×

Kevin J.P. Hanson: Small town boys, from Hillsborough to Vietnam to the memorial wall

  • Small, handmade flags sit at the base of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on Nov. 11, 1982. AP

  • Castelot

  • Robert S. Castelot’s name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Kevin Hanson



For the Monitor
Sunday, June 10, 2018

Bob Castelot. Damn, that’s right. Bobby. Bobby Castelot. A swift intake of breath, a rush of adrenaline and a picture of Bobby Castelot’s grin and mop of unruly hair cut through the 6:15 grogginess and the dull roar of the shower.

Most of my memories of that mischievous grin went back to our days as altar boys together, when Bob, his brother Pat and I were usually up to some shenanigans before 10:30 mass at St. Mary’s in Hillsborough.

Father Plante knew a good joke when he saw one, and he liked to have us serve mass together: Bobby was a big, strong guy from having grown up on a farm; I was six years younger, at least a foot shorter and did not yet weigh half what Bobby did.

The date was Thursday, Nov. 11, 1982, and Sheila’s casual Tuesday evening suggestion that we spend part of Saturday at the dedication ceremonies for the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial had become more than just an interesting way for me to indulge my love of history and bitter fascination with the Vietnam War.

I was aware of the controversy surrounding the memorial and had read some descriptions of it, but now the issue had become personal. Bob Castelot’s name was going to be on the wall, and I very much wanted to be there to pay my respects.

Reunions

Saturday the 13th was an overcast day, following rain. We were between storm fronts and the dark bands of clouds were broken by patches of anemic sunlight.

It was blustery and, I was told, colder than usual for Washington. It reminded me of the weather during the week before Halloween when I was a kid in New Hampshire.

The chill certainly hadn’t slowed down the weeklong reunion taking place among the Vietnam veterans. In the hours between their parade down Constitution Avenue and the beginning of the ceremony, they milled around the monument site just as they had in hotel lobbies all week. Many of them with families – greeting, embracing, sharing stories; some of them standing quietly.

The memorial is all but invisible from Constitution Avenue; only an embankment a few inches high, about 250 feet long. However, when approached from either the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, the ground slopes down and the walls rise around you to form a natural amphitheater.

Each of the walls of the V is 246 feet, 8 inches long and is composed of 70 polished black granite panels. At the vertex, the walls are 10 feet, 1½ inches high and carry 137 lines of names; as the ground tapers up from the point the walls get shorter, until panel No. 70 on each end is less than a foot high and contains one line of names.

For the ceremony, a snow fence was erected in the same V-shape as the memorial, about 25 feet back from the wall. The ground below and the cracks between many of the panels were strewn with flowers, flags, pictures and mementos left there earlier in the week during pre-dedication visits.

Our vantage point for the ceremony was at the end of the east wall, facing down the space between the wall and the crowds behind the snow fence to the speakers platform above the vertex. The Washington Monument was behind us and the Lincoln Memorial off to the left.

After several hours surrounded by men in jungle fatigues and old field jackets, many looking like leftover ’60s protestors with long hair, beards and mustaches, it was almost a surprise to see the spit and polish of the Marine Corps Band and Chorus and the official Armed Forces Color Guards.

Although no important members of the administration attended, the ceremony was conducted with the proper dignity and polish. There were stirring military marches and speeches by politicians, veterans and Gold Star Mothers. Thousands of buttons were handed out to the crowd, depicting the Vietnam service ribbon and the words, “Marching along together again.”

The government and people of the United States were finally saying, “Thank you, and welcome home.”

All through the crowd of 150,000 were state contingents left over from the parade and gathered under state placards and flags. We stood next to a group of Indiana “Hoosiers.” Almost every one of the men seemed to be short, mustachioed and wiry, with an intenseness of talking and laughing that contrasted strikingly with the easy-going country manner of the group gathered just beyond them, under the pure white background and crimson X of the Alabama state flag.

Each of the Alabama men looked as if he had left Vietnam to play defensive end in the National Football League.

The kidding between the two groups was good natured, and I heard the word “brother” a lot. A Gold Star Mother and her husband stood to our right, with their heads high and jaws clenched. The memorial was officially dedicated with the singing of God Bless America. There were a few more speeches. There were tears and embraces.

The names

After the ceremony, the snow fences came down and the crowd moved to find names on the wall. We found the name Robert S. Castelot on line 22 of panel 58W – the wall pointing toward the Lincoln Memorial. It is an emotionally wrenching moment when you finally find the name you are looking for. As you follow the first instinct, to touch the name, your hand is reflected in the polished marble and it looks as though a hand is coming out of the marble to touch yours.

As I knelt in front of the panel and looked up and down the wall, I could see dozens of other people finding names and reaching to touch. There were no loud noises – just the wind fluttering the flags and thousands of people walking on soggy grass, touching, talking and crying quietly.

A man at the panel next to me wordlessly handed me a red carnation from the bunch he was propping against the wall. A whispered “thank you” and a squeeze of his arm was all I could manage, but he seemed to understand.

I laid the flower underneath Bobby’s name.

We joined the thousands of people walking quietly away, past the Lincoln Memorial and reflecting pool, and up the mall. The temperature was in the 40s by now but the walk felt good. We walked past the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and saw spacecraft, including the Apollo 11 capsule, hanging by wires, through the huge glass panels on the front of the museum.

The Dubliner, like all Washington bars on that weekend, was crowded with veterans. We got a table in the back room next to a group of about 15 helicopter pilots and some family members. I overheard a conversation between two scruffy-looking guys in the men’s room that informed me that Sheila and I were sitting in “officer country.”

These men were following a tradition that warriors have followed since the days of Homer. They were telling the stories. They were relating what they had done and seen other men do in battle. As it has always been, these were stories of bravery, foolishness, laughter and death. Probably the only change since Homer is the swooping pair of hands indigenous to every story told by any pilot. They laughed and they toasted and they talked with us.

Later in the evening, during breaks by the band, two of them sang. One had a beautiful Irish tenor, and the other a strong baritone, and they sang the wailing, stirring melodies of Ireland’s bloody past.

The dedication of the memorial had been a catharsis, a national welcome and thank you, with all the emotionalism of such a day.

Most of the visitors to the Memorial were there to exorcise old demons and release pent-up emotions.

As is the nature of memorials, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial will always be a place of special anguish for these people; for the families, friends and comrades of the 58,282 men listed as killed and missing.

I went back to the memorial on April 1, 1983 – Good Friday. It was a warm, sunny quiet day. There was construction going on at the site. The only sounds were muted conversations carried on a light breeze and the soft clatter of heels on the wooden walkway. Many of the people here on a pleasant spring day were not here to look for any particular name, just to quietly honor America’s Vietnam dead, and perhaps explain Vietnam and the convulsions of the ’60s to the children that accompanied most of them.

1968

The first six months of 1968 were certainly some of the darkest this country has faced since World War II. The suddenness and fury of the Tet offensive; the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the announcement by President Johnson that he would not seek re-election; the near-crises tensions between black people and white people in America’s urban centers; the emotion of Hawks vs. Doves; the riots on the campuses of America’s most prestigious universities; the assassination, on June 6, 1968, of Robert Kennedy. Five days later the horror and turmoil finally reached even the remote safety of Hillsborough.

Fifty years ago this month, during the week of June 11, 1968, Bob Castelot and 49 other men were all killed in Vietnam. They are listed now on panel 58W of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Milton R. Allerby, Jr., Daniel F. Andrus, Charles G. Clitty, Wayne W. Bernhardt, James A. Burton, Gladston Callwood, Larry D. Carlisle, Robert S. Castelot, Arnold A. Chap Delaine Jr., Charles J. Chase, Michael Bard, Toby E. Collins, David M. Cronin, Robert H. Davis, Michael L. Dewlen, Bernard W. Dickerson Jr., Michael Ewing, James D. Fazzino, Ollie Forte, Robert S. Grosshart, Paul R. Harrison, Gordon A. Hawkins, Kenneth Hawkins, Wilbur D. Monroe, Terry Lee Ivener, Donald W. Jacobs, Sam Jones, Thomas H. Jones, David H. Lalich, George W. Large, Herbert N. Stehle, Conrad Lerman, Willard D. Marshall, Robert J. Irwin, Raymond Castillo Mora, Willie Overstreet Jr., James A. Phipps, Dwight A. Price, David M. Pruitt, Theodore P. Raymond, Bernard J. Snead Jr., Charles E. Lee, Raymond W. Templeton, Russell J. Weekley, Charles C. White, Roy A. Winter, Gerard T. Wolterman, Edward T. Wright, Billy Joe Wyatt, Glen J. Zamorski.

(Kevin Hanson, a 1972 graduate of Hillsboro-Deering High School, lives in High Point, N.C.)