By JC Sullivan

Memorial Day in America begins the season of beaches, barbecues and softball. We veterans look back to our service years, remembering different aspects of military life. For some,  Memorial Day means remembering someone special in our  prayers, perhaps someone who paid the ultimate sacrifice so that we may continue to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. On this special day I remember my friend Jim Brock.

Back in `57, as sophomores, we were both newcomer transferees to the halls of Benedictine High School. Other than my grade school friends attending `Benny’, Jim was one of my first new friends there and I was on of his first friends there too. He was first generation Irish-American, his father, James J. Brock, having been born in County Roscommon. After graduation we saw each other on occasion and telephoned to stay in touch. Not long afterwards he enlisted in the Marine Corps and I went into the Army.

During our service years we continued to communicate. His letters followed me to Fort Hood in central Texas, the barren desert of the great Mojave that spanned New Mexico, California and Arizona and to the field near Berlin, Germany. My letters were addressed to him at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Okinawa. In the autumn of 1965 his letters bore a new postmark – Vietnam.

Jim was happy that I had somehow missed out on being sent there and had asked how I had “skated this mess.” There was more than just a hint of frustration in the tone of the letters. The enemy was elusive; “You can’t tell the cowboys from the Indians” he said, a reference to old American movies in which most cowboys we’re portrayed as good guys and most Indians were bad guys. On December 10 Jim was struck by a Viet Cong rocket while on operations in Que Son (Khe Son). He died instantly – the first Clevelander killed in Vietnam.

Casualties of many wars were buried where they fell or in graves in neighboring states or countries. I’ve prayed over some in the American Military Cemetery outside Hamm, Luxembourg, as well as at Gettysburg and Antietam. Jim, however, was brought home, where friends gathered at Chambers Funeral Home on Rocky River Drive to comfort his family and mourn our loss.

Corporal Milton Fredrickson, stationed in San Francisco, accompanied the casket home. In his marine Dress Blue uniform, he stood ramrod straight next to flag-draped, closed casket. On his breast was a Purple Heart medal, awarded for wounds he’d received in Vietnam.

December 31, 1965 dawned in typical Cleveland winter fashion – extremely cold with a gusty wind blowing off Lake Erie. After a Requiem Mass at St. Thomas More Church over one hundred cars drove to Calvary Cemetery on the East Side.  A Marine firing squad commanded by Staff Sergeant Louis Minter saluted their fallen comrade with a rifle volley that startled most of those present. It was followed by the haunting reverie of Taps, from a hidden bugler, then-14 year old James Ginley. Corporal Frederick son presented Corporal Brock’s mother with a tri-folded US flag, “on behalf of a grateful country.” Clutching the flag, she threw herself over the gray casket and sobbed, “Oh, Jimmy.” My heart was wrenched from my chest; I tasted the salt of my own tears.

I’ve not seen Mrs. Brock since that day. I later heard Jim’s younger other, John, joined the Marine Corps, probably to avenge his brother’s death. Surprisingly, he, too, was sent to Vietnam. Knowing of Jim’s sacrifice, however, they kept him in Saigon. I’m surprised he got that far.

Some things remain fresh as if they happened yesterday. Today, it’s hard for me to believe it’s the year 2002; it still seems like it was very recent. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way – to remind us that thirty-seven years isn’t a long time in the loop that is life.

If you visit Washington see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Look on panel 4E6 and visit James Patrick Brock.  Say a prayer for the repose of his soul and the soul of the other 58,131 names listed there. And hate war, not the warrior. And also say a prayer that we can keep our present and future armed forces out of harm’s way. We’ve already paid a dear price for our freedoms. But, we do have to safeguard what has already been won, don’t we.

On that last day of 1965, it was still early in a war that would eventually claim so many more American and Allied lives. I now realize that most of us in Cleveland were in shock over Jim’s death. And, in keeping with Irish warrior tradition, there should’ve been a piper at Calvary Cemetery that day.

On a recent Memorial Day I returned to that gravesite for the first time since. This time there were other veterans with me, American and Vietnamese. And, there was a piper.

Sullivan, published internationally, writes from Northfield Village, Ohio. This story originally appeared in the Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine in 1995 as ‘The Day the Letters Stopped.’

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