A daughter awakens a tale of honor
and of a spirit ravaged by war
By DONALD BRADLEY
The Kansas City Star
RICH HILL, Mo. _ Lt. Donald G. Droz, commander of a Navy patrol boat, died of shrapnel wounds to the chest as night fell on a muddy river in the Mekong Delta.
Tracy Tragos was 3 months old when her father's boat was ambushed that April 1969 night in Vietnam. She has heard plenty of stories about him over the years.
Droz was Rich Hill's golden boy. He played high school football, worked in the family grocery, never missed church, made valedictorian, won appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and received medals for valor in war.
But to really know him, as she had longed to do her whole life, Tragos knew she would need to look beyond others' heartfelt memories.
That is where she would learn what turned the smiling boy in her grandmother's photos into the grim-faced combatant with the cartridge belt slung over his shoulder.
She started, by accident, with how he died, the story her family had never known. She stumbled across the details last year while messing around on the Internet.
The discovery sent her on a mission.
Her search took her to homes of strangers, to a dusty old suitcase in her grandmother's attic and to memories long entombed by those who tried to forget that night on the Duong Keo River.
Tragos, who worked until recently as a writer/producer for the motion picture company DreamWorks SKG, has turned her journey into a film called "Be Good, Smile Pretty." The title refers to how her father closed his letters home.
The film, financed partly by the Independent Television Service and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is expected to be shown next year, perhaps nationally on Father's Day.
"We took one look at it and knew we wanted to do what we could to help her finish _ it's that good," said Mike Murphy, a producer in the cultural affairs unit at KCPT in Kansas City, Mo., which handled the funding request.
The documentary tells how war ravaged a young man's spirit, and how his daughter discovered honor in something she'd known only as an American tragedy.
It brought back her grandmother's greatest pain, and forced her mother to finally confront her loss. Men, home from war for 30 years, cried fresh tears.
"I know I took some people back to a time and place they didn't want to go," Tragos, 33, said from her home in Topanga, Calif. "But I needed to find my father, even if it was one piece at a time."
In her Rich Hill dining room, Dorothy Droz lays out her son's photos and awards, carefully, like setting china for a formal dinner.
There are newspaper clippings, sports mementos and the superintendent's academic list from the U.S. Naval Academy.
"I like talking about Don," she says, her fingertips gently arranging the papers. "It's hard...still today...but I do like doing it. Makes him seem closer."
The table offers an impressive display of achievement.
But this is the story she tells first:
On summer mornings in the 1950s, the Droz yard in Rich Hill filled early with the bikes of boys who had come to play ball.
Glenn Droz had turned two adjoining lots into a baseball field for his two sons, Don and Paul, and their friends. They would play until noon, break for lunch, then play until dark.
"Whenever there was an argument over a close play," she remembers, "they would always ask, `What was it, Don?'
"And he would tell them, and that would be the end of it. They'd go back to playing. Didn't matter which team he was on. They all trusted him to do what was right."
Shoppers at his parents' grocery liked visiting with the cheerful, polite boy who boxed their goods. They suspected he would make the town proud some day.
In 1962, Don Droz entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md.
He graduated four years later with the class of 1966. He had married by then, to a girl he'd met at a Navy-Penn State football game.
Three years later he was dead.
On a Friday night in March 2001, Tracy Tragos took a break from her work, typed her father's name into her computer and clicked the search button.
She had done this several times over the years. Nothing much ever popped up. Usually just a name _ Lt. Donald G. Droz _ on lists of Americans who had died in Vietnam.
But this night, tired and weary from her job, she entered simply "Don Droz."
She scrolled down the screen and found a story titled "Death of the 43."
It told how a patrol boat, PCF 43, had been ambushed shortly before dark on April 12, 1969, as it and seven other U.S. Navy swift boats made their way up the Duong Keo River.
A B-40 rocket, fired from the dense jungle that lined the riverbanks, exploded the pilot house, mortally wounding the boat's commander _ Lt. Don Droz.
Tragos' heart began to pound. Her father's death had long been a mystery to the Droz family. Her mother had tried unsuccessfully for years to learn details from the military.
She read on.
PCF 43 was carrying 10 members of an underwater demolition team and more than 800 pounds of high explosives. As more rockets and small-arms fire flew from the trees, the other boats scrambled up the narrow river.
The 43 _ because of its bulk _ stalled in the kill zone.
It took more hits. With Droz severely injured and the coxswain unconscious, the wreckage drifted to shore, stopping 30 yards or so short of the hidden attackers.
Survivors grabbed weapons and, using the boat's wreckage for a makeshift fort, fought back.
The battle raged until two of the other swift boats finally dared a rescue.
Of the 17 Navy men aboard PCF 43, two, perhaps three, were killed, including Droz. Twelve were wounded. At least one on a rescue boat died.
Peter Upton, a member of the demolition team, wrote the account the following day, April 13, 1969. Others who were there confirmed the details for The Kansas City Star.
When she finished reading, Tragos was breathless. The story hit her "like a punch to the gut." For three decades she had wondered how her father died ... why he hadn't come home to her.
As grateful as she was for the truth, Tragos knew the story would cause great pain, especially for her mother, who had told her years earlier that her hopes and future lay buried with him.
Tragos sat on the information for two days.
"Then I did something cowardly _ I e-mailed it to her," Tragos said.
Peter Upton, a lawyer in Connecticut, had no idea why somebody would be calling him about the story he had written three decades earlier.
He'd written the account for his unit's cruise book. As far as he knew, that was where it stayed.
The caller that day was Judy Keyes, widow of Don Droz. They talked about the story. They talked about the battle. They talked about the baby girl (Tragos) that Don Droz's friends in Vietnam remembered hearing about.
By that time, Tragos had decided to make a film about her father's life. Finding Upton's story had triggered an obsession.
Upton was gracious but reluctant.
"I didn't know if I wanted to be taken back to all of that," Upton said. "Those are pretty powerful memories."
Upton's story led Tragos to others who had served with her father. She found the man who carried him off the boat.
Some remember when she was born.
Her father was a good man, they tell her. Crew members trusted him; commanders relied on him.
A fellow swift-boat commander and close friend was John Kerry, now a U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
Droz, Kerry said, was a go-to guy, dependable, confident and wonderfully enthusiastic about life.
"I remember him coming back from R&R (rest and relaxation) in Hawaii so full of joy about the baby," Kerry said. "That was just shortly before he died."
Kerry served with Droz in several engagements. They also shared a growing disillusion with America's purpose in Vietnam.
"Don and I went there to win. ... We were gung-ho," Kerry said. "Regrettably, we found a very different situation."
The two talked often about working together to stop the war when they got home.
Kerry later became active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In 1971, at a peace rally in front of the White House, he heard Don's widow give a speech.
She was by then a regular in the anti-war movement.
In a recent interview, Keyes talked about that R&R in Hawaii. Her husband told her that what he was doing in Vietnam was evil, and that the war had to be stopped.
"I tried the best I could to take the mantle," she said. "I was roundly criticized for taking that side, but I knew Don wanted the word out about the war."
Growing up, Tracy Tragos saw Vietnam as an American tragedy based on economic greed and misguided political objective.
Which made her wonder, "Why was my father there?"
The veterans she interviewed spoke about duty, honor and love of country. They also talked about betrayal and a sadness that haunts them still.
"I have a deeper understanding now of the conflict in his heart," Tragos said of her father.
"I'm deeply proud of his bravery. That's a pride I never had before."
For that, her mother is sorry.
"What Tracy says is true _ and I regret never making it clear to her," Keyes said. "You can love your country, be a patriot and still speak out against the war."
Keyes sees the good of her daughter's film, but the trip to the past has ripped open wounds that time can dress but never heal.
She recently entered grief counseling, something unheard of in 1969.
"The model then was Jackie Kennedy _ suck it up and go on."
Last month Tragos and her mother traveled to Rich Hill to watch a stonecutter add "Husband" and "Father" to Droz's tombstone, which simply said, "Son." The scene was filmed for the documentary.
To find men who knew her father, Tragos had traveled around the country.
She learned her dad was a great student and late sleeper; how he once sneaked off campus to paint a wry greeting for a visiting football team.
A fellow swift-boat skipper remembered Droz for wearing non-regulation shoes as a protest against what he considered silly regulations.
Bill Zaladonis, a sailor who was at the battle on the Duong Keo, said that "Mr. Droz," unlike most officers, was equally friendly to enlisted men.
"These stories made him come alive for me," Tragos said. "For the first time, he was a real person not just a portrait on my dresser."
She also pressed them for how he died.
Michael Modansky, who still goes to counseling because of that battle, said he had pulled Droz off the boat and into the water because he thought the explosives would ignite. He held Droz's head above the water but doesn't know exactly when he died.
Part of her journey took her back to her family.
Tragos' mother allowed her to open her father's trunk, which had been locked away for 32 years. She found an empty champagne bottle, dirty laundry, cheap cigars and a list of vocabulary words he wanted to learn.
In a taped phone conversation between her parents, she heard her father's voice for the first time.
While Tragos visited Rich Hill last summer, her grandmother told her about a suitcase in the attic. A member of her crew tried to find it, but the attic's oven like heat sent him back empty-handed and soaking wet.
Her grandmother, in her 80s, then crawled up and soon returned with an old beige suitcase covered with dust and cobwebs, its brass buckles tarnished.
The suitcase was crammed with hundreds of sympathy cards and letters sent after Don Droz had been killed. Dorothy Droz told her they had been too painful to deal with at the time.
Tragos sat on the floor and read.
Tragos is nearly finished with the film that has dominated her life in the year and a half since she found the Internet story.
Before that night, she was living what she thought to be her destiny. She was in her 30s, married and working for one of Hollywood's leading motion picture companies.
She easily could have settled for family stories about her father.
But learning how he died sparked a ravenous need to know how he lived and how she would be different had he been there to raise her.
Her film could not solve that mystery. But one of his Navy buddies told her a way she was like her father: She uses her hands when she talks, just like he did.
She doesn't think she will go back to her old job of writing other people's projects. Her journey has convinced her that she needs to tell her own stories.
But the passion of her first film will be hard to match.
She has talked to men who watched her father die. She has heard his hopeful voice and learned of the anguish in his heart.
His shipmates' tears tell her how much her father was liked and remembered. She knows of his ornery side and his profound sense of duty.
At last, she knows her father beyond the myth of the golden boy. Enough so, that she finally mourns his death.
And the stories of Vietnam tell her what happened to his smile.
(c) 2002, The Kansas City Star.
Visit The Star Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.kcstar.com/
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Visit Tracy Tragos' website "Be good, smile pretty" at:
return to PCF 43
This page was last updated on: December 07, 2008 at 14:36