In the spring of 1986, a young woman in Saigon was given a letter from her father. The letter explained that he had enlisted in the army and would be gone for two years. She began to read the letter with trepidation, but then she found something extraordinary.
In the book Letters from Vietnam: A Daughter’s Discovery, author Kim Phuc writes about her life during the Vietnam War. Read more in detail here: when was vietnam.
She was dressed in a light skirt and leaned in close to the officer as she negotiated her way out of a speeding penalty. All of my father’s friends enjoyed conversing with her. Her pals were all delighted to join her in her laughter. With her raspy Marilyn Monroe-like voice, she could command a swarm of people. Some unknown guy requested to picture her in a bikini one night at supper, she said. I’ve never had the courage to flirt with guys as she does.
He was constantly working on something that needed to be repaired, wearing a button-down shirt with a pocket full of pencils. He didn’t seem to notice anybody else in the room. “I simply felt ill to my stomach and stumbled bringing out the garbage,” he said after having a heart attack. There’s nothing to be concerned about.” He didn’t whine or concentrate on his discomfort. That was his way of life.
When I was cleaning up my parents’ Florida retirement home, I discovered letters from my father, John C. “Johnnie,” Jacobi, to my mother, Veronica Ann “Ronnie” Jacobi, on Long Island, concealed in a pink box. They tied the knot in 1963. My father served in the 66th Engineering Company as a specialist 5. He joined in 1966 because he wanted to assist the people of South Vietnam and believed in serving his nation.
In Vietnam, Johnnie
8:20 p.m., January 17, 1968
“Well, here I am in a little artillery position approximately 20 miles from Saigon, safe and well. We have so much work to do that we’ve enlisted the assistance of four guys from the 569th. One of them is with me. We’ve come to shed a light on a different station. The watch tower is approximately an eighth of a mile from the campsite, but we were told not to remain out after dark, so we don’t. We turn on the light about 5:30 p.m. and keep it on throughout the night. We’ve been here for two nights, but it was only last night that any work was completed. We still have one or two more tasks to do.
“The bunker we’re sleeping in is so thoroughly sandbagged that I don’t hear the guns going off very often at night, despite the fact that they’re just a few feet away. If I can sleep through the fire, I believe that’s very excellent. The bunker we sleep in is said to be so powerful that it can survive a direct assault, so I don’t worry and simply go about my business.
“My parents gave me a present for my birthday. My father had written a letter, which astonished me. Maybe I’ll have a chance to write them today or tomorrow. I don’t have much more to say at this time, so I’ll sign off for now and post again soon. Don’t be concerned about me since we are very cautious and don’t take any risks. Remember, I adore you and am looking forward to seeing you again in April. Take care of yourself and don’t overthink things.
For the time being, Johnnie, I bid you farewell.
My father, a 26-year-old man, was writing to his love, a 24-year-old woman. I never once heard him remark to my mother, “I love you very much.” He never said it to me throughout our 46 years together on this planet. But I’ve never experienced love that was that unconditional and unshakable.
My father had always printed with an almost obsessive level of neatness. His battle letters, on the other hand, were written in a frantic, cross-out-filled handwriting. They may be difficult to read at times.
When I was younger, I remember a lovely day when we were driving home after a family excursion and getting out of the vehicle. The sound of a low-flying helicopter reached me. It was buzzing so close to our driveway that we couldn’t see it. My calm, silent father sprang out of the driver’s seat and attacked me from behind. I heard him scream, “Get down!” as we tumbled to the ground, his body covering mine.
We watched nearly all of the military movies, and dad told me tales about constructing watchtowers in Vietnam. I heard about the dangerous game of Russian roulette from “The Deer Hunter” when I was a child. When I was a youngster, we watched “Full Metal Jacket” many times because dad wanted to explain something; he constantly reminded me that we should never forget the sacrifices made by soldiers in battle.
My mother educated me about the human condition, life, and relationships. She had wickedly keen views on people. She was a nurse who had a front-row view to the agony. “If the military wanted your father to have a wife, they would have issued him one,” my mother used to remark when my parents spoke about Vietnam. With the Army, she understood precisely where she stood. She contemplated working as a nurse in Vietnam to be near her father, but she valued her independence too much. My mother was a voracious reader who loved to learn about people and history. She was fascinated by biographies and was always sharing obscure information about people or historical events.
7:00 p.m., January 20, 1968
“I’m back at base camp, safe and sound. According to my sources, I’ll be staying at base camp for a while to catch up on back work. I don’t mind remaining at base camp as long as I get a day off every now and again. I found out today that the business is taking Sunday afternoons off in lieu of that day, so it shouldn’t be too terrible.
“I’ll try to tell you a little bit more about the work, since it was a little like being on the front lines, if there are such things here. We had to beam a light to another station at night (a guy from the 569th and myself). We were told not to go out to the tower after 6:00 p.m. by the tiny artillery battalion with whom we were living. So we went out at 5:00 p.m. to switch on the light, give the signal, and return in the morning, and we basically hung around the rest of the day. The camp was about the same size as your father’s Long Island property. It was barbed wired separately from the rest of a bigger Vietnamese campsite. We didn’t have somewhere to hide since it was so tiny, so we spent most of our time around the vehicle.
“….. I wasn’t too concerned since the bunker we were sleeping in would be unaffected by a direct strike. They would fire an average of 100-105 mm bullets each night from the bunker, and even more when assistance was required. I never heard one of them go off after I went to sleep, although the cannons were 20-50 feet away from the bunker. Another section of the campsite was struck the second night we were there, and the infantry was hit by mortar fire two nights ago. I didn’t find out about it until the following morning, when everything was over.”
My father was constantly downplaying the seriousness of the issue, always seeing the bright side. However, when my mother died in December 2012, I worried that my father might succumb to a shattered heart as well. He suffered a heart attack a few weeks after she died, but he made it through.
V. N., November 25, 1968
“Dear Jacobi, I am writing to express my heartfelt condolences
“How are you doing? Jacobi, I’m writing a letter for today – are you pleased now? I apologize for not writing a letter in a long time since I have been swamped with work.
“Now you live like you did before, and do you have children – can’t I be happy too?” Are you pleased now, Jacobi, since you won’t have to return to Vietnam? “I’m sorry, but I’m unable to write.” I wish you and your family happiness.
“Zhink thi Zhank,” “Sister little housegirl,” “Zhink thi Zhank,” “Zhink thi Zhank,” “Zhink thi Zhank,” “Z
A black-and-white picture of a lovely adolescent girl was sent with the message, along with her name—Zhink—written in strong black ink at the bottom. She was recruited to clean the barracks as one of the Vietnamese house maids. My heart sank as I worried what had happened to her. How terrible it must have been for her to know that my father was at peace, secure with his love and in his homeland, while she was stuck in a war-torn nation surrounded by death and devastation.
As I read the letters, I was reminded of the films my father and I had seen together, mainly about male friendships during the war and battle fatalities. My father instructed me, “When I die, bury me alongside the boys.” I buried him in Sarasota National Cemetery after he died in April 2018. Those were his brothers. I had some understanding of how and why I wasn’t meant to forget. Yet, as Zhink’s letter trembled in my palm, none of those movies could have prepared me for the reality I was about to confront.
I just went to the art gallery in my little town and found an exhibit of current photos depicting the scenery and people of Vietnam. Recollections of my father’s experiences surged through my veins as I looked intently into the eyes of the individuals in the pictures. I saw things through his eyes to some extent. I mean, how could I not? I’ll never forget what he said. V
Tara Jacobi is a lawyer, writer, and editor on California’s Central Coast.
This story first published in Vietnam magazine’s June 2023 edition. Subscribe to Vietnam magazine and follow us on Facebook for more stories:
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