williams, and to his family and friends. I want them to know that this bridge stood for many years as a monument to Eric’s service and sacrifice. If anyone discovering this page knew Eric or his family, please contact me by e-mailing me at email@example.com
To learn more about the unit in which Eric and I both served, though a year apart, please visit the Reunion web for the 70th Combat Engineer Battalion.
If you visit the non-virtual Wall in Washington, D.C., look up Eric at Panel 06E Line 105.
This memory was left at the “The Virtual Wall” by Dan Mouer, 511th Engr. Co. and 70th Combat Engineer Battalion, 1966-67.