We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France

GI Film Festival: Into Harm’s Way
16 May 2012, 08:37
Filed under: Films, Henderson, Veterans | Tags: , , ,

Last night, we went to see a screening of Into Harm’s Way, which is a terrific film. Actually, I should say, I know that 79 of the 94 minutes of the film are terrific.

It’s being shown as part of the GI Film Festival here in DC this week and my wife, two of her executives and I took my mother-in-law, whose husband LTC Richard Henderson served two tours in Viet Nam.


When 846 young men entered West Point in 1963, they signed up with an American Army at peace. At their graduation ceremony in 1967, the Vietnam War was raging. Into Harm’s Way is a story of Army officers who lead and lost soldiers in combat.

It’s a story of fathers and sons and duty to country. It’s a story of glory and sacrifice. Into Harm’s Way is the first person chronicle of the West Point Class of 1967.

The film is really well done, with the interviews emphasized and punctuated with impressionistic depictions of the events that the veterans are describing. In particular, as one is describing his encounter with a mortally wounded enemy soldier, the depiction of that’s soldier’s eyes adds a chilling effect as he describes the scene.

My mother-in-law, Mary Lou, was particularly moved by the film. One of the interviewees was the widow of one of the men in the Class of 1967 and they played some of the tapes he’d sent home from Viet Nam. Dick had also sent home tapes and photos, so she could identify with the emotions and experience. We’ll likely pull up those photos and listen to the tapes soon.

I would heartily recommend the film to everyone. They are looking to include it in film festivals going forward and I’d think that if you’re having an air show, a historical re-enactment or a gathering of ROTC students, this would be a fine film to view. I’d also recommend it for the Viet Nam on Film course I took back as an undergrad (I actually took it twice), if they still offered it.

Unfortunately, I missed the first 15 minutes of the film. Typically, the blame for this would be my own as I am often late. This time, I dropped off the four ladies a full 20 minutes before the scheduled start. It took me a while to find a parking spot (this was shown in the Congressional Auditorium in the US Capitol Visitor Center, though I was able to park just a block away) and STILL got through security and into my seat a full five minutes before the scheduled start. This was, unfortunately, 15 minutes into the film as they started 20 minutes early.

So much for the team-building exercise for my wife’s executive team.

Update: The good news is that the nice folks who run the festival made up for it by giving us two tickets for Sunday morning’s screenings. Waiting on the word about whether they can get us a DVD of Into Harm’s Way so that we can see the full movie.

The Vacant Chair

I don’t know if it’s fair to say that I miss someone I’ve never met, but I do feel that I do. My father-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Henry Henderson, passed away before I ever met my wife and though I know he was not the easiest man to get along with, I suspect that Dick and I would have been friends.

Born in 1935 down in Uvalde, Texas, Dick grew up outdoors, competing with and conspiring with his brother, much as my own brothers and I had. He must have had the same wanderlust that drove me to find a way out of Michigan, but Dick’s way out was the Army. Commissioned in 1957, he “found a home in the Army”. As a young officer, he met his bride, Mary Lou Cammisa, and took her away from New York on an adventure around the country and the world. While he was stationed in Germany, they drove around Europe, exploring. The stories of the places they stayed and the mis-adventures pepper our conversations with my mother-in-law. Every time my wife and I turn in a rental car in Europe, I imagine Dick and Mary Lou sneaking away and breaking into a run as they leave behind the rental car in which a case of red wine had burst in the back seat. I can even, given the photos and descriptions from my wife, imagine Dick’s quiet, amused little snicker.

The Signal Corps was good to Dick, until it wasn’t. The good part was the training in technology and the advancement in both rank and leadership that occurred over the years. The bad part was over in Viet Nam. Signal Corps doesn’t sound so bad – you’re in the rear areas, and in some cases, he dealt with data processing. How dangerous can that be?

When Melissa and I went to France the first time, we visited the Loire Valley. I was able to connect with a retired US Army Signal Corps soldier – Bill Messner – who had married a French woman he’d met while serving at Signal Station Saumur in the 1950s. Bill had also served in Viet Nam and when we told him that Dick had cancer, Bill told us that a lot of Signal Corps men he’d served with in Viet Nam were dying of that as well. The bad thing about serving two tours in Viet Nam in the Signal Corps was that you had to drive up and down Route 1 a lot, checking and repairing the wires and equipment. So all those Signal Corps men got plenty of their share of Agent Orange.

Dick loved his girls, but Melissa never realized how much she’d miss him until the day of his funeral. He’d been a tough man, inspiring Melissa to write about growing up in his house as “Living with the Gestapo”. Of course, he was just trying to instill discipline and raise his daughter right. He didn’t make it easy for her to be close to him, but she tells me that despite the many times they’d butted heads even into her adult years, she wept uncontrollably at his funeral.

When we hold the Operation Dragoon and Colmar Pocket seminars, they always conduct a ceremony for the missing in action and prisoners of war, both at Arlington National Cemetery and again at the banquet. In this ceremony, a vacant chair and a place setting are laid out for the missing. I always think of the haunting lyrics of the Civil War era song, The Vacant Chair, “We shall meet and we shall miss him. There will be one vacant chair.”

At our wedding, Melissa and I wanted to include her father, so our good friend, Russ, who is a Sergeant in the National Guard (and will be deploying overseas next year) was able to get a Bronze Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster for Melissa to carry on her bouquet to signify his presence walking her down the aisle. When our brother-in-law Steve Murphy escorted Mary Lou down the aisle, he carried Dick’s flag from his funeral in Arlington. As the flag passed Russ, wearing his immaculate dress uniform, he rose to his feet and delivered a crisp salute. Steve placed Dick’s flag on a vacant chair next to Mary Lou, so that his presence would be known to all.

This year at Thanksgiving, and every year at family events, my mind may well drift to the man whom I know would have been my friend. I will thank him for giving me his daughter and I will miss him.

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