He’s been renovating his house in Pontotoc to add another room. A few days ago, he was in the attic and found a box containing a special photograph.
All of the sudden, “these days” didn’t matter nearly as much as what took place more than four decades ago in Vietnam.
“I volunteered,” 66-year-old Black said. “I was at Ole Miss and decided I wasn’t doing much with my life at the time. I thought, I’ll join the Marine Corps.”
Black had taken the photograph in 1967 near Phu Bai. He doesn’t remember all of his buddies’ full names, but he clearly recalls what they lived through together.
“I was up Sunday morning drinking coffee on our back porch. The picture was on the table behind me. It was still dark,” Black said. “I was just standing there staring at the woods behind our house. I don’t know why, but I began to cry out loud and uncontrollably. I don’t know when I’ve done something like that. My wife was holding me and frantically asking, ‘What’s wrong? What is this picture and who are these people?’”
If you have the time on the day after Veterans Day, Black would like to answer those questions for you, too.
“They were just a bunch of 19- and 20-year-old kids who fought and some died in the mud paddies, the elephant grass and jungles of South Vietnam,” he said.
Their radio call sign was Foxtrot Pappa 1 Alpha, and they were 1st Squad, 1st Platoon, F. Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines. Black said the word “grunt” applied. They were infantrymen, who took the fight directly to the enemy.
“They were real people from all walks of life across the U.S. They had names like Allday, Curley and Rau,” he said. “They were heroes. Not movie heroes, but the real thing.”
Morgan from Indiana was killed in action; Hangus from Utah was shot in the face but survived; Johnson from Tennessee earned the Bronze Star with a “Combat V” for heroism. The list of buddies includes Pachaco, Smith, Willie and “Doc.”
“The names go on,” Black said. “Those that were no longer there and those who came to take their place.”
Sgt. Ronald T. Curley was awarded the Navy Cross for repeatedly exposing himself to gunfire to lead his platoon during a three-hour battle. He single-handedly assaulted two enemy bunkers, silencing the automatic weapons inside. After the battle, he made three trips under sniper fire to carry wounded to a helicopter landing zone.
“(Curley) received a battlefield promotion and was sent back to Quantico, Virginia,” Black said. “He served two more tours in Vietnam as an officer. Today, he has a wonderful family and lives in southern California.”
Sgt. Jim Allday received the Navy Commendation Medal. He’s a retired consultant living in the mountains of California, where he’s a family man and “an old tree-hugger,” Black said.
Not all homecomings went smoothly for the men of Foxtrot Pappa 1 Alpha.
“I found out that Arnie Rau had become squad leader and that one night there was a ‘botched ambush’ and five or six of our Marines had been killed,” Black said. “Arnie felt responsible, something he never got over. Arnie Bruce Rau died homeless and an addict right here in the United States of America.”
Black said he “often wondered how many hundreds of so-called ‘normal people’ had walked by or stepped over Arnie Rau, while he lay passed out on a sidewalk, never knowing who he was, what he had done and the great sacrifices he had made for this country.”
Rau was awarded the Silver Star for Gallantry in Action for his service. Black wondered how many other veterans from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan had followed Rau’s path after combat.
“We all need to realize that there are heroes all around us. We just don’t know,” Black said. “They may be your neighbor or the young lady at the checkout at Walmart. They could be the police officer that gave you a ticket last week, or the guy that picks up your garbage, or the 20-year-old kid that works on the assembly line at the furniture market.”
A photograph found in an attic inspired Black’s thoughts about yesterday and today. That same photograph provides a partial explanation of why it can be hard for people to notice the heroes around them.
Curley and Allday are in that shot and received email copies the other day. Black said they saw the young kids they used to be. They didn’t see heroes.
“Never crossed their minds,” he said.