Memorial Day: Some gave all

Published 10:04 am Saturday, May 28, 2022

Contributed by Nancy Ensor
It is always important to recognize the many contributions of our military men and women, but the Memorial Day weekend is the time to give special acknowledgement to those whose lives were lost in service to America.
Throughout Carter County, there are 14 “signed” bridges for our military and law enforcement heroes who lost their lives in the line of duty. Thirteen served in various armed forces and the other man, Todd McKeehan (who had also served overseas in wartime), died during U.S. federal law enforcement service. Each of these soldiers has their own personal story, and a unique place in history.

World War II, George Wayne Persinger
He was known as Wayne around the Watauga community so he wouldn’t be confused with his father. George and Mary Nell Rumbley Persinger had six other children and many of their boys grew up as aviation enthusiasts. Wayne was the very first applicant for V-2 class training at the Johnson City U.S. Naval Reserve recruiting office and wound up as an airman in the South Atlantic during World War II.
After many successful bombing operations that took out German subs, it was during a nighttime patrol that Wayne and the entire crew of his Martin “Mariner” craft were lost at sea during a confrontation with the enemy. All ten men were initially listed as Missing In Action as of July 4, 1943; later that month, the U.S. government sent word to Wayne’s family that he had been declared dead. His body was never recovered.


World War II, Phillip Tolley
One of five children of Dave and Julia Hillman Tolley of Hampton, Phillip grew up in Browns Branch, attended church at Little Doe Freewill Baptist, and was a graduate of Hampton High School. In late 1942, he set off to serve in the U.S. Army/Air Force and was sent to the coast of New Guinea.
During the Battle of Cape Gloucester, a Jeep explosion near his battalion’s camp severely burned Phillip and caused excruciating internal injuries. He died a few days later, three months after his 21st birthday. Due to supply complications, it took the U.S. government more than four years to return the soldier’s body to East Tennessee for burial.


Korean War, Razor J. Campbell
One of ten children of Sarah M. Campbell of Stoney Creek, Razor John Campbell was his true given name though he was alternately known as “Doc”. Razor and his brothers often talked of joining the military: Landon signed up first for the Army and was soon followed by 24-year-old Razor, just after the Korean War broke out.
With less than a year’s service, Razor was shipped overseas to North Korea where combat was underway. During intense heavy arms fire, Razor was struck and killed and several other Carter County men serving with him were injured. Initially, Sarah Campbell was notified that her son was Missing In Action; it was five months before his body was returned home for burial.


Vietnam War, James D. Bowers
James David Bowers was one of five Happy Valley High School graduates who died in Vietnam and who all eventually received bridge designations in Carter County. Although he was a rather quiet, small-framed young man, James earned the respect of his peers, teachers, and neighbors for his ethics, determination, and positive life attitudes. At the age of three, James was with his mother when she died in a car/train collision, and he was hospitalized for several days. Other physical ailments plagued him throughout life, but James had a strong mindset for service: he dreamed of becoming a U.S. Marine. Enlistment was shortly after James’ 18th birthday, and he was eventually trained as a machine gunner.
It was May 24, 1968, on a ridge near the Khe Sanh Airfield in South Vietnam that James’ battalion came under intense small arms fire. He was struck and killed at the age of 19.


Vietnam War, Billy J. Ellis
Called “Turk” by his teammates on the Happy Valley basketball team, Billy Joe Ellis was a good natured, well-liked young man who graduated from HVHS in 1966, in the same class as James David Bowers. Billy Joe was the son of Bruce and Betty Lou Thomason Ellis, one of four children. Like his friend James, Billy Joe was bent toward military service and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
The exact circumstances of Billy Joe’s death near Danang, Vietnam were never determined but he was working near an ammo bunker that exploded, and he was severely wounded. Some reports indicate the young man continued to work at his station despite his injuries; the U.S. government notified the Ellis family that Billy Joe was Missing In Action. Ten years later, he was officially declared dead. Like Wayne Persinger, his body was never brought home.


Vietnam War, James C. Gilbert
James Caroll Gilbert had already spent 22 years in the Army when he was sent to Vietnam. The son of Eller and Bertha Potter Gilbert of Butler was a well-respected, devoted military career man and the events that unfolded on March 12, 1969, showed his determination and how much he cared for his Army brothers and his mission.
As machine gunner in a helicopter, James’ Command Group was attempting to rescue five wounded infantry soldiers on the ground. Because of enemy fire, the chopper was repeatedly waved away; it took numerous attempts to even get close to the landing zone. On the last try, very close to the ground, James removed his harness to move into an exposed open doorway from which he could shoot. Although the helicopter was struck by enemy fire and two crew members injured, James held his position and was firing into the last enemy position when he was struck by an automatic weapon. His disregard for personal safety allowed the craft to exit the area and saved the lives of the rest of his crew members.


Vietnam War, Floyd S. Harmon
One of nine kids, Floyd Steven Harmon was from Avery County, N.C. Charming, sweet, and handsome, Floyd caught the eye of a Butler girl, Lois Walsh. He married his sweetheart and worked awhile at Drexel Furniture before deciding to enter the military and become a paratrooper with the U.S. Army.
Floyd’s overseas tour started on January 8, 1966, in South Vietnam. Just six weeks later, his company was targeted by Northern forces in the Quang Tri province and Floyd was among those killed. It was never determined if his death was from small arms fire, or grenade. Floyd was laid to rest in the Stone Mountain Baptist Church Cemetery, in the community referred to by locals as “Old” Beech Mountain, N.C.


Vietnam War, Larry J. Lyons

Larry Jerome Lyons, son of George and Cora Lyons, lived and schooled in Happy Valley. He married Peggy Young in 1959, not long after high school, then signed up for the U.S. Army. The young couple started a family while Larry served at Fort Belvoir, Va.
When the Vietnam War broke out, Larry was moved to an engineering battalion and sent to the southern Tuyen Duc province. In April 1968, an artillery rocket mortar attack rained down on his company, claiming his life. He was 26 years old and left a wife and children.

Vietnam War, Gary D. Murray
Dubbed “Wittiest Male of the Senior Class” at Happy Valley High, Gary Dalton Murray brought laughter and fun wherever he went. The well-liked young man was the son of Arthur and Betty Murray and a brother to six siblings.
Soon after graduating school, Gary reported for Army duty and trained to be a Medical Specialist (NCO), attaining the rank of Specialist Four. It was during Operation Francis Marion in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam in May of 1967 that the young man lost his life, just eight months after deployment.


Vietnam War, Harold W. Wilson

Harold Wendell Wilson was an athletic, popular team member of the Happy Valley High School Warriors in the early 1960s. One of five children born to William and Ethel Miller Wilson, Harold’s birth had occurred in Erwin, Tenn., before the family moved to Carter County.
Harold’s patriot heart led him to enlist with the U.S. Marine Corps when he was just 18. He attained the rank of Corporal quickly and was classified as a Rifleman before he was shipped out for war duty in the Quang Ngai province. In a Viet Cong encounter there on March 21, 1966, an intense battle ensued, claiming seven U.S. soldiers’ lives and wounding many more. Twenty-one-year-old Harold Wilson was among the dead.


Persian Gulf War, Daniel E. Graybeal
A 1983 graduate of Happy Valley High and the son of Frank and Virginia Graybeal, Daniel Eugene Graybeal was an outstanding ROTC student at ETSU. He finished his degree in 1987 before enlisting in the U.S. Army where he became a Medevac pilot and attained the rank of Captain.
It was during Operation Desert Storm when Daniel and three others from his company volunteered for a late-night rescue mission in Saudi Arabia. An injured pilot was down there, and the men readily jumped in a helicopter. They were nearing the pick-up destination when anti-aircraft fire struck the chopper, sending it into an uncontrollable spin. The craft crashed to the ground and exploded. Only one crew member, who was thrown from the chopper, lived. The deaths of 25-year-old Daniel Graybeal and his two crewmates occurred in the very last hours of the Persian Gulf War.


Operation Enduring Freedom, Jefferson D. Davis
Jefferson Donald “Donnie” Davis was a standout athlete at Elizabethton High School, and later at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C. The son of William Lon and Linda Davis studied nursing before his enlistment with the Army in 1984. From there, he was a medical specialist in Korea for several years and opted to make the military his lifelong career. While overseas, Donnie wed Mi Kyong Yu and the pair had two children, Cristina and Jesse.
In 2001, a now-experienced Team Sergeant Davis led the Army Rangers on missions in Afghanistan. In December 2001, the Special Forces Group was assisting Afghan opposition fighters when an equipment snafu caused a U.S. missile to miss its intended target: Donnie and two of his crew members were killed in the blast. The bridge sign that honors the fallen Green Beret on Highway 400 now also bears an additional banner: “Donnie, you will never be forgotten. You are a HERO.” The banner went up almost immediately after the 2021 removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.


Operation Iraqi Freedom, Stephen R. Maddies
Stephen Roosevelt Maddies was a California boy, but he adopted Tennessee as his home after marrying Jennifer Range of Elizabethton. The gregarious, fun-loving, dedicated military man had already spent half his life in the service when he volunteered for a second tour in Iraq with the Tennessee National Guard.
Stephen’s military time included 15 years of active duty with the Army which included two tours in Korea, a tour in Kuwait during the Gulf War, and later tours in Bosnia and Honduras. He was a Master Parachutist, a bona fide, decorated war hero who had only 18 days remaining on his second Iraq tour when he was killed during a small arms attack July 31, 2007. Stephen left behind his wife, their daughter Megan Maddies and son Tyler Stephens of Elizabethton; and two daughters, Sherice and Jenae Maddies of Las Vegas, Nev. Members of the Bristol, Tennessee Patton-Crosswhite VFW Post 6975 dedicated their facility in honor of their beloved comrade. In 2018, the SSG Stephen R. Maddies Memorial Hall was dedicated in his honor.

Memorial Day focus
Memorial Day in the U.S. is always observeded on the last Monday of May, falling on May 30 this year. The federal holiday was originally called Decoration Day for the tradition of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags, and is designed to honor those who lost their lives in service to the country. Although the holiday was first observed in May 1868, in 1971 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to designate the holiday as the final Monday of May. It is tradition that at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia a flag is placed upon each grave, and the president or vice president lays a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This event is attended every year by thousands of people who show up to pay their respects. In our region, a number of events are held across Memorial Day weekend to honor those who died in protection of our country.
While many others from Carter County have been killed in foreign wars, the men in this story are remembered daily as motorists see their names on bridge signs that are scattered all throughout the city and county. There is much more to their lives and stories than can be told here, and an upcoming book “We’ll Cross That Bridge…Celebrating the Namesake Bridges of Carter County, Tennessee and the Beloved People They Honor” reveals more about them and their families. The book is a comprehensive volume that contains information and photographs on the 84 people who have bridge designations in our home county.
For more details and pictures on the men in this story, see chapter one, “Military/Law Enforcement…Ultimate Sacrifice” in “We’ll Cross That Bridge” which is being released next month. Book distribution sites and book signing dates will be announced.