In the jungles of Vietnam at night, sound can carry with great clarity and distance.
Thats the first thing Dan Kellum remembers about the night of April 7, 1970.
He heard a sharp explosion and knew immediately someone had stepped on a booby trap. The blast was followed by horrific, continuous screaming that pierced the pitch-black darkness. Kellum, a Marine lieutenant and platoon commander, hoped it wasnt one of his men, but that hope was soon dashed.
The screaming came from 21-year-old Pfc. Charles Fraley, who had been in Vietnam for eight months without a scratch. His leg was badly damaged and would likely have to be amputated, but he was quickly taken out with a medevac chopper. Kellum thought he would survive.
The next night he got word Fraley didnt make it. Kellum walked off to be alone and was surprised to find himself sobbing uncontrollably.
Although he had known Fraley only a short time, the young man from Milledgeville made a deep impression on him.
Kellum quietly promised the heavens that night he would not let the man he called Charlie be forgotten. Just over 40 years later, he has kept that promise.
Kellum, who lives in Texas, included a chapter on Fraley in a book about his experiences in Vietnam, called American Heroes: Grunts, Pilots & Docs. In 2011 he self-published it in two volumes, with Fraleys story included in Volume 1. Although he has sold only about 900 copies, he is working on a deal with a distributor and is trying to get it on Amazon so it can have wider availability.
The book details his experiences in Vietnam and the stories of those he served with and some he just learned about. He worked on it for 20 years, but it was the chapter on Fraley, he said, that he realized he needed to get through to push forward with the book.
He was a good person, Kellum said, and I wanted him to be remembered.
Although Fraley, a black man, went to segregated schools all of his life, somehow in Vietnam he seemed colorblind. Kellums book cites an incident in which some black troops that Fraley didnt know kept calling him brother.
He said, I aint your damn brother, Kellum wrote. Charlie seemed to indicate that his brothers were the multi-colored Echo 2-3 squad members ... who regardless of race or ethnic background would be there for him as he would be there for them when the bullets or shrapnel were flying. Real brothers have your back when it counts.
Another fellow Marine dubbed Fraley the squads guardian angel because he always wanted to walk point, the lead position on patrol and the most dangerous. In fact, Fraley was on point when he stepped on the booby trap.
The chapter includes a letter Capt. Jim Kyle wrote to Fraleys mom in 2007 to say he had nominated Fraley for a Silver Star.
Charles took it upon himself to be the one who would guide us to safety in all the patrols the platoon went on, Kyle wrote. As the platoon point man he led us through the thickest jungle, highest mountains and lowest valleys with one purpose in mind -- the safety of his fellow Marines.
In 1993, Kellum drove all the way from Texas to Milledgeville to visit Fraleys grave and learn more about him. He tracked down many friends and family. He also visited the Vietnam Memorial at the Baldwin County Courthouse, where Fraleys name is etched along with seven others. Kellum took a photo of it, and in the background, the U.S. flag at the courthouse is flying upside down.
It was likely just a mistake made when the flag was raised that day, but Kellum thought there might be another reason.
I felt like Charlies spirit was messing with me, Kellum said. He was one to always do the unexpected in Vietnam.
Fraleys mother, Gladys Fraley, and sister, Patricia Fraley, still live in Milledgeville and said they appreciate him being remembered in the book. Patricia Fraley was 11 when he was killed.
It was kind of hard, knowing my big brother was gone, she said. I wasnt going to see him anymore.
The memory of the night Fraley was fatally injured haunted Kellum after he returned home, and his telling of it gives insight into why it can be so difficult for combat veterans to leave those memories behind.
For many years after returning from Vietnam, Kellum wrote, I often awoke in a cold sweat from hearing Charlies screams in the darkness. ... I kept thinking if only I had been there, maybe I could have prevented this from happening.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.