A long goodbye

Mother of Marine who died in Vietnam meets the men her son served with, 41 years after his death

By Fred Brown knoxnews.com

LENOIR CITY — For 41 years there was lingering uncertainty for Emma Lou Stansell over how her son, Gerald, died in Vietnam.

She had, she said, “mother questions” after her 20-year-old son came home from the war in 1966 in a sealed casket.

Stansell, 90, from Charlotte, N.C., had many of those questions answered over the years through phone calls and letters from buddies who served with her second child, first son and Marine sergeant.

But in the 41 years since, she had never met the men of “Suicide Charley” Company of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines, who were with her son the day he died so long ago in the jungle war in Chu Lai.

All that changed Saturday when Stansell came with her son, Ken, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, to meet with the young man’s former comrades.

“It was,” said Stansell, whose husband, Marvin, died in 1992, “like meeting with members of my family.”

More than 50 of the former Marines of Suicide Charley gathered for their 13th reunion at the home of Fred Nelson, a sergeant in the company and today general manager of the Lenoir City Utility Board’s Water Department. He’s also the man who made it his mission to find Emma Lou Stansell after the war.

He was Gerald Stansell’s close friend in Vietnam.

“If there was ever a poster boy for a Marine, it was Gerald Stansell,” said Nelson.

He and Gerald talked the night before they went on a patrol with Charley Company, designated in 1961 when the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division authorized “C” Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines to display and carry the “Suicide Charley” guidon at all official ceremonies and functions.

“We were sitting around playing harmonica. Gerald said he had a feeling he wouldn’t come back from the next patrol,” Nelson said. “We all feel that way some time.”

But the following day, Feb. 8, 1966, Gerald Stansell died in an ambush at Phu Long along a rice paddy dike.

“Gerald was running toward his men,” said Ben Goodwyn, 67, now mayor of Red Oak, Texas, and then company commander, trying to get behind a group of about 20 Viet Cong who had caught the Marines in a “minuet ambush.”

“Gerald was hit underneath the right arm and the bullet came out under his left arm,” Goodwyn said Saturday.

Emma Lou Stansell, sitting beside him, lowered her eyes and studied her hands.

Over time, she had heard the many stories about her son, a talented artist who made quick friends and was liked by all of the boys of Suicide Charley.

But Saturday it was harder hearing the stories firsthand from those who had fought alongside him in what proved to be America’s longest war.

Charlie Jones, of Nacogdoches, Texas, an art teacher, said he had naturally gravitated to Gerald because of their common interest in art. He was able to give Gerald some lessons in between combat patrols. Now his eyes fill up with tears, remembering the boy who would never draw again.

On Saturday, Emma Lou Stansell was able to hug and cry with the former Marines. During the ceremony before the cookout, members of Suicide Charley read the names, more than 50, of those buddies who died in Vietnam and those who have died since the end of the war.

Each name was accompanied by the solemn ringing of a bell. At the end of the reading, when Paula Fulkerson, wife of Jim Fulkerson of Jonesboro, Ark., who was a platoon leader in Charley Company, sang a haunting rendition of “Homeward Bound” many were in tears, including wives.

Moments later, two musicians played taps in echo.

Robert Ingram, the company’s Medal of Honor winner, stood with his arm around Emma Lou Stansell as both wept silently. The once boys of Charley Company have never forgotten the close brotherhood they shared in the danger and ditches of Vietnam.

“Friends ask me why I go to these reunions every year,” said Ingram. “The answer is, I have to.”