Lance Corp. Steven Perlewitz of Algoma sits high atop the 'Rockpile,' a jagged 750-foot hill located at the junction of five valleys, a mere seven miles south of Vietnam's Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). In 1965, when the photo was taken, the DMZ separated North and South Vietnam, and Marines like 19-year-old Perlewitz patrolled the 40-by-17-foot summit for weeks at a time.
Oddly, Perlewitz looks like any typical Wisconsin kid, albeit with a rifle nestled in his arms, the bill of his cap turned up and his boyish, alert eyes scanning miles and miles of rugged terrain. But this isn't Algoma, this is South Vietnam, and Perlewitz isn't hunting grouse or deer. He's stalking humans.
This haunting black-and-white photograph from Stars and Stripes has garnered many awards, and now it is part of a spellbinding exhibit, 'In the Belly of the Dragon: Life and Death in I Corps,' on display at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. The exhibit features rare photos as well as letters, diaries, equipment and personal memorabilia.
I visited the exhibit earlier this month with two other Vietnam veterans, Tom Helgeson and Steve Piotrowski. Both were combat grunts in Vietnam, Helgeson having seen lots of action in I Corps in 1967-68.
The Veterans Museum has always done a terrific job, in a fairly tight space, of capturing the soldier's experience during his/her tour of duty. 'In the Belly of the Dragon' is no exception. The exhibit emphasizes the personal stories of Wisconsin veterans, and we come to understand and appreciate what they endured through these intimate, personal artifacts.
As Helgeson observes: 'The exhibit does not preach, provide lessons or value judgments, or reflect success or failure.' He is a former Vietnam infantryman from Independence, Wis., who landed in Vietnam when he was 19. 'It's a sort of ground-level, slices of life and death, cultural orientation of the Vietnam experience.'
Adds Piotrowski, who was born and raised in Amherst and 'humped the boonies' while stationed in II Corps in 1969-70: 'The I Corps experience may have been the quintessential 'Nam grunt experience, but death is death, and there was plenty of that in Vietnam.'
That's an understatement.
Nearly half of all U.S. combat deaths in Vietnam occurred in I Corps, which covered 10,000 square miles in the five northernmost provinces of South Vietnam. From 1965 on, U.S. Marines engaged in some of the war's heaviest fighting, including the sieges of Con Thien and Khe Sanh and the house-to-house fighting in Hue City during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
The rugged, jungle-blanketed mountains that covered the western part of the region hid Communist supply bases and the camps of main-force units and facilitated the infiltration of North Vietnamese replacements and reinforcements. East of the mountains, I Corps became a flat, wet, coastal plain, much of it covered by rice paddies.
Through the lens of Wisconsin soldiers like Marine Sgt. Jerry Paul, Army Spc. Ed Beauchamp, Navy Chaplain Ray Stubbe and Air Force Capt. Walter Draeger, the exhibit connects with the personal side of war, and of loss. There are letters, uniforms and other military paraphernalia, including a very realistic display of Beauchamp's firebase bunker built out of spent 105mm ammunition boxes.
Beauchamp's makeshift 'hooch' is a laboratory not just of lean army living but of American pop culture, replete with tin cans of crackers, Playboy pin-ups, flat-top beer cans and posters.
It reminded me a little of my own Vietnam hooch, except that my 'Nam domicile was within the orbit of the 'air-conditioned jungle' of Army headquarters further south and provided me with additional perks like a maid, mini-fridge and a tape deck. What makes the Beauchamp scene eerie and disconcerting for vets like us is hearing the ongoing sounds of an actual NVA mortar attack.
'The exhibit does a great job of walking that fine line between evoking memories and inducing flashbacks,' says Helgeson. 'For the most part, it presents the basic, familiar, everyday stuff that lets the observer go wherever they want to with it.'
During my 365-day tour in Vietnam, albeit six years after the Perlewitz photo was taken and several hundred miles to the south, I interviewed a lot of young GIs like him. In my job as an Army information specialist, I prepared press releases that our office would send to the hometown papers in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Louisiana, so the local folks would know how their young men were doing overseas.
No matter what their military job or their location or their time left in country, I remember that most GIs had the same vacant and lost look in their eyes. And often after I'd finished the interview, they'd stare through me with the same question: 'How come you've got the pen and are writing the story while I'm holding a gun and I'm stuck out here?'
I never had a good answer. I sometimes apologized, but that just made things worse. So, eventually, I just shook my head, muttering under my breath that 'life was a bitch.'
That's especially true for Steven Perlewitz, who was killed in action Feb. 26, 1967, 40 years ago this week. His name is engraved on panel 15E, row 99, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Doug Bradley was stationed in IV Corps from November 1970 to November 1971. He's currently writing a book about music and Vietnam with UW-Madison professor Craig Werner.