John Reilly knew a lot about life and death before he got drafted. During high school, he had worked afternoons and weekends in a Union City funeral home. He didn't expect death in Vietnam to shock him.
"I knew what dead people looked like," he said.
But readying dead people for burial proved significantly different from seeing them die.
Reilly's unit, the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, was a new concept in combat for Vietnam.
"We were all trained together and were to be shipped over seas together," Reilly said.
Activated in August 1965 at Fort Devens, Mass., the brigade brought to the combat zone a new concept of easily maneuverability, part of a strategy that three decades later became the principle philosophy behind the American military.
Orders came to ship out in early summer, 1966, and most of the unit boarded ships, taking the long water route south to the Panama Canal and then the even longer trip across the Pacific.
The unit landed at its base camp just west of Tay Ninh.
In its first serious combat effort, Reilly lost his unit's lieutenant. This action occurred on the southern fringes of the Dong Minh Chau, or War Zone C, as it was popularly called.
"When the enemy started firing, we ducked, he didn't," Reilly recalled.
In the fire fight, Reilly also fell. The medical evacuation unit took him for dead, tossing him into a helicopter for the short flight out of the combat zone.
"I was lying on top of my dead lieutenant," Reilly remembered, although could not recall most of the other details leading from that moment to the moment when he stirred awake again in a hospital bed. Still semi-conscious, he realized someone had sat down on his bed.
"I couldn't see who it was at first, I just felt the bed sink a little," Reilly said. "He asked me where I came from and what I did in civilian life."
The figure asked Reilly questions about his life at home, and Reilly talked a bit about working in the funeral business. The strange man's eyebrows rose.
"That's when I noticed the general's stars on his shirt," Reilly said. "He turned to one of his aids and said, `this boy ought to be in graves registration.' Then he asked me if I would like that."
Reilly envisioned a plush assignment in Saigon -- something that had been typical previous to that moment when graves registration had been in the hands of the Air Force. The Air Force had run the unit during the early years of the war partly because the death rate was low enough where they could handle it. A civilian mortician ran the operations at Clark Air Force Base with a small two-room mortuary located on Tan son Nhut Air Base in Saigon.
"I pictured myself walking around Saigon without a care in the world," he said.
What he didn't know was that in early 1965, the Army had made plans to take over operations from the Air Force and that by the time he arrived most of the operations had been moved inland.
He agreed to transfer.
His commanding office did not - but did allow Reilly to fill out the necessary paperwork, marking it as rejected before forwarding on to higher ranking officers. Usually, officers in the upper ranks of the chain of command honored local commanders' request. Not in this case.
"Someone arrived and told me to get my things ready that I was being transferred anyway," Reilly said. "I was allowed to take one bag. The rest would be shipped via cargo."
He remembered mounting the bubble-style helicopter -- a kind most familiar from the 1970s sitcom MASH - for the flight to his new assignment.
"I remember our flying south, and then noticed the pilot veering inland," Reilly said. "I kept thinking he was taking a different way."
Reilly maintained that belief right up until the helicopter settled down on a military base. When he asked when he could expect to go to Saigon, the personnel gave him odd glances. They claimed to know nothing of such a trip.
"Then I asked where Graves Registration was, and they started to drive me to it, and I noticed we were getting towards the end of the base," Reilly said.
The jeep halted before a cinderblock building outside the protective razor wire that marked the boundary of the base.
"They kept it outside the base itself because they thought the sight of all the dead bodies would depress our troops," Reilly said.
The staff careful kept lights extinguished to avoid becoming easy targets for snipers.
Reilly remembered the dark interior.
"I remember him stepping over things in the dark," Reilly said, realizing later these were bodies.
A black non-commissioned officer greeted him, and then led him to the area where Reilly would spend the next seven months.
When the two men finally got to a fully lighted room, there were bodies waiting on the three metal tables.
"The sergeant said `OK, let's get to work,'" Reilly recalled.
He didn't merely treat the bodies on base, but often went out to the combat areas to pick them up.
"The United States had a policy never to leave a soldier behind," Reilly said. "We tried to live up to that."
By far, his job involved putting bodies of deceased soldiers into a condition to send them home. So that for his tour of duty, Reilly bore witness to nearly every soldier killed in Vietnam.
To move the bodies from helicopter to bunkers, the Army supplied the staff with an old ambulance.
"We didn't think it was right that it should be an ambulance," he said. "So we painted it black."
The commanding officer had a fit, claiming the sight of the hearse-colored vehicle depressed the troops.
"We weren't trying to depress anyone, we were just trying to show some respect," he said. "But when we got the order, we painted it back to what it was before."
By then, Reilly believed himself immune to the shock of death. Then one day a stunned lieutenant stumbled in from the battlefield carrying a bag.
"He just dumped it on the table and told me I would know what to do with it," Reilly said. "I looked inside and saw it was a pair of boots and tried to stop the man and ask him who they belonged to. But the Lieutenant just told me I would know what to do with them, then left."
On closer examination, Reilly realized that the feet were still in the boots.
"We learned later than the soldier the boots belong to had been evacuated elsewhere," Reilly said. "I don't know if he lived or died. I just remember that lieutenant. He apparently had found the boots after the action and had carried them with him all day until he could bring them back to us. He must have been in a state of shock. I tried to find out what happened to him, but never did."