The Kiwi marine who didn't make it home from Vietnamby Ben Stanley
Jim Lott was one of two New Zealanders who died serving in the United States military in the Vietnam War. His brother Garry survived – but like so many of “Kiwi” Jim’s fellow Marines, the loss of a much-loved brother and wartime mate cast a long shadow. May 8 marks the 50th anniversary of Jim’s death. North & South contributing writer Ben Stanley follows the threads of his short, shining life.
Part I: “Keep Your Head Down, Gar.”
It was early May at the Marine Corps Air Base in Chu Lai, South Vietnam. The sun made its lazy way across the sky. The hottest part of the year was over.
Garry Lott (above left) had a hangover, but the pain had been worth it. The last day with Jim (above right), had been a cracker. After landing at five o’clock the evening before, May 6, 1968, on an inbound chopper from Dong Ha, Garry found his older brother down by the beach, knocking back cheap beer in the enlisted men’s club. Jim gave Garry a big hug, and slapped him on the back. The Lott boys hadn’t seen each other since Auntie Madge’s in Kansas City.
That was nine months ago, and though they were both out of boot camp by then, they were still kids. Now, they were Marines. Hard bastards. True hackers. They looked it, too. Jim, with his stout, top-heavy rugby player’s build – his wide, muscular chest holding up two broad shoulders that led down to Pinetree-like mitts. With curly, slick brown hair and a confident smile, Jim had all the swagger a 21-year-old kid could hope for.
Garry, two years younger, didn’t ooze the same confidence but did have half a head and the best part of a stone on Jim, which always pissed off his brother. Garry’s sandy blond hair was more Southern California than Auckland, and his narrower chest more of a surfer’s than a second five’s. But here they were – the Lott boys of Mt Albert, slap-bang in the middle of the Vietnam War.
It was a good time to visit Jim. A mini skirt-wearing girl band from Tokyo had also arrived and performed a range of Top 40 hits for the assembled Marines. Jim scored the brothers front-row seats, and kept Garry constantly supplied with cold San Miguels.
After the show, they headed to the hooches, where one of Jim’s buddies was having a leaving party. Rotating back to the States, he was sent off with booze and greasy food. The Lott boys ate hamburgers without buns, and someone produced a bottle of bourbon. Jim could put away his booze, but Garry couldn’t. He knocked back three glasses straight and ran for the door, spewing when he made it. Inside, the lads all laughed and carried on.
Next morning, Jim and Garry headed down to the beach, stripped down to their cut-off fatigue shorts and went for a dip in the South China Sea. Jim showed Garry around the base, posed for a couple of photos with him. Garry got ready for the chopper. Jim’s mate from the party was leaving on it, too.
The Viet Cong had been quiet while Garry was in Chu Lai, with no attacks on the base. He joked with Jim that it was the softest place in South Vietnam.
Right after 12, the chopper swooped in, its rotor blades cutting through the air to beat that familiar whop-whop-whop. A couple of Marines jumped out, and Jim’s mate ran for the door. Garry turned to his brother to say goodbye. They both grinned, and hugged. With their faces inches apart, Jim told his brother, “Keep your head down, Gar.”
Garry nodded, turned and ran for the chopper. The blades spun into top speed again, and off the Huey went. Jim watched the chopper hover up, point itself north and slip back into the war.
In Dong Ha that night, Garry sat down and wrote to his mother:
I just arrived back from Chu Lai, after seeing Jim. We had a ball in the short time I was there. At the moment, I’m on watch, things are picking up here, it’s really getting busy – war’s hell! Dong Ha got hit bad, but luckily I was down in Chu Lai.
Part II: A Tītoki Tree at St Luke’s Anglican
At the top of a small rise beside St Luke’s Anglican Church in Mt Albert, there is a tall tītoki tree that went into the soil nearly 50 years ago. A hardy timber, tītoki was prized by Māori and early European settlers for its strength, and the oiliness of its seeds. The Māori phrase “peka tītoki” was often used as a whakatauki (proverb) to compare its hardiness to rangitira, whose surrender cost a high price.
Usually early in the week, and every week for more than two decades, a tall, ageing man with an expanding belly would walk up the concrete path from New North Rd to the small cemetery by the church. He would brush away any leaves that had gathered at the base of the tree, and clean the plaque that sat beneath it. As Anzac Day approached, he’d place a poppy – and say gidday to his brother.
I met that tall, ageing man last November, in the office of Macdonald Halligan Motors in Ellerslie, just off the Southern Motorway. Garry Lott worked at the used car dealership there.
“A friend of mine got me into car sales and I never left,” he said, leaning over his desk. “It’s one of those jobs – once you’re in, you can’t get out. Once you want to get out, no one wants you because you’re a used car salesman.”
His build gave some indication of his life; he was rough-hewn, with a big beer gut and a firm, provincial handshake. His voice, low and resigned, added little garnish to any tale he told.
“People always say, ‘Why don’t you retire?’ – which I can,” he said. “But I can’t go fishing or play golf seven days a week. I quite enjoy the contact here. My family has grown up and I’ve been divorced for years. It’s only me; I like being alone, actually.
“I like to go home at night, run around in my bloody underwear and pour myself a nice pinot noir or grab a beer out of the fridge – and not have the hassle of being nagged.
“I do have to nag myself, though. ‘What time do you call this, Garry? Why don’t you do the dishes in the sink?’ All joking aside, I can’t maintain living with a woman day in, day out.”
Garry didn’t look a healthy man to me. Neither of us knew then, but he was dying. There was cancer in his liver, which would spread through his body over the coming months. Most of those months he’d spend as he had the past 25 years: working Wednesday through Sunday at the dealership, using his two remaining days for buying groceries, seeing his daughter and grandchildren – and visiting his older brother, Jim, at St Luke’s Anglican.
Born in Auckland on April 17, 1947, Jim Lott was one of only two New Zealand-born servicemen who died serving in the United States military in the Vietnam War. A random search of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall website last winter led me to that Ellerslie used car dealership office. Of the 58,318 names inscribed on the wall in Washington DC, only two are listed with New Zealand as their home of record: James Edward Lott and Harry Payne Burton.
Born in Christchurch in 1942, Burton moved to Baltimore as a kid. A sergeant in the 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment, “Skeeter” Burton was killed assaulting a bunker complex near Tay Ninh on April 13, 1969.
Others would serve, like Hauraki-born Errol Palmer, who taught English to Vietnamese children while serving in the US Air Force; Aucklander Mike Golaboski, who now lives on Great Barrier Island; and Jim’s brother, Garry.
Over the course of nearly a year, the story of the Lott brothers would send me, a Kiwi journalist who splits his time between Memphis and Taupō, to a Cajun restaurant in Baton Rouge; a riverside casino in Tunica, Mississippi; the memorial wall itself; and through a window into what the Vietnam War was, and remains, for those who loved, or knew, Jim Lott.
Part III: The Lott Boys
The river that ran to Chu Lai, via Mt Albert, began in Baltimore, Maryland, when Albert Edward Lott Jr was born in 1921. His father, Albert Edward Lott Sr was 29 when his first son was born. As he was listed in the 1940 US Census, Albert Sr had the “dark, ruddy complexion” that his grandson Jim would have as an adult.
In June 1918, Albert Sr had been drafted to fight in World War I. Still in training when the conflict finished that November, he reskilled as a machinist on the Baltimore docks.
His wife, Beatrice Gale, was 27 when Albert Jr was born. The couple would have one more – Edward George – 14 years later. From the hospital, Albert Jr was taken back to 2138 Hollins St, the family home where Beatrice’s father, Clarence, also lived.
Like his father, Albert Jr went dockside. By the time World War II broke out in Europe, he had secured an apprentice-ship as a shipbuilding machinist and was a talented woodworker.
War reached America when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. A fit 20-year-old, Albert Jr signed up with the US Army. After basic training, he was posted to the 25th Infantry Division, which was sent to Guadalcanal in November 1942. In January 1943, Private Lott got his first taste of action there before further combat in Vella Lavella and New Georgia later that year. The 25th Division was then sent to Auckland for retooling between December 1943 and February 1944.
That summer, Kiwi authorities organised a series of social events for the resting American troops. At one of them, a 24-year-old teacher from Ponsonby caught Albert Jr’s eye.
Joan Linda Hannken was born in 1919, the daughter of Roy “Clarry” Hannken and Linda Williams. The pair married in Auckland in 1916, just before Clarry volunteered to fight in Europe.
Private Hannken fought at Passchendaele and Messines before returning home in 1918. A pre-war carter, he became a cabinetmaker and built a home for his new family at 44 Sainsbury St, Mt Albert. A son, Graham Roy, was born in 1924.
After leaving school, Joan took a job at LD Nathan as a clerk before becoming a primary school teacher. Although most wartime romances didn’t stay the course, Albert Jr returned to New Zealand after the conflict ended and married Joan at St Luke’s Anglican Church on July 27, 1946.
The following April, their first son James was born at the Jesmond Dene Nursing Home at 737 New North Rd. On March 22, 1949, a second son, Roy Garry Lott, was born. The family moved back to Baltimore in 1950, but Joan didn’t like it much and the marriage broke up. While Albert Jr stayed in the US, she and the two boys returned to live with her parents in Mt Albert.
Their beloved Pa, Clarry, died in 1954, leaving Joan and Linda to raise the kids. Not long after, Albert Jr was back on the scene. “Mum got a call from him,” Garry, who has never gone by his first name, told me. “He wanted to come back and reconcile.”
To earn his keep, Albert Jr turned the family’s garage into his workshop. He installed a lathe, and made pool tables that he’d sell around Mt Albert. Despite those efforts, Albert Jr was said to be a lazy man who enjoyed drinking, smoking and bludging off his hard-working wife.
“He bought a whole lot of tools at Farmers and left them on tick for Mum to pay off,” says Garry. “He loved to drink [and] he used to leave cigarette burns all over the place. He’d smoke Lucky Strikes. I remember when he came out, when I was seven or eight, he had cartons of Lucky Strikes. No filters on them, either.”
The Lotts’ second attempt at marriage failed and Albert Jr left Auckland for Christchurch in 1957. Jim never saw him again, and Garry only twice. The only contact now was empty envelopes he’d send to their mother. “It was probably just for show, for his mates, that he was paying [child support] for us,” says Garry.
Jim and Garry’s childhood was little different from that of most suburban Pākehā Kiwis in post-war New Zealand, where rugby was True North. The boys played rugby at Mt Albert Primary (where their mum was a teacher), Kōwhai Intermediate and Mt Albert Grammar [MAGS]. Summers would see them wander down to Mt Albert Primary to play force-back on the fields. “He was the intelligent one – I was the typical prick,” says Garry. “We weren’t tooth and nail, though. We did everything together.”
To the family, James was always Jim or Jimmy. Garry was always Gar, or “Me Too”, because he followed along with what Jim was doing. Garry liked winding up his protective older brother. When they were kids, Jim had dozens of plastic army soldiers he would lay out in battle scenes; Garry would walk right over them.
By the time they got to high school, the Lott boys – they and their mother Joan kept Albert Jr’s last name – were keen rugby players. Jim played any position in the backline except halfback, while Garry was usually a fullback or centre. In 1963, Jim made MAGS’ 3A team, essentially the 2nd XV. Future All Black legend B.G. Williams was in the team the following year.
After gaining his School Certificate and UE, Jim left MAGS after sixth form for teacher’s college, wanting to follow in his mother’s footsteps. Not long before that, when he turned 16, he received a letter from the US Department of Defense telling him he was eligible to join the US military. Garry got the same letter the following year. While the boys couldn’t be drafted, as they weren’t full American citizens, their father’s home country was giving them the choice to serve if they wished.
The letter planted a seed in Jim. It grew for two years; at 18, he decided he was going to be a Marine. With Golaboski, a fellow Kiwi-American, he left in early September 1965, bound for Hawaii – the nearest Marine recruitment office.
“Me Too” would follow the next year. Their mother was worried but knew she couldn’t stop them. Her only request was that they write regularly.
“To me, it was an escape – a big OE,” says Garry.
IV. The Tattoo
A garage door in suburban Baton Rouge, Louisiana, slowly jolts open, revealing a big black and white sticker on the back of Richard Smart’s 2013 Lexus. “FUCK JANE FONDA,” it reads.
Smart, a 70-year-old former Marine, still despises the Hollywood actress for visiting Hanoi in 1972. By then, tens of thousands of American men and women had died serving in Vietnam. He still sees the star’s visit to the enemy as the ultimate betrayal.
Smart, who goes by the nickname “Max”, after the 1960s television secret agent Maxwell Smart, leads a lonely life. Mostly housebound these days, he retired about eight years ago. His last wife, his fourth, has since left him, though he often sees his 20-year-old son, Zack, a Baton Rouge college student and janitor.
Every Friday, this pudgy man with a trimmed white beard escapes with a friend to a nearby Hooters for a lunch of ribs, hot wings and sweet tea. “We tip well,” he tells me.
Smart’s resignation – and his honesty – takes a truly American form, but I’d encountered this attitude before, in Ellerslie. Garry Lott and “Max” Smart had much in common, though they never met.
Although 37 Kiwis were killed in the Vietnam War while serving in our own military, New Zealand’s involvement was very limited. Early in the conflict, the White House put pressure on Prime Minister Keith Holyoake to send troops. Though personally reluctant, Holyoake knew – due to the 1951 Anzus Treaty, – he had to make some commitment.
“The government’s advisors warned that the war was unwinnable,” says Dr Ian McGibbon, who wrote 2010’s New Zealand’s Vietnam War. “We did the minimum we could do, really.”
Small surgical and engineering units were sent in 1963 and 1964, before 161 Battery and company-sized detachments from the Royal NZ Infantry Regiment were sent over the following two years. All up, more than 3000 Kiwis served in South Vietnam.
Though controversial back home and the subject of regular protests, the Vietnam War didn’t reshape New Zealand society the way it did in the US. As documentary makers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick showed in last year’s acclaimed 17-hour PBS series The Vietnam War, the conflict changed the way America looked at itself. Coupled with the civil rights and counter-culture movements, many Americans’ trust in their government was shaken to the core. After all, the administrations of three presidents – Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon – had been wildly dishonest about their nation’s involvement and potential for success in Vietnam.
For Smart, the scepticism that bred, along with the memory of how he was treated upon returning, is as vivid today as it was then – as it is to hundreds of thousands of Americans who served in Southeast Asia. What do you do if your involvement in something as a kid changed your life, and the direction of your country as well? For Smart, it eventually meant a tattoo for a mate killed a couple of feet away from him.
He shows it to me not long after we walk back into his lounge, after lunch at a Cajun diner on the other side of Baton Rouge. The ink, done eight years ago, depicts a gravestone with a Marine’s helmet above it. “USMC” the ink reads at the top, and then:
James “Kiwi” Lott
Kia May 8, 1968
Chu Lai, RVN
All Gave Some…
… Some Gave All
“My psychiatrist was fuming,” says Smart. There’s little emotion in his voice. “‘That’s the last thing you need,’ she said to me, ‘to be reminded 24-7.’ But I want to think about the kid.”
Remembrance of Jim Lott takes different forms for the Marine buddies who called him “Kiwi”. Minneapolis’s Daniel Callahan, who I met at a rundown riverside casino in Mississippi as he travelled to visit his daughter in Florida, named his son James, now 31, after his best mate in Chu Lai.
Vermont’s Peter Stone, who now lives in Silver City, New Mexico, pours two glasses of whisky for Jim every year: on April 17, his birthday, and May 8, the day he died. Minnesota’s Pat Owen thinks of a boot-camp pledge to buy two islands in the Pacific – and a pounamu tiki a kid from Mt Albert gave him.
“Has it helped you?” I ask Smart about the tat. Smart shakes his head and grimaces. “No,” he says. “But it hasn’t hurt me, either. It’s just my way of remembering.”
V. The Road To Chu Lai
Four months after Jim left, “Me Too” was destined for Hawaii, and the Marine Corps, as well. Garry’s passage cost £108.
Before he boarded the RMS Arcadia in Auckland on January 7, 1966, Jim sent him a letter full of advice about the notorious eight-week Marine Corps boot camp he’d completed the previous month in San Diego.
"Just put your best [foot] forward all the time and don’t do anything until the D.I. [drill instructor] tells you,” Jim wrote. “Remember it is only eight weeks long and at the end of it, you will be a graduated Marine."
By the time Garry got to San Diego that February, Jim was in Memphis, at a Marine sorting station for recruits who chose to pursue further training in the aviation field. After several weeks, Jim was told he was going to be an air traffic controller. Four months of basic air traffic control and radar training at the Naval Air Station in Glynco, Georgia followed.
In September 1966, he was sent to the Marine Corps Air Base at Cherry Point, North Carolina for nearly a year of on-the-job training: reading flight data, relying on radar, organising landing order and coordinating a pilot’s approach. Training was hard and weather-dependent. Rain was best for the instructors because the trainees, who worked in three daily eight-hour shifts, would have to be fully reliant on radar.
Pat Owen was Jim’s bunkmate at Cherry Point. He would go on to fly Cobra attack helicopters in Vietnam, but right then, he just had the top bunk. “[Jim] was short, no more than 5’5”, I suppose, but he was built like a fireplug,” Owen tells me over the phone from his home in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. “He was smart, too. Anyone in our field had to be smart, given the scores you needed.”
Daniel Callahan met Jim for the first time at Cherry Point and, although they would become closer at Chu Lai, they were drinking buddies in North Carolina, “doing Singapore Slings for a quarter a piece”, he says.
The following summer, Jim, Callahan and Owen all graduated as air traffic controllers, took the rank of corporal and awaited their orders. Some in their class would be posted to smaller bases in the US or Japan, but all three, and half their colleagues, would end up in Vietnam. Before they left, Jim, who’d by now gained the unsurprising “Kiwi” nickname, gave Owen a small pounamu tiki, and the pair made a pact that once they were out, they’d buy two Pacific islands together, which they’d found on an atlas.
“We had no Google Earth back then, so you couldn’t tell what these places looked like,” says Owen, laughing. “[Later, I found out] they were in the middle of the Pacific and both were nothing more than sand and an airstrip.”
While Jim waited for the news he’d be off to Vietnam, his younger brother had already arrived.
After boot camp, Garry had followed Jim into Marine aviation, training as a radar technician, and was posted to Khe Sahn in July 1967. Garry, who hadn’t seen his brother since they both stayed with their Aunt Madge in Kansas City the year before, worked with the MedEvac Hueys there.
It was a hairy introduction for Garry, who received minor shrapnel and gunshot wounds by the end of his first month. We’re really taking a lot of fire from old ‘Charlie’ lately – it adds to the excitement, he wrote to his mother.
Jim landed in Vietnam on November 15, 1967 aboard a civilian 707 from San Francisco, bound for Da Nang. Incoming air control recruits were sent wherever reinforcements were needed. Jim could have been sent to Khe Sanh, Dong Ha, Quang Tri, Phu Bai or Chu Lai; next day he boarded a C-130 for the base his brother would later call “the softest… in South Vietnam”.
If you wanted to be an ace air traffic controller, you couldn’t have hoped for a better spot than Chu Lai in 1967 and 68. Over those years, the airbase would be considered the sixth busiest airport in the world, in terms of overall activity. “We humped a lot of traffic,” says Callahan, who was already there when Jim arrived. “Anyone who worked that tower could have worked anywhere in the world – and they did.”
Around 100km south of Da Nang, Chu Lai airbase was split in two by a 3km-long airfield. To the right of the runway was the ocean and, in between the two, sat Marine accommodation or “hooches”, a mess hall, an enlisted men’s club, mechanics bays and plane parks. To the left were the tower, rescue and recovery area, temporary stand-alone mess hall, and the sandbagged radar control van, where Jim would spend his working life as a Marine. The whole base was ringed by barbed wire and bunkers. Other than a small rock quarry on its western edge, the airbase was mostly surrounded by scrubby jungle, though a small village was a few clicks north.
Assigned to Crew 2, Marine Air Traffic Control Unit 67 (MATCU-67), Cprl Lott’s focus was the A-4 Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms of Marine Air Groups 12 and 13, which provided air support for ground troops inland. “These guys had their lives in his hands, [but] Jim was pretty good at it, too,” Peter Stone tells me over the phone.
Both Jim and Stone arrived in Chu Lai around the same time that November, and were assigned the same hooch. It was basic plywood hut with a corrugated iron roof, but the boys decked it out. Grass mats covered the floor, and a small fridge, hot plate, record player and tape recorder had also been acquired. All the comforts of home, a letter home announced.
“Kiwi” made a big impression on his unit. Not only was he a hard, unselfish worker, he was a good laugh, well-read – he’d brought along several books by his favourite author James A. Michener – and happy to learn American football on the beach, as long as he could share a bit of rugby knowledge.
Serving 24-hours on/24-hours off shifts, downtime often gravitated around the enlisted men’s club, where a beer was 10c. Garry told me he always worried Jim suffered their father’s thirst for the bottle. Kiwi’s drinking abilities matched anyone at Chu Lai. “I tell you, Kiwi could put away some beer,” says Stone. “I tried to keep up with him a couple of times, and I don’t know how I got back to our hooch.”
A Minnesota-Irish farm boy, Callahan – known as D.C. to his mates – could knock it back as well as Jim, and the two became close friends. “There were some guys who thought we were two men who had a thing for each other,” he tells me. “We never would have because we weren’t that way, but guys couldn’t believe that two guys could be that close as friends.”
By December 1967, perimeter guard duties were among the few things that punctuated Jim’s Chu Lai rhythm. Just before Christmas, he watched Bob Hope’s show perform at the base – and got to shake hands with starlet Raquel Welch afterwards. He also reconnected with Golaboski, who was serving in Chu Lai’s motor transport detachment.
Like everywhere else, the base was shaken by the Tet Offensive, a massive nationwide North Vietnam and Viet Cong surprise attack launched the following month. On January 31, Chu Lai was hit by 48 rockets, which, as well as wrecking some of the hooches, blew up a bomb dump, damaging 30 fighter jets.
Life is rather exciting at present – like having Guy Fawkes or the 4th of July every night, Jim wrote to his mother, from a bunker, on February 1. Please don’t worry – I am really quite safe. I wrote this because I figured we would probably be in the news and I want you to know I am doing okay.
Scholars have often pointed to Tet as the beginning of the end for the Americans in Vietnam. After Tet, Jim noticed, too. Drugs started to become a big problem, with Marines not only smoking marijuana but shooting up heroin and taking speed, too.
Callahan – who, like Jim, stuck to booze – told me half the air traffic crews were addicted to drugs. He remembers, at one point, three technicians being choppered out after overdosing on smack. Prostitution, at the local village, also became an issue.
All Marines were signed up for 13 months “in country”, meaning Jim’s time wouldn’t be up until December 68. He was already thinking about life after that. He had organised an interview with KLM Airlines, for a job as a controller in Amsterdam, and considered training with the Civil Aviation Authority at home.
His letters remained brief, but created the image of a young bloke getting on with life as much as he could. He wrote of qualifying as a final-approach controller, celebrating a booze-soaked 21st with D.C. and Golaboski, and the overnight visit from Garry to Chu Lai in May, which was organised the month before. “He’d talk a little bit about [New Zealand], but mostly it was ‘I can’t wait to get out of here and go home,’” says Stone.
By March, MATCU-67 brought on two locals to work for them, as part of the US military’s “Vietnamisation” programme, to help skill up South Vietnamese. One, a well-liked 16-year-old, was in training to be a diesel mechanic when he was run over and killed by a truck.
The other was an older man, nicknamed “Papa-san”, who was tasked with keeping the mess hall tidy. The Marines had their suspicions straight away. “We were constantly chasing his butt back to that mess hall,” says Smart. “He was sneaking around here, and sneaking around there. We told the captain, ‘Get rid of him’, but nothing would happen. One day, Papa-san didn’t turn up for work. We thought, ‘Well, maybe the old man is sick.’ That night, we had a rocket attack. Usually the rocket attacks go after the airplanes on the east side. This attack comes on the west side. It barely missed us, and hit the launch and recovery unit. Next day, here’s Papa-san.” The captain continued to be nagged, but the old man remained at Chu Lai.
By then, Garry had moved from Khe Sanh to Dong Ha. His year was up in August, and he was pretty much over it, too. A week before he flew to Chu Lai, he wrote to his mum: There are a lot of men dying here. I shouldn’t say men, as the average age is 19, which is really unfair because men in their 50s and 60s organise and plan this war.
VII. May 8, 1968
The dishes in the mess area remained dirty on Thursday May 8, 1968. The old man hadn’t turned up for work, again. That spooked Smart, and led the boys to make an agreement; they would sleep in a nearby bunker that night instead of the hooches.
Jim had scored an extra shift off the day before, meaning he’d nabbed three straight days away from the radar van. At the last minute, though, he swapped back onto a shift for another Marine who hadn’t had leave for a while. After all, Jim had had a decent break. Kiwi was on the same shift as Smart, but was taking over from Callahan, who’d been in the van all day. It was sunny and clear at Chu Lai. Visibility for pilots had ensured work wasn’t tough going.
“Kiwi,” Callahan told Jim, “I’ve gotta go get some chow.” Callahan headed to the mess hall on the other side of the airstrip, as the new shift got comfortable. Staff Sergeant John Rush took
a seat in front of a radar scope, while Corporal Gerald Ryser sat in front of flight data. Staff Sergeant John Pekirk, the radar tech, was the shift coordinator, advising the two controllers which aircraft were coming in, and on what radio frequency.
Staff Sergeant John Call was the crew chief, on his feet, checking on his team and the data. Jim and Smart were in the admin area, where there was a spare radar scope, and desk. Jim was at the desk, reading magazines, when Smart came over and starting chatting. They talked about nothing in particular – the weather, the shift, Garry’s visit over the past two days. At 5.30pm, Jim yawned and looked at Smart. “I’m tired,” he told him. “I’m going to lay my head down and take a nap.” “All right,” said Smart. “I’ll talk to you later.”
Over the magazines on the desk, Jim laid his arms in front of him, rested his head on them and closed his eyes. Smart did the same, leaning back against the entry to the admin area a few feet away. The van was hot and quiet, when the rocket hit at exactly 5.35pm. It shook the van like a giant punch, entering at the top of the wall above the two radar scopes at the northern end of the van.
Smart remembers little of the impact, except that it wasn’t like what he’d seen on TV. It was just a “pow” with little actual explosion. But daylight was everywhere – and he knew that was a bad sign.
Rush starting yelling, “Get to the bunker!” and the men staggered out of the van, which was now a ragged, twisted mangle of metal, wires, antenna and blood. The airbase sirens starting blaring, full noise. At the main mess hall, Callahan took cover and waited for the sirens to stop, before going outside to see what had happened. He saw smoke billowing from the van, and ran back over the runway.
Call was screaming in agony; his arm had been hit – badly. Smart dragged him to the bunker outside and pressed his hand on Call’s arm to stop the bleeding. There were first aid kits in the van, but, in the confusion, nobody could locate anything. Everyone else had made for the bunker, too, loaded up with rifles, machine guns and ammunition, and was waiting for the follow-up attack.
A medic arrived and, along with Rush, took over from Smart. ‘I’ll take care of you in a minute,” he said.
Smart thought the blood that covered him was Call’s, but it was mostly his own. He’d been peppered with shrapnel, taking one piece in the right bicep, another in his upper right chest and a third long splinter that had sliced through his waist. He sat to the side and looked at the van. He saw the admin area where he and Jim were sitting and knew, straight away, what had happened. So did Stone, who’d been hanging out in a nearby medical hut when the rocket hit. He stuck his head inside the smoking van and knew Jim was gone. Callahan, who had just arrived, didn’t know. “We got hit,” the guys told him, but they didn’t want to answer his only real question: “Where’s Kiwi?”
Jim was in a Marine ambulance by then. The top of his head had been blown off. James Edward Lott had died instantly, painlessly, dozing on a desk more than 9000km from home.
Smart, after being treated by medics, noticed Jim’s body as he was bundled into the ambulance, but didn’t want to look back. Before a second attack, which missed everything, a chopper arrived and took Call to the hospital. Another flew over to the rock quarry at the edge of the base, where the rocket seemed to have come from. There, it found three Viet Cong scrambling away; a small part of another national offensive history would call “Mini-Tet”.
The Huey’s machine gun was turned on them, “and those son-of-a-bitches are dead”, Smart told me, with gritted teeth, 50 years later and a world away.
Callahan remembers light-green ribbons falling like rain. They were flight progress strips that controllers filled in, scattered by the rocket’s impact. Down they streamed, onto the tangled remains of the radar van, the bunker and the airfield.
VII. Mother’s Day
The phone rang at 44 Sainsbury St on the morning of Mother’s Day, May 12, 1968. On the mantelpiece sat the appropriate card from her oldest boy, whose last letter she’d received the day before. Joan Lott answered and heard an American voice. It was a representative from the American consulate in Auckland. He told her Jim had been killed in action.
Although she hadn’t heard from him yet, her youngest son had found out four days earlier. Garry had been back in Dong Ha less than 48 hours when an order came through for him. He was to report to Da Nang, but there was no other information. With an M-16 in hand, Garry sat shotgun in a tiny two-seat chopper for the flight down the coast, wondering what was up.
When he got to Da Nang, he walked to a friend’s place and opened a cold Coke before ringing headquarters to let them know where he was. A jeep with two MPs turned up and bundled him aboard. Still no one told him what was happening. “We’ve got some bad news for you,” the colonel told Garry, as he entered the office. Garry’s first thought was that his grandmother or, even worse, his mother had died. “I’m sorry to tell you,” the colonel continued, “your brother has been killed.”
Garry broke down in front of the officer, who put the military machine into gear to bring them both home. Within 12 hours of finding out, Garry was flying out of South Vietnam on a C-130 to Okinawa, Japan. The whole plane was full of caskets. “I remember sitting in there thinking, ‘Which one is Jim?’”
After identifying Jim’s body in Okinawa – “I was just like, ‘Yeah, that’s him.’ [I] never touched him, never kissed him or anything” – Garry was issued with a crisp new uniform, sent to Hawaii, given 30 days’ leave and put on a Pan Am flight back to Auckland. His brother’s body travelled with him. The next few days, back home and before the funeral, were a blur. Garry remembers only fragments of them now. In one, he is sitting in the silent lounge at Sainsbury St with his mum, repeating over and over, “Jim’s dead. Jim’s dead.” In another, his father is making a scene at the airport as he brings out Jim’s body.
The funeral took place at St Luke’s Anglican – the same church his parents were married in more than two decades before – on Saturday, May 25, 1968. An American military attaché accompanied the family to the church, where Albert Jr made another scene about not sitting in the front row. “Dad,” Garry told him “give it a break.”
The consulate had given the attaché a big American flag that was laid on Jim’s casket, which Albert Jr and Garry folded, then Garry presented to Joan. An honour guard of the local Boy’s Brigade – Jim had been a member as a child – and Kiwi Special Air Service soldiers was formed outside, and watched as RSA veterans carried out the casket.
The body was cremated at Waikumete Cemetery in Glen Eden. Jim’s ashes were spread there. Family in the US sent money for a plaque to be made for Jim, which was set in the St Luke’s cemetery with a young tītoki tree.
The Lott family found that Auckland was learning about Jim, too. Anti-war protestors demonstrated as the hearse was wheeled into the cemetery; a tabloid splashed the story – with a picture of Jim in uniform – on the back page.
“‘Brother Home in Sorrow’ was the headline,” said Garry, with a deep sigh. “‘What a whole lot of crap,’ I was saying then. But I was… I really was [in sorrow]. I always felt terribly guilty about waving it off as though I was a tough dude. I was broken.”
Circling back to May 8, he shook his head. “I mean, if I’d stayed another day [in Chu Lai], Jim would have probably said, ‘I can’t – my brother is here.’ Or worse is Jim could have said, ‘I want to show Gar where I work.’ I could have been in the van with him if I stayed another day. So many different scenarios, aren’t there?”
VIII. Panel 57E, Line 6
For Vietnam veterans, and the American families of those who served and died there, the salve to their grief and to the guilt of their survival has often been found at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, which was unveiled in November 1982. The names of those who died between 1957 and 1975 span two 75m-long black gabbro panels in a V-shaped form.
Some veterans get a piece of paper and etch names in pencil lead or crayon. Others leave items. Others simply reach and touch the name of the mate they left behind. A veteran was doing just that at a panel near where Jim’s name can be found when I visited early last September. To look at the wall and feel the immenseness of so many names – so many stories – strips away the mythology of the Vietnam War. Everything you’ve seen, read and heard about it disappears. Solemnly, the wall offers but one message: this is who they were.
Despite being opposed to the wall when it was built, Callahan visited in the mid-80s. He did what Owen and Stone would later do and found his way to Panel 57E, Line 6 to find Jim’s name, right there, between Victor L. Layne, a black 23-year-old infantryman from Albany, Texas, and Gerald W. Mayberry, a white 20-year-old Marine engineer from Franklin, Kentucky. All three, and 74 others, died on May 8, 1968.
“[When] you walk down into it and you find the name, well, it’s almost like you are being pulled in,” Callahan tells me. “There’s an unbelievable feeling that comes over you. It got right to my heart – right to the pit. You see your reflection, you see his name and you think, ‘Oh, my God.’ All the good and bad memories come flooding back.”
Garry never made it to the wall – “I’d been a lot closer to Jim than just touching his name on a wall,” he told me – but his daughter, Debbie Elias, hopes to take her own daughter, Tyra, one day.
On May 8 this year, the 50th anniversary of Jim’s death, Smart will make the trip from Baton Rouge for the first time. He’d seen a small-scale “travelling wall” when it visited Louisiana years ago, but this would be the real deal.
“That almost destroyed me, so I can only imagine what happens at the actual wall,” he says. “I’ve got to go. My son won’t let me go alone, but I have to go.”
For men like Smart, the Vietnam War they fought, and still fight, is now two generations past. There have already been 50-year anniversaries: the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, August 2014; the first American troops landing, March 2015; the Battle of Long Tan, August 2016; the Tet Offensive, this January.
New Zealand’s commitment peaked at just over 500 troops in 1968. The last Kiwis left South Vietnam in December 1972. The last American troops left the following year. By the time the war was finally over, at the fall of Saigon in April 1975, more than three and a half million people had died.
Men of war don’t always make good men of peace. All of Jim’s Chu Lai and Cherry Point mates – members of the US military’s most exclusive club, the Marines – struggled, in their own ways, to rejoin society. Stone, who returned in December 1968, “had a few bad years there – growing up took me a while”. Completing a master’s, he would eventually run air ambulance services. In his retirement, he recently moved from Utah to New Mexico. His health has been declining: “Agent Orange has finally beat me,” he emailed in February.
Despite the challenges, Owen and Callahan did well. After Vietnam, Owen became the executive officer of the Marines’ first Harrier squadron, before leaving the military in 1986 for a consulting career with Morgan Stanley. He lost Jim’s tiki years ago, something he kicks himself over, but can still remember the names of the two islands they were going to buy: Enderbury and Howland.
A 30-year Federal Aviation Administration veteran, Callahan became one of the most senior air traffic control crew chiefs in Minnesota before retiring. “Kiwi would’ve been proud of my career,” he says with a grin.
The loss of Kiwi changed his character. Weeks after Jim’s death, he was told by a grizzled old gunnery sergeant that he should let all the emotion out. Until then, he’d remained firmly stoic.
“I said to him, ‘This is how it is.’ Jim and I had a pact. If something happened to one of us, the other would carry on and wouldn’t get bogged down. We would say this: ‘C’est la guerre; c’est la vie [such is war; such is life.].’ We used to say that all the time. That’s the way I went, and that’s how I faced it.
“It has been the same to this day. Because of losing Kiwi, it’s in me – I don’t get close to anybody. That’s something I’ve got to live with. I don’t get close and if something happens to somebody, I don’t get over-emotional. I’m not being a hard-ass, it’s just the way it is.”
Rush, who got a Bronze Star for his actions on May 8, and Call have both since died. Ryser is retired and living in Las Vegas, and no one knows what became of Pekrik.
Smart served as a civilian air traffic controller out of New Orleans until he, along with 11,000 others, were laid off by President Ronald Reagan in the 1981 controllers’ strike. After retraining as a computer programmer, he retired in 2009 with a veteran’s benefit for ongoing post-traumatic stress syndrome. Beyond his tattoo, the photos on his walls, Marine T-shirt and caps show he’s still not over Vietnam.
“I heard a few days later they caught him pacing off the runway,” says Smart of Papa-san, who he believes caused the radar van attack. “When they searched him, they found a piece of paper with the layout of the whole unit. He was turned over to the MPs.”
Smart shakes his head. “They finally realised he was Charlie. Well, no shit. A little late, huh?”
Minutes later, as I lean in to photograph his tattoo, Smart says of Jim, “Man, I can picture him.”
I put down my camera. “Maybe we’re sitting in the bunker, the hooches, or in the radar van working. I do miss the guy – I still do, to this day. Every single day, I think of him. Some days I wished it could have been me instead of him.
“It’s the guilt. Why? Why should I have lived, and Kiwi died? How would the world have changed, if it had been reversed?”
IX. Brothers, Apart
When Jim Lott was a kid, he kept all his green plastic soldiers in a big kauri toy chest. When he died, all the letters to his mother and Garry went in there, along with the Purple Heart and Navy Commendation Medal for his service in the Marines. The flag. The photos. The newspaper cuttings. A letter Joan received from the White House, personally signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Everything.
Garry wished he could put himself in there and close the lid, but couldn’t. Life had to go on. He was sent back to South Vietnam that June, seeing out the final two months of his tour as an MP, far from combat zones.
After he returned home again that August, he headed down to Christchurch to confront his father. When serving abroad, Marines signed a $US10,000 life insurance policy. If you were killed, the money went to your family. “When the money was paid out, the stupid dickhead lawyer we had just arbitrarily sent a check for $5000 to my mum and $5000 to my dad, even though he hadn’t had anything to do with us,” Garry told me.
“I thought, ‘Hey, this is not right.’
I got on a plane and flew down there. I sat down with him over a beer, and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to give this money back to Mum.’ He didn’t want to do it and said, ‘Oh no, he was my son.’ I said, ‘Stop. You were never our father.’ I must have hit the right key with him. He’d spent a little bit of it, because he wasn’t a wealthy man. I managed to secure around $4500 from him, which in the end, I benefited from. I got married… and bought a house in Howick with a bit of that money going towards it.”
That was the last time Garry saw his father, who was then working as a hospital orderly. A dockworker from Baltimore who fell in love with a Kiwi teacher, Albert Jr died in Christchurch, in 1990, aged 69. Joan went to the funeral, but Garry didn’t. “I Googled him once because I wanted to know what he died of, for obvious reasons, say, if it was cancer,” he said.
It was the absence of the truly significant man in Garry’s life – his brother – that would shape the rest of his. “My daughter has said to me many times [that] when Jim died, we lost you – which is correct, in some ways,” said Garry. “I did change. I became very insular, and couldn’t keep a relationship going for love nor money.”
A marriage in the 1970s produced three children, Darren, Debbie and Gavin, but Garry never found a regular rhythm. He took a job as a marketing manager for an export company for 15 years, doing spells in Australia, Southeast Asia and the US. Tragedy struck Garry again in November 2002, when Darren, who was struggling with health and personal issues, died suddenly.
Although her father talked little of their Uncle Jim while she was growing up, Debbie remembers his presence. A photo of him in military uniform always had pride of place on the wall. She remembers, as a kid, watching a TV movie with her grandmother, when a scene showing a military funeral appeared. “I was sitting at her feet and looked up, and she was silently crying,” she says. “I knew it was painful and I didn’t want to ask.”
She did ask her father, twice. Once when doing a Vietnam War project in her early teens, and then a second time, one New Year’s Eve in her early 20s. Plans had fallen through, leaving just her and her Dad hanging out on the back deck, sharing a bottle of port. “It still blows my mind when I think now how young they both were,” says Debbie, who’s in her 40s.
They all were, and now they’re almost all gone. Even the garage, where Albert Jr used to make pool tables, at 44 Salisbury St is gone, with just the concrete pad remaining.
Joan was 86 when she died in June 2006, after a series of mini-strokes. The saddest moment in losing Jim, she once told Debbie, was when Garry had to hand her the folded American flag.
Garry spread his mother’s ashes around the tītoki tree. He smiled proudly when I asked about the tree. “Boy, it’s the...” he began, before pausing and nodding to himself. “It’s the straightest tree I’ve ever seen. It just goes straight up without a bend in it.”
Postscript: Brothers, together again
After being diagnosed with cancer just a month before, Garry’s health declined rapidly. The family knew it was terminal only two weeks before he died, giving just enough time for Gavin to make it from his home in South Africa to say goodbye. Gavin hadn’t been in New Zealand since his brother died in 2002.
Debbie emailed me the day after Garry died. “He’s waited a long time to be reunited with his much-loved brother,” she wrote. After reading the email, I pulled out a picture I had of Jim and Garry as teenagers, dressed in black suits with skinny ties, outside their home in Mt Albert. There they stood more than 50 years ago – lady-killers, dressed to fit. They leaned together in that photo, and smiled as only a couple of young Kiwis can; at home in their small slice of paradise, but about to find out about the big, wide world.
I’d stood outside that house four months before, a day after meeting Garry. I remember him sniffing, and pausing, as he told me how he found out about Jim’s death. I’d watched Garry walk to his car and drive off, and imagined he’d probably walk up to that tītoki tree at St Luke’s Anglican in the same shuffling way.
Almost 50 years had gone by. What happened in that time? Mostly, the unmatchable guilt of separation and love lost. I thought of a Mother’s Day card on a Mt Albert mantelpiece – and a folded American flag in a kauri toy chest. I thought of a tattoo on a forearm in Baton Rouge, and two glasses of scotch poured on the same days every year.
I thought of a young musician in Minnesota called Jim and two islands in the Pacific. Of nephews and nieces never met, rugby games never watched and unopened bottles of beer. I thought of one certain part of Garry’s heart that never quite beat the same way it did before May 8, 1968.
“When Jim died, we lost you [too],” Debbie had told her dad many times before I met him, and I believed her.
The old man is gone now too, just like the brother who disappeared when a rocket slammed into the corner of a radar van on a Marine airbase, claiming yet another victim of the Vietnam War.
But imagine the morning before. Jim and Garry, two beautiful boys from Mt Albert, running into the sea at Chu Lai, hungover and happy in the amber of a moment that nothing could ever touch, except the sunshine and the waves. I thought of that moment, and this one, learning of Garry’s death. An end to something far too short and the beginning of something far too long, and now: a story of two brothers, 50 years apart, together again.
This story was made possible with assistance from the New Zealand United States Council. The council has been supporting and promoting the bilateral relationship between New Zealand and the USA since 2001. Its vision is for New Zealand to be sustainably connected and working with US policymakers, business leaders and innovators to drive the relationship as a positive partnership. “We are delighted to support publication of Ben Stanley’s story about Jim Lott and his service for the US in the Vietnam War. The Lott brothers’ service and sacrifice highlight the longstanding and special relationship between the two nations in a very personal way.”
This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.
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