Why I Observe Memorial Day: A Vietnam Vet’s Experience as a Messenger of Death

By Norman Davis, Jr. Published on May 28, 2017

I still remember those for whom I was the face that destroyed their world. This is why I observe Memorial Day.

I served as an Army Captain in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. Those were the bloodiest years of the war for Americans. After my tour was complete, I was called on to knock on survivors’ doors and inform them their loved one was dead.

The secretary of the Army has asked me to inform you of the death of your son or husband or brother on (date). Those words still haunt me. I had to repeat them to those I talked to. I then did what I could to help. I informed them that a survivor assistance officer would contact them to assist in funeral arrangements and other items that would have to be addressed.

My Roughest Notification

My roughest notification came one hot mid-summer afternoon. I had to notify a wife in St. Louis, Missouri, of the death of her husband in Vietnam. He was an Army captain and helicopter pilot. When I walked to her door and identified myself, she would not open the door. All wives were told that when an officer in uniform came to their door, it was serious. It was probably a death that brought them.

I could hear her opening doors and closing them, opening drawers and closing them. Then I heard her on the phone — I wondered whether she was looking for a gun. I wondered what I could do if she tried to shoot me when she opened the door.

Finally she opened the door and asked me to talk to the operator to get her friend’s phone number. I got it and she called her. She asked if I would stay with her until her friend could get there. I agreed. Her friend was in East St. Louis, Illinois, and we were in the western part of St. Louis, Missouri. It would take two or three hours for her friend to drive the distance.

I saw an infant sleeping on the couch and, through an open door, a two-year-old sleeping on a bed in the bedroom.

While we waited, she told me her husband had only been gone six days, and she had received her first letter from him two hours before I knocked on her door. He had told her not to worry — he was not flying yet.

We Cried Together

When her friend arrived, we cried together. I still get tears writing this. And the babies slept through it all.

As I left, I thought about my wife Mary and our family. It could have been Mary who heard a knock on her door. But it wasn’t. 

I still suffer from my time in Vietnam. I struggle with health issues because of exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used during the war. Like many of my peers, most of my internal organs have problems. But still I’ve been blessed. Unlike many Vietnam vets who died years younger than me, I’m still here.

This is why I observe Memorial Day. I always think of those less fortunate than my family. I think about those who’ve lost their fathers, brothers and sons. I think about those whom I comforted during the worst time in their life. I’ll never forget them. And I’ll never forget just how blessed I am.


Major Norman Davis, Jr., retired from the U.S. Army in 1979. He’s the treasurer of the Longview chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. He and his wife attend the State Council meetings and attend the National conventions every two years to help him keep current on events concerning Vietnam Vets.

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