A Vietnam Tragedy Unites a Professor and his Student
Joe Gilch, 22, grew up haunted by the story of an uncle killed in the Vietnam War.
As a kid, he’d pour over the nearly 80 letters that Private James “Jimmy” Gilch wrote to his family and friends in South Jersey. Hungry for more information, Joe would also read books on military history, and even contacted Jimmy’s commanding officer.
“Every family has its mystery,” said Gilch, who was born 23 years after Jimmy’s death, and is the son of Jimmy’s youngest brother. “I think no one in my family really ever talked about it because it was so hard to deal with.
“And though I only knew him from his letters, I was emotionally moved by what happened to him, and I wanted to learn more.”
Gilch entered Rutgers in 2007, uncertain of his direction, and for a period of time, struggled to find his academic footing.
But his continuing quest to understand the life of Jimmy Gilch would transform him into an honors student, and lead to a collaboration with one of the university’s most accomplished historians.
Gilch, now a graduate student in the History Department, is co-authoring a book with his mentor, Michael Adas, the 69-year-old Abraham E. Voorhees Professor of History in the School of Arts and Sciences.
The book, to be titled Everyman in Vietnam, melds two stories - one on the life and times of Jimmy Gilch, and another on the larger political and social forces that shaped the Vietnam era.
“Joe is telling his uncle’s story, and I am telling the story of how a country went to war,” Adas said. “We will be moving back and forth between those stories throughout the book.”
Professor and student met in 2007, when Gilch enrolled in Adas’ Byrne Seminar, War in the 20th Century. For his final project, Gilch delivered a presentation about his uncle that left his professor impressed.
Adas grew up in the 1960s, and his early scholarship on Southeast Asia and peasant rebellions was heavily influenced by the Vietnam War. Over the past several decades, his wide-ranging scholarship has examined how the U.S. and Europe have used science and technology to shape non-Western societies.
One recurring theme of his work is American hubris in its rise to global hegemony. He immediately saw the value in the story of Jimmy Gilch.
“The thing about Jimmy was that he’s an ordinary kid,” Adas said. “He’s like a substantial majority of the kids who were fighting in Vietnam – they are not heroes and they are not cowards.
“They are ordinary kids caught in this situation that is overwhelming.”
Adas was also stunned by the volume of letters that Jimmy’s mother preserved. “I don’t know of a bigger collection,” he said.
Jimmy Gilch, a native of Runnemede, New Jersey, was drafted into the Army in the summer of 1965, and killed less than a year later, at the age of 21, when his unit was ambushed in South Vietnam.
A high school dropout from a blue-collar family, Jimmy was initially eager to go to war. But his letters reflect a transformation, showing him increasingly burdened by doubts, and by the knowledge that he would not survive.
“The draft gave him a purpose in life - not so much to be a hero but to come out as something better than he was before,” Joe Gilch said. “But over time, you can see him changing through the letters. At one point, he writes that Vietnam is hell and that there is no way this war can be won.”
Jimmy and most of his unit were wiped out in an ambush in July 1966 as they were returning from a search and destroy mission.
The death unsettled Jimmy’s father, George, a gruff, conservative patriarch with seven children. Within several years, he sold the family towing business. He became a heavy smoker and stayed up late at night. He died of a heart attack in 1975 at the age of 62.
“He lost his passion for living,” Joe said.
Although the book will be presented in a neutral tone, the authors say the juxtapositions often bring home how indifferent the war’s supporters in the U.S. government were to the fate of soldiers like Jimmy.
“Right at the very time Jimmy is going in - [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara is losing faith in the war,” Adas said. “But he keeps telling President Johnson he needs more soldiers.”
The book expands on the research that Gilch did for his honors thesis, which used Jimmy’s letters, interviews with his friends and family, and the U.S military’s after-action reports, to paint an extraordinarily vivid picture of how a young man was cut down in the prime of life.
Adas and Gilch plan to have a first draft ready in the fall of 2012 to give to an agent.
Despite their differences in age and experience, the two discovered early on that they worked well as a research team.
“We both love military history – the human side of it,” Adas said. “We also have complementary skills. He is very good at web sources, and I’m good at more traditional sources.”
The collaboration has left both transformed.
Gilch credits Adas with helping him get through a rocky period in his undergraduate career, and putting him on the track toward academic excellence.
“When he became my academic counselor, we looked back at my past performance, and he just told me to salvage what I could and move forward,” Gilch said. “He told me what to read to get a global perspective, and I did.
“Eventually, things started working out, and at one point I said to myself: ‘Perhaps graduate school, and a Ph.D. are not too far out of reach.'”
Adas, meanwhile, said the partnership has helped him move in new directions in a career already laden with honors. His more recent books have been geared to a general audience, and Everyman in Vietnam is allowing him to continue in that vein.
“I’ve proven what I needed to prove as an academic,” Adas said. “I’ve been interested now in writing for a larger audience. And Joe has pushed me further in that direction.”