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Postscript: The old men at the wall

Video by Aiden Korotkin for Vanishing Point Studio

It's 50 years since New Zealander Jim Lott died fighting for America in Vietnam, but the impact his short life had on men he served with has been long-lasting. Ben Stanley continues the story of the man known as 'Kiwi'. 

It was fifty years to the minute when Dick Smart - of New Orleans, Louisiana - reached out and touched the name of Jim Lott - of Mt Albert, Auckland - the man he had sat beside as he died.

Back in 1968, ‘Kiwi’ was just another Marine like him, hacking it in the Vietnam War. A good rugby player, Corporal Lott served in Vietnam thanks to his American father – and dreams of becoming a civil air traffic controller when he got back home to New Zealand.

At 5.35pm on May 8 that year, he was killed in a Viet Cong rocket attack on the radar van he sat in, in an airbase in Chu Lai. Dick, now a 71-year-old retiree in Baton Rouge, remembered a blunt, short ‘pow’ quite unlike the explosions in movies.

The van was a tangled mess of metal, his body was covered in chunks of shrapnel – and ‘Kiwi’ became the one of only two New Zealanders to die serving in the US military during the Vietnam War.

Read the original story of Jim Lott: The Kiwi marine who didn't make it home

“It’s the guilt,” Dick told me when I visited him earlier this year. “Why? Why should I have lived, and Kiwi died? How would the world have changed, if it had been reversed?”

For him, that guilt coursed its way through several failed marriages, into a tattoo with Jim’s name on it inked – against the wishes of his psychologist – on his forearm and, finally, to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - the Wall - in Washington DC this May.

Though a proud veteran, Dick had seen a smaller-scale ‘travelling wall’ when it visited Baton Rouge but had never before summoned the courage to make it to DC.

Health issues meant he had to travel using a cart, with the help of his son Zack, but at 5.35pm this May 8, he finally made it.

Left to right: Ben Stanley, Dan Callahan, Dick Smart, Pat Owen. Photo / Ben Stanley
Dick was flanked by two Minnesotans when he first saw Jim’s name, located on Line 6 of Panel 57E; Dan Callahan, Jim’s best mate at Chu Lai, and Patrick Owen, a close mate of Kiwi’s and Dan’s during training, stateside.

Dick had only ever heard Jim tell stories about Pat, who’d flown attack helicopters in Vietnam, while he and Dan hadn’t seen each other since Chu Lai.

“You get to the Wall [and] it’s like something is drawing you to the panel,” Dan, a talkative, pugnacious Irish-American from Minnesota, had told me. “You touch your name and you can see your reflection.”

I stood off to the side, watching the trio, who’d travelled from Louisiana, Minnesota and Pennsylvania to remember the 21-year-old Kiwi whose short, beautiful life I spent a large amount of the last year dedicated to discovering.

What I learned about him, his brother Garry – who never made it to the Wall himself - and what happens to soldiers when they go home will stay with me for many, many years – as will the tremendous honour of writing their truly heart-breaking story for North & South this May.

I remember working on the story’s draft in mid-February when Garry’s granddaughter Tyra emailed me to say that his cancer was terminal and he only had a few days left. Was it possible, she asked, to get him a draft before he died.

I worked hard, but couldn’t; Garry would die on February 16, at the North Shore Hospice. I thought of the afternoon I met him, at his old used car dealership office in Ellerslie and how everything tumbled out of him.

From Jim’s old kauri toy chest to a titoki tree at St Luke’s Anglican he described the thread of it all slowly, sniffing and pausing every few moments, before re-gathering himself and continuing. It was painfully clear how close Jim was to him, after all these years. My warm, open interactions with Debbie bore that out further.

Given the deployment of relatively few Kiwis, the Vietnam War had always existed as somewhat of an abstract for me. There were no Vietnam vets I knew in my hometown of Taupo, so I turned to the books, films and music inspired by the era.

Recently, the conflict has been back in focus with acclaimed documentary-makers Ken Burns and Lynn Novak covering - from the paddy fields to the politics and protests – it exquisitely in The Vietnam War; a 17-hour PBS series into the subject. It also screened on TVNZ.

The more I learnt, over the years, the more the War felt like a coda for America itself; of what happens when winners finally lose - and how it changes them forever.

As it appears today, the United States in the 1960s was a nation grappling with its very nature; the undeniable public wrestling of the better angels with whatever grows in the dark.

With more than 58,000 Americans killed, Vietnam was the spine to that cultural transformation. It was decades before America finally knew that vanity, of all things, was the answer to the question they’d always wondered: why were our boys in Vietnam?

The scars run deep. They are carried heavily by vets like Dick, but also in modern-day political engagement. After all, three Presidents, of both parties, lied to the American public about Vietnam. The distrust born then has only grown.

You couldn’t feel that in that used car dealership in Ellerslie, or at the Wall on May 8, this year. It was spring break for American schools back then, meaning the three vets shared the monument with hundreds of high school kids slowly filing past.

Some would stop beside Dick, Dan and Pat, and ask to shake their hand. “Thank you for your service,” they’d say.

Off they’d go, with their sincerity, leaving a Vietnam War story behind them that, a year before, I wouldn’t have recognized either. I do now, though – and know that what’s left is important.

That a world away from Washington or Vietnam, in Auckland, a family still revers Jim like their father, grandfather and uncle always did.

That three old men, from different parts of America, got together for the first time in fifty years and remembered their mate ‘Kiwi’ from New Zealand.

I only wish Garry could have read that draft.