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



  1. From Jim Robinson: What an amazing memorial to Harold. I did not know or remember him, but after reading your blog, I feel like I knew him and could imagine him driving around Sunset Acres.

  2. From Karen Ann Bryant Dye: Thank you so much for writing this story. This touched my heart.

  3. From Pamela Summerlin: Great story. I like that you include the real stuff -- makes me feel like I knew this kid -- and I do recognize him in this photo. Your story made me appreciate not only his service, but the positive changes in his family after his death.

  4. From Jimmie Cox: As always an outstanding tribute to a Fallen Knight.

  5. From Durwood Lee: I just shed some tears. ... What a story.

  6. From Kenny Launius: Harold was a real good friend. I had just returned from Vietnam when he was killed.

  7. From Rita Woodruff Wynn: A wonderful story about another life cut short for the freedom we all enjoy. Woodlawn was not a school, it was a family.

  8. From Beverly C. Porche: Thanks for this story of one of our own. It was very hard to read emotionally, but you found the words.

  9. From Ron Hill: Thank you from a Vietnam vet.

  10. From Roger S. Braniff Sr.: Well my friend ... I must say the last two paragraphs of this were the most difficult for me to finish reading. The tears flooded my vision to the point of total blur. You see, the small cropped photo of Harold on the Westside Baptist Church baseball team, in the full team photo, I am standing also on the back row, to the left, with just two teammates between Harold and me. ... I knew Harold all those years ago, but must say never knew anything about what he and Mike lived through at home back then. Thanks for sharing such a really beautiful tribute, to one that served us all to The End!

  11. From Larry Erwin: That was a great story on Harold O'Neal. I grew up around Harold and Mike back in those days and you brought back a lot of memories. You didn't mention the Honda motorcycles they used to ride. I can remember some times Harold would take us for a ride on the back of his Honda 50 or whatever size it was. Anyway, very good story and thanks for taking the time to write and remember an old friend.

  12. From Ronny Walker: Each time I read your blog of these "Young Men" and their sacrifice and our "LOSS," it hurts deep! Thank you, as always, for your ability to reach so many with your words. We will always have those "Woodlawn memories" to carry us.

  13. From Doug Rimmer: Excellent piece. I had gym classes with Eddie and Harold and was twice a teammate of Trey's. They were just good old boys who had a good sense of humor and who liked to have fun and joke around a bit. Life just wasn't that serious in high school.
    Like Eddie, I went down to the recruiting office for early enlistment, but I was rejected because of a benign tumor on my knee and two very flat feet. Only two of us out of 110 enlistees were denied.
    With one older brother in Vietnam and another in the Army Reserves who was later called up, I had mixed emotions about my physical deferment. Instead, I went to work for a defense contractor making communications equipment for the military in Vietnam and the Southeast Asia theater. Worked 6-7 days a week for 9-10 hours daily for more than a year shipping equipment to support the war effort.
    I will never forget our local heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country in war. They served and died in my place. May God rest their souls.

  14. From Linda L. Brown: Wonderful story. Thank you for letting me know about a classmate I would never have known.