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All That He Left Behind
June 10, 2014 7:09 AM   Subscribe

In 1965, Army Pfc. Pierre Mathieu Van Wissem left two boxes of personal belongings with his Okinawan landlord, Seikichi Tamanaha. “I decided to keep them for him because I know how much they meant to him,” [Tamanaha] said. “All these years, I had some hope that he would come back one of these days to pick them up.” The soldier never returned. But nearly 50 years after the landlord promised he'd keep the boxes safe, he reached out across the world to return them to Van Wissem’s children. From Stars and Stripes: Returned photos reveal a father never known, 50-year-old promise kept.
posted by MonkeyToes (12 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Feel-good story until I read this in regards to the contents of the box:

The piles of letters are mostly from young women from around the world as well as from Van Wissem’s family in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

...

“I want you to know that I will never forget you, especially when I look at my ring that you gave me,” wrote a woman from Montreal. “Give my regards to your buddies and say that you also have a girl waiting for you on the other side of the ocean,” wrote another from Sweden.


His landlord seemed sweet tho.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:33 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Feel-good story until I read this in regards to the contents of the box...

The whole story isn't particularly sympathetic to Van Wissem -- the only unqualified good thing anyone has to say about him is that he cleaned the room "meticulously" before he left. That's partially because he's dead and unable to defend himself, and it's partially because Stars and Stripes isn't really where you'll find a fond remembrance of a Vietnam-era deserter. The story is about Tamanaha.
posted by Etrigan at 7:42 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Stripes is run by civilians, so it might be a little more nuanced about Vietnam-era deserters than you'd think. It's emphatically not a propaganda arm for the U.S. military. They had some of the best coverage of the first Gulf War I have seen anywhere.

That said, I think it's a wistful look at another person whose life and the lives of those who loved him suffered from his experience in war.
posted by atchafalaya at 7:59 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


The whole story isn't particularly sympathetic to Van Wissem --

Great story. I don't think any human life examined over the decades, would be very sympathetic, really. It's part of the human condition. The guy was a deserter (but he seems to have drifted into military life in the first place) and a womanizer (who seems to have been remembered fondly by the women he left behind), but, knowing what little I do about the American denizens of Okinawa, his life is pretty much par for the course.

And the fact that Tamanaha watched over personal belongings over the years speaks volumes towards the strong bonds that can be made with Japanese folks. You make a friend in Japan, you have a friend for life, something sometimes incompatible with the restless, transient nature of Americans living over there.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:34 AM on June 10


I was in the 173'd Airborne when that unit deployed from Okinawa to Vietnam. We indeed were told that we'd be down there for 90 days TDY, then return to Okinawa. I don't know about Van Wissom, but I was still 18 years old when I arrived on Okinawa, by head filled with all the "Oriental mystique" that I'd picked up in my brief life. I blush nowadays at my naiveté. I thought I was the center of the universe, so, all that Fun, Travel and Adventure I experienced while in the Army was....well, quite an education.

In the early part of our deployment, in 1965, we found a unit called D-500, not all that far from Saigon, and pinned them down in an ox-bow on the Saigon River. They had prepared bunker assemblages, which we assaulted, were driven back to regroup, then assaulted again. This was where some Main Force commander had an epiphany, and realized that when we pulled our skirmish line back, artillery would arrive. So, on the fly, he developed the infamous "belt buckle" technique of taking his unit out of the impact area by charging when we stepped back. This made for a whole lot of bad news. We killed 400 of them in two days, and they killed nearly 100 troopers from the 1st battalion (Van Wissom's unit). Over the next few months, the 1st battalion continued to lead our ops...first in, last out. Sometime after Christmas, it was the 2nd Battalion's turn. Then 17th Cav, then 3rd bat. You get the idea.

I'm touch with one of the editors of a service magazine related to the Herd, and I'll see if I can discover which outfit in the 1st battalion he was in. That first year brought some hard times on the brigade.

Van Wissom likely was sent to Germany to recover from serious wounds. Otherwise he would have been sent to Walter Reed or Tripler (in Hawaii). Although the article doesn't deal with it, I suspect that Van Wissom had Screaming Meemies, Drenching Nitesweats, and Point Man Radar. I am amazed that he figured out how to hold it together.

As for his desertion, well, yeah. But he was there when it counted. Put a few miles on your combat boots before you make a decision about how that works. Many Americans didn't want to come back to America after their tour in Vietnam. This is sometimes a manifestation of raging PTSD. When your life revolves at the edge of hallucinations and psychosis, sometimes you win by simply making it through the night.

Oh, and by the way, I got letters from twenty or so women when I was overseas. This came from a little-known series of independent projects, largely by churches, to make sure American servicemen had somebody back home to write to. I know I was at once attached and detached from the young women who sent me long weekly letters, and an endless supply of home-made cookies.

I had a small house near Ginowan, the area near Van Wissom's place. I shared it with an air force guy whose name I don't remember, and met only a few times. The drill was: if boots are at the entry, knock before coming in.
posted by mule98J at 9:55 AM on June 10 [44 favorites]


mule98J: "Point Man Radar"

Please to explain this condition?
posted by chavenet at 11:29 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Few acts are worthy of higher praise than a soldier deciding that killing innocents is not for him.
posted by dhoe at 11:39 AM on June 10


"Point Man Radar"

Please to explain this condition?


The inability to turn off the heightened awareness and (essentially) paranoia that keep you alive when you're out on patrol. It's a common symptom of PTSD -- in veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, it commonly manifests as seeing hiding places for IEDs everywhere.
posted by Etrigan at 11:56 AM on June 10 [4 favorites]


Etrigan: ""Point Man Radar"

Please to explain this condition?


The inability to turn off the heightened awareness and (essentially) paranoia that keep you alive when you're out on patrol. It's a common symptom of PTSD -- in veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, it commonly manifests as seeing hiding places for IEDs everywhere.
"

Thanks! It was almost inferrable from the context, but I wanted to make sure.
posted by chavenet at 12:07 PM on June 10


mule98J, thanks for your memories. They are hard to read, but important to know.
posted by mumimor at 12:44 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Van Wissem sounds like the kind of person who wanted to leave a former life behind (arguably repeatedly). One wonders how he might have received these gifts had they reached him while still alive.
posted by dhartung at 1:36 PM on June 10


Thank you for your story, mule98J.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:06 PM on June 10


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