COLUMBIA When Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty of Columbia was killed in 1969 during a battle in South Vietnams A Shau Valley, U.S. soldiers could not recover his body immediately.
That allowed the North Vietnamese time to take his unsent letters filled with his descriptions of the horror and fear of combat.
If Dad calls, tell him I got too close to being dead but Im O.K. I was real lucky. Ill write again soon, read one message that never reached his mother.
Now, 43 years after Flaherty was buried, his letters are coming home.
During a historic visit Monday to the now-reunited Vietnam, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta exchanged a diary taken from a slain North Vietnamese soldier by a Marine for four letters that Flaherty had written but never had the chance to send. It was the first exchange of war artifacts between the two countries, former enemies now looking to expand relations. The North Vietnamese had used Flahertys words as propaganda.
When I read them, I started sobbing, Flahertys aunt, Martha Gibbons of Irmo, S.C., said. It almost put me on battlefield with him.
Memories of the Vietnam War are fading for many Americans, and the war is the stuff of textbooks for others. But it is brought vividly alive in Sgt. Flahertys letters.
The letters also have reopened emotions about the war for Flahertys family. Its a senseless loss of life, said Flahertys uncle, Kenneth Cannon, a Navy veteran who lives in Prosperity, S.C. A lot of good lives were wasted in the war in Vietnam to serve no purpose. He didnt deserve that.
Flaherty was 6 years old when he was adopted from a Japanese orphanage. His future brother volunteered at the orphanage while stationed overseas in the Army.
His aunt and uncle said Flaherty was a well-liked, well-behaved child who excelled at sports and academics. He was very well-disciplined, Gibbons said.
Flaherty was a high school baseball star and received a baseball scholarship to Bryan College in Tennessee, where he was named to the all-conference team as a freshman.
The Cincinnati Reds were interested in Flaherty, relatives said. Instead, he surprised his family by choosing Army green.
Gibbons said they thought Flaherty was joking. He said he felt obligated to serve his country because it had given him a home.
As a member of the 101st Airborne Division, Flaherty often would write but did not reveal his fears and concerns like those in the letters that were exchanged Monday. Some of the mail was to his mother, who along with his father and only brother, has since died. Other letters were addressed to Betty and Mrs. Wyatt, whom surviving relatives do not know.
I felt bullets going past me, he wrote to Betty in an excerpt, released by the Army. I have never been so scared in my life.
To Mrs. Wyatt, he wrote: Our platoon leader was killed and I was the temporary platoon leader until we got the replacement. Nothing seems to go well for us but well take that ridge line.
Flaherty was 22 when he was killed in a battle along one of the North Vietnamese Armys major supply routes.
Bob Destatte, a retired analyst with the Department of Defenses POW/Missing Personnel Office, discovered Flahertys letters in an article on a Vietnamese online magazine. The article was about a former North Vietnamese soldier who had held onto the correspondence so it could be returned to Flahertys mother. For years, the soldier kept the letters in a bundle on a bookshelfs high ledge, where no one could reach them easily, the article said.
Destatte worked the Defense Department and the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam to get the letters returned. The exchange was arranged as part of the visit by Panetta. Destatte then worked with the Richland County, S.C., Sheriffs office to find Flahertys relatives.
Gibbons looks forward to sharing the letters with her four grandchildren, who often look at a scrapbook she keeps about Flaherty. Cannon said he wants to find Betty and Mrs. Wyatt to share the letters with them.
And he wants people who have never been sent to war to understand the experience.
People will see the heart that it takes to fight, Cannon said. And theyll get to know Steve.
The Associated Press contributed.