A nation at war

Walking in his brother's footsteps

Published, The Independent Press of Bloomfield, 2000


Had you told Jim Cervera before April 2000 he would be riding down Highway One in Vietnam on a motor scooter some day, he would have called you crazy.

For over 30 years, Jim associated the world "Vietnam" with pain, and the incomplete images of his half-brother Michael who died there during the January 1968 TET Offensive.

Jim's clearest memories of Michael came from high school. Michael, a few years older than Jim, had taken the younger boy under his wing.

"I thought it was real cool to have an older brother when I grew up," Cervera said. "I never had to worry about getting beat up."

Jim's parents had rescued Michael from an orphanage in Japan -- a half Japanese-half American child abandoned after the end of World War II. Unwaveringly patriotic, Michael responded to America's call to arms and enlisted after graduating high school.

Although Michael wrote home often, telling the family he would be all right, in private letters to Jim, Michael confided his more troubled feelings, talking about the kids and the old people he saw, talking about the men who died around him in the battlefield.

Jim shared many of Michael's dreams. They often wrote about going to New York Yankee games when Michael got back.

Michael had other plans. Although a straight "D" student in school, Michael won numerous awards in woodworking and dreamed of becoming a cabinetmaker when he returned.

Then news reached the family of Michael's death. Jim, 13 at the time, was crushed.

Jim could not reconcile fate's cruelty, saving Michael from one Asian war to murder him in another.

Jim remembered sitting in his family's kitchen after they buried Michael, and his aunt -- reflecting one of the troubling sentiments of the turbulent '60s -- hoped Michael hadn't died in vain.

Few moments so enraged Jim at that one did.

Yet over time, the lack of information troubled Jim more, those small details about Michael's dying that refused to come together in Jim's mind, and Jim's father died in 1971 not knowing the specifics of how Michael had died.

"My father died of a heart attack, but I think he died of a broken heart," Cervera said.

Jim went on to become a Montclair cop, served there with distinction, before moving to Virginia Beach in 1979 where he eventually became chief of operations.

When his hometown honored Michael by naming a street after him in 1998, Jim received the news clipping, serving as a sharp reminder of the missing details of Michael's death. Jim had tried to learn more, but got lost in a bureaucratic maze, getting frustrated instead of answers.

Fate, which had taken Michael's life, helped Jim then, as apparent random events provided him with a road map to the place where his brother died.

One day Jim met Dr. William P. Magee Jr., one of the founders of Operation Smile, a not-for-profit organization that provided free reconstructive surgery to indigent children and young adults suffering from facial deformities.

And Magee planned to take his operation to Vietnam.

The memory Michael's letters came to back to Jim, not the ones about the killing, but about the kids and the old people.

Jim volunteered to go, to help heal the war-torn country in his brother's name, and perhaps - if lucky - find some answers.

Jim traveled to Vietnam twice. During his first visit, he went to Hanoi, worked as an aide there, but it seemed nearly as distant from the place of his brother's death as he had been in America.

"While I was there I asked the founder, Dr. Bill Magee, that if I could go to the southern part of the country," Jim said.

Magee said the team would go an area near DaNang in April 2000, and Jim made up his mind to take that trip, too.

About a month before he was scheduled to leave on his second trip, he met his cousin's husband while visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. This man was a colonel in the First Cavalry Unit, the same outfit Michael had served with in Vietnam.

"He had just come back from Kosavo and was on his way back to Fort Hood, Texas," Cervera said.

With a little research among the military archives, this colonel was able to supply Jim with the entire battle plan for the action in which his brother died.

Coinciding with this discovery, Charles Krohn published "The Lost Battalion," a book detailing the battle in which Michael had died. Jim read the book then contacted the author.

"He was the intelligence officer with the unit," Jim said. "While he didn't know my brother, he said the unit took horrific loses and he wrote the book about it."

The author gave him details that brought Jim even closer to the exact location where Michael died. From Krohn, Jim learned Michael's unit had gone to support besieged Marines in Hue.

Michael's unit, in seeking to secure the village of Thon Lu Chu, did not know they would find the division headquarters for the North Vietnamese there. The four hundred members of Michael's unit found themselves facing off with 1,600 hardened North Vietnamese regular soldiers, who occupied a well-fortified position originally constructed by American troops.

Two hundred yards into the village, the truth hit them. But by that time, the enemy had closed the door behind them. For two days Michael's unit fought, sending out their wounded and dead via helicopter, while receiving enough food and ammunition in return to sustain the battle. It rained for two days. The temperature dropped below 54 degrees. The unit suffered mounting losses. The commander decided they had to leave before the unit got overrun.

What happened leading up to that evacuation Jim still does not know. But in the final hours before the unit's escape, his brother died, and the unit could not take the body out, burying Michael along with twelve other soldiers in shallow graves to be retrieved later.

In talking to Krohn, Jim discovered details no one had told the family before, about the location of the graves.

"He said they had buried the guys about 200 yards into the village, next to a bogota," Jim said.

In April 2000, Jim took the 38-hour hopscotch flight from the east coast of United States to DaNang, landing in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Ti Pai and finally DaNang. He said he was pumped up the whole time. Again fate lent a hand, allowing him to meet someone through a local connection who knew where the village was. They tried to rent a van and had to settle for motor scooters.

Jim called the trip up Highway One "a surrealistic trip," where Russian-built trucks competed for space with water buffalo and buses full of children and chickens. They also traveled through some of the most beautiful and treacherous landscape. It was 94 degrees and 90 percent humidity.

"It took us three hours to go 50 miles," Jim said.

From Hue, they took a dirt path to the village. Although they found a bogota -- and heard a woman tell them about a big American battle that had been waged nearby -- Jim believed it the wrong spot. It didn't fit the mental picture the facts had painted in his head.

Jim's police instincts took over. He began to question people the way he would when he was a cop.

"I gave them a little information, they gave me information back," he said.

Eventually, he learned that a bogota had been blown up and they led him to the gate and the footstones all that remained. Then, someone pointed him to the former graves.

"I asked to be alone," he said. "Maybe I thought God would open up and talk to me. What I found were about twenty pre-school or nursery school kids there, looking at me as if I was a Martian. They wouldn't leave me alone. So I did the only thing I could. I sat down on that spot and started to play with them. We sang songs. We touched hands. And then, I went back to Operation Smile where we operated on 140 kids to help save their lives."

Jim brought back no mementos from that trip, no sticks or stone from the gravesite, only photographs. Yet even now when he looks at them, he can feel the heat and the stillness of that place. He can feel the palm trees swaying and hear the high-pitched voices of the Vietnamese people, and remembered how they couldn't do enough to help him.

"What hit me most was the fact that I was walking on ground my brother had walked on," Jim said. "He had smelled what I was smelling and saw the sun where I saw it."


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