Remembering Mark Vanderheld
By Joe Guzzardi
Mark Edward Vanderheid was born in Tonawanda, N.Y., on Feb. 11, 1949. Four months after his 20th birthday, and only six months after he arrived in South Vietnam in 1968, Vanderheid, a U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal, lay dead on the Quang Tri battle field; mortar shell fragments had torn his body open. Young Mark was one of 58,222 who died in the Vietnam War. Among the enemy, an estimated 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters were killed; 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died, and more than 2 million innocent civilians were killed.
The futile war in Vietnam began in 1959 when the first U.S. soldiers were killed during a guerrilla raid on their quarters near Saigon; the war ended ignominiously in 1975. U.S. forces never had a chance. President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the powers that escalated the war, had no exit strategy, and knew that Americans back home would be unwilling to make a sustainable commitment to victory. Such a pledge would mean higher taxes to support Johnson’s guns and butter economy, thousands more lost lives and more domestic turmoil. In 1997, during a meeting with McNamara, Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap told his foe that the U.S. could never have won. The Vietnamese, Giap said, were willing to fight for 100 years.
At different times and to different degrees, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon – the war’s architects – realized that Vietnam was a morass, a disaster in the making, and defeat, inevitable. McNamara: “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” Their too-late awakening was cold comfort to Lillian and Edward Vanderheid, Mark’s parents, as well as to the other families whose loved ones, while defending a misguided, and ultimately failed cause, died too young.
Mark’s body was returned to Tonawanda in July, and he was buried with military services at Elmlawn Cemetery. On Dec. 19, 1968, the Tonawanda News published a letter from the Vanderheid family in which they shared memories of their hero son, and expressed gratitude for the two memorials that had recently been dedicated to Mark, one an award given in his name to the most spirited Tonawanda High School varsity football player. The other memorial, Lillian and Edward wrote, is the Payne Avenue Christian Church’s “beautiful stained-glass window.” The letter continued: “Words just can’t express the deep feeling within us as we sat in church listening to the memorial dedication service the young friends of Mark’s had to dedicate the stained-glass window that has been put in our church in memory of him. May God Bless you all.”
Grieving Lillian and Edward remembered how Mark loved to play sports and teach other young boys how to play. He coached Little League and also umpired games. Lillian thought back to one day when Mark was home on leave and said, “Mom, someone has to help those people over there. Those kids have never known anything but war. If I can do even a small part to help them to someday just be kids and enjoy a childhood like I did, to be able to throw baseballs and footballs instead of hand grenades, I’ll have done my part.” Lance Corporal Vanderheid did more than his part, and deserved to live a full, rewarding life. The Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon Vietnam war-obsessed White Houses stole from Mark, and from other thousands, that basic privilege.
Mark’s name is on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., panel W54, line 8. His biography appeared in Gary Bedingfield’s “Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice,” dedicated to the 500 players who died in service to America.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.