Last summer, though, I came across a picture of Derri Sykes on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund page and it provoked a profound and lasting change in my thoughts and emotions about Vietnam. I was initially struck by the quality of inherent dignity apparent in his photo. A little investigation led me to accounts of the action in which he was taken prisoner. Those descriptions of the engagement in "Happy Valley" in early January 1968 left me disturbed.
Admittedly, I was in Army Aviation during my year in Vietnam, spending my days in an air conditioned air traffic control tower. But, after that tour, I did serve in a National Guard infantry unit where I picked up a passable knowledge of the theory of small unit engagement. I found it hard to believe what I read about the battle that destroyed Sykes unit.
Did the 196th Light Infantry Brigade really send two companies of infantry across an open rice patty, unsupported by air or artillery, resulting in both being virtually annihilated from a barely concealed enemy fortification? Evidently it did. In the end, two companies of the 3rd Battalion were sacrificed in a futile attempt to recover bodies and survivors from a previous massacre that wiped out a sister company. This seemed more like Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," except that many of the soldiers loudly objected to being sent across open ground within sight of the bodies of the prior day's casualties.
Derri Sykes was seriously wounded and taken prisoner; he died of his wounds within a day of his capture. During his last hours he asked fellow prisoner James Daly (author of Black Prisoner of War: A Conscientious Objector's Vietnam Memoir, reviewed here. ) to carry a message to a wife in California. He was taken away by guards before he could make that message clear. Daly was later informed he had died.
Trying to make sense of this upsetting story, I did what writers usually do: I read. Two books that helped me in my reevaluation of the Vietnam war were: Westmorland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, by Lewis Sorley, and, My Detachment: A Memior by Tracy Kidder. Westmorland, a singularly colorless figure, developed the idea that North Vietnam was bound to lose a war of attrition because it couldn't replace men and material as fast as we could destroy them. That it could and did was a fact denied by him for years, with disastrous consequences. The result at the unit level was a ruthless pursuit of "body count" of enemy dead, which lead some unit commanders to show a mindless aggressiveness in pursuit of an elusive foe.
Except sometimes they were not so elusive. Sometimes they set the traps and American companies walked into them. In this case again and again. It was Derri Sykes bad luck to be lead into such a trap.
Today is the 47th anniversary of his capture and death. Had he lived he'd now be the same age as me. Life is inherently a matter of luck. War emphasizes this with a starkness that's sometimes hard to bear. Born within a few months of each other, he was black and I white. We were both draftees. I had good luck in Vietnam. Derri Sykes had bad luck. I'm now 67, he will forever be 21.