Forty-three years ago, US Army Sergeant Steve Flaherty wrote a letter home to his mother from the jungles of Vietnam. On Saturday, his letters returned to the United States.
Sergeant Flaherty was born in Oiso, Japan, to an American father and Japanese mother. Ronald Flaherty, stationed in Japan with the US Army in the early 1950s, convinced his parents to adopt Steve after meeting him in a local orphanage. Steve came to the United States at the age of 9.
He was raised in Columbia, South Carolina, and won acclaim at Dentsville High for his baseball skills. In 1966 he attended Bryan College in Tennessee on a baseball scholarship.
His uncle, Kenneth Cannon, said that Major League Baseball scouts had contacted him, but he chose instead to enlist in the Army in October 1967.
Flaherty joined the 101st Airborne Division and was sent to Vietnam in 1968. He wrote home telling horrific tales of booby traps and fallen comrades.
One letter to his mother reads, “If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I’m okay, I was real lucky. I’ll write again soon.”
Flaherty was killed in the A Shau Valley on March 25, 1969 at the age of 22. Before Flaherty was declared dead by US officials, Vietnamese soldiers took the letters from his body retired Defense Department POW/MIA expert Robert Destatte suggested.
Four unsent letters were confiscated from Flaherty’s body and sent to Vietnamese Col. Nguyen Phu Dat, who was responsible for directing propaganda messages for Radio Hanoi. Dat would have lifted passages out of Flaherty’s letters and read them on air in order to persuade American soldiers to refuse to go into battle, says Destatte.
In 2011, Destatte noticed a mention of the unsent letters in an online magazine written by Dat on the website “Bo Dat Viet Online,” which loosely translates to “The Vietnam Nation.”
Destatte worked with the Richland County sheriff’s office to contact Martha Gibbons, Sergeant Flaherty’s sister-in-law, and the rest of the Flaherty family.
The letters were delivered to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during his visit with Vietnamese Defense Minister Phuong Quang Thanh in Hanoi on June 4. It was the first official exchange of war artifacts between the two countries.
In exchange, Panetta gave Thanh a diary of Vietnamese soldier Vu Dinh Doan, which was taken by US Marine Robert Frazure after Operation Indiana in 1966. Included in the transfer were letters written by two other American soldiers killed in Vietnam, but the Army Casualty Branch has will not release the identities of these soldiers until next-of-kin are located.
The family received the four unsent letters on Saturday. The letters were addressed to Steve’s mother, Lois; Mrs. And Mrs. Barnes, Flaherty’s neighbors; the family of a classmate named Wyatt; and Betty Buchanan.
Again, it was Robert Destatte who discovered the connection with Betty Buchanan. Betty was the younger sister of Coleen, a girl Steve had dated before leaving for Vietnam.
Although Steve and Coleen ended things before he shipped off to Vietnam, Betty decided to remain in touch, and the two exchanged letters.
The letters are historic in that they symbolize the first transfer of war documents between the two countries, and the Flaherty family plans to donate the letters to be displayed at the South Carolina State Museum. Wherever they end up, after 43 years, the letters will finally be home.
Letter to Mother: “If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but I’m okay I was real lucky. I’ll write again soon… Our platoon started off with 35 men but winded up with 19 men when it was over. We lost platoon leader and whole squad… The NVA soldiers fought until they died and one even booby trapped himself and when we approached him, he blew himself up and took two of our men with him.”
Letter to Betty: “We have been in a fierce fight with NVA. We took in lots of casualties and death. It has been trying days for me and my men. We dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget… Thank you for your sweet card. It made my miserable day a much better one but I don’t think I will ever forget the bloody fight we are having… I felt bullets going past me. I have never been so scared in my life. Well I better close for now before we go in again to take that hill.”
Letter to Mrs. Wyatt: “This is a dirty and cruel war but I’m sure people will understand the purpose of this war even though many of us might not agree.”
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Clark Boyd: I am Clark Boyd and this is The World. co-production of the BBC world service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Steven Flaherty was a talented athlete. He dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. He even went to college on a baseball scholarship.
Martha Gibbons: One of his teammates on the baseball said that he remembered being a Freshman starting out for the team and Steve was showing him the ropes and how hard he needed to practice and go that extra mile. And after he explains all that he said, “And the things that Steve taught me on that baseball field were not just for baseball but they were life lessons”. And that is the kind of guy Steve was.
Boyd: But his Major League dreams ended in 1967. That is when Flaherty enlisted in the U.S. Army. A year later he was a Sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division serving in Vietnam. Flaherty died in combat there on March 25th, 1969. He was 22 years old. Like many young soldiers Flaherty wrote letters to family and friends back home. When he died he had 4 unsent letters with him. Two were for his mother, one was to a neighbor, and one was to a friend. Those letters were found on his body and used as propaganda by the North Vietnamese government. They were read aloud on Radio Hanoi in an effort to lower the morale of American soldiers. Then last year a retired P.O.W. M.I.A. expert noticed a mention of unsent letters in a Vietnamese online magazine. He set out to get them delivered. Last month the letters were handed to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during his visit to Vietnam. And on Saturday, 43 years later, Sargent Flaherty’s family finally got them. Martha Gibbons was Steven Flaherty’s sister-in-law.
Gibbons: We have not yet opened the letters. Saturday was just to emotional for us and so we have decided to wait until our emotions calm down a little bit until we open them. The first time we can get together as a family is Wednesday evening, so that is our plan.
Boyd: I understand though that you do have excepts from the letters.
Gibbons: yes, we do.
Boyd: Is there an except or two that you could or would like to read to us.
Gibbons: Yes, I could do that. I have an excerpt from three letters that I would share with you. The first was to his mother, and in it he says “If Dad calls tell him I got to close to being dead but I’m okay. I was real lucky”. Then later he says “I am ready for my R’n'R. Don’t know where I am going and don’t care just as long as I get the much needed rest that I need. We’ll let you know where, I’ll write again soon”. He wrote “Our platoon leader was killed and I was temporary leader until we got our replacement. Nothing seems to go well for us, but we’ll take that Ridge Hill. Thank you for your sweet card, it made my miserable day a much better one. But I don’t think i will ever forget the bloody fight that we are having. Felt bullets going past never been so scared in my life”.
Boyd: This isn’t the typical story of a young American wanting to serve his nation, can you tell me little bit about his history?
Gibbons: Oh yes, Steve was born in Oiso, Japan. When he was about two or three his mother had to take him to a Elizabeth Sanders Home, which was a Japanese orphanage for Japanese-American children. Because at that time in history Japanese-American children were not accepted. They were kind of persecuted so she had no choice, but to give him up for his safety and for her to be able to get a job and make a living. Steve’s brother, to whom I was married was stationed in Oiso when he was in the Army and on his free time he found out about the Elizabeth Sanders Home. And he went down and started working with these young kids and had a church here in Columbia send him a lot of baseball equipment over there, he taught these kids to play baseball. When he got ready to come home he wanted to bring one of these children with him. He was single at the time and couldn’t do it. So he talked his parents into adopting one. And Steve was the one that was adopted. So he came from a very meager background and I think that is why Steve was so eager to help everybody and that ultimately he gave up the opportunity to be a professional baseball player to serve the country that had given him a home and given him so much of an opportunity.
Boyd: Wow, that’s an amazing tale. I want to bring in Robert Destatte at this point. Robert joins us from his home in Temecula, California. Robert, I understand that you are responsible for stumbling upon these letters, the fact that they even exist. Tell me about how you found about them.
Robert Destatte: I had received a question from a person who was writing about some of our former prisoners of war, and I was looking through Vietnamese websites looking for information to answer his question when I stumbled on this series of articles that described Sargent Flaherty’s letters. I realized immediately something of interest to Veterans of his unit and to his family if we could find them.
Boyd: So how did you find Martha Gibbons and the Flaherty family then after you learned about the letters?
Destatte: I sent a letter to Richmond County Sheriff explained the purpose of my search and asked if he might help. And he responded immediately that he would be honored to help. And he assigned one of his captains, Captain Howard Hughes to help out and Miss Gibbons could tell you better than I how he made that connection and then the question is Miss Gibbons was able to put me in touch with other family members.
Boyd: Martha Gibbons, if you want to pick up the story there I would love to hear it.
Gibbons: Ah yes, the very first day I got that call from Captain Hughes, I didn’t have my glasses on I was out in the yard working and I answered the pone and he said is this Martha Gibbons? And I said yes it is, and he said “This is Captain Howard Hughes from the Richmond County Sheriff Department”, and of course that scares you to death. And he said “Did you know Sergeant Steve Flaherty?”, and i said yes I did and so then he tells me that this Mr. Destatte in California wants my phone number and how to get in touch with me. 43 years after the fact, you just a little bit skeptical about what is going on, who is this? What is this all about? So I immediately went inside, got my glasses put on, and saw that the phone call had come from a South Carolina state number. So then I gave Captain Hughes my information, he gave it to Mr. Destatte, Mr. Destatte got in touch with me, and it went from there.
Boyd: Martha I do want to ask about, in general the feeling, the importance you place on getting these letters back and getting them returned to your family. How do you feel about that?
Gibbons: Well as his uncle said when he received them on Saturday, the Army having determined him to b e the next-of-kin, he was the one who actually they handed them to. he said it’s just like having Steve back. it really was. Saturday was a day of total mixed emotions. it was very reminiscent of his funeral, because lots of his extended family was there. His class was having a reunion Saturday evening. A lot of his classmates came, there were a lot fo Vietnam veterans there. Everybody expressing their sympathy, remembrances, it was just very emotional, very emotional. But just wonderful to have these letters back in the possession of the family.
Boyd: Martha Gibbons and Robert Destatte, that you both for sharing your stories with us today.
Destatte: It was my pleasure.
Gibbons: Thank you.
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