Sunday afternoon, November 7, 1965. A long irregular line of UH-1 “Huey” choppers flew northwest out of Bien Hoa Airbase, the “flackety-flack” of their rotary blades beating out a disconcerting tune. Aboard one of the choppers was Pfc. Gary Lewis Elmore, age 23 from Tanner, Alabama. About now, he guessed, folks at Round Island Baptist Church where he occasionally attended would be home from worship service and settling down to a Sunday dinner of cornbread, black-eyed peas, creamed potatoes and fried chicken. He looked past the machine gunner in the open door of the Huey as it skimmed above the dense, green jungle and for an instant thought about how beautiful and peaceful the scene appeared. But he knew better. Death lurked below. The queasy feeling in his stomach wasn’t caused by the jarring 17 mile flight from Bien Hoa, or the greasy C-rations he had recently eaten. It was fear.
Anytime the 173rd Airborne Brigade was on an operation, there was sure to be danger. The all volunteer paratroopers were destined to win a Presidential Unit Citation for bravery in action, and twelve of its troopers would receive the Medal of Honor. More than 10,000 would be dead and wounded before the brigade departed Vietnam in 1971. This was their first major mission since landing in Vietnam 6 months earlier. The chopper dropped down quickly over a field of elephant grass, the rotary blades splaying the tall grass fan-like as it hovered several feet above the ground. Elmore and his squad scrambled out the door and hit the ground running as the chopper lifted and disappeared in the murky sky.
Elmore’s Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry moved quickly through the tall, razor sharp elephant grass toward a green tree line. Beyond were several triple canopy jungle hills. So far, they hadn’t seen “Charlie,” the diminutive, black pajama-clad Viet Cong that often appeared out of nowhere firing automatic AK47’s. “Operation Hump” had jumped off two days earlier. The mission was to drive out Viet Cong fighters who had taken key positions in several hills near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was called the “Iron Triangle,” sparsely populated and honeycombed with tunnels, underground bunkers, and spider holes where Charlie could pop up and shoot a man in the back, then quickly disappear in the ground. As usual it rained.
As nightfall approached, Bravo and Charlie Companies settled in a defensive circle and placed Claymore mines around their perimeter near Hill 65. Elmore shucked his heavy ruck sack and began digging a foxhole, putting the dirt in sandbags which he laid on top of bamboo. It was good protection against possible incoming mortar rounds.
The jungle smelled rotten like potting soil, and was wet and eerie. Water dripped from foliage. A multitude of birds, frogs, lizards and screeching insects sang their strange symphony. Mosquitoes swarmed around Elmore’s ears. He had a bottle of repellant, but if used too often it would blister his skin. So he just swatted and swore at them. Monkeys, huge rats, leeches, pythons, bamboo vipers and fist size tarantulas lived in the jungle. And so did Charlie.
“Don’t them bugs ever shut up?” a soldier complained.
“When they do, it’s time to worry,” someone replied.
Elmore ripped open his C-rations: four bone dry cigarettes, pound cake, fruit cocktail, ham and lima beans, chopped ham and eggs. His queasy stomach retched at the thought of eating greasy ham and eggs. After a few spoonfuls of fruit cocktail, he decided he wasn’t hungry. The men were unusually quiet, only a smattering of nervous chatter. Elmore spread his rubber poncho on the damp ground, sprayed insect repellant around the edge, then straightened the pins on his hand grenades and placed them within arm’s reach. After placing his M-16 rifle, fully loaded with a 20 round magazine nearby, he lay down using his rucksack for a pillow, and pulled his poncho liner over his head. It was suffocating, but it kept the mosquitoes out and it didn’t interfere with sleep. No one slept anyway. And he wondered what tomorrow would bring. Then he thought about home. Home, what a beautiful word.
He had recently named his father, Lawrence Elmore, Detroit, beneficiary of his life insurance policy. Money that he sent home went directly into the Detroit Bank and Trust. He would purchase a nice car when he got home. He thought about his Uncle Clarence Elmore, back in Athens, who had lent him money from time to time and bolstered his sagging spirits with letters.
Clarence Elmore had served in both World War II and Korea and understood a soldier’s lonely life. In September, Elmore had written Uncle Clarence:
“I have also started reading my Bible,” he scribbled on yellow legal paper. “And I can’t think of a better time to start. I’ve almost completed Matthew and most of Mark. I read as much as I can every day according to what time I have.”
Elmore didn’t have to be in this stinking jungle. It had been his choice. After breaking his ankle on his final parachute jump at Ft. Benning, he was given the option of going to Vietnam or staying behind. He chose to go. Just ten more months and he would be back home. He couldn’t wait.
Gary Lewis Elmore was born in Detroit, Michigan on September 26, 1942, to Lawrence and Mildred Lancaster Elmore. Like many Limestone Countians, his parents had gone north seeking employment. After his mother became deathly ill, he and his younger sister, Diane were sent to live with their maternal grandparents, Coffman and Elvie Hargrave, near Jones Crossroads in Limestone County, Alabama. Gary attended Wheeler Elementary School and later Tanner High School, where he was manager of the Tanner Rattlers football team.
“Tink” Haney, quarterback of the team and a wounded combat veteran of Vietnam, remembers Gary with fondness. “We call ‘em “Winky Dink,” a name given him by my cousin, Horace (Haney). He was smaller than most of us, but he was real tough,” says Tink. “The players picked on him – some people might call it bullying nowadays – but Gary was tough and could take it. It didn’t bother him. He enjoyed it. He was fun to be around. He didn’t have a ride to football practice; he’d be walking and we’d pick him up.”
Elmore, hazel-eyed, brown headed and standing at 5 feet 5 inches, was a firecracker in a small package. “He was small,” says his sister, Diane Mefford of Athens. “Gary and I were coming home from work and ran out of gas. He took a can and started walking toward the gas station. Well, a tow truck came by and pulled me to the gas station. I was sitting in the back seat with the window rolled down when we passed Gary walking, I yelled loud as I could, “Hey winky Dink!’ He stopped, his nostrils wide and open and I could read his lips.”
“Gary was happy-go-lucky and full of mischief,” remembers classmate Gary Carter. “He’d get a paddling and laugh it off. We had this math teacher, S.A. Thomas, an ex highway patrolman from Illinois. He wouldn’t allow chewing gum. Gary tested him a number of times. He’d cut his eyes at Gary and holler, ‘Elmore, out!” He ran Gary out of classroom many times.
“One day Gary walked into Mr. Thomas’s math class chewing gum.
“OUT THE WINDOW AND OUT THE DOOR!” shouted the teacher, meaning, throw your gum out the window and go stand in the hallway.
“Gary throwed his gum out in the hall and jumped out the window,” says Carter, chuckling.
Horace Haney, who played football at Tanner, smiles when he remembers Gary. “He was little bitty, a good agitator and liked to be around football players.”
On another occasion, the students were supposed to be attending a pep rally on the football field. “Gary and Brenda Marsh sneaked back inside the classroom and found teacher Barney Pressnell’s jacket hanging on the back of his chair,” says sister Diane, smiling. “Gary put an arm in one sleeve and Brenda put an arm in the other sleeve. They were just huddled together walking down the hallway, and Mr. Pressnell caught ‘em with his coat on.”
When Gary turned age 16, he quit Tanner High School in the 10th grade, and went to work at Charlie Jones’ Cotton Gin at Jones Crossroads. He was a strong-headed boy and full of mischief. His grandmother Hargrave was exasperated with him. She called his father in Detroit. “Come down here and get ‘em,” she said. “He won’t listen to me anymore.” Gary moved to Detroit, and worked for Service Sales Gasket Company. When he turned 18, he came back to Athens and registered for the draft.
He was drafted in March, 1965 and quickly enlisted in the Army. It was the month that the first American combat troops landed in Vietnam.
On July 4, 1964, Gary went to Michigan to visit with his dad and sisters. “He had his uniform laying on the bed and I touched it,” remembers Diane. “He got really upset about it. I thought, well that is really nice. He was proud of that uniform.”
Following eight weeks of basic training at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, Gary volunteered for Airborne, and was placed in a holding company for a couple of months. It was there that he met Shelby Huey, an Arkansas farm boy from tiny Newport, near Jonesboro. “There were three of us and we were really tight,” remembers Huey, a plain spoken paratrooper of the 173rd Brigade, who saw combat in Vietnam, and now lives in Huntsville, Alabama. “We had a lot in common,” said Huey. “We were poor white boys, in the Army and away from home.
“Gary was cotton-top headed and mean’er a snake and don’t think he wouldn’t fight,” added Huey. “He was a good guy and we called ‘em “Dennis the Menace.” I thought his real name was Dennis.”
Huey had also joined the paratroopers and was shipped out of Ft. Benning, Georgia for three weeks of jump school where he ran into Elmore again. We were in the same training platoon but didn’t get to see each other much,” says Huey. “I heard that Gary broke his leg on his last jump and that is the last contact I ever had with him.”
Gary went to visit his family in Athens just before shipping off to Vietnam. His sister, Diane, married and working in Michigan, drove down to visit with him. He asked Diane to borrow her car. “He was little rough on cars,” says Diane, “and I had to have it to get back to Michigan to get back to work. I wouldn’t let him have it.”
“You are not my sister anymore!” exclaimed Gary and stomped off. “He would always do that to me to get what he wanted,” she says. Diane returned to Michigan and quickly realized the seriousness of Gary’s forthcoming tour in Vietnam. Her sister and friends in Michigan organized a going-away party for Gary.
Gary called Diane. “Are you coming to my party?”
“Who is this?”
“It’s your brother,” replied Gary.
“I don’t have a brother and don’t know who you are,” she said and hung up the phone.
To be Continued.
By: Jerry Barksdale