A 7-foot obelisk in Dallas, near Gastonia, lists nine names: Nine men who died serving their country in Vietnam.
Not many names, compared with the 58,000 on The Wall in Washington.
Yet in a town of roughly 3,000 in 1960, not much bigger than a Charlotte high school now, each death in the war felt huge, and personal.
Each “was part of the whole feeling of Dallas,” said Alan Cloninger, now Gaston County’s sheriff, who was 10 when he attended one of the funerals, Sherman Fields Jr.’s.
Each time, “we’d lost one of our own.”
Roy Neil Burris’ name is second on the Dallas marker.
Sent to South Vietnam, he began his tour as a Marine on Nov. 17, 1967, a month shy of his 19th birthday. He joined Mike Company in 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines.
He’d signed up so he could buy his mother a house, family members said, and took with him to Vietnam his affinity for neatness (he was known for having clothes dry-cleaned, then ironing them before he put them on), and a laid-back and likable manner.
Three months later, he was dead.
Phillip Burris, Roy’s nephew, grew up in Roy’s mother’s house. He says he remembers the day in 1968 that Marines came to the door, and she started to cry.
The house became a time capsule, said Phillip, now 50 and living in Gastonia.
“Everything in her house just stopped. Calendars with Esso on them. Everything.”
For more than 20 years, that was all the family knew about Roy’s death.
Then, they received a phone call.
Brian “Snooks” Strasser had become a squad leader in Mike Company by November 1967. “I remember thinking, ‘Where’s all the old guys? All these guys are my age,’” he said. He was 19, about six months older than Roy, who was assigned to his squad.
Roy “was young, but looked younger,” Strasser said. “Roy looked 15. But you knew he had mettle about him. You knew that.”
When Strasser returned home to Ohio in the late spring of 1968, still 19, he didn’t want to talk about Vietnam – to anyone. But as years, then decades passed, he became more and more convinced he needed to reach out to the families of men he had seen die. He needed to let them know what happened, that they were not forgotten.
His first call, he says, was to Roy Neil Burris’ mother, in September 1993. Roy had been dead a quarter-century.
Strasser identified himself as one of Roy’s squad leaders, then walked her through his time with Roy, telling her Roy did not suffer, and he did not die alone.
Strasser also posted on the Virtual Wall, a nonprofit website of Vietnam remembrances. There, in 2004, he wrote as if talking to Roy, in detail he hadn’t wanted to share with Roy’s mother:
The men “were getting hit hard by small arms, machine guns, rockets and artillery. You were behind a small Vietnamese grave shooting over it whenever it was possible.”
Burris was fighting next to a Marine named Kevin Walton, Strasser wrote: “a fellow North Carolinian” who entered the company as a “Southern white guy who had many pre-conceived ideas about race, (who) could never envision a world different than it was in the ’60s.”
“He wasn’t mean-spirited,” Strasser said, “and he was one of the bravest Marines I ever had. But ...”
He suspected Walton hadn’t been around many black people.
Walton, as it turned out, hadn’t. He’d grown up in Charlotte, about 20 miles from Burris’ home, where violence and protests over integration and civil rights had shaken schools and neighborhoods.
Walton attended West Mecklenburg High, which had its first black students in 1966. Burris had gone to the all-black Highland High in Gastonia.
Separate worlds at home. Not in Vietnam.
There, Strasser said, “You spend nights and days in bad situations, and you’re both fighting for your lives, and you gain a different perspective.”
Strasser continues describing the Feb. 27 battle at Mai Xa Thi, just south of the border of North Vietnam:
“Kevin would tell the story that all hell’s breaking loose, and Roy gets mad. He’s yelling at the enemy. You know, sometimes you get tired of getting shot at, and you’re tired of being scared.”
Then Walton saw Burris get hit, and called out to him. Burris didn’t reply. What Strasser saw next has stayed with him ever since, he said.
“I saw a white guy carrying a black guy back toward our lines. It was Kevin, carrying Roy.
“He was crying.”
Walton refused to let anyone touch the body until he’d carried Burris clear of the firing.
Strasser says the battle changed Kevin Walton “completely. What I saw was a metamorphosis.”
‘He never left Vietnam’
The Burris family had heard none of this before Strasser called.
Walton’s sister, Terre, 14 years younger than Kevin, had heard only bits, and their middle brother, Gerald Jr., nothing at all.
Terre Walton remembers Kevin coming home on leave, a blond, blue-eyed young man who “put Robert Redford to shame. He was gorgeous. … We worshiped him.”
She and her brother recall Kevin taking them everywhere when he was on leave, driving their mom’s Oldsmobile (not very well, Gerald said) to the pool and to baseball games.
But when he came home for good, “he struggled,” Gerald said. “He was never able to get back into reality.”
He worked at carpentry and odds and ends, suffered an array of health problems and drank.
He lived with his mother in a trailer park, and when she died, he moved in with his father. Kevin died of an apparent fall in 2011. He was 63.
Joe Wadlow, a Pennsylvanian who served about six months with Walton, kept up with him until his death. “He was a troubled soul,” Wadlow remembered, “who never left Vietnam.”
“Roy was at the pivotal point in (Kevin’s) life” on the subject of race, Wadlow said. “In the trailer court (after the war), Kevin used to get up in the morning and protect little kids at the school bus stop. Asian, black, white. He felt he needed to watch over them.”
Wadlow believes Walton went to the bus stop each morning until his death. “It was almost like something he had to do every morning,” Terre Walton said.
‘A Man is Never Truly Dead ...’
In Gastonia, Phillip Burris keeps boxes of photos of his uncle Roy and his war honors, including his Purple Heart, and says his mother always wanted him to behave like Roy. “And my grandmother would say, ‘If your uncle was here, he’d straighten you out!’”
Phillip Burris said he struggled after a stint in the Air Force, getting into trouble with drugs, but straightened himself out while caring for Roy’s mother during her final years. She died in February 2014.
She had bought a house with the money Roy’s death provided – “not the big house Roy wanted,” Phillip said, “but it served the purpose of a mansion. ...
“Even though Roy’s gone, he’s still making an impact.”
Brian Strasser said he found solace in talking to families desperate to know what happened to their people.
“Thank God for Strasser,” Phillip Burris said.
“I never knew” what happened to Kevin in Vietnam, Gerald Walton Jr. said. “He never shared that with me. Maybe it’s just too hard to bring back.”
Two weeks ago, Strasser got back from the printers 125 copies of a self-published Vietnam memoir. He isn’t selling them; he’s mailing them free to families of Marines who never came home.
Terre Walton asked Strasser for a book this week, and another for her brother.
Roy Neil Burris and Kevin Walton are in Chapter 25.
Across the top of almost every page of the book is the same sentence:
“A Man is Never Truly Dead Until He is Forgotten.”
The men listed on the Dallas memorial, dedicated in 1974 by the town and the Dallas Jaycees, are:
Army Staff Sgt. Jerry Leroy Addis, 32, killed in action from artillery June 19, 1968, in Bac Lieu, South Vietnam. He served as a cannon crew member.
Marine Lance Cpl. Roy Neil Burris, 19, killed in action from artillery/rocket/mortar fire Feb. 27, 1968, in Quang Tri, South Vietnam. He served as a rifleman.
Marine Lance Cpl. Ronald Lee Davis, 21, who died in an accident as a passenger in an aircraft crash Aug. 24, 1965, in South Vietnam. He served as a plumbing and water supply specialist.
Marine Cpl. Sherman Robert Fields Jr., 20, killed in action from an explosive device May 17, 1968, in Quang Nam, South Vietnam. He served as a mortarman.
Marine Pvt. Anthony Ray Love, 18, killed in action from artillery June 18, 1968, in Quang Tri, South Vietnam. He served as a rifleman.
Army Staff Sgt. Roland Will Manuel, 26, who died from multiple fragmentation wounds Nov. 21, 1967, in Kontum, South Vietnam. He served as an infantryman.
Army Spc. 4 Ricky David Mauney, 20, killed in action from an explosive device April 10, 1969, in Binh Duong, South Vietnam. He served as a combat engineer.
Marine Sgt. Johnny Lee Meeks, 20, killed in action from an explosive device Aug. 28, 1968, in Quang Nam, South Vietnam. He served as a rifleman.
Army Cpl. Donald Blair Paysour, 22, killed in action from small-arms fire April 4, 1968, in Kien Hoa, South Vietnam. He served as an infantryman.
Data comes from the National Archives and service websites.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund hosts “The Wall of Faces” at www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces, with photographs and remembrances.
The Virtual Wall is a separate nonprofit, and its website offers data, photos and remembrances: www.virtualwall.org.
VietnamWarCasualties.org offers military records and other data.
HonorStates.org is a searchable database of U.S. service men and women who gave their lives.
Behind the story
The Dallas marker turned up when I started looking for unusual memorials. Nine names for such a small town. A quick search by name showed many possibilities, but I started with the tale told by Brian Strasser on The Virtual Wall.
Strasser replied quickly, eager to talk about a fellow Marine. The Burris family emailed to say they’d be delighted to talk about Roy Neil. Kevin Walton’s siblings agreed to talk about him.
I found other Marines who had served with Burris and Walton, including Joe Wadlow, who painted onto a motorcycle the names of 206 Marines and Navy Corpsmen who died while serving with Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines.
I visited another memorial in an unfamiliar place that honors the 1,600 North Carolinians who did not come home. It’s at a quiet Interstate 85 rest stop near Thomasville, accessible from both directions, where a red brick wall rises from an achingly green lawn, encircled by crape myrtles and birdsong. I couldn’t bring myself to ask the three people I passed whom they were mourning.
No matter the circumstances, it’s hard to ask about loss. Yet here, in Burris and Walton’s story, I found people speaking passionately, even eagerly, about men who are gone, recalling them with respect and clarity. As Strasser says, the telling is healing.