Back Channels: A letter home from a fallen Vietnam soldier.
'What makes man . . . do the things he does?'
I met Charlie Becker at the service for Michael J. Crescenz, the Philadelphia Medal of Honor recipient whose body was transferred to Arlington National Cemetery earlier this month. Becker, 65, of Trooper, helped with arrangements for the reburial.
In talking about his own time in Vietnam, in 1966 and 1967, with an Army intelligence unit, Becker mentioned his platoon leader, First Lt. John F. Cochrane - "one hell of a great guy."
He showed me a letter the 25-year-old Cochrane wrote to his parents, on Oct. 15, 1966, his third wedding anniversary. The letter was read by Lyndon Johnson at a White House tree-lighting ceremony that year and merits another look on the eve of Memorial Day:
"Tonight . . . I am awaiting an attack. Yes, that's right . . . Your only son, who you didn't raise to be stupid, is 11,000 miles from home, sitting here beneath a shaded Coleman lantern on top of a hill awaiting a visit from friend 'Charley.' . . .
"Here I sit, so afraid that my stomach is a solid knot, yet laughing, joking, kidding around with the 18 troops with me - and even writing a letter to the folks back home as if I haven't a care in the world. What I really want to do is load up these men . . . and get out of here. I don't belong here. Neither do these men. This isn't our war. . . . It doesn't make sense. I refuse to believe God created a human being, let him live for 20 years on this Earth just to send him to some foreign land to die. . . .
"I have offered every excuse in the book, but I know why I am here and why I couldn't be any other place. The reason is because I do believe we should be here and I do believe that . . . basic principles are enough for a man to die for. . . . We are here because we actually believe that our country is good enough to fight, and even if necessary, die for. All we ask is that some good come out of it. . . .
"Now you may think this is all written in a highly emotional state, and if fear is considered a highly emotional state, and it is, then you are right. But I have sat here this night and looked in the faces of 18 young men - the oldest is 28 - and I have talked to them about their homes and families and wives and sweethearts . . .
"I have had to sit here and direct them about what action they would take and what they would do if 'Charley' does pay us a call, and I have had to tell them that once it starts, there can be no giving up - no relenting even if it's to the last man because of the information they have had access to . . . I could read on their faces the fear, the doubts, and the anger . . .
"As they ask the questions, I could feel the tension they were feeling as they asked me what they should do - or where the machine guns should be deployed. And I was scared - not because of death, because I have accepted the Lord and I know where I will spend Eternity - but because I also had to assume the responsibility for 18 other lives - and that takes guts - lots of them. . . .
"All precautions have been taken, and double-checked. If he comes, he will have a fight on his hands. If he doesn't come, then we will all walk around with sheepish looks on our faces telling those around us that we really weren't afraid. But it's not tomorrow, it's right now, and it's dark, and he is out there - we can hear him. . . .
"It is times like right now that we search our souls and are able to see our faults and shortcomings. . . . Here I am alone - only I can make the decision. I have to be right. If I am not, then men will die - good men with families and girlfriends and mothers and fathers. . . .
"['Charley'] is a . . . formidable enemy. . . . I will kill him if I get the chance because he does not agree with me. That is what war is all about. A simple disagreement, yet we, the most civilized of God's creatures, have to resort to shooting and killing to settle this simple disagreement. Reminds me of that passage from Psalms, 'What is a man that Thou are mindful of him?' That may not be exactly correct . . . but the thought is still there . . .
"It really seems that God has turned his back on mankind when one is in a situation like this. With all of the intellect and intelligence and scientific discovery He has endowed man with, it boils down to two soldiers on opposite sides, sworn to kill each other. . . .
"I am going to take one last look around and then I am going to try to get some sleep. If all goes well, I will finish this tomorrow. Thank goodness I can call on God at a moment like this.
John Cochrane and his 18 men survived the night. The next morning, as he finished the letter, he wrote, "I wonder if I will ever know what makes man work. What causes him to do the things he does?"
On Oct. 24, Cochrane was killed by a sniper - six days before he was to join his wife, Elaine, in Hawaii for R&R. He, too, is buried in Arlington.