Photo of William J. Birnes from the UFO Hunters series.

📯 May 3, 2017

No Conclusion at Khe Sanh

Allentown, church steeple at sunrise.

Allentown, N.J. church steeple at sunrise.

In 1972, rural Allentown, New Jersey, sitting on the westernmost tip of Monmouth County, was a throwback to an earlier time in America, defying with an almost furious resistance the changes taking place in the rest of the United States and exploding on college campuses. The town only had one traffic light that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t at the one intersection where Main Street crossed Church Street. There were the humble single-family duplex frame houses at the poor end of town and the gingerbready manses at the high end of town, aptly called “Hill Street.”

There was a small fire department with a pumper truck, a tanker, and a field truck for fighting brush fires, a rescue squad with two vintage Dodge vans converted into ambulances, and a three-person police department headed up by a retired New Jersey State trooper who didn’t believe in automatic transmissions and started his car in low, moved it into 2nd, and then into drive as he tried to catch speeders bounding through town on their way to Trenton. The town’s mayor ran the borough’s only general store from behind which meat counter he would rail at things like welfare, civil rights, socialism, college students, and anyone else younger than thirty.

There was a local minister who would announce his presence as he sashayed down the street, his arms swinging widely to and fro as of to define his space while singing his favorite hymn of the day. And even a milkman would deliver bottles of milk, cream, and butter to the back doors of the manses on Hill Street, much to the consternation of the town’s mayor who complained about the lack of loyalty from the rich folks not shopping in his general store. It was a town where Nixon was worshiped, local high-school students marched to and from school under the watchful eye and metronome-like swinging baton of the one police officer on duty, and young housewives would parade their baby carriages up and down the Main Street, dutifully following the admonition of Dr. Spock to get the newborns out early no matter what the temperature.

Now imagine that a too-young and too-cocky college journalism professor takes up residence in the town and quickly lands himself at the local paper, actually a printed community bulletin board of classified ads, announcements from the local Daughters of the American Revolution, farm auctions, and yearly “get your fresh turkey” ads in the month before Thanksgiving. While the campus at Trenton State College, thirty minutes down the road from Allentown, was aflame with anti-war protests, be-ins on the main quadrangle, and teach-ins about the subjects of the moment, events in Allentown were a hundred years away, just like the mythical village of Brigadoon.

Although the local newspaper was technically a local news stringer for the budding New Jersey edition of the New York Times, the paper’s editor steadfastly stuck to his motto that all news is local, national news is not our business, and there’s no such thing as human-interest unless it’s about births, engagements, marriage announcements, and deaths. Certainly not about an out-of-control war sucking up all of the male high-school graduates like a vacuum.

Now imagine that the young journalism professor decides to shake up the newspaper, bring in the rest of the world, and wake up the sleepy folks in Allentown with electrifying features and probing reports about the goings-on at the local zoning board and town council. Now imagine the newspaper’s editor cringing in a mixture of terror and anger with each weekly news feature, literally taking out his scissors and cutting the paper into separate paragraphs and rearranging them for the typesetter, deleting anything he believed would jar his readers’ emotions over their morning coffees.

But journalism doesn’t sleep, especially when two of the town’s local police officers were Marine veterans who shared, albeit across almost fifteen years, a common bond. Both had served in Vietnam, the elder of the two at Dien Bien Phu as a gunnery sergeant with a small contingent of American advisors to the French Foreign Legion, who were holding the base against the encroaching Viet Minh. The younger of the two had served at the Marine firebase at Khe Sanh, which in 1968 withstood an unrelenting barrage of mortar fire and attacks by the Viet Cong. Two local police officers, two Marine veterans, two moments during a fruitless war. For a crusading young journalism professor, this is the stuff feature articles are made on: a searing commentary in the tradition of “The Grand Illusion” about a war that keeps going on, young men hurling themselves at one another, not really knowing why except that their governments have ordered them to do so.

Now imagine the look on the local newspaper editor’s face when the journalism professor happily presents his feature column on the two police officers, revealing for the elucidation of local readers, and possibly for the New York Times, that the United States was actually in Vietnam as early as 1954 at the siege of Dien Bien Phu. How’s that for an exclusive? Now imagine a long, ink-stained finger pointing to the door of the local newspaper office while the other hand of the editor pointing the finger crumples up the heartfelt prose of the would-be headline-making journalism professor.

Two Marines serving in a small town police force; two sieges in a hopeless war; two men whose memories of living under constant mortar fire and having to fight their way through a thick jungle out of a death trap; and two memories buried deep inside their psyches, bubbling up the surface every time a young unwary driver runs the quirky red light at the town’s one intersection.

A snapshot of War, 50 years in.

A snapshot of War, 50 years in.

All that came to mind this week when a photo from freelance photojournalist Robert Ellison came to light in the Washington Post of a Marine second lieutenant being dragged out of the thick jungle brush by members of his unit after he was killed in an ambush outside the perimeter of Khe Sanh almost fifty years ago. Ellison was killed just days after he captured this image. 📯