Baptist of An Hoa

Beach activity at Da Nang, Vietnam during landing of United States Marines of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade in March of 1965.  (United States Marine Corps)

Beach activity at Da Nang, Vietnam during landing of United States Marines of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade in March of 1965. (United States Marine Corps)

Vietnam, 1968. My friend Lee Benjamin arrived two weeks after the Tet Offensive. At the age of 19, he found himself a young Marine at the siege of Khe Sanh, a Jew among Christians.

“But I did not baptize anyone in Khe Sanh. I wouldn’t go out of the sandbagged holes we lived in much because they could sniper at you. I took only 11 showers in 4-5 months, 4 of them while I was in the hospital with malaria.”

At An Hoa, his fellow grunts had “freaked.” The company had gone in with about 150 troops and only 70 were left—some dead, some wounded, some poisoned by tree insects. They had been told by preachers, ministers and chaplains that if they died unbaptized, in battle, they would end up in Hell. Lee came from an upper middle-class white Jewish family in San Diego. He attributed this fear of damnation to the ignorance of uneducated young draftees. He was a Forward Air Control guy and needed their protection in battle. Characteristically, he took direct and efficient action to address the situation.   

          “I can baptize you, if you want me to.”

 How can you baptize if you are not a real priest or minister?

          “I have special powers. I’m a Jew. John the Baptist was a Jew. I can baptize.”

Figuring to cover all bases in an uncertain and perilous situation, several of his fellow Marines consented. What was there to lose?

So Lee took them down to the river to pray. But there was one difficulty. He was not familiar with the Christian rite of Baptism. Praying to be shown the way, he laid hands on the head of each soldier and doused them with water. He spoke the Sabbath prayers for the blessing of candles. Guessing that some words in Latin were appropriate at this time, he solemnly intoned the only words he remembered from history lessons about Julius Caesar:

“Vini, vidi, vici.”

To round off the ceremony, he pronounced each one of his comrades born again in the Grace of the Lord:

“Man, you are baptized. Keep the faith baby and let’s get short.”

John the Baptist by Jacopo Tintoretto, XVI c.

John the Baptist by Jacopo Tintoretto, XVI c.

When Muslims declare jihad, their young men purportedly are promised—as an incentive—that they will be met by 72 virgins in the afterworld. How exquisitely American to send poor young men to fight rich men’s wars, to appeal to their patriotism in order to face bullets, explosives and death in battle, and then to threaten them with Hell if they are not also baptized! But the Baptist of An Hoa—a trickster angel risen from green river waters—armed his fellow soldiers with the Shield of Grace, and the Promise of Salvation.

A dangerous proposition indeed. For his actions John the Baptist was desired by Salome and beheaded by Herod. Lee was not; he was later wounded and sent out of Vietnam. He spent ten months in a VA hospital. No good deed ever goes unpunished.

OG

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