When he was growing up, Steve Turunc would listen to his grandfather’s stories.
They weren’t always tales of baseball and fishing. They were war stories about dense jungles and rice paddies. They were stories of helicopters and hand grenades, bravery and courage.
John Brackeen was a Marine, only you should never refer to a Marine in the past tense. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Semper Fi.
Brackeen died of bone cancer four years ago and was promoted to the ranks of heaven. He was the reason his 24-year-old grandson now wants to be a Marine and has applied for Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va.
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Steve looked up to his grandpa, the man he called “Big John.”
“And Steve was the apple of John’s eye,” said Brackeen’s widow, Gwen.
There was one story Brackeen rarely told to his family. But Gwen never needed a calendar to know when it was the first week of September. Her husband would quietly call his buddies from Company B of the First Battalion, Fifth Marines, First Marines Division.
Their long-distance voices choked with emotion, they would quietly recall the afternoon of Sept. 6, 1967, in the Quang Nam Province in South Vietnam.
The memory of that day will never leave them. They won’t let it go.
Without this story, there would be no other stories.
Brackeen told it to Steve when he was 15. Steve then told his mother, Maya, whose father had never told her.
She was only 1 year old when Brackeen and others came under attack from the North Vietnamese on a search and clear mission as part of Operation Swift. During the ambush, a sergeant named Rodney M. Davis threw himself on the enemy grenade, absorbing its deadly impact and saving the lives of the others.
Brackeen, the platoon leader, was not far away. In those terrifying seconds, he was convinced he was going to die.
Davis was born and raised in the Pleasant Hill community of Macon. He was only 25 when he was killed. He would have turned 72 this past Monday. He left behind a wife and two young daughters. He was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest military decoration and is Macon’s only Medal of Honor recipient.
Steve remembers his grandfather once telling him the account had been written up in a book called “A Few Good Men: The Fighting Fifth Marines” by military historian Ronald Brown.
On Thursday, Steve and his grandmother left Austin, Texas. They will drive 975 miles across five states and arrive in Macon on Friday. They will join with an active group of veterans who served with Brackeen in Vietnam and call themselves the “Friends of Sgt. Davis Family.”
On Saturday, they will participate in one of the group’s annual workdays at Linwood Cemetery, where Davis is buried. They also will attend meetings to plan upcoming fundraisers to support the Sgt. Davis Scholarship Fund and Macon Cemetery Preservation.
These ongoing efforts have been spearheaded by Nicholas Warr, who lives in Flat Rock, N.C., and is the treasurer and past president of the 1/5 Vietnam Veterans Association. A benefit golf tournament is scheduled for June 21, and the Third Annual Rock ‘n Soul for Sgt. Davis Benefit Show is Sept. 13.
Gwen said she is “bringing my work clothes” and is ready to roll up her sleeves for the cemetery cleanup. She and Steve, who has lived with his family in Paris, France, since he was 9, both said their first-ever visit to Macon is personal, too.
“This is a way to honor the man who saved my grandfather’s life,” Steve said. “I want to pay my respects to his family and to the men who served with him.”
One member of the extended family is John Hollis, who is married to Regina Davis, the niece of Rodney Davis. Hollis is a former journalist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a self-professed history buff. He is working on a book titled “Sgt. Rodney Davis: The Making of a Hero.”
Over the past few years, Hollis interviewed many of the men who were there, including Brackeen. “He talked at length about how he thought he was going to die that day,” said Hollis. “He was already curled up.”
Hollis said he was particularly touched by the deep love and respect for Davis and his unselfish sacrifice. Many men said they did not know him well or had not known him for very long. Davis and Brackeen had only met a few days earlier.
“You always wonder what they went on and did with their lives,” Hollis said. “They became husbands, fathers, grandfathers and one is now a great-grandfather.”
Hollis said he corresponded by both email and Facebook while Steve was still living in Paris. (He has been back in Texas since December.)
In one e-mail exchange, Steve described Davis as a “brave man and a good Marine.” Hollis said we all must consider the times, too.
It was 1967. Race riots were breaking out across the nation. Davis was African-American. Brackeen and many of the other men in the platoon were white.
“My grandfather always told me that if (Davis) had not jumped on that grenade, every Marine in that trench would have been seriously injured or killed,” Steve wrote. “My grandfather believed that he would have died that day. My mother would have been an orphan at the age of 1, and I would have never known my grandfather. In a time when the United States was ravaged by racial tension, I wonder what kind of bond men form while fighting a war, for him to have saved the lives of a bunch of white men, including a Texan officer, that he knew for a short period of time. (Davis) was a modern-day hero, and the kind of Marine I strive to live up to.”
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.