NOTHSTINE: In Memoriam: North Carolinians on the Wall

Staff Sgt. Donald D. Stewart of Harnett County never had the opportunity to hold his daughter. His remains returned home from Vietnam in late 2015, 50 years after his death. He was the first Vietnam combat casualty from Harnett County. “I always felt like there was a part of me missing and now I kind of feel like its come full circle,” Dona Stewart told WNCN in 2015. “He never got to hold me, I got to hold him,” Stewart declared. The relentless effort to find and identify his remains eventually took Stewart’s widow and daughter to Vietnam.Most people pay little attention to the fact that soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are still trickling home from Vietnam. The commitment to bring their remains home has been a daunting and costly task, but an essential one for our country and their families. Their remains go to Hawaii first for identification, where DNA technology and reorganization efforts have improved what has been a painfully slow process for too many.There are just over 1,600 killed or missing in action from the Vietnam conflict who hail from North Carolina. Thirty-nine names are still unaccounted for from that war.Perhaps one of the more heartbreaking stories occurred at the very end of the conflict, when Denning C. Johnson was killed in a C-5 Galaxy crash in 1975. Johnson was part of the medical team that flew evacuation flights for the Air Force. In one of the cruelest tragedies before the fall of Saigon, and still the deadliest military crash in American history, 155 perished, including 78 Vietnamese orphans headed to the United States for adoption. The crash, which included 173 survivors, was part of Operation Babylift. Johnson, who has two daughters, is on panel 01W, line 121 on the Veitnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. and is buried in Greenwood Cemetary in Dunn.The story of Pfc. Dan Bullock is one of the more surreal accounts of North Carolinians on the Wall. Bullock, who was born in Goldsboro, lied about his age and possibly had help fabricating his birth certificate when he enlisted in the Marines at 14. Before being killed in action in Vietnam, he never let the secret of his actual age get out. He was the youngest American killed in the Vietnam conflict, dead at 15 in June 1969.Bullock’s dream was to serve in the Marines. Even though he was mature for his age, many who served with Bullock said he kept to himself and some didn’t feel like he was supposed to be in Vietnam. A reporter broke the sensational story after his death.Franklin D. MacArthur, who befriended Bullock in Marine Corps boot camp in 1968, spent decades after the war trying to find Bullock’s parents and his burial site. MacArthur found out that Bullock had been buried without a headstone for 31 years. MacArthur helped organize a military and police escort of the headstone from Brooklyn, New York to Goldsboro. After his mother died, Bullock moved to Brooklyn at the age of 12 to live with his father and his wife. Sen. Charles Schumer was instrumental in helping to rename the street he lived on in Brooklyn after the young Marine. You can visit Bullock’s resting place and headstone at Elmwood Cemetery in Goldsboro.Eugene Ashley High School in Wilmington carries the name of one of the most heroic men to serve from North Carolina in Vietnam. Ashley, born in Wilmington, is a recipient of the highest military award — the Medal of Honor (posthumously) after leading five intense assaults against superior forces. Ashley gave his life freeing trapped Americans at Camp Lange Vei. Ashley is on panel 37E, line 77. He is buried in Rockfish Memorial Park in Fayetteville.The war in Vietnam, like all wars, still haunt. But Vietnam, especially. Many of the victims are still living among us. Children grew up without fathers. Parents without a son, or wives without a husband. Their stories and sacrifices are worth learning, especially this and every Memorial Day.
Ray Nothstine is a member of the North State Journal’s editorial board, separate from the news staff. Unlike other newspapers, the North State Journal does not publish unsigned editorials; the author or authors of every editorial, letter, op-ed, and column is prominently displayed. To submit a letter or op-ed, see our submission guidelines.