Thursday, January 12, 2012

Remembering Those Who Serve

Tragic things happen, but over time we realize life somehow does goes on. A new normal is created. Most people can go on with their daily routines, but some events have such an impact and leave such an imprint they become pivotal moments whether we are directly involved or not.

Days later I'm still lingering over the procession for Lance Corporal Scott Harper. I'm still feeling the effects of the awesome turnout by folks all along the procession route from Brown Field in Fulton County through Austell, Lithia Springs, along Veterans Memorial Highway and all along Church Street in downtown Douglasville.

Many moments during the procession have become embedded in my mind including:

-Observing a fellow school teacher as she lined her students up along the sidewalk to pay their respects.

-Seeing young teenage boys walking along Church Street carrying small U.S. flags.

-Noticing an obvious veteran standing near me wearing his cap laden with medals and pins. The Marine emblem was emblazoned across the back of his jacket. At some point a young man approached him, shook his hand and said a few words to him. I can only assume he was thanking the veteran for his service. He shook the older man's hand and then handed him a flag.

-I was touched by the young children - many of whom would later have no recollection they attended such a historic occasion and make no mistake this was a historic occasion for our city.

Yes, the procession for Scott Harper was sad. It was most certainly tragic, but it was also historic. I firmly believe anytime our community comes together we witness a historic occasion. It was most certainly an outpouring of collective mourning and praise that our society still produces young men like Lance Corporal Scott Harper.

If you haven't seen the excellent video showing the entire route prepared by DCTV23 you can view it at this link.

As long as there have been wars, the folks on the home front have recognized the fallen soldier and his or her sacrifice with parades, with salutes, and with the written word. While especially poignant the procession for Harper wasn't the first such recognition the City of Douglasville has experienced.

We have recognized other fallen soldiers.

One in particular stands out.

Tragically, Robert G. "Jerry" Hunter was Douglasville's first son to be lost during the Vietnam War. Hunter Park is named for him. He was the only son of Robert and Zelma Hunter and was a graduate of Douglas County High School where he received many honors for his artistic and leadership abilities. He was voted Most Talented, was editor of the yearbook and starred in the senior play.

For years his goal had been to attend The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. In a 1988 article from Looking Good Douglas County Vicki Harshbarger advises, "[Hunter's] dream of wanting to be a pilot began with an essay written on how Lindburgh's flight across the Atlantic would affect the future of aviation."

After graduating from The Citadel with honors Hunter went to Moody Air Force base in Valdosta, Georgia to undergo pilot training and was soon flying bombing missions over Laos to disrupt the enemy's supply lines. Harshbarger states, "His parents had suggested their son choose a line of work in keeping with his Citadel degree in business administration, but he would not settle for less than his dreams."

Harshbarger's article continues, "He didn't want us to worry," Hunter [said] lovingly of her son. "I'd ask him on the telephone if he'd been shot at, wanting him to say no. He'd say, 'Yes, but they missed. Don't worry about it, Mom, sometimes it's fun.'"

Hunter flew the F-105D, a supersonic fighter-bomber used by the U.S. Air Force during the early years of the Vietnam War. The aircraft on display at Hunter Park is a F-105 or a Thunderchief and is representative of the plane Hunter flew over Laos.

The plane was capable of exceeding the speed of sound at sea level and Mach 2 at high altitudes even though it weighed 50,000 pounds. The earliest versions of the F-105 had only one seat. Hunter completed his missions alone.

Laos allowed North Vietnam to use its land as a supply route for its war against the South. In return, the United States regularly bombed those routes. U.S. bombers dropped more ordinance on Laos between 1964 and 1973 than was dropped during the whole of World War II.

Hunter was 25 years old when he boarded his jet on May 25, 1966 for his 34th and last mission. He had been overseas for just two months, and had been busy during that time bombing supply lines throughout Laos. His last mission involved attacking what one source describes as a truck park in a heavily wooded area near Ban Ban in Laos.

Hunter released his bomb, and as he was turning up and away from the target he was hit by enemy fire. He bailed from the jet. Other pilots in his group saw his parachute open and watched him until he disappeared below the tree line. They could hear the beeps from his locator signal. A rescue was attempted, but enemy fire was coming from the area where Hunter's beeper signal was coming from. When a second plane was hit the team was forced to return to base.

It took two agonizing months before Hunter's fate was fully known.

Once the area became safe enough a team was sent in to investigate. People who lived in the area advised the recovery team Hunter had indeed died. They showed the team where he had been buried.

Funeral services for Robert G. "Jerry" Hunter were held on July 22, 1966 at the First Baptist Church of Douglasville. The church was overflowing. One long time resident of Douglasville tells me the mood of the town during this time was reverent, respectful, and somber.

During the days leading up to the funeral members of the Jaycees visited more than one hundred Douglasville businesses and left U.S. flags to be displayed.  On the day of the funeral many of the town's businesses closed out of respect.

A four man fly over took place during the burial at Rosehaven Memorial Park. Harshbarger advises, "Four planes flew across the horizon in unison, three planes returned."

Hunter was the very first Vietnam casualty Douglasville endured during the long war. Also killed in Vietnam were Sp4 Gene Thomas Bailey, GMG1 Hubert Eugene Belcher, 1st Lt. Leon G. Holton, PFC Brian Edward Jay, PFC Melvin Johnson, Sgt. Thurlo McClure, PFC Nathan Bedford Simmons, 1st Lt. Robert Paul Tidwell, and 1st Lt. David Beavers Wood.

Hunter was also the 11th casualty during the Vietnam War who graduated from The Citadel. You can view their memorial page here, and my article at History Is Elementary discussing how the author Pat Conroy, also a Citadel graduate, helped to fund a Vietnam memorial on the historic Citadel campus here.

Hunter's name can be found on Panel 07E, Row 109 on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. and can be found online here.

During my research I reconnected with a longtime blogging friend of mine named Eddie Hunter, Jerry Hunter's cousin. He continues to remember his cousin and his ultimate sacrifice at his blog, Chicken Fat, here, here, and here, and is my source for many of the photos I have of Jerry Hunter.  Eddie advises, "The Hunter family continued to take interest in veterans affairs and ceremonies in memory of their only child [up until their own deaths]."

General George S. Patton advised, "It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men the who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived."

I agree.

This article first appeared at Douglasville Patch on October 23, 2011

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