Mary O'Grady pulls out an old wooden box filled with letters, and the memories start to flow. A few tears flow also as she recalls the stories in those letters from two childhood friends who went to Vietnam in the late 1960s.
Andre Devigne, a Marine, and George Holiat, who served in the Army, fought in the war in 1966 and 1967. “Even after all these years, Andre and George have a story to tell,” she said. “I've kept those memories in a box for 52 years.
She says there must be a reason she kept the box. “I want their story told because of what the war did to them,” she said.
Seven of her friends went to Vietnam; three were killed in action and another died from a heroin overdose soon after returning home. They were all in their late teens when they went to war.
Mary talks about what the letters reveal about their time in Vietnam, but it's also the story of Mary's life – what was and what could have been. Living in the Bronx, N.Y., she was still in high school, just 16 years old in Catholic school when she first received the letters.
Mary and her friends were known as the Devoe Gang because they hung out at a neighborhood park with that name. Little did they know as they entered their teen years that a war in a country most had never heard of would change their lives forever. It was the 1960s, one of the most turbulent decades in recent American history.
She pulls out an old photo album filled with photos of the gang. “This was our life,” she says. “It's high school graduations and weddings.”
Then she looks at Polaroid photos sent to her from Vietnam. “Nobody came back the same,” she said.
George, who was wounded and sent home early, describes in vivid detail his thoughts about the war. He said he volunteered for the most dangerous missions taking the place of men who had wives, families and girlfriends back home.
Andre wrote that he thought he was losing his mind. “The pain is too much. I'm going crazy over here,” he wrote, adding writing letters to Mary helped him find solace.
“Some of what I read was hard for a 17-year-old girl from Catholic school to understand,” she said.
Some letters have been destroyed
She actually received letters from three friends, but one set has been destroyed – those from her childhood sweetheart she had planned to marry when he returned from Vietnam, a friend she loved with all her heart.
But Bernhardt Schroeder, known as Bunny, was not the same man when he came back from Vietnam, she said.
“We had the rings, the invitations and my gown,” she said. “But he had changed. I told him that he had so much to work through. And I'll never forget what he said to me. He told me that he was very lucky to have me because I loved him enough to let him go,” she said.
She says that day in his apartment is one she'll never forget. She even remembers the song that was playing in the background, the Moody Blues' “Nights in White Satin.”
They have remained friends for the past 50 years, and they still exchange phone calls from time to time. “His life turned out very well,” she said. “He turned his life around. We have no regrets.”
“I burned his letters because they were love letters that no one else needed to see,” she said.
Before Bunny left for Vietnam, he was stationed in Washington, D.C., and visited Mary as much as possible. Mary said she was disappointed that he could not get back home for her prom. “I didn't buy a dress but he showed up anyway at the front door in his beautiful uniform. We went out by ourselves – it was the best prom party I ever had,” she said.
Life after the Vietnam War
Mary's life also turned out well. After marrying and having a son in New York, she divorced and moved to the Lewes area. “We needed a new start,” she said.
She had visited Lewes with a friend one weekend. “I hate to think where our lives would be now if not for that visit to Lewes. It has brought us all our happiness,” she said.
Mary, a retired registered nurse who also graduated from art school in New York, lives in a modest home in White House Beach in Long Neck with a great view of the Indian River Inlet bridge. She has a granddaughter, and son and daughter-in-law who both work for Cape Henlopen School District.
Mary said she has only seen Andre once since the 1960s. “He was visiting his mother in New York, and I happened to be there. I was shocked how he looked. His hair was really long, and he had been dropping a lot of acid,” she said.
“He told me I had a white-light aura around me. ‘It's the highest an aura can be. You are very close to God,’ he told me, Mary said. “After that I never saw him again.”
It's sad, Mary says, because he always had the dream of being a John Wayne-type, gung-ho Marine, even when he was young. “‘They lied to me. All they did was teach me to kill,’ he told me,” she said.
She's pretty sure he is living in San Francisco. “I called him once, and all he asked me was if I remembered the beauty contest in the park. He told me that I was always the prettiest girl, and he voted for me,” she said. “It's funny he would bring that up.”
Once she read George's last letter she never heard from him again. “All I know is that they sent him home early,” she said.
Mary is still sad that she lost contact with George because she looked to him for advice as a family friend.
Letters from a war front
From Andre's letters:
Andre's letters were short, but to the point. “Man, I wish I could cop out of this place,” he wrote in a June 27, 1967 letter.
In a May 20, 1967 letter, Andre thanked Mary for writing to him. “Your letters help me from going crazy,” he said. It was also one his darker letters. “In the Marines Corps they only teach you to kill and live life like an animal,” he wrote.
He also mentioned he was looking forward to his 19th birthday on May 27. In that same letter, he told Mary he was glad that his time of doing 10-mile patrols in the boondocks was over, and he was assigned to perimeter patrols.
In a June 9, 1967 letter, Andre talked about an attack on a company that was nearly wiped out with 20 dead and 25 wounded.
In a Sept. 11, 1967 letter, Andre wrote about a close call he had with a sniper when a bullet missed him by about one-quarter inch.
From George's letters:
George wrote several long letters during his tour. His letters describe his daily routine as well as offering advice to Mary, whom he considered his unofficial niece.
During his tour, he became extremely ill and was also wounded.
George's arrival in Vietnam was not a welcome one. In a convoy on Dec. 12, 1965, a grenade was thrown into the truck behind him killing six men, five who had arrived with him in Vietnam.
“I know that you have read that we are not losing many men in Vietnam, but we are. Oh, I don't mean fatalities, which are low, but look at the wounded. There are hundreds wounded every week and you have to spend at least 52 weeks here.
“I came here with 13 other guys. Out of the 14, only three are still in Vietnam. Five got killed just days after we left Saigon. The rest have left country because my letters to them come back stamped no longer in Vietnam. This means they either have malaria, which is very common, some other disease or else they are wounded.” March 3, 1966.
George ended up in Tam Ky assigned to teach Vietnamese soldiers how to fight the Viet Cong. “Once you are considered their friend, they will sacrifice their life so that you may be saved,” he wrote. It's there he met Tam who he befriended.
“There are very few Americans in Tam Ky. I'm close friends with four of them – either married or have girls they will marry or have close family ties.
“Any time that some mission comes up where there might be contact with the VC, I volunteer to go for them because I see the expression on their face and know that they are thinking about what will happen if I don't come back what will she do or what will they do without me.
“Since I don't have a girl – which I consider an asset while I am over here – and since I do not have close family ties, I feel that I should be given the more dangerous missions because I don't give a damn whether I return dead or alive. Because of this attitude, I believe I will survive my tour in Vietnam. I am more willing to take chances. I do not hesitate as much because I do not have to say to myself 'what will she do or they do without me.' I think I am ideal for this war.”
In a Feb. 13, 1966 letter, George holds nothing back. “The VC don't just kill. If they have the time, they will mutilate the body,” he said, adding he has seen people hanged and skinned.
Even as bad as that was, he said he has seen worse. He said he took photographs but threw them away.
He told Mary he wrote to his mother that he was a typist in a safe part of the country so she wouldn't worry.
In a March 3 letter, he pleaded with Mary to talk her boyfriend, Bunny, into enlisting in the Air Force or Navy. He did join the Air Force.
He also said he wanted to send a photo to the New York City newspapers of what the VC did to bodies, but he decided against it. “I see the signs of protesters declaring me inhumane and telling me not to come back to the USA,” he said.
“There were 243 men killed in Vietnam last week and two from New York City. They were the brave ones,” he wrote in a March 10, 1966 letter.
In a March 13, 1967 letter, George told Mary he had been wounded but he did not include details. He was also happy because his time in Vietnam was coming to a close. “Only 27 more days to go. With a little luck I might go home alive,” he wrote.
George's longest letter was sent in two parts in March 1966. He said he had seen almost all of South Vietnam and none of it impressed him.
He described in vivid detail a nighttime attack. “All hell broke lose. I have never heard so much noise in my life,” he said. “During this time, I was hugging the earth with my boy Tam with both of us firing in the general direction of the VC. We couldn't see a thing.”
In a July 1, 1966 letter George wrote about his trials and tribulations suffering from dysentery and his terrible experiences at the hospital. “All I wanted was to lay down and die in peace,” he said.
In an Aug. 29, 1966 letter, George detailed his R&R week with his friend Tam in Tokyo including an entire week spent with two ladies. “We forgot about the war,” he said.