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Two moving combat poems and a song

Posted by John Reed on

Two combat poems

A father of a member of the West Point Class of 2004 sent me the poem below.

It is astonishingly wise about the reality and feelings men have in combat.


By: Robbie Seidel
Grade 5

                                                                         Emmitsburg Elementary School

                                                                The sound of the chopper, the feel of the land

I left my home as a boy, but now I’m a man.
Forced to grow up in the killing and hate
We tallied our kill on an old wooden slate.
We march through the jungles in the heat and the rain
Keep up our morale it’s always the same.
They tell us “Gung Ho boys lets do it or die”
I wish I could just hold my head and cry.
I miss my home, my family and friends
But I must buck up now for my pain’s not at an end.
I volunteered myself for the old USA
Gave it all I’ve got to be proud one day.
I’m proud all right as I lay on this hill
Amongst the dead and the dying I am still.
I have no more worries nor grief nor pain
As I leave this world a proud U.S. Marine.
If I knew then what I now tell;
Would I have still come into this hell?
It’s not my problem. It’s not my concern.
They send me home in the big green bird,
Not until they send my family the word.
A letter that read,  “You should be proud!”
Oh, if I knew then what I know now.
Dedicated in memory of:
Marine PFC Charles R. Pittinger

                                                                            Killed in Action Nov. 17, 1969

Quang Nam, South Vietnam

                                                        And to all those who fought and died in the Vietnam War

There is more to the story of Robbie Seidel.

Dear Jack,

I stumbled across your website by chance. I find your articles to be a very interesting read. I want to thank you for your service. My oldest son graduated from West Point in the Class of 2004. Sadly, he was killed in action on May 18, 2006 by a roadside bomb during combat operations in Baghdad. His name was 1LT Robert A. Seidel, III. I wanted to share with you a poem that he had written in the 5th Grade at Emmitsburg Elementary School as a Memorial Day writing assignment. He was only ten years old when he wrote this poem.


Bob Seidel, Jr.

The one point that I felt in Vietnam that is not in either the Carentan or the Sound of the Chopper poem—Robbie Seidel would not have any way of knowing about it at age 10—is the ineptitude and careerism behind many combat deaths. For example, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15% to 30% of combat deaths are friendly fire, accidents, or deliberate friendly fire. Many, perhaps most, of the others stem from negligent national strategy and/or tactics, unneccessary risks, and so on.

Here is another poem that captures my feelings about the continuing sacrifice of American lives in the far too vaguely defined and muddled execution of the so-called “War on Terror.” It is by Dylan Thomas and is about his aged father dying. But with a couple of word changes, it applies equally to the young men and women who dutifully put themselves in harm’s way “for the country,” but who are, in my opinion, far too sanguine about the careerist politicians and brass superiors whom they are trusting with their lives. So much is given up when one of these young soldiers dies. So little has been gained in Iraq and Afghanistan and in my Vietnam. It’s not right.


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

One more pertinent quote from literature.

In the Bible, when Christ was being crucified, he said,

Forgive them father for they know not what they do.

When I see West Point cadets or young soldiers or marines, I am filled with sadness and foreboding and I think,

Protect them father for they know not what they have volunteered for.

God help me, I was only nineteen

My West Point roommate/ranger buddy/junior officer roommate/best man told me of a great Australian song about the Vietnam war. It was the number one song in Australia for 1983. It was never released in the U.S. because the record companies here demanded they do a U.S. version replacing Australian words and places with American ones. The Australian singing group Redgum refused.

I cannot reproduce the lyrics here because of copyright. But below is a link to a video of the song. The video is of Australian soldiers in Vietnam. But it pretty much looks exactly the same as American soldiers in Vietnam.

Several of my men in Vietnam were stationed with the Australian Army at Nui Dat, but I never visited them there. We promoted one of them to officer by battlefield commission. I recall they did not like all the curry powder the Australians put into the food. Other than that, no memories, mate.

I have asked my ranger buddy to provide a glossary of the Australian terms used in the song for Americans. He was stationed in Australia as an exchange officer for two years after we served in Vietnam.

The song is I was only 19 by Redgum. That link is a YouTube music video of it. I warn you it would typically bring tears to Vietnam vets of either Australia or the U.S. Surprisingly, the singing group were non-vet anti-war activists. The song is based on the experience of an Australian vet: Frankie who is mentioned in the song. He was a friend of a friend of the Redgum singer.

Here is a link to the lyrics only.

Here is an email I got from an Australian within hours of posting mention of I was only 19.

Dear Mr Reed,
I noticed you were looking for some explanations of some of the slang and other terms in the song “I was only 19”?
I can help you with that, mostly because I am Australian.  I’m not military, but most people my age or younger in Australia know this song and know the slang.
Just to go through some of them—
·        Puckapunyal, Canungra, and Shoalwater are Australian military bases; the latter two are specialist facilities for training in jungle warfare, while Puckapunyal is an Australian Army training base in Victoria – one of Australia’s states, on the southeast coast.

·        Townsville is, as one might guess, the name of a city in Australia close to Puckapunyal.

·        The “slouch hat” is an iconic part of the Australian armed services uniform – you can find a picture of it at this address: .  I can’t think of an immediate equivalent in the US Army’s uniform.  It was first associated with ANZAC troops who participated in the failed assault on Gallipoli (see your article about the morality of obeying stupid orders) and it’s been held onto with some pride by the Australian armed services as part of the formal uniform since that time.

·        The SLR is a reference to the rifles that the Australian Army carried at that time, though I’m guessing you might already know that; the ‘greens’ are a reference to the Australian Army uniform.

·        Vung Tau and Nui Dat are cities in Vietnam.

·        Chinooks, as you probably know, refer to the large, two-rotors transport helicopters that the Australian Army (and the US armed forces?) used to transport large numbers of troops around, as opposed to the Hueys that usually make it into archival or stereotypical footage of troops arriving in landing zones in Vietnam.

·        “VB” is short for “Victoria Bitter” – it’s a brand of Australian beer, one of the more popular ones around at the time.  “Pinups on the lockers” I guess has a common meaning between Australia and the US.

·        “Mates” in the context of this song is referring to the narrator’s fellow squad members, though it’s a bit more than that – it has more of a connotation with “friends”, although it’s not maybe as strong (or melodramatic) as “blood brothers”.

·        “Hooked in there” means to basically hang around, or stay in place.

·        “drinking tinnies” is probably obvious, but it’s referring to beer tins.

·        “row” is slang, pretty much the same as the American phrase “making a racket”.  It’s more generally used to speak of a heated argument, but in this context it’s talking about Frankie’s screaming.

·        “Anzac legends” needs a little explanation.  ANZAC is an acronym, standing for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.  New Zealand is a small country comprised of two islands southeast of Australia, with a similar colonial heritage and some similarities in culture, speech, and language to Australia.  When World War One broke out, the Australian and New Zealand armies on their own were too small to make up a substantial force, so they were combined into ANZAC and deployed to the Middle East and Gallipoli in that form. “Anzac” had, by the time of this song, become a sort of shorthand for referring to Australian armed forces in action (in Australia, anyway).  The “Anzac legends” being referred to are the campaigns of the Australian army at Gallipoli – which, although a military defeat, was something of a defining moment for Australia because of the courage and tenacity apparently displayed by ANZAC troops in the hard conditions of that theatre.  It also is referring obliquely to the involvement of Australian troops in World War Two, since again they distinguished themselves in places like Tobruk in Libya, Papua New Guinea, and more generally in the Pacific theatre.  Australian military service therefore was a point of immense pride to the Australian population by the time of the Vietnam least to start with.

·        “Channel Seven chopper” is referring to a news helicopter.  Channel Seven is one of the bigger TV stations here in Australia.

Hope this is all of assistance,
Kind regards
Michael Aulfrey

Reed comment: The Internet is amazing.

I also cannot hear a chopper on TV or anywhere else without momentarily being taken back to Vietnam. I don’t freak out—maybe just tense up slightly. I also get that from a certain engine or exhaust odor that was characteristic of U.S. Army deuce-and-a-half trucks.

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