Coffins of Tin by J.C. Handy

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The pseudonymous J. C. Handy was drafted into the U. S. Army and served a tour in Vietnam in 1967. The prologue of his fine novel Coffins of Tin: The Unseen Angels of Viet Nam (Batlemente, 387 pp., $19.99, paper; $24.99, hardcover) informs us that the “remains of 58,193 soldiers were repatriated to American soil by Graves Registration personnel throughout Viet Nam.  Thirty-nine years after the war’s end, these compassionate and brave individuals die a little each day from invisible wounds inflicted by all they had seen and done to reclaim the Fallen. Coffins of Tin is the story of but a few.”

Graves Registration (GR) is the subject of the book. It opens in October 1967, and we are immediately introduced to the main character, Mitch McCasey. We follow him throughout his time in Vietnam. McCasey is stationed in Da Nang Air Base, aka Rocket City. He arrives, in fact, during a mortar barrage.

My first thought upon reading the first page of this novel is that Mitch would be in Vietnam for the Tet Offensive. I was right, but I had to get through most of this big book before that time arrived. During those many months we are introduced to every aspect of Graves Registration.

Mitch is a Conscientious Objector, and he is assigned by a vindictive sergeant to GR. Mitch accepts the assignment, even though he had the right to reject it. He accepts the assignment and the reader is not told why, although Mitch readily accepts every bad thing that comes his way. I had the thought that Mitch was paying penance for some sin that we don’t know about.

It turns out that I was right about that, but by the time we learn what the sin is, the book is just about over. By that time we have witnessed Mitch falling in love with a Donut Dolly named Beverly, who, like Mitch, is from Chicago. She’s blonde and petite like Sandra Dee and “as American as apple pie.” That works well, as we are told that Mitch resembles Bobby Darin.

Capt. Garcia runs GR and provides protection for “the remains,” which is what the bodies are called—and also for those who work for him. Dignity and respect are always priorities and are always maintained.

When I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut, I remember eating lunch with some GR guys. There was always room at their table in the mess hall. They exuded the faint odor of formaldehyde, which put a lot of soldiers off.

Handy introduces us to each function of GR as Mitch is, and we learn along with him. He learns to chart the remains as they arrive in body bags, which are not called body bags. They had a special name, as did everything in GR.

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Graves Registration personnel prepared transfer cases in Vietnam for shipment home. From “Assuming Nothing: How Mortuary Practices Changed During The Vietnam War” by Donald M. Rothberg in the Aug/Sept. 2001 print issue

This book is unlike any other I’ve read about tours of duty in the Vietnam War. But some things are similar, including the fact that John Wayne is mentioned several times. But far more space is devoted to charting and embalming than to any of the many dead horses of Vietnam War literature.

I highly recommend this well-written novel to all readers, as never before has the horrendous cost of war been more clearly explained—and in a way that is never boring.

Warning: The book tells a sad tale. How could it not? The relentless numbers of death are presented, both in the abstract and in the loss of characters we come to have affection for.

Read this book and weep. I dare you to do otherwise.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, www.jchandy.net

—David Willson