Walter N. Levy ’63

“The best that was in us,”

By Jacque E. Day.

On September 18, 1965, a young Marine officer named Philip Caputo picks up a buzzing EE-8 field telephone and begins taking a casualty report. He has been in-country for seven months, and the KIAs have escalated to the point that he is writing 75 to 80 reports a week, a task done with such regularity that he has become numb to it. This day will be different.

Impression courtesy of Ed Tracy.

Impression courtesy of Ed Tracy.

The lieutenant on the other end reads the first name, a corpsman who has suffered a gunshot through the head. Caputo records the details, and the lieutenant continues: “Second one’s last name is Levy. Lima-Echo …” Caputo interrupts the lieutenant, as he retells in his 1976 memoir, A Rumor of War:

Photo provided with grateful remembrance by W alt’s classmates of “H” Company, Class 4-64 of the U.S. Marine Corps Officers Basic School.

Provided with grateful remembrance by Walt’s classmates of “H” Company, Class 4-64 of the U.S. Marine Corps Officers Basic School.

“Is his first name Walter?”

“Lima-Echo-Victor-Yankee. Levy.”

“Bound One, is his first name Walter?” I asked, scrawling L-e-v-y beside the line headed NAME. My hand was shaking slightly and my voice sounded strange.

“One Alpha, wait one, will you? That’s a roge. First name is Walter. Middle name Neville. November Echo Victor …”

“I can spell it.”

Time seems to stop for the young Marine. He envisions his friend’s “darkly handsome face and slow, easy grin.” He breaks protocol, asks the lieutenant to “drop all this roger wilco crap. Just tell me how it happened.” The explanation comes fast. First Lieutenant Walter Levy, wounded in an ambush while on patrol at Danang, had exposed himself to enemy fire to help another corpsman who had been hit by a sniper’s bullet. Already wounded by mine shrapnel, he “forced himself up and half crawled, half walked” to his fellow Marine, whom he’d believed to be still alive. As he tried to pull the other man to safety, a sniper’s bullet ended his life. Walter Levy was 23 years old, the first of Caputo’s Basic School graduating class at Quantico to be cut down in action, the first Norwich University alumnus killed in Vietnam.

“I admired him.”

For Caputo, this event marks the moment he began to take the war personally. “It was almost like I had a revenge motive at that point, for going on and fighting the war.”

After the war, Caputo thought continually about his fallen friend. “And, I remember feeling this almost inexplicable emotion that I could never put my finger on. I could never quite name it.” The rage that had gripped him during the war had ebbed into a kind of sadness, a sense of elegy. Walt Levy, he says, became a symbol of mourning for the loss of an idealistic generation. “An awful lot of dreams that we had for America and for ourselves were damaged or destroyed in Vietnam,” he reflects.

Of the nature of their friendship, Caputo says with a chuckle that they weren’t locker-room buddies. They were Quantico classmates. They spent time together in Washington, D.C., on weekend liberties, part of a group of guys who went into the city to “goof around.” Caputo describes it as a little-brother-big-brother relationship. “I admired him. I admired his perseverance. He had a very cool, almost aristocratic manner about him. He seemed to project some kind of air of wisdom that I’d associate with somebody older.”

To this day, Caputo says, he’s not sure he could have put himself in the path of danger the way Levy did. “Running out and exposing himself to enemy fire to save a fellow Marine,” Caputo says, “was very typical of him. …I always thought of him as symbolizing and representing, at least in my mind, the best that was in us Marines and in my whole generation.”

Nearly 50 years later, Caputo still thinks often of Levy. “I think he’s probably always in the back of my mind, in my subconscious.” A few years ago, while attending a Quantico Basic School reunion, he and his classmates were visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, making rubbed impressions of the names of their fallen comrades. “There was a woman there. I think she was a docent or maybe she worked for the park service. When I was trying to find Walt’s panel, she asked me something about him, and I told her something about him, and she said, ‘I’ll just bet he was a very handsome young man.’ He actually was. He was a good-looking guy. And I just …I’m even doing it right now …I started to cry and I couldn’t stop crying. And it came out of nowhere. And it still does.”

An Elegy to Walter N. Levy ’63

So much was lost with you, so much talent and intelligence and decency. You were the first from our [Basic School] class of 1964 to die. There were others, but you were the first and more: you embodied the best that was in us. You were a part of us, and a part of us died with you, the small part that was still young, that had not yet grown cynical, grown bitter and old with death. Your courage was an example to us, and whatever the rights or wrongs of the war, nothing can diminish the rightness of what you tried to do. Yours was the greater love. You died for the man you tried to save, and you died pro patria. It was not altogether sweet and fitting, your death, but I’m sure you died believing it was pro patria. You were faithful. Your country is not. As I write this, eleven years after your death, the country for which you died wishes to forget the war in which you died. Its very name is a curse. There are no monuments to its heroes, no statues in small-town squares and city parks, no plaques, nor public wreaths, nor memorials. For plaques and wreaths and memorials are reminders, and they would make it harder for your country to sink into the amnesia for which it longs. It wishes to forget and it has forgotten. But there are a few of us who do remember because of the small things that made us love you—your gestures, the words you spoke, and the way you looked. We loved you for what you were and what you stood for.

– Excerpted from A Rumor of War with permission from author Phil Caputo. Caputo attended Quantico Basic School with Walt Levy, who is named in the dedication of the book, published in 1976.

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