The remaining members of CAP 2 were tired and dazed that day, moving in slow motion after a traumatic night. After staying with us through the night, CAP 2-7-4 had gone back to their own AO, leaving us a couple of their Marines to fill in until our dead and wounded could be replaced.
Early that morning “Willie” Williams and I had gone back to the scene of the explosion to make sure we had left no equipment or personal gear behind. Puddles of dried blood were scattered around the courtyard where our dead and wounded had lain. The litter included bloody field dressings and wrappers, and miscellaneous bits of torn clothing and broken equipment, but there was nothing of any value.
By then, we knew someone had stolen Dan Gallagher’s camera in the confusion of the night before. We were relatively certain one of our Vietnamese soldiers was the thief. Some of them stole from us whenever they could. Why not. To them we were all rich. But we couldn’t prove anything without searching our RFs and all their gear — guaranteed to mortally offend their officer and the 20 or so innocent men. And it was likely the thief had already hidden or sold his loot, so the effort would be futile.
We suffered many emotions that day, caused by the killing and wounding of our friends. We felt powerless, confused, dispirited and guilty about being alive. And we were angry at the callous theft from a dead man.
We went through the personal gear and military equipment of the KIAs and WIAs before sending it back to CACO 2-7 HQ. In Dan’s gear I found two letters already sealed in their envelopes, one addressed to his parents and one to his fiance. Unfortunately they were soaked through with blood and water, so I destroyed them.
Into that scene walked Father Frank S. Bianchino, a short Italian-American Catholic priest from Brooklyn. He came down the trail to the CAP 2 day site, followed by his driver. Both were loaded down with treats — cold cartons of milk and fruit juice — that were rare in the bush.
I don’t remember if that was the first time Father Bianchino visited CAP 2. If not, it was one of the first times the padre appeared. I don’t think he had been at 2nd CAG very long.
Even in camouflage utilities and jungle boots, few looked less military than Father Bianchino. Smiling and animated, he lacked the wary, flat expression most of us “bush” Marines wore. He also lacked the authoritarian gaze of a headquarters officer.
I remember he talked with a few of us, handed out the juice and milk, and later held a non-denominational service before offering to hear confessions from the Catholics or talk with anybody one-on-one.
When I got to talk with Father Bianchino alone, I think my question was something like, “Why did this happen?” I was close to despondent, angry and ready to explode at the first hint of bullshit.
His answer was, “I don’t know why this happened. WE don’t know why things like this happen.”
I was prepared for a song-and-dance about “the will of God” or “the fight against Communism,” but I wasn’t prepared for a sincere statement that a man of God doesn’t have all the answers. That made sense to me although it didn’t really answer my question. I’ve always respected Father Bianchino for having the guts or good sense to say what he did.
The chaplain visited CAP 2-7-2 occasionally after that, and I know he visited a lot of other CAPs. It was a lot of work and not entirely safe wandering around the countryside with just his driver for protection. Father Bianchino always brought whatever he could find in the way of morale-building treats — paperback books, fruit juice, milk, candy, copies of Stars and Stripes.
At some point, Father Bianchino asked me to be his driver. I considered his offer, and went as far as getting a military driver’s license. But in the end I couldn’t bring myself to leave my buddies at CAP 2-7-2.
Still, I saw Father Bianchino from time to time, dropping into his office at 2nd CAG HQ or running into him elsewhere. He even mailed a package for me one time. When I rotated home, I got Father Bianchino’s address and we exchanged a couple of letters before we fell out of touch. I’ve always felt he did an amazingly good job rendering unto Caesar while rendering unto God.