Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day, and why those kids in Vietnam mattered to us

      Explaining the why and how of my four blog posts of the past month, all related to Woodlawn High School in Shreveport and the Vietnam War:
     Writing about the annual memorial service for the 1960s Woodlawn students who died in the service of this country and then about three of those young men -- Edward Cox Jr., Harold O'Neal Jr. and Glenn Ogburn -- actually was timed to  lead into this Memorial Day piece.
     I wrote Memorial Day blogs in 2012, 2014 and 2015 (in 2013, I was in the middle of writing a series about our trip to The Netherlands), and those blogs were inspired by Trey Prather.
    That is no surprise to regular readers of this blog. And Trey also inspired the thought behind the blogs this May.  
    Trey inspired us as a superb athlete, as a fellow student and friend, as the subject of frequent blog pieces and e-mail/Facebook posts by me in recent years ... and, of course, as the most prominent of the four Woodlawn 1960s "kids" killed in Vietnam.
    I did not know the other three ... but I know a little more about them now. And hopefully those who read the blog pieces on them do, too. 
    After a January e-mail/Facebook post (actually a re-post) about Trey showing the painting of him in his Marines Corps uniform -- first provided to me by Colin Kimball of McKinney, Texas -- the response was significant, as it usually is when I post an item concerning Trey.
    The people who remember him from Woodlawn, and many other people, always appreciate it.
    But one of the responses -- from Sandra Thrasher Ourso, a one-time Woodlawn cheerleader who now lives in Baton Rouge and is a journalist and published author -- said (in effect): You are always writing about Trey. Why don't you write about the other three Woodlawn guys who died in Vietnam?
    My first reaction (not an unusual one for me): I don't like people telling me what to write.
    But the more I thought about it, the more I felt this might be a good idea, and certainly a challenge.
    As a fellow sports writer reminded me frequently many years ago, everyone has a story. We just have to find those stories.
    It has been almost 50 years. I didn't know much at all about Glenn Ogburn, Harold O'Neal and Eddie Cox, although I have mentioned them almost every time I have written about the memorial monument in the center of the Woodlawn quadrangle -- where their names (and Trey's) are posted.
    But I didn't know their background, their families, where they lived, why they joined the service, where they served, and -- unfortunately -- how they died. The only pictures I had were those on the Internet's Vietnam War web sites.
    I did not know if they had family still around to give me some insight.
    This was going to take some research ... and a lot of help.
    It worked. It took four months to develop and then to write, but it's done. Thank you, Sandy, and you're welcome. And thank you to those who helped me reach four of the five remaining siblings.
    Mostly, thank you to those siblings -- Dale Cox, Michael O'Neal, Farrelyn Ogburn Hemperley and June Ogburn Morgan. Each of them was cooperative and helpful. 
    Re-living the loss of their respective brothers, talking about them, no doubt was a bit painful. But they also were proud of their service and their sacrifice, and they always will be.
    I know that Marion "Pou" Prather, Trey's younger sister who lives in Bradenton, Fla., certainly feels that way.
    On Jan. 19, I sent out an e-mail and posted a Facebook message to the Woodlawn people on my lists telling them about this "project" and asking for any information about the three young men and their families.
    There was enough response for me to realize this might be a worthwhile effort. I received some clues that each of the three might have siblings in the Shreveport area.
    But I moved slowly as I worked on some other blog ideas.
    Internet research, on the Vietnam War/Wall sites, gave me background on their service and their deaths (and photos of Ogburn and Cox -- but not O'Neal -- in uniform). That was a start.
    Through Facebook connections, I first was able to reach Dale Cox and interview him. He led me to Tommy Craig, Eddie Cox's close friend who lives in Mansfield, La., joined the U.S. Army at the same time as Eddie and served in Vietnam at the same time.
    Several people told me that Michael O'Neal, Harold's younger brother, was still living in Shreveport. But no one could tell me exactly where or give me a phone number.
    I searched the Internet -- I call myself searching -- but kept coming up empty. Finally, Wally Hood gave me the number.
    When I called, Mike answered -- and was more than happy to talk about Harold and the O'Neal family. He also told me he was listed in the phone book.
    As it turned out, the "empty" was my research diligence.
    I had seen a number for Michael O'Neal in Shreveport among those on "White Pages" listings, but because it began with 221 (downtown), I didn't think that would be him ... and I didn't try it. I should have; he was right there available for me all along.
    I also talked to two of my old Sunset Acres friends -- they lived close to us and both were All-State football players -- and they were friends of Harold's. Also, two other Facebook friends provided photos of Harold during his high school years. 
    After I had written the Cox and O'Neal pieces, I still had only scant information on Ogburn. But several people told me that he had two sisters living near Shreveport -- Farrelyn in Stonewall and June, who was in my Class of 1965 at Woodlawn, in Keithville.
    Through a couple more Facebook connections, I got a phone number for Farrelyn and she did provided all the back story I needed, and then June and I traded Facebook messages and she made several family photos available. A couple of Woodlawn friends helped me lift Glenn's photos from school yearbooks.
    Like I said, lots of help, and we're grateful.
    The underlying thought I always have about Vietnam and these deaths: What a waste.
    I wrote about the everlasting Vietnam War debate last year, and I was reminded of it during my talk with Farrelyn and the exchanges with June on Facebook.
    Glenn, said June, "had such a loving heart, I often wonder, had he come home, what the war would have done to him."
    She added: "They saw things over there that I pray we never have to. When Glenn was in on leave, he wouldn't talk about it much, so we didn't pressure him. But he did say that he would see his little brothers in the faces of some of the children over there. And his heart would break for them.
    "He volunteered to go over there to keep that from coming here. For that reason I supported him being there. I just wish our government had better supported them there and when some came home."

    Farrelyn also talked about the family's support, but in the same vein, she said, "After Glenn died, I could understand why some people wanted to avoid it [military service and the war], why they went to Canada.
    "I didn't want to see other families have a loss like we had."
    There are 58,195 names on the Vietnam Wall (pulled that number from a Google search) and there is a story for every name. I've written about a half dozen -- Trey, segments on Gene Youngblood of Shreveport and Terry Cross of Oakdale, La., last year, and now these three.
    These are only a glimpse, though; there's more that could be written. Certainly there is much more I could write on Trey, and maybe that will happen.
    But now, as their family and friends always knew -- and I hope you'll agree -- Glenn Ogburn, Harold O'Neal and Eddie Cox are more than just names on the monument at Woodlawn.

    Links to the previous Woodlawn/Vietnam-related blogs:


Monday, May 23, 2016

Glenn Ogburn: The first in line in Vietnam

     (Third of a three-part series) 
     It is important, I believe, to know that Glenn Ogburn wanted to serve with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam in 1966-67.     
     Just as, inspired by an uncle who was a Marine, he knew from the time he was a boy that he too wanted to be a Marine.
     And, as his older sister Farrelyn Ogburn Hemperley told me last week, "Glenn really believed in what he was doing in Vietnam, and we [the family] supported him."
     He believed in it so much that after serving a year in Vietnam, he "re-upped" for another six-month tour in the war. That began after a leave and a trip home to Shreveport.
     Three months later, the next trip home was his final journey.
     Perhaps it explains why his family, many of his friends, and those of us who affiliated with Woodlawn High School in Shreveport in the 1960s and long afterward still think of  Glenn Roy Ogburn.
     He was the first ex-Woodlawn student to die in action while in the military, the first of "our" four 1960s Vietnam War deaths. 
     Thus, his name is at the top of the memorial monument in the center of the Woodlawn High quadrangle -- Glenn Ogburn/USMC (Class of) 1964.
      He also was the oldest of the four, in two ways: (1) born first and (2) length of life. His death by an enemy mortar attack on July 7, 1967, came two days after his 21st birthday.
      Henry Lee "Trey" Prather III (Class of 1965) was 13 days short of his 21st birthday. Harold O'Neal Jr. and Eddie Cox Jr., both Class of '67, were 20.
      The pertinent facts on Glenn Ogburn: 
      He was a corporal (3rd Marine Division, 1st Battalion, 9th Regiment, H&S Company), listed as a motor vehicle operator. His service ID number was 1947161, and he is  No. 38549 on
      He was listed as a "ground casualty," hit by enemy fire. The specific location: Nva 152mm Shell at Con Thien, Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam. (Con Thien was a cluster of three hills about 158 meters high.)
      His name on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., is on Panel 23E, Line 30, and he is buried in Centuries Memorial Park in Shreveport.
      Posted by his sister Farrelyn -- who lives in Stonewall, near Shreveport -- on the "Wall of Faces" web site (compiled by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund):
    "I still love and miss you. I often wonder how different our lives would be if you had come home from Vietnam. It just wasn't meant to be."
     There was so much to like about Glenn Ogburn.
     He came from a large family; Wilma Ogburn delivered  seven Ogburn kids. Glenn was the second, three years younger than Farrelyn (who was in Woodlawn's first graduating class, in 1961), a year older than June (Class of 1965). There were four younger brothers.

     Farrell Ogburn was an oilfield worker and later owned a fence company. The family lived in the Queensborough neighborhood of Shreveport before moving to Sunset Acres (on Hollywood Avenue) for a couple of years, then to Summer Grove (on Mansfield Road) during Glenn's high school years.
Woodlawn sophomore year
    One Woodlawn student of the early 1960s remembers him as "tall and quiet." Another called him "range" (long-limbed, tall, slender). Both remember him as "a nice guy."
     He was, it seems, inconspicuous. His picture is in the Woodlawn yearbooks only four times in three years, only once among individual class photos (as a sophomore, at left). (Having an individual class photo was optional.)
     Two of the photos were of him in National Defense Cadet Corps (NDCC) platoons -- foreshadowing his military future. Another was in a math class.
     A couple of the photos show that he was taller than most of his classmates (he was 6-foot-2 or 6-3, 180 pounds, and above 200 during his time in the Marines, his sister said.)
From a Woodlawn yearbook, an NDCC cadet
(middle back)

     "He was the kind of typical Woodlawn student then," said Warren Gould, also from the Class of '64. "He was 'everyman.' I can't remember him sticking out, but he knew who you were and you knew who he was. He wasn't a standout, but he wasn't a nothing, either. If you were in the room with him, you knew he was there."
      "He was a compassionate person," Farrelyn said. "He loved people ... family was first with him. I don't know anyone that didn't like him."
      Plus, he loved animals and to hunt and fish. 
      "After a flood [or hard rain], he would be knee-deep in the Cross Lake overflow," Farrelyn recalled, "usually with a string of catfish.    
      "... Just a good ol' redneck boy."
      And he was, well, good-looking. I was going to write that; then I saw some comments on Facebook from women who knew him after June Ogburn Morgan -- who lives in Keithville, just south of Shreveport -- posted pictures of Glenn (and also made them available for this blog).
      From Judy Gail Chandler: "He was my first kiss as a kid. Only had one date with him as a teen. Not sure why not another. Either way me and my family always loved him, and still do."
      From Johnnie Hall Covington: "Glenn was tall -- I think at least 6-3. He was nice-looking and very, very shy. Glenn helped his family by working as a carhop at a drive-in root beer place. ... "
      From Mary Hemperley Gray: "Man, he was handsome."
      From June: "Everyone said he looked like Elvis."
      Mary: "I think so, too."
      Yep, Elvis. Sounds good to me. (Especially in the photo  below.)
      June added this: "Susan King was always the love of his life. They broke up before he went to Vietnam because he didn't want her waiting in case he didn't make it back."
MP duty while stationed in Alaska
     Even in his senior year at Woodlawn, he was headed to the Marines; he had joined the reserves, although his parents had to sign and give permission.
      Then in the summer of 1964, he was a Marines regular -- basic training at Camp Pendleton (in southern California), then off to Adak, Alaska for a year.
      "He said the wind blows in four directions there," Farrelyn recalled, laughing. "Don't go pee outside; the wind will blow it back in your face."
      Then he went to Camp Lejeune (Jacksonville, N.C.) to train for duty in Vietnam and, after a short leave and a trip to Shreveport, he went for his first tour in that awful "conflict."
      Three months into his second tour, fate intervened.
      "He drove for the colonel [in his platoon]," Farrelyn said. "They'd been out all night, and Glenn was worn out. When they got back to the barracks, he was asleep in the colonel's bed. A mortar hit the bunk."
      For three days, the platoon was under fire and unable to move. So the Ogburns, in Shreveport, did not receive word until the second week of July.
      Two officers from the Marines came to the house, but only one of Glenn's brothers was home. The officers handed him a card for the parents, asking them to call.
      Farrell Ogburn was a World War II veteran, so when he saw the card, he knew what it meant.
Final trip home: fishing with one
of his younger brothers, Ambrose
      "It destroyed our family," Farrelyn said. "We thought we were going to lose Mother then. ... For 2-3 years, it was all we could do to keep her grounded."  
     The damage to Glenn's body was so extensive that it was left to a priest and an uncle to make the identification "and they advised us not to open the casket," Farrelyn said.
      Warren Gould, who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army, remembered learning of his classmate's death and said, "When I heard, it was a shock. This was a guy we knew."
      Posted by Judy Matheson Trammell eight years ago on a web site: "I dated Glenn a few times during Christmas vacation, and he was such a sweet honest and patriotic man. He loved his family and he was proud to serve his country."
      From Sue Lafitte Corley: "So sad. Still hurts; he was just the sweetest."
     One memory June has is that Glenn "was a very protective big brother to me. He screened most of my male friends. Needless to say I had few dates. I really miss him."
      Wilma Ogburn lived to age 92, and died last month (April 4), her final years with Alzheimer's. There was more tragedy for her and the family, the loss of three of Glenn's brothers from 2001 to 2006; only Steve survives (in Texarkana, Ark.)
    One of the Ogburn uncles had worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), so that was a goal for Glenn. "His dream was to work for the FBI or the CIA," said Farrelyn.
    It's likely that he would have been just as dedicated to that task as he was the Marines. But Vietnam ruined many dreams.
    "It's amazing how when we talk about it [Glenn's death] in detail, it's almost like it happened yesterday," sister June wrote on Facebook. "I miss my big bro so much still. ...  It's good to keep him alive in our memories, though."
    "It still hurts," Farrelyn said of the loss. "It's something you never get over."

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Harold O'Neal Jr.: Recalling a fun, tough guy ... and a dog tag

     (Second in a three-part series)
Harold O'Neal: Woodlawn High
 senior class photo, 1966-67
     Harold O'Neal Jr. was a young man who liked to have fun, a prankster at times. At other times, a rough and ready-to-fight kid, a contentious big brother.
     In the summer of 1967, not long after graduation from Woodlawn High School in Shreveport, Harold -- already working a job he liked -- faced the prospect of being drafted into the U.S. Army.
     Instead, he joined the U.S. Marines.
     On Nov. 23 that year, he was shipped to Vietnam and the middle of the "conflict."
     His life ended less than 10 months later -- Sept. 15, 1968 -- when he became a "ground casualty" in Quang Nam Province. The specific spot is listed as Vic Hill 55 Dodge City Sector.
     Harold O'Neal Jr. (born March 15, 1948) was a Lance Corporal, a rifleman, with the 1st Marine Division, D company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. His service ID number was 2252772.
     He was the third of the four ex-Woodlawn students to die in action in Vietnam, the second of 1968 (Trey Prather, Jan. 10). Eddie Cox Jr. would die exactly five months later.
     They had much in common, Harold and Eddie. They knew each other; they were friends. They each were 20 when they died, were in Woodlawn's Class of 1967, joined the service on the "buddy" plan (with friends), loved girls and fast cars (maybe that should fast girls and cars), and died much the same way (trip wires that exploded too soon).
     And both left prospects of better lives ahead.
     Harold O'Neal Jr.'s name on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., is on Panel 44W, Line 66.  
     Life often wasn't easy in the 1960s at the O'Neal home on Hillcrest Street on the northeast side of the Sunset Acres neighborhood (near Hearne Avenue and the old Sunset Village Shopping Center).
     Harold O'Neal Sr. ruled that house, and at times, alcohol ruled Harold Sr.
     Mike O'Neal is the surviving family member, born two years after Harold Jr. He is 66 today (May 19 is his birthday) and living in a downtown Shreveport apartment. He'll tell you that times could be turbulent back then.
     "We had some good parents," Mike said earlier this week. "But Dad drank a lot and when he drank, he could be brutal. He worked us over some. ... It was hard being around when he drank."
     And the boys often didn't get along. Mike liked a lot about his older brother, but said his personality "was like a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing." So there were battles, and sometimes there was blood.
     "We fought worse than most brothers," Mike recalled. "We fought a lot, and it was bad. Dad made us fight some times; he put us out in the yard, and we had branches, and we'd get after each other. He wanted us to get it settled. We wanted to really hurt each other. It was kill or be killed.
     "I almost hated him [Harold Jr.] at times."
     But Harold Sr., who had a produce business with a couple of produce stands (one at the edge of Sunset Acres) "was a good man, too; a hard worker and a good provider." And he taught his boys to work.
     Harold Jr., Mike said, "loved to hunt and fish and he had a really good job at the newspaper [as a typesetter]. He was learning that business."
     First one of the dozen of kids who on Saturday nights inserted sections into the Sunday paper, he was learning set type as an apprentice at the Newspaper Production Co., where The Shreveport Times and Shreveport Journal were printed. 
     Kathy Littlejohn was a junior in the 1966-67 school year, sitting in the back of an art class alongside Harold and Ross Oglesby, seniors who picked on a then-shy girl.
     "They were just a mess, they used to tease me all the time," Kathy remembered. "Harold had such a fun personality. ... They'd play jokes and kid around, didn't do a lot of artwork."
     But one day their artwork was a big poster that read, "Be kind to Kathy Longjohn day ("that's what we called her," Ross said). They were going to hang it in the school cafeteria, but Kathy and the art teacher intervened and stopped them.
     Undeterred, the next day ... another poster, same slogan. This one made it to the cafeteria "and six shifts of kids saw it at lunch," Kathy said.
     Another day, Harold and Ross -- the All-State running back/state champion hurdler who lived down the street from me -- picked up Kathy by the elbows and gave her a lift all the way across the Woodlawn quadrangle to the cafeteria.
     Harold had his girlfriends ("I think he was engaged to a couple," Mike said, laughing). Kathy wasn't a "girlfriend," per se. "We never dated," she said, "but we became good friends. When he went to Vietnam, we wrote each other a lot."
     And then, when she was a freshman at LSU in Baton Rouge, he sent her his military ID "dog tag" with a note saying, "Keep this for me until I get back."
     "Harold shouldn't have sent it to me," Kathy said.
     The casualty report on reads: "In an ambush position, near the Phu Son village complex in Hieu Duc District, LCpl O'Neal was placing trip flares around the squad's position used as warning devices when he detonated an AP (Anti-Personnel) BT (Booby Trap) believed to be a Chicom grenade. The explosion from the hostile device killed LCpl O'Neal as a result of fragmentation wounds."
     Mike's explanation: "The Marine who accompanied his body home [to Shreveport] told us that a tank got knocked out and Harold and another guy had to stay overnight and protect the tank to keep it from getting stripped [by enemy forces]. So they set out trip wires and bobby traps near the tank. When they went out the next morning to remove those, one of the trip wires exploded on Harold.
     "They [the enemy] had booby-trapped the booby-trap."
     Jerry Wilcoxen, another Woodlawn Class of '67 member who was stationed with American forces at Khe Sanh Combat Base, is believed to have been the last person from "home" to see Harold, just before the infamous Tet offensive began in late January 1968 (Harold was based at Huế).
     Joe Cobb, also Woodlawn Class of '67 and future husband of Kathy Littlejohn, said at the time he was stationed "only about a mile away from where he was killed."
     But Joe didn't get the news until months later when his Vietnam had ended and, now based in Savannah, Ga., he was home on leave.
     "I went into a bank in Shreveport and saw Mike and said, 'What's your sorry brother doing, where is he now?' "
     The answer, obviously, was devastating.
     "He was a fun-loving, good ol' boy," Cobb remembered. "He'd do anything for you, and he was always laughing. ... He was a carefree, happy-go-lucky fella." 
     And, Cobb also recalled that Harold -- despite their differences -- was proud of his younger brother. "He thought the world of Mike playing football (for Woodlawn)."
     That didn't last -- Mike dropped off the team, but even while in high school, at the urging of a couple of former Woodlawn players, he joined the semipro Shreveport Oilers.
     Cobb remembered Harold driving "a white two-door hardtop '62 Chevy Nova ... everybody was crazy about that car." And the story is that one day they took that car and went hunting and "Harold left a shotgun in the back seat, it got bumped and went off and put a hole in the roof.
     "Harold just stuck cotton in that hole, and he kept driving the car just like that."
     He was a solidly built young man (about 6-foot-1, 200 pounds) who enjoy sports. In the summer of 1965, he was just a kid on a baseball team sponsored by Westside Baptist Church. 
     One of his teammates, Durwood Lee, remembers:  "At the end of our season the coach took us on a night camping/fishing trip to a pond near Mansfield. I was in boat (small aluminum) with Harold driving. We hit a stump and the motor came completely off and Harold caught it just before it sunk." 
     "He was a good guy, a likeable guy, very outgoing," said Tommy Craig, another Woodlawn buddy and Vietnam veteran.      
     But with the fun side came the other side.
     "Harold ran around with a bunch of guys that I liked to call 'hoodlum wannabes,' " Oglesby said. "They'd come their hair back and slick on the sides. They wanted to be tough guys, but there weren't quite there.
     "Harold was a pretty tough guy, but anybody could sit down and talk with him. He was easy to know." 
     Still, he'd fight. Maybe this was a Marine-to-be's MO.
     A Woodlawn friend remembers a day when Harold had "a misunderstanding" with a classmate in the school parking lot, and it came to blows. When Harold swung and missed, he instead hit the other guy's car door and left a dent.
     Mike recalls another school-ground fight with a Woodlawn football lineman -- good player, physically strong -- that bystanders were reluctant to break up, and Harold got much the better of it.
     "He [the football player] didn't realize Harold fought all the time at home," Mike said. 
     The database on his page includes this tribute -- posted March 11, 2001 -- by our old friend Edwin Tubbs.
     "Harold and I went to high school together at Woodlawn in Shreveport, La. It seems like everybody in school knew and liked him and we had about 2,000 kids at this school. I think he could make you laugh so hard that you would almost pass out.

     "We were both in 'Nam at the same time, but he was in the Marines and I was in the 101st [Army Airborne Division]. Our mothers, along with some more ladies, would send us a box of goodies about every two months or so. I'm sure he looked forward to them as much as I did.
     "Harold was a short timer when he was killed in September. My mother didn't tell me because I was coming home in December, and as a 'boonie rat' [nickname for a 101st member, immortalized in a song of the Vietnam era] she didn't want me to know. She, God bless her, was trying to protect me.
     "Woodlawn High was lucky, it lost only four sons to Vietnam. To honor them all the student body placed a monument with their names on it for all to see and know of the sacrifice they made.
     "For all the Marines who were with Harold, I'm sure he made you laugh and feel a little better."
     This was posted by Ron Evans on Nov. 30, 2010: "I served with Harold in Vietnam ... Harold was a fine man and he served with distinction. He was a member of my platoon and I was near him when he died ... God Bless and Semper Fi!"
    Mike was at home -- his parents were at work, at the produce stand -- with a girl from across the street and he saw a car pull to the sidewalk, and a priest and a Marine in full dress uniform got out and began walking toward the house.
     "I knew then," he said.
     He went to get his parents at the produce stand (70th Street and Jewella Road) and ... "our family was never the same again after that."  
     Harold Jr. is buried in Chester County Memory Gardens, Henderson, Tenn. (plot 63D, grave 2). Why there?
     The O'Neal boys knew the area in West Tennessee; they visited there often because Harold Sr. had family there. Mike said it was a place they loved -- the beauty, the quiet, their cousins they played with; it was where they talked about settling.
     And indeed, shortly after Harold Jr.'s funeral there, the O'Neal moved from Sunset Acres to Henderson. But they only stayed a few months.
     "I really missed my friends, I loved going to Woodlawn," Mike recalled. "I was the only [child] left, so my parents spoiled me, they did everything they could for me. And I wanted to go back to Shreveport and Woodlawn."
     So after a couple of months, they did return to Shreveport. But without Harold Jr., life changed dramatically for each family member -- some positive, some not.
     "It affected us all a lot," Mike said, and it most affected him and his mother (Margaritte).
     "She didn't see his body because it was a closed casket, and she always believed he was going to come back. She never could accept that he was dead. It was that way until she died (1983, cancer)," Mike said. "She always thought he was coming back."
     A week after the funeral, the O'Neals received a letter from Vietnam written by Harold.
     Losing his brother "had a lot to do with the way I lived my life," Mike added. "I look back now and say, 'Why did I do that, why did I do this? I think about how I might have been different if Harold had been around. ... I changed, and not for the better."
     Harold Sr. also changed.
     "After Harold died, my Dad became a totally different man," Mike said. "I never saw him drink again, I never heard him say another cuss word. He was a good man, a good father before, but the drinking ... I'm so proud of him; he became such a good person."
     Harold Sr. died in 2009 at age 83. 
     Kathy Littlejohn Cobb remembered that she went to her LSU mailbox in the fall of 1968 "on a Saturday morning and I had a letter from my mother telling me that Harold had died. I went to class, and I was so shook up."
     A month later -- eerily the same scenario as at the O'Neal home -- she received Harold's last letter from Vietnam. "I still have that letter," she said.
     She also kept the dog tag, for years, in a jewelry box.
     Then "15-16 years ago, Joe and I were living in Grand Cane and we were going to the memorial service at Woodlawn [for the servicemen who died in wars] and I found the dog tag and took it with me."
     When she told her husband, "Look what I brought, Joe was real surprised." Someone pointed out Harold O'Neal Sr. to them. "We didn't know him," she said, and when she introduced herself, she asked him to hold out his hand.
     She gave Harold Sr. the dog tag. "He saw it, saw what it was ... and he started crying."
     Mike O'Neal was surprised to hear that story. He has his own good memory now.
     "After Harold left to go to the service, we got along much better," he said. Through letters and phone calls, and his final visits home, "We became so close. It was completely different."
     Harold's plans, post-service, were to find his career, perhaps in typesetting. "He was making really good money before he left," Mike said, "and he had saved some. He had a good future."
     And remember the car with the hole in the roof? Plans were to buy one of the generation's "muscle cars," the fast-racing kind. "All he had on his mind was buying a [Pontiac] GTO," said Mike. "That's all he talked about."
     "He told me, 'We're gonna get in that car and do some driving.' "
     As with Harold's life, as with the lives of so many we lost in Vietnam, it was a promise unfulfilled.
     Next: Glenn Ogburn, the first in line


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Eddie Cox: 'The Kid' who didn't come back

(First of a three-part series)
     Eddie Cox loved his family -- especially his younger brother -- and loved fast "muscle" cars and drag racing, and loved girls, girls, girls.
     He volunteered to serve his country, and it was a dangerous time to do so because the Vietnam "conflict" -- a way to avoid saying war -- was raging.
     So when he left Woodlawn High School in Shreveport in the spring of 1967 to join the U.S. Army -- being drafted likely was imminent -- it was a fateful decision.
     A year and a half later, he was on the ground in Vietnam, a handler of bomb-sniffing dogs.
     On Feb. 15, 1969, Edward Erlin Cox Jr. -- a specialist 4  (infantry operations/intelligence) for the Army -- was the victim of a tripped mine that blew too soon.
     He was 20 (27 days short of his 21st birthday). He was the last of the four Woodlawn High students to die in action in Vietnam, and he was the youngest of the four.
     His page on the web site lists his military ID number as 15980388, and the site of his death is listed as Hau Nghia Province in South Vietnam.
     His name on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., is on Panel W32, Line 36.  
     He was a namesake son. Edward E. Cox Sr. -- a "jack of all trades" but mainly a mechanic -- and wife Thelma had six older children when Eddie was born March 14, 1948, and he was going to be the last, thus the Junior name.
     And then Dale was born 3 1/2 years later. Before long, the older kids had moved out and moved on, so -- as Dale remembers -- "Eddie was the only one I grew up with.
     "I couldn't have asked for a better brother, as far as being considerate and taking care of me," adds Dale, 65, who still lives in Shreveport. "I didn't need much help, but there were a few times when kids were bothering me and Eddie stepped in and stopped them."
     After several moves -- from Forbing and Wallace Lake Road (just south of Shreveport) -- the Cox family settled into a house on West 76th Street, just off Linwood. That's Cedar Grove, the familiar neighborhood for so many Woodlawn kids, a one-time town of its own before it was annexed by Shreveport in 1927.
     So the Cox boys went through the schools in that area -- Atkins Elementary, Linwood Junior High and then Woodlawn, where in 1966-67, Dale and Eddie shared a science class.
     They also shared the kid adventures, hanging out a lot on Cedar Grove's east side, where the stores and establishments along the "main drag" -- 70th Street -- had a certain notoriety for wilder times.
     Then, in their teenage years, two passions developed: (1) girls; (2) cars.
     "Girls came along," Dale recalls, laughing, "and there was lots to bug us. They came along to deter and distract us."
     The other main distraction: fast cars and street drag racing. When he was old enough, Eddie -- with help from Dad -- bought a 1966 Oldsmobile 442, a "muscle car"  perfect to challenge anyone behind the wheel of a car that wanted to race.
     "Eddie had this little circle of friends," says Dale, "and one (Dennis Jimes) he looked up to, but others looked up to him. So when Dennis got this GTO [for racing], Eddie got the 442." 
     And, if someone pulled up next to them at a red light, if the location was right, so was the time for a drag race. On weekends, they'd head to places south of town -- down Mansfield Road, on Stagecoach Road -- where 30-35 cars might be part of the (informal) racing community.
     Happy times for the Cox boys. But they wouldn't last.
     OK, school was not exactly a priority. So before graduation, Eddie decided to join the Army. So did one of his best friends, Tommy Craig; they went together on a "buddy plan."
     When their friend Tommy Medlin heard what they'd done, he also hurried to the induction center and signed up as another buddy.
       "We were best friends, we were just like brothers," said Tommy Craig of Eddie. "We went through training together," and they both wound up as Army Rangers, highly trained special forces, in particular -- in Vietnam and other places -- known as "Lurps" (Long Range Patrol companies).
       The Army also provided them a chance to earn equivalency degrees for high school graduation.
        Meanwhile, Eddie left the girls behind. This is pertinent because, Dale noted, "by the time he went into the service, there were several that wanted to marry him."
         But he declined. "He didn't make any commitment to any girl," Dale said, "because he didn't want to leave a family behind. ... He said, 'I don't want to come home half a man. I don't want to come home with one leg, or be disabled.' "
         An ominous thought.
         The dogs he handled were trained to find the mines or mine fields that are so much a part of war, and they were all over South Vietnam. Eddie lost one dog when a mine exploded, and now he had a second dog.
     On the web site, a page for Eddie created by Billy M. Brown includes Eddie's photo in military uniform -- the same photo that is on several Vietnam deaths-related pages -- and this description of his final moments ...  
     "The black and white photo is of Eddie and his tracking dog, Rigger (4A56), of 76th IPCT (Infantry Platoon Combat Tracker). The photo was taken a few days before he was killed in action. (Photo is used with permission from Combat Tracker Team and the information below of Eddie's last day is courtesy of Tom Verhelle of 76th IPCT.)
     "Eddie was Rigger's handler at the 76th CTT (Combat Tracker Teams). He was one member of two complete teams assigned to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. During 1969 the 199th Light Infantry Brigade was responsible for the security of the region North and East of the Saigon capital. This included Bien Hoa, Long Binh, Bear Cat, and Vung Tau.
     "Tom Verhelle, of 76th IPCT attached to the 199th LIB, was tracking when he and Eddie came upon a small base camp. Eddie gave Tom Rigger to hold while he covered Bill Stockell when Eddie tripped a booby trap. Eddie died instantly; Stockell's arm was broken and had injured his leg as well. Tom always felt that Eddie had saved his life that dreadful day."

     Dale saw the National Guard officer standing in full uniform at the front door of the Cox home ... and he knew.
     He opened the door, went to get his parents, "and I had to get out of there," he remembers. "I could not deal with my mother crying."
      Thelma Cox, who worked at Confederate Memorial (charity) Hospital, was -- Dale said -- "the most religious woman I've ever known. She prayed every day. She prayed for all the kids, their families, other kids' families, the prayer list for church. She prayed for everyone."
       But that day when they were told of Eddie's death, "It was the only time I ever heard my Mom ask God 'why.' You know you're not supposed to do that," Dale said."
       And so, "It was a tough time for a long time," he added. But, "I really believe that as religious as my Mom was, it helped pull her through."
       Eddie's death didn't deter Dale from also joining the military a few years later after his Woodlawn years. He chose the Coast Guard and -- despite his parents' objections -- got close to the action in Vietnam, manning riverboats off the coast.
       Meanwhile, Tommy Craig -- in February 1969 -- was with the U.S. Army near Da Nang, far north of where Eddie had been. He remembers hearing that a close friend of his had been killed, but wasn't given a name.
       "I said, 'Please, Jesus, don't let it be Eddie, don't let it be Eddie.' " The reality shook him.
      He asked his company commander if he could take a leave and go home to Shreveport to visit with Eddie's family. Told that wasn't possible, Tommy went to the division commander, who did approve the leave."
      (Dale and others thought Tommy had accompanied Eddie's body home on a military transport, but Tommy said that wasn't the case.)
      Unshaven, without a bath for 15-20 days -- "I looked horrible; I came straight out of the jungle" -- he made a harried trip home, apologizing to folks along the way for his appearance. But the journey and visiting with his close friend's loved ones felt like a calling, and Tommy Craig soon returned to Vietnam -- and would have taken a third tour there, if his new wife hadn't convinced him he had done enough.
       He would settle in Mansfield, La., 40 miles from Shreveport, where he has been on the DeSoto Parish School Board for 26 years, worked for the U.S. Post Office for 30 years and 10 years at Community Bank.
        "He [Eddie] was a great guy, great personality," he said last week. "All the girls liked him.
        "... He was smart as hell. He could have been anything he wanted to be. He could have been a doctor ... "
       The Oldsmobile 442 stayed in the family for years, a sentimental reminder of Eddie. Dale said his mother wouldn't let his father drive it, and it remained parked by the house. Dale finally bought it and drove it, until the high-powered engine began faltering, and he gave it to a friend.
        Eddie's Vietnam "Wall of Faces" page includes a note posted by Dale last Sept. 25:
     " ... You're the one that I grew up with, looked up to, and respect (to this day). I'll miss you forever, Tell Mom, Dad and Harold hello for me and that I love them all. I 'will' see you again one day. Bye for now. Your loving brother."
      And also this note, posted Feb. 25, 2014, by Deb:
      "You continue to be on my mind often, never forgotten, your memory will never fade. I still miss you even though it has been 45 years. I still talked to you 'in my head' and guess I always will. I still wonder what life would have been like if you had made it home. I know you are in heaven and much happier than those of us you left behind, but I still miss your laugh, your smile and your fun personality. You are still 'The Kid.'  I love you and I miss you."
     Billy M. Brown's tribute to Eddie on, begins with this: 
     "Eddie was my high school classmate. He was two years ahead of me, but we shared several classes together at Woodlawn High School in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was a 1967 graduate and entered the Army shortly thereafter. I graduated in 1969 and can still recall the pain of his loss -- the day after Valentine's of that same year.
     "Our school mascot is a knight on horseback and our colors are patriotic -- scarlet, white, and royal blue - Woodlawn Knights. With Barksdale Air Force Base next door to Shreveport, this area has always given huge support to our troops, even in those dark days of Vietnam. To be honest, our school spirit and patriotic pride were foremost, followed by our studies.
     "Eddie was a light-hearted, fun-filled guy. Oh, how he could laugh and play the typical schoolboy pranks. He was a friend to all. Eddie's smile was brilliant; it could light up an entire room. I can still hear the ring of his laughter."
      The message ends with:
       "The world lost a sweet and wonderful, bright, brave young man the day he was taken from us. The entire school grieved over Eddie's loss.
      "We (the students) pooled our money and had a monument erected as our gift to our school and our brave classmates who fought and died in Vietnam for the defense of freedom. Eddie's name is the fourth down, the last WHS Vietnam casualty. (Please note that the date of his loss is engraved incorrectly on the monument; it reads 1967, should be 1969.)
      "Our Eddie, forever lost to us, forever young, forever in our hearts."
      It adds the inscription on the Woodlawn monument, and near the bottom of the page, the inscription on Eddie's headstone at his grave at Forest Park East Cemetery in Shreveport:
      "Everything works together for good to those who He has called."
      Next: Harold O'Neal Jr., U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal