Those who remember on Memorial Day

Posted 5/28/24

My father-in-law didn’t die in Vietnam in 1968, but on Memorial Day weekend my thoughts always turn to him. 

He was very nearly a name on the stark black Vietnam Memorial wall. During …

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Those who remember on Memorial Day


My father-in-law didn’t die in Vietnam in 1968, but on Memorial Day weekend my thoughts always turn to him. 

He was very nearly a name on the stark black Vietnam Memorial wall. During the Tet Offensive his unit was caught in a barrage of mortar and machine gun fire from a North Vietnamese Army position near Da Nang after advancing into a rice paddy to go after the enemy. 

My father-in-law, Daniel Denke, was pinned down, and as fellow soldiers in his unit later recounted, he was hit by friendly fire as well when, covered in mud and unrecognizable, he tried to work his way back to the American position. 

Many years later, there were still some who knew him in the war who thought he had died in combat — many of his platoon were killed that day. Yet through the grace of God and fellow soldiers, he was taken out on a chopper and survived. 

In the years I knew him before he died, he was proud of his service to his country and proud of what he did after, of acquiring welding training and turning the working of metal into his career. He was haunted by the war, of those who didn’t make it and the experiences of nearly being killed. Those memories stayed with him, scars just as deep as those from rifle and mortar fire. 

I think of him and of a Powell woman whose husband passed away in 2022 who, in his final months, wrote about his own experiences in Vietnam and the horrors he experienced. 

Timothy G. Berry served 11 months in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta. Before he died at the end of another battle, this time with cancer, his wife Linda helped him write his memoirs, although he didn’t have time to write them all. As she writes in the introduction, “In typing up his memoirs, even after 29 years of marriage, I learned so much more about this gentle, patriotic and loving man. As did many who served in the conflict, he lost touch with his comrades, but not with his memories of them — these memories he shares are both touching and horrifying.”

So, in honor of those soldiers we’ve lost, and to those who lived the rest of their lives scarred by the experience, here’s an excerpt from Berry’s memoirs:

“For the past two years I have been debating whether to write of my 'year in the Nam.' To tell of the good, the ugly, the horrible. I never kept track on a calendar or in my head, the days as they passed. The exception was my last three weeks  ‘in country.' I don't know if anyone cares, but here goes:

"The war was roaring on and I had to do something or I would be drafted. I got lucky and was accepted into the Kansas National Guard, 69th Infantry Brigade.

"It reached a time that the armed services said it needed more troops than the draft could produce. As I remember, the Marines and Navy both opened the draft. There was an obituary in the Cody, Wyoming newspaper early in 2021 of a fellow I did not know who had been drafted into the Marines during that time. He is the only one I have ever heard of who was drafted into the Marines, made a tour of Vietnam and lived to tell about it.

"Members of the brigade had to alter their lives: buying life insurance, selling cars (two were not needed for lots of families), selling homes and moving in with Mom and Pop or in-laws, wills, postponing college. All of us in the Guard that were activated served about 13 months.”

Berry wrote of his experience in country, from firefights to the sad state of orphans who would mob soldiers at ferry crossings and other chokepoints, trying to beg or steal anything they could. 

Like him, my father-in-law had those tough memories, the ones that never leave you. It is those people who have seen war who have a unique understanding of what it means to honor, on Memorial Day, those who didn’t get the chance to carry their memories, the good, bad and ugly, back home with them.