Thinking in retrospect the other day about my remarks to family members at Wednesday’s B Company Memorial Dedication, the below photograph came to mind. Showing Marines in a makeshift chapel service in late February 1969 at a northern firebase—C-ration and ammunition boxes serving as pews and pulpit and a CH-53 making a delivery in the background—the photograph is a powerful statement in its own right.
But something more specific caught my eye as I stared at the image in the Navy Times I had been leafing through late one afternoon that February. I was relaxing with the latest issue in my apartment after a day of language school classes at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA.
I realized that the figure nearest the camera, in the first occupied “pew,” was Lt. Lee Roy Herron, a Marine I had met at DLI. Unlike me, Lee Roy had left Basic School for six months of Vietnamese language training at Monterey before going to join the war. I’d had my 13 months in Vietnam and was enjoying the challenge of learning a new language (Chinese Mandarin) and loving the Monterey/Carmel/Big Sur territory of California.
Lee Roy (a graduate of Texas Tech in Lubbock) and his wife Danielle and I had become friends. They were a deeply religious, relatively newly wed couple. He was a determined Marine, anxious to get to Vietnam, but also eager to learn whatever this veteran of the theater might have been able to teach him.
As I marveled at the image, the telephone rang. The voice at the other end identified himself as a Marine captain calling from Texas. He said he was calling to tell me that 1st Lt. Lee Roy Herron had been killed and that Danielle had asked to have me bring him home to Lubbock from Travis Air Force Base (north of San Francisco). Awed by the timing of the call (I still am), I, of course, could only say “Yes.” But I managed to keep my composure long enough to suggest to the captain that he attempt to acquire the image for the family. This he did, and it would be present at Lee Roy’s funeral. It would again be present at a dedication of a memorial at Texas Tech for Lee Roy about 15 years later. (The photo was apparently taken by PFC C. E. Sickler, Jr., USMC, on January 26, 1969. It appeared in the Navy Times on March 5th. It now also is present at an exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps dedicated to chaplains who had served Marines over the years)
Anyone who has seen the 2009 made-for-tv movie Taking Chance will understand my role in “taking” Lee Roy home. Every stage of the flight, plane change between San Francisco and Lubbock, ground transportation to a funeral home and handover of Lee Roy’s body to a funeral director was orchestrated to convey respect and honor.
And, of course, there was the family. Seeing Danielle and Lee Roy’s family was as heart wrenching as can be imagined. And yet, in the end, I think I received more comfort from them than I was able to offer.* I would see them at the dedication of Lee Roy’s Texas Tech memorial because they had thought to invite me (though they only remembered me as the “nice, young Marine who had brought Lee Roy home.”) Happily for me, Lee Roy’s best friend, another Marine officer from Tech, David Nelson, had known how to track me down. And at that ceremony I had the opportunity to tell the story of the image. And more importantly, to again understand, appreciate, and remember the families of those we have “taken” home. All the more so on Memorial Day.***
So, today, with respect to B Company, I offer my greatest admiration for the way in which Bob Lange labored to bring families into the creation of the B Company 50-year Cruise Book—a forthcoming profile of B Company and its members—and to give families opportunity to participate in the dedication of the memorial to their B Company loved ones. Those able to come were genuinely touched.***
* At least two B Company members served as Casualty Reporting Officers in their careers, Dick Hulslander (Birmingham, AL) and Rob Hill (Pittsburgh, PA). Each had to oversee the funerals and interments of more than 60 Marines who lost their lives during the war. They have each addressed more than their fair share of grief and faced the full range of emotion, from grace to anger to bitterness. In addition to me, at least two members of B Company have taken Marines home to their families.
** David Nelson would go on to write about his friendship with Lee Roy (“In my experience, never has a photograph captured the spirituality of men at war as well as this one. That Lee should last be photographed in that way speaks more about him than I could possibly offer.” In 2015, he wrote about the photo for the Saturday Evening Post. In it, he quoted me as saying, ““In my experience, never has a photograph captured the spirituality of men at war as well as this one. That Lee should last be photographed in that way speaks more about him than I could possibly offer.” I believe it still.
*** Family members of all of B Company’s deceased that Bob was able to reach will receive gift copies of the Cruise Book when it is printed in June.