By Mike Shaw
For the Observer
While serving in the military in Vietnam I was privileged to meet many fine individuals. Approaching fifty years later, several of us still maintain a friendship. And we tend to think about our comrades who were not fortunate enough to have returned home safely – those we will never see again.
Among my friends from that period was fellow 1st Lieutenant Harry Gordon Prince, Jr. Harry was from Salem, Alabama, and a graduate of Auburn University. He was a very unassuming gentleman and preferred working in the field rather than base camp in Chu Lai. He was a pretty good volleyball player. Being somewhat tall and lanky, he covered the net very well, and was one you wanted on your team.
Like Harry, I was a 1st Lieutenant Combat Engineer platoon leader. Harry was initially assigned to a different unit when he first reported for duty in Vietnam. It was a unit with poor morale and other issues. Shortly after arriving, the unit was stood down and withdrawn from Vietnam. This was during President Nixon’s program of Vietnamization – turning the conduct of the war over to the South Vietnamese and hastening withdrawal of American forces. Men – and women – who had a very short time remaining in the country were given an early DEROS (Date of Expected Return from Overseas). Those with more time remaining were reassigned, and such was the case with Harry. Our unit received two lieutenants from that unit- Harry and another excellent officer, David Spiegel.
For a period of time I was our company’s “Class A Agent” (pay officer). In the States it was pretty much the responsibility of the men to get to the pay officer for pay each month; in Vietnam, it was the responsibility of the pay officer to get to the men. We had several platoons and individual men on loan to other units, e.g., demolition men (we called them “Master Blasters”), heavy equipment operators, etc. Each month I did a lot of helicopter hopping from location-to-location. Frequently it involved spending the night in the field to await a helicopter ride back to base camp the next day. On some of those occasions I ended up sharing Harry’s tent.
I was a relative newlywed, as was Harry, and I wrote letters home. But I was always amazed at how much Harry would write. We would take turns at his little field desk using a kerosene lamp for light. He wrote many, many pages home, and it became a bit of a joke between us. It was obvious that he cared deeply for his wife and family.
A very large operation was being conducted related to Laos. It was named Lam Son 719 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Lam_Son_719) I wasn’t directly affiliated with the campaign, but did provide several of my men and equipment, again – demolition experts, heavy equipment operators, etc. I was scheduled to come home for two weeks leave – which, by the time you took off two days travel time each way, ended up being a ten day visit. A short, but a much appreciated break. I had a new daughter I had not yet seen and was anxious to get home, if only for that brief period. I was worried that the operation might endanger my home visit plans, but fortunately that did not happen.
The morning I was preparing to leave our field compound and head to base camp in Chu Lai – and then depart for Saigon and on to the U.S. – I received a radio call from our Battalion Chaplain, Capt. Billy Ingram. Chaplain Billy, as he was called, said he was in the Battalion Commander’s helicopter ( Lt. Col. William Munn) and heading to our compound. He asked that I meet him at our helipad. That was unusual as he had never before used Colonel Munn’s helicopter to visit us.
When I picked him up, he informed me that the afternoon before, March 14, 1971, about 8 or 9 of our men had been killed, including Harry. Chaplain Billy wanted to hold a brief memorial for them with us before heading north to where this happened.
Several years ago I attended a unit reunion where I met two of Harry’s men who were with him that day. One was missing his leg, lost it the same time as Harry’s death. He said that it was late afternoon and everyone was eating. He was with several fellows when the supply helicopter arrived. This gentleman had just finished eating and headed to the copter to see if there was any mail. The next thing he remembered was being in the hospital and told that he had lost his leg. He was somewhat fortunate in that two others where he had been were killed, and had he not left for the helicopter, he probably would have lost his life as well. Fate and timing are funny things.
It is my understanding the unit was hit by North Vietnamese artillery fired from Laos. Harry died instantly.
I felt guilty that I was going home for a leave to see my family and Harry was going home in a coffin. What a tragedy and horrible loss of life – as were they all.
I live in Georgia, and knowing Harry was an Alabama boy, I wanted to seek out his grave and pay my respects to him. One event that rekindled my desire to find Harry was a call from a nice lady affiliated with Auburn University, Heather Crozier. The university is preparing to offer a scholarship in Harry’s name and Mrs. Crozier requested information pertaining to him.
Locating the gravesite became a bit more of a challenge than expected. However, with the help of two Opelika ladies, Edna Ward and Pam Smith, and Heather Crozier, I think the location has been narrowed down. Soon my wife and I will make the trip to visit Harry and share thoughts and photos with others who knew this fine individual.
Mike Shaw lives in Stone Mountain, Georgia. With help from Edna Ward and others listed above, the grave of 1st Lt. Harry Gordon Prince, Jr., was located in the Beulah Cemetery in Beulah. Prince was born in Salem on December 21, 1947 and died March 14, 1971, near Quang Tri, Viet Nam.
It is appropriate that on this upcoming Memorial Day we remember Lt. Prince’s service and sacrifice so that America remains free. Thank you, Lt. Prince and your family.