By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
This is my annual Memorial Day piece, written in remembrance of the boys from my high school who died in the Vietnam war. After I first published this in 2014, I heard from many people who related similar stories about the loss suffered in their home towns – or worse – their families. So this weekend, as you commemorate the holiday, please take a moment to remember all of the brave young men and women we’ve lost in conflict.
Five boys from my high school were killed in the Vietnam War. For a small town like Novato, that was an enormous number. We were such a close-knit community that even if we didn’t know one of them personally, we knew a sibling or friend. So on my trip to Washington D.C. last month I scheduled time to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to see their names on “The Wall”. To refresh my memory I pulled out my high school year books and found them all – smiling for a formal portrait or posing for a team picture. Each image reflected a boy, fresh-faced and full of hope, his life stretching out before him. I looked at those young faces and found it hard to believe that their lives ended so soon after the bucolic days captured in the photos. None of them reached the age of 22, their dreams extinguished on the battlefield. While we, their classmates, lived long enough to enjoy the internet, smart phones and streaming movies, most of them didn’t live long enough to see color television. I reflected on the stories I’ve read of WWII vets who speak so reverently of the “boys who didn’t come home”. As I perused the yearbooks I finally understood their sentiment. It is only when looking back through a 50 year lens that one can appreciate just how young these soldiers were and how many of life’s milestones they missed. So on this Memorial Day, I’d like to pay tribute to “The Boys from Novato”.
Bob Johnson joined the Army in the fall of 1965, in what would have been his Senior year in high school. I remember him as a quiet guy, but very nice. Before he enlisted he asked his high school sweetheart to marry him – it would give them both something to hang on to while he was gone. His entry into the service occurred just as the war was escalating. He was sent to Vietnam in March of 1966 and three weeks later he was killed by enemy gunfire during “Operation Abilene” in Phuoc Tuy Province. As his former classmates excitedly anticipated prom and graduation, Robert had already made the ultimate sacrifice. In the 1966 yearbook, where his senior portrait would have been, his mother placed this photo of him in uniform along with a tribute. He was the first Vietnam casualty from Novato.
Mike Tandy graduated from NHS in 1965. His sisters, Sue and Sarah, also attended NHS. Mike was very smart and participated in the first swim team our high school fielded. He was an Eagle Scout and according to his friend Neil Cuzner, “he was highly intelligent, a great guy and an excellent scout. He was in the Senior Patrol and a young leader of our troop. He lead by example”. After graduation Mike joined the Marine reserves and was called up in January, 1966. He was sent to Vietnam shortly after that. On September 8th he was on patrol in Quang Nam with another soldier when his footfall detonated a landmine. He was killed instantly. He had celebrated his 19th birthday just five days prior. His classmates had moved on – either to college or working – but the Tandy family was left to grieve the loss of their son and brother. In 2005 Sarah posted to the virtual Vietnam Wall: “Thanks to all of you who come here and remember Mike. All of our lives were changed and I thank you for not forgetting.”
Allan Nelson played football at College of Marin with my brother, Bob. Allan’s sister, Joanne, was in Bob’s class and his brother, Steve, was in mine. So we were well aware when Allan was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam in July, 1966 at the age of 20. Five months later, on December 1, we were devastated to learn he had been killed by gunfire during a battle in Binh Dinh Province. I still remember the day Steve came to school after Allan’s death; red-faced with tears streaming down his cheeks. He had always been such a happy guy but was now changed in ways that were hard for 16 year-old kids to understand. As I look back now, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him to go home from school each day and face parents who were shattered by grief. Joanne posted the following on a memorial page and perhaps sums it up the best: “Allan was my brother, not just a brother, he was my best friend. All I know is December 1, 1966 was the saddest time for me and my family. My family loved each other so much, but when Al was killed the joy died in my family. Allan had his whole life planned. He had just turned 21 on Oct. 20th. When we were young, he couldn’t wait to be 21. I am so sorry for all the families that lost a son and a brother. It will be 33 years in Dec. The everyday sad feelings of loss are gone but on special days it still hurts.”
Jim Gribbin graduated from NHS in 1966. He was on the football team and very active in school clubs and was well-liked by everyone who knew him. He joined the Army Reserves and when called up, became part of the Special Forces where he rose to the rank of Captain. He served two tours of duty in an elite MIKE unit. In March 1970 his unit was on a night defensive mission in Kontum Province when they were ambushed by enemy troops. Jim sacrificed his own safety by running into open territory – twice – to aid and retrieve wounded soldiers under his command. He was shot both times and taken to a rear medical facility where he died from his wounds. Ironically, for this affable Irishman, he succumbed on St. Patrick’s Day. He was awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for Valor. Jim’s dad was a veteran of WWII who died in 2011. He requested to be placed in the same grave with Jim, with his name and vitals carved on the back of Jim’s headstone. One can only imagine the grief that he carried all those years. Hopefully he is at peace now that they are forever reunited. A complete stranger paid tribute to Jim in 2018 on the date of his death. You can read my post about it here: https://fromabirdseyeview.com/?p=7111
Wayne “Ed” Bethards was in my graduating class, but I didn’t know him well. His family moved to Novato just before the start of our senior year. His mother, Betty Bethards, was the author of the international best-seller, “The Dream Book”. Again, Neil Cuzner has provided a bit more insight: “Wayne was a good person. He had a great love of baseball and had actually started a small league while over in Nam. He was sharing his love of baseball with the Vietnamese children.” Cuzner went on to say that Wayne was a religious person and did not want to kill anyone; he struggled greatly with his deployment. He was drafted into the Army and was sent to Vietnam in October of 1970. In January, 1971, he was killed while on patrol by the accidental detonation of a mechanical device in Quang Tin Province. He was the last boy from Novato High School to die in the war.
In April, 2017, I heard from a former schoolmate, Dennis Welsh, about Jerry Sims, a boy who died in the conflict whose hometown was listed as Novato. I found in my research that sometimes the Novato “hometown” designation were for those affiliated with Hamilton Air Force Base, not graduates of Novato High School. Since there were no records of Jerry at NHS I assumed Jerry was from Hamilton, but that was not the case. Dennis told me that Jerry moved to Novato from Texas in the Spring of 1966 to live with his sister. He tried out for the football team during spring training and made the squad. But despite that automatic inclusion into a social group, he nevertheless was unhappy living in California and being the “new kid” going into his Senior year. Dennis said that he never saw him again after football tryouts and didn’t learn of his fate until he spotted Jerry’s name on “The Wall”. The fact is that Jerry left Novato and joined the Army in June, 1966 and was sent to Vietnam in November. On February 13, 1968 he and several others in his unit were killed by small arms fire in Gia Dinh province. Jerry was 19 years old. His former platoon leader said this on his memorial page: “I was Jerry’s platoon leader on the day he died. He didn’t have to be there, since he had a job elsewhere in Vietnam, but he requested a transfer. He had already spent a year with the Wolfhounds, but for reasons all his own, he wanted to come back to this unit. He died doing his job as a squad leader in my platoon.” It would seem Jerry finally found his home – and some peace – with his Army brethren.
I found all of the boys from Novato on “The Wall”, each name etched in granite. I thought about all of their families and the sorrow they endured. It was overwhelming to realize that same sorrow had been replicated 58,286 times. Each of the names on that black, shiny surface represent a family forever destroyed. As I walked along the pathway I looked at all of the mementos that were left as tributes to the fallen – notes, flowers and flags mostly. But then I spotted something different – a tribute from Jim Dart to his brother, Larry. It was a Kingston Trio album (pictured left), along with a note about the good times they shared learning the guitar and singing songs together. I was overcome with emotion reading Jim’s note. My brother, Bob, owned that same album. He and his best friend, Don, often entertained our family playing their guitars and singing songs from that record. Bob was a Naval officer in Japan during the Vietnam war and was safely returned to us. I wept as I stood looking at the album, realizing that but for the grace of God – and military orders – how easily it could have been Bob’s name on that wall and me leaving a Kingston Trio album in his memory. I can’t imagine what our family would have been like without him. I ached for Sue and Sarah and Joanne and Steve and all the other siblings who never got to see gray hair on their brother’s head; their family gatherings forever marred by a gaping hole where their brother should have been. When I stooped down to take the photo I noticed that several other visitors had stopped to look at it too. As I glanced at those who were of a certain age I could see my own feelings reflected in their eyes. We know how much of life these boys missed. We mourn their loss – and ours.
Sue, I do not know why it has taken so long for me to find this and read your words about our loss. I was close friends with both Bob Johnson and Jim Gribbin.
Bob frequently visited our house and my dad took a liking to Bob. Perhaps because Bob’s dad was not around I think my dad tried to provide a bit of a father figure influence for Bob. I remember that Dad let Bob drive our old Ford Station wagon one day out near Stafford lake. Bob had never had the opportunity to drive before and he weaved back and forth on the road. He was always so confident about many things but that day he was nervous and it showed. Our whole family went to his service at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. It was the first loss of life that I had experienced of someone both close to me personally and my age. To this day when I hear Taps I think of Bob.
I did not get a chance to visit the Vietnam Wall Memorial until 20 years later when I was living in PA and we went down to Washington DC. As I opened the pages of the book to find his name I did not realize until his name appeared in front of me, and I burst into tears, that I had never really believed that he was truly gone. I had dreamt many times over the years that he was found and returned. He died again that day in Washington and I then finally began to accept the loss. I still grieve.
I was also close with Jim Gribbin. We were on the football team together. He came with me and Bob Dobbs and Tom Jones and Mike Roman on a camping trip up to my family’s property on Austin Creek off the Russian River. I was also serving in Vietnam when Jim died and I did not even hear about his loss until several weeks after it happened. I did not have the opportunity to attend his service but I have visited both Bob and Jim over the years down in San Bruno.
I am now living up in Sebastopol, not far from Novato where we grew up and attended school together. Thanks for honoring their lives and remembering them.
Bill, thank you so much for your kind and informative note. The older I get the younger all of the Novato “boys” seem – their deaths all the more tragic because they missed out on so much of life. I post this piece every Memorial Day on both Novato and Marin County Facebook pages and I get a remarkable number of views and comments about it. That always makes me feel better somehow, that they are not forgotten. This year one mother from Novato told me she was having her two young sons read the post every year and have them carry on the tradition of remembering. I hope that happens so long after I’m gone someone will pay them the tribute they deserve.
Hope life is good (or as good as it can be these days). You are in a beautiful spot. I still stay in touch with Tom and Linda Corder in Sebastopol – seems like it was a good place to migrate to from Novato.
Thanks again and thank YOU for your service.
Thank you for posting. I think the Johnson boy was the son of Eleanor who was Dr Kerston’s assistant for years.
Thanks for posting the boys of Novato. Being from the class of 1969
I was lucky #205 in the lottery , they drafted up to 195 that year.
My heart goes out to the families.
Thank you Sue for your beautifully written tributes every Memorial Day! I read them every year and my heart breaks for their families and friends. Their ultimate sacrifice will always be honored and never forgotten! Your efforts to make sure that happens is greatly appreciated!
Steve, thanks so much for your nice comment. It’s really an honor to remind people about our NHS friends every year. Best to you.
I remember Mike Tandy bringing eggs to the door; we were weekly customers. At 13 I had a crush on him, and I didn’t want anyone else answering the door. Last year, visiting my son in Lexington, Massachusetts, I stopped at the CVS drug store, which had 8 posters in their windows, remembering the 8 young men whose lives were cut short in WW1, 100 years ago. I thought of Mike Tandy. We need to stop this ongoing loss.
Mary, what a sweet story. Yes, it’s such a tragedy to lose these great young men. Thanks for your comment.
Thak you posting this. It is a wonderful tribute.
1970 San Marin
Thanks, Laurie. I remember your dad – a great teacher.
Thanks, he would have known those boys.
This is a beautiful piece of writing. We were all so young … and for some, it ended so soon.
Thank you, Tony. It ended way too soon for these kids. The older I get the younger they seem and their loss is all the more tragic for it.
I remember George Storz from Drake High. He married his high school sweetheart and had two children before being sent to Vietnam. He was due home in a short time but was killed in action. I traced his name on the wall.
Janice, thank you so much for your comment. A couple of years ago I suggested on one of the Marin FB pages that it would be great if someone from each high school could write something up on the boys we lost. Hopefully that will get done some day so that we can honor George and all that didn’t make it home.
Thank you and all that served! ❤
Thank you for your comment, Tammy.
Thank you, so glad you reposted it this year. I often wondered about who from Novato were sent and who might have “Given It All”. I ran into a handful from the “Class of 61” while cruising the Gulf of Tonkin on the Coral Sea & Ranger in 65 & 66, but that was so long ago.
John, thanks for the comment. Yes, I’ve heard from some classmates that a lot of NHS guys served and many suffered emotional problems when they got home. Thanks for your service.
Sandy,MaryBell,along with Al Bell and Gary Larson just visited the traveling Vietnam Wall here @ Lake Pleasant Az. I looked up those I new that died in that War from high school. Then I found a freshman basketball player I had on my first ever team at Tustin High. Still hard to share all of this because it brings nothing but tears and I can’t stop them. Gary Larson
Gary, that wall is very emotional. So hard to see them all, much less the names of people we knew. Thanks for your comment.
Continue to post this every year as a sober reminder to honor these young men.
Thanks, Pam. Yes, I will post it for as long as we’re writing the blog. xo
Such beautiful tributes, Suzanne!
I do hope their families and loved ones have a chance to read this and know they were not forgotten.
Thanks, Janet. Yes, each year I hear from at least two of the siblings and that alone makes it worthwhile Seems like those boys get younger as I get older. xo