"Damn you Rolly, you succeeded in taking me back to Vinh Long and Advisory Team 68, after a more than 40 year absence. I thank you for honoring all who served, but especially patriots like Bob Olson and Walt Gutowski, Army guys... that I knew well. They were great men whose spirit and professionalism you captured well. I highly recommend the book..."
Mike Paluda, Michigan
COLONEL, USA, RET.
"Rolly Kidder has delivered a brilliant chronicle of the Vietnam conflict with which many may not be familiar. Forty years later, he revisits Vietnam and tracks down the families of three men who had been killed... Kidder's recounting of his visits with the families of the three servicemen is a poignant reminder of the continuing grief and pride extant amongst many and is a fitting memorial to the Army and Riverine heroes and an honor to those who mourn them."
Captain, M.B. Connolly, USN (retired)
COMMANDER, RIVER ASSAULT DIVISION 132
RIVER ASSAULT SQUADRON 13, 1969-70
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BACKTRACKING IN BROWN WATER
RETRACING LIFE ON MEKONG DELTA RIVER PATROLS
By Rolland E. Kidder
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2014 Rolland E. Kidder
All rights reserved.
The Chief's Family
I thought I was prepared to learn about what happened to Chief Tozer's family. I was wrong.
I had spoken with Janet Tozer Rasmussen on the phone and recognized her voice when she met me at the door of the café. Her sister, Donna, was inside waiting on tables and greeted us as we came in. On the wall, to the left of the door, was a framed photo of their father, Eldon W. Tozer; and below it, was a description of his military service with a special welcome to veterans who come to the restaurant. We sat down to talk. It was time for me to more fully explain my connection to their father.
"There were others who knew him better than I did," I said. "Your father was a Chief Petty Officer, and was revered by those who knew him. Because he was an enlisted man and had risen through the ranks, he had a special relationship with the boat crews, most of whom were younger and of lower rank. I would describe him as quiet, competent and effective. His job was the same as mine—a patrol officer on boats called PBR's (Patrol Boat River). In the Navy, making Chief, as a non-commissioned officer, was a badge of honor. I called him 'Chief'; the men did, too. To us, he was Chief Tozer. He had earned his stripes.
"We got to know each other by working together on patrols, especially in our operations along the Cambodian border where we would operate for several days at a time from a remote base camp on the Vinh Te Canal. There was a strong camaraderie. Back at our main supply base on the Mekong River, we lived a more typical Navy life with separate berthing and messing facilities for officers, chiefs, and enlisted men. But out on patrol, we were all together, dependent upon each other and close to each other. Rank meant very little in those circumstances."
It was in that setting that I had gotten to know and appreciate their father, Chief Eldon Tozer.
It wasn't long before the sisters began to talk about their own memories of their father. "I was nine and Donna was seven when he was killed," Janet explained, "and so I remember more than the younger kids. My brother, David, Donna's twin, was also seven and my sister, Gwen, was only four. I remember my Dad as a quiet person but one who could still draw a crowd. I still recall his love for fishing. When we lived in Massachusetts, he'd go fishing with my uncles or some friends, and I remember him coming back with lots of salmon. Those were good times!"
But our conversation soon turned to other memories which were not as good. Chief Tozer had gone home on emergency leave from Vietnam in September, 1969 because his wife had been killed in an automobile accident in San Diego. "The night that happened," Janet explained, "we were being taken care of by a baby sitter, and my Mom didn't come home. When my Mom was killed, I was told that they initially had difficulty identifying her body. The babysitter hadn't heard anything and didn't know what to do, so she called the police. The police came and took us to what must have been some kind of a juvenile detention facility. I was scared to death. I didn't know why we were there. Everybody kept asking, 'Who's your Dad, who's your Dad?' I remember being in a little office and being all upset because my brother and sisters had been taken and put in a different part of the facility. Donna says that the only thing she remembers about the experience is being on the other side of a chain link fence from me, and we were crying as we held hands through the fence.
"We were there for at least three or four days," she continued, "and I didn't know much of anything until my Dad came walking in, in his uniform. He came in with my Uncle Bill and my Uncle Jerry. I'll never forget that moment. We just went running for him yelling, 'Dad, Dad!'
"I still didn't know that my mother had died. My Dad got us out of that place and took us back home where other family members were gathered. My Aunt Ruth and Aunt Frances were there, along with Uncle Bill and Uncle Jerry, but my Mom wasn't there, and that is when they told us. They tried to make us feel better so they took us to the zoo, but I was sick, running a high temperature, so we soon had to go home. I remember that night, my Dad carrying me to my room and saying that Mom had gone to heaven. That's what he told me. He also told me that we would be going to live with Uncle Bill and our four cousins in Oklahoma, and that we would stay there for a while because he was going back to the boat. 'Janet, honey,' he said, 'I will come home and we will find a place to live.' I remember this clearly and I was only nine years old."
I tried to absorb the memories. Nine years old. She paused, then continued.
"He came back with us to Oklahoma and my last memory of him, after he said 'goodbye' to us for the final time, was his getting on a plane in his dress uniform. After my Dad left, we kept waiting for him to return. It seemed like forever. We began to get ready for Thanksgiving, and Christmas was ahead, and after that we knew he would be coming home."
Chief Tozer never did come home. I felt the weight of her words as she recalled the loss; just months after her mother had died.
"The day they told me he had died, I was in complete denial. I don't know how I stayed together or how the family kept me together. Uncle Bill came to our school and took the three of us who were there out of class in order to tell us. He had tears in his eyes when he picked us up at school. His own kids were not in the car, so I thought that maybe we had been taken out of school because we had done something wrong. He didn't speak on the way home. When we got home the relatives were there again, just like when Mom had died, and you'd think I could have put two and two together and have figured out that it was bad news again ... but I didn't. Then Uncle Bill took me for the walk. He held my hand, then picked me up and said, 'Janet I have something to tell you.' Then he told me my Dad had died. I don't remember anything about what happened that day after that."
When Janet finished this story, I felt numb. All of my own experiences in Vietnam, all of the books I have read about it, all of the controversy of the war, all seemed to pale before the story of this family. Their mother had been killed in September 1969; and their father was killed in Vietnam two months later. A father went off to war, came back for his wife's funeral, left his children with relatives to return to Vietnam only to be killed himself. Could there be anything more sad? Four children were now on their own with both parents gone.
It didn't end there for these four kids. Within a year, Janet's Uncle Bill took her on another walk, this time to tell her that he and his wife were divorcing. He told Janet that he just couldn't afford to raise eight children, his own four and the four Tozer siblings. In this situation, his only option was to send his brother-in-law's children to an orphanage in Oklahoma. Though they were not separated this time, it was another bad experience for Chief Tozer's kids, and they longed to leave. After about a year in the orphanage, their mother's sister, Aunt Bea, came and took them to her home in the Grand Rapids area of Michigan where they were able to make a new start. Bea and her husband, Frank, a World War II veteran, had already raised their own family; they now took on the task of raising three nieces and a nephew. "They were wonderful to us," Janet said, "and we soon were calling them 'Mom' and 'Dad'. They are both gone now, but we had a good upbringing once we got to Michigan and started living with them."
* * *
When Americans think of war, we usually think of precise dates of when war begins and ends. The Revolutionary War for us starts at Lexington and Concord and ends at Yorktown. The bombardment of Fort Sumter we see as the beginning of the Civil War and Appomattox as its end. In the twentieth century, Pearl Harbor marked for us the beginning of World War II and VE Day (Victory in Europe) and VJ Day (Victory over Japan) marked its end. Such precision was not the case with the Vietnam War. It was a war that we sort of slid into over time and then slowly extricated ourselves from as public support of the effort slipped away. An incident in the Bay of Tonkin prompted President Lyndon Johnson to ramp up the war in 1964, but actually the number of American military and civilian personnel in Vietnam had been growing steadily since at least 1962. According to the Paris Peace Accords, the war officially ended on January 27, 1973. Yet, as chronicled on the Vietnam Wall, the war is given a starting point of June 8, 1956 as the date of its first casualty; the last American name engraved on the Wall died May 15, 1975. For most of us affected by the Vietnam War, it started and ended with our own involvement. The war, for me, really started when I went in-country (as we called it then) in July 1969, and it ended when I came home in June 1970. For Thu Trung Van, who would go back to Vietnam with me more than 40 years later, the war started when he joined the Vietnamese Navy in April 1964. It ended when he fled the country with his family on April 29, 1975, the day that the Communist north took control in South Vietnam.
For Donna and Janet Tozer and their brother and sister, the war started the day that their Father went to Vietnam; it ended when his body came back. But as I conversed with these two women, it was apparent that, in their lives, the impact of that war had never really ended. Soon into our meeting at Eldon's Café, it was clear that their world as young children was forever transformed by this war. As Janet and I talked over lunch, Donna supervised the kitchen and helped wait on tables. It was a busy day; many people came in for some hot soup and a sandwich. As lunch hour faded into mid-afternoon, business slowed down and Donna was able to join in the conversation. She wanted to know more about her Dad, what he was doing in Vietnam, and what his job was like being a Patrol Officer in the Mekong Delta.
I had my computer with me and plugged it in to show them some slides. Some were from our Navy days in 1969 and others from my recent trip back to Vietnam. They seemed to appreciate the description of events back then and what it is like today. Periodically, they asked questions about what his duties were; they were particularly interested in our operations along the Cambodian border on the Vinh Te Canal where their father was killed. It was a time of reflection for them and for me. I felt good about having come to this small town in rural Michigan to meet two of Chief Tozer's children. As we finished our conversation, we talked about the Tozer side of the family. I explained that it was through a conversation with their father's sister (their aunt), Frances Tozer Gregoire, who lives in New Brunswick, Canada that I had found out about their being raised near Grand Rapids. Frances did not have their addresses or phone numbers, but it was my phone call with her that started my search for them. Through one of the "people search" programs available on the Internet I had found the name Janet (Tozer) Rasmussen.
It had been a long time since either Janet or Donna had seen or spoken with the Tozers of New Brunswick and Quebec, but they both expressed interest in reopening communications and wrote down their Aunt Frances' phone number. As I got ready to leave, I mentioned that it was still on my list to try and visit their Aunt Frances and to visit their father's grave. "We would like to do that as well," Janet said. "When my husband retires next year, we'll have a little more time and money to travel. I hope that we can get up there to see them. Please, if you talk to Aunt Frances, say hello from us and give her our best."
We embraced each other and had our picture taken outside on the sidewalk in front of Eldon's Café. It had been an intense two-hours. There was so much to talk about, so much pent-up emotion and so many heart-rending remembrances of times long past. It was difficult to end our conversation and to say goodbye, but it was time to go.
Janet and Donna came to wave to me as I got into the car to continue my trip.
As I left town, reversed track and crossed the Grand River Valley heading south, I felt a renewed commitment in my gut that I should stop and pay my respects to Eldon Tozer's family in Canada. There were also the families of two other men I knew who didn't make it home: Bob Olson, an Army Captain, and Jim Rost, a Navy LTJG. I felt a renewed and gnawing obligation, now forty years old, that I should try to reach out to their families as well. My visit back to Vietnam had been fulfilling, but this meeting at Eldon's Café was cathartic. I sensed, also, that it was appreciated and meaningful for Chief Tozer's two daughters. There can probably never be total closure for those who have lost loved ones on the battlefield, but the recognition of old friendships, the reliving of memories, the recollection of the vitality and strength of those who died—can have its own healing power.
Eldon Tozer, Jim Rost and Bob Olson, I am sure, did not share all of my views on the war, nor did we have all of the same tasks. However, we operated on the same rivers, we saw the same country, and we shared a common experience. Maybe knowing more about these experiences will give their families and mine an understanding of what we were doing and help them make sense of what Vietnam was all about.
I had closed the loop with at least part of Chief Tozer's family. Thinking of Eldon, Bob and Jim—I knew there was more to be done. First, I would go to Canada in search of more answers. It wasn't a great war, but it was our war, and what happened there should not be forgotten.CHAPTER 2
When I walked into Frances Tozer's apartment in Campbellton, New Brunswick, I sensed an immediate recognition—though we had never met before. We had spoken on the phone so maybe it was just voice familiarity, but I felt that somehow we knew each other, like two friends who hadn't seen each other for a long time. Her mannerisms reminded me of Eldon and I could see glimpses of him in her face.
We didn't take time for introductions but began talking of him, her memories of him, and what it had been like growing up in the Tozer family in nearby Quebec. She is now Frances Tozer Gregoire but her husband is no longer living. Her only son, Eldon, died two years ago in a tragic accident while driving a four-wheel-drive ATV on a trip with friends in the Quebec woods, and her brother, Winston, died unexpectedly within the last six months. She was obviously lonely and felt the sadness of these recent events, but she was also still affected by vivid memories of the tragic death of her brother, Eldon, more than forty years ago.
"I have had a lot of sadness in my life," she said.
I mentioned to her that back in my Vietnam days with Eldon, I was unaware that he was a Canadian. He had no Canadian expressions that I can remember, such as pronouncing "schedule" with an "sh" sound, or making the word "out" sound like "aut".
I knew him as an American and it was a surprise to me when I found out that he had been buried in Quebec as a Canadian citizen.
"It was a surprise to us, as well, when he joined the U.S. Navy," Frances explained. "My father had wanted him to come back and become part of the small saw mill business that he owned. Eldon had moved to Massachusetts to find work, and was living there with my sister Mona when he decided to join the Navy. He told us that he had been advised by the immigration service that if he did not submit himself to the U.S. military draft, he would be sent back to Canada. He decided, instead, to join the U.S. Navy so he could stay in America. We have a history in the Tozer family of our ancestors being seafarers, so he must have chosen the Navy over being drafted into the Army."
Though we haven't had a military draft in the United States since 1973, the Selective Service System still requires that: "If you are a man ages 18 through 25 and living in the U.S., then you must register with Selective Service." Frances' remarks were a reminder of what it was like being a male over the age of 18 and living in the United States from the World War II era through the end of the Vietnam War when that policy was in force. We were all subject to the draft and required to register with the local Draft Board. I had forgotten that foreign nationals permanently working in the United States were also subject to the draft. That is what had apparently prompted Eldon Tozer, in 1958, to join the U.S. Navy. Interestingly, it had also prompted me to do the same. In 1966, after graduating from seminary, I lost my student deferment and expected that soon I would be hearing from the local Draft Board. Rather than join the Army or be drafted, I chose the Navy. We had joined the Navy at different times but probably for similar reasons.
Excerpted from BACKTRACKING IN BROWN WATER by Rolland E. Kidder. Copyright © 2014 Rolland E. Kidder. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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Table of Contents
Road Trips, ix,
1. The Chief's Family, 1,
2. A Sister, 12,
3. Training, 22,
4. Going and Coming, 31,
5. On Patrol, 38,
6. The Vietnamese, 53,
7. Happenings, 69,
8. Warrior, 80,
9. Border Interdiction, 98,
10. Camping Out, 115,
11. Engineer, 131,
12. Jimmy, 152,
13. R & R, 168,
14. Transition, 180,
15. Endgame, 198,
16. Vietnam Today, 209,
17. Flashback: The Chief, 243,
18. Requiem, 251,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a well written personal account of a naval officer who served in Vietnam with three men who were killed in action. The families of the men and the author himself were changed forever because of the war. You can feel the author's pain and pride as he tells his story.