‘God … said no’


A Vietnam story

The Vietnam War ended for the United States 25 years ago yesterday. As other wars have, it left a lasting mark on the country and the world. And on families. More than 58,000 American men and women died in Vietnam. One of them was Charles Diamond — “Chick” to his family, “Doc” to his war buddies. Chick grew up with his mother and father and three siblings in Philadelphia. Went to Cardinal Dougherty High School. Raised hell with his friends. When he was called, he went to Vietnam to serve his country. When he died, he was 20 years old. In today’s Daily News, Diamond’s brother, Frank, writes about Chick, the news of his death, and a friend who, by way of the Internet, shed much-needed light on Chick’s life and death in Vietnam.

This is how the e-mail began.

Dear Frank,

“I am truly amazed that I am able to speak to the family of Charles (Doc) Diamond. Many years ago I tried to locate both of the families of my friends, my heroes, John Guillen and Doc Diamond. It was only this year that I spoke to the sister and cousin of John (Honcho) Guillen. . .I was going to call you, and I still will, but I wanted to write first so that what I have to say can be on record for you and your family.

“I am so glad that your mother is 83 years old. I truly am sorry that she, and your family, have had to carry the pain of having lost a son, brother and friend in Vietnam. Above all things in this letter, I would like you and your family to know that Charles was a wonderful medic and person. He meant a lot to all of us. His and John’s death that February was very hard for us to take.”

There has been a lot of psychobabble about closure in recent years.

Major events of life, so goes the theory, should come to rest like a piece of music, the last chords settling softly upon the ear, or else they should flare out like seaside sunsets in carnivals of color. If that is indeed closure, then those who get it should count themselves lucky.

Most of us, I suspect, don’t get it. Life’s cacophonous and hurly-burly tendencies surface just at the point when we’re near figuring things out: What went wrong with a marriage, why bad things happen to good people, whether it will rain next Thursday.

This story, then, is not about closure but rather about a more valuable commodity: facts, or at least what I’ve come to believe are the facts concerning my brother’s death. One of the lessons it reinforces, if any more reinforcement were needed, is that the Internet has managed to bend time, as well as shrink the planet.

For years, Dan Camacho – the man who wrote the letter quoted above – had haunted libraries, looking through phone books in attempts to find the kin of two comrades who were killed on Feb. 2, 1970. Last October, the Internet brought his search to an end and, for me, brought my brother’s last moments into focus.

Charles (we called him “Chick”) was named after a cousin, Chick Earnest, who had been killed in the Battle of the Bulge on Jan. 7, 1945. (Jan. 7 also happens to be my mother’s birthday; Chick Earnest was the oldest son of my mother’s oldest sister.)

As this connection of dates and names suggests, it is nearly impossible to talk about Chick Diamond without discussing luck. Somewhere in academia, there are machines endlessly flipping coins in hope of determining whether luck actually exists. Some men die in war; some come home. Those with a religious bent could say that luck is simply another word for grace.

Where does that leave us? If heaven exists above our poor capacity to imagine such happiness, then is it really bad luck that an infant dies in her sleep and goes back to God? Try telling that to the parents.

Chick had bad luck. When he received his draft notice, he was given instructions to report on June 17, 1969 – the first Chick’s birthday. He wanted to be assigned to the artillery – he got infantry. The one job he hoped he’d not get was medic, where he’d have to tend to the wounded. That’s what he got.

He hoped to get a leave after boot camp – none came. He wanted to be stationed in a relatively safe place. He saw much action. The bulk of the casualties in Vietnam – more than 90 percent – occurred before 1970, according to Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Chick was killed in the new, supposedly less bloody decade of the ’70s.

“The old luck seems to be holding out,” he reported ruefully and then, affirming his belief (and that of my family’s) that the universe is not ruled by chance, he’d usually follow with a request for more prayers.

When I think of myself at 20, I cannot imagine enduring the experiences that my brother endured toward the end.

“Yesterday was a pretty bad day for me because our company hit a booby trap area,” he wrote. “We lost four men wounded. Three of the guys were only hurt slightly from hand grenade booby traps, but the other guy, a little Mexican guy, stepped on a booby-trap 105 round and it blew both his legs and one of his arms off. That really broke my heart. It upset me pretty badly.”

He was assigned to 1st Platoon, Alfa Company, 1/20, Light Infantry Brigade, which may not mean much to readers these days but in those days was quite significant.

“I guess you’ve read about that massacre of that village [My Lai] in 1968. You know, the one that’s in the papers all the time? Well, I’m with the outfit that did it. Pleasant group of guys, huh? No, but it has all changed now and the guys are pretty decent.”

One of the decent guys turned out to be Dan Camacho.

I started out as an ammo bearer for a machine gun squad. Our gun was an M-60 with a crew of three. We pretty much stayed to ourselves maintaining the gun, going on patrols with various squads and doing the mundane things that a grunt does daily to exist in Nam. Doc was a part of the platoon command center, close to the pulse of the platoon should his skills be needed. Our paths crossed on a daily basis and the more I got to know him, the more I liked him.

In December, I had cut my right arm in a fall and since it seemed so slight, I didn’t get immediate first aid. Bad decision. In Vietnam, a wound left untreated can quickly become infected, as did my arm. In four or five days, my slight scratch had become a festering wound two inches long and 3/4 of an inch wide. Out went my call for Doc. He cleaned my wound and checked me on a regular basis until I was healed. I now carry a two-inch-long scar to remind me of this experience. Every time I look at it, I think of Doc.

My brother was the second-oldest of four children. If the designation “middle child” can be rendered in an even-numbered family without violating the laws of mathematics, then Chick would have been so designated. I was the youngest; my brother, Harry, the oldest. Chick’s next sibling in line, my sister, Kathryn, could have vied for the middle-child label, but her distinction was being the girl of the family.

Chick got into trouble, smoked cigarettes (the qualifying noun’s important, this being the ’60s), was suspended once or twice from school, and was most likely to defy parental dictates.

My brother was also humorous, athletic, loyal, mischievous, gentle, rebellious and opinionated. He suffered from acute shyness, a malady that afflicted every child in our family except me.

He loved the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, had his share of unrequited crushes on popular girls, and struggled through Cardinal Dougherty High School in the Olney section.

His memories, like mine, are the kind that infuse any child of a stable working-class home in which the parents toiled to make a better life for the next generation. In the depths of war, when Chick’s platoon was engaged in night ambush operations, these were his thoughts when he wrote to his boyhood pal.

“Remember the good old days, George, and all the crazy things we used to do? Remember we used to chase those girls all over hell? We were real simps in those days. Remember how we used to call old G.F. names and he would come out and chase after us? We would always run into Doc’s for cokes with our 28 cents. Remember how me and you and Har and Wishy and Gary and Richie and Peanuts and all those other guys would always play touch football in the fall and winter, and softball in the spring and summer? Wow, those were really the happy old days. In your next letter, see what you can remember about those days and write about them.

“Right now our company is on a night ambush operation. This is our sixth ambush of 21. We’ve already had two successful ones. What we do is move into ambush positions at night and wait for the V.C. to come down from the mountains. . .It is really a sad thing to have to kill people like that. I kind of wish it was still the good old days, in a way. It’s too bad that we have to grow up so fast. . .”

Chick taught me how to throw a football, ride a bike and hit a baseball. I remember coming upon him one Halloween night when he was 15 years old and I’d just come in from trick-or-treating.

“Where are all the little kids?” he asked. “When I was a kid, the streets were flooded with trick-or-treaters.”

His favorite book was “Catcher in the Rye,” and he identified with Holden Caulfield’s hopeless mission of trying to preserve innocence. This identification was evident even in the nickname he gave my father – “Pence,” after the broken-down teacher, “Spence,” in the novel.

(Chick was a great one for nicknames. I was “Little Freck,” “Cornelius Cornball” and “Unson,” to name a few.)

He possessed a sense of mortality beyond his years. It was Chick who had leveled with me about that unavoidable downer: death.

“We’re all going to be in that box someday.”

I had just started Catholic grade school and clung to what I supposed to be a loophole; namely, that if I became the greatest saint ever, maybe God would take me into heaven body and soul. (My ambitions are somewhat lower these days.)

As for a lot of young men in that time, the long shadow of war stretched across his later teen-age years. I recall his fascination, displayed in discussions with my mother, when his literature class studied the poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” by Alan Seeger, a writer who was killed in the trenches of World War I.

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade
When spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple blossoms fill the air
. . .And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Like all big brothers, Chick could needle.

“Hey, you rascal,” he wrote, “what’s this I hear about you wanting to go to dances? Are you in love or something?”

His death left us stumbling through emotional debris, looking for clues. Not that we were left completely uninformed. Lt. Arthur F. Fischer, who wrote to my parents on Feb. 15, 1970, on Department of the Army stationery, gave us the official version.

“On the afternoon of February 2, 1970, Charles’ unit was located in its defensive position near the village of Hiep An, approximately 18 miles southeast of Quang Ngai City, in Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam. At 2:35 p.m., Charles received serious fragment wounds when an enemy hand grenade was thrown into the unit’s perimeter. Charles was immediately evacuated by helicopter to the 91st Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai. However, due to the seriousness of his wounds and despite every possible effort by skilled medical personnel, Charles passed away at 5 p.m. that same day.”

As true as any outline. My parents tried to find out more, but to no avail.

“Mary, it would be rather difficult for me to get any information about your son, other than the information you received,” one of Chick’s friends from boot camp wrote to my mother.

“I do know that Charles was in a very bad place. A lot of things were happening there, Mary, and there still are things happening there.”

My parents had heard – or thought they had heard – radio accounts that day of firefights in the province in which whole platoons had been wiped out. Somehow, this was the story that the family came to believe: that my brother had died in a pitched battle along with many comrades. An easy conclusion to reach, given the details of Chick’s letters.

“We also get a lot of sniper rounds from the nearby tree lines,” he wrote. “I got hit in my rucksack with an AK-47 round. Man, that was close. But nothing scares me more than those booby traps, man, they can really do a job. When the Bob Hope Show comes on TV, be sure to watch it because I think you may be able to see me in the crowd. However, you may not recognize me because I’ve got a mustache and I look like an old man.”

The truth – that he was the victim of a terrorist attack committed by a member of the populace he was trying to protect – would not be revealed for 30 more years.

November, December, January were pretty much the same. We went to different locations but we did the same things. Patrols, patrols, patrols. Always looking for our elusive foe. Whether it was at the beaches, in the rice paddies or the mountains, we continued the search. During that time of year, the weather is cool and very wet with the monsoon rains coming down relentlessly at times.

In December, we were fortunate to stay up on a fire base to pull guard for approximately three weeks. At least this kept us dry in bunkers during this time.

On Dec. 22, we went to Chu Lai (approximately 50 miles away) for what was called a stand-down. This was a three-day period where we (grunts) had no responsibilities but to rest and have fun. The Bob Hope Christmas show was there with Neil Armstrong, Connie Stevens and the Gold Diggers. . .After our three days was up, back we went to our usual routine. It had been a welcomed break.

January came and went. Most of the time we were in what was called the 515 Valley. . .. This was a large area of rice paddies. Only a small portion of this whole valley area was in production because of the war. Most lay untilled and unplanted.

This was a very dangerous area because there was much activity there both day and night. Though I had been in Vietnam only a short time, I had come to learn that we were not fighting a conventional war against a conventional enemy but we were also in danger from the local population because many within the population sympathized with the cause of the North. We were in the midst of a civil war and didn’t realize it.

Last summer, I logged on to the Virtual Wall, an Internet companion to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., which is sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. (The site had been launched on Veterans Day, 1998. The expanded capabilities of the site, allowing loved ones and comrades to post remembrances of the dead, were added last Memorial Day.)

I was surprised to find this remembrance by Tom Elmore: “I was 10 to 15 yards away from Charles when he died. Charles (Doc) was our platoon medic. He was a fine young man, who always conducted himself in an honorable manner, and whose personal courage was never questioned!!”

It seemed strange seeing my brother referred to as Doc. It had, in fact, seemed strange to Chick at the time. “By the way, everybody in the outfit calls me ‘Doc.’ That really kills me (excuse the expression). I treat little scratches and bruises and dispense pills and listen to their problems. It is really very rewarding.”

There was an e-mail address, and I contacted Elmore. He led me to a Web page created by and for the members of Chick’s company. There, after a bit of rummaging, I discovered a photograph of my brother in Vietnam, standing on a roadway on what looked like a beautiful, balmy day. There are blossoms right behind him, something Elmore remarked upon.

“I don’t remember there being flowers in Vietnam,” he told me, “but those things by your brother’s feet sure look nice.”

In the photograph, Chick is smiling and, when I first saw it, I couldn’t help but smile back.

Elmore, in a long phone conversation, told me that he really didn’t know Chick that well, but he steered me to a couple of other men who had been his friends, including Dan Camacho. “I know Dan tried to contact Doc’s family years ago.”

He gave me Camacho’s e-mail address and I wrote, requesting any information about my brother’s death. In a lengthy, detail-filled response, Camacho said that he did not mind discussing his Vietnam experience. I would come to believe that this was a hard-won personal victory after I later asked permission to use his name and to quote from his letter. He offered to send me a map of the area and some photos – but he didn’t have any of Chick. Why?

“Several years after returning from Vietnam, I tried to put the experience behind me by destroying all of my Vietnam photos. I had several thousand prints and slides. I now regret having done this, since I believe I had captured a full year of what it was like to be a grunt in Nam. I had people, places and things documented on film. Vietnam wasn’t always a terrifying experience: There was much adventure there, tempered with the reality that you might not live through the day.

February 2nd started out like many of the previous days. . .Our routine was for our night patrols to come back to the company perimeter, eat some C-rations for breakfast, get our gear packed and get ready to move to a new area from which to run our day patrols. This we did.

We would normally move between half a mile to a mile and a half before setting up another company perimeter. This day, our marching orders were to bring us closer to a village that was along the 515 Valley road. (A one-lane pathway for people, water buffalo and carts.)

Our new location was a beautiful one. A mixture of cultivated rice paddies, hedgerows of bamboo, trees and shrubs. Everything was grof the year. It all was very much the sights and smells of an agricultural area. We were happy to be there, especially for the trees and the shade they offered.

It was a beautiful day, warm and pleasant. A lot of the men would roll up their pants or just wear their shorts during the day. About noon, we were pretty much settled into our day position feeling pretty comfortable. Now was the time to do the mundane things, eat, bathe, catch up on sleep, etc., or to do the important things, like read or write letters.

This particular day was so nice I was moved to write a letter to a girl that I didn’t know. I had received her address from one of the guys sometime earlier, he felt sorry for me since I got dumped by my girl.

I was somewhat perplexed on what to say to someone that I didn’t know and therefore decided to find a quiet place to sit and gather my thoughts. I walked around a bit and noticed Doc and Honcho sitting under a poncho liner writing letters and listening to some music on a tape recorder. It felt like the right place for me to sit and gather my thoughts. I chose to sit on a grave mound (very common in the area) that was twenty-five or thirty feet in front of where Doc and Honcho were sitting on the ground.

Childhood ended on Feb. 10, 1970. I was 12 years old, two months shy of my 13th birthday and entree into the heady experimentation and rebellion of teen-age years. Much would have to be learned before I became an adult. One lesson, however, couldn’t wait.

It had been a bitter, unforgiving winter and that Tuesday was no different. The wind whipped around the city’s corners as those of us who went home for lunch were let out of St. Ambrose’s Catholic Elementary School at C Street and Roosevelt Boulevard.

My mother was supposed to be working at Frankford Hospital that day. I was to go home, cook myself some soup and then go back to school.

The door was opened before I had a chance to put my key into the lock, and the house was full of people. My sister, oldest brother, father, mother, aunts, uncles. . .

“Something happened to Chick, hon,” my mother said.

In that instant, I felt nearly hopeful. We’d had one or two discussions in which my father had described the small wounds that some soldiers had gotten in World War II – wounds that were not horrible, but still serious enough to send them home.

No one had actually voiced any wish that something like that would happen to Chick. Still. . .

However, my mother’s next sentences killed hope, and it is the only time I can remember that words nearly made me lose consciousness.

“He was attacked, Fran. He’s dead.”

I screamed and ran upstairs, where I threw myself across my parents’ bed and wept.

The seed to try to write was embedded in me that moment. Not because of the wound to my psyche. Anyone who lives into his teens has experienced such: the death of, say, a grandparent or favorite aunt. (One reason the story of Buddha seems incredible to me is that it suggests that the father of Siddhartha prevented the young prince from seeing suffering. Would that fathers – even rich and worldly ones – could offer such shelter.)

No, not all the wounded become writers. In those moments, I discovered the power of words, how some words can almost knock you down.

“He’s dead.” The shortest verse in a personal scripture; my very own “Jesus wept.”

In many ways, the scenes in our house over the next days played out as they probably had in hundreds of thousands of households during Korea and World War II. Relatives visited and cried. Priests came to bless and console. Friends brought over casseroles and home-made soup.

I remember walking with my oldest brother to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, probably some kind of sedative, for my mother.

“What a hell of a day this has been,” he said.

At one point during the wake – at my parents’ urging – a second cousin and I went to a pizza place on 5th Street. On the way back, I remember seeing another cousin standing in the halo of light at a bus stop across the street with her husband. She was weeping – sobbing, actually – as her husband patted her back. For an instant, I couldn’t figure out what could possibly be the matter.

“I wonder why she’s crying?” I asked.

Both of these cousins – from my father’s side – had been distant before then, and would become distant afterward. They entered my life during grief and were then pulled away by the trajectories of their own busyness. The young woman I’ve not seen in 20 years. I haven’t heard anything about the boy in 25 years.

I remember the burial itself, the flag being snapped off the coffin and folded, placed in a clear plastic container, given to my mother. The 21-gun salute in the bitter cold. Taps being played and then all of us turning from the frozen scene. Nothing in my life would ever be the same again. I knew that much.

Many were good to us. We received letters of condolence from Cardinal Krol and a slew of politicians. One that stuck out was from U.S. Sen. Richard S. Schweiker: “There is little that can be said to be of genuine comfort at a time like this. I do feel that I know something of what you are experiencing, as my only brother was killed on Okinawa during World War II.”

Beyond the fabric of close friends and relatives who helped cushion the initial shock, the terrain became much more treacherous. Generals are often accused of preparing to win the last war. Civilians usually need not concern themselves with how they’re prepared to mourn, but this situation was different. We knew that even before the reporter from one of the newspapers visited our house a few days after the funeral. He came on a motorcycle, sporting a beard, sunglasses and a peace sign that dangled from a chain around his neck.

A torturous national dialogue finally helped many to separate the men who fought – who believed that they were only doing their duty – from the war itself.

That would come later, and would not be a universal change of heart. After My Lai, soldiers were criminals in the eyes of many; for many on the other side of the political spectrum, those who hadn’t served were motivated by no more than cowardice.

Chick just tried to hold on to his humanity.

“You should see all of the kids that they have over here,” he wrote.

“They’re always saying to us, ‘Number 1 GI have chop-chop for baby-son?’ Some of them are real cute. I treat them for minor bruises and cuts and stuff like that.”

My parents often felt ambushed over the war. They were asked to explain U.S. foreign policy when the only thing they wanted was to mourn and – if not to be thanked for their sacrifice – at least left alone.

This was the added burden of grief that made this war unique, says Tom Burch, chairman of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition.

“Family members would lose somebody, and instead of at least being like the Gold Star mothers during World War II in which you were looked up to in the community – you couldn’t talk about it,” Burch says. “It was, ‘He deserved it because he went to Vietnam. He’s a baby killer.’ That type of thing.”

Shortly after Chick died, my mother wrote an account of his experience for the family in which she thanked the many friends and relatives – of several religions – who beseeched the Almighty to spare my brother.

“We stormed heaven, all of us, begging for this boy’s life. . .On Feb. 2, 1970, God answered all our prayers. He said no.”

As I looked at them, Honcho was sitting on the left and Doc on the right. I remember struggling in my mind what to say to this girl. What does someone like me, in a place like this, say to someone like her? We had nothing in common. After battling with these thoughts for fifteen minutes, I was ready to give up.

I looked up and saw Doc and Honcho sitting there writing. The music began to sound good to me. I thought it would be a lot easier to forget this letter and just go over there and listen to the music with them.

As I looked at them, I realized that they were engrossed with their writing. I knew that Honcho had a girl that he was crazy about and I didn’t want to disturb him and his thoughts of her, and I noticed that Doc’s thoughts were also somewhere other than Vietnam. This was a picture of tranquillity that I didn’t want to disturb. I decided to stay seated where I was and to write this letter of mine. It was now or never.

I went back to my thinking and writing and about five minutes later I heard an explosion right in front of me. I raised my head. My eyes saw a picture but it didn’t register in my brain what had happened. There was a single cloud of dust rising in front of me. My brain raced to figure out what had happened, how could this explosion have happened?

Was it an enemy firing a grenade launcher from outside our company perimeter? (I was carrying a grenade launcher at this time.) How could an explosion happen within our perimeter? Then it registered in my brain that the poncho liner that Doc and Honcho were beneath was no longer set up, the tape recorder no longer playing.

And then it registered in my brain that there were two bodies laying on the ground where Doc and Honcho had been and I began to see them twitch. I knew they were severely wounded. There was also a third person who had been standing 10 feet away from Doc brushing his teeth, he was also down, blown off his feet. This all took place in an instant of time. Then from behind a hedgerow to my right I heard someone yell, “Coke kid, coke kid!” (A coke kid is a young Vietnamese who would run five miles to town to buy sodas and ice if we were close enough to a village.)

Then I saw some guys, who were a short ways away to my left, running to where Doc and Honcho were. I jumped up and began running in the direction of where others had spotted a Vietnamese person. Others had already run ahead of me, so I turned back after a short bit.

Since we were about seven miles from a helicopter base and first aid station, there was a medevac helicopter arriving in minutes. Both Doc and Honcho were knocked unconscious instantly. They didn’t regain consciousness before the helicopter came.

As you approach the front doors of Cardinal Dougherty High School, you pass a slab of stone upon which are engraved the names of graduates who died in the Vietnam War. You need to make a small detour to visit the monument and that’s a digression I never took in the four years I attended school there in the early to mid-1970s.

I did not want to talk about it for a long while. Then, sometimes, I wanted to talk about it too much, and my emotion would dangle awkwardly, like an arm when it’s been slept on and the circulation’s been cut off.

I would hear myself speaking, saying things I didn’t quite believe or feel. I would be reaching, just as someone might reach to try to impress a girl or potential employer. Then I’d have to stop, retreating into shame and silence.

When I decided to become a writer, I remember telling some young lady that I might want to produce an article or short story based on Chick.

“Nobody wants to read that,” she had said. “People want to forget about that war.”

Forgetting was a trick my parents never managed to pull off.

I remember our family using Chick’s life insurance money to take long trips to Florida, to the Shenandoah Valley, to Boston. We were always on the move in the summers in the early 1970s until every penny of my brother’s $10,000 indemnity was spent.

My mother vowed that the payment would be used only for family outings, not to buy stocks or put away for anyone’s college tuition. This “blood money” would not be put to any practical or worldly use.

“He loved his family,” she said simply.

I recall these trips as being somewhat joyless exercises in which the grief my parents strained so hard to escape always wound up waiting for us at every stopping point.

As in any family in which a child dies, the mother’s sadness overrides everything else. That’s just natural. However, in reviewing my family’s letters, one of the things I was struck by was the warmth of the relationship between Chick and my father.

“The weather here has been icy and very cold but the Falcon rides on,” my father had written, referring to one of the many junkers we called the family car. “Been pushing a lot of guys off the ice lately. Trying to be a ‘good Christian.’ Your mother says I am playing it into the ground.”

Once, when I was very little, I got pleurisy. I awoke in the middle of the night with excruciating chest pains and found it difficult to breathe. Doctors still made house calls in those days, but my parents, as was often the case, were running things on a shoestring.

So it must have been some indication of how bad off I was that they did not hesitate to call the doctor and he did not hesitate to come. He gave me some medication and bandaged my chest.

“He needs to sleep.”

Everyone left then, except Chick. He lay on the other bed in the dark, watching me and asking every so often if I was OK and was there anything I needed. He was still there, quietly watching, when I finally drifted off.

He hated that they made him a medic, but I could understand why.

I believe Honcho was killed instantly. Doc, I understand, died at the aid station. The third person injured lived. He was sent home due to his wounds. I have never heard or read any official account of the attack but what I believe happened is that a young Vietnamese boy (I never saw him) sneaked along the hedgerow that was close to Doc and Honcho and threw a hand grenade over the hedgerow. This hand grenade landed behind Doc and Honcho probably five feet away or less. They may have heard it hit the ground but could not have seen it because of the poncho liner they had set up as a sun-shade. Their bodies shielded me from any fragmentation of the explosion but some of the fragmentation hit the third man, knocking him to the ground injuring him.

Charles Diamond is an honorable, kind, considerate, nurturing, brave, loyal, dedicated brother and friend; then and always. You should be proud to have a son and brother like Charles. Everyone who met him was drawn to him and his genuineness. He truly cared for us and we for him.

I remember the pain of losing him that day. The anger we felt that night was almost uncontrollable. We became very bitter toward the local villagers and it was confirmed, without a doubt, that the population was hostile toward us. We kept our guard up. I will never forget him. . .If I have been too graphic in this letter, please forgive me. I hate not knowing. I have only told it like I’d like it told to me. Please edit this so as not to hurt your mother with anything I have said.

If I were there, I’d give you all a big hug. I am so sorry about Charles and Honcho and the others that were killed in our company. I just wish they could still be with us. They are never far from my thoughts.


Your brother,

Dan Camacho

Of course, we never received the letter Chick had been writing at that moment, but we did get one that had probably been written earlier that day; it was dated Feb. 2. His last words came to us about a week after news of his death.

“Received a couple of letters from George recently. He seems to be doing all right for himself. He just bought himself a brand new car. I think I am going to get a new car when I get back to the world. Well, I have almost three months in-country now. Time is really going fast.”

Really fast. Thirty years have gone by.

I read Camacho’s e-mail on my lunch hour at work. It was a beautiful October day and I had driven to Washington’s Crossing, which is just 10 minutes away.

When I finished, I walked down to the banks of the Delaware – the same river that had flowed 223 years before during our country’s very first war. That was the one we were losing all the way up until the end, when we won.

The leaves were a noisy orange carpet and the sun threw silver on the water. I was feeling many things, but closure wasn’t one of them. Mostly, I was grateful that someone who’d served with Chick had thought so highly of him as to write such a letter. Camacho’s words spurred me to sift among the writings and documentation surrounding my brother’s death.

What I’d heard was a voice I’d long forgotten, the words of an honorable young man trying to live in an honorable way. Not that Chick tossed words like “honor” around. That wasn’t his speed.

Chick’s letters, in fact, were full of the minutiae of life. He wasn’t writing for history. He just wanted to find out if the Phillies had finally ended their latest losing streak. He struggled to maintain his connections to “the world,” as he put it.

In one, he asked, “Have people been wondering about me and inquiring about me?

“I hope so.”

If I could talk to him today, I’d tell him he hasn’t been out of our thoughts in 30 years.

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