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Archive for May, 2011

Today is Memorial Day, a date set aside to honor those who have died in wars while in military service to our country.  While many are planning their summer vacations, getting used to the kids being out of school and looking at the furniture sale brochures, it is important that we remember those who cared enough about the United States to give their lives.  It’s not much to ask that we remember.

The notion of war has evolved over the many years since the American Civil War, which was the source of an event that was initially called Decoration Day.  There was a time when young men quickly enlisted, eager to fight in the War to End All Wars.  Not everyone was all that eager, so there was a military draft, but even then, when called, these young men would show up and serve.  After World War II, there was a perceptible change, with Korean military actions being called a “Police Action“, a term which persists to this day.  Likewise, other military conflicts have fallen into this vague category, including the defining police action of my life, Viet Nam.

Memorial Day is about remembering the deceased, not hashing over the political harangue of over 40 years ago.  For many who read this, the mere mention of Vietnam brings back unfond memories of draft card burners, civil unrest and Lewis B. Hershey.   And of Walter Cronkite announcing that the Vietnam conflict was a lost cause, just after the Tet Offensive.  The Tet Offensive might, or might not have been a success, depending upon whom you talk to.  But in the public relations department, the North Vietnamese were quite successful.  Just ask most soldiers who served in that era about a certain Hollywood starlet.

This blog is not about about the political implications of that era but to remember at least one person who deliberately served his country and died serving that country, Mr. Cleave Bridgman.  I knew him when I was a freshman at a small college in the Midwest.  He was the dorm proctor, the person responsible for the actions of 30 young men living in Neifert Hall.  Not that these young men were inclined toward being led, mind you.  Given the times, these young men were unlikely to respect any authority, but Cleave was successful because of his natural leadership ability.  There was no hypocrisy in his management style, just the quiet sense of doing the right thing.

Cleave was from the coastal town of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  He had a girlfriend who was quiet and pretty.  He was an athlete and had lettered in two sports.  He was also a member of ROTC, which in 1968, on that college campus, was a difficult matter.  Cleave chose to join ROTC, he was not drafted into it.  The substantial anti-war element on campus showed little respect for those who chose to serve, calling them ROTC-Nazis.  Particularly difficult were the days when the ROTC cadets were required to wear their military uniforms on campus.  There was even less respect shown by the antis.  And, as part of a larger movement, ROTC was being forced off college campuses big and small.  In due time, Cleave graduated, married his sweetheart, and went to Fort Benning Fort Riley, Kansas for training.

One morning, less than a year after Cleave graduated, the campus woke up to a sea of white crosses on one of the campus lawns, installed by the anti-war left to illustrate the war dead.  A picture of Che Guevara was placed on the campus’ main building.

Crosses on Campus

Late 1968

Give Peace a Chance

Give Peace a Chance, 1969

As so many other young men did in the later 1960’s, Cleave went to Vietnam.  He arrived October 14, 1969 and died at a place called Tay Ninh.  He was a forward observer at Firebase Illingworth, a dangerous position.  FSB Illingworth had been named for John James Illingworth, who had died at that place two weeks prior.  He was 20 years old, from New Haven, Connecticut and had been in Viet Nam for a little over 9 weeks when he died.

The whole area was red hot.  For the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, the primary target was Saigon, 80 kilometers away.  The whole area was honeycombed with secret underground tunnels that the enemy used for shelter and support.  Please see here.  The Cambodian border was a few kilometers away; denied support access from the north within Vietnam, the North Vietnamese had taken to transporting supplies to the South via Cambodia.  Firebase Illingworth was placed to prevent that activity, and became a major target for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.

FSB Illingworth, ca. 4/1/1970

Cleave died April 1, 1970 in a rocket attack on Firebase Illingworth, along with another soldier, 19-year old Robert Harrison Lane, Jr., of Concord, Tennessee.  They were two of seventy Americans killed in Vietnam that day.  His body was returned to the United States, but all we have now is memory. Here, a Vietnam war theater photograph, Cleave full of youth:

Cleaveland Floyf Bridgman

Cleave Bridgman, in Viet Nam

These two soldiers are small memories of a fire fight at a tiny location in a tiny country thousands of miles away from our lives.  We leave for another day any discussion about whether the Vietnam conflict was “right” or “wrong”.  The fact that Cleave Bridgman died there makes such a discussion trivial.

I look back and realize that I knew Cleave Bridgman when I was 18 years old, a barely formed human being.  Cleave had grown up much faster and had taken responsibility a lot sooner than I would.  I look back with a degree of awe and respect, for he placed himself in harm’s way because he felt that it was the right thing to do, for himself and for his country.

There is no military conscription in the United States today, but there are still countless young men and women who join our military each day to serve our country because they see it as doing the right thing.  They are worthy of our respect, and if they die while in that service, they are worthy of our taking the time to remember them for what they did.

Thanks Cleave, I’m glad to have known you.

*****

  • You can read memories of Cleave Bridgman, here.
  • And, some do more than remember.
  • And don’t bother with the movie, read the book:

We were Soldiers Once and Young

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