A Lasting Legacy

January 29, 1995|By Tom Bowman

IN A CORNER OF THIS DUSTY VIETNAMESE cemetery a few miles south of the Cambodian border, a white marble memorial rises among a patchwork of low concrete graves.

A massive green urn squats at its center, carved with dragons and bristling with old joss sticks, the slender incense reserved for the dead.

Ninety-five North Vietnamese soldiers lie here, killed on March 8, 1969, as they attacked American troops in the middle of Tay Ninh province, about a half-hour to the south.

Army Cpl. Jim Kapucinski turned his M-79 grenade launcher on the enemy that steamy March night, and later joined other American soldiers as they tossed the bodies into a shallow, unmarked grave.

They remained in grim formation for a quarter century, long after Americans troops departed, the North Vietnamese rose to power and nature reclaimed the battlefield, replacing it with a tangle of brush and trees.

When the bodies were finally located last summer and reburied in the fall in this place of honor, it was the former enemy who made it possible.

Nearly a year ago Mr. Kapucinski provided Vietnamese veterans with a faded aerial photograph of the battle site, marked with an "X" and the notation: "approximate site of mass grave."

"I thought, 'They have families. I have three daughters, too,' " he said from his Ohio home. "If I did that [turned over the photo] some family members are going to know where their sons were, and mourn them in the proper way."

The 46-year-old Ohio barber is one of hundreds of Vietnam veterans who are putting their bitterness aside and helping a former enemy locate its war dead. Through the Veterans Initiative, started last year by the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Americans are returning helmets, ID cards, photos and canteens they took from North Vietnamese and Viet Cong casualties. Along with personal testimonies, personal photo and maps from U.S. veterans, the items are being offered to help the Vietnamese find 300,000 of their countrymen who are still missing.

At the same time, the Americans are hoping the cooperation will spur Vietnam to provide more information on the whereabouts of the 2,213 Americans unaccounted for.

"This might provide answers to those who are still missing," said Jim Brazee, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, a 45,000-member organization based in Washington, D.C. It is the first time in history, he says, that a veterans' organization is helping an old foe account for its losses.

So far, Mr. Kapucinski's photo is the only item that has helped locate casualties, although information from another veteran has spurred excavation at a site in neighboring Song Be province, where 600 Vietnamese are said to lie in a mass grave, killed during the siege of An Loc in 1972.

For their part, Vietnamese veterans last spring turned over an ID card from an American soldier, James Louis Asher, who was killed 25 years ago and is buried in the small farming community of Elmwood, Wis. VVA officials returned the card to his family in a summer ceremony attended by hundreds of townspeople, and marked by a rifle salute and taps.

The Veterans Initiative is given partial credit for Vietnam's improved record in helping locate American servicemen still unaccounted for. "We see the cooperation steadily increasing throughout the country. Some of that is because of what the Vietnam veterans have started to do," said Army Lt. Col. David Fredrikson, a spokesman for the Joint Task Force Full Accounting, the 2-year-old U.S. government effort to find soldiers unaccounted for during the Vietnam War. "That serves as sort of an icebreaker when the Vietnamese realize the American veterans are helping the Vietnamese."

In 1994, the Vietnamese government turned over about 60 remains, which the Army will try and identify at its Hawaii-based laboratory, said Colonel Fredrikson.

Mr. Brazee and a delegation of veterans will make their third trip to Hanoi on Feb. 8, carrying the faded souvenirs of war and the recollections of servicemen. They hope that this time, during their eight-day stay, their Vietnamese counterparts will provide specifics on missing American servicemen.

Among the veterans in the group will be Mr. Kapucinski, making his first trip to Vietnam since the fighting stopped. But he is nagged by doubt. It was only five years ago that he could talk of his combat experiences and not be plagued by nightmares. Do I really want to do this? he asks himself. Are the Vietnamese people going to hold a grudge against me? "It's going to be hard," he says.

BY THE SPRING OF 1969, the war had entered a brutal phase: American troop numbers rose to a peak of 543,000. President Nixon, just entering office, expanded the fighting into Laos and Cambodia and the North Vietnamese mounted a counteroffensive.

Corporal Kapucinski had a strange feeling the night of March 8, 1969. He was gearing up for guard duty at LZ Grant, an American military outpost near the somber silhouette of Black Virgin Mountain.

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