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"Not Much of a War"

May 25, 2007

“It’s not much of a war, but it’s the only one we’ve got,” GIs joked in Vietnam in the early days. It seemed like a weird sense of humor at the time. The war we were sent to supply and quietly conduct while pretending to advise and train was low-key. But death was waiting out there and no less tragic when it found its mark.

The first casualty of 1963 was an Army sergeant who died of an unnamed disease on New Year’s Day, according to casualty lists. The next day, two helicopter crewmembers and a captain advising South Vietnamese troops died in a battle in the Mekong Delta. On the 10th, the pilot of a small Army airplane died in a crash. On the 11th, seven GIs died when a helicopter crashed. On the 20th, a soldier committed suicide. On the 31st, a captain was killed by “small arms fire.”

February brought five more deaths from airplane and helicopter crashes, a vehicle crash, a suicide and a sergeant’s death from “accidental self destruction.” March saw three deaths in helicopter crashes, a suicide, a drowning and a major felled by a heart attack. April brought two deaths in an airplane crash, three deaths of Air Force members by “unknown causes” in Thailand, and a master sergeant killed by small arms fire.

May saw eight deaths: from a helicopter crash, small arms fire, heart attack, accidental self destruction, “misadventure” and “other causes.” June brought five deaths: small arms fire, heart attacks and an airplane crash. July saw eight deaths: airplane and helicopter crashes, heart attack, accidental homicide and an explosion that killed two captains and a master sergeant. August brought 10 deaths: airplane and helicopter crashes, small arms fire, heart attack, suicide and burns.

September saw two deaths: suicide and illness. October brought 23 deaths: a Marine helicopter crash that killed 12, including three Navy men, Air Force airplane crashes that killed five, vehicle crash, heart attack, illness, suicide, small arms fire, an explosion. November saw five deaths: small arms fire, vehicle crash, airplane crash. December brought 23 deaths: airplane and helicopter crashes, drowning, an explosion, small arms fire, suicide, and a vehicle crash that killed a master sergeant on Christmas.

Names of the 118 GIs who died in “not much of a war” in 1963 are engraved on the black marble wall in Washington, surrounded by some 58,000 other names of Americans who died in subsequent years as the war grew into much more than anyone had bargained for.

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