Updated: Monday, September 25, 2017, 1:54 PM
There’s no way of knowing whether Jimmy Gilch had any last words, or any chance to say them.
The 21-year-old private first class from Runnemede was among seven American soldiers who were literally blown to pieces by a landmine during an ambush near Cu Chi, northwest of Saigon, on July 21, 1966.
Jimmy had been drafted the year before and had arrived in country just five months earlier.
But this good-hearted, sometimes pugnacious kid from a blue-collar Catholic family had sent home nearly 80 letters describing the camaraderie and challenges of the Army — and his dawning skepticism over a war that seemed more about policing and punishing civilians than combating enemy soldiers.
His mother, Kate, kept the letters in a shoe box under the bed; decades later, she gave them to her grandson, Joe, for safekeeping.
And in July, Everyman in Vietnam, written by Joseph Gilch and the historian Michael Adas, was published by Oxford University Press. Utilizing excerpts from Jimmy’s letters, the book offers a nuanced and unsparing picture of what the Vietnam War was like for the “grunts” who risked and many times lost their lives fighting it.
There are no front lines anywhere, Jimmy wrote to his father, George, the owner of a Flying-A gas station on the Black Horse Pike. Everywhere there are (enemy fighters and their supporters) around, even underground.
Jimmy was a bit of a rebel; he loved bad jokes and TV cartoons (“Do you still watch Underdog?” he asked in a letter to a friend), and wrote his parents that he would “raise hell” when he got home to Runnemede so they could say that “Jimmy hasn’t changed a bit.”
Everyman in Vietnam alternates historical accounts of Cold War strategizing in Washington with sections of Jimmy’s own handwritten letters. He’s full of advice for his eight siblings back home and uses unusual grammar and spellings.
For get about sending my sun glasses, he wrote his mother. Just send me a spelling book or something so I can get the words right.
The book also offers a deeply researched analysis of a war that continues to haunt us nearly a half-century after Saigon’s fall, as the interest in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s magisterial new Vietnam War documentary attests.
“There’s something about Vietnam. Like the Civil War, we just can’t seem to let it go,” says Adas, 74, a retired history professor at Rutgers Uniuversity in New Brunswick. I spent two hours with him and Gilch on Saturday at a Middlesex County coffee shop.
Many working-class, under-educated (Jimmy dropped out of Triton High after sophomore year) or poor draftees from small-town and urban America were pressed into service to fight an ill-conceived war against an enemy Washington profoundly underestimated, the authors say.
“We’re telling a story about a human being who was put in a horrible situation, who comes of age in a war zone and has to make the best of that,” says Gilch, 28, who teaches American history at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South and is completing a master’s degree in global and comparative history at Rutgers.
After becoming his family’s unofficial curator of Jimmy’s legacy 15 years ago, Joe Gilch contacted Jimmy’s commanding officer, an eyewitness to the obliteration of the armored personnel carrier that carried Jimmy and his buddies.
And while Gilch, who was born in 1989, never knew his uncle, the letters and interviews have given him a picture of “a very thoughtful person … someone incredibly caring and passionate, who was willing to push back when he was in a situation that required him to stand up.”
“I liked his values,” says Adas. “Jimmy was a Jersey kid.”
The author of five previous books, Adas became Joe Gilch’s mentor after being impressed with a presentation his student made about the letters during a freshman seminar at Rutgers in spring 2008.
A respected historian, Adas says that while Jimmy was on patrol in the swamps and booby-trapped jungles of South Vietnam, neither official Washington nor the growing antiwar protest movement had “any sympathy for these soldiers.”
He and Gilch say they wanted neither to demonize the American government nor the soldiers who, like Jimmy, followed orders to burn down the empty homes of impoverished Vietnamese peasants suspected of being or aiding the Viet Cong.
“I was going to say what I wanted to say, and say what I thought was right and fair,” Gilch says. “I think Jimmy would like that, and my grandmother would have appreciated it, too.”
He and Adas don’t try to canonize Jimmy, either; the letters show a complicated young man who flirted with the notion of becoming a priest while also fantasizing about getting a Mohawk haircut, who held a gun to the head of a young Vietnamese woman, yet saw in another something that reminded him of his own sister.
Jimmy’s posthumous Purple Heart was presented at Fort Dix, where he had undergone basic training; at the family’s request, Army officers pinned the medal on 7-year-old Joseph, the dead soldier’s kid brother and the author’s father.
In a book filled with dramatic photographs, the photo of a grieving little boy struggling to be brave is one of the most heartbreaking images I’ve ever seen.
“I don’t remember much of it, but I did know that my brother wasn’t coming back,” says Joseph Gilch Sr., 57, a Glendora resident who works for the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority.
He says he’s proud of his brother — and proud of his son’s book as well. As well he should be; Jimmy Gilch was the sort of soldier who refused to eat his lunch near hungry Vietnamese kids, choosing instead to “give them everything I had.”
He was the kind of young man who told his sister, Maureen, in the last letter he sent home: “I think you will be really proud of me, because I have done so good over-here.”
He was a casualty of war who said in a letter that “so much has happened I could write a book about it.”
And now, thanks to his nephew Joe and Michael Adas, Jimmy has pretty much gotten it done.