WAPAKONETA, Ohio (AP) — Fifty years will have passed this Saturday since Gary Detrick was killed by enemy fire in Vietnam.
He was 20 years old.
It is a date — April 13, 1969 — that has always stuck in the mind of Larry Elsass, a boyhood friend of Detrick. They grew up on the Auglaize County farmlands of West Central Ohio near the hamlet of St. Johns, hunting rabbits, camping out, drinking beer, talking sports and dreaming about girls.
"There were five or six of us who ran around together, doing the things that boys did back then. We were really close," Elsass recalled. "To this day, I remember the date Gary died better than my own kids' birthdays. It really hit home."
Out of Wapakoneta High School less than two years and learning a trade as a welder, Detrick went home one day to find an invitation from Uncle Sam. Destination: Vietnam. The purpose: That's still being argued today.
Detrick was sworn in to the Army on May 1, 1968. He would end up going through basic training with three guys from nearby Lima: Allen Mathews, Trent Kunkleman and Gary Mason. When Christmas rolled around that year, they each received a 30-day pass and piled into Mason's 1964 black Ford Galaxy and headed north for home. It would be the last Christmas Detrick would spend with family.
"We laughed and had a ball as we drove. Little did we know what awaited us in the months ahead," Mathews said.
Indeed, 1969 would be a year like few others in the history of the United States.
That January, talks of peace were dominating the headlines. Richard Nixon had just been inaugurated as America's new president, the fifth such commander in chief to have Vietnam on his resume. Nixon's winning campaign message was clear, though: bring "peace with honor." Meanwhile, as 542 U.S. soldiers died that January, a major breakthrough was being heralded in the Paris Peace Talks — the delegates had finally reached an agreement on the shape of the table to be used during negotiations.
Detrick and Mathews landed in Southeast Asia on January 28, 1969, serving together in the 47th Infantry "Scout Dog" platoon. They were greeted by a sign that said 10 platoon members had been killed in action, but the platoon had a 49-to-1 kill ratio of the enemy.
Both men were "dog handlers" in the specialized K-9 platoon. They were the scouts who would lead a platoon into the jungle or mountains. Each scout would be provided with a German Shepherd, and together man and dog would hunt for early warnings of snipers, ambushes, mines, booby traps and other threats. The dog handlers would be out five to six days at a time, carrying more than a hundred pounds worth of food and ammunition on their back. They were credited with saving thousands of lives. There was a hitch though: The wind needed to be blowing toward the dogs, carrying the scent of the Vietcong. Otherwise, the mission could turn tragic.
To this day, Mathews wonders if the Army truly appreciated the dog handlers.
"When a handler got killed, he was treated as if he were just a piece of crumpled paper ... throw it away and grab a new piece," Mathews said. "I was told it was the fifth most dangerous job a soldier could have in Vietnam."
Detrick was involved in a firefight during his first scouting mission on March 15, 1969, according to a platoon diary. At one point, they were pinned down for four hours. A week later, a team that included Mathews was ambushed while crossing a river. As Mathews climbed a riverbank, the soldier in front of him was killed.
According to the diary, on the day Detrick died, he had traded his scouting mission with that of a fellow Army soldier. Detrick would take the first mission while the other soldier waited on the next one. It's unclear exactly how Detrick died, whether it was from the gunfire of the Vietcong during the firefight or from an explosive device — "possibly a command-detonate mine." Killed alongside Detrick was a platoon dog named Prince.
"I never felt so empty in my life," Mathews said about learning of Detrick's death. "It was as if someone reached inside me and ripped out my spine."
The platoon held a memorial service the following morning. A prayer was recited by Lt. Roberto Miller. "We all knew Gary and even though he had only been in our unit five weeks, we loved him and respected him as a fellow comrade-in-arms."
It was only a month earlier that Detrick and other platoon members were laughing when their lieutenant had received a care package from home. It included the contents for a spaghetti dinner. Lt. Miller was making it for the entire platoon, only to spill the spaghetti on the ground while draining it. He ended up scooping it up and covering it with sauce. A platoon member called it the crunchiest spaghetti he ever ate.
Larry Elsass was serving in the Navy on the island of Guam when he learned of his friend's death.
He recalled, "Everybody was scared back then of getting drafted, going to Vietnam. We went because of a sense of duty — our country asked us to go — not because we understood what was going on. The worst happened to Gary. He was such a great guy. He would have been such a great husband, father and community member had he lived."
Detrick is buried at Memorial Park Cemetery on Harding Highway in Lima. His name also is inscribed on the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C. It can be found on Panel 27w, line 72.
Fifty years can seem like forever, Elsass will tell you. Then again, it can also feel like yesterday.
"I just want people to remember Gary Detrick," Elsass said. "His story was like too many of us growing up in that era."
To this day, Mathews carries a photograph of Detrick in his truck.
"I count my blessings that I got to know Gary," Mathews said. "He's my guardian angel now. I'm convinced of that."