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On one day, four Fort Worth men paid the ultimate price for their country

05/29/2011 10:15 PM

05/30/2011 4:26 PM

FORT WORTH -- More than 58,000 names are engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., organized by date of death from 1957 to 1975.

On Panel 38E, about halfway down, are four names within a few inches of one another.

Marine Pfc. Richard W. France, Army Staff Sgt. James Edward George Jr., Marine Lance Cpl. Johnnie Bruce Jackson, Army Spec. 4 Klaus Josef Strauss.

All four young men died Feb. 8, 1968, during the massive Tet Offensive of that year. All four called Fort Worth home.

The oldest was 22. One remains missing in action. One wasn't even a U.S. citizen. Two were in the 13th month of a 13-month tour.

In exactly one 24-hour period, four families in Fort Worth -- then a city of about 350,000 people, fewer than half of today's population -- were upended and forever altered by a war in Southeast Asia. The Tet battles that claimed their sons and brothers would mark the beginning of the end of the war for the U.S. and end the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.

France, George, Jackson and Strauss have been gone 43 years, but that hole in their families has hardly filled even now.

Memorial Day may well be the unofficial beginning of summer, a joyous time to make plans to head to the lake or a baseball park, crack open a cold beer or buy the kids a snow cone, certainly an excuse to stay off the work e-mail for one day.

For some families, though, Memorial Day is about remembering theirs and the nation's losses.

Ricky France

In 1965, 19-year-old Ricky France received a draft notice.

The government wanted him, undoubtedly for the Army. But France turned the offer down. Instead, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966.

"My husband had been in the Navy, so we tried to tell him to join the Navy," said his older sister, Eleanor Lee of Joshua, "But he wanted the Marines."

When the family saw France again after basic training, they were shocked.

"He was heavy when he went in," his sister said. "He loved to eat. He could eat brisket and macaroni and cheese all afternoon. But he came back a lot thinner."

That memory makes her laugh.

France was born in Fort Worth and grew up mostly in a house on Fifth Avenue in what is now the Medical District, the youngest child of a meat butcher and a nurse. He attended Trimble Tech High School and loved to spend time fishing and hunting.

He shipped off for Vietnam in early 1967, confident of his ability to do good for the world, according to an interview his widow gave the Star-Telegram after his death.

"He was very proud of what he was doing in Vietnam," she is quoted as saying. "He said it was something that had to be done."

He served in Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, which was near Khe Sanh, a site of ferocious fighting. France described the scene when he called his sister during an R&R break in Hawaii, a rare chance for his parents and sister to hear his voice and not just read his letters.

"He didn't know what the hell we were doing over there," she said. "He didn't say much, except that 'this is pure hell.'"

Every month while he was in Vietnam, his parents and sister put together a care package of food to send to him. He always wanted more, she said.

On Feb. 8, days from the end of his yearlong tour, a rocket or mortar shell landed near his position as a forward artillery observer, killing him almost instantly. His body arrived in North Texas several weeks later, and he was buried in Laurel Land Cemetery in Fort Worth.

"My mom and dad took their lawn chairs and umbrellas to the cemetery every day for six weeks," his sister said. "I had to go get them every night and bring them home because the cemetery would close. He was their baby. They would just sit out there and talk to him."

France's father died in 1976, and his mother lived until she was 94 in 2006. Every Memorial Day, someone in the family would take her to the Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Fair Park in Dallas, but she would also make sure a flag and a red rose were on his grave at Laurel Land.

The tradition of driving to Dallas to see France's name on the memorial wall continues with Lee and her children, one of them named Richard Wayne Lee after her brother.

"It's my responsibility now," she said. "That's what Mother wanted us to do, so that's what we do."

James E. George Jr.

James E. George Jr. was a refrigerator mechanic based at Danang, about as safe a position and job as any in Vietnam.

But war sometimes extends to all.

George hopped on a UH-1 Huey on Feb. 8 northbound for Dong Ha, carrying a squadron commander who was convening with several other officers about the Tet Offensive. George was going to repair several refrigerators on the base at Dong Ha.

On the way back to Danang in miserable weather, the low-flying helicopter was shot down by Viet Cong, according to survivors' accounts. The burning helicopter crashed, not far from where France was killed the same day. All six men aboard the aircraft survived the crash, but George was badly burned and Warrant Officer Roy Ziegler was shot, according to an account later written by Ziegler.

Five men including George were captured within a short time, but Ziegler avoided capture until the following day.

"Ziegler was told by the others that Spec. 4 George had been unable to keep up the pace after capture and on the day following capture was removed from the group," according to information on a Vietnam War website. "Very shortly thereafter, [Lt. Col.] Purcell and the others heard a gunshot from the direction George had been taken."

It was presumed from then on that George had been executed. He was 20 and had been in Vietnam barely two months.

No one in the Defense Department or his family knew any of that until March 1973, after the release of the prisoners of war held in North Vietnam. At that point, his status was changed to "died while captured/body not recovered."

He remains on the government's list of those missing in action.

His parents are dead, and he apparently had no siblings, according to Star-Telegram research. It is not known whether a grave marker exists for him in his hometown.

Bruce Jackson

In roughly the same area outside Danang, Lance Cpl. Bruce Jackson volunteered that day to join a team of men heading out to help a squad of Marines trapped and under attack in a hamlet.

There were but 17 of them from Echo Company, 2nd Combined Action Group, on the rescue force, according to information from Vietnam-related websites.

As they crossed a bridge and headed toward the besieged hamlet to relieve the trapped Marines, they ran into 200 to 300 North Vietnamese troops. The commander's last radio transmission said, "We're getting chewed up" and "They're all over us."

Twelve of the 17 Marines died in the battle, including Jackson, 20. Two more died in captivity.

"I had slept late that day, and I remember the man installing our carpet came into my room and said, 'Wake up; your mother needs you,'" said Sherry Sigmon of San Antonio, Jackson's younger sister. "Two Marines were talking to my mother, explaining to her how Bruce died. She fell apart. It was a horrible, horrible scene."

Jackson was born in Corpus Christi and spent most of his years in West Texas. His birth parents, Johnnie Jackson and Mary Elizabeth Jackson, had divorced, and his father lived in the Fort Worth-Arlington area, his mother in Odessa.

He attended the Schreiner Institute in Kerrville and Odessa Permian High School and dropped out of school when he became a teenage father and husband.

"He was very handsome and a charmer," his sister said. "He had a gorgeous smile. People liked him a lot, and I loved being with him."

His family remembers him receiving a draft notice and turning it into an excuse to join the Marines. When he joined the Corps in 1965, he had been living in Fort Worth and working at General Dynamics.

Jackson arrived in Vietnam just before Christmas 1966. A year later, he returned to Odessa on leave to see his wife, son and family. In mid-January 1968, he returned to his unit in Vietnam to finish his tour.

When it came time to bury him, his family considered him a West Texan.

Hundreds of people turned out to see him laid to rest in Sunset Memorial Gardens in Odessa.

Klaus Strauss

Klaus Strauss was born in the ashes of Wurzburg, Germany, barely a year after World War II and the near-destruction of the Bavarian city.

His father was a German soldier who survived the war but died a few years later of complications from wounds. Strauss' mother, who by then had three young boys, met and married a U.S. soldier from Haslet who was serving in Wurzburg. That man, Roy McPhail, knew the worst of war, too: He had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese for more than three years.

In 1954, McPhail brought his new family to Fort Worth.

Strauss later became a two-way starter for the North Side Steers football team. After graduating in 1965, Strauss started at what was then North Texas State University. He wasn't quite ready for college, though, if his grades were any indicator.

He joined the Army within a year.

"He didn't have to go to Vietnam," said his mother, Marianne McPhail. "He volunteered. He said he wasn't any better than any other mother's son. The U.S. had been good to him, so he went."

Coincidentally, when he shipped off for Vietnam, he joined the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery, the same 1st Infantry Division battalion his stepfather served in while in Europe.

"I don't want to say he was gung-ho, but whatever team my brother was on had to win," said his younger brother, Gunther Strauss. "That's the way he looked at everything. He was very competitive. He didn't act like it was a big deal."

At least once a week, sometimes twice, his mother would put Spam, crackers, candy, gum, cookies and socks in a care package and send it to the area where he was based, northwest of Saigon near the Cambodian border.

On Feb. 6, Strauss and another soldier were escorting an officer to the battalion's tactical operations center when their camp came under rocket attack.

A rocket struck very near him, and he suffered massive head and neck injuries.

Two days later, he died in a hospital. He was 21.

"I'll never forget," his mother said. "I had just finished making fried bologna sandwiches when the doorbell rang."

When he was buried several weeks later in Greenwood Cemetery, customers of his stepfather's service station in Benbrook took over so his family wouldn't worry about the business.

Within a few weeks, then-U.S. Rep. Jim Wright filed legislation in Congress to bestow posthumous citizenship on Strauss, who had started but not completed the process. Congress passed the law in 1969, and President Richard Nixon signed it.

His mother is 82, and though it was a long time ago, some hurt never goes away.

"I remember seeing him when he got on the plane to go to Vietnam," she said. "That was the last time I saw him. It seems like since I didn't see him in the casket, he's not really gone to me."

Researcher Cathy Belcher assisted with this report.

Chris Vaughn,

817-390-7547

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