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Article updated: 5/19/2013 8:56 AM

Cary businessman turned war's terrors into art

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Spending most of 1968 fighting the war in Vietnam remains a service Michael J. Duffy voluntarily did for his country. The art inspired by those emotional memories, however, was something the Cary businessman says he felt compelled to create "just for me."

Two of Duffy's paintings from his Vietnam collection are part of a special exhibit at the National Veterans Art Museum on the Northwest Side of Chicago. Titled "Tenacity and Truth: People, Places and Memories," the yearlong exhibit, curated by museum chairman and fellow Vietnam veteran artist Mike Helbing, kicks off with a free and public reception from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 25, at the museum, 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave.


All 50 or so pieces on display are works by veterans. They were chosen from more than 2,500 art pieces in the museum's collection, eight of which are by Duffy.

Destinee Oitzinger, gallery coordinator and assistant creative director for the museum, said that while the pieces were chosen for their artistic merit, the show also looks at the artists.

"We're exploring who those guys are, where they come from and why they did their art," she said.

The son of a railroad worker and a classical dancer, Duffy came from Chicago's working class Rogers Park neighborhood. Graduating in 1964 from the now-defunct St. George High School in Evanston, Duffy had no money for college, so the teen followed in his father's footsteps by snagging a job in the railroad mailroom. He received his draft notice in 1965.

"President Kennedy said, 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.' Well, I believed that," says Duffy. He enlisted in the Army and did well.

"I was trained to be a surveyor," says Duffy. "I enjoyed it and got good grades."

But he switched paths when offered officer training, new duties and a corresponding increase in his monthly pay from $80 to $600. He became a much-in-demand lieutenant.

"All my surveying buddies went to Germany," Duffy says. Lt. Duffy went to Vietnam.

Trained in artillery, Duffy's arrival in Vietnam was greeted by the war's most comprehensive, nationwide, surprise attack by the Viet Cong.

"I got on an airplane and landed in Saigon on the first day of the Tet Offensive," Duffy says. "Saigon was exploding."

A helicopter took him to the nearby U.S. base in Bien Hoa.

"He (the helicopter pilot) didn't even land. He just hovered," says Duffy, who jumped with his fellow soldiers out of the helicopter and into a firestorm. "The Viet Cong started shooting at us. We crawled in on our stomachs. I could see the bullets hitting the dirt."

He feared his first night in Vietnam would be his last on Earth.

"There wasn't a minute that went by without an explosion. I figured I'd be dead by morning," says Duffy, who couldn't even manage to say a proper goodbye. "I couldn't find a pen and paper to write my parents."

The Army beat back the enemy, and Duffy was able to begin his job -- running ammunition convoys from Long Binh to Xuan Loc along a road immortalized in the book, "Street Without Joy," by Bernard Fall, who was killed by an explosion in Vietnam in 1967.

Promoted to executive officer of C battery in the 7th Batallion of the 9th Artillery at age 22, "I was good at my job … but I was in way over my head," admits Duffy, whose rank didn't mean he was any safer. "We were out with the men in the mud and the rice paddies."

On a night when enemy rockets hit their oil supply and started a massive fire, Duffy says he and Sgt. Howard Wiseman ran to their cannons. "My deal was using mathematics and trigonometry and making sure our guns were pointed in the right direction," says Duffy, who had a reputation for diligence and exactitude. Their all-night retaliation shut down the enemy assault, and Duffy was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions.

While atrocities against civilians are part of war's sad history, Duffy says he and his troops always took care to protect villagers.

"I really liked the Vietnamese," Duffy says. "I was very conscious of the civilians around us and very worried about them. We took care not to run over their rice paddies and gardens."

He did, however, see the enemy assassinate a local teacher who often neglected to adhere to the hard-line Communist philosophy. Similar to the roadside bombs in Iraq, the enemy detonated an explosive as the teacher walked to school. "His wife ran to him and she just flung herself into this pile of bones and flesh, weeping," Duffy recalls.

The young lieutenant saw piles of bodies along the road. And he remembers the time a half-dozen "cowardly" officers, more at ease behind a desk than in a battlefield, stayed in the relative safety of a helicopter as Duffy ran to rescue a severely wounded comrade.

"I couldn't lift him," Duffy says. Several Vietnamese women and a young boy braved Viet Cong gunfire to help Duffy carry the bleeding soldier back to the chopper.

Another time, Duffy comforted the Vietnamese family of a woman and two children who had been killed by a wayward missile on a rare night when he wasn't doing the calculations. He did see the bodies of the dead.

"Their faces contorted, they looked like grotesque figures made of clay, then fired in a kiln with a matte black glaze. The only contrast being their off-white teeth," Duffy writes in a memoir he has written and hopes to publish soon. "Their arms and legs were contorted in twisted poses, as if even in death they were telling me how horrible the night before had been … Vietnam was overwhelming and now I carried one more horrifying image."

Having completed some of his training at a base in Colorado, Duffy decided that, if he came home from Vietnam, he wanted to study art and Asian history at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Receiving his acceptance letter while still in Vietnam was "exhilarating," Duffy remembers. "Now I really want to be careful and not get killed."

His service finished, Duffy returned to the Chicago apartment of parents Emmett and Lymette Duffy on Christmas Eve of 1968.

"I had Christmas at home. The next day I bought a Volkswagen Beetle, and two days later I was gone," Duffy remembers. He started classes on Jan. 3 and studied with renowned artists Mary Chenoweth and Bernard Arnest.

"College was like a warm bath after Vietnam," says Duffy, who took advantage of everything school had to offer. He graduated at age 26 with a bachelor's degree in fine arts and a job as a graphic artist. He sold some paintings to universities and through a gallery in New York. The Denver Art Museum bought one of his paintings.

It wasn't until a decade after Vietnam that Duffy began painting abstract depictions of the rubber tree plantations and other memories of war. His favorite might be a painting titled "Facing La Guerra" (translated as "Facing The War"), which features vivid colors, a dark figure, the jungle, a grave and a speeding sports car that all seem to shout, "I just want to get out of here!" Duffy says.

His Vietnam period lasted about eight years. He completed his final Vietnam painting, a complex portrait of a naked man titled "Aftermath," in 1986.

Making his living as an independent sales representative through Michael J. Duffy Co. in Cary, Duffy and his wife, Peggy, raised daughters Rose, Hannah and Margaret. He served as an elected trustee in Trout Valley and his wife worked as the children's librarian at the Cary Public Library. After his wife died of cancer last year, Duffy says, he could no longer stand to remain in the family home. He still runs his sales business out of Cary, but he now lives in Chicago.

Art remains a part of Duffy. He recently completed an oil painting of a New Mexico landscape for a patron in Inverness. He says he's enjoying painting and drawing the serene landscapes, which are in contrast to some of his paintings about his Vietnam experience.

"It was fun to paint and put it all together. It's like telling a story," Duffy says of creating his Vietnam art, before bowing his head and lowering his voice."Telling them, I still get upset."

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