COLUMBIA, S.C – Four letters from a courageous South Carolina soldier who tried to tell his family about the fearsome battles that raged around him in Vietnam were returned to his family Saturday, some 40 years after he was killed.
Military representatives of the Army's 101st Airborne Division presented the letters from Sgt. Steve Flaherty of Columbia to his uncle Kenneth Cannon and sister-in-law Martha Gibbons during a ceremony at the state's memorial honoring Vietnam veterans.
Flaherty was killed in combat in Vietnam in 1969. Vietnamese soldiers took the letters after Flaherty's death. They were turned over to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month when he visited Vietnam.
"It's a miracle these letters have shown up after all this time," Cannon said, taking a peek into the envelope that held the missives. The 80-year-old Navy veteran said the family had decided to study them in private because of the emotion of the moment.
"They are in remarkable condition to be 40-years old," he added. "I know Steve would be glad they are back home."
Gibbons, 73, said the family decided to donate the letters to a South Carolina military museum that is planning an exhibit honoring the nearly 1,000 South Carolinians who died in the conflict.
"This way they can be preserved for anybody to see," said Gibbons, 73, from nearby Irmo. "It means a lot to us."
Lt. Col. Townley Hedrick, deputy commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division, shook Cannon's hand and kissed Gibbons on the cheek as he presented an envelope containing the letters.
Gibbons said she was grateful to the Vietnamese officer who retained them for so many years.
"We didn't know they were out there," she said.
Cannon said he'd been able to read some excerpts from the letters that had been released by the Pentagon, in which Flaherty spoke of the carnage his unit experienced and his own fear and determination.
"I felt bullets going past me," Flaherty wrote, according to the excerpts. "I have never been so scared in my life."
The young soldier said his unit "took in lots of casualties and death," adding, "we dragged more bodies of dead and wounded than I can ever want to forget."
Flaherty wrote at one point that a "sweet card" he had gotten "made my miserable day a much better one but I don't think I will ever forget the bloody fight we are having. ... RPG rockets and machine guns really tore my rucksack."
By 1969, the war had sharply divided Americans back home, but Flaherty wrote he still believed in the mission.
"This is a dirty and cruel war but I'm sure people will understand the purpose of this war even though many of us might not agree," he wrote.
Cannon said his nephew was "a frightened young man, and who wouldn't be? He knew he was fighting an enemy he couldn't see in a war we could not win."
Cannon and representatives of the Army said Flaherty had been born in Japan and was adopted by his South Carolina family at the age of 9, after living in an orphanage dedicated to help children born to Japanese mothers and U.S. military fathers. The mixed heritage made it difficult to assimilate into Japanese society at that time.
Flaherty grew into a stellar student and athlete, even getting an offer from the Cincinnati Reds to join their major league baseball team, Cannon said.
"It's regrettable he died so young. He's history now, he made history," Cannon said. "He felt it was his duty to fight for the country he loved. We are very glad to have Steve's letters and this part of Steve's life back in South Carolina."