In fact, Americans are fighting and dying in Iraq today. But does that mean the Vietnam War is over? No. Not for the countless thousands still suffering wounds from that war.
Approximately 20,000 American kids lost their fathers in Vietnam. They’re all adults now, but they're all still living with an emptiness that will never go away.
Tracy Tragos was 3 months old when her father was killed. For 32 years, all she had was a formal portrait of him that she kept on a dresser in her room. She knew nothing about him because it was too painful for her mother to talk about him.
But two years ago, an accidental discovery launched Tracy on a project that made the man in the portrait, her father, come alive. The project was making a documentary film which she called, "Be Good, Smile Pretty." Correspondent Bob Simon reports.
Tragos’ film, the first she had ever made, was shown at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Fathers Day last June. Tracy called her film, “Be Good, Smile Pretty” - words her father, Don Droz, wrote at the end of his letters.
Tracy didn’t know about the letters, and knew very little about her father until she went on the Internet two years ago and typed in his name. All she knew was that he died on a boat in Vietnam when she was 3 months old.
“And up came a detailed account of the day that my father was killed,” says Tragos, referring to an account written by a man who was there. He described how the Navy swift boat her father skippered, called the 43, was ambushed by the Vietcong in April 1969. There was even a picture of the 43’s remains, a carcass on a riverbank.
“And I don’t know what I’m gonna do with this," recalls Tragos. "But, you know, I feel like, you know, my life is gonna change because of it.”
It changed right away because she started asking her mother questions, something she didn’t do as a kid.
“I didn’t want to make my mother cry. I mean, you know, asking about my father would bring up tears,” she says.
But the article gave Tracy an opening. She sat her mother, Judy, down, took out a video camera and said simply, “Tell me about my father.”
“And very selfishly so, I didn’t turn the camera off when my mother started to cry,” says Tragos.
Cornered by the camera, the stories started flowing from her mother - stories like the day a naval officer arrived at the front door with a death notice.
Judy wasn’t only revealing emotions she’d locked up all these years. There were things, too, like a trunk that had been tucked away in a garage that had belonged to Tracy’s father.
“And there were things in it that I never knew existed. There was a reel-to-reel audiotape,” says Tragos, who heard her father’s voice for the first time in a phone conversation with her mother.
There were also pictures of her father that Tracy had never seen: glimpses of Don Droz’s life at the Naval Academy and in Vietnam.
“It was really like having a breath of him. There were so many things that were like windows on who he was,” says Tragos.
And these windows also gave Tracy a glimpse of how much she meant to her father, if ever so briefly, a long time ago. There was an 8-millimeter film in the trunk showing Don Droz and his 3-month-old daughter in Hawaii during his last R&R visit. It was the only time he and Tracy would be together.
“I think I had a sense of how much he loved me,” says Tragos. “And you could see him there, patting my back and kissing my head and it was just, it was really nice to see that.”
Two weeks later, Don Droz was killed in Vietnam. The 8-millimeter film was banished to the trunk to gather dust for decades.
Was Tragos upset about not finding out about her father sooner?
“That’s part of the, you know, I think, a little bit of the anger, because I didn’t know there was all this stuff,” says Tragos. “Why didn’t we talk about him? Why couldn’t we have lived with his memory more?”
But Tracy felt she could ask those questions now.
“I never thought to mention, ‘Do you know what’s in that trunk? Maybe you would enjoy looking there,’” says Judy, who admits that she had no idea how much these things would mean to her daughter.
Back then, in ‘69, Judy had enough to deal with. She was widowed, with an infant daughter, and she let out her anger by becoming active in the anti-war movement. Seven months after Don Droz was killed, she led the March Against Death in Washington. Then, she remarried, put on blinders and forged ahead – until Tracy reopened the wounds two years ago.
It was hard for Judy, but imagine what it was like for David Keyes, Tracy’s adoptive father. He agreed to be interviewed in the film: “It’s a new chapter in the heroic epic that by which I feel further diminished actually. And it’s hard.”
And, while Tracy thought she was making a little personal film, it was turning out to be more than that. When she went to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, she realized that her documentary was not just about her.
“I met other children who lost fathers in Vietnam, and heard their stories that were so much like mine, that they weren’t talking about it within their families. And yet, they wanted to, and needed to,” says Tragos. “An emptiness, a void. Living with a longing. Wanting to know but not asking about it.”
In the film, Tracy traveled from Alabama to Illinois to Virginia to meet the men who were with her father in Vietnam.
“I picked up wonderful details about my Dad,” says Tragos. “My father wore these brown shoes, and they were non-regulation brown shoes. I think somebody said, the phrase that he used was, ‘The Navy might own my body, but they don’t own my feet.’”
In California, she found Tedd Peck, who had a story about her father he had never told anyone.
“I really had no clue that what I was gonna say was gonna be that powerful to her,” says Peck, who told her that a few months before Droz was scheduled to go to Hawaii for R&R, he became so anxious about dying before he got there that he begged Peck to replace him on a mission to the deadly Mekong Delta.
“He had a feeling deep inside that he wasn’t gonna survive the rivers. He said, ‘Well, my wife’s gonna have a baby. And I, and I want to live to see it,’” recalls Peck, who agreed to make the switch, and Droz met Tracy in Honolulu.
“My father was trying to live, to come home and be my father. And, as much as I was kind of reaching back for him, he was kind of reaching out to me,” says Tragos.
More of her father’s comrades reached out to Tracy. An audiotape arrived in the mail, and Tracy was stunned by what she heard: radio calls the day of that operation.
That operation happened two weeks after Droz returned to Vietnam, to the Mekong Delta, from Hawaii. His boat, the 43, was being ambushed on the Duong Keo river. It was the day he died.
“I heard someone on the 43 boat, my father’s boat, making a distress call. I heard the bullets. I heard cries for help. There was just all this chaos,” says Tragos.
“I felt like a responsibility as, as Don Droz’s daughter, as my father’s daughter, I wanted to know what he went through.”
She wanted to know how he died. Tracy and her mother tracked down Peter Upton, the man who had written the article that would end up on the Internet 30 years later. He had also been on the 43, her father’s boat.
“A rocket had exploded interiorly, in the cabin, killing instantly both Don and the coxswain,” said Upton.
The 43 careened and ended up on the riverbank. Droz’s body, with his trademark brown shoes visible under the blanket, was retrieved before the 43 exploded. He was buried in Rich Hill, Mo., in 1969.
This Veteran’s Day, Tracy’s documentary will be broadcast on PBS, and it will have a new label: award winner.
“Be Good, Smile Pretty” won the LA Film Festival award for best documentary last June.
But there was still one more trip to take, involving planes and buses and ferries to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Tracy said she and her mother were looking for hallowed ground: “It was important to me to see the actual place where my father fell. And we didn’t know what we were going to find."
With the help of Navy coordinates, Tragos and her mother retraced Droz’s route that day in April ’69. They found the precise spot, but it wasn’t at all what they had seen in their mind’s eye for the last 34 years.
“Oh God, what a God forsaken place,” says Judy. “I imagined it so beautiful. It’s not beautiful here.”
There was an indentation the shape of a boat exactly where the 43 had gone ashore. Could it be the remains of that day? Impossible to believe, impossible not to imagine.
There was nothing left of the boat itself, nothing but one rusty screw, offered to them by an old villager. And in memory of all the young men who died that day – Vietnamese and American – a woman from the village had put up a shrine: scrap metal, a few bamboo sticks, a piece of cloth and solace for the pilgrims from America.
“There was comfort in seeing this small, fragile little place,” says Tragos, who lighted incense and left a picture there. “I wanted to leave a picture of him as a father, not as a soldier with bullets. Because I think, you know, at his heart that’s who he was. I am now older than my father ever got to be. I hope that I have done something that will make my father proud.”