I decided to visit San Francisco.
I served in only two places in the Marines — Vietnam and California. At home on leave, people were more likely to ask my impressions of California, especially San Francisco. I don’t know how many times I explained that MCRD and Camp Pendleton are in Southern California, 500 miles south of the Golden Gate.
San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the capital of the “counterculture.” Hippies and Yippies, acid rock, the anti-war movement, the Students for a Democratic Society, the drug culture, the Free Speech Movement — all seemed to start or pick up steam in San Francisco. I was dying to see the place and I finally had the chance.
I also wanted to meet Dan Gallagher’s fiance Lizbeth. The letters she wrote to CAP 2-7-2 after his death had made me intensely curious. Most of my San Francisco trip had nothing to do with Vietnam, so I will write only about the part that did.
I called Lizbeth on my second day in San Francisco and we arranged to meet at the bus station in Burlingame, a suburb south of the city where her parents lived. Only a couple of people got off the bus that afternoon in Burlingame, so she picked me out easily. She wouldn’t have had much trouble, anyway. Although I was wearing civilian clothes, I also had my whitewall haircut and farmer suntan and my AWOL bag was emblazoned with the Marine Corps seal.
After 26 years, I remember little of how Lizbeth looked — although her appearance was the main object of my curiosity in 1971. I have only retained an impression that she was attractive and taller than average, with dark brown hair. I don’t remember what she wore.
She drove us to her parents’ townhouse where I met them, we all talked for a couple of hours and had supper. Her parents were, I thought, a very charming and considerate older couple, and all three took some pains to put me at ease.
I wasn’t very comfortable at first, my thoughts running along the lines of, “What the hell am I doing here?” I had even considered returning to Camp Pendleton without telephoning Lizbeth, but felt it would be cowardly to break my promise to call.
Although I still didn’t understand her desire for information, I also felt a certain obligation to Dan, to provide details about his life and death in Vietnam to the woman he had intended to marry.
My anxiety peaked on the bus ride from downtown San Francisco to Burlingame. But I told myself a combat veteran should have the courage to face a dead buddy’s fiance.
By supper time I felt perfectly relaxed with Lizbeth and her parents, and we talked for awhile afterwards (never mentioning Vietnam) before the older couple excused themselves and went upstairs.
Lizbeth and I were sitting across the coffee table from each other in her parents’ living room when she nerved herself to ask about Dan’s death.
She sat leaning forward slightly with her hands clasped in her lap. As she asked questions and I talked over the next hour, I looked down many times to see her hands gripping each other until her knuckles were white.
But first she explained her need to know. Carefully choosing her words, she said it was still hard for her to believe that Dan was dead. She knew the facts, but his death still seemed unreal. The casket had been closed at his funeral and, without seeing his body, it was hard for her to understand he was truly gone.
Lizbeth needed to hear a firsthand account before she could accept Dan’s death, and she urged me not to sugarcoat the story or leave out details to spare her feelings. She said the unreality of his death was causing her more pain than any amount of blood-soaked detail could inflict.
Although I was only 19 at the time, and not especially perceptive, I sensed she was absolutely sincere. So I told her the whole story of Sept. 10, 1970, leaving out nothing, providing the details of sight and sound and the stink of singed flesh and high explosive.
The events of Sept. 10 and the following day were still relatively fresh and full of traumatic impact, but I was somewhat numbed by my year in Vietnam. Sept. 10 was not the only horrific incident in my head. So I had no trouble delivering my chilling story with a steady voice and a feeling of detachment.
At the same time I noticed that Lizbeth was anything but detached. Although she steadfastly controlled her voice and facial expressions, I could see suffering in her white knuckles, her tense posture, the strained lines of her face and her pain-filled eyes.
I pitied and admired her. She gave me a new way to define courage. I still think of her as the bravest person I ever met.