America reached new heights in 1969. President Kennedy’s vision of landing on the moon was fulfilled when commander Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind” and explored the lunar surface with fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Back on earth that year, the United States had 543,000 service members in Vietnam, the greatest number of troops deployed since the war began. Tragically, too many never “returned safely” as was Kennedy’s goal for the crew of Apollo 11.
The names of the 58,318 who died in Vietnam are engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. On panel 32W, Line 78, you’ll find the name of Marine 1Lt Lee Roy Herron who died heroically 50 years ago today (February 22nd) in Vietnam’s Ashau Valley.
Growing up in Lubbock, Texas, Lee Roy was popular in high school and elected class president. He was athletic and a devout Christian. His patriotism was formed at home and steeled by the events of his time – the space race, the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was a freshman at Texas Tech University when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Serious times required serious men to answer the call to serve, and by the end of his first year of college, Lee Roy decided to become a Marine officer.
He was a leader by nature and stood out among his fellow Marines. He excelled in language school and had the opportunity to work in Washington as a Vietnamese translator but preferred to be in the action. In December 1968, he landed at Vandegrift Combat Base in Vietnam and requested a front-line assignment.
Lee Roy was now in the fight – where he wanted to be, where he felt he belonged.
On February 22, 1969, Lee Roy was the Executive Officer for Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division. They were part of Operation Dewey Canyon with the objective to destroy the supply routes used by the North Vietnamese. Lee Roy’s platoon was hit hard by enemy fire and his commander was seriously wounded. Taking command, Herron led the platoon to advance on enemy forces until he was hit by enemy fire and died. His heroism earned him the nation’s second highest award for valor, the Navy Cross. His citation describes what happened:
“First Lieutenant Herron repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as he moved among his men to encourage them and urged them to inch forward to positions from which they could deliver more effective return fire. Aware that the fire from two mutually supporting hostile machine guns was holding his Marines in place and preventing the removal of the casualties, he completely disregarded his own safety as he exposed himself to North Vietnamese fire to direct a light antitank assault round which scored a direct hit on one of the machine gun bunkers. Boldly leaping to his feet, he fearlessly charged across the fire-swept terrain to hurl hand grenades and fire his weapon against the enemy emplacement, killing nine North Vietnamese soldiers who were in the bunker. First Lieutenant Herron was mortally wounded by enemy sniper fire. His heroic actions inspired his men to such aggressive action in coordinated company attack that 105 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed and the large bunker complex destroyed. By his courage, bold initiative and unwavering devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Herron upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”
Lee Roy Herron came of age during a challenging time in our nation’s history. He cut his hair short and kept a neat appearance when unkempt was considered cool. He wore the nation’s uniform when it was routinely spat upon. He trusted the authority of God and his commander in chief when others of his generation rejected both.
I never met Lee Roy Herron, and it is only through my good friend David Nelson that I got to “know” him. David is a CPA and tax attorney who lives in Houston. He was a childhood friend of Lee Roy’s and chronicled their friendship in his book, “David & Lee Roy: A Vietnam Story.” At Herron’s urging, David joined the Marine Corps and served for three years with the Judge Advocate General (JAG). He has mourned Lee Roy’s death more than once and has spent his adult life keeping his friend’s memory alive.
Years after he died, David uncovered evidence of Lee Roy’s faith – a photograph of Herron worshipping his God in Heaven in a place that looked like Hell. David wrote about how Lee Roy hitched a ride on a resupply chopper, and flew over enemy territory to Fire Support Base Razor to attend Sunday service.
At Freedom Alliance, we honor fallen service members by providing college scholarships to their children. Many of these kids lost their dads when they were too young to remember. They come to know their fathers the same way I’ve come to know Lee Roy – through pictures and stories. You can also remember a person by the notes they leave behind.
In his book, David includes a copy of the letter Lee Roy left for his Mother and Daddy in case he didn’t come home. “When you read this I’ll be dead or missing in action,” Lee Roy wrote, and went on to thank them for being “such wonderful parents,” and apologizing that his death would cause them “grief and sadness.” He told his parents:
“Please believe me when I say I have no regrets. I was given the best parents that a child could have. I was taught to love God and our country, and since it was God’s will that I die young, I’m proud to die as a Marine defending America.”
Yes, Lee Roy had great parents. He was also blessed to have the friendship of David Nelson. Lee Roy died for the country he loved, and 50 years later David still loves the friend he lost. May God Bless them both.
Tom Kilgannon is the President of Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides support to America’s military families and advocates for a strong national defense.