Our lost sons of Vietnam: ‘Oh please, make that not be my brother’


Ken Burns’ landmark documentary about the Vietnam War is renewing interest in a defining event for our country. Here is a story written in 2015 about the sons of Palm Beach County who fought and died in the war.


It's the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam war.

The war that changed us forever.

We saw the carnage of a guerilla war nightly on TV.

A generation learned not to trust its government.

The war to contain communism left 58,220 Americans dead.

Palm Beach County lost 76 sons.

Here are some of their stories.


Seeing his brother die on TV

Most soldiers who were killed were teenagers or in their early 20s. Daniel Bennett was older. The Boynton Beach resident was wounded in the Korean War. He went back for more in Vietnam.

A helicopter machine-gunner, he was on his third tour when his craft was shot down.

His younger brother, Howard Bennett, remembers watching the Chet Huntley-David Brinkley News the previous night. The bravery of an American helicopter gunner before his craft was shot down was the topic of that night’s news account. The newscasters then listed the soldiers killed in action that week.

“Oh please, don’t let that be my brother,” Bennett remembers telling himself.

A few hours later, his brother John Walter called. Their brother — the one who stood up for them in high school — was killed in a helicopter crash.

Howard Bennett, then a school principal, recalls a few days later seated a lunch table with a few teachers. One of them made a snide crack about the Marines.

“I jumped over the table. I smashed him right in the mouth. The superintendant didn’t like it. But he took no action. After all, it was my brother.”

Daniel Morris Bennett was killed Nov. 14, 1966. The Marine sergeant was 33.


An innocent time in Jupiter

Jay Ladner enlisted after he graduated from Jupiter High in 1967. He felt it was his duty, Kathy Legal said.

“My husband is a Marine. My older sister Linda is married to a Marine. My brother wanted to be a Marine,” she said.

Seated in a McDonald’s on Indiantown Road near Interstate 95 on a recent afternoon, Legal took out photos of her brother. There was a smiling Jay, about 15, holding a fish twice as wide as his shoulders. Another shows the three grinning Ladner siblings perched on a park bench. Jay and Kathy are holding fishing rods. Linda is cuddling a black dog.

“He was the jokester of the family. He had beautiful dark eyes, and they always had a sparkle,” remembered Legal.

Other places in Jupiter spark a memory of her brother. There’s the former Methodist church on Park Street that the family attended. Almost 50 years after her brother was killed, memories come back when Legal goes down Old Jupiter Beach Road, where the family grew up. But the Cato bridge — named after a popular 1960s bridgetender — has special memories, she said.

“It was a narrow, wood bridge back then. If two vehicles were coming, the other would have to pull over. We’d be in a rowboat, and you could hear the clickity-clack of cars passing over the bridge. We had such wonderful times,” she said.

Marine Lance Cpl. Jay W. Ladner of died of wounds from a grenade March 7, 1970 at Quang Nam. He was 20.


Taunted by protesters at airport

Ramrod-straight, Marine Corps Sgt. Robert Bowe refused to acknowledge the screaming protesters calling him names at Palm Beach International Airport when he returned from Vietnam.

“My father was cussing. My mother was sad. But not my brother. It took a lot to get him riled,” remembered his brother, Tim, a pipefitter who still lives in the family home on Minnesota Street in Lantana. “He climbed in the back seat of our green Ford Falcon. He stayed quiet as we drove home.”

Two Marines knocked on the door of that home just after Robert was killed in action. Robert, who attended Lake Worth High School and enlisted when he was 17, served 28 months in battle zones during his three tours of duty. He was awarded three Bronze Stars for heroism.

Robert and Tim Bowe were the youngest of four brothers. Being nearest in age, theirs was the closest relationship. Robert taught Tim how to shoot at the gun range at Belvedere Road and Congress Avenue. Robert was a standout catcher on Lake Worth High’s baseball team. Robert took Tim on dates with him to Pirate’s World near Fort Lauderdale.

“He was a leader. He had lots of girlfriends,” Tim said.

Once when Robert was home between tours, Tim touched him on the shoulder to wake him up.

“He jumped. He punched me. Right in the mouth. I had a bloody lip. I never did that again,” Tim said.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office offered Robert a job. He declined. He worked on a sailboat for awhile, Tim said.

“He kept re-enlisting. He would tell my parents “Hey, I could get killed crossing the street.” Maybe it was the excitement. The adrenaline. Being on the edge. I don’t know. I was only 8 years old,” said Tim, who came for an interview with a book of yellowed clippings about his brother.

Robert spoke Vietnamese. He was close to and financially supported a Vietnamese family he met during the conflict.

For a while, local veterans held a service marking his brother’s death. Tim and his parents would attend. They tossed a wreath into the Intracoastal Waterway. The services faded away.

Flipping the pages of the book with pictures of Robert and the Bowe family, Tim chuckled at the memory of picking his brother up at PBIA. Anti-war protesters taunted his brother. But they didn’t make a dent in the uniformed Marine.

Robert William Bowe of Lantana was killed in action from an explosive device May 3, 1969. The Marine sergeant was 22.


‘I told him I would see him back in Florida’

The first soldier from the Glades to die in the war was Cephas Barnes Jr. of Belle Glade. The Lake Shore High School graduate was pinned down by enemy fire with his fellow Marines during Operation Harvest Moon. He was one of eight Marines killed and 27 wounded that day.

“They were getting hit by mortars, artillery and rockets in a rice paddy,” said Charles Santoriello, a Marine who served with Barnes. “We were sent in to get them out. It was raining hard. The choppers couldn’t get in. We got to (Cephas). He was hit by shrapnel. He was alive. I leaned over him. I told him I would see him back in Florida.”

Barnes died the next day.

Santoriello, now 70 and living in Fayetteville, Ga., came home, married, raised a family and retired from Eastern Airlines. He now happily shoes horses for a living.

Four years ago on Memorial Day, he decided to try to find his friend’s grave. He finally did, behind the administration office at Port Mayaca Cemetery.

Santoriello goes back every Memorial Day. This year, he took his grandson.

He brushes the leaves off the grave. He chats with his old pal.

“He used to try to get me to eat soul food. I used to try to get him to eat Italian. In the infantry, you are close. You are family,” he said.

Cephas Barnes Jr., a Marine lance corporal, was killed by small arms fire on Dec. 11, 1965. Rifleman Barnes was 20.


‘My father never got home’

Many young men enrolled in college to avoid the draft in the late 1960s. Samuel Macon of Delray Beach dropped out of Tuskeegee University in Alabama to join the U.S. Marines.

The tall, lanky man of Bahamian descent was majoring in agriculture. Rose, the woman he was engaged to, was pregnant.

“He wanted to serve his country. And take care of his family. He saw the military as a way to help his family,” said his daughter, Valencia Milbourne, a 1986 graduate of Spanish River High School in Boca Raton. A saleswoman by trade and artist on the side, she now lives in Bowie, Md.

Milbourne was 11 months old when her father was killed trying to dispose of a grenade to save his comrades. Macon was awarded the Purple Heart. The medal, along with an 18-by-18-inch photo of her dad wearing a helmet, hangs on the wall above the mantle in her home.

Macon never saw his only daughter. Milbourne’s mother remarried and had two sons.

Milbourne beats back tears when she sees veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan running toward each other to reunite with their families.

“My father never got home. I never knew the man he could have been,” she said.

Samuel Cornelius Macon, a Marine PFC who served as a rifleman, was killed in action from a grenade Feb. 25, 1969. He was 21.


He believed the war was right

Arthur Sprott’s name is not etched on a tombstone. It’s carved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., Panel 35W, Line 67.

The Seacoast High School graduate’s remains never came home to Delray Beach.

Four days after his 32nd birthday, Sprott was killed flying support for a helicopter rescue mission. His A1E Skyraider attack bomber crashed in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

His parachute didn’t open. A rescue team found his body. They lost it under enemy attack.

“Arthur believed very strongly the war was right. He wanted to be in Vietnam. I have come to accept that is where he wanted to be,” said Betty Meri-Akri, who was home when the chaplain came to the door with the news that her Air Force husband was dead. She had three daughters. She was awarded $600 monthly survivor benefits.

Meri-Aki, now 77, married a former Air Force officer and engineer in 1971. The couple live in Fort Walton Beach.

She visited the Vietnam Wall in Washington several years ago with her husband. They found Arthur Sprott’s name. They made an etching and took it home.

“Sad,” she recalled. “Overwhelming,” she added, a few deep breaths later.

She visited the Central Highlands on a cruise five years ago. She and her husband saw the mountain where Sprott crashed.

“It’s a very wooded place. A beautiful area,” she said. “We found a villager. He told us he found remains. But he said when he went back, they were gone.”

Anger is the emotion she feels when she thinks about how the government treated her and Arthur Sprott. The fact that his parachute did not open showed he was not well equipped, she said. Through the years, the government has not been forthcoming with information, she said.

Sprott was awarded a Silver Star.

But she puts the anger away when she talks about the happy memories of her days with Arthur. She recalls a smart, funny man, the oldest of five children. Driving fast sports cars was his passion.

The couple met in Betty’s hometown of Valdosta, Ga. She was in a car with a bunch of girls. He was in a car with a bunch of guys. Both cars parked next to each other in a drive-in restaurant.

“I never missed another week of seeing him after we met,” Betty said.

Arthur Roy Sprott, an Air Force major, died Jan. 10, 1969 in Quang Nam. He was 32.


Out of the fields, into the jungle

Playtex gloves were how Daisy Harvin, her three sisters and brother protected their fingers as they picked cucumbers and tomatoes west of Delray Beach.

“Our fingers would split. Those gloves held the skin together. Claude wasn’t the oldest, but he kept us going. We called him ‘little man,’ ” said Harvin, seated in the colorful living room of her Lake Worth home. Two pictures of her younger brother Claude Roberts — one at Carver High School graduation, the other in Army fatigues — are in her lap.

The children started before their teens working the fields. Their mother, a maid, needed the money for the family to survive.

Roberts — the only family member to graduate high school — enlisted in the Army right after commencement. He was a good student, interested in current affairs. He participated in the civil rights marches sparked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We never knew our daddy,” said Harvin, 65. “We needed Claude. But he wanted the hell out of here. I can’t blame him. He had dreams. We lived a terrible life.”

After attending basic training, Roberts came home for a short furlough. He gave his wife-to-be a ring before he left for Vietnam. He sent part of his paycheck back home. He wanted to buy land.

“Before he left, he told me, ‘I will come back for you. I’ll take you away from all this,’ ” Daisy said, who became a nurse and had three children.

Roberts never came home.

The gray vehicle with the military men came one afternoon. Harvin, who was about 16, remembers the Army license plate. She watched from across the street as the men knocked on the door of her mother’s house. Her mother answered. She let the men inside.

“I remember my mother crying and screaming. ‘Oh Lord, oh Lord.’ She kept screaming and crying. It was so bad. You never heard such screaming,” Harvin said.

Dozens of friends, family and uniformed soldiers came to Straghn Funeral Home. They lined Southwest 5th Avenue on the way to Delray Beach Memorial Gardens Cemetery. Harvin recalls one returning Vietnam veteran, her brother’s friend. He lost an eye in Vietnam.

She recalls the guns firing a military salute.

“Bang. Bang. Bang,” she said, wincing at each time she recalled the salutes being fired.

Claude Roberts, an infantryman in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was killed in action by a grenade on April 11, 1968. He was 20.


Sitting on Vietnam’s soil

Jupiter resident Tom Corey was left a quadriplegic after being wounded in the Tet Offensive in 1968. A former national president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Corey has remained active in veterans affairs.

About a dozen years ago, Corey went to the Central Highlands. His campanions were family members of soldiers killed in Vietnam. There were about 50 sons, daughters and spouses.

They split into five groups. With maps and research documents, they searched. The Vietnamese people offered directions and solace.

“We sat on the ground at the battle sites,” said Corey, 70. “The relatives would cry and cry and cry. They would have conversations with those who died. Some scooped dirt into a plastic bag to take home. We sat there as long as they wanted.”

The searchers were different people when they got on the plane to go home, he said.

“It was like they fell in love again,” Corey said.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Based on the fact of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam conflict coming on July 28, Palm Beach Post Digital Reporter Mike Stucka suggested doing a story on the impact that Vietnam had on local residents. Researcher Melanie Mena, whose father served in the Army in Vietnam, began going through documents to identify veterans of Vietnam and their families. The records she researched include National Archives, The Vietnam Memorial Wall, Palm Beach County deed and court archives, Ancestry.com and stories in The Palm Beach Post. Photos and information were also submitted by the families of veterans. Reporter Bill DiPaolo interviewed the family members of veterans. While The Post did its best to identify all soldiers from Palm Beach killed in the conflict, there might be others who are not listed. 

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