Names On The Wall

posted Mar 1, 2020, 12:24 PM by Bruce Rowe

One of every ten Americans who served in the Vietnam War was a casualty. Out of 2.7 million serving, 58,220 were killed and 304,000 were wounded. Although the percentage dying is similar to other wars, amputations or crippling wounds were 300 percent higher than in World War II, with 75,000 Vietnam veterans severely disabled.

There were 9,107 accidents, 5,299 dying of wounds, 938 from illnesses, 40,394 killed in action, and 382 suicides. There were other designations like declared dead, presumed dead, remains recovered or not recovered, and homicides.

It’s easier to stay emotionally detached from the sorrow and tragedy of war if you don’t know the men behind the statistics; they’re just names on a wall and numbers on a page. Unless you were one of the men who served with those immortalized on the memorial.

Duke Tatumaku was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on May 10, 1950. His father Sam was a native Hawaiian who served in combat with the Marines in the South Pacific, surviving several island campaigns including Iwo Jima. In 1948, Sam married Leilani who was of Tahitian descent. Afterward, Sam worked as a deputy for Duke Kahanamoku, Olympic swimmer and surfing pioneer who served as Sheriff of Honolulu from 1932 to 1961. He named their son Duke after the legendary Hawaiian.

Growing up on Oahu, “Little Duke” spoke English, Hawaiian, and Chinese as well as some Vietnamese he learned from Dominque Pare, a baker in the neighborhood. An intelligence officer with the French government, she was forced to leave Vietnam in July 1954 after the French were defeated by General Vo Nguyen Giap at the remote outpost of Dien Bien Phu. Besides having a knack for languages, Duke was also a natural athlete. He was much stronger than his five-foot, seven-inch, 165-pound stature might suggest, with lightning-quick reflexes. A three-time local Golden Gloves winner in his boxing weight class three years in a row, he also was one of the better big wave surfers and swimmers on the Islands.

When Duke turned 18, he joined the Marine Corps. Sometime during boot camp, a careless administrative clerk shortened his last name to Tatum, but the young Hawaiian boy saw no reason to dispute the change. After a battery of tests to determine his abilities, the Marine Corps assigned Duke Tatum the MOS (military occupational specialty) of 0251, sending him to Interrogator and Translator School. After his arrival in Danang, South Vietnam, Duke was assigned to the Kit Carson Scouts (also known as Tiger Scouts’ or Lực Lượng 66). This special program was created by the U.S. Marine Corps to train Viet Cong defectors, then assign them to U.S. infantry units as scouts. Duke’s first assignment was as part of an intelligence team investigating the background and motivation of each potential recruit. At the beginning of 1970 over 2,300 scouts served with U.S. forces.

After three months, he was assigned to interrogate Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers captured during Operation Oklahoma Hills. Next, Duke moved on to the Combined Action Program, an operational counterinsurgency unit. It comprised a 13-member Marine rifle squad, augmented by a U.S. Navy Corpsman and strengthened by a Vietnamese militia platoon comprised of older boys and elderly men. Their primary purpose was to patrol the area by the village where the Vietnamese militia lived, then engage and kill or capture and interrogate enemy combatants.

While on a routine patrol one afternoon, Duke and his CAP unit were ambushed by a company of North Vietnamese regulars. Outnumbered and outgunned, they were eventually captured after a firefight that lasted several hours. The NVA quickly executed the South Vietnamese men as traitors then began the long trek back to North Vietnam with the captured Marines. The seasoned, enemy combat troops knew how to travel through the jungle without detection by American and South Vietnamese forces.

Eight North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps were known to American captives as: Alcatraz, Briarpatch, Camp Faith, Camp Hope, Dirty Bird, Dogpatch, Farnsworth, and the infamous Hanoi Hilton. Duke never let on that he spoke and understood the Vietnamese language, enabling him to listen in on the guards’ conversations. He spent one year at Briarpatch then was moved to Dirty Bird for six months and eventually Alcatraz.

It was at this last camp where Duke concluded it was his best chance for escape, with the Song Con River only a few hundred yards away. Conditions at the camp were brutal. Many of the prisoners had been tortured. They were malnourished and too weak to deal with the physical demands of an escape. In fact, Duke wasn’t sure he was up to it, but every day that passed, his chances of success diminished.

As he grew weaker, he decided to not share his plan with any of the other POWs. He just figured the less they knew, the better for him and them, though he couldn’t help feeling guilty about leaving them behind. After several months of watching the guards’ routines and listening, he determined when they would be at their least attentive. That time would be five minutes before sunrise, just before they were relieved of duty.

*  *  *

On the morning of his escape, he crawled through the wire surrounding the camp, moving inch by inch, not making a sound. Making his way to the riverbank, he slowly entered the water and began swimming downstream, barely keeping his head above water. By mid-morning he had managed to go four miles.

During the afternoon, he hid in the brush and waited for nightfall. He stole a sampan (a small flat-bottomed boat found all over Southeast Asia) and paddled his way to the Gulf Of Tonkin. Not designed for ocean travel, his boat quickly broke apart in the surf. Luckily, Duke’s skill as a swimmer and some scraps of the boat enabled him to stay afloat. A Navy reconnaissance plane observed him three days later, dispatching a rescue helicopter. On the hospital ship U.S.S. Sanctuary Duke received medical treatment.

He had been aboard ship ten days when legendary Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simmons of the Green Berets paid a visit.

“Sergeant Tatum, I’m going to lead a mission to rescue the POWs at Alcatraz and I need your help,” he said.

Simmons had taken part in a prisoner rescue during World War II. The 6th Ranger Battalion rescued 500 POWs who had survived the Bataan Death March by raiding the Japanese POW camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines.

Duke didn’t think twice about going back. “When do you want to go, Colonel?”

Three weeks later, Sergeant Duke Tatum was part of a team that included 56 Army Raiders. Heavily armed, they carried 48 CAR-15 carbines, two M16 rifles, four M79 grenade launchers, two shotguns, and four M60 machine guns. Fifteen Claymore mines, 11 demolition charges, and 213 hand grenades added to the arsenal, along with a mix of other equipment, including wire cutters, bolt cutters, axes, chainsaws, crowbars, ropes, bullhorns, and lights. Ground force voice communications would be via 58 UHF-AM and 34 VHF-FM radios, plus a survival radio for each individual man.

What the Americans did not know was that after Duke’s escape, the rest of the prisoners were transferred to other camps. Despite Duke’s accurate intel, the pilots landed in a compound containing 150 Chinese soldiers in Vietnam to train NVA anti-aircraft gunners in a new missile defense system. The Americans engaged in an intense firefight, eliminating the Chinese, then moved to the adjacent compound. Duke used a bullhorn to tell them, “We’re Americans and we’re coming for you!”

Blowing out the guard towers, they killed those reacting to the raid. As the fighting raged around him, Duke jumped into a trench, finding himself face to face with an enemy soldier. He punched him in the face then fired a blast from his shotgun to kill him.

*  *  *

Nobody was more disappointed than Duke that there were no Americans at the camp. Even after returning to Hawaii and separating from the Marine Corps, the memories of those he left behind continued to haunt him.

While working as a truck-driver at Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station, command held a lottery for all Vietnam War veterans working on base. Three names were selected to attend the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial on November 13, 1982 in Washington D.C.: Jack Dylan,a former Navy SEAL, former Corpsman Guy Warden, and Duke.

Notified by General McGraw, Duke responded, “I’m trying to forget things, I don’t need to go anywhere that reminds me.”

“I know how you feel. I’ve got three wars of flashbacks and nightmares that still shadow me. I could pick up somebody else, but you’ll regret it if you don’t go. Maybe not in the foreseeable future, but somewhere down the line.

“I’ve seen your military record, You’re a warrior and you’ll rise to the challenge. Speaking from my own personal experiences, you can run as fast and far as you want, but as soon as you stop to catch your breath, the memories are always going to be right there with you.”

*  *  *

The veterans flew from Honolulu to San Diego where a connecting flight headed to Washington D.C. The three men all had their own issues to deal with and they barely made small talk during the trip. Each man was lost in thought, apprehensive about how they would react to seeing the Wall.

As the customary speeches by a long list of dignitaries and politicians carried on, it was white noise to Duke who just stared into the distance. When the speaking had concluded the attendees slowly moved down the two identical walls containing more than 58,000 names, each stretching 246 feet, 9 inches. Finding several names of those he’d served with, Duke flashed back to when they died. But seeing the names of several men who were in the POW camp with him, he had more than a flashback, he had a calling. Duke reached up and touched the names with his fingertips and a chorus of voices echoed through his mind. “We’re still alive…come get us.”

At midnight, Duke returned to the memorial, sitting by the wall until sunrise before going back to his hotel room. Making a phone call, Duke heard the desk clerk answer, “Phoenix Park Hotel.”

“Please connect me with Arthur Simmons’ room.”

After a few seconds lapse, Duke was ready to hang up when the desk clerk responded, “I’m connecting you right now.”

The phone rang only once. “Simmons here.”

“I don’t know if you remember me, Colonel, this is Duke Tatum.”

“Damn right I remember you, you’re the Marine that went with me to North Vietnam. How the hell are you doing?” Colonel Simmons boomed out.

“I think I’m going crazy. I’m here in Washington for the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial.”

“I was there,” Colonel Simmons said.

“I know.”

“Did you see me?”

“No.”

“What’s the problem, Marine?”

“It’s kind of difficult to explain over the phone. Is there a chance we could meet?”

“Affirmative. Name the time and place.”

“I can meet you in the lobby of your hotel,” Duke said.

“Thirty mikes, roger that,” Colonel Simmons answered. “If you didn’t see me at the ceremony, how did you know where I was staying?”

“I wish I knew. I barely remember which number I dialed.”

Thirty minutes later, Duke met retired Colonel Simmons in the lobby of the hotel. They exchanged a couple of short pleasantries before Simmons finally said, “I can see something is on your mind.”

“This is going to sound crazy,” Duke said.

“If anybody is an expert on crazy, it’s me.”

“I touched some names on the wall and I saw in my mind that they weren’t dead. They’re still in North Vietnam being held in a prisoner camp.”

Simmons rubbed his chin as he contemplated what Duke just told him. “Did they tell you anything?”

“Come get us.”

“That makes sense. Why would they contact you if they didn’t want something?”

“You messin’ with my head?” Duke asked.

Ignoring the question, Simmons asked one of his own. “Do you think you could find the place where they are?”

“I’d definitely recognized the place if I saw it again.”

“I still have some friends in Special Ops. I’ll see if they can lend me some photos. I’ll meet you in Hawaii as soon as I have something.”

“How did you know I was in Hawaii?”

“I run a background check on everybody I go on a mission with.”

*  *  *

After returning to Hawaii, the visions became more vivid and even if his mind couldn’t totally accept what was happening to him, his heart and soul could. When Simmons arrived at Kaneohe Air Station two weeks later, Duke knew it was part of a larger destiny. Simmons pulled out a stack of aerial photographs and spread them out on the table at Duke’s apartment. The former Marine immediately knew which one to pick out.

“They’re here.”

Simmons flipped the photo over where “Dogpatch” was written. “Good enough.”

Duke asked the inevitable question. “Are we going to tell the government?”

“The war is over. Getting permission to go into North Vietnam now could take months, years, if at all. If we’re going to do this, it has to be on our own.”

“Are you really willing take this kind of risk based strictly on my hallucinations?”

“Not strictly on yours alone. I’ve been getting them too.”

“The wall must be more powerful than we thought.”

Special Operators from all over the country began arriving in Hawaii over the next ten days. Duke took a leave of absence from work and when everybody was there, they flew to Bangkok, Thailand.

After pulling out of South Vietnam in 1975, Air America kept a company presence in Thailand and continued working with CIA operatives. Most of the men were familiar with former Colonel Bull Simmons and his reputation. The failed POW rescue attempt still bothered them and they were looking forward to doing it right this time.

In many ways this mission went more smoothly than the previous one because there was no bureaucracy to deal with this time. There was no shortage of weapons left over from the war and the 26 men were even more heavily armed than the last time they were in enemy territory.

The team took off from Thailand in two Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina seaplanes and landed off the North Vietnam shoreline at 0100 hours. Getting into motorized watercraft, they made their way to land. Duke took point and as he walked inland, he began to recognize the environment from his visions. The camp was loosely guarded because the North Vietnamese had no fear of attack. Several special operatives silently took out the guards with knives while Duke, Simmons, and the others entered through the gate.

The prisoners were sleeping in a thatched hut instead of their cells since there was nowhere to run after the American withdrawal. Nine American servicemen were rescued, with the insertion part of the mission taking less than 17 minutes to complete. The seaplanes were airborne and on their way back to Thailand before sunrise.

Back in Hawaii, the team and hostages disappeared into their civilian lives, never to speak about this unauthorized mission. That didn’t mean Duke and the other men would not be forever bound by their love of country and loyalty to each other.

Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simmons extended his hand as he prepared to board his flight back to the mainland. “Until we meet again.”

“I’ll look forward to it, Colonel.” Duke snapped to attention and responded with a crisp salute.

To most people it was just a black granite war memorial. But to those who served and lost comrades, it would always be an unbroken spiritual connection between survivors and those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Much, much more than just Names On The Wall.


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press

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