By SARA ARTHURS
National Vietnam War Veterans Day is being observed today. And while the war spanned many years and northwest Ohio suffered losses throughout, this spring also marks 50 years since early 1968, a time when several local men were killed.
Vietnam War-era newspaper reports told a little about each young man: how they died, and who their families were. The soldiers died at the age of 19 or 21 or 23, thousands of miles from home.
The April 16, 1968, edition of the Republican-Courier had a short item titled “Findlay Marine Killed In Action.” Lance Corporal Barry D. Lord, 21, died April 13 of gunshot wounds suffered while on patrol in the vicinity of Thua Thien. A 1964 Findlay High School graduate and son of a World War II veteran, Lord was Findlay’s seventh Vietnam casualty. The Findlay VFW changed its name to Barry D. Lord Post 5645 in honor of Lord in 1968.
A few days earlier, on April 10, the Republican-Courier had reported on the sixth. AX I Alvin George Yoxsimer, 23, was killed in action April 1 in the Gulf of Thailand. Yoxsimer, from Hardin County, was a member of the U.S. Navy Patrol Squadron 26. He left behind a wife and two children.
“We all miss you, Alvin,” read a December 2017 post by Hardin Northern School on the Virtual Vietnam Veterans Wall of Faces online. “Rest in peace.”
And on April 22, the Republican-Courier reported that Spec. 4 Robert Hampshire, 21, of Fostoria had been killed in action April 17, during a fire fight while serving in Troop D, First Squadron, Fourth Air Cavalry. Hampshire was serving his second term in Vietnam. “He volunteered for another tour of duty and returned to duty in Vietnam last month,” the report stated. He had been awarded the Army Commendation Medal for heroism and the Purple Heart medal for wounds suffered in action.
Marine Michael J. Kelly, 19, died in February 1968 from fragmentation from grenade fire while occupying a defensive position near the Quang Nam Province of Vietnam.
Marine Private First Class Wilburt L. Gray Jr., who had lived in Findlay a short time before enlisting, died in March 1968 at age 19 of multiple fragmentation wounds suffered while on a mission in the vicinity of Thua Thien, Vietnam. A member of the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, Gray had been in Vietnam since October.
An April 1968 news item recounted recent memorial services for Spec. 4 Jose S. Garza, 27, of Texas, the son of a Deshler couple and a native of Haskins. Garza’s wife said “her husband had been wounded in action about six weeks ago but had returned to duty recently.” He had joined the Army in 1959 and been in Vietnam since Dec. 27.
And in March 1968, SP4 Emerson Cole was killed in an accident while on a convoy mission at Dan Tieng, South Vietnam. He would have turned 21 days later. Cole had been in Vietnam almost a year.
These soldiers are just a few of the many service members with northwestern Ohio ties who were killed in Vietnam.
Also at the time were regular news reports of other war-related topics. A January 1968 article makes reference to 26 Hancock County men ordered to report for induction into the U.S. Armed Forces. The Feb. 14, 1968, Republican-Courier listed 14 who were reporting for the draft that day.
“It has been estimated that Hancock County will be asked to furnish 19 inductees for the month of March, 1968,” the report stated.
Reporting for duty
Those attending Findlay High School in the late 1960s came of age during the war.
“I was just trying to think of how many classmates we lost in Vietnam,” said Bill Johns, president of the Hancock County Veterans Council.
It was quite a few, he said, adding that many more are no longer living, as they had health problems related to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by U.S. military forces during the war.
At a class reunion, Johns was troubled to see how many classmates had been lost. Those who had served were asked to stand and be recognized. Many classmates, both male and female, did so, he said.
Johns joined the Army the day he turned 17. At that time, the war was on everyone’s mind, he said. Everyone was talking about the draft.
His father and uncles had served in World War II, and Johns knew he wanted to join the military. Johns served with the 101st Airborne. Much later, he learned that an uncle who had always made a point of “just checking on me” had also served in the 101st, during the Battle of the Bulge.
At 17 or 18, “You’re too stupid to be scared,” Johns said. But the first time they came under fire, he had been in Vietnam for just three days. “That scared the hell out of me.” It was scary “hearing bullets smacking up around you. But you did what you had to do.”
Johns was a classmate of Bob Hartley, who was killed in Vietnam in July 1968. Johns left school early, but would have graduated with the class of 1967.
Bob Pierce, now 68, was 19 when he was sent to Vietnam in 1970. He’d end up spending 14 months there. A 1969 Findlay High School graduate, he, too, served in the 101st Airborne.
It was a different world from northwestern Ohio.
“They had banana trees over there and everything,” he said. There were also two kinds of leeches, one of which was an inch-and-a-half long. The heat was unbearable.
His photo album from those days shows pictures of jungles. Pierce was point man, cutting a trail through the jungle with a machete, for eight hours a day. His unit carried 75- to 100-pound rucksacks including 8 or 9 quarts of water, Pierce said
As he gestured to pictures in the album, he’d tell of the people in the photos. One man had lost his legs. A scout dog who had served with them was killed.
An Associated Press story in the Republican-Courier in November 1968 noted that there were about 1,100 dogs serving with U.S. troops, and about 130 had been killed. While the Pentagon had spent millions of dollars on devices like radar, infrared and night telescopes, “The biggest bargains, however, are devices called ‘King,’ ‘Hasso,’ and ‘T-bone’ — German shepherds that cost a collar and run on a word of praise and a pat on the flank,” the article said.
It also mentioned survivors of an ambush in which 76 men were killed recalling “a bloodied scout dog limping up from a murderous draw, the only living thing that came out of there that day. The paratrooper said the dog quietly slumped down with the wounded survivors at the command post.”
Pierce said many of those who served in Vietnam won’t talk about it.
And Johns, 69, said his grandchildren know he was in the service, but don’t know much beyond that.
Letters from home
While he was in Vietnam, communication with family was spotty. Johns received mail every few months, and didn’t learn until Christmas 1967 of his grandmother’s death the previous September.
With no television and, of course, no internet, the soldiers also didn’t know much about the news in America. Johns didn’t hear about draft dodgers, or riots, until he returned home.
Pierce received mail more quickly. “And my mom wrote to me every day,” he said.
A newspaper story focused on fifth-graders at St. Michael School in Findlay who wrote to those who were serving, as well as the families of those who had died for their country.
PFC Jack Wells, nephew of the school’s custodian, wrote back, “You’ll never know how much these letters mean to me.”
And another soldier wrote, “We lose a lot of good men and sometimes I wonder, ‘Is all this necessary?’ But then I think of kids like you back home and of my family and somehow I know that it’s all worth it.”
And a soldier, thanking Kitrina Eckman for a gift, wrote, “Kitrina, you didn’t have to give me anything for Christmas. Your letter was enough.”
Moms back home, too, appreciated letters. A May 13, 1974, column quoted Pierce’s mother, Mrs. R. H. (Katharine) Pierce, recalling a cherished gift she had received three years earlier — a “scraggly piece of brown wrapping paper” with grease spots on it. Around the edges “tiny, intricate flowers” were drawn with a ballpoint pen. The note read “With love to you on Mother’s Day. Your son, Bob.”
Pierce came home right before Christmas 1971. It was a surprise to his family. When he arrived, his mom sent him out to the mailbox to retrieve a letter she had addressed to him before the mail carrier picked it up.
While early 1968 was a pivotal point, northwestern Ohio’s ties to the service — and the loss of local residents — didn’t stop. In November of that year Pvt. Timothy H. Weaks, 19, of Clinton Street, was killed in Vietnam.
Newspaper headlines from that month talked about the possibility of peace talks. The Paris Peace Accords were not signed, however, until Jan. 27, 1973.
A federal government document, available online, lists “U.S. Military Fatal Casualties of the Vietnam War.” The list for Ohio is 211 pages long.