BY SHERI TRUSTY
Vietnam War veteran Ron Hart has a story no one wants to hear.
Hart has been shut down in public and in private, by soldiers and by civilians. Hart’s military service is heart-wrenching, tragic and highly misunderstood. No one wants to think about the moments after a soldier’s death, but it was in those moments that Hart cared for fallen soldiers with compassion and dignity.
Hart, of Marblehead, was part of the Army’s Quartermaster Graves Registration Service (GR). It was his duty to clean and prepare the bodies of dead soldiers before they were shipped back home. Sometimes, the bodies were wounded and mangled, and once they were sealed for the journey home, they weren’t seen again, even for funerals. So Hart tended the bodies with compassion, knowing he may be the last person to see them.
Hart didn’t sign up to be a part of a GR platoon. He was first assigned to a tank battalion with the 1st Infantry Division, where he trained as a gunner. When the tank battalion was disbanded, he was reassigned to the GR platoon.
“I had no idea what that meant. I asked them what you do, and they said, ‘You do nothing.’ It sounded like the place I wanted to be,” Hart said.
It turned out to be a place no soldier wanted to be, yet he found himself on a ship bound for Vietnam.
“After 21 days, we got into Saigon Harbor. We landed on an isolated beach somewhere in Vietnam, and they took us to a jungle airport. They flew us someplace dark, in the middle of the night, and said, ‘This is your home,’” Hart said.
Their ‘home’ was uninhabited jungle, where their first duties were to construct the company headquarters, a kitchen and a latrine. The latrine was simply four covered holes in a structure built far from camp.
“Every morning, you’d open the covers, and these big flies, some as big as your thumb, would fly out. Those were the same flies that landed on our food,” Hart said.
Instruction in GR work began at a Vietnamese cemetery. The soldier who had trained to be a gunner was now learning to clean dead bodies.
“Each GI picked out a dead soldier and learned to cut the clothes off,” Hart said.
Next, Hart was taken to a Saigon morgue for further training.
“As I walked in the morgue, I could smell it. I can still smell it,” he said. “I could see eight slabs of GIs. Our job was to cut the clothes off the dead bodies, hose them down, and wash the blood off. After they were clean, we took the blood out of the bodies, and the mortician pumped in embalming fluid.”
The bodies were then wrapped in gauze, placed in temporary aluminum coffins, and loaded onto planes.
“Every day, I’d look at the dead faces and think, ‘You’re as young as me, and you didn’t join the Army to be killed. You have a mother and a girlfriend waiting for you,’” Hart said. “I’d look at their dirty faces, their crushed heads, the expressions on their faces. It was horrible.”
The GR soldiers weren’t required to work on the body of someone they knew.
“But they were all Americans, so they were all my friends,” Hart said.
After two years, Hart completed his service and left Vietnam. Exposure to latrine flies and dead bodies left him weak with dysentery. It was months until he was able to rid his body of infection, but he was never able to rid his mind of the men he served.
“Today, when I talk about it, I can still smell the morgue. I can still see the bodies,” he said.
It is a bit ironic that Hart is seldom welcome to tell his story. According to information about Quartermaster Grave Registration Service on the U.S. Army website, “properly caring for the human remains of fallen Soldiers is considered one of the military’s most important duties.”
“It was heartbreaking to see it every day,” Hart said. “But it was an honor to work with them.”