On Friday, Kevin Reynolds tucked into his luggage a scarf he gave his mother before she died. By Sunday night he will be bound from San Francisco for a sandy stretch of Vietnam riverbank where his brother was killed in 1968.
Reynolds, a former New York City police officer living in East Hampton, learned of his 23-year-old brother Richard’s battlefield death on a January day that year, when two U.S. Marines knocked on the family’s door.
He remembers his mother weeping for days, and hugging the casket when it arrived at the Church of the Good Shepherd, near where the Reynolds family lived in upper Manhattan.
After Marine 2nd Lt. Richard Reynolds Jr.’s casket was lowered into the ground in a cemetery in Hawthorne, in Westchester County, his parents — stoic immigrants from Ireland’s County Leitrim — did not pursue details of how their son had died. That he had given his last full measure was what mattered to them.
Kevin Reynolds was 18 when his brother died.
“For the next 45 years, I never really mourned or grieved my brother’s death,” said Reynolds, who called his brother Richie. “I was numb. In my emotional isolation, I just put a story together of how he was killed. Maybe he was hit by a sniper? That’s just how I dealt with it.”
Reynolds’ father, Richard Sr., died in 1988, his mother, Rita, in 1993, neither knowing the circumstances of their son’s death. However, three years ago, Reynolds read an account of the fatal firefight that he felt unfairly implied that a battlefield miscalculation by his brother had brought his unit into the crosshairs of a numerically stronger enemy.
Determined to speak with men his brother had commanded, Reynolds began traveling the country to interview members of his brother’s platoon. His travels brought him to a Marine Corps memorial in Quantico, Virginia, where he gleaned enough information to convince him that he had to go to the spot where his brother died.
Richie Reynolds was killed Jan. 20, 1968, while leading his platoon — 3rd Platoon, A Company, 1st AmTrac Battalion, 3rd Marine Division — on a rush to aid fellow troops near Dong Ha, west of where the Cua Viet River flows into the South China Sea. He and 12 others — about a third of his platoon — were killed, survivors said.
One survivor, Rudy Molina, told Reynolds that a scouting unit Molina was patrolling with stumbled across North Vietnamese regulars, who were dug in behind a berm. Richie Reynolds, who had been riding atop an LVTP amphibious troop carrier as he rushed toward the fighting, was killed in a machine gun burst as he leapt from atop the vehicle.
“It was a huge group, maybe 300 or 400 soldiers, and we were right in the middle of it,” Molina, 69, of Coulterville, California, said of the enemy in an interview with Newsday.
“We found them, but they were annihilating us,” he said. “He came to our aid and it helped actually because I was out in the open and pinned down.
“Some of his Marines provided cover fire for me until I was able to get up and run to them,” Molina said. “But Kevin’s brother got killed.”
Molina will travel to the battle site with Reynolds, in his own attempt to close the door on a painful history. Reynolds will take photographs and shoot video of his trip for a documentary he is making with New York University film student Genevieve O’Connell.
The Vietnam War, which sharply divided the American public during its peak years from 1964 to 1973, claimed the lives of at least 58,220 American troops, according to the National Archives. More than 3 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians — about 7.5 percent of the population — were also killed.
Reynolds’ 15-day trip is being arranged by Vietnam Battlefield Tours, a Texas-based nonprofit run by five Vietnam veterans. The former guides with other Vietnam tour companies have hosted about 1,500 visitors per year since forming their own organization in 2005.
Company officials say most of the travelers are former soldiers and Marines who visit the country for the same reasons that Reynolds is going — to grapple with lingering emotions or to see where they served in their youth. Many end up sobbing, overcome by the experience.
“The anxiety they come with drains away and they are so happy to have come full circle,” said one of the tour guides, former Riverhead resident William Stilwagen, 67, who served near the Demilitarized Zone as a Marine Corps radio operator in 1969.
“We had one guy who said he had the same nightmare every night for 47 years before he came,” said Stilwagen, who built boats in eastern Long Island before moving to Onancock, Virginia, in 1998. “And now the nightmare is gone.”
The trip, which began Friday with packing, left from LaGuardia Airport at 5 a.m. Saturday. It will cost Reynolds about $4,000. After leaving San Francisco late Sunday, it will include stops in places whose names accompanied 1960s evening newscasts: Hanoi. Hue. Khe Sanh. Quang Tri. Lang Vei.
“It’s a journey of mourning and grieving, and one man’s search for the truth about his brother,” Stilwagen said.
Reynolds said he will bury his mother’s scarf — a tasseled accessory in fading thin red stripes — in the village where his brother was killed. If he’s lucky, he said, he will find the very spot.
He hopes to find villagers who will remember what happened that January day. Maybe someone will remember his brother’s death.
Reynolds says he wants his mother to symbolically be near where his brother perished.
“I’m leaving it there,” he said, “so my mom can be with her son.”