In Memory of My Brother Bill

By Dennis Koho


"I want to be so good that when she walks
down the street they all say, 'There goes
Bill Koho's mother.'"

-- From Bill Koho's notes on how to
play baseball, 1963-65.

"Maybe this war has changed my way of

-- Letter from Vietnam, Bill Koho, 1966.

Bill Koho was a baseball player who became a Marine. I think. Maybe he was a Marine who used to play ball; I guess I don't really know. What matters, though, is that he was, and of that much I can be certain - he was. During the time that he lived he filled those about him with a part of himself. Many of us still cherish and carry that little bit of Bill with us. I do.

What follows is largely my attempt to come to grips with the last of his life and his death and in doing so help fulfill one of his last hopes. I learned of it from the log he kept while in Vietnam.

Monday, 12 September 1966

This log will be covering the first six months of my tour of
duty in the Republic of Vietnam. The dates will not be
consecutive and sometimes approximate due to the loss of my
first ledger. This will also hold my views and feelings. I
hope, someday, to have material worthy of publication.

Included here are his words from that log and his many letters, as well as words from his friends and fellow Marines. This is about those that went and those that didn't. And their changes. And Bill.

There is no Spring in Central Oregon. The grass stays dead and brown until late May, and then suddenly it is green. Winter becomes Summer, and there's not much to separate the two. But there are some days, in March and April, that give you a hint of what Spring must be like elsewhere. The sun comes up bright and crisp. The air is clean, and it fills you with a special feeling of exhilaration.

During Spring Vacation of my Sophomore year in high school, there was one of those days. Just one. It was Wednesday, March 15th, 1967. I was working with my dad, and life felt good then. I had everything to look forward to with no special companions to sit on my shoulder.

We picked up our lunch and headed back to the plant to eat it. The sun was warm, and I was looking forward to a hamburger and milk shake - a rare treat in those days. We turned onto First Street, hit the top of the hill, and then Dad saw it - the official green of a car belonging to the United States Marine Corps.

"Oh shit, I hope Bill is OK," Dad said.

Then I saw it, too. The car. As we pulled up, the Captain came out of the building to meet us, and he didn't have to say a thing. We could tell by the look on his face. It was a much different look than the one that he had months earlier when he came to tell us Bill had been wounded. This time was different, and we knew it.

Dad and I had always known anyway. It had to come to this moment. I don't know how we knew; we just did.

There was no sense in drawing it out longer or forcing the Captain to make a speech. The game, the waiting, was over. Dad put it simply, "He got it, didn't he." It was not more of a statement than a question, it was a statement.

"Yes sir, he did," the Captain replied.

My worst fears had been confirmed, and all I could hear was a voice inside my head screaming incoherently. I knew that this was the time I had been dreading for the last twelve months. My brother was dead - KIA, Republic of Vietnam.

I felt numb all over and nearly fell down. Dad and the Captain were saying something, but none of it registered with me. The year-long wait for this moment was finally over, and I could not think; I could only feel.

I remember some of the things that happened next with surprising clarity, others I can hardly recall. The waiting was over, but the worst was yet to come. We had to tell Mom and my younger brother, Scott. The nice thing about Bill having been wounded earlier was that the Marines knew to come to the plant with the news rather than our house. It was bad enough as it was.

We walked through the front door of our house, and at that moment I believe Mom knew, too. Maybe she also had always known; I'm not sure, but all she could keep saying was, "What is it, what is it?"

Dad could only say, "You know, you know." And then, as her crying started, she looked up at the Captain and said, "You promised me that you would never come back to see me again."

Scott came out of the kitchen towards the living room, and I tried to keep him out. I guess that I felt that if I could keep him out of that room, then it wouldn't be a reality for him. At least he could be spared the pain of our brother's death. I suppose that was just one of many irrational turns my mind has taken since I first heard the news.

I picked him up by his arms with both of my hands and told him, "Bill is dead." A boy who just turned twelve that month could have had the news broken to him a little easier, but it just wasn't in me. It simply was over, and there was nothing more to say. I've often felt since that I could have put it differently or said something to take the cutting edge of the pain off.

Things became a blur as the news spread and our bodies wandered in and out of both emotional and physical shock. Some of our closest friends and some of the bravest people began to come by. I remember all of the food that was brought over and many of the people that stopped by. I don't think that many of them realized what a comfort they were.

I remember the stark reality of seeing his body. He was laying in a coffin that was covered with some sort of plexi-glass, clad in Marine Corps Dress Blues, hands clasped. It was years before I found out that most coffins are not enclosed like that one was, and they raise the body almost up and out of the coffin for display purposes. I try not to speculate as to why his was not; the truths are too morbid to fully consider.

The coffin was in what funeral homes euphemistically call a `slumber room'. These are small rooms with a few seats and a space for the casket. Slumber is such a nice sounding word; it implies a sense of peacefulness, but no one ever sleeps in there. They are rooms of Death.

I watched Grandad look at Bill first, but I had no idea of what to expect. I had never seen a dead person before, and I believe that it creates a certain sense of reality for you in terms of what death means when the first body that you see is that of a teenage brother. Without a doubt, you suddenly know what war is all about in a very personal way.

I will never forget the smell of the funeral parlor that day, and whenever I smell that particular odor, ever since that day, I clearly see my brother laying in a casket, with his hands clasped and his face a bit swollen. I remember that Dad told me that was what happened to people when they got hit in the head and chest. Dad should know; he saw enough war in the South Pacific. I hate to think of the memories that must have begun stirring in his mind.

I remember the hundreds of people who attended his funeral, but I don't remember any of them talking to me. Over 300 signed the register and countless others attended, but couldn't get inside the church to sign.

On the way to the cemetery, there was a line of cars that stretched as far as the eye can see - literally miles long. On the day of his funeral, normal life in the city of Bend, Oregon, actually came to a halt for many, many people.

Returning to school the next week, I remember that no one talked with me about it. God, I desperately wanted to talk. I heard them talking amongst themselves about it. I saw them looking at me with that look, but they were afraid to talk.

Most of all, I remember that it was over. But I began to wonder what, besides the waiting, was over. What, besides life, was over for Bill? And besides what was over, what was beginning?

It was many years later that I was able to begin to answer those questions. It was after my long discussion with Death had started that I began to understand what Bill went through in that last year of his life. And it was later still that I realized what I must do to get the shadow of Death off of my shoulder. I had to get to know my brother again, and given the circumstances, that was not an easy task.

* * * * *

There was, and will continue to be, a mythology built up around my brother. He was always striving to be the best, and in my mind, he became larger than life, after his death.

It has always been easy to embellish memories and to find people who would tell me what I wanted to hear. But the truth has been harder to find. While I have wanted to find the truth, I have wanted to confirm the myths and feared their destruction.

The first stories that I heard during my search were not so much about Vietnam as they were about Boot Camp and the months immediately following it.

Steve Gilman and Bill pulled a lot of liberty together stateside and had briefly seen each other in Da Nang, but they did not serve together in the same unit in Nam; so, I did not get to hear from him about those experiences directly. Steve did, however, serve in the same general area as Bill and at the same time. In fact, they had been in the same staging company. His parents wrote to my family when they read of Bill's death, and it was from that letter that I located Steve.

When I found his phone number and address, I first wrote a letter to him, but I couldn't bring myself to mail it. At the same time, I was terrified to call him. Would he be the right Steve Gilman? Would he want to talk with me, or even be willing to talk? Or, worst of all, would he not remember Bill or tell me things that I didn't want to hear?

Finally one day, after much encouragement from friends, I called. The number was disconnected with no forwarding number. I was crushed until directory assistance turned up a new listing for him in a nearby town. This time there was no answer when I called. After that, it got easier to call during the day. After all, what did I have to fear when I was calling on a weekday afternoon? Chances are that he would be working. Then one day, the phone was answered, and I immediately knew that this was the right person, but I had no idea what to say, where to begin. Since there was no time to think, I plunged right in.

"My name is Dennis Koho, and I have been looking for someone with your name for a long time," I tentatively began, "You see my brother was in the Marine Corps . . . "

"Yes, I served with Bill," was his reply.

It is hard to explain the myriad of emotions that ran through me at that precise moment, but the terror that I had been experiencing immediately receded and was replaced by a feeling of joyous relief and elation that sixteen-and-a-half years after his death someone other than family members would remember his name without having to search the depth of their memory for it.

The conversation got better; I suppose because Steve carried most of it. What I recall most is his description of what Bill was doing in Nam, after I expressed my ignorance at what a forward observer (F.O.) really did.

"Your brother went out, sometimes alone, into enemy areas and enemy camps. From there he directed artillery and air fire." He summed it up, "It was a very dangerous job."

We hung up after he had agreed to talked with me in depth when I was in his area. Then it hit me. Alone. Into enemy areas. Of course, most of the time, as a Forward Observer, he worked with another F.O. or in small patrols; but the actual realization of what he did over there as a job came to me for the first time. Bill, his radio and his weapons alone in the jungle. That is the kind of stuff that myths are made of, and in this case it has proven to be true.

I had recently read most of the available literature on the war in general and the experiences of Marines in particular. Additionally, I have discussed Nam for years with Al DeLuca, one of my best friends, who served with Company 'D', 1st Battalion, 9th Marines in Vietnam until the summer of 1966, so I thought I had a fairly good grasp of what it was like over there - or at least as good a grasp as one who was never there can have, but this suddenly put Bill into a real job that I could understand. A big piece of the puzzle fell into place.

Soon it was time to see Steve in person. I took with me Bill's log, his letters, pictures and his copy of their pledge. I was struck by some of Steve's remarkably calm remarks such as his first when we met.

"You must be Dennis. I recognize you from the pictures that Bill showed me," he said. I was amazed that Bill, the big tough Marine, had such pride in his family and love for them that he would show our pictures to his `best boozin buddy' and the fact that the bond between them was so strong that Steve would remember the pictures.

Steve told me that they first met when they had their induction physicals. It seems that they enjoyed the night before together out on the town in Portland. Steve was going to Boot Camp almost directly from his physical, while Bill had joined on the 120-day plan and was to attend basic after high school graduation in June. So Steve was surprised to see Bill again in San Diego at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

When Steve expressed his surprise to Bill, he was told, "I went home and quit high school so that I could go through basic with you."

My first thought hearing this was that it certainly was a gloss- over of the truth; but the more I think about it and the more that I get to know my brother, the more I have come to believe this story to be the basic truth, and what we at home were told was just an elaborate camouflage of his very simple intentions.

Steve did three tours in Nam. His third was to force his younger brother, for whom he feared, back to the States, since at that time only one son per family could be in the war theater at one time. That tour proved unnecessary since his brother was sent home with near-fatal wounds that he received just outside the Citadel in Hue during the '68 Tet offensive while Steve was already in transit to Nam.

He was able to tell me many things that gave me a better understanding of the war. He had many pictures and seemed to welcome the opportunity to talk. To my shock, he had been looking for me and my family, but was afraid that we might not want to talk with him. It makes me wonder what opportunities are missed, what goes unsaid because two people wanting to discuss something are both afraid that the other does not want to explore the subject.

* * * * *

It is amazing how coincidence can impact one's life. In my case it has had a significant affect on my search for my brother's fellow Marines. I was discussing this effort one day with another person at work when he mentioned that his brother worked for the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs. He was aware of people and resources available to me there. We met his brother one day and talked about how I might find those that I was looking for. This lead me to Pat Carbon, another Oregon DVA employee.

Pat was helpful. He is a retired member of Marine Forces Recon - an elite group that Bill wanted to join. He knew of the 9th Marines because he had operated in the same area during his tour. He had a relative wealth of information for me. He told me of my ability to request and receive the Unit Reports for Bill's units and how to do so. He told me of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs ability to forward a letter for me to any veteran who was either receiving or had received benefits from the agency. Importantly, he showed me how to use the facilities of the Disabled American Veterans who have a high membership percentage among Vietnam veterans. My work was taking new turns with rising hopes for success.

I hadn't known that the DVA could or would forward letters to vets. I had assumed that they certainly would not provide addresses to someone such as myself, but I really had not given much thought to utilizing the DVA facilities at all. Not all veterans of course have sought or received benefits, but a high percentage have, and a Marine who served two tours as an FO would be a likely recipient.

With that in mind, I wrote a letter to Bob Kennison. I desperately wanted to talk with him, and I had every reason to believe that I might be able to reach him through the DVA. To my disappointment, my letter was returned. More information would be needed to use this source to its fullest.

* * * * * It is Saturday, and the telephone rings. You're not expecting anything or anyone special, but that doesn't really matter. Death reaches out from across the continent, grabs you by the neck and shakes the shit out of you.

I had advertised. I had asked. But nevertheless I didn't really expect to hear from anyone - or at least not yet. Ken O'Connell of Somerville, Mass., was on the phone for me. At the first sound of his voice, I knew who it had to be. Ken had been a Forward Observer in Vietnam with Bill, and now he was talking to me.

Of the hundreds of questions in my mind over the past several years, I could remember none. Of the dozens of names of people who I wanted to reach, I could remember none. My mind went numb. Here was the conversation I had waited years to have, and I was not ready for it. It took me by complete surprise.

As I began to recover, I asked of his units and how he knew Bill. And he began to answer.

Ken entered Vietnam in November of 1966, as Bill was being released from the hospital following his wounding. He was attached to E-2-12 - the artillery unit - but worked with G-2-9 - an infantry unit. Ken, having been an FO with Bill, was able to tell me many things that I had yearned to know for years. He had only been out with him once, but had run across him many times as his team worked in synchronization with Bill's. And he had been asked to go to Graves Registration with Sgt. Yohi to identify his body. He said that the Bouncing Betty had done its job well, but he could still recognize him.

I began to learn of things I didn't realize that I didn't know. Ken had been assigned to a Combined Action Corps - something Bill had a picture of. I learned of Golf 2-9's nickname, Hell in a Helmet. I had to wonder how that name was derived and if Bill helped originate it or tried to live up to it. I learned that I was not going to learn as easily as I thought. It is not easy to ask the tough, direct questions that burn in my mind. They had to wait until I could establish a relationship of sorts with Bill's buddies. They respected him and were still leery of the types of questions that veterans faced as they returned home in the 60's and early 70's. I wanted to learn more than some of the questions would indicate, and I had waited this many years; I could a little while longer.

In the days coming I was to hear from other Marines - Joe Morgan of Pennsylvania and Arnold Murillo of California were next - and I wrote to others that had served with 2-9 and written to DAV in the past few years. Information that I had requested began to come in from the government. Buddy locator services and Vietnam Veterans of America also responded.

Hagedorn, an FO that was new to the field the day Bill was wounded, was one of those that I thought I had a reasonable chance to locate and speak with. It is not a common name, and with diligence I figured I could find him, even though I didn't know his first name.

I was right. He was easy to find. He's on the panel right next to Bill. Larry Hagedorn of Carroll, Iowa, was killed-in-action in April of 1967. I found him on The Wall.

Despite some setbacks, the work of the past few years was paying off, and I realized that, had I made these contacts early on in my search, I might never have taken full advantage of them. The knowledge that I had gained of Vietnam, the War and the Experiences prepared me for what I now confronted. I found it necessary to rely heavily on that knowledge at times because if I could not display some knowledge and have some empathy for them, I could learn nothing more.

But I did learn more. I learned what the country was like, what the people were like and, more importantly, what Americans at war could be like. I didn't like everything I learned, but I guess that was never part of the bargain to begin with.

Bill was released from the hospital in November of 1966 after recovering from his wounds. At that point he was an experienced, motivated Marine. For the next four months, he would operate in the northern most portion of South Vietnam.

Dong Ha, where Bill was stationed earlier, is located just south of the Cau Viet River on Route One, 15 - 20 miles south of the DMZ. Phu Bai, also located on Route One, is roughly halfway between Da Nang and the DMZ, just south of the old imperial capital of Hue in the Thua Thien province. Near Phu Bai was the battalion area from which he would operate for most of the next few months.

The operations that were conducted in the north during late 1966 and early 1967, Hastings, Hastings II, Prairie and Chinook, all seem to the non-military mind to simply be an extension of the previous one. They resulted in some significant U. S. military victories and extended our influence into areas that had been Vietcong strongholds for years.

When Bill first returned to duty after his release from the hospital ship, he was assigned to 'G' Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines who were still fighting in the DMZ at the time. His letters seemed to reflect a mood that was more serious and deliberate. He was now facing the North Vietnamese Army, well trained soldiers, as well as the Vietcong. Perhaps that, combined with a more intense style of warfare, accounted for this mood.

He began to frequently mention becoming a mercenary guarding the oil pipelines in Saudia Arabia. This is an idea that was often discussed by Marines who served in Vietnam.

2 Dec.

Have you heard any news about the trouble along the oil
pipelines in Arabia? If they are still having their little
war over there when I get out, I may turn mercenary for a
year - $22,000.

He said that he "would like to try shooting Arabs for a change."

He also told us that he had formally extended his tour.

In case I haven't already told you, I have already extended
for 3 months and I may extend again after that. I promise to
be more careful once my extension starts. It was just
something I wanted to do.

His patience for others began to wear thin about this time.

I get tired of listening to people cry about how bad it is,
if this was beyond human endurance none of us would be alive.
But there's cry babies everywhere.

When his unit moved out of the DMZ and back to Dong Ha, they celebrated for two days and nights, and he took the time to more fully explain the extent of his wounds.

6 Dec. 1966

My wounds were a flesh wound in my right shoulder, a graze on
the chin, shrapnel that nicked my right thumb and seven or eight
fragments in my right hip that fractured some bone in there,
I still have one 1/4" square that sits just above my hip that
the doctor said will not bother me. I was never in a cast,
but I did look like a mummy for a while.

He did also begin to express again his views on the war. Earlier he had mentioned that American martial law might be a good idea because of all the "crap" that America was taking from these "miserable little gooks." Now he went into more detail.

21 Dec.

Sometimes I wonder what the hell is really going on over
here, there are too many fingers in the pot, we fight and the
politicians talk - we win and they lose. I guess. You'd
think that they were the ones getting shot.

I am not sure that I can really understand the demoralizing effect that holding such a view must have created, but it does not seem to help explain his mood of deliberativeness. The feeling that he was damn well going to do his job the best that he can, even if it was not appreciated, might be close to what he felt. I do know that I for one would not have gained much respect for a people or their government that did not express any gratitude to me when I was risking my life on their behalf under such miserable condition. That demoralization must have been greater later on in the war as we were withdrawing, and public support for the war effort had waned considerably; but even in 1966 it must have been disgusting.

Overall, by this time, my brother had become a much changed person. His letters - nearly every one - mentioned guarding the oil lines. There were other cryptic comments. "I sure hope to see my brothers again." "Dad and I need to do some serious drinking and talking when I get home." "Mom, I'm happy at what I'm doing, although it's trusting luck a lot, there's a lot of satisfaction in it for me." And maybe the most cognizant and direct, "Maybe this war has changed my way of thinking."

And then there was what I can only describe as The Look. It is similar to what bombing victims and others have called the thousand-yard stare. It was an appearance of steely determination, combined with an obvious distaste for what the person had seen or was doing. It was a frown, but it was also a vacant stare. If it was not the absence of fear, then it was the acceptance of it as a daily reality. A companion.

Pictures of Bill showed clearly The Look on his face. He had captioned the pictures "Just got in." I had read of The Look before, and when I saw those pictures again, I recognized it immediately. There is no mistaking it once you have seen it. You may have seen similar portrayals in the movies before, but there is a distinct reality to it in the pictures of Bill. I have since noticed The Look in others whose photos from Vietnam I have seen. Al had it. Steve had it. When I saw it in Steve's pictures, I blurted out to him "You've got it. The Look." And he looked at me. And then I realized that The Look is one of the things that you just do not talk about.

There were reasons for The Look. With Bill it was his brutality and the preceding causes of that brutality. A teenager from rural Oregon does not just go to a different country and immediately begin to kill people and mutilate their bodies. You have to dehumanize yourself, and the enemy had to become less than human. That part was easy. There had to be more. There had to be a reason. And that war gave him, and others like him the reason. I probably can't really understand it myself. I have never had to pick up the pieces of a friend. A hand here, a foot there and over in the bushes, your friend's head. That was reason enough for Bill.

But what does brutality really mean ? What is its reality ? With all of the media representations and misrepresentations over the past few years, it is hard to define with any accuracy in terms of Vietnam. And in terms of Bill Koho, who is to say?

But still, there was for me a need to know. Perhaps at first that was too large a portion of the reason for my search. Whether it was or not, I know now that it is of much less importance than it once might have been. What ever it was that Bill did or did not do that could have been characterized as brutal is not nearly as important as why he felt that he had to do those things.

To most that knew him, he was a `rough, tough son-of-a-bitch', and that suited Bill just fine. As a matter of fact, he relished the role. And so it was just a natural extension of his personality to portray a brutal, sadistic Marine when he became a Forward Observer in Vietnam.

FO's were a special breed within the Corps. They had tremendous responsibilities upon their shoulders - saving lives. Perhaps more than any other job outside of medicine, FO's were responsible for saving lives. But they killed too, and for that they are most remembered. And for that they wanted to be known. It was part of the mystique that went with the job. They were out in the jungle by themselves, within spitting distance of the enemy, and they wanted the others to know that they could take everything that the war could throw at them and more.

So they wore their scalps, and they refused to tell their stories. And their reputations grew with the mystique. They were able to do their jobs better by attuning themselves to their own self-imposed pressures to be the best. Another person with less training and less internal drive and will power might have succumbed to the pressures of their duty.

Bill - together with O'Connell and Mahacek - developed quite a reputation. They were the type of Marines that others avoided direct contact with. Many were afraid to risk their anger by asking them questions or trying to socialize. To a certain extent they were feared, yet they were liked and respected. Bill was happy in this role that was not entirely new to him.

If a picture really is worth a thousand words, then one picture that he sent us tells the story of Bill Koho in Vietnam. He titled the picture simply: "Me, Cigarette and Scalp."

If I can't understand all that, I can at least relate to it enough to know that I too would have done much the same in those circumstances. We humans, regardless of what we might like to think, are only a step above brutality in our current level of `civilization'. History shows that as we progress we really only devise more and more ways to kill and inflict suffering on our fellow man. But enough. Bill was there, and had to live with it. He couldn't escape - or chose not to escape - what was happening around him. He had his way of coping. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em - and then become the best of them.

* * * * *

18 Feb. 1967

Would you send me a big box of Crooks [cigars]? I think I
might have something to celebrate in a month or so.

We have always wondered exactly what it was that Bill hoped to celebrate. He knew of his goal to join Force Recon, and he had hoped to soon be promoted to the rank of Corporal. With his involvement in the war, some sort of medal or citation was also possible. We never found out for sure, but we did write to his Company Commander to ask. We were told that he had not formally applied to Force Recon, so it could not have been that. Bill was given so damn many medals after his death that I suppose he could have been referring to one of those, but they did not seem to be the kind of awards that would have meant something that special to him.

So I can only speculate that he was anticipating a promotion. His CO wrote that Bill would have been up for it on 1 April 1967, and that his "exemplary conduct" would have made the promotion likely. With his devotion to the Marine Corps, and inasmuch as he had said that no one in his unit had started their tour as a PFC and ended it as a Corporal in many years, I think that this is what he must have been looking forward to with such anticipation.

The last letter that we ever received from Bill sums up much and is a good example of the wanderings of his mind.

2 March 1967

I think it has been over a week again, but it can't be
helped, I'm in the field right now.

Today I have been in the Marine Corps exactly two years. It
doesn't seem like it.

If I extend six more months, I can come home for 30 days of
free leave. What do you think?

We will be going on Operation Chinook sometime in the first
half of this month. There is supposed to be a lot of gooks
up there. I don't think that I am going to take my leave
this month because I would miss the operation.

Bob Kennison is home on leave right now and may stop by to
say hello. He is an FO with 'G' too and he's a good friend
of mine.

I almost bought another .38 but decided one is enough, the
next pistol I want is a .44 magnum, the most powerful and
deadly handgun in the world but that can wait. I sent a view
master home so you could see the slides, right now slides are
the only film I can get.

I really do appreciate all the books that you have sent -I've
read them all and so have most of my buddies. Better stop.

That was my brother and how I shall remember him. Guns, extensions and the foregoing of leave so as not to miss an operation. Gung ho. If I die in a combat zone/Box me up and send me home. Fuck it. Kill them gooks. A personal reason. Yes, Bill Koho was a Marine. One hell of a Marine. And they were right - Payback is a motherfucker.

* * * *

It was the end of the Monsoon season. Bill was going out again. This time to stand a night ambush. He walked slack (the position right behind the point man) in part because you don't carry a radio and walk point at the same time. Official Marine Corps records state that "lead elements" tripped a booby-trap. Ken said he thought it was a `Bouncing Betty' - a type of explosive that first is propelled up in the air about four feet or so before it detonates. Other reports believed it to be an M-26 device.

These are constructed by attaching a C-ration can to a tree and some sort of line to the M-26 grenade. The pin is then pulled from the grenade as it is placed into the C-ration and the line is strung across the trail at a height of a few inches. When someone's foot trips the line, it pulls the grenade out of the can, thereby releasing the spoon and detonating the grenade. The fuse on the grenade of course has been shortened to one second. The line can be seen in the daylight if one knows what to look for, but the rain and the dark make its detection close to impossible. Naturally, those are the same conditions that cause a patrol to close ranks and not keep their proper separations. The combination can be deadly, and at least in this one instance it was. One KIA, two WIA. It's the one that still bothers me.

* * * *

The next letter we got from Vietnam was from Captain William Hart, Commanding Officer, Battery 'E', 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines.

16 March 1967

It is difficult for me to express the regrets and sorrow felt
by the Marines of this Battery over the untimely death of
your son, Lance Corporal William H. KOHO, U. S. Marines Corps
on 14 March 1967. Please except our deepest sympathy in your

William, as you know, was a forward observer and radio
operator assigned to Company 'G', 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines.
He, along with other Marines from Company 'G', 2nd Battalion,
9th Marines, were on a mission when the Marine directly in
front of William tripped a Viet Cong booby trap. William was
killed instantly and the other two Marines involved were
seriously wounded and are presently hospitalized. Competent
medical corpsmen who were on the scene when this incident
occurred immediately went to administer first aid to William
but to no avail. He was pronounced dead at 8:00 P.M. on 14
March 1967.

It may comfort you to know that a memorial service was held
for William this date and that his many friends attended.

William's cheerful disposition, exemplary conduct and
devotion to duty won for him the respect of all who know him.
Although I realize that words can do little to console you, I
do hope that the knowledge that your son will be keenly
missed and that we share your sorrow will in some measure
alleviate the suffering caused by your great loss.

If there is anything I can do, please feel free to write to

Well, for me at least, the measure of alleviation was small indeed, but it was good to know that Bill was not responsible for causing his own death. In all sincerity, I do not harbor any ill feeling towards the Marine that tripped the booby trap. His death in Vietnam had to be. It was only a question of how and when. Also, I sincerely believe that Bill would have preferred to die that way than to live crippled. I don't think that he could have lived without being able to participate in sports. One of the best legacies that resulted, and the one that he would have most wanted, is the establishment of the Bill Koho Award for the most outstanding baseball player at Bend Senior High School. It is something that has made me proud and given me comfort for years. There are others, but that one is tops with me. Yes, there are others, and one day I hope to be responsible for just one more.

* * * * *

Bill Koho lost his life in Vietnam, and I tried to find it. I am still trying.

Death - his death - has weighed heavily on my shoulder. I tried to brave it, but couldn't. I tried to ignore it, but couldn't. I was told to simply accept it, forget it, but I can't, I won't. That leaves me with few choices.

Death was consuming me. I had to come to an understanding with it. If Death was to stay with me, I had to know of it and of Life. To me, that would have been an equitable trade-off, in theory. In practice, I have gotten an even better deal - not only have I gained knowledge, but the burden imposed by Death has been lessened. But that, to me, is only fair because Bill's death was - and continues to be - so god damn unfair. There were so many should haves, if onlies, and might have beens. They can at times make me livid, furious as well as sorrowful. His death was wrong in so many ways, yet inevitable in others.

Yes, there are many things that could have been, if it were not for his death, good things. At the same time, there are many other good things that have come about because of his death. Still, I would give up everything that has been, just for the opportunity to experience what might have been.

When you have lost a brother, you have lost someone very special. When they are killed at a young age, your loss is accentuated. Bill was killed some 9 or 10,000 miles away from home in a war that I didn't understand, and I hadn't seen him in over a year. That, to me at least, that is one of the worst of several terrible ways to lose a brother. So I let myself become bitter - very bitter. I felt cheated, robbed. But upon reflection, my views are changing. My brother volunteered to fight a war in which he believed, and I am now confident that we won that war. But what matters most is that he was doing what he wanted to do.

Steve said it best when he said, "If Bill had known that he would have been killed, he would have gone anyway and tried to beat the odds. Whatever else he was doing, you can be sure that he was having fun." Steve, you'll probably never realize how much I needed to hear that.

* * * *

In 1985, that's how I thought the story would end, but I was wrong. Vietnam continues. My buddy Al DeLuca finally let the ghosts catch up with him and took the only way out he knew. After not hearing from him in nearly two years, I found out he shot himself. I miss you Al, more than you know, but I understand.

And then there was that one week in 1992 that I got a letter from Jerry West, Bill's former team leader. He found me through the In Touch program and told me what he could. He provided me an intelligent, dispassionate view of Bill's life and death.

But that same week came The Call.

The Call was from James Mahacek who now lives in Sardis, Tennessee. But in 1967 he lived, worked and fought the war in Vietnam with my brother. And while on their way to an ambush site on March 14th, he was right behind Bill when some FNG tripped the explosive. James yelled for a medic but he knew it was already too late. He held Bill until the medevac arrived and even then he wouldn't let go.

So now, after all these years, I know. I know the stories of the hand-to-hand combat, of the beer and of the brotherhood. And now knowing what I do, I don't feel the same urge to detail it all on paper. It now has its own reality without the written word.

The search, the long discussion with Death has been well worth the effort. In fact, I couldn't have lived successfully without it. If you carry the ghosts with you, take the step. Begin the conversation. Knowledge was the only way for me to beat Death.


The screams are silent, but you can hear them nevertheless, as you approach the long black gash in an otherwise green lawn. Their names - tens of thousands of them - are carved two inches high in black granite and they seem to go on forever. Names I know and names I don't. A friend from Little League Baseball. A brother of a friend. A brother of mine.

They all have their stories to tell. Stories of war and killing, of love and hope. Stories of youth and shattered dreams. And now they can begin to finally tell the stories as the nation begins to listen. At last.

The Wall is a somber place, a very quiet place. People talk in whispers so as to not interrupt the stories told in silent screams. But more than that it is a place where healing can begin. It has for thousands and it did for me. By leaving an earlier version of this story at the Wall, I was able to leave a part of something that I had carried for much too long.

The impact on me of visiting the Wall was unexpected. I have been at this for so damn long that I was sure I had it all worked out. I had even been to see the half-scale version of the Wall. So I felt confident that I had dulled the emotions. I'm not sure if I have ever been more wrong about anything before in my life. I was so overwhelmed that it took me a long time to even be able to approach it. I stopped several times to catch my breath and swallow the emotions. In the end, there was too much to swallow.

I saw many things at the Wall, but mostly I saw many others like me. The clinched fists, wrenched faces, questioning looks and glazed eyes were all there. And so was Bill.

Now I know he will always be there - and with us. And that's something that no one can ever take away.