Memorial Day Poems

Today is Memorial Day. Having attended an all-boys school during the Vietnam era, I lost a significant number of friends and classmates during that war. Many years later, after the Vietnam Memorial wall was built in Washington D.C., I still recall the impact of seeing their names inscribed in that monolithic black marble, as multitudes of visitors traced their fingers over the memories of their own loss. Poetry Monday wishes to honor all who gave their last measure in those far-away jungles, as well as all the other servicemen and women whose lives ended so abruptly and too soon. As for those who came back, many continue to bear the scars and burdens unappreciated by the many who never  had to endure the horrors of those placed in harm’s way. These two poems are for you.

Home Far Away From Home

1) We lived in a corrugated metal hootch
Surrounded by sandbags. 
Once a month we sprayed the wooden floor
With diesel fuel to kill the cockroaches.
The only color in the place was Soon’s easy chair.
He’d ordered it from Sears.
Only the mail clerk could get away with that. 

2) There were nine of us.
Four on each side,
And Soon in the lean-to.
He slept in a hammock.
We all had our own taste in music.
We had all purchased stereo systems at the PX.
Balance was an issue. 

3) Our shower shack was out back.
It had six spigots.
Two of them worked.
One night the huge water tank collapsed,
Crushing the shower shack.
MacMurray had showered ten minutes before. 
Danger came from unexpected places.

4) We were all clerks of various sorts.
Howells was the Colonel’s aide.
The “b” on Howell’s typewriter didn’t work.
Howell’s vocabulary grew in Vietnam.
None of his words had “b” in them.
It don’t mean nothing.

5) It was our favorite phrase.
We used it for everything.
They ran out of beer at the EM club.
It don’t mean nothing.
Someone threw a grenade 
Under the Sergeant Major’s hootch.
It don’t mean nothing.

6) We were just on the edge of the war.
We daily viewed it in our hospital’s beds,
In the eyes of our men returned from the field.
A year earlier, Cu Chi had been under attack.


Four years later it was under Communist control.
After we left they discovered the Cu Chi tunnels.
Turns out the enemy was underneath us all along. 

7) I was the last to arrive;
So, over the next year,
They all left me.
Howells, Helmey, Olds, Soon.
It was hard.
We had become brothers.
I don’t know what has become of them.
I can see their faces.
We were very, very close;
And then they were very, very gone.
That was Vietnam.
It don’t mean nothing.

November 3, 1970
The Day I Came Home From Vietnam

I turned back for one last look
As I boarded the plane.
It was a place I was sure 
I would never see again.
Thankfully, I was wrong;
But at the time
I was just so happy to be 
Leaving alive. 

I expected a rowdy flight home.
At liftoff a rousing cheer
Catapulted us upward.
G.I.s laughed and pinned
Their Purple Hearts to the
Uniforms of smiling flight attendants.
After a few moments of backslapping
The plane went silent.

I looked back at those behind me,
Quiet faces, some tearstained faces.
After a gasp of exuberance,
They had quickly drawn
Back into themselves.
I couldn’t tell if they were
Looking backward or forward,
But they had quietly drifted somewhere.

We re-crossed the International Date Line,
Regaining those hours we had lost.
For me, a bonus.
More life to spend with loved ones.
For others, those extra hours
Would extend the pain of remembrance
And the frustration of readjustment.

For some, this was indeed a freedom bird;
But many were being carried 
To a new kind of prison.

Jim Olson

This entry was posted in America, Death and Dying, History, Honor, News and politics, Poetry, Southeast Asia, Thoughts & Musings, Vietnam War and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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