Wars are generators of stories, some exaggerated, some exciting, a great many sad. And for every story told, there are dozens we’ll never hear. Among the saddest and often untold stories are those of fighters missing in action, MIA.
With the arrival of another Memorial Day, I think of the many we have lost in battle, but there’s a special extra sadness for those who are missing, presumed dead.
After a battle in South Vietnam in 1968, the battalion in which I served, 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry, policed up its dead and wounded from the battlefield. One man was unaccounted for. Patrols searched for him. Even after the battalion was moved out of that area, the battalion commander, distraught over the idea of abandoning one of his soldiers, had patrols helicoptered back in to search again, to no avail.
Later, North Vietnamese prisoners being questioned said they’d heard that some of their withdrawing troops had taken an American soldier, wounded in the head, with them to their field hospital near the Cambodian border. It was said that he was operated on and then died and was buried nearby.
Searches since the war and questions of Vietnamese authorities have failed to reveal any specifics of what happened to Specialist Four Walter Cichon. Joint efforts since the war, on-going, between Americans and Vietnamese in an effort to locate and identify missing soldiers of both armies have revealed no trace of the young soldier we lost on a night in 1968.
A friend who served in the same unit during the same battle recently made available information about the missing soldier that was new to me. Cichon, a working-class kid in New Jersey, a printer’s apprentice by day and a musician by night, had an IQ well within the genius range. He was reportedly quiet and polite, but when he went on stage and took the microphone with his band, the Motifs, he was a force of nature, dynamic, exciting. The band was well-liked, especially by a young fellow who was a member of a somewhat lesser group, the Steel Mill band, Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen wrote the song, “The Wall,” after he’d visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and saw Walter’s name there. He said of Cichon, “The first true star I’d ever been close to, a full-blooded rock and roll animal with the attitude, the sexuality, the toughness, the raw sensuality pouring out of him, scaring and thrilling all of us who came in contact with him.”
It was said that Walter inspired Springsteen, and his brother, Ray Cichon, mentored him. Springsteen said, “Ray remains one of my great guitar heroes.”
Who knows what might have become of young Walter Cichon if war had not intervened? He and his brother Ray both showed all likelihood of succeeding in the rock and roll world. Who knows what might have become of any of the 1,606 still missing from the Vietnam War, or the far greater numbers, reflecting different scope and circumstances, from previous wars?
Yet lost potential is not the worst pain for those connected to someone missing in action, presumed dead. The disappearance of your child, your spouse, your sibling, into a never ending fog, an eternal question, carries with it a pain that has no healing, whether presumed potential of the lost one is great or small.
Walter Cichon had great promise in the world of music, and the loss of his talent is notable. But the loss of the man, leaving a permanent mystery for those who loved him, is the real loss. As is true of all the others missing in action. As we remember all the dead in war this Memorial Day, those designated MIA deserve special remembering.