A Veteran Remembers

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

VALLEY — A heavy rainstorm spoiled a  Memorial Day program that had been planned for the outdoor setting of Veterans Park. There are four monuments in the park that make for an ideal setting for a Memorial Day program in May and for a Veterans’ Day observance in November. Four granite monuments in Veterans’ Park bear the names of local men who died in World War II, the Korean War, the War in Vietnam and the more recent conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Raining or not, the Memorial Day service went on but in a different location. Laurie Blount and her staff at Valley Community Center did a great job in setting up the Bobby Crowder Room as an alternate site for this year’s program, and it went on as scheduled for 11 a.m. on Monday.

“I don’t know what it is about Memorial Day that brings rain,” joked Lanny Bledsoe prior to the start of the program, “but this has happened several times before on Memorial Day. We want to thank Laurie and her staff for being ready to host this program in case of rain. They were well prepared, and we appreciate it.”

Email newsletter signup

Bledsoe is the commander of American Legion Post 67, which hosts the two programs each year. The post also meets at 11 a.m. EDT on the second Saturday of every month at Sunny’s Home Style Cooking. All local veterans are welcome to attend.

“There are 93 names on the four monuments in Veterans’ Park,” Bledsoe said. “Seventy-two of those names are from men in the local area who died in service to our country during World War II. I was five years old and living in River View when it started. I can well remember what our involvement in that war meant to our community. It just seemed like all the men were gone, and some of them never returned. Since then, more names have been added to three more monuments in the park. These are for the local men who died in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Thankfully, there’s only one name on the Iraq/Afghanistan monument. It’s for Brandon Hadaway, who died on May 30, 2007.”

A graduate of Valley High, Hadaway was the crew chief of a Chinook helicopter that was shot down by Taliban forces.

The indoor program on Monday began with Buffy Jones doing a beautiful job in singing the National Anthem, Post Adjutant Sammy Newton following with the opening prayer and Valley Mayor Leonard Riley welcoming a rather large crowd gathered inside the Crowder Room.

Bledsoe thanked Riley for the job the city does in maintaining Veterans Park. “We did a lot of landscaping work in the park several years ago, and it’s really looking good right now,” Riley said. “We will always support the American Legion, our other organizations for veterans, and we’ll continue to maintain Veterans Park.”

Before introducing keynote speaker Arnold Leak, Bledsoe said he was glad to see that a new building for local veterans will soon be opening on Shawmut Circle. “There will be a support group there who will talk to veterans having personal problems,” Bledsoe said.

More than 12 local men who served in the Vietnam War were present at the program. A total of 58,390 names are inscribed on the black walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. They are the Americans who died or are still missing in action from the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Almost everyone who served knew many with those names, both those they grew up with or served in the field with.

Arnold Leak talked about three of those names. Two were guys he knew from the local area before going off to war, and one was a buddy he served with.

“Today I come to remember three men who gave their lives,” he said. “Two were local sons and the other was my dear friend and fellow helicopter pilot. All died in Vietnam. All had families whose lives were forever changed by the holes left by their loved one’s death. I want to share what I know of Lewis Callaway III, a workmate friend from West Point; Frankie Simpkins, a high school friend from my graduating class and Don Kilpatrick, a fellow helicopter pilot who was from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.”

Leak said that he and Callaway worked together as engineering technicians at the WestPoint Pepperell research center. “Lewis was from West Point, had attended West Point High and was planning on going to college. His father was Lewis Callaway, Jr., and everyone knew his mom as ‘Tootsie.’ Lewis also had a brother and three sisters.”

“During breaks, Lewis and I would talk about our plans,” Leak continued. “We always discussed the draft and how it might interfere with our lives. He was a kind, friendly and gentle man.”

Callaway was drafted, went to Vietnam as a soldier and was killed in action by small arms fire on January 28, 1969. He was a 26-year-old sergeant at the time. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He now lies at rest in the Marseilles Cemetery in West Point.

Simpkins was also 26 when he died in Vietnam in 1968. Like Callaway, he was a sergeant. He is buried in Marseilles Cemetery as well. He received three medals – two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. “Frankie and I were classmates at Valley High and members of the graduating class of 1965,” Leak said. “He was a quiet man and a little older than us. He was friendly and popular with his fellow students. We have honored him as a Vietnam casualty in our class reunions.”

It was especially difficult for Leak to talk about his close friend Don Kilpatrick. They were both combat helicopter pilots in Vietnam. He and another close friend, Warren “Willy” Willis, shared the duty of coaching Don to be qualified enough to take on the duties of flight lead. “The lead helicopter of a flight of nine helicopters was responsible for guiding the flight into and out of hostile landing zones,” Leak said. “It was a position of great responsibility. Don was one of the most popular guys in our company. He was a polished pilot and a good leader. He was married. He and his wife Eve had a 10-month-old son named Michael.”

Don arrived in Vietnam on January 28, 1969, and was killed on September 29th of that year. “He was flying with my best friend Willie as trainee flight lead when a 51-caliber bullet cut through the helicopter killing him instantly. It was a horrible scene. We flew Don to a field hospital, but it was too late. He was gone when we got there. He was only 22 years old. His death cut forever a hole in the hearts of his friends and family. We mourn him still.”

There are some comments about Don at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. “I loved you like an older brother,” writes a cousin. “Michael (his son) is a lot like you. I am very proud of his accomplishments.”

Michael is a highly decorated combat soldier from his service in Afghanistan.

“My dearest Don,” writes another close relative. “Vietnam took you from us. God received you. I was only eight years old at the time, but I have thought about you every day of my life since them. The loss never leaves, but the memories are wonderful! Just wish I had had more conversations with you. Enjoy being with mom and dad in heaven. You were gone way too soon! I’m getting back in touch with that hole in my soul today.”

“Thank you for putting on this program and helping me remember these three people,” Leak said in conclusion. “We should never forget the sacrifices they made and what their friends and families went through in losing them.”

Bledsoe wrapped up the program by asking Vietnam War veterans who were present to come to the front and be recognized. “In our past wars, soldiers were made to feel welcome when they returned home,” he said. “It was that way for me when I returned home after serving in the U.S. Marines. That was in the early 1960s when Vietnam was beginning to heat up.”

Vietnam was becoming an unpopular war by the late 1960s. Some returning soldiers were advised by their officers not to wear their uniforms in public.

Bledsoe commended Arnold Leak for his comments. “He was in my Boy Scout troop when he was coming along,” he said. “I appreciate what he said today. We need to hear more comments like that.”

The program ended with a prayer from Rev. Kevin Anglin, pastor of Fairfax First Baptist Church, and a trumpet duet of Taps from Gary Harris and Tommy Weldon.