While biography forms the backbone of any obituary, it is the stories about a life that serve to illuminate it and give meaning.
The letter to Aretha Franklin below was originally written and mailed a few years ago by Earle L. Jackson Sr. — a medic for the 173rd Airborne. I publish it today (in slightly modified form by its author), with the thought that, perhaps, the story will help to illuminate the biography of her life that has been written and celebrated elsewhere
For context, the Vietnam combat below is the Battle of Dak To (Hill 875), some of the bloodiest fighting of that long ago, godforsaken but not forgotten, conflict.
The letter below is from a soldier surrounded by death, to an artist that helped keep his spirit alive.
Today is one of those days I post something that has nothing whatsoever to do with law. I publish simply because its one of these things that should not remain hidden.
Dear Ms. Franklin,
Please accept my apology for this letter being some 50 plus years over due. In 1967, I was a 22 year-old combat medic with the 173d Airborne Brigade, the most decorated army brigade in Vietnam. We were dug-in in a river valley next to the Dak Po river in Kontum Province, Republic of South Vietnam. The valley was named Dakto which was about 50 miles by dirt road from the closest mountain village, in the rain-soaked jungles of the Central Highlands.
At any time during the day or night, from the surrounding hills and mountains, the North Vietnamese Army would rain down mortars and rockets killing and wounding scores of paratroopers and destroying critical supplies. Dakto was an extremely dangerous place in 1967, over a four month period we had hundreds of troopers killed and another thousand or so men wounded.
We could never let our guard down in Dakto because the Cambodian border was just a few miles away where some 20,000 highly trained, battle-tested North Vietnamese soldiers were camped, poised to attack our position in the valley at any given moment. If we did come under a full attack and had to defend this valley, we would do so with a little better than 1,200 men. I don’t mind admitting, and I’m not embarrassed to say that for this 22 year-old kid from Plainville, Connecticut it was a very stressful time and place to say the least.
Every day as dusk settled into night over the valley, you could hear the hum of generators being started that provided the only electricity for 50 miles around. The intermittent firing of our artillery into the surrounding hills and valleys kept the enemy off balance during the night and less likely to attack us.
It’s Saturday night in death valley, the enemy is taking a break from shelling us and the boredom is almost thick enough to cut with a knife, when through the crisp Dakto night air, as the moon rose above the dark peaks of the mountains, there came the sweet sound of a familiar voice belting out the soulful words “R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me.”
Man, I say to myself, I’m missing home too much, could that be my girl way out here in this dusty hell-hole? I want to get closer to what I’m hearing so I follow the sound and it leads me to a rain poncho being used as a door to cover an under-ground bunker.
In the bunker there are a dozen grubby, tired and home-sick paratroopers and they were partying in this hole in the ground like there will be no tomorrow. On one side of the bunker, several paratroopers are harmonizing the background lyrics, and rocking to the beat of the music on the other side of the bunker are several other soldiers making up their own choreographed steps as they move to the rhythm of the music.
It’s a scene now etched into my heart and mind that will never be erased. This will be the start of a night in my life that I will never forget and its not over yet.
About 2:00 am in the morning I needed some fresh air so I stepped outside of that bunker. It wasn’t long before my ears caught another familiar sound coming from the next bunker about 30 yards down the line of bunkers. “You make me feel like a natural woman”, man, oh man, there is another party going on in the next under-ground bunker too. In this bunker there are another dozen or so paratroopers partying in the candle light, dancing by themselves while singing along at the top of their lungs with our “Queen of Soul”, Ms. Aretha Franklin.
There may be a war going on outside of the bunker, but inside the safety of this bunker there is a party going on and performing for us tonight is Ms. Aretha Franklin, no charge. In 1967 we spent many nights in some of the world’s most dangerous places on earth and you Ms. Franklin were always right there with us, helping us get through another tough night or giving us comfort on a bad day. Even today when I hear your music I smile, a warm feeling comes over me, and I get carried back to those spirit lifting parties in that infamous river valley of death in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, in 1967.
Ms. Franklin you may never know the depth of the love we old veterans have for you and your music, or the impact that they had on us combat troops dug-in in the remote mountains and jungles of South Vietnam. When we were down and needed a double dose of love, you gave it to us in your music; through your music we were able to get through the hard times and terrifying moments that lay ahead of us.
Well Ms. Franklin, I’m 74 years old now and I don’t think that I will ever get the chance to hug you and thank you personally for all that you did for me and the tens of thousands of other soldiers some 50 plus years ago, but please consider this, when you settle down to sleep and close your eyes please let your last thoughts for the night be about the tens of thousands of veterans who love you beyond words of expression and cherish those brief, precious moments when you single-handedly stopped the war and took us all home . God Bless you for that, and rest easy Ms Franklin, long live the Queen of Soul….
Sincerely and with much love , Airborne All the Way
Earle L. Jackson Sr.
(This publication is with the permission of its veteran-author, who maintains a copyright over the letter, so please do not re-publish without permission from his friend and lawyer, Ken Laska