Through Memoirs From Nam, I have now met several people who knew and served with my husband, Doug, ("Doc"), in Vietnam. I have come to understand just how difficult it is for many veterans to talk to the survivors of the brothers they lost.
From a widow’s perspective, what their reaching out does is create a healing bridge between the survivor who loved them and the veteran who called them brother. It helps to answer many of the questions we can’t help but hold onto for decades. I will be forever grateful to these men for the courage it took to reach out.
Three years ago I received a letter from Lt. James McCraney, who was Doug’s best friend in Vietnam. On the day Doug was killed, James was also a part of the same mission.
With his permission, I posted that letter here on the blog, where it touched the hearts of everyone who read it. (Blog Post: Memoir of Douglas S. Kempf, 8-2-10) (Blog Post: Denise Kempf Snyder: Uncle Doug, 10-14-10) and (Blog Post: Untold Stories, 8-17-10).
Later, I also spoke with Lt. McCraney by phone. It was emotional, but it was good for both of us to talk about Doug, and I respected James and admired him for the courage it took to contact me and share his story. There were some things James couldn’t talk about, but it was an important beginning. He told me some day, maybe he would be able to tell me more.
Time passed. James and I kept in contact through occasional emails. Then one day a couple of years ago, I received another long letter from him. This letter was as difficult for me to read as I know it was for James to write.
From the day I received it, James’ letter has been ‘on hold’ in my desk -- and in my heart. The images touched me so deeply that, until now, I just wasn’t emotionally ready to share it. This is through no fault of Lt. McCraney. I extend to James my most profound and sincere thanks.
I am ready to tell you as much as I can remember about my short time with Doug. As I have mentioned to you before, I was a brand new 2nd Lt., not two months out of Officer Training. I was flown out to a remote firebase on the edge of a small, rice-growing, and very poor village. This firebase was so small that I can't remember the name of it.
As I made my way from the landing zone, (which was in the middle of a road), I saw a couple of guys walking toward me. One was the guy that I was to be replacing, and the other was Doc Kempf. Both had big smiles -- one was about to go home, and the other just seemed genuinely glad to meet me.
I went in and met the officers in charge of the artillery unit at this base. Doug hung around and after a while showed me my "hooch". It was mostly sandbags on top of a metal culvert and an air mattress. His was next door. I don't think that Doc ever met a stranger. Everyone knew and loved Doc. He was our friend and our Mama. He treated us for everything, listened to us, and he always seemed to know what to do. We hung out a lot whenever we both had some "free" time.
I was asking him about being in country and where all he had been He stated that the infantry had been south in the area called Pineapple -- this is the Mekong Delta. All were glad to get out of there, since it is wet and muddy most of the time. It was the rainy season when I hit Nam and it would rain until November or December.
Doug and I would sit in our hooches and fight the rain, play cards, but mostly we would talk. Since I was single, I didn't have family to talk about like he did. He always talked about you and about how he missed you, since you had only been married for such a short time. He showed me pictures, too, however, the only one that I can remember clearly now was a photo of his niece. He was so proud of all of you.
Doug and I didn't know when the next mission in the boonies would be. Bear in mind, this would be my first mission. He tried to prepare me as best he could, telling me what to take and all. Also trying to let me know what to expect even though you can't explain it. Remember, he was my Mama at this time. Even though I was an officer, I never looked at Doug as an enlisted man. We were just friends, that's all.
One day he asked me to go into the village with him to "doctor" some of the kids. They were dirty and had skin rashes on them. Doug would treat them and give them what "goodies" that we had. I was always fearful that someone would kill us down there, but he didn't seem to worry. He had a great big heart especially for the kids. I told him that he would make a great doctor someday.
The time came for my first mission. We were going out for about three days recon. Doug didn't seem to think that this would be much. He was right. They were uneventful, long days of scorching heat -- when it wasn't raining. Since I was an artillery officer, I walked in the formation in the middle with the Captain, his radio, and Doug, We were always together, or close.
Upon coming in from this mission, Doug worked on us as best he could. He called me a big baby since he cut a boil out of my back. I told him that he could at least give me a stick to bite on. He just laughed at me. He treated scratches, sore feet, or whatever else ailed us. We would laugh and talk and dream of home and loved ones during this downtime. Doug always liked to hear me talk, since I was from the deep South. I told him that he talked funny to me and he would even try to talk like me -- I couldn't get the Yankee out of him.
The next mission was in September. There was still a lot of rain and humidity. This mission was to be for two weeks. That is no fun. Again, Doug told me how to pack. For the life of me, I don't know how he always seemed to be in such a good mood. We had been out for one day and nothing happened.
The second day, around 11:00 am, we were ambushed. The forward units were hit the hardest. Doug and I were in the middle of the unit and "fairly" safe at that point. They radioed back to the Captain that we had hurt and dead. This had gone on for about 30 minutes. Doug was listening to the Captain's transmissions. He started to go and someone pulled him back. He would look at me and me at him. He knew what he had to do. Momentarily, someone hollered "Medic". He didn't balk this time. Grabbing all of his gear, he raced up to the front.
We thought they were gone. That was not the case. They had left a couple of guys behind just to wreak havoc on us. As Doug got close, one of them opened up on him and Doug never knew what hit him. I hate to be so graphic, but that is how it was. He did not suffer. After everything was really over, it was time to gather everything up. We called in medivac choppers and had to cut down trees in order for them to hover and receive the hurt and dead.
As I got to the front and saw the ponchos on the ground, I asked who they were. Someone turned to me and pointed and said, "That's Doc Kempf". I can't describe to you -- and I mean that -- how I felt. All I could think of was, no, no, no! I uncovered him to make sure. He looked peaceful, if that is possible.
As the chopper hovered and the grass was blowing from the rotors, I helped strap Doug into a "chair-like" device to pull him up into the chopper. The last visual I have of him is seeing him going up and going round and round with his arms outstretched. I can't get that out of my head -- and I don't really want to.
That was the end of a too short, but fulfilling, friendship. I have shed many tears over Doug throughout these years. His death has touched me like very few have. I know that all of you feel so much more for him than I could ever feel, but I was fortunate to have been exposed to him.
I never knew anything more after we came back in from this mission. We had a medic replacement, but no one could take Doug's place. He was discussed many times after that.