It’s a tough job that brought a lot of dark days, but someone had to do it.
That someone was Jeff Georgi, and the job, while simple, made a life-long impact on him. Georgi, now 67, was tasked with retrieving dead bodies, often from the field up to a week after they’d been killed, and making sure they had a safe transit home to their final resting place.
“We had murders, suicides, questionable deaths and stuff,” Georgi said. “How many ways can you give your life for your country? You can get the top of your head taken off, you get blown in half. I saw one guy that was shot just above the ankle but died when he went into shock. That’s a non-lethal wound right there. People burned. You name it. Overdose. Murder. The whole nine yards.”
Georgi originally didn’t intend to enlist and go to Vietnam. Having been a standout baseball player, he tried out for the Cincinnati Reds after graduating from Tuscola High School in 1969.
“Whether I would have made the team or not, which I didn’t, the lottery numbers came down, and I was a goner,” he said. “I think I was number three. I went ahead and joined instead of letting them draft me.”
Georgi headed to basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey on Aug. 3, 1970. After that, he went to Memorial Activities School in Fort Lee, Virginia, where he learned everything he needed to know to handle American soldiers who were killed in action during that horrid conflict. The job was called “Graves Registration.”
“What I did in Vietnam was search and recovery,” he said. “I spent two or three days out in the field sometimes looking for a helicopter crash, and I probably had close to 300 different cases.”
Georgi arrived in Vietnam in the first week of 1971. He was stationed at Phu Bai. There are a lot of things that left a lasting impact on Georgi, but one thing he still can recall is that feeling of being dropped into a strange jungle with the sole mission of recovering a dead body.
“It’s one of the lonesomest feelings,” he said. “You see the chopper leave and you’re on the ground, and you have to get humping again.”
On those humps, sometimes soldiers encountered strange things, and many who spent time in Vietnam recall wildlife encounters. Georgi’s strangest encounter was a dead Orangutan, larger than any others he’d seen and albino.
“I felt sorry for him because obviously he was moving in the bushes or something and maybe a cobra got him or something,” he said. “His rigor mortis had set in, so he’d been dead for a while. My heart went out to him.”
Georgi said the longest hump he went on was three days, and no matter how long the hump, it was hard to go up and down those mountains with heavy body bags.
“I’m glad I grew up here, because when we were teenagers, on Saturdays, we’d do the same thing out near Black Mountain,” he said. “We’d go down the trail and go fishing and just say what’s on top of this one. Your legs would be killing you, but that’d be the objective. Get to the top of the glass onion just to see how the other side looks.”
Georgi saw a lot of death in Vietnam. But one of the most difficult deaths he experienced wasn’t one he encountered first-hand. It was the death of his good friend and Haywood County native David Frady. He first read about his friend’s death in The Mountaineer.
“My mom had wrote me a letter about David being killed,” Georgi said. “But before I read it, when I got the hometown newspaper, he was in there, his picture was in there.”
“I knew in advance,” he added with a long sigh.
However, not long after Frady’s death, something uplifting happened.
“I wrote the governor, and I said, ‘as one of your fighting sons of North Carolina, I’d be proud to fly the North Carolina flag over here,’” Georgi said. “Son of a gun, it was in no time I got that flag.”
Although Georgi never came under fire, like all in Vietnam seem to know, there was no shortage of dangerous situations, including a close call he had with an unstable helicopter.
“They came down, and the rotor blades caught the top of a tree, and even the small limbs and stuff are terrible on those blades,” he said. “Those blades are honeycomb. They’re not solid. They’re like beeswax, and they’re layered. That blade cut the grass and the tree limbs and everything, so I got down on my stomach and crawled.”
Although Georgi never came under fire beyond seeing incoming rocket attacks at Fubai, he encountered unthinkable violence almost daily, and he remembers many of the deaths he encountered in Vietnam down to specifics.
Georgi added that he dealt with so many dead bodies, that in cases of suspicious deaths, the investigator began asking his opinion.
“They’d say, ‘what do you think happened to this guy?’” Georgi said. “Over a period of time, you start to recognize certain bullet wounds. You see a guy with the top of his head off, electrocution. Just accidents. You name it. There are 365 ways to die there. I can’t say how many pieces I have held. Decapitated heads and everything.”
One of the deaths that Georgi recalls most clearly was one he encountered at the DMZ where a United States medivac chopper had been shot down. He remembered seeing the pilot and thinking he looked like he could even be alive.
“They shot a 75 mm right through him in the seat into the compartment, into the engine and blew the engine,” he said. “When we got there and found him, his hand was still on the stick, sitting upright … The round went in and the puncture wound was almost like sealed up, and with his jacket on, it didn’t look that bad.”
Georgi recalled that perhaps the toughest bodies to deal with were those of men that he knew. Sometimes, he even knew them quite well. But through all the difficulties that came with the job, like many who served under stressful circumstances, he and those he worked with were able to find humor wherever they could.
Every dead body has three identifying tags, a toe tag, one on the outside of the body bag, and one on the bag containing the person’s personal effects. Throughout the process of bringing a dead body home, those three tags are checked frequently to make sure everything lines up.
“This is sick, but it’s funny,” Georgi said.
Early one morning, a C-130 was about to depart Fubai to work its way south through the country, picking up fallen heroes along the way.
“We had a new guy in the platoon,” Georgi said. “He wasn’t experienced being around the dead or nothing. His name was Norris. He was just useless, so he was a regular person that would escort, carry the paperwork and make sure the bodies got to the mortuary off the C-130.”
One of Georgi’s friends, whom he only referred to as “Six-four,” a nickname given in reference to the man’s height, hatched a sinister plan to play a joke on Norris. Six-four decided to don a Frankenstein mask and crawl in one of the body bags, where he waited for Norris.
“I told Norris to start with the top and work his way down,” Georgi said. “I said, ‘hey, Norris, this is going to be your first trip. Before you leave … you gotta check the toe tag and the stretcher tag and the tag on the body bag and make sure the numbers are identical. Six-four was with the Frankenstein mask laying in one of the bags on the bottom zipped up. Jesus forgive us, when he unzipped that thing, he jumped back and said ‘mother [expletive].’ Boom. He was out of there. He got out of there so quick that the ripple on the bottom of his boots was on a piece of that metal.”
As funny as that is, Georgi had a similarly terrifying experience early on during his tour.
“One time, we had a guy in the room there, and I picked him up by his belt,” Georgi said. “He wasn’t damaged at all, so I don’t know what the hell happened to him. Then he goes “ahhh” and groaned, and he was still alive. Scared the shit out of me. But he just had air in his lungs. I said, ‘I won’t be fooled by that again.’”
Georgi comes home
At the end of 1971, Georgi went home.
“The trip home was a bitch,” Georgi said, adding that he spent two nights on airport floors before finally taking a shuttle with a few other Western North Carolina soldiers. He was headed back to Haywood County.
“My dad was in town, and he was driving a cab there for a while,” Georgi said. “He knew what we were in, he got in behind us and honked that horn. Beep beep beep beep. I said, ‘that’s my dad,’ so he pulled over and let me out, and I got my duffle bag and stuff. My dad was beside himself for a while.”
Upon returning home, Georgi reenlisted and spent time at Fort Hood and was also stationed in Berlin for a stint.
“The wall was still up and everything,” Georgi said.
Georgi’s plan was to play music, and before he was even out of the Army, he was in a band. Although the band tried to gain traction, everything eventually fell through.
“It never happened,” Georgi said.
Georgi’s younger brother, Jon, looked up to his brother, and to this day, they are best friends. Jon recalled what it was like being at home while his brother was halfway around the world fighting a war.
“Walter Cronkite, every night. We were glued to the TV,” Jon said, noting that he and his family frequently feared the worst.
Jon recalled that one night, something happened that seemed terrible at the time, but in hindsight cracks the brothers up.
“We’re in a trailer park in Hazelwood, and we were raising hell,” Jon said. “One of the neighbors worked night shift, and we were disturbing him, so he called the law.”
When a police officer showed up, Jon’s mother feared he was delivering the news that her son had died in Vietnam.
“She thought something happened to Jeff,” Jon said, “All hell broke loose. My mother was livid. She said, ‘you tell that neighbor to kiss my ass.’”
In fact, as the legend goes, she marched right over and punched the neighbor in the face.
“My mom totally panicked and we totally panicked,” Jon said. “My mom was 5-foot-3, … but she went and put a shiner on him.”
Unbeknownst to Jon until later, Jeff wrote a letter to his mother strongly discouraging her from allowing Jon to enlist.
“We didn’t know when the war was going to end,” Jon said. “All we knew was they were still taking people. I had a big number in the lottery, so I was pretty safe. But my brother went above and beyond to make sure that I didn’t go. I’m the first one in our family history to not go to the military.”
But despite his face-to-face encounters with the horrors of war, Jeff Georgi has tremendous pride in what he did over there.
“What kept me going was these guys are going home,” Georgi said. “They’re not going to be a statistic, they’re not going to be MIA.”