Fallen more than names on Vietnam memorial

Paul Jenkins

At about this time every year, when the rains and the gray come, and winter gathers itself up high, a sadness creeps in, a sense of loss. It is another long year, 43 in all now, stolen from John H. Camp Jr. on a dark, muddy hilltop in the armpit of the world.

It seems like yesterday, but it was Sept. 11, 1969, and tiny Landing Zone Siberia -- perched over the Song Tran River and straddling the main infiltration routes through the Hiep Duc and Antenna valleys in northern I Corps -- was an irritant for the North Vietnamese. It was the farthest west American firebase in South Vietnam and home to the scant handful that comprised Charlie Battery, 3rd Bn., 82nd Artillery.

Hunkered on a sweltering mountain top near the Laotian border, LZ Siberia -- a fly speck on the map -- was relatively quiet early in September. The North Vietnamese had declared a three-day truce to mark 79-year-old Ho Chi Minh's death on Sept. 2. In the early hours of Sept. 11, all that went out the window.

I first met Camp, a self-assured 24-year-old captain from Washington, D.C., on LZ Baldy earlier. I was the new guy, a scared-to-death 21-year-old kid. He seemed a squared-away veteran, with plans to marry when he returned home. He was smart, helpful -- and one heck of a Hearts player. He was a natural leader and a big brother. I wanted to be just like him when I grew up.

Because I was new meat, I was sent to advise the South Vietnamese on artillery. For a while, I spent more time off the firebase than on. I was a ghost, coming and going at the whim of a Vietnamese regimental commander who would not forget my name despite my most fervent prayers. I would not see Camp, or anybody else in my battalion, for days, even weeks, on end and then only to rearm, replace gear and chat for a few moments.

Returning from one such outing, I asked why Camp's gear was gone. He had just left for LZ Siberia to assume command of Charlie Battery, I was told. I remember feeling a chill. Siberia was scary. Out there. Way out there. It topped my list of places I never wanted to go and there was guilty relief that the powers-that-be had the good sense not to send me there.

Camp settled into his new job, and the rest of us went about ours. I was assigned to the 2/1st Infantry as an artillery liaison officer and on the morning of Sept. 11 had managed to get back to LZ Hawk Hill after my chopper was downed by ground fire. I walked into the operations center, still shaken, picked up a log book to see what was happening, and read, "Capt. Camp, LZ Siberia, KIA." It made me ill.

As the North Vietnamese truce -- for whatever it was worth -- ended Sept. 10, the fight for Siberia erupted with a vengeance in the darkness hours later.

Siberia was attacked with mortars, recoilless rifles, flame throwers, rocket-propelled grenades, small arms and anything else the NVA in battalion strength could carry up the mountain for a full-scale assault. At the same time, they again attacked nearby Hiep Duc, a government hamlet. There were many, many casualties.

I cannot say for certain what happened on Siberia. We were told Camp's bunker was hit by a satchel charge; that he fought his way out; that he died trying to get to his operations center. There are other accounts, too. At daylight, the wreckage was hellish. That anybody lived was a miracle, and it rattled me. Death became real.

Camp was not the first I knew who died. He would not be the last, but he is the one who sticks with me. I wonder why I lived and he died. I wonder what he would have become; the family he would have had; the life he would have led.

He would have been something, but now he is a memory. His nation honors him on Panel 18W, Row 67 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which lists the more than 58,000 names of those who fell in that war. I saw his name on the Moving Wall when it was in Anchorage this summer.

It was hard to read through the tears.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.

Paul Jenkins