A Veteran’s 30-Year Journey to Learn About a Friend Killed During the Vietnam War

In February 1968, the telephone rang in our tiny apartment. My wife, Martie, answered and said the caller was Lee Herron.

I knew that Lee was finishing up Marine Corps officers’ basic school, and as I picked up the phone, I wondered if he was going to tell me his next stop was Vietnam. Quite the contrary. Lee said the Marine Corps was sending him to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where he would learn how to interpret and translate the Vietnamese language.

He also announced that he was engaged to our former high school classmate Danelle Davis, and he wanted me to attend their wedding in Lubbock, Texas, that May. 

Wow—what good news! But I was in a Marine Corps law program and attending Southern Methodist University Law School in Dallas, a long distance from Lubbock.  

Lee’s wedding date was scheduled in the middle of my law school final exams. What to do? I told Lee I had better stay in Dallas and study instead of making the trip to Lubbock. I would regret that decision for the rest of my life. 

Lee Herron, left, and David Nelson are commissioned as second lieutenants on June 7, 1967, after graduating from Texas Tech University. Photo courtesy of the author.

Lee Herron, left, and David Nelson are commissioned as second lieutenants on June 7, 1967, after graduating from Texas Tech University. Photo courtesy of the author.

In February 1969, I almost died in Dallas. While doing some part-time roofing work on a three-story apartment building on a cold and misty day, I got too close to the edge of the roof, slipped, and fell to the ground. I broke three ribs, split open my chin, and passed out. Years later my doctor told me that a three-story fall would have killed most people. But I was fortunate, and the next thing I knew, an ambulance was transporting me to Parkland Hospital—the same place President Kennedy had been taken when he was assassinated in 1963. A doctor sewed up my chin, announced there was nothing he could do for my broken ribs, and released me. My wife found me wandering in a hallway, trying to find out where to go to be discharged.

While still recovering from my injuries, I learned that my close friend Lee Herron had been killed in Vietnam on Feb. 22. What? How did that happen? I thought that, after language school, Lee would either go to the Pentagon or be sent to a relatively safe base in Vietnam. I called a couple of friends in Lubbock to find out if they knew what happened. All they could tell me was that Lee was in Vietnam just a short time before his unit was ambushed. Lee volunteered to take a wounded officer’s place, charged the enemy, and was promptly shot and killed. 

What a pointless waste of a remarkable young man’s life—and in a war with no light at the end of the tunnel.  

Dad Always Seemed Bigger Than Life. But I Had No Idea There Was a Hero in the Next Room.

For years, Herron’s death haunted me. I struggled with the question of why a just God would allow such a promising young man to die in a futile war. 

On Aug. 2, 1997, I heard a retired Medal of Honor recipient, Marine Corps Col. Wesley L. Fox, speak. Fox had been one of my instructors when I had been at Marine officers’ basic school in 1971, and I was eager to see him again. During his talk, he said that in a key Vietnam battle, a “stout young man from West Texas named Lee Herron” had helped save the day by destroying an enemy machine gun bunker. He had received the Navy Cross posthumously. I was stunned but elated: Lee had died a hero, saving the lives of numerous other Marines.

I visited with Col. Fox for an hour or so. He told me that, initially, he had recommended Lee for the Medal of Honor. But because that highest medal requires at least two live witnesses, Herron did not qualify: All but one of those Marines closest to Lee had been killed. The one live witness, Frank Stoppiello, had been shot in the stomach and paralyzed from the waist down. Eventually, I located Frank, who lived in Guadalajara, Mexico. He wrote me a detailed letter describing the battlefield scene, including a diagram of his and Lee’s movements.

David Nelson’s Marine Corps Basic School photo from February 1971. Photo courtesy of the author.

David Nelson’s Marine Corps Basic School photo from February 1971. Photo courtesy of the author.

Fox also told me that just after Lee destroyed a machine gun bunker, his cloud cover lifted and he was in plain view of a final enemy bunker. Lee began firing on that bunker, but its machine gun fire got to him first. Had the cloud cover not lifted, Lee likely could have destroyed that enemy position also—and his death details would have been premature.

That night, around 2 a.m., I awoke with a strong determination to see that Herron was properly honored, remembered, and respected. I felt I had received a personal mission from the almighty.  

Fortunately, Lee had several other close friends willing to help. He had been our 1963 Lubbock High School class president and was well-liked and respected.

We decided to create an endowed scholarship in his name at Texas Tech’s Vietnam Center and present it to Tech at a special ceremony on campus. 

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During this planning process, I continued my investigation to uncover more details about Lee’s death. I learned he had volunteered for duty in Vietnam. And once there at a headquarters facility, he requested to be with a unit on the front lines. He was assigned as Fox’s executive officer—primarily an admin position. But Lee was pressed into battle duty after his unit was ambushed and another officer was severely wounded.  

Lee’s sister Jane gave me a copy of the only known photo of him in Vietnam. It was an iconic photograph, showing a chaplain conducting a church service in a hollowed-out bomb crater, with a helicopter hovering nearby. There was Lee: head bowed and holding a small Bible.

It was a stunning photograph, but none of my contacts, including Wes Fox, could identify either the chaplain or the location. Eventually, I located the chaplain, retired Navy Captain Salvatore Rubino. He provided a detailed background account of the service, held at Fire Support Base Razor. Since Herron and Fox were assigned to Fire Support Base Shiloh, why was Lee at Razor? Fox assumed Lee had flagged down a resupply chopper going from Shiloh to Razor—10 miles apart. How many individuals would fly over enemy territory just to attend a Sunday service? I was impressed!

 Lee Herron wears his dress greens in this family photo from 1968. Photo courtesy of the author.

Lee Herron wears his dress greens in this family photo from 1968. Photo courtesy of the author.

On March 3, 2001, a standing-room-only crowd gathered at Texas Tech for a ceremony to honor Marine 1st Lt. Lee Roy Herron. We presented an endowed scholarship in Herron’s name to Texas Tech, as well as a beautiful bronze relief of Lee, handcrafted by classmate Norman Flanagan.

Present at the ceremony were Lee’s mother Lorea Herron, his sister Jane Graham, his wife Danelle (who remarried after Lee’s death), numerous friends and classmates, former teachers, and a number of Marines who had served with Herron. Included among those Marines was Andy Vaart, who accompanied Lee’s body from California to Lubbock for burial. Colonel Fox was the keynote speaker, and I served as master of ceremonies. The mayor of Lubbock issued a proclamation declaring March 3, 2001, as Lee Roy Herron Day.  

Lee’s sister Jane told me that if her mother died that very day, she would die a happy, proud mother. But while his mother was still around, I wanted her to assist me in accomplishing a personal task.

A photo David Nelson took of his friend’s grave during a visit with Lee Roy Herron’s mother. Photo courtesy of the author.

A photo David Nelson took of his friend’s grave during a visit with Lee Roy Herron’s mother. Photo courtesy of the author.

Not long after the ceremony took place, I realized I had never visited Lee’s gravesite itself. I asked his mother if she would accompany me, and she readily agreed. On a cool and sunny day, Mrs. Herron and I drove to Lubbock’s Resthaven Memorial ParkCemetery.  

Mrs. Herron slowly and deliberately led the way to her son’s grave. It soon became apparent to me that she was headed in the direction of my father’s grave. By the time she stopped, we were just 25 yards from where my dad was buried in 1994. We walked the short distance to his grave and Mrs. Herron spoke about how she and my dad had gone to school together during the Great Depression in the tiny farming community called Estacado, Texas—about 20 miles northeast of Lubbock.  

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We returned to Lee’s gravesite, and I noticed that I felt a little weak and could hardly speak to Mrs. Herron. But I felt that finally I had reached the end of my investigation into Lee Herron’s death. I knew that important detail of the location of Lee’s final resting place—and it mattered.

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David Nelson

David Nelson spent three years on active duty in the Marine Corps and achieved the rank of captain. When the Vietnam war ended in late January 1973, he was stationed in Okinawa. After being discharged, he spent a career as a tax attorney and CPA. He was a tax partner with Ernst & Young, and later vice president & grant director with Houston Endowment, a private foundation. Nelson lives in Houston.

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