Paying tribute to their own: Residents honor area Vietnam veterans

Published 4:59 am Tuesday, June 25, 2024

More than 60 years after the Vietnam War, local residents paid tribute Saturday to the most highly-decorated Jennings High School and Jeff Davis Parish High School graduates who served during the war.

“The small town of Jennings sent more than its share of military personnel to the combat zone,” Vietnam veteran John Semmes said. “….We should be proud of all our 108 Vietnam veterans from Jennings. They were part of what one military historian called ‘one of the best armies the United States has ever fielded.”

Semmes is among several Jennings High School alumni, called Brothers Beyond the Perimeter, who have spent the past four years researching and conducting interviews about local Vietnam veterans who received multiple awards for valor for their heroic actions during the war.

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The honorees included Capt. Anthony “Tony” Reed, Sgt. Richard Ingalls, Lt. Col. Guy E. New, Col. Richard Wayne Milner, Sgt. Robert “Bob” Miller, Lt. Col. Julo Theunissen, Lt. Col. Fritz Huber and Col. Charles “Chuck” Dumas. Special recognition was also given to Issac Harrington and Danny Dean Hanks who were killed in action and nurse Leslie Daigle Plasterer who was the only female from Jennings High School to serve during the war.

Ten of the 11 veterans, who received multiple awards for valor and battlefield decorations, stories have been shared in books. Their awards include multiple Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross medals and more.

Among the heroic actions, Ingalls won a Silver Star by single-handedly taking out a machine gun nest and was severely injured after stepping on a landmine, but saved his troops.

New received the Distinguished Flying Cross after landing his helicopter at night to unload combat troops while under intense enemy fire. He turned his own guns on the attackers so that the troops could get away safely.

Miller, who received a Purple Heart, flew through enemy aircraft fire to deliver ammo and supplies to friendly forces that were cutoff and under siege by the North Vietnamese. He was part of the Battle of the La Drang which was depicted in “We Are Soldiers” starring Mel Gibson.

Hanks died in a helicopter crash while on a volunteer mission to provide nighttime security for two Cobra gunships that collided at a refueling point.

“To me they are only stories, but I think they are stories that need to be told,” Dave Precht, who has written or co-authored a series of books on the local Vietnam veterans, said. “…They are true stories of courage, discipline and selflessness that ought to inspire young people today.”

Precht said he knew very little about the war despite his friendship with many veterans after the war.

“Most of what I did know came from the news media and what I read and watched were mostly about the negative aspects of My Lai, the Pentagon papers and the protests,” Precht siad.

He began to grasp a better understanding after interviewing local veterans and their families.

Milner, who flew dangerous transport missions during the war, said he was at a loss for words to describe what the ceremony meant to him.

“It represents a lot for Jennings veterans,” he said. “For a small town, we put a lot of folks through Vietnam but we did our duty and we came home.”

Shirley Miller, widow of Bob Miller, said her husband’s book gave her insight into her husband’s bravery and dedication.

“Bob never shared and it gave me an insight into my husband that I had never had before,” she said. “It opened up a whole new understanding. When I was reading the stories I was reading things that he never talked to us about.”

Miller, whose legs were badly wounded after an enemy grenade exploded near him, never really started talking about the war until the movie “We Are Soldiers” came out, she said.

Julie Ingalls, widow of Richard Ingalls, said even though he had received two Purple Heart medals, she was unaware of everything that her husband had done and went through during his time in Vietnam

“This reminds me of how much I didn’t know about my husband and how brave he was,” Ingalls said. “He never talked about it. I had his medals, but I had never heard the stories of how he received the medals.”

Vietnam veteran Ken Roy said the books and ceremony were a way for many of the veterans’ families to find out what their loved ones went through and what they did to serve their country.

Clifford Gillespie, who spent three years in Vietnam and served aboard the U.S. Maddox, said the ceremony was long overdue for veterans who may not have receive gratitude or respect when they returned home,

“I think it is about time we start recognizing these guys,” Gillespie said. “I know how it was when we came home, everybody thought we were the ones causing the problems but we were there to serve and do our jobs.”

Keynote speaker retired Rear Admiral Daniel Lestage, who recounted his own experience as a flight surgeon on an aircraft carrier, said Vietnam is the most understood war because little was known about it. Many of those who served did not talk much about it when they returned home, he said.

“Many of what we know about Vietnam is because we’ve heard about it, but we don’t know much about Vietnam,” Lestage said.

He said American support for the war had waned by early 1973 after more than three million service men and women had been deployed to Southeast Asia with 2.7 million serving in Vietnam. More than 58,000 of those who gave their lives, including those from Jennings, have their names inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

“They are all patriots as we have learned about their gallant actions in Vietnam,” Vietnam veteran David Marcantel said.

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