I know I have published this before, but, in my opinion, it will never lose its importance. Each time, I try to bring it up to date. We should forever keep the memories of our lost soldiers alive in our hearts and minds…
There isn’t a day that goes by when the thundering echoes of war escape us. Today, we live in a world rife with radical extremists like al Qaeda and daesh, defiantly justified to maim and kill in the name of their god. The following story is my hideous wake-up call. It came at a time when most wars were fought over more mundane causes - nationalism, patriotism, democracy, communism, bigotry and territorial rights. This was back when building a bigger and more powerful bomb was all the rage, and nations proudly strutted their massive hardware in shows of strength and unity in order to intimidate their neighbors and perceived threats. Today, our enemies use IEDs or strap a bomb to their chests and blow themselves up.
On a distant morning in 1967, one of my classmates at East Amwell Township School was quietly asked to get up from his desk and follow the administrator out of the classroom. I remember that day and wondering why. Did he do something wrong? Of course not, and it didn’t take very long before the principal announced on the P.A. system that his cousin, Van Dyke Manners, was killed in action in Vietnam. He was one of the first from Hunterdon County, New Jersey, to die in the line of duty. I didn’t know him personally, but I remember it well because it was a solemn day. My friend had lost a loved one. Greg did not come back to class that week. To a 14-year-old, those echoes of war were a distant sound that lightly flickered in our young minds. We never thought of death then. We were invincible, but with each passing day, the reverberation grew louder and louder, and reality hit us fast and hard. The Vietnam War was in full boom.
Back then, what was going on in our own back yards seemed more important than anything else, but the Vietnam war was lurking out there - somewhere in our heads. Despite our youthful dreams and aspirations, the war never escaped us. We saw it on our black & white television sets. We heard it on our AM radios. It made headlines in the daily newspapers. Everywhere we went, the specter loomed large and cut deeply into our subconscious minds.
Early in 1968, a girl who lived up the street from me asked if I would be interested in creating a portrait of her boyfriend. Back in those days, a small town was just that; there was no city in sight. Windows were left open to let air breeze through because air conditioning was a luxury. We weren’t afraid to leave our doors unlocked, and neighbors knew all the gossip. I was known as the left-handed artistic kid. Ask Dave. He knows how to draw.
She was a little older than me, and her boyfriend had enlisted in the Army. She offered to pay me and I accepted. I asked her to round up whatever photographs she could so I had something to work with. I asked her if I could meet him. To an artist, it’s good to know something about a subject that photographs alone cannot tell you. In the flesh, you get to know the person. Because of that request, I got to know Mike Baldwin. At 21, he was a man. At 15, I was not. He was old and mature. I was still a kid. He shaved, I didn’t, and with a war raging, I was in no hurry to buy my first razor.
His girlfriend asked me to draw the portrait as big as I could. When I went to the store to buy materials, my old “Be Prepared” Boy Scout lessons taught me to have a back-up plan, so I purchased two giant drawing boards, just in case I messed up. I couldn’t simply up and go to the store back then because I was too young to drive. Fortunately, I didn’t mess up, so I decided to draw another one, identical to the first. The original BOGO! I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I’m glad I did. Maybe I thought if the relationship didn’t work out years later, at least he would have one to share with his family. That must have been the reason. Maybe the death of Van Dyke put apprehension in my heart. You know, one for his mother, just in case.
When I finished the drawings, I made a date to deliver the artwork. My neighbor had invited Mike and his mother to “attend” the presentation. Everyone was very pleased with the job I had done, especially his mother, who was honored to have her son’s portrait captured by a local artist.
Soon afterward, he left for Vietnam. He went because he believed in a cause. He believed in America and freedom. In school, we were taught about the Domino Theory. Back then, it meant that if one country falls under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow. Red China didn’t exist on any of our maps and globes. It was just a grayed out mass of nonexistent land, but it was still a major threat because North Vietnam was one of the countries under their grip. South Vietnam was not, and we came to its defense. Today, Vietnam is one country but, by the end of the war, 58,000 red-blooded Americans gave up their lives. Michael Baldwin was one of them.
Nearly 46 years ago, he became a statistic. His body was zipped up in a bag and shipped home. That was the day I woke up to the horrible tragedy of war. It was my first experience. Someone I knew personally was dead because of it.
One of the things I learned, and it’s very important, was that Michael Baldwin put his country before his life. We lost so many and what did we gain? I know I gained a whole lot of respect for those who march off to war. Michael Baldwin was a man and I was a boy when we met, but I still look up to him and I will soon be 45 years older than he was on the day he died. To this very day, I wonder what would life be like had he lived. Would he have married my neighbor or someone else? Would he be happy? Or would he be mourning the loss of his children or grandchildren because of our brutal and self-inflicted world of terrorism, home-spun jihadists and plain, old weirdos? The more violence changes, the more it remains the same. Death is still death and the loss of loved ones over religion and politics is still just as senseless as it was the day Michael Baldwin died.
On July 19, he would be turning 68. I will remember him as a true American hero; a very proud young man. As for the identical pictures I drew, they are lost and gone, but not forgotten. In my mind, the memory of them will forever remain a haunting portrait of war.
Sgt. Michael Richard Baldwin (7/19/1947 - 9/12/1968) KIA - Binh Long Province, South Vietnam, ambushed while on reconnaissance 5 kilometers Northeast of Loc Ninh, along with:
Ssgt. Phillip Kenneth Baker - Detroit, MI
Pfc. Eugene Russell Boyce - Spartanburg, SC
Sp4. Wayne Daniel Jenkins - Bryson City, NC
Pfc. Kenneth Leroy Martin - Los Angeles, CA
Pfc. Marion Luther Oxner - Leesville, SC
Pfc. Dale Arden Palm - Toledo, OH
Pfc. Kurt Francis Ponath - Cudahy, WI
Sp4. J C Williams Jr. - Muncie, IN
Pfc. William Wittman - Binghamton, NY
September 12, 1968, was a long and sad day for Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division.
Pfc. Van Dyke William Manners (11/10/1945 - 2/15/1967) KIA - Kontum Province, South Vietnam
To all our brethren lost in wars, rest in peace. Your deaths will never be in vain.
I first published a different version of this story in 2006. Michael Baldwin’s cousin searched his name on Google and found my blog about a year later. She wrote me and said, “I just found your website and read your article about Mike. I just wanted to say thank you… It touched me and helped me remember my cousin very fondly. He was a good guy and the last of the Baldwin men in our family. He is remembered fondly by many of my friends who still [live] in Flemington, as well as my family.
“I also wanted to let you know that Aunt Peg didn’t handle Mike’s death very well. She couldn’t even bring herself to go to the funeral. I do remember that both she and my Uncle Alvin (Mike’s Dad) did attend the memorial at Ft. Dix after his death. That was really all she could handle. She always said she preferred to remember people while they were alive. I can’t say that I blame her. I didn’t understand it in 1968, but I get it now.
“Mike left a large impact on me. The memorial service was really something and I can still remember the 21 gun salute at his funeral in the cemetery in Flemington.”
Mike’s mother passed away in 1993. His sister contacted me right after her cousin got in touch with her. Here is what she told me:
“My cousin called me and told me about your blog. She had seen Michael’s name in it and read the story. I read it too and also your reply to her. I am Mike’s youngest sister. You made me cry—but it was a good cry.
“My family and I are so pleased that we are not the only one’s who remember Mike. Looking through your blog and your e-mail to Mary, I found it so interesting that there are so many things we are connected through.
“I go to church at Kirkpatrick Memorial Presbyterian church in Ringoes. Van Dyke’s mother went there before she died a couple of years ago and there is a stained glass window dedicated to him.
“My father worked for the Forans in the foundry they owned in Flemington. My father was friends with Walt Foran. [My friend Frank’s father.]
“When I read your blog, I could feel that you knew Mike well. He was a great kid and we loved him. You talk about my mother—you may not know it but I had a brother who was older than Mike—his name was Alvin—we called him Skip. He died in a car accident on Sept. 13, 1958. No, I didn’t confuse the dates, it was one day short of 10 years later that Mike was killed. It was a blow that my parents never recovered from.
“I am so glad that you wrote about Mike, it makes me feel that we are not the only ones who remember. Thank you again for keeping his memory alive.”
Please see: NJ Vietnam War Memorial - Michael Baldwin
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