Joe Graham Died A Heros Death
By Sid Salter
I remember Joe.
He was the only war hero I ever knew.
Joe was the best friend a small boy in rural Mississippi could have had in the spring days of childhood. On looking back, he was a high school kid of average build with close-cropped dark hair. But to me, he was ten feet tall.
The quintessential good ole boy, Joe was. He cared about his family, his church and his school, likely in that order. Like most country boys, he made his own fun in the absence of nearby big city bright lights.
He was a little clumsy and a lot shy. But everyone liked Joe in our little Newton County community. He was a gentle soul with an infectious smile.
I was a first-grader in the summer of 1966, and Joe was a recent graduate of Beulah-Hubbard High School, the rambling building across the road from the teachers home where we lived. My father had been Joes principal, while my mother was his English teacher.
Joe was not a particularly gifted student, my parents would say later, but he did his best in the classroom. As an athlete, Joe was never a star. Yet he seemed glad to be a part of the teams.
I didnt care about those things then, for in my small eyes, Joe was a big kid who had time for me. He helped my father with odd jobs around the school in the summers, and invariably, would interrupt his labors to give me a piggy-back ride or play cowboys-and-Indians.
Joe never had much of a chance in that game. I was always the cowboy, and Joe was the Indian.
Bang, bang, Joe, I would say. I got you. Joe would take his cue, execute his imaginary death throes and fall to the ground. He would lie perfectly still, a look of agony etched on his round face. After a few minutes of this stillness, I would shake his shoulder and say, Wake up, Joe. Lets do it again.
Joe would make a quick resurrection from the Happy Hunting Grounds and I would again be the director of our private battles to settle the West.
Joe enrolled in East Central Junior College and for the next couple of years his visits grew less frequent. But when my family was preparing to move to Jackson in 1968, Joe was there.
He helped my dad roll and bind the rugs in our home to be loaded on the moving trucks. As my family said our goodbyes to Joe, there were small tears in the country boys eyes. And in ours.
A few months later, after the move, we heard that Joe had been sent to Vietnam.
Dad said Joe was too good-hearted to be in a battle zone, that it just wasnt his nature to hurt anyone. I didnt really think much about it then, for I remembered our schoolyard games. Joe will be okay, I said. He can do anything.
Celluloid heroes are always tall, dark, and handsome. They lead the charge, win the battles and ride off into the sunset with the pretty girls at movies end. Thats what I knew of war then.
But, the critics of the Vietnam conflict told us, there could be no heroes in that war. We would as a nation bear the term baby-killers used by the champions of the left to describe young men like Joe who had been sent to a strange land to fight and die.
In 1969, Vietnam had become the most unpopular war in which this nation had ever engaged. While Joe was serving his country, many of his contemporaries in colleges across the country were burning the American Flag in protest of our involvement of Indochina.
Joe was in Vietnam because our government told him to go. His friends knew that was the only reason he needed, for he believed in doing what was right. Doing things that were right were one of the essential elements that made up this young man.
U. S. Army Private Joe Graham was a hero. In a jungle clearing in South Vietnam in 1969, he advanced through heavy enemy fire to rescue two fellow soldiers in his unit who were pinned down. He herded them to safety at the risk of his own life.
Good old Joe, my quiet country playmate, was a man of courage, a hero. His efforts to save his buddies from certain death in a jungle firefight were recounted in an official letter to Joes parents from the Pentagon.
It was The Letter.
Two days after saving the lives of two comrades, Joe had pulled night sentry duty. Chunks of shrapnel from an exploding mortar cut him down in the night.
We returned to Newton County to see Joe after they sent his body home. I stood with my father behind the glass-topped casket.
As I looked down, I recognized the still expression on Joes face. It was as if were back on the schoolyard, where I was the cowboy and he was the Indian.
In the back of my mind was the old boyish plea, Wake up Joe. Lets do it again.
In this season of memorial for this nations fallen servicemen and women, remember the sacrifices of those who, like Joe, have for our country entered into a sleep from which they cannot awaken.
I remember Joe.
Postscript: The Bronze Star of Heroism was posthumously presented to Joes parents, William Eugene and Kate (McElwee) Graham of Route 1, Decatur, for his efforts in rescuing his comrades on March 9, 1969, two days before he met his own death. The citation that accompanied the award reads as follows:
PFC Graham distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions on 9 March 1969 while serving with the fourth platoon of Company C, 4th Battalion, 21st Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade. On that date the company was conducting a search and clear operation southwest of Duc Pho when the fourth platoon was ambushed by an enemy force of undetermined size. Positioned in four fortified emplacements, the insurgents pinned down the entire platoon in a murderous crossfire.
The enemy rounds impacting all around him, Private First Class Graham disregarded the danger involved and crawled across an open rice paddy to a vantage point. Pinpointing the hostile positions, he initiated heavy volumes of
suppressive fire on the insurgents. While he kept enemy occupied, his comrades were able to withdraw to safety. Through his timely actions, he contributed greatly to the success of the operations and undoubtedly saved the lives of
several of his fellow soldiers.
PFC Grahams personal heroism, professional competence, and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflected great credit upon himself, the American Division, and the United States Army.