Bill Honaker begins his Vietnam War memoir by telling us what he is not going to tell: “I have deliberately left out some of the events I experienced,” he says, “in part because I could not capture in words what I saw in my mind’s eye and translate into an acceptable fashion, and partly because some things were just too gruesome to try to explain.” Regardless of the self-censoring, the information Honaker imparts in The Dead Were Mine (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $10.00, paper) fascinated me.
Honaker served two Nam tours as a Graves Registration (GRREG) Specialist: 1966-67 in the 9th Infantry Division operations area, and 1969-70 with the 243rd Field Service Company at Pleiku and Qui Nhon. He spent time in the field, leading Search and Recovery missions. During Operation Compassion Honaker humped the Central Highlands while looking for men lost going back as far as four years.
His duties entailed finding, cleaning, and identifying bodies; trying to determine cause of death; and escorting remains of those killed in action or who died otherwise in Vietnam. What Honaker describes of the destructive aftermath of combat is limited, but it also is new and grisly.
In a strangely dispassionate manner, Honaker and his coworkers’ emotions transcended the horror of their tasks. The dedication of these men who accepted such depressing duty reflected the depth of respect they felt toward those who gave their lives for our nation.
Graves Registration personnel preparing transfer cases in Vietnam for shipment home.
Honaker precisely explains the hopelessness he overcame to fulfill his responsibilities in-country where tasks were far grimmer than those he had mastered in GRREG school. He dedicated himself to “ensuring that fallen soldiers would be returned home, and [he] would be doing immeasurable good for the Next-of-Kin.” Photographs from slides he shot supplement his story.
Having enlisted in the Army in 1962, Honaker retired in 1983 as a Master Sergeant. He spent his entire career in GRREG, which now is called Memorial Activities.
Honaker tells plenty, but not everything, about collecting and processing human remains. For that consideration, some readers might thank him.
Others might wish that he had provided every gory detail from his experiences. But Honaker did not write the book as a catharsis for PTSD or other post-war emotional problems. Instead, he aimed to give credence to men and women who served in an honorable, arduous, and consuming role. What he reveals adequately proves his point.