Heroes of Vietnam: The Stories of Fallen Soldiers

Vietnam SIP CoverThis article and other features about America in Vietnam can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Heroes of Vietnam.



Vietnam Veterans Memorial lit at night
For some, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is another stop on a long list of tourist attractions; for others, it’s a special chance to see and touch the name of a lost loved one enshrined forever. (National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is names — more than 58,000 names of men and women who were killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War. When you visit the Memorial, the sheer volume of names is inescapable.

Millions of people visit The Wall each year. For some, it is another stop on an agenda filled with tourist attractions. But for others, it is a special visit to see and touch the name of a loved one enshrined forever on our National Mall, maybe to leave a note or personal item in remembrance. Veterans overwhelmed by emotion come to pay their respects. Friends and family remember loved ones lost decades ago. Parents show names to their children, and talk about why that person was special.

It is important for us to honor these people who served and sacrificed for their country. But we should also remember that they were people, just like us.

It is important for us to honor these people who served and sacrificed for their country. But we should also remember that they were people, just like us. They enjoyed crazy adventures with high school friends. They had crushes, fell in love, and got married. Some even had children. They were people with special talents and many goals. Some wanted to be soldiers or pilots; others wanted to be doctors, nurses, or ministers. Some excelled at sports. Others liked fast cars or motorcycles. Some had children they cherished and missed when they were away. Others had children they never met. There are so many stories on The Wall — stories of people as diverse as our nation itself.

—Jan C. Scruggs, founder and president emeritus Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF)


An American Hero

William Howsa Ragin
(National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

William David Howsa Ragin is honored on Panel 1E, Row 62 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Capt. David Ragin was my brother-in-law and my hero. He was killed in action on August 24, 1964, in a bloody battle along with three other brave American advisors serving with the Vietnamese 41st Ranger Battalion in Kiên Hoa province, 45 miles southwest of Saigon. The Rangers suffered more than 200 casualties during this violent ambush. All four received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. Dave was last seen alive firing a machine gun while covering the withdrawal of his unit.

—Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who served 32 years of active military duty, was awarded three Purple Hearts for wounds received in infantry combat, two Distinguished ­Service Crosses, and two ­Silver Stars for valor.

Remembering Sgt. Tom Young, USMC

Thomas Young
(National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

Thomas Franklin Young is honored on Panel 37E, Row 16 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

We were sitting in one of the huge old blimp hangars at the Marine Corps Air Facility, Santa Ana, California, in the late summer of 1967, contemplating orders to pack our trash and say our goodbyes. We were headed for Vietnam. Tom said he thought he’d better submit his leave papers in a hurry and try to squeeze out 30 days with his family back in Arkansas. The anxiety over leave was perfectly understandable. But Tom was even more anxious to get to Vietnam and talked about leave as though it were just an expected step along the way to some momentous journey of discovery.

“Hemingway was right,” he once told me. “War is man’s greatest adventure.” As Marine Corps Combat Correspondents, we could be assigned anywhere in-country where Marines operated, as well as in a few interesting billets that did not involve accompanying line units into combat. I got orders to one of the line units, and Tom got assigned to an American Forces Vietnam Network radio and TV outlet in Huê. That meeting was in January 1968. There was no way for either of us to know what lay in store. When the North Vietnamese army staged its offensive during the countrywide Têt celebrations, Huê was one of their primary targets. After a gallant standoff involving vicious firefights, the station was overrun. Two were killed in the action — and one of those was my friend Sgt. Tom Young.

Later in the fighting to retake Huê, I was assigned to assault units and managed to get a close look at the battered and shattered AFVN station where I’d visited Tom prior to Têt. The evidence was clear: The NVA made a major effort to take the station, and the people resisting that effort had put up a hell of a fight to prevent it. It was cold comfort for the loss of a friend, but it was obvious that Sgt. Tom Young had experienced man’s greatest adventure — and greatest tragedy.

—Dale Dye enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1964 and served as a Marine correspondent in Vietnam during 1967–70, surviving 31 major combat operations. During the war, he received a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in combat.

Remembering Max

Muriel Stanley Groomes
(National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

Muriel Stanley Groomes is honored on Panel 39W, Row 8 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Besides being new guys in the platoon, Max and I both came from the same area of the country: Max from Hampstead, Maryland, and me from Manassas, Virginia. There was only three years difference in our ages — he was 19 and I was 22 — yet he referred to me respectfully as “Lieutenant” or “The Old Man” (with a smile) when I later became the company commander. I referred to him as “Little Brother” because our interpreter had told me that the Vietnamese word for an enlisted man was anh em, which means “little brother.” It was appropriate; I was the big brother responsible for taking care of and watching out for him and my other men.

My recollections of Max are of a Marine who was always willing to do more than what was expected of him. On patrol, even when suffering from both malaria and active dysentery, he willingly shouldered another Marine’s heavy machine gun when that Marine complained of not being able to make it. Max willingly shared the contents of his packages from home and gave away his rations of beer and cigarettes. He was selfless in nature, always willing to do his job without complaint and usually with a shy smile. Seldom did he speak of home except an occasional mention of older brothers, a fondness for Maryland seafood, and a desire to get back to “the world,” our slang term for the United States. He was the quietest member of our small portion of the brotherhood. There was no pretense or false bravado about him. Max listened more than he talked. His actions were more memorable than his conversations. He was just a damn good Marine.

As a combat leader, I learned to steel my emotions to the news of casualties in our unit. However, shortly after I left the rifle company and was awaiting reassignment, I was notified that one of my men had been killed in action. I ran to the landing zone to check on the casualties evacuated to the battalion aid station, and there was Max, his shattered remains wrapped in a poncho and guarded by the sergeant who had been wounded with him. Both men had absorbed the blast of a command-detonated claymore mine. One Marine had lived; the other had died. Max had volunteered to carry the radio that day. Typical of Max, he had helped someone else and then made the ultimate sacrifice.

—Justin “Jerry” Martin is a retired Marine Corps ­lieutenant colonel and Vietnam veteran. Among his combat decorations are the Silver Star for gallantry and the Purple Heart.

Roses lay atop a statue of Vietnam War nurses as they tend to a wounded soldier.
Just 300 feet from The Wall sits the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Washington’s first national memorial honoring women veterans. (National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

‘I Don’t Remember His Name’

The medical patients usually came in late afternoon. Most would be an FUO (fever of unknown origin, which usually would turn out to be malaria or typhus), sometimes dysentery, occasionally pneumonia, and once or twice a cardiac case. One afternoon, a call came from the ER: FUO, unconscious, temperature off the end of the thermometer. They brought him up from the ER on a stretcher, packed in bags of ice. We got all the diagnostic tests, got another IV in him and a urinary catheter. None of the tests showed anything in particular. We kept sponging him down, and between that and the aspirin suppositories, his temperature started coming down. And then he began to slip away from us. It was nothing dramatic, just blood pressure gradually dropping, urine output decreasing. No heroics — there wasn’t anything else to be done. And then, he was gone. I don’t remember his name or where he was from, but I know where he is now. His name is somewhere on the west wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, panels 26-19.

He didn’t die alone.

And I remember him.

—Sara McVicker served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps from 1968 to 1971, including a tour in Vietnam at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku. A longtime member of Vietnam Veterans of America, she currently serves on its National Board of Directors.

His Great Love

Earl Watson Tharp
(National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

Earl Watson Tharp Jr. is honored on Panel 9W, Row 97 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Earl Watson Tharp Jr. was born on October 3, 1949, to Earl and Billie Tharp. Earl got the baby sister he wanted when I was born. I thought he was great — strong, handsome, generous, patient, and kind. I felt safe and secure with him.

When Earl graduated from high school, he promptly enlisted in the Army and served with Company B, 229th Aviation Battalion (Assault Helicopter) (Airmobile). He wanted the people of Vietnam to have the freedom we had. He wanted the children of Vietnam to have a better life than their parents. Given his mechanical skills, it was no surprise to find out that he would be a helicopter gunner and, subsequently, crew chief overseeing maintenance of a helicopter. Earl’s fellow soldiers gave him the nickname “Preacher” because of the example he set and his faith in Jesus. June 26, 1970, he demonstrated this with honor when his base came under heavy rocket and mortar attack.

Earl made it to the protection of a sandbagged bunker. But when he saw that a friend caught in the open fire had been seriously injured and was unable to get to cover under his own power, Earl ran through a barrage of exploding rounds to help. Before he could carry his wounded friend to safety, an exploding round mortally wounded him. He died a short time later. In the Bible, John 15:13 says: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

My brother died carrying a friend, not firing a gun. He laid down his life for a friend he knew less than two years. He is a hero. I honor him for his great love.

—Jane (Tharp) Woodruff and her husband live in ­Virginia with their four children. In 2008, she joined VVMF’s Teach Vietnam teachers network.

A Simple Day

Jose L. Montes
(National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

Jose L. Montes is honored on Panel 41W, Row 25 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Dad and I left the house early. As always, we had breakfast together. It was still dark outside, but I did not care. That day was going to be just Dad and me.

After lunch, Dad and I played golf. I had never played golf before that day. I do not like golf. I never have. That day, I loved golf. It was our special day, and for a little girl who adored her father, it was heaven. We talked, walked, and laughed all through the golf course while trying unsuccessfully to play. Years later, I learned that Dad had received deployment orders just a week before our little outing. He was going to Vietnam. He left, never to come back.

Among the personal items returned to us by the Army were pieces of Dad’s rosary. He always wore it around his neck. On my wedding day, I hid it in my bouquet. No one knew. In a very simple and quiet way, he walked down the aisle with me.

—Yolanda Acevedo lost her husband, Navy Cmdr. Joseph Acevedo, in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom and is a member of Sons and Daughters in Touch.

Living Life to the Fullest

Keith Allen Campbell
(National Park Service, Vietnam Veterans Memorial)

Keith Allen Campbell is honored on Panel 15E, Row 8 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Live, laugh, love. When I think of my brother Keith Allen Campbell, I think of those three words. Keith was the epitome of someone who lived life to its fullest. Sadly, he left this earth on February 8, 1967, while serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). An Army medic, he used his body as a shield to protect a fellow soldier after he had provided life-saving medical treatment. Being a medic in the Army was just the first step in my brother’s life plan — he eventually saw himself becoming a doctor. While he never was able to complete all he wanted to do, he did use his medical skills to help many people before he died. In my heart, I will always be honored to say that not only did I know Keith Allen Campbell, but I was blessed to be his baby sister.

—Judy C. Campbell lives in Wilmington, Delaware, and is an active participant in VVMF ceremonies and programs. She works tirelessly on behalf of Gold Star Families everywhere.

From the book Dreams Unfulfilled: Stories of the Men and Women on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Jan C. Scruggs. Published by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.