Capt. Jim Gregory, commanding officer, L Company, Third Platoon, Fifth Marines, First Marine Division, rested his head on his hand, then reached for his pen. He had to compose a letter, and he didn’t know quite how to write it.
The battle-weary marines of L Company were back at An Hoa for a few days’ rest. Casualties had been high the past week, and it was Gregory’s duty to write the next of kin of those who had died, expressing his personal sense of loss and that of the company.
The veteran marine officer had written several such letters. This was his second tour of duty in Vietnam. He had written to parents named Yazzie, Kowalski, Garcia, O’Brian, and plain Smith, Jones, and Johnson. He knew that by the time his letters reached the bereaved parents, the initial shock of their son’s death had been felt, since the military messengers had already called on the families and the formal telegrams had arrived.
His letter was to give details as nearly as possible as to the conditions under which the men died and to try to convey some kind of comfort to the family. The letters weren’t easy to write. It was one of the captain’s hardest duties. But the letter he had to write today would be a little different. This time Captain Gregory was going to ask for something for himself.
“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Benson,” he started. “It is difficult for me to express the sorrow felt by the marines of this company over the recent death of your son, Lance Cpl. Scott Matthew Benson, U.S. Marine Corps, who lost his life in Quang Nam Province, Republic of Vietnam. Please accept our deepest sympathy in your bereavement.”
A helicopter churned overhead and an artillery outfit rumbled past the crude building where Captain Gregory worked. Will it ever be over, he wondered, and will I ever get back to Janet and our little son?
He paused in his writing as he recalled the past ten months that he had been acquainted with the Bensons’ son. Young Scott had come in with a reinforcement outfit. They were a bunch of youngsters, really, most of them only nineteen or twenty years old—hardened by rigorous boot camp training and supposedly now combat ready. Kids whose main worry a year ago had been a date to the high school prom or how to get a pair of slicks for the dragster, now were thrust into a brutal war where jungle, swamp, weather, and insects had to be encountered in addition to the known enemy.
In combat zones a little slack prevails and the stern discipline and rank separation aren’t as pronounced as in stateside training, so Gregory got to know and closely observe his men.
He noted soon that Corporal Benson was handy with a pen. His outgoing mail always had some unusual and humorous drawing around the “Free” in the upper-right-hand corner. Sometimes it was a cartoon, sometimes an outstanding design, showing artistic ability. It didn’t take long for the word to get around either. Soon fellows in the outfit and even those from the other companies came to him, asking for sketches of the country to send home, or signs for their tanks, or drawings on their flack jackets. Benson painted “Arizona” on his helmet, and after that his buddies forgot his real name and just called him by the name of his home state.
Gregory also observed that Arizona didn’t smoke, and when the outfit got in from an especially trying operation and sometimes received a beer ration, Arizona always traded his for soda pop.
He was slightly built, only 5′5″, but well muscled, and he carried his machine gun and pack and humped up the hills as well as the bigger fellows. His closest friend was 6′2″ gun section leader Reed—the typical brash, rowdy, unyielding marine. Although it seemed outwardly that the two had nothing in common except fighting for survival, strangely enough they became close companions.
The captain noticed that in many free moments, Arizona would take a little red book out of his pocket and read from it. One evening as the corporal was hunched against the sandbags outside the bunker, one of the men said, “Hey, Arizona, how come you always read your little red book? What’s so interesting about it?”
Gregory could visualize the radiance on Arizona’s face as he looked up and said sincerely, “Because it’s got all the answers.”
Gregory, curious about the book himself, found out from Reed that it was called the Book of Mormon. About all the Detroit-born captain knew about Mormons was that they had a Tabernacle Choir and a temple in Salt Lake City.
Toying with his pen, Gregory remembered another incident, when the company was back from a two-month campaign in the bush and some of the boys were going on liberty in DaNang. As they were preparing to leave, they tried to persuade Arizona to go with them. “Come on, we’ll show you how to have some real fun,” they teased. He declined good naturedly, saying he was going to DaNang, but it was to attend a church conference, and that there would be an apostle there!
“Big deal,” one man mocked, and when the chiding got rougher, Reed stepped up and said, “Knock it off,” and ended up going to the church meetings with Arizona.
But the night most vivid in Captain Gregory’s mind was something that happened about a month ago. The gun section was set up high on a hill, and down below the infantry had called for air support. It was night, and the whole area below was lit up like a great theater. It seemed that the marines on the hill had box seats. Lights flashed, and as the planes zoomed in and dropped bombs, it seemed as if the very mountain trembled.
A new boy-man in the company, out on his first real fight, said to Arizona, “Now where’s your God that you read about in your little red book? Why doesn’t he stop this?”
Arizona kept his eyes front on the battle and his hand steady on his machine gun, as he replied softly, “The fault is not with God; the fault is with men. This will all be over someday when men’s hearts have changed and they have accepted Christ.”
Later the youngster, Miller, whispered hoarsely to Arizona, “Ever think about dying?”
“Sure, Miller,” he answered, “everyone does. But I’m trying to live as close to the Lord as I can, and if I do that I have nothing to fear.”
The fighting continued below. Miller was visibly nervous. He said to the corporal, “Ever think about going home, Arizona?”
“I sure do,” the little guy replied.
“What will you do when you get home?” Miller continued.
“Well, probably I wouldn’t be home long before I would be called on a mission for my church. That will take up two years. Then when I get back from there, I’ll build the fastest car I can and wipe out all the racers at the hometown drags. Then I’m moving up to bigger competition.”
“You mean you’d go away for another two years after you get home from this?” Miller said incredulously.
“If I’m called, I’ll go,” Arizona said positively. “I’ve always wanted to go on a mission.”
Gregory overheard the conversation and felt compelled to know more about this religion that could pull a young man away from home again to go on something called a “mission.”
Almost without realizing it, he said, “Corporal Benson, tell me more about your church, will you?”
Benson sounded pleased as he answered with enthusiasm, “Yes, sir, be glad to, sir.”
But the heat of the war had not allowed Arizona and the captain much time for discussing the gospel. The enemy offensive was going full scale, and Company L was in the thick of it.
About ten days ago they returned to An Hoa and the daily sorties. When the mail came again, Arizona as usual had several letters and a couple of packages.
“How does a little guy like you get so many girl friends?” his buddies teased.
“These letters aren’t from girls,” he said, and he even blushed. He’s the kind of a kid that still licks the mixer beaters when his mom makes a cake, Gregory thought at the time.
“These letters are from my mom and dad, relatives, brothers and sisters, kids in the ward, and the bishop of my church,” Arizona explained.
I wish some of these other fellows had families and friends who cared as much, thought Gregory, as he saw the sad expressions on the faces of men who received no mail.
Then five days ago, gun section leader Reed, Arizona, and some others had been assigned security for a mine sweep operation a few miles from base camp. The fellows were in good spirits after a couple of days’ rest and seemed determined to outwit the enemy. Maybe they weren’t cautious enough; maybe they were too optimistic, thought Gregory, as he went over it in his mind. Most of the outfit was due to return home within a month or six weeks—and perhaps their thoughts were on that. At any rate, when Reed and Arizona stepped off the tank to set up their position, they tripped one of the enemy’s cleverly concealed booby traps. Within minutes corpsmen were beside the injured marines, rendering medical assistance, and only moments later the two were evacuated by helicopter to the big naval hospital at DaNang.
But all the medical know-how was of no use, and the Arizona corporal and his big friend succumbed to their wounds from multiple fragments of shrapnel.
When the corpsman returned to camp and brought the news to Captain Gregory, he handed him a red, dirt-and-sweat-stained book, bent from months of being carried in a hip pocket. “Arizona wanted you to have this,” he said, as his voice broke. “He said to tell you he was going on a mission anyway.”
Captain Gregory put his pen to paper again. The words seemed to flow now, and he felt a burning inside him, and an urgency to get the letter written and mailed. He couldn’t explain the feeling of peace that had come over him as he had reflected on the brief time he had known the marine from Arizona and the influence he had had on the whole company.
“It may comfort you to know,” he wrote, “that Scott received the religious ministrations of his faith from Lieutenant Commander G. W. Franklin, chaplain, before his death.
“Scott was a sincere, hardworking young man who impressed everyone with his eager manner and courteous demeanor. He took great pride in doing every job well and constantly displayed those qualities of discipline and self-reliance through which he gained the respect of both his seniors and fellow marines. Although I realize that words can do little to console you, I hope the knowledge that your son is keenly missed and that we share your sorrow will, in some measure, help alleviate the suffering caused by your great loss.
“And now, would you help me? Could you tell me how you raised a son like this—one so resolute as to stand by his convictions when many tried to sway him? One who proceeded in faith when desolation abounded? One who found joy in life under the most difficult circumstances? One who even knew where he was going in the very face of death?
“Tell me what you did in your home to bring up such a fine example of manhood. I want to be a better person myself. I have a son, and I’d like to have him grow up to be an inspiration to others as your son was.
“I’ll be waiting to hear from you, and in the meantime I’ll be studying the book, because I feel sure it is the gateway to a new and better life for me and my family.
Captain, U.S. Marines