Greetings from Major General Louis B. Hershey, Director of the Selective Service System (The Draft) had arrived in the mail late in 1966, and on January 10, 1967, I was on a troop train with hundreds of other young lads tracking our way to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for Basic Training.  A few weeks later, I arrived at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, facing another year and three quarters of my two-year, stateside tour as a soldier in the United States Army.
One year later, late in January, 1968, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong armies attacked 300 bases and cities in South Vietnam.  When the Tet Offensive ended in May, about 7,000 U.S. soldiers had died and President Lyndon Johnson decided to wind down the War.  Meanwhile, a lot of stateside bases emptied as GIs went on body escorts.

These are my notes from such a body escort.

March 8, 1968:  A nasal-voiced Sergeant breaks into the silence of my Friday daydream,  “Specialist Reich, you have been assigned to body escort.  You will report this afternoon to the Memorial Hall Services Office for further instructions.”  After lunch I wade through forms describing memorial services, finances, transportation.  After dinner I climb on a bus for Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, where I will pick up the body.  On the bus questions crystallize:  What was he like?  What will his family be like?  What will happen?  We arrive at Dover AFB, are assigned pleasant rooms.  Someone said that at the service for her son killed in Vietnam a GI’s mother died of a heart attack. My roommate lisps badly and as I fall asleep I think that I wouldn’t want him to escort my remains…

March 9:  Briefing 8 a.m.  A Marine Captain and Army Major, Army NCOs, specialists and PFCs are at the briefing.  A body is always accompanied by an escort of the same rank or higher.  Someone said escorts are assigned by rank and race.  A bag-eyed sergeant describes the forms to be filled out, how to drape the flag over the casket.  Reminders:  clean nails, haircut, brass shined…courteous, dignified, solemn…I will pick up my remains at the morgue at 1 p.m.

The morgue is a low white building, out of the way at the far end of the busy runway.  A fork-lift slides shiny caskets out of gleaming C-5As, rolls across the tarmac and through green double doors into the morgue.  A few of us sit in the waiting room at other end of the morgue.

A couple of men from funeral homes wait with their hearses, impatient to get going.  The white door, closed to all but authorized persons, swings open and shut, and as it swings I catch a glimpse of bare feet sticking up, faces, and sheets.  The faces do not have the look of sleep.


The door opens and shuts again, the white door swings back and forth revealing pale green feet on gurneys, toes pointed to the ceiling.. Terrific fear overwhelms me…the swinging door separates real from unreal.  Behind the door are young faces – people like me, who hated KP as much as I, who laughed, who…— and now they are right there, on the other side of a swinging door, bodies torn apart, lives ended, green feet.

A man who works “inside” comes out.  He looks tired.  I look at his hands.

I wait outside for my body.  Some of the caskets being unloaded are marked “hold for FBI” — they will be identified by fingerprints or teeth, because that is all that is left.  Finally my body is ready.  His name is Roger.  Roger is put in a truck with two others, and the two other escorts and I get in and we go to the Philadelphia Airport.

March 10:  Up at 3:30 a.m. to catch an early plane to Newark and then to Albany.  The coffin and shipping box weigh almost 500 pounds, and I watch them load awkwardly in darkness.  A young airlines employee watched with me.  “I was going to be drafted, so I enlisted,” he says.  “I go on April 18.”  He enlisted for airborne training.  “Maybe I’ll come back like that,” he says, nodding at Roger.

We arrive in Albany late.  It is cold, planes are backed up, and I wait outside in the dark with Roger.  Inside, in brightly lit waiting rooms, people mill about, waiting for planes.  Some are GI’s with clean whitewall haircuts, fresh out of basic training, brass gleaming.  They do not see the forklift pluck Roger out of the plane’s belly.

At the freight office, a Sergeant Clark greets us.  People from the funeral home take Roger.  We drive to the funeral home and talk quickly…visiting hours Tuesday…services Wednesday…burial in Arlington National Cemetery.


Sergeant Clark takes me to meet Roger’s wife, a young, pretty 20-year-old girl.  When I describe the trip I say “we”.  She smiles, is kind.  Sergeant Clark and I leave quickly.  He tells me that they met last summer, were married four weeks before he left for Vietnam.

March 12:  Visiting hours at the funeral home.  No viewing.  The flag rests over the casket, sprays surround it, and on two small tables, his wife has arranged photographs of him: high school graduation, with friends, at the wedding, in uniform, and a couple polaroid shots from Vietnam.  He has a creased cheek from smiling, a handsome boy.  His father, a Navy lifer himself, was less than 300 miles away from Roger, at sea, when he died.

The room is hushed, people come quietly, look, sit for a while and leave.  I overhear “went to school with him”…”was his science teacher in high school”…”we played ball together”…  Four white haired veterans from the VFW enter, mumble over the casket, leave.

March 13:  The service is at 11 a.m. in a crimson chapel and I sit in the front pew with the wife.  A wobbly old woman plays wobbly melancholy melodies on an electric organ.  A prematurely gray minister says all the right things about youth, ideals, love, living on, God’s spirit, happiness; the organ picks up with The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and we are ushered into a small crying room.  The widow’s sobs shake the petals of the rose she is holding.

In the afternoon Roger and I go to the airport to catch a plane to Washington.  It is Sunday evening, and at the airport, many GI’s are saying goodbye to their families.  Roger’s gray box is outside on the tarmac waiting to be loaded.  Do the people know what the gray box is?   As the plane begins loading a young airborne officer clutches a child and the hand of his pregnant wife.

March 18:  Arlington National Cemetery:  as soon as you drive into Arlington you feel different.  The trees without leaves now are like sharp etchings against the windy sky.  Young soldiers with shaved heads and spit-shined boots stand at attention waiting for their processions.  A horse stands skittishly with reversed boots in the stirrups.  The widow signs the papers, the families get into cars.  We drive through the cemetery to a new area, where mud lies in piles, and fresh graves show clean mud.  The chaplain waits with pallbearers and firing squad.  A few small chairs accommodate the family and the wind is blowing so hard I can’t tell what is causing my tears.  A young tree leans over in the wind to hear the chaplain’s words.  Rifles explode into the wind.  The widow receives the flag.  Salute.  It is over.  Salute again.

By the time the 20 year-old Vietnam War ended in 1975, some 52,000 soldiers, sailors, marines and fliers had died.

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