Courtship by Mail A Vietnam War Story

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Part 1: How it All Began

In the fall of 1965, I was a senior in university, only months away from earning my degree in education and beginning my teaching career. There was no "significant other" in my life, but I had hopes that "someone" might come into my life within the next few years. After some failed relationships, I was willing to wait. Then, one warm August afternoon, a young man walked back into my life and, for the first time, I really noticed him.

His name was Bob Ingraham. He had been my brother’s friend and we had known each other since elementary school. He was two years ahead of me in school, but our common experience was our participation in high school band. On that particular August day, he arrived at our door — in his Marine uniform — to see if he could visit with my brother, Gary. However, my brother was not there, having left already to begin medical school in another city.

Bob had joined the Navy in 1962 and, after becoming a corpsman, had spent two years in Japan. Fate was not on his side when, as he ended his four-year enlistment, the Vietnam war was escalating in southeast Asia. He was due for re-assignment until his enlistment ended in August of 1966, and on his “dream sheet” he requested an ice breaker, a cruiser, or destroyer, knowing full well that he would most likely be going to the Fleet Marine Force. Because he was a corpsman, he was now a Marine (the Marine Corps does not have a medical unit; corpsmen in the Marines are always Navy). His arrival on our doorstep that August was just before he was headed to Field Medical Training before going to Vietnam.

Bob stayed that day to visit with my parents and me, and then I had to leave for class. I knew he was home for a week and, for a week, I hoped he would call and ask me for a date. (In those days, girls never thought of asking the fellow.) But he didn’t call, the week went by, he left for California, and I didn’t think of him again for quite a while. In hindsight, I can say that Bob’s visit was a momentous half hour for both of us, because it would lead to much more.

This is the first page of the first letter I wrote to Bob — I tried to keep it casual and relaxed.

Part 2: The First Letter

I knew nothing of the war in Vietnam. I didn’t know that the French had miserably failed there, that the Americans had sent advisors for years, that the war was just beginning to escalate. Major student protests were not to occur for another three years, Kent State wouldn’t happen for five years, the Pentagon Papers would not be released by Daniel Ellsberg until 1971, and large numbers of draft dodgers and deserters would not become a part of the daily news for several years yet. Although there had been growing concerns expressed in the media about the problems of “winning” in Vietnam and worries that if it fell the “domino effect” would cause all countries in southeast Asia to “go communist,” I knew little about any of this. Vietnam meant nothing to me, and I was almost as naive about war itself. However, on that warm August day, I didn’t think Bob would be much at risk because, as a corpsman, I assumed he would be behind the line of fire — after all, I had watched plenty of MASH episodes. Unfortunately, I didn't know that I couldn't have been farther from the truth.

The months moved swiftly along. By November, I was busy with school and student teaching. My future sister-in-law had once dated Bob and when I told her one day that I was worried I would not meet someone before I graduated, she suggested that I write to Bob. It seemed like a great idea: I wrote my first letter to him on November 21, 1966.

I tried to keep my news simple and chatty, not wanting to seem too “forward” or letting him think that I was too interested. I talked about my brother’s upcoming marriage and I told him about my classes, my student teaching, and my plans to teach in Kansas City the next year. I knew he was headed for Vietnam, and so of course I asked him what was happening — where was he, where would he be going, what was he doing. I ended my letter to him on a hopeful note: that this was the beginning of a friendship and perhaps something more.

Part 3: Waiting for a Response

As I wrote to Bob, he was stationed at Camp Schwab in Okinawa, training with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines Regiment, 1st Marine Division — they were headed for the largest amphibious landing of Marines since the Korean War, although he didn’t know it at the time. As a corpsman, he spent most of his days in Sick Bay, taking care of Marines who had managed to harm themselves during training (or when they were drunk) but he was also involved in combat training as well.

In the first two paragraphs, it was obvious that Bob had been greatly surprised to read my letter.

Bob's first letter to me arrived within ten days. Like me, he spoke with caution, but he was very, very interested in hearing from me again. He spoke of his work and what he was doing and what he might be doing in the future. The truth is, he didn’t know the details of the future. I knew where he was going, but I just saw myself as writing to a guy who might enjoy the “company” of someone to write to while he was away from home. I didn’t allow myself to worry that he might not come back.

Neither Bob nor I was prepared for what he was about to face. Young, inexperienced, and vulnerable, we both believed in our country and its leaders. We had no reason to doubt that if the leaders said, “Go,” then probably young people should go. Our greater understanding of the situation in Vietnam, and our desire to develop our own relationship — these things would come as time progressed. 

Part 3: A Correspondence Begins

I wrote back as soon as I heard from him, and I encouraged him to continue our letters. I think that both of us knew, even that early, that this was the beginning of something special, something permanent.

We were facing an uncertain future, however. I was headed for graduation within months and he believed he was in the military — and in a war — for at least eight months until his enlistment ended. We did not think we would see each other before October 1966. That was a long time, and a lot of things could happen in that time. Still, how to stop what seemed like the inevitable?

In a few short letters, we were falling in love with each other. Bob’s second letter to me was equally full of enthusiasm at the idea that we might get to know each other better. We did enjoy talking just about ordinary things — my brother’s upcoming marriage, my school activities, his preparations for Vietnam, though they had no idea where or when they would be going.

As we settled in to a routine of writing to each other, each of us continued our lives. I continued my student teaching and courses; Bob continued his work with the Navy/Marines and we waited for word when he would actually leave for Vietnam.

Part 4: Uncertainty and Optimism Clash

Shortly after we started writing, I travelled with my parents and grandmother to participate in my brother’s wedding on December 19, 1965. Christmas, for me, was at home with my family. Bob, on the other hand, was far from home and wishing badly that he could be at home. It was made worse by the uncertainty of their situation. No one knew when they would be leaving for Vietnam. Rumours flew daily, but no information was reliable. He wrote about this in his letter on 23 Dec 1965.

Most of the time, Bob knew as little as I did about what he would be doing and where he would be.

Every day, it seems, the information was different, but he wrote many letters as he had little to do. He told me what his job was and what he expected to do in Vietnam. He confirmed my naive beliefs that corpsmen were safer than those who carried M14’s and went into battle. For a short time, while I was celebrating Christmas with my family, Bob attempted to have some “civilian life” with three men from his battalion, and he wrote about it in his letters. Despite this attempt to enjoy life away from home while waiting to go to war, Bob was homesick and lonely. His time would soon be busy, however. One day after Christmas, his unit went north for training.

Part 5: More Training

Right after Christmas, Bob’s unit headed north to an area identified as the Northern Training Area (NTA). He went on to describe in detail what they did:

To Bob and the other marines in his battalion, it felt as though it was taking forever to get to where they were suppose to go. The training seemed endless, but Bob always managed to find beauty.

So, about six weeks after I first wrote to Bob, life continued for both of us: mostly waiting for the time to go by, hoping that we had a possible future together. At the very least, we wanted the chance to get together. But the Vietnam War stood between us and our future.

Part 6: Two Months and Waiting

Our friendship and increasing hopes of getting together were growing. On top of this tension and anxiety, Bob wrote that he believed they would be leaving in two days and he expressed his concerns that he didn’t want to go:

After writing about "going to Vietnam," it finally seemed as though it was going to happen. We both knew it was going to happen; we wanted it to happen, but we didn't.

But the day did come when they did, indeed, start moving. He wrote on January 13th that the fleet was on the move:

On January 13, 1965, the fleet on its way — but where are they going?

For two months, Bob and I had been writing to each other, knowing that within a few weeks he would be attempting to patch up men who had stepped on land mines or been shot. I tried to keep these thoughts as far from my head as possible, and our letters instead were filled with what was happening at that moment, and what our future hopes and dreams were. Neither of us allowed ourselves to think very often about the possibilities of him being injured or killed and our opportunity to share a life together suddenly halted.

Part 7: The Difficulties of Distance

As I have mentioned before, I was very busy with my part-time job, several hours of course work, and student teaching. But I took the time to write many letters (between the time I started writing and when he left Vietnam, we each wrote about 30 letters).

I was never sure where he was or what he was doing. His letters arrived anywhere from a week to ten days later, and all I could do was reassure myself that “ten days ago, he was all right.” As it turned out, I did actually find the newspaper article that identified when his group landed (and I learned later that it was on TV but I had not seen it). But it was a constant concern for me, and very difficult to learn any information. On the 27 January (just one day before Bob’s fleet set out), I wrote:

It was nearly impossible to figure out from the newspaper or the TV news whether or not Bob's marines had landed. Occasionally, I would stick in a paragraph like this one, hoping that in the end I might be wrong!

I was right. It was him, but I wouldn’t know for sure until I received his letter.

Part 8: Letters from the War

Maybe it was just because Bob was in a very dangerous place. Maybe it was because we were so far apart. Maybe it was because we saw something in each other that was very special. Maybe it was all three.

But by the time Bob landed in Vietnam, we were officially “in love.” And both of us wanted in the worst way for the Vietnam War to not exist and for us to be together. His first letter (written on 23 January 1966) from Vietnam began like this and Bob, in his usual way, played down the danger and emphasized the beauty of the country.

It was real. He was in Vietnam.

All of his letters carried this theme: I’m safe, I’m not in danger, I love you. Most of what he really experienced, I did not learn until he came home.

Part 9: Endless Hoping and Waiting

The month of January quickly turned into February, and now the long, long days of waiting — for both of us — seemed endless. Bob knew what was happening to him each moment of each day, but I had no such luxury. The news was full of casualty totals and men on stretchers, helicopters dashing in to rescue men, and tired looking soldiers pointing their guns into the jungle. I continued my university studies and tried, with every fibre of my being, to not think of what might be happening to Bob.

I wrote nearly every day — just idle chatter, thoughts of concern for him, and hopes for our future.

In the middle of the month, I received a pleasant surprise:

Coming home after my university class, I opened the front door and immediately saw the large, long white box, tied with a red ribbon, on the living room coffee table. My mother, who had taken delivery of the box just moments before, said,  “Well, hurry up and open it! Someone has sent you flowers!”

“Those are for me?” I asked. “Who would send me flowers?” It was Valentine’s Day, 1966, and Bob, of course, was far away. I had come home with a heavy heart, knowing full well that Bob was not going to be able to find a card or some flowers in the jungles of Vietnam, never mind get them delivered to me on Valentine’s Day.

I momentarily wondered if I had a secret admirer, so I hesitated. I didn’t want to discover that some young man was pining for me when my interests were completely focused on my Marine.

My mother, however, had no such concerns. “Well, hurry up and open it,” she insisted.

“All right,” I said, “but I can’t imagine who would send me flowers.”

“Neither can I,” my mother snapped. She wasn’t particularly happy with my Marine, and I suspect she secretly hoped that someone “more suitable” for her daughter had his eyes on me. As I opened the box, she and I were wishing for two entirely different things. I pulled off the ribbon, and lifted the lid. Inside, nestled among soft, white tissue paper, were one dozen, breathtakingly beautiful, dark red roses. The card said, simply, “With much love from Bob.”

My Vietnam soldier had managed to send me flowers from the jungle after all. I couldn’t believe it! Eventually, of course, I learned that he had planned ahead, asking his father to arrange for their delivery. But I loved the fantasy that those flowers had come straight from the jungle. They lasted for weeks and weeks, proving to me that they were very special.

Part 10: A Shortage of Paper, but not a Shortage of Letters

Letters came and went in large numbers — from Bob to me, and from me to Bob — and one of the more interesting ones I received was written on the back of C Ration box flaps. Obviously, there was a shortage of paper. Here is the first page of that four-box-lids letter:

When paper was scarce, Bob found other things to write on.

Bob sometimes had time to write me long letters — describing in detail what he had experienced and how he was feeling about it all. We didn’t know it, but we were moving inexorably toward an end to our separation — both good news and bad news.

Part 11: Hope that the worst is over

As March arrived, Bob and I had passed our three-month anniversary of the beginning of our correspondence. Neither of us knew how soon it was going to come to an end.

On March 3, 1966, Bob wrote me a six-page letter in which he expressed the hope that the “worst of it” was over and he would be staying in one place for the duration of his tour. However, two days later, Bob would be involved in a battle on Hill 50. If you wish to read about Bob's complete war experience, you can see his webpage here: 37 Days in Vietnam — a Navy Corpsman with the U.S. Marines.

Our love story from Vietnam was over, and we were about to embark on a new one.

Part 12: Coming Home

Within three days of his injury, Bob was returning to the States.

After being wounded and waiting for the battle to end, Bob had been moved from the hill where he was shot, to a helicopter and then to the Hospital Ship. At the ship, they had cleaned the wound and put a cast on his leg in order to travel.

He was flown to Danang overnight, then to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, and finally over the Pacific (in a very large transport plane with many other wounded men) to San Francisco. The next day he was flown to San Diego.

He was able to reach his parents and tell them the news. His father called me early in the morning to tell me that Bob had been wounded and was coming home. I wrote to Bob and told him how I had learned of his “ticket out of Vietnam.”

It all seemed surreal and hard to believe, and I am quite sure that I walked around in a daze for at least 24 hours.

I really had no idea how badly he had been wounded and what kind of recovery he faced. All of that would have to come in time and with more information.

As soon as his parents knew that he would be sent to San Diego, they made plans to go and visit him. They asked me to go along, too.

Now was the moment of truth: I would have to tell my parents that the letters I had been receiving from Bob for more than three months had, indeed, become “serious” and there might be a possibility that our relationship would lead to marriage. I wanted to go and see him in San Diego and determine, once and for all, if we knew what we were doing!

My parents didn’t take it too well. My father — in his usual way — took it calmly but my mother — in her usual way — suggested that it was a pretty crazy idea. Believing I would refuse, she offered to pay for the airplane ticket if I accepted it as my college graduation gift. I accepted! That was the end of that discussion. Within a few days, I was on my way to San Diego with Bob’s parents.

Part 13: Finally, a Welcome-Home Kiss and a Future to Plan

I walked into Bob’s large hospital ward with his parents and he grabbed me, pulled me down to him, and kissed me long and hard. Yes, indeed, the romance had blossomed. His wound had developed an infection, he was somewhat “high” on pain medication and various other medications to fight the infection, but he still asked me to marry him, and I accepted. We had yet to have our first date, but courting had already begun, thanks to that first letter I wrote nearly 3-1/2 months ago.

Before I arrived, Bob wrote a short but enthusiastic letter. He was looking forward to seeing me, and he was planning our future together. Any mention of the seriousness of his wound was not to be seen; it was all about our future together.

Bob and Susan Ingraham — December 27, 1966

We had our lives back — almost. Bob would spend 111 days in traction, I would join him for the months of June, July and August, and then begin teaching in Kansas City. He would finally be released in early December of 1966, and we were married December 27, 1966. We’re still married to this day.

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In no particular order, here are other personal articles I have written:

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