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A Memorial Day look back on Vietnam

A Memorial Day look back on Vietnam

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For mid-valley communities, Memorial Day isn’t just a once-a-year kind of recognition. Between memorial highways, parks, plaques and statues, this area is known for honoring its veterans — those who served and, particularly, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

For the Lebanon High School class of 1968, it’s an ongoing tradition to tend to the graves of their classmates who were killed in Vietnam. While it started with just the graves of two Lebanon High School graduates — Doug Ulm and Bob Schumacher — and their parents, the tradition has grown to include every grave marker at the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery in Lebanon that has a tie to the graduating class. From teachers to parents and other family members, more than 100 grave sites are tended by the class and their spouses or friends today.

Every year around Memorial Day, the group plants a fresh banner on the graves of Ulm and Schumacher which reads: “Classmate who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country … True hero … Always Remembered … Class of ’68.”

Jan Surry, whose husband was a classmate of Ulm and Schumacher, says they had been out at the cemetery tending the graves of his parents for years when they learned of this effort to plant the banners and maintain the markers.

“We saw it posted online and figured that was such a great thing,” Surry said.

Accounts like this show how the tradition has grown, to the point where 14 classmates and their families are now a part of the ongoing maintenance of the cemetery.

Class president Mike Lynch says as the word spread, “it just grew more and more every year.” He himself learned history that he’d never known about classmates just by walking the grave sites in order to come up with a map for the grave-tending.

“I’ve walked these graves a lot just to come up with a grave plot map,” Lynch said. “I found out one of our classmates’ fathers was a POW (Prisoner of War) in World War II.”

Local Vietnam heroes

This, of course, is just one aspect of the many ways that local residents honor the fallen soldiers from this area. The Linn County Veterans Memorial Association, which oversees the memorial at Timber Linn Park in Albany, held its annual brick-laying Saturday in which individual stones are fitted and secured to the walls that encircle the old howitzer artillery gun that sits there. Family and friends of veterans who served honorably can pay to have a brick made up and mortared onto the walls for their loved ones.

The brick-laying is a twice-a-year tradition, once before Memorial Day and once before Veterans Day. On Saturday, 31 additional bricks were laid to honor local servicemen and women.

Randy Martinak, the president of the association, does research into the names represented out there. Every year, he tries to focus on particular conflicts. He’s already completed research assignments for both World Wars, Korea, and the Persian Gulf, but this year he’s focused on Vietnam.

“It has become a once-a-year quest for me, and it has led to meeting some very wonderful people,” Martinak said. “People, some of whom were those closest to the person who died, many who are one or two generations beyond the time of the loss.”

As a Vietnam vet himself, Martinak has a direct tie to the same wartime factors that claimed the lives of 41 men from Linn County and 21 from Benton County. Martinak was stationed in Vietnam three times during the war, the first as part of a naval support regiment in Danang Province from 1966-67, the second time as a parts excavator from 1967-68 and the final time in 1969 as part of a Navy construction regiment that was stationed in Japan but did work in Vietnam.

A lot of the records for those who served in Vietnam can be found at the website called The Virtual Wall, an extension of the memorial in Washington D.C. that honors those who died in the conflict.

Records difficulties

Martinak’s research shows how difficult it can be to find clear records of where each casualty was from, what incident led to their deaths, and where they ended up buried. Digging through old war records can even lead to disheartening realizations about how soldiers are considered by the systems that determine their fate.

Those who died as part of operations that involved a lot of machinery, particularly aircraft, often have a lot clearer record of their service than those who died as part of a ground firefight or ambush.

“They (the armed forces) cared more about the aircraft, really, than the people,” Martinak said. “You always ended up with more written documentation for someone in an airplane or who rode on a helicopter … because they were accountable for all their aircraft.”

Sgt. Kenneth Charles Hurse of Sweet Home was riding on a helicopter during a reconnaissance mission when it was hit by small arms fire that caused the craft to crash in Quang Tin Province in June of 1967. That’s a lot more detail in his “incident report” than most get, thanks to his being part of an air mission.

There are exceptions, of course, typically when fellow servicemen take it upon themselves to make a written account of the operations that resulted in their comrades’ deaths.

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For instance, Earl Frederick Smith, a 22-year-old lieutenant who died during Operation Tuscaloosa, has an extensive record of the moments leading up to his death on his Virtual Wall page online. That’s because a fellow member of the 2nd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment, John Culbertson, wrote a book about the battle in 2006 titled, War Story: Operation Tuscaloosa.

In it, Culbertson describes how the operation was an attempt in January of 1967 to catch the elusive Viet Cong off-guard in the fertile river valleys between the Song Thu Bon and Song Vu Gia rivers.

“The wet season was in full swing and dense fog and swollen (rice) paddies bogged down the Marines,” Culbertson wrote. “The weather definitely favored the Viet Cong.”

After nine hours of battling through a slog of rice paddies, sandbars and clearing the village of La Bac, the Marines won the day and captured hostile territory and equipment. It wasn’t without cost, though: 55 American lives were lost in a pitched firefight, along with several others in forward recon parties and flanking companies.

One of those was Smith, who lived in Albany before enlisting. According to Culbertson’s retelling, Smith commanded the Third Platoon and was shot down trying to rally his pinned-down Marines over the sandbar for a crucial river crossing into the village.

Martinak says he knew Smith in high school, when he was a year younger than him at Albany Union High School, now West Albany High.

“Earl … was an all-around athlete — football and basketball,” Martinak said. “I have heard from people who trained with him in ROTC and the Marine Corps, and he is described as an able and dedicated soldier.”

Not every casualty was killed in combat. There’s the case of John Lee Holmes, an Albany resident who joined the Marine Corps and died of malaria six months after his deployment. There’s also the case of George Ernest Gilliland of Scio, who died of a heart attack at age 36 after four-and-a-half months in Vietnam.

The discrepancies

Not all of the names reported on Linn County’s Vietnam Memorial Wall appear to have direct ties to the area. In the case of Gordon Lee Patterson, whose family is from Odessa, Texas, where he’s buried, he is listed as a Linn County casualty because his wife and children lived in Lyons when they were notified of his death.

There’s also Robert Allen Brothen, who doesn’t appear to have any home of record or burial connection to Linn or Benton counties. He’s listed as being from Minot, North Dakota. Edward Dean Silver, of Junction City, has the honor of being listed in both counties memorials, in Linn County at Timber Linn Park and in Benton County at the Benton County Veterans Memorial at the National Guard Armory in Corvallis.

Others may have had homes of record in other states but ended up buried somewhere in Linn County — or vice versa.

In fact, digging into the old records of fallen soldiers gives one an idea of just how difficult it can be to properly identify every casualty and note where they were buried. No records could be tracked down for three of the names of Linn County’s wall.

There’s one local serviceman whose remains were never recovered. Lt. Larry Dale Knight of Albany was the co-pilot of an F-4 Phantom aircraft that was on a night recon mission with a crew that never returned. Even an intensive air search couldn’t locate the crash site, but he was listed as “Killed In Action” in 1974 after a Vietnamese field worker found his burned dog tag.

For several other soldiers, it took decades before they could be properly identified and the circumstances of their deaths became clearer.

That’s because in the late 1990s there was a push by the national POW/MIA group to get permission from the U.S. and Vietnamese governments to go into sites where crashes and remains were believed to be located. It took years to sift through the wreckage and properly identify the remains, dog tags and equipment that were found.

Some were identified using DNA sequencing at labs in Maryland or Hawaii, others were identified using dental records or evidence gathered through personal mementos that were all that remained.

The larger picture

In general, the numbers tied to the Linn County casualties shows a small slice of the overall realities of Vietnam’s toll. For instance, the average age of the casualties was 21 years, showing how much this war extracted from America’s young generation. Sgt. Ronald Wayne Burkhart of Albany went to Vietnam at just 18 years old and died 22 days after his 19th birthday.

Most of these men served in Vietnam for less than one year and many of them died during the bloody years of 1967, 1968 and 1969, when a combined 39,625 Americans died. This casualty rate is reflected in just how little time some of these young men were stationed in South Vietnam before the war took their lives.

Private First Class Gerald Allen Hiukka from Albany was just 20 years old and served 41 days before he was killed by small arms fire in Quong Tri Province in South Vietnam. PFC Lloyd Alvan Duncan was in-country just 21 days before his death in 1967. Corporal Lonnie Dean Moore of Lebanon was also there three weeks before he died at the age of 19 in the year 1969.

All of this data shows just why Memorial Day resonates with so many people, in the mid-valley and elsewhere. There’s a kinship among those who served, and Martinak describes the proprietary way that people feel toward the conflict they were a part of.

“Talk to a veteran of any war and there is a bit of ownership,” he wrote in his research summary for Vietnam servicemen. “WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq is THEIR war.”

He also noted that, in researching the stories of so many local veterans, he is always struck by just how little people tend to know about their loved ones who served. That, Martinak said, is the real purpose of his once-per-year quest to research local veterans, and it’s the larger meaning behind Memorial Day.

“Perhaps it’s because I served … that I see that there truly is no difference in wars,” he said. “You can hold a war in a jungle, a metropolis, a desert, on land or sea or in the air, and war is pretty much the same. It is a nasty business. Someone is going to get hurt and someone is going to die.”

Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and the Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn. 


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