By Rick Cohler
Some of life’s major events hit when one least expects or wants them. Years later, what is first a traumatic experience can bear fruit.
Such is the case of James G. Van Straten, who likes to go by the name of Jim. Jim grew up in Black Creek and is a 1951 graduate of Seymour Community High School.
During the early days of the Vietnam War, Van Straten received his orders to serve the Senior Medical Advisor to the South Vietnamese Army in the First Corps Tactical Zone of South Vietnam as he and his young wife were dealing with the severe illness of an infant child.
“I didn’t tell her that I had received orders for Vietnam,” Van Straten said in an interview with the Advertiser Community News & Times-Press. “I didn’t want to trouble her further. But eventually I told her I was on my way to Vietnam. I left behind my 31-year-old wife, six children and a one-year-old baby that was exceedingly ill. He had been born with a congenital lung disorder.”
That is where this story begins.
“I knew that I needed to reach out to support her during the year that I would be in Vietnam,” he continued. “So, every day I would get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and go to the only typewriter in our office in Da Nang and write a detailed letter. He would write 352 letters between July, 1966 and June, 1967.
Those letters eventually became “A Different Face of War: Memories of a Medical Service Corps Officer in Vietnam,” published last fall by University of North Texas Press.
As an advisor to the South Vietnamese Army during the period, he travelled extensively throughout the five-province area from the DMZ south to Quang Ngai City; interacting with people from all segments of the Vietnamese society, from peasants to politicians, and from conscripted soldiers to general officers.
That area of Vietnam saw the most fighting during the war in the country and accounted for a majority of U.S. casualties.
“I doubt there are any other Americans who saw it as comprehensively as I did except, perhaps, a few of the general officers,” Van Straten said. “I happened to get there early in the war, when spirits were still high, and was supported by the American people.”
When Jim returned from Vietnam, his wife, Pat, showed him the box in which she had kept every letter he sent.
After leaving the Army on Nov. 1, 1986, Dr. Van Straten joined the administration of Incarnate Word College, serving initially as the Executive Assistant to the President and from June 1987 through October 1990 as the Dean of Professional Studies. On Nov. 1, 1990, he was appointed as the Dean of the School of Allied Health Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
Through these 40 years, the box of letters remained unopened.
“My kids, by then adults, kept bugging me to look at the letters, telling me they might contain something valuable,” he recalled. “Finally, in the summer of 2010, I looked at those letters for the first time since I had written them some 40-odd years before.
“I recognized they contained a treasure trove of information many Americans may not be aware of.”
After a long process, first of digitizing the letters, he submitted about six months of letters to a the University of North Texas at the urging of one of his daughters. The school was able to determine the letters contained valuable history, but were not publishable in letter format.
Van Straten set to work, changing the letters into a narrative format. Again, publishers told him the book was too long at over 1,000 pages and told him 350 pages was the maximum.
“I eventually got it down to 500 pages and I said I was unwilling to cut any more,” Van Straten said. “It was published last November and is striking a chord.” The reviews have been very favorable.
“The author describes with great clarity and poignancy the anguish among the survivors when an American cargo plane in bad weather lands short of the Da Nang Air Base runway on Christmas Eve and crashes into a Vietnamese coastal village, killing more than 100 people and destroying their village,” according to the synopsis on Amazon.com.
Van Straten points to one incident which demonstrates the need to understand the culture in countries where Americans are fighting.
An airborne South Vietnamese taskforce jumped into the province next to Da Nang just as the monsoon rains hit the ground and dug in. However, Van Straten said the North Vietnamese soon discovered their position and rained mortars on the troops all night, exacting a heavy toll.
After learning about the incident the next morning, Van Straten got to the site as quickly as he could and U.S. Marine helicopters came in to help clear the battlefield.
“Helicopter after helicopter were coming in depositing the dead and wounded,” Van Straten recalled. “All of a sudden, a Marine pilot swore and cursed at me. ‘You’re an advisor to those South Vietnamese. Get those bastards to stop evacuating the dead and focus on the wounded!’
“It was a cultural difference and we had to work around it. The area was so heavily Buddhist and the reverence for the dead was so strong in their minds that it was equally important, or more so to get the dead off the battlefield, along with the wounded.
“Eventually we marked every fifth helicopter with a black marking. They could load as many dead as they could on the fifth helicopter.”
While in Vietnam, Van Straten met on several occasions with one of his high school classmates, Duane Miller, who now lives in Southern California.
Miller flew sea rescue missions over the South China Sea according to Van Straten who explained the pilots of U.S. craft hit by enemy fire would try to make it out to sea before crashing.
“My mother in Black Creek sent me a clipping that Duane had been honored by the Seymour Kiwanis Club and that he was in Da Nang where I was,” Van Straten recalled. “He told me he never left the air base to go into Da Nang.” So Jim and his buddy, Duane, then visited Da Nang.
“I remember one time especially well,” Van Straten said. “I took him to visit an ARVN (South Vietnamese) convalescent center.
“The convalescent center had hundreds of soldiers and so many of them were missing limbs and I just wanted to expose him to that. He was a good sport about it. He went with me trying to bring a little bit of cheer into a non-cheerful environment.”
After a while, Miller told Van Straten he had enough.
“I just wanted to expose him to the medical side of war,” Van Straten said.
Van Straten and his wife live in Windcrest, Texas, where he serves as full- time caregiver to Patricia, who has advanced Alzheimer’s.
“It’s a labor of love,” he said. “I wrote the book while wiling away the long hours in our home.”