Forty years after the last American troops left Vietnam, emotions still run high for those who lost loved ones in the conflict.
Department of Defense records indicate 225 men in a 37-county area in Middle Georgia died in Vietnam. By far, Bibb County lost the most, with 57 killed. Upson County was second with 13 while Houston County had 12. They ranged in age from 18 to 49.
One of those from Bibb County was Marine Pfc. John Paul Sharpless, a Silver Star recipient. After graduating from Willingham High School in 1969, he enlisted.
He died June 28, 1970, after stepping into a booby trap while on patrol with his platoon in the Quang Nam Province. He had been there for only four months.
His older brother, Larry Sharpless, of Centerville, said it’s still too difficult for him to talk about it. But Larry Sharpless’ wife, Brenda, and son, Cory, sat down recently with The Telegraph to remember the man they think about each Memorial Day -- and every day. Both choked back tears at times as they talked about him.
Brenda was dating Larry when John went to Vietnam, and the three of them spent a lot of time together before he left.
“He was my buddy,” Brenda said.
John was walking near the front of his platoon when he died. A booby trap had been made from a grenade using a trip wire, and John knew it when he tripped the wire. But whoever set the trap forgot to pull out the delay pin, so there was a moment that John was able to turn and warn those behind him.
They all hit the ground, which allowed the shrapnel to fly over them. John was the only one killed.
He could have jumped clear rather than turning and yelling, Brenda said, but his action saved lives. Thanks to an effort by Brenda, about 25 years after his death John was awarded the Silver Star, the third highest combat medal, for his actions that day.
Cory, 37, never knew his uncle. But people had always told him he was a lot like him, and a few years ago he started researching the man he had heard so much about.
“People said I was goofy like him, and troublesome like him, and a pain in the butt like him,” Cory said. “I got curious and started looking into it.”
He ended up locating his uncle’s captain, and the captain wrote him back a 13-page letter describing his memories of John Sharpless and what happened the day of his death.
“There wasn’t a moment I wasn’t proud of him to begin with, so it didn’t make me any more proud because it was impossible to be more proud,” Cory said of getting an official account of what happened. “But it was confirmation that everything I had always heard about my uncle was true.”
ONE MACONITE AWARDED HIGHEST MEDAL
John Paul Sharpless’ Silver Star isn’t the highest medal awarded to a Bibb County resident who served in Vietnam. Marine Sgt. Rodney Davis was awarded the Medal of Honor for jumping on a grenade to save troops around him.
In 2012, a group of Marines erected an $80,000 monument for Davis at his gravesite at Linwood Cemetery in Macon.
John Hollis, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who is married to Davis’ niece, has written a book about him. Hollis recently signed a contract with a publisher and expects the book will be available in November.
Another notable Maconite who never came home from Vietnam was Bobby Jones. The interchange of Interstates 16 and 75 is named in his honor. An Air Force physician, Jones was hitching a ride on a fighter jet that crashed. His remains were never recovered.
His sister, Jo Anne Shirley, would go on to become a national leader in the effort to find the remains of soldiers lost in Vietnam.
A total of 58,303 Americans died in Vietnam while 1,627 remain listed as missing in action.
A BROTHER REMEMBERED
Army Sgt. Willis Lee Furney, 20, of Macon, died March 9, 1967, during a firefight in the Tay Ninh Province.
His younger brother, Douglas Furney, was playing football when he got the news.
“It was really tough,” he said. “People say it gets easier, but it doesn’t. It’s tough even to this day.”
Willis Furney enlisted right after he graduated from high school in 1964. A paratrooper in the U.S. Army, Furney died leading his men in an effort to take out snipers who had other troops pinned down. For his actions in that battle, he was awarded the Bronze Star, the fourth highest combat medal.
Douglas Furney said his brother was an outgoing, patriotic man who loved the Army and likely would have re-enlisted if he hadn’t been killed.
“He was proud of what he was doing,” Furney said. “The soldiers back then didn’t get the respect that they get now. A lot of people were against the war. ... I’m glad to see it now that the public looks at them as heroes. They didn’t 40 and 50 years ago.”
Johnny Payne, of Dublin, didn’t lose a family member in Vietnam, but he did lose some friends, including one who died in his arms.
Payne was an Army combat veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star. He played basketball at Dexter High School with Byron Lindsey, who graduated before Payne and went to Vietnam, where he was killed in combat.
“I will never forget when he left he talked about how he was really fearful,” Payne recalled. “He said ‘I won’t ever see you again.’”
After Lindsey died, Payne graduated and went to Vietnam himself. One thing he quickly realized is that many of his fellow soldiers were from big cities like New York and had never set foot in a forest, much less the jungles of Vietnam.
Having grown up hunting and fishing in the wilds of Laurens County, Payne figured he was the one best suited to lead patrols through the jungle. Ordinarily the job of walking at the front of a patrol -- the point -- would be rotated. But Payne did it himself for 30 days straight.
He remembered one fellow soldier who was wounded in a firefight and died in his arms.
Payne said he considers himself fortunate to have survived the war.
“I didn’t really expect to come home,” he said.
Today, he is a leader in the region in remembering the sacrifices of those who served in Vietnam. For years after the war he didn’t want to talk about, but he now speaks to students and anyone else who wants to hear a soldier’s perspective.
Last year Payne spearheaded an effort to bring a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall to Dublin, which drew thousands of people.
He met widows of men who died in Vietnam as well as other family members who lost loved ones.
The most rewarding thing to him, though, was the Friday morning that about 3,000 students from the Laurens County school system arrived to see the wall.
“They were all reverent,” he said. “Seeing how they reacted gave me hope for the future of our nation.”
Payne said he thinks the war was just and that the U.S. should have stuck it out. Regardless, he said, the impact was widespread.
“It touched every home in America in one way or another,” he said.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.