Your Memorial Day Stories on Fallen Troops

Monday, May 31, 2010  |  Updated 7:30 AM PDT
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Your Memorial Day Stories on Fallen Troops

AP

Msnbc.com asked readers to send in their stories of loved ones who died while serving in the U.S. military. Here are some of those accounts.

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Mary Ann Richards remembers her older brother, Roger Acree, as a bit of a mamma’s boy – a happy-go-lucky guy who’d find joy in his collection of LPs, comic books and his pet dog. What Acree never got a chance to be was an awesome dad or a softhearted grandfather.

Army Pfc. Roger Lee Acree was killed by a mortar blast on July 14, 1967, while serving in Vietnam. He died four days after his 20th birthday.

“He was missing in action for a while and then we were notified a few days later that they found his body,” Richards recalls. The story as she heard it: “One of his friends in same unit was in a foxhole and had started to come up and Roger jumped on top of him. Roger was hit by mortar and the person under him was saved.”

Richards was just 10 at the time but memories of her older brother still seem fresh.

“You hear about people being good people but when they’re gone everybody reminds you of what a special person they were. I think all my favorite songs today are the kind of music he introduced me to.”

Richards, of Cincinnati, was among scores of msnbc.com readers who sent in Memorial Day tributes to loved ones in the military who died in the lien of duty, fighting wars from World War II to Korea, Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here’s a sampling of some other stories:

Todd was my friend
Todd Clayton Gibb was and always will be my “brother.”  He was killed in action in Iraq on Tuesday, December 17th 2004, by a roadside bomb. Everyone who knew Todd mourned this tremendous loss of a good man. If there is one characteristic that sums up his nature, then that is goodness, from the bottom of his heart, every single day of his life with every single person who knew him.

When I got the call about his passing I threw the phone to the ground and yelled out loud — I ran out to the street and yelled even louder — but no one heard me for it was raining and storming outside. It was as though the heavens were crying and mourning with me. I could not believe what happened. Todd was too good of a man to have died so young.

Todd was my friend and always will be my brother — a man that helped me grow up, that helped me understand that I have to be the best I can be, even to foes — a man that saw my potential and without saying a word, made me want to be like him. May you rest in peace, Todd!
Kevin Stringer
Roseville, Calif.

We called him Maynard
Ronny Leroy Palmer, born October 1946, KIA May 18, 1967 Vietnam. We called him Maynard, for no particular reason.  He was my friend; we met in seventh grade in Bakersfield, Calif. I went into the service in 1965, he in 1966. He never got to be a husband, a dad, a grandpa, didn't own a car or a house. But he never shirked a task, was always loyal, always had a smile on his face and in his heart.  I have thought of him every day for 43 years, and he along with many others are in my prayers every night. I miss him. I loved him as a brother.  He is my friend. 
Bob Stone,
Bakersfield, Calif.

A life's sacrifice
In memory of Rennie V. Brower Jr. (Dec. 7, 1941), the man who gave his life so my Grandpa Carl Drechsler lived! This is my grandpa's story:

"My enlistment day was December 7, 1939.  Some prophet; it may have been the very hour.  I was sworn in at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, with a man named Rennie Brower who was to become my constant companion for the next two years. We were shipped to Sacramento and onto Hickam Field on Oahu — in the Hawaiian Islands where life was slow, easy, and enjoyable. 

The base had been on maneuvers and we were on mock alert from time to time.  We usually manned machine gun emplacements in the bunnies (bunkers) around the ammunition dump.  On December 7th, 1941, our outfit — the 22nd Material Squadron was called on alert.  It may have been only Hanger #15 shops.  We went to our duty stations — not the machine gun emplacements.  We were standing around outside the hanger — smoking and gabbing when we saw some planes buzzing Pearl Harbor and some smoke.  We thought it was some planes from Wheeler Field on maneuvers. About then, a Japanese torpedo plane pulled up real low over our hanger – the torpedo still attached.  Someone yelled, “IT’S AN AIR RAID – THEY ARE JAPANESE!!!!” 

We all dove for cover – dove for the hanger.  Rennie and I hit the hangar floor and it felt like riding a wave.  The High Alt. Bombers had just dropped their bombs.  We were apparently hit by the first wave of bombs.  When I came to, I was on fire and blind.  I raised my head and cried out, 'OH GOD MUST THIS BE!!' and passed out.  I never knew when I was hit. 

When I regained consciousness, I was blind and deaf, but no pain.  My sight slowly came back – all was quiet – I got up and wandered around.  I was in a daze – the havoc I saw I cannot describe.  I noticed my torn shoulder.  I saw the bone, but there was no bleeding and no pain.  I sat down to smoke a cigarette.  I noticed dried blood on the cigarette (Pall Mall) and I decided not to smoke, as it will increase circulation and start bleeding.

When I came to at Trippler General Hospital , I looked and my arm was still there.  I said, 'Oh, my arm is still there; you didn’t take it off.'  The Dr. said, 'No, we are going to try to save it.' I later learned that his motto was 'LET’S NOT AMPUTATE, LET’S OPERATE!'  Thank God!!

When they removed the ether antithetic mask after the operation, all of the skin on my face came with it. They wrapped my head, arms and legs in Vaseline gauze.  I looked like a mummy.  I was fed through a straw for about 2 weeks.  When they removed the gauze from my face and head, my ears had grown to the side of my head; they had to pull them loose.  I had about 7 operations, grafts, shrapnel removal, etc.

Somewhere along the line, I learned that my buddy Rennie had been killed."

My grandpa never said that Rennie dove on top of him, but based on his burns, and other damage, we all know it's because of him that grandpa lived until he was 89.
Michelle Strom (Drechsler)
Phoenix, Ariz.

 

'The Dog'
What words are there to describe the loss of a young man who was a friend, a comrade, a fine Marine? One who cared little for the bullies of the world and stood shoulder to shoulder with you when it came time to fight them.  John was from my home state of Massachusetts but we met in the Philippines at a communication station near San Miguel. We bonded a friendship that  was supposed to last a lifetime. It lasted less than two years. The last memory of John ("The Dog" was John’s nickname) was in Vietnam.  I had just gotten off patrol and was told I had a care package from home in my hooch. By the time I got there, The Dog had already opened it and was eating its contents. He looked up at me when I walked in.  On his face was a look that said, “I know you’re not mad because you’re my friend.” He was right.

John Miller Sullivan was killed by a sniper on Jan. 13, 1967 in Vietnam.  I'm ashamed to admit I don't know his date of birth. I cried the day he died.  I have tears in my eyes as I type this and I will remember him for the rest of my life.
Anonymous
New Britain, Conn.

 

Lonely grave
I would like to remember my great uncle Jesse Ragsdale, who was KIA in World War I and is buried in France. He died well before I was born, but I recently obtained documents and a photograph of the cross on his grave from the cemetery where he is interred. As most of my family has passed, I believe no one has ever visited his grave. Someday I would like to be the first.
Chet Ragsdale
Goodyear, Ariz.

Johnny Cash
In the 1950s, I served in an Air Force unit that secretly monitored potential Cold War enemies such as Chinese, the Soviet Union and East German air forces throughout the world. This information was analyzed and sent to SAC, the nation’s main air offensive command, and NSA, the nation’s top intelligence gathering agency located at Fort Meade, Md.

USAFSS was created by the Pentagon in 1948 as one of the first units formed for Cold War operations. It lasted a mere 30 years, then became folded into the Air Force structure.

Mostly, USAFSS was an enlisted man’s unit with as many as 97 percent of its personnel made from enlisted Air Force volunteers, most of them chosen from the top 3 or 4 per cent of the basic training classes.

The work involved secret and clandestine eavesdropping on aircraft, ground units, office buildings, air crews of both Soviet and Chinese nations.

But today more than 50 years after the Cold War, these are old men — many of them gray and stooped, whose memories of windowless intercept bunkers, remote site, triple “trick” shifts are alive only in the few military reunion with friends and survivors. The secrets they pledged to keep a half century ago are now found among books, the Internet, even blogs and personal writings.

Sites where once young men took “trick” after “trick” are grown over, demolished or returned to landlord governments. Korea and Here they sat in windowless bunkers or even truck trailers, collecting Morse code and telemetry messages, following countless potential enemy aircraft and crews as they flew missions beyond the Iron Curtain.

In those years, few none of us ever knew the 11 USAFSS airmen who were killed on Sept. 2, 1958 when their C-130 aircraft was shot down by four Russian fighter jets while flying an intercept mission. The plane crashed and exploded in Armenia and the names of the crewmen were never revealed to the American public or the families until years later.

Although the bodies were never recovered, a memorial was established at Fort Meade with honors at Arlington cemetery in 1997. Most of the victims were teenagers.

Likewise, most of us did not know an airman by the name of Staff Sgt. Johnny Cash who monitored Soviet air crews whose skill and technology had not advanced beyond Morse code.  Cash served in Landsburg, Germany, earning four stripes and cash enough to I buy his first guitar from the local PX. 

Cash taught himself the music and songs which would later form his career as a nationally recognized entertainer.

But Cash never forgot the codes he learned as a diddly-bop operator (Morse), often beating Morse code on his guitar during concerts.
Ray Py
Milwaukee, Wis.

 

My husband, my hero
My husband, Sgt. Donald James Lamar II, was a exceptional Scout Sniper with the Marine Corps, stationed in Lejuene, N.C. He passed away on my birthday May 12, 2010 fighting the war in Afghanistan. I received his final letter four days after his death. It was an amazing letter of love. His funeral was May 21.

That was was the worst yet most amazing day I have ever encountered. To see the impact MY HUSBAND had on so many lives in so many different ways was so awesome. The funeral procession from Fredericksburg to Quantico, Va., ran 10 miles down Route 1 and consisted of family, friends, Spotsylvania Co. officers, Stafford Co. officers, EMT and Fire Department, Patriot Guards, congressmen, and so many more. The governor of Virginia issued that all state buildings would be half-mass in honor of him.

That day he truly went out with a bang, and I do not believe it should have been any other way. It was absolutely perfect. I am and always will truly be honored to be his wife. He will forever be my husband, soulmate, best friend and most of all, my HERO. I will make sure we NEVER forget his name, as he has given the ultimate sacrifice for each and every one of us. I love you, Donald James.  
Your Wife
Stephanie Lamar

When I first met my wife in the early 1970s, one of the things that struck me about her was that she always wore a POW bracelet.  These bracelets were fairly common late in the Vietnam War; they were simple metal bands engraved with the name and rank of an MIA or POW serviceman and the date he/she was declared missing in action. USAF Capt. Harley Hackett III was the name on her bracelet, and she has never stopped wondering about the man. Now, 30-some years after obtaining the bracelet, she has finally learned something about Capt. Hackett, his life and his fate through research on the Vietnam Memorial website and ultimately connecting with one of his childhood friends.

Harley B. Hackett III was born on 23 October 1942 and raised in Florence, S.C. Like most boys, he loved the outdoors and the Boy Scouts.  In high school, he would often spend weekends with his dog in the woods or river bottoms and swamps near Florence.  After his schooling, Harley joined the U.S. Air Force and became a fighter pilot.  He was on his second tour in Vietnam, not quite 26 years old.  On 24 July 1968, Capt. Hackett was the pilot of one of two F4D Phantoms assigned to attack military traffic north of the port of Dong Hoi in North Vietnam.  Both aircraft sustained ground fire damage during the attack and the pilots headed out to sea while fighting fires on board their planes.  The last communication from Capt. Hackett was to vector (provide a compass direction to) the other aircraft toward the Da Nang Air Force base.  As things turned out, neither aircraft could make it home.  Capt. Hackett’s directions to his colleagues put them in the path of air/sea rescue units and, when they parachuted from their hopelessly damaged plane, they were quickly rescued.  Another aircraft nearby observed Capt. Hackett’s plane crash inverted into the Gulf of Tonkin; no parachutes were seen.  An intensive search and rescue operation over the next 18 hours found no survivors or debris.  Capt. Hackett and his weapons system officer, Capt. John R. Bush, were declared Missing in Action.

This is just another of the hundreds of thousands of "routine" wartime events that have claimed the lives of military men and women, but I think most of them carry a powerful message about the human spirit.  Consider Capt. Hackett’s situation — wrestling a nearly disabled fighter jet, his last known act was to help his brothers in arms.  You might wonder what drove him to be a fighter pilot.  That is the most poignant part of the Hackett story: His father was an MIA fighter pilot in World War II.

So, this Memorial Day, we should all contemplate everyone who has given his or her life for this country over its history and the impact of those sacrifices on their families and friends.  I hope my attempt to connect a personality and some history with a name on a bracelet can help others remember why we have this holiday at the end of May. It is not simply the start of summer.
John Cardellina
Walkersville, Md.

 

Asleep in his mother’s arms
Cpl. Gunnar William Zwilling was one of the nine men killed in the battle of Wanat, Afghanistan, on July 12, 2008.  He was the youngest soldier on the temporary base that day, only 20 years old.  He knew what was going to happen to him and told his father (Kurt Zwilling), on his last phone call, that he was walking into a bloodbath.  He followed orders and did what he was supposed to do for the "guys."  You see they loved each other, every one of them.

His father was ill with cancer and offered to get him a leave out of that place, but he would not hear of it.  He was needed by his "guys."  He had found his niche in life and loved every bit of it. 

Alex, Gunnar’s older brother, had gone into the Air Force and really liked it so Gunnar enlisted in the Army.  They would come home on leave and hang out together, go shopping, chase girls, etc.  Their father just beamed in their presence.  They all three were three peas in a pod as they were all each other had.  Their mother, (Laura) Kurt's ex-wife, had died suddenly the previous November and they were pretty shook up over it.  Kurt was receiving treatments for throat cancer and both boys were worried.  He assured both of them he would be alright and made them continue with their lives.

Gunnar came to St. Louis, when his mother and father moved here from Nashville, Tenn.  He had long hair and played the guitar.  We all tried to get him to cut his hair, but he was in rock star mode and not about to.  He and his brother were not used to being around such a big family and were both quite shy.  (six aunts and one uncle and both grandparents)  Alex was very serious and got good grades and worked hard and was moving forward.  Gunnar on the other hand had a rough time making the transition from Nashville to St. Louis.  He seemed to flounder until he went into the service and found his place.

It will be two years in July that he has been gone.  The grief is so raw there are no words to express it.  Why him, Why us, Why?  No more of him flexing his muscles and asking us if we had our ticket to "the gun show" pointing to his arms.  No more calling to Aunt Lena to watch him as he jumps off of the hay bales at the pumpkin patch, no more.

We are expecting a newcomer to our world as his brother Alex and wife Lisa are having a baby in September.  Gunnar would love it, he loved kids so much.

The only thing that helps is the knowledge that he died with his brothers and that they all went together to heaven.  Several of his friends that survived have visited our family and are as bereaved as we are.  They loved him and enjoyed his silliness as well.  They keep us close to him

Gunnar was buried with his mothers ashes, with his headstone reading "asleep in his mother’s arms."  Rest in peace baby, we all love you so. Aunt Kathy.
Kathy Trodus
Hillsboro, Mo.

Our last night
My nephew, SSgt. Mark Anthony Wojciechowski (Tony Wojo), was killed in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, on April 30, 2009.  Tony was a U.S. Marine in the EOD Unit.  He was 25 years old. I remember Tony's last visit home in December 2008.  Tony, his mom and myself had planned a night out.  We were going to go to Newport on the Levy for some dinner and drinks.  There was an ice storm in Cincinnati this particular night.  We tried to postpone this outing but Tony insisted we still go. He wanted to take us to the Hofbrauhaus in Newport, Ky.

After awhile we decided to get back to our side of town.  We ended up stopping in at a small "hole-in-the wall" bar in Mount Washington  on our way home. Due to the ice storm the place was completely empty except for the bartender and us.  We played the jukebox, drank some beer, did a couple of shots, took some silly pictures and just really enjoyed the time together.

That evening was a gift that I thank God for everyday.  I am so thankful that Tony insisted we not cancel our plans.  I will always cherish that wonderful last evening that I was able to spend with my favorite nephew.
Anonymous
Cincinnati, Ohio

 

'My Boys'
I get up Saturday mornings, and make my trip down to the Post for coffee with “My Boys.” Because, that’s what they are — My Boys. For those few hours, we sit and talk about the week’s happenings.

At times the conversations drift back to stories and moments in their past where they need to commune with others who have been there. Or maybe not been there, but understand, truly understand.

People outside that “sacred” circle ask me why I do that on mornings I could sleep in, to spend times with people that are 40 years or older than me. I do it because I sit in the presence of heroes. The true history makers of this nation we live in. Not that I feel that people serving of my generation are not heroes or history makers, because that is not it at all. Our chapter in history is yet to be concluded, we keep making it every day.

How many of you can say that on a weekly basis you have a conversation with a man that was in the Battle of the Bulge or even know what part of history that’s in? I can.

How many of you can say that you sit next to a man every Saturday that enlisted in the Navy in 1930 and watched the taking of Guadalcanal, the sinking of the USS Yorktown and is 98 years old and the worst ailment he has is bad hearing? I can.

How many of you can say that you know a Marine, that made it out of the Frozen Chosin, and is still as sharp as a tack? I can.

How many of you can say that you sit next to man who was in Vietnam who could draw you a better detailed map of the Ho Chi Minh trail than Rand McNally? I can.

I don’t say it to brag. And if you took it that way, then you have misunderstood the entire premise. I say it because I know where and who my heroes are.

They are not on a football field, a basketball arena, or a baseball diamond. They are not on the stage at the CMA’s, Madison Square Garden, or a Vegas showroom. And they most certainly are not on the floor of the Senate or House, at least not in the numbers they used to be in.

They are at a little known American Legion Post in Bella Vista, Ark. In a house that was built in the 1930s and can barely hold more than 40 people at any given time, sitting on foldout aluminum chairs, drinking coffee and eating a donut.

And for a few hours every Saturday morning, I go down to the Post, to sit with “My Boys.” And I, “Their Girl.”
Shelaine Coleman/ USMC veteran
Bella Vista, Ark.

Old men, young men
I would like to remember my cousin Lance Cpl. Bill Rees, who was killed Oct. 5, 1967, in Vietnam.  He was 20 years old.  Every year I go back to Iowa and place flowers on the family graves and every year there is small bouquet of flowers left there and I have no idea who they are from.  All of my family is gone so it isn't a relative, maybe just a high school chum or old girlfriend, but for 43 years it has always been there. It will be there again this year and I am glad. 

I can't help but think of what a famous WWII tank commander once said: "Old men make wars but young men have to go fight them."  This is as true today as it was then so please remember our young men and women this Memorial Day and each and every day for their service to this great country.  Thank you and God bless.
Rees, Dan
Lincoln, Neb.

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