Painful Memories: Deceased Vietnam vet’s diary illustrates horrors of war

IT was only in the past few months that Raymond Thomas finally opened the boxes he had removed from his brother’s Garden City home in 2001. He had gone to the house shortly after John Thomas had died.

“I didn’t want anyone breaking in and stealing his stuff,” Raymond explained. He kept the boxes in his home on McKinley Avenue, suspecting that there would not be anything of value in them. In a way, he was very wrong in that assumption.

In one of the boxes he came across what looked to be a ledger book. Opening it he found handwritten entries, not numbers but the thoughts and memories of his brother, put on paper by someone who was both a survivor of the Vietnam War and one of its victims.

Raymond described the ledger book as his brother’s diary. He came to that conclusion after leafing through the pages. However, he did not read what his brother had painstakingly entered in printed lettering.

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“I didn’t want to,” he said in a conversation earlier this month. “I felt it would be like invading his privacy.”

Still he wanted someone to know about his brother, and the war that changed him forever. He passed it on to me.

John Thomas’ diary was probably not written in Vietnam. It is presented in two phases, one recounting his service in the Army during one of the most tumultuous phases of the war in 1966 and 1967, and a second covering his service in the Navy several years later.

No matter when the entries were made, they still contained the bitterness he had felt “in country” and the depression he was to cope with the rest of his life. There were no ringing refrains of patriotism, just a disheartened chronology of terror and revulsion about a war he and many of his comrades never understood.

He was wounded during his tour in the Army. His 2001 obituary in The Republic mentioned he had received three Purple Hearts. Raymond found the certificate for one of them in a box removed from the Garden City house.

According to his “diary,” he was drafted into the Army in September 1966. In a way he was a model for the oft-heard allegation that the draft unfairly targeted those who were poor and had little education. Raymond remembered that John was working at Golden Foundry when he got his draft notice at the age of 18. In one entry, John said of himself that he had only a ninth-grade education.

The education he received immediately after reporting for basic training was “learning to kill.” It went into intricate details, such as “never (to) shoot for a small part of the body … always the chest or back.” Sometimes in the heat of battle, that kind of lesson plan was impossible to maintain. He writes of firefights that were chaotic, the participants more focused on finding ways to shield themselves from incoming fire rather than looking for body part targets.

He also railed against superiors who he claimed sometimes put their men in needless danger. In many ways, he described two battles, one against the Viet Cong, the other against his superiors. He talked about the open use of drugs (he called it dope) in the ranks, writing that he never used them, relying instead on lots of beer to smooth the ragged edges of war.

Although Raymond has not read his brother’s diary, he knew the effect the war had on him.

“He sometimes talked about the things he saw,” Raymond recalled. “There was one incident in particular that seemed to always haunt him. He described standing on a river bank and watching bodies float past — little children, women. He could never forget that.”

John had difficulty adjusting to situations and circumstances throughout his life. Raymond recalls his hatred of his time in the Army, and what he had to endure in Vietnam, but also remembers that he had difficulty adjusting to civilian life, which resulted in his enlistment in the Navy.

Serving aboard an aircraft carrier, John once told his brother, provided a bit of a refuge. “He told me that he found a place on the carrier where he could squirrel himself away from everybody else.”

However, his diary also refers to inabilities to adjust to structured life. He wrote about a 60-day term in the brig (a shipboard description for a Navy jail) and repeatedly complained about the Navy’s failure to give him a promised re-enlistment bonus.

Following his honorable discharge from the Navy, John returned to southern Indiana, but again adjustment eluded him. Raymond believes that his drinking only got worse, but there was little he could do.

“I was always there for him,” Raymond said. “I’d take him wherever he wanted to go, but I just couldn’t seem to help him. It all began with that war, and he never really recovered from it.”

John Thomas was only 53 years old when he died May 7, 2001, at Columbus Regional Hospital. The diary his brother has never read is not pretty. It is a story about war and how it can damage or destroy some of those who survive it.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.