Would any of us be here if it weren’t for them?
Who was Wendell W. Anderson, the twenty-four-year-old young man from my generation who was killed in Vietnam? “Wendell W. Anderson, SP4, U.S. Army, Vietnam, Jan. 13, 1944, Aug. 26, 1968,” his tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery, read. Just one tombstone amidst acres and acres of tombstones, all white marble, planted among silent, still, neat rows in the company of others.
Who was Wendell Anderson? Where was he from? What schools did he attend? What was his life like? Did he have brothers and sisters? Did he play sports? Was he married, or did he have a girlfriend he intended to marry when he returned from the jungles of Vietnam?
Those were my thoughts as I looked at the young man’s tombstone.
I relayed those thoughts to one of my sons, and I said, “Isn’t it something that I didn’t have any questions running through my head about whether the young man maybe had been in trouble with the law, or that he was black, white, yellow, red or brown? Would it matter?” I asked. Did it matter he was of German, Japanese, African, Greek, Italian, or any other ethnic decent? “The guy is dead … dead at twenty-four years of age.”
Who was Wendell Anderson? Was he like the young medic from Correctionville, Phillip Lou Baker, age twenty, who was killed in Vietnam? Was he raised on a farm like Baker? Did an Army Chaplain go to Anderson’s home with a ceremonial U.S. Flag and a message of condolence, as I witnessed when this happened at the Baker home in Correctionville? I was sent to record the sad story as a television reporter.
“Come outside with me, please,” Phillip Baker’s father said to me as I followed him outdoors, and stood alongside the farm home the Bakers lived. ‘You raise a son, love him, watch him grow, then leave, and there isn’t even a body returned; it’s there in that country [Vietnam],” Phillip’s Dad said. The father was beyond tears. He must have cried over and over again when he first received the letter stating his son’s death.
I didn’t return inside the Baker home. I got in my car and returned to Sioux City. I could not cover the story. I returned to the television station and told my boss that I had no film or a report to give. I couldn’t do it.
For years the image of Phillip Baker’s mother and father and brother—the latter a farm kid himself at the time—stayed in my mind. A year ago, I called on the Baker family. I learned that Phillip’s parents died some time ago. His brother still worked the farm he was brought up on. That’s all I could learn. Just think of the emptiness Phillip’s mother and father felt the rest of their lives until they died. Losing a loved one.
Who was Wendell Anderson? He got killed the year after I received my Honorable Discharge. I made it through, never knowing what Vietnam was like. Wendell didn’t make it and God only knows what he saw and experienced in a country that may as well have been the moon or the planets Mars or Jupiter.
Maybe Wendell was a whiz in chemistry, or geometry, or history or English in high school? Maybe he was an All-State running back, or his school’s homecoming king? Maybe he wasn’t any of those things; maybe he was a carpenter, had a job building houses, or maybe he was a mechanic and could put an engine together that purred and hit seventy-five miles per hour in a matter of seconds?
I wonder if he dreamed about what he wanted to do when he returned to the States?
He didn’t even have a life, I told one of my sons.
Acres and acres of Wendell Andersons. None of those guys buried there wanted to die. I’ll never, ever be convinced that any of them wanted to die. They served because their Country called.
Who was Dennis M. Dicke? He was a Marine captain. Born in Illinois in 1940, one year before I was born, he was killed in action in 1971 when the Vietnam War was winding down. I wonder if he told himself that his duty in Vietnam was almost complete? He witnessed the slow withdrawal of American combat forces and he had to have heard about the protests of Americans in the States against the war. He most likely heard about those draft eligible Americans who fled across the U.S. northern border into Canada in order to escape military conscription.
I wonder if Captain Dicke was saddened by what he heard and saw?
Who was Dennis Dicke? He was killed at age thirty, never knowing anything other than his early life in Illinois and perhaps college; he volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps and earned a commission and was trained for war, went, led, saw fighting and death, and then was killed. I wonder if our paths every crossed while I was growing up in Illinois?
I wondered and thought about what I had seen and had so many flashbacks of the military, my parents, family, friends—people I knew who passed away—experiences, events, faces… I thought about what I saw and what I have experienced and said to my son: “To think of it. Those acres and acres of tombstones, the Wendell Andersons, the Phillip Bakers, the Dennis Dickes … they all died in service for our Country. They died, their lives cut short. Had it not been for the Andersons, Bakers and Dickes, would I be here? Would any of us be here?”
My son looked at me and I hoped he understood what I was saying. I wonder if anyone reading this understands what I am saying? I wonder?
By Wayne Dominowski