I just finished a book called The Dead Were Mine, which is the story of a Vietnam Memorial Activities (Graves Registration /GRREG) man in Vietnam. Having extensively studied the activities of Graves Registration in World War I and World War II, and writing and teaching about this, it was time for me to explore Vietnam and understand the differences between the wars and how our Soldier Dead were handled and honored.
First let me say that this book is not graphic and gross. Not to say it is an unemotional read, but the author has kept out the gruesome parts of his story and work. Bill does explain at the start the effect on his entire system, this work had, from the smell and sites. He mentions he made a conscious choice to block it out and focus on his work so others would not know the mental anguish he suffered. I’ve read similar things from Graves Registration men from World War II.
Second, Bill uses a lot, and I mean a lot, of abbreviations and acronyms in his book. Reading this, I learned a lot of new terms I had not seen in World War II records. Most civilians will not understand what these mean, but he does spell them out at least once and provides an extensive list in the appendix, which I referred to often.
In this short book, we follow Bill Honaker through his military career, which included two tours in Vietnam working for GRREG. Bill explains at the start of his story that the memories, pain and grief he felt (and pushed aside) as a GRREG man are still with him today, but more bearable. Bill seemed to have healed on many levels in the years following the war.
One big difference between prior wars and Vietnam is that we did not create temporary cemeteries in Vietnam. There was a Concurrent Return Program in place and once remains were processed, they were shipped home quickly. I also learned that doctors signed death certificates after identification had taken place and all paperwork was in order before the remains were shipped home. My IDPF (Individual Deceased Personnel File) expertise is primarily World War II files where you might see some sort of death certificate in Navy files but as a general rule, an actual death certificate was not made out during this war. Utah is one state that officially created and filed death certificates for their World War II war dead.
Bill describes many of the S&R (Search & Recovery) missions he and his men conducted. You really get a sense of the terrain, conditions, and constant fear these men lived with as they tried to recover our fallen. These recoveries again are very different from prior wars, even including how we handled enemy dead. He also describes many of the military missions that took place and provides photos to accompany the text.
The job of a GRREG was often done at a base in relative safety. However, the men did go out on S&R missions. One S&R mission in particular was to LZ Orange (Landing Zone Orange) on top of a mountain. Bill includes the operations report of this battle so the reader has context of what the GRREG men were being dropped into. This mission will keep you on the edge of your seat as you read it and grasp what happened just on this one mountain. A story that I sense played out in various ways in many other places in Vietnam. When you understand the story of the battle that took place, then Bill takes you on the S&R recovery which will also keep you on the edge of your seat as you wait to learn what happens next and did all the men make it out safely after recovering remains. Bill’s descriptions of exactly how they tried to recover remains and provide identification in the field is amazing. Readers may be shocked at the level of detail and lengths the GRREG men went to to recover our fallen, especially if this is their first time learning about this work.
The end of this book made me cry. Bill talks about sharing slides of the photos he added in this book, with his family. He was so overcome by emotion it took a long time to explain what his family was seeing. Bill indicated the writing of the book was healing, but would never fully heal his heart or the pain and grief he still carried. Like so many, he still wondered what more he could have done and felt some guilt about not being able to recover every man he was sent to find. Using military writing as healing myself, I understand some of what he is saying.
The book is a short read and I appreciated Bill’s honesty about how he felt, functioned, and made it through his two tours. He did not sugarcoat things. His descriptions of his work and dangers he faced were just descriptive enough for the reader to not be too overwhelmed but still see in their mind’s eye, what our men faced in the jungle. I would invite anyone interested in our Soldier Dead from Vietnam, to read this book if you read no other. You will gain a new perspective about our military personnel and the dangerous and emotionally draining jobs they did so our boys could come home.
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