By Maurice “Mo” Gemme, with foreword by Priscilla Trinh (senior writing coach)
I never knew my biological grandfathers. One was a battleship captain lost at sea while escaping after the war, and one died from a bomb minefield when my mother was young. But I do know Pepère. That’s French for grandfather, pronounced roughly like “pep-pay”. He is my foster-grandfather, meaning he adopted my dad and aunt who were refugees. He is also a Viet Nam war veteran and currently working on a memoir about his first adoption (not my dad & aunt). Being so, I have decided to reach out to him for this month’s guest post and understand a little bit more about the impetus for his writing. Below you will find a transcribed version of the eight page letter he sent in the mail to me detailing the background story for his upcoming debut memoir:
It’s funny — what fate and choices can lead to in a person’s life.
It was the late “fifties” when I was a student in high school, and never heard of Vietnam. As the 1960’s approached there was more and more news of a “conflict” happening in a small country I had never heard of as a boy. In the evening news (we had no computers then), they were talking about a military draft because of there was escalating fighting in Vietnam. I had just turned 21 when I received my notice. I was to be inducted into the Army. While I was waiting in line with other guys for my physical and swearing in, a marine recruiter talked me into joining the U.S. Marine Corps.
Jumping right into the reason for this little story — In 1965, I was sent to Vietnam. It was hot there, but I didn’t mind. I was assigned to a 108MM Howitzer battery. The rounds weighed 94 lbs. Those big guns looked like large tanks and were self-propelled. My M.O.S. (which means the type of of job I did), was a field radio operator. Our outfit was supposed to have 120 men – we barely had ninety.
Since I went to church on Sunday whenever I could, the top sergeant “volunteered” me as Catholic layman. I had to get the guys to church on Sunday. The altar sometime was on the tailgate of a truck or a stack of crates. Sometimes we would go to an old French church with local parishioners. I also spoke French and I was used as an interpreter going on Med CAPS. I also had a 5 ton license so beside standing watch in the ejected bunker, I stood watch on our perimeter and went on forward missions. We were lucky to get 4-4.5 hours of sleep per night.
Since I was one of just a few who had a military license, I drove the water and trash run. I would attach the 500 gallon water buffalo to my deuce and half of which is a 2.5 ton truck, and go for a water run. Also, one of my duties was to take the garbage from the mess hall to a “drop” point. This area was a hole in the sandy soil approximately 8’ long 3’ wide and about 8’ deep. This area was in the rear of a cemetery where mostly Catholic refugees from the north settled using headstones as one side of a shelter for each family. It was so hot. By the time the mess hall got lettuce, for instance, to serve us – only about the size of a fist of it could be eaten. The rest was brown slime. The large metal G.I. cans were mostly liquid, with pieces of leftover or spoiled food.
The first time I drove through the area, young men somehow attached themselves to our truck even though I was traveling over 20 mph. My A driver yelled “Mo! Turn around! Look!” These young men were filling up their baskets and throwing pieces of food into their mouths as quickly as they could.
One time there was a little boy, oh – about 10 or 11, with a bright red apple sticking out of his pocket. He had a huge smile on his face and he said to me, “Numbah one, numbah one,” which meant “the best.” I smiled and said “yes, numbah one” with my thumb up. On the way out of the area he waved to me. I stopped the truck. He was eating that apple. I hadn’t seen but a small part of it peeking out of his pocket before. My heart stopped. I couldn’t hold back the tears that dropped onto that scorching sand to instantly sizzle. The apple was half eaten by a Marine earlier. Half of it was dark brown and slimy. He was so happy.
In the old French church I became friends with the Mother Superior of the school. She had the children sing for my friend, the 1st Lt. and I. By that time only he and I were the ones going to Mass. Those times were the most peaceful time while in the country. We started with about eighteen or more guys.
The first night that I arrived in country was the day before Thanksgiving. Hanoi Hannah was on the radio naming our outfit by name saying the V.C. will be sleeping in our tents and eating in our mess hall within 90 days. We did have turkey the next day though. I was surprised — there in the middle of nowhere! I didn’t mind that it was the toughest bird I ever ate in my life….I was glad the V.C. didn’t come within those 90 days, but they did come.
I awoke at about 2:30 AM with debris from mortars raining down on our tents. We had twelve guys who received purple hearts that night. The V.C. kept us busy while they penetrated the smaller 105 MM Howitzer battery across the road from us. They lost eleven men that night. I was asked to go to the funeral mass of the 105 the next day with the Lieutenant to represent our battery.
One of my friends – a little guy who worked on the 108’s – had a hard time lifting those 94 lb. rounds into the guns, once asked to be transferred. The first night at his new outfit he ran outside, going from tent to tent to see if everyone was awake. A mortar landed in front of him, he was decapitated. It’s strange – you just do what you have to do when you need to do it. I thought I would be afraid – but I wasn’t, although I tried be very observant.
Part of the reason I joined the Marines was because of my “bucking heads” with my father. He was a good man, except when he drank. I said I’ll show him, and I joined the Marines. He was in the army in WWII.
I realized I never properly said a goodbye to my mother. My friends were going home in body bags. I, being a Catholic, prayed fervently to the Blessed Mother, asking her to let me go home to give my mother a proper goodbye. She was a wonderful gentle woman, unless you messed with her children. I said I don’t care if I’m missing limbs or dying, just so I can make it back in time to say goodbye. I prayed — I’ll do anything you ask me to do, just let me know what, and give me the strength to do it.
Well, I got back in one piece. I’m out of the service and I’m fine. I prayed harder again. I asked the Blessed Mother, what do you want me to do? I will hold up my end of the bargain. And so I got to love the people of Vietnam.
I remembered while in Vietnam, I also stopped by a small house where the family washed my truck. The water in the stream was pretty brown, but it did make the truck a cleaner even color. My A Driver and I had a warm bottle of soda each while waiting. I just wanted to give them a little monetary help. In those days a lame corporal made about $90.00 a month. The last day I saw the family, the parents in broken English asked me to take their three sons home with me so they could have a better life. One, she just gave birth to a few days earlier. One was seven and the oldest was nine. A [Vietnamese] boy had to register for the draft at ten years of age.
Some friends of mine were adopting children. One friend specifically said she was adopting a child from Vietnam. Is this what I’m supposed to do? The People of Vietnam were always on my mind. I prayed again even harder. Can I do this as a single male parent? Am I doing the right thing? After several meetings with the adoption agency, they could see I was unsure, they said they would give me six months to think about it.
Just before the six months were up, after attending workshops and meeting other adoptive parents, I was absolutely ready. The whole story will eventually be in my book. I became either the first, or out of the first single men to adopt internationally in my state. My first two children arrived in April 1975. They were on the first plane of children to make it out during the Fall of Saigon. The very first plane crashed during takeoff. It was called the “orphan airlift.” My sons have come home.
Pepère with Uncle Jason (L) and Uncle Larry (R)