Remembering a fallen Marine: MIA bracelet brings back Charles Finney’s family

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Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com The Tupelo Veterans Museum will display to the public, beginning today, an exhibit of Marine Corps Maj. Charles "Chuck" Finney of Saltillo, a celebrated veteran who died in Vietnam in 1969 at age 24. Viewing, from left, are museum director Tony Lute; retired Marine Bob Verell; Finney's daughter, Keri Sims; Junior Sims; Finney's former wife, Leslie Leland; and son, Greg Finney.

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com
The Tupelo Veterans Museum will display to the public, beginning today, an exhibit of Marine Corps Maj. Charles “Chuck” Finney of Saltillo, a celebrated veteran who died in Vietnam in 1969 at age 24. Viewing, from left, are museum director Tony Lute; retired Marine Bob Verell; Finney’s daughter, Keri Sims; Junior Sims; Finney’s former wife, Leslie Leland; and son, Greg Finney.

Marine Corps Maj. Charles "Chuck" Elbert Finney. (Courtesy)

Marine Corps Maj. Charles “Chuck” Elbert Finney. (Courtesy)

By Robbie Ward

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Strangers remembering her first father led Navy veteran Keri Sims to travel 360 miles to Tupelo from the Florida Panhandle this weekend to see him paid tribute in his home county.

Her younger brother and fellow Navy veteran, Greg Finney, 46, lives a lot closer in Amory but also hadn’t planned until recently to attend the Veterans Park Memorial Day ceremony at 9 a.m. today.

An unusual twist of events has led to an impromptu Tupelo Finney reunion on the day honoring those who died in military service.

A South Dakota stranger acquiring a silver bracelet in an antique store set it in motion.

The stranger – Frank Walker, a 21-year Marine Corps veteran who collects and sells antiques as a hobby – and his wife drove 1,000 miles across a half-dozen states to meet the Finneys. They met briefly at the Tupelo Veterans Museum on Sunday and will see each other again at today’s Memorial Day program.

Walker searched online for the family after acquiring a silver bracelet from a friend. Imprinted on the bracelet: “Capt. Chuck Finney 3-17-69.”

He wanted to meet the family of Marine Corps Maj. Charles “Chuck” Elbert Finney, the pride of Saltillo for many years, a man whose virtues make him almost mythical – courageous, keen intellect, athletic, hard working, possessing a strong moral compass and willing to take a stand.

Charles Finney’s patriotism more than a half-century ago began the chain of events that led to today’s reunion.

Memories

Some Saltillo residents from the 1950s and later knew him as “Brother.” Saltillo High School yearbooks list his name as Charles “Chuck” Campbell, his surname later changed to Finney just when his stepfather legally adopted him.

Sims, 48, thinks of him as “Daddy Chuck,” her first dad. Greg Finney knows of his birth father only through stories, home movies, family photographs and the school annuals.

The daughter’s strongest memories of Daddy Chuck relate to news of his disappearance during the Vietnam War. Just 3 years old at the time, Sims recalls the men in dark suits knocking on the door to inform her mother that her husband was classified as missing in action after he disappeared while flying an A-6 Intruder fighter plane over Laos.

Memories return to the scary moment for the little girl in 1969, seeing her mother in such pain and tears and the man wearing a dark suit standing nearby.

“I just ran up to him and started punching him,” Sims said during a March interview with the Daily Journal at her home in Milten, Florida, 23 miles from Pensacola. “That’s the one thing I remember that’s clear in my mind.”

An aunt took young Keri next door to a neighbor’s house to calm down while her family tried to console her mom, Leslie.

Aside from that traumatic experience, Sims recalls only flashes of her dad in uniform going to work.

Greg Finney was too young to know his biological dad but heard for years how much his dad is reflected in the son’s smile.

“I’ve been blessed with his dimples,” Greg said Friday. “I’ve been told many times I look like him.”

Pride of Saltillo

Charles Finney spent more than three quarters of his life in Saltillo, where he graduated valedictorian in 1962. Between sports, academics and extracurricular clubs and organizations, Finney (then Campbell) received recognition in more than a dozen areas, including Mr. Saltillo High School, senior class president, most intellectual and most likely to succeed.

Finney received many honors in high school, including Mr. Saltillo High School, senior class president, most intellectual and most likely to succeed. (Courtesy)

Finney received many honors in high school, including Mr. Saltillo High School, senior class president, most intellectual and most likely to succeed. (Courtesy)

Bobby Smith, a member of the Lee County Board of Supervisors, graduated from Saltillo High a year behind Finney and played on the basketball team with him.

“I don’t know anybody who didn’t like him,” Smith said. “He was the kind of guy you’d want to have your daughters date, want to be your son or brother.”

Finney would leave home walking about a half mile to school, but a high school friend, now-Lee County Justice Court Judge Pat Carr, would pick him up as he drove.

“I was proud to be a friend of Charles,” said Carr, who also played on the basketball team with the future soldier.

When Finney’s mother, Erma Louis Finney, died in 2009, she lived in the same brick home where he grew up.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Finney enrolled as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point but remained for only three months. His mom said in a 2000 news article that Finney told the family he left because he was failing in classes, but she believed he was homesick. After five days of inactive duty in the U.S. Army Reserve, Finney began active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps in October 1962, serving as a rifleman for almost three and a half years.

While in Washington, D.C., for training, Finney attended a Marine Corps ball on a blind date with Leslie Summers, an 18-year-old West Virginia native.

Summers agreed to the date after cajoling from her sister-in-law but immediately noticed how the Mississippi Marine stood out from others.

“I think he was the center of attention wherever he went,” she said in a March interview with the Daily Journal.

MIA

After Finney and Summers married in April 1965, his wife and later his young children followed as he completed training in Georgia and then reunited in Pensacola, Florida, while he attended flight school. His family stayed in Pensacola while he trained in Quantico, Virginia, before leaving for Vietnam as a bombardier/navigator in August 1968.

On March 17, 1969, seven months and a day after arriving in the east Asia war zone, Finney and the pilot of a Grumman A-6 Intruder entered enemy territory and were never seen alive again.

Crewmen in other aircraft saw a second explosion after their target was destroyed. This explosion was near where Finney’s aircraft was believed to be.

Search and rescue efforts ended a few days later when no signs of survivors were identified.

Finney was 24 when the military classified him as missing in action.

Leslie Finney and her children received the news while visiting her parents in West Virginia, but traveled back to Saltillo, where Charles Finney had purchased a mobile home.

Leslie stayed at Charles’ hometown until August 1969 but decided to move back to Pensacola, surrounded by military families.

“It just wasn’t the same without Chuck,” she said.

Keri and Greg returned to Saltillo each summer afterward to spend time with their granny and granddaddy and experience rural life. The siblings would find ways to entertain themselves and find a healthy dose of mischief.

Keri still laughs about the time a headless chicken started chasing her younger brother. (He threatened to sue if he reads this in print.)

The family had trouble moving on without a body or any other evidence of Charles Finney’s death. His status remained MIA for nine years. In April 1978, the Department of Defense changed Finney’s classification to “killed in action, but not recovered.”

A captain at his time of death, the Department of Defense posthumously promoted Finney to major.

On paper, Charles Finney joined the more than 58,000 dead U.S. soldiers who fought in the war. But even then Keri and Greg still talked about him being alive on another side of the world. Seeing popular movies about the Vietnam War didn’t help.

“When Rambo came out, we thought he might be in a POW camp,” Greg said Friday. “It was always over our head – What if… What if…”

Leslie Finney struggled too, experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder from her husband disappearing without closure. But in time, she met a man who cared about her and her children.

Daddy Don

One evening Leslie’s friends convinced her to leave home to socialize and try to relax. That’s when she met Don Leland, a Marine pilot who’d served 13 months in Vietnam, a total of eight years in the service. Over time, Greg and Keri’s children would eventually call Don their second dad.

Finney played on the Saltillo High basketball team. (Courtesy)

Finney played on the Saltillo High basketball team. (Courtesy)

They had Daddy Chuck and Daddy Don. Together, they lived in California and Florida.

But uncertainty with Charles Finney kept Leslie terrified at night with nightmares. More than a decade passed after Finney disappeared, and Don and Leslie married in 1978, but the PTSD persisted.

“I had nightmares that Chuck returned after Don and I had married,” Leslie said.

In March, Don and Leslie Leland and Keri Sims and her second husband, Junior, spoke with a Daily Journal reporter at the Sims’ home in Florida. The four smiled, looked at each other with warmth as they discussed Daddy Chuck. Keri displays a framed photo of Daddy Chuck in the living room.

Leslie Leland mentioned similarities between her two husbands. Don flew the same aircraft that Charles navigated. They both had loving temperaments.

Even Charles Finney’s parents welcomed Leslie’s husband and the kids’ second dad into the family, especially Erma Louise.

“She was like the mother I never had,” Don said, sitting at the dining room table next to his wife. “She always gave us hugs.”

The family never used words like step-kids and step-dad. They were just family.

“There’s never been a second thought about it,” Don said. “Personally, I couldn’t have picked a better family to adopt.”

In 1983, Greg Finney decided to move to Saltillo to live with his granny after her husband died a year earlier. Greg graduated from the same high school as his biological dad. However, he wasn’t voted most likely to succeed and didn’t receive awards like Daddy Chuck. Others didn’t compare him to Charles, but Greg admits to developing a complex.

“Growing up, I was a chubby kid,” Greg said Friday. “I worked out and tried to be like him physically and it just wasn’t working.”

Greg said he learned to make peace and not try to live up to unrealistic expectations. He currently works in Baldwyn building furniture and takes paralegal classes at Itawamba Community College.

Closure

In 2000, Leslie, Keri and Greg finally found resolution related to Charles Finney’s undiscovered body.

In 1995 and 1999, joint U.S.-Laos teams interviewed local villagers in the area thought to be the location of Finney’s crash. A local worker turned over a military identification belonging to Finney’s fellow crewmember. Among aircraft wreckage and personal items, the investigators also found a tooth later identified through dental records to belong to Finney.

The Department of Defense officials informed the family of the finding and offered a full memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. The family accepted the funeral service, which included Finney’s tooth wrapped in a full-Marine uniform and buried. Other ceremonial parts of the memorial were a riderless horse with boots reversed in stirrups, a flyover with the missing man formation and a 21-gun salute.

Most important, the event brought closure. Soldiers who served in Vietnam with Finney took MIA bracelets with his name on it they wore and attached them to the casket rails.

“It was nice to put a stamp on it,” Sims said. “It’s somewhat settling.”

Fourteen years after the funeral, no formal ceremony recognizing Finney has taken place in his home county. Frank Walker of South Dakota helped change that this year when he found the silver MIA bracelet engraved with Finney’s name.

He wanted to give the bracelet to the soldier’s family to show the Saltillo native’s patriotism isn’t forgotten. After researching and connecting with the family, Walker will have the opportunity at this morning’s Memorial Day ceremony.

“My hope would be that the family understands that people do care about the sacrifice that people like Charles Finney made,” Walker said. “There’s still people who care.”

robbie.ward@journalinc.com

–––––

Charles “Chuck” Finney’s Marine Corps decorations and honors:

• Distinguished Flying Cross

• Purple Heart

• Air Medal with numeral 10

• Navy Unit Commendation

• Meritorious Unit Commendation

• National Defense Service Medal

•Vietnam Service Medal with three

Bronze Service Stars

• Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal

• Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Meritorious Unit Citation of the Gallantry Cross with Palm