We Have Not Forgotten
May 26, 2006
Memorial Day arrived a week early this year. It wasn’t felt in the rhythm of marching bands through a colorful parade, nor was it seen overhead in a shower of fireworks lighting up a summer’s sky. It wasn’t heard in the roar of racing engines and cheering crowds, nor smelt in the smoke of bar-b-q pits and simmering baby-back ribs. This year, Memorial Day arrived on the evening of May 20th at a dignified high school graduation ceremony in the small town of Magee, Mississippi, where, along with a brief round of applause from the parents and friends of the class of 2008, it took the form of a congratulatory handshake from Principal Bo Huffman.
Forty-one years before this night, when the graduating class of 1967 met to receive their diplomas in Magee’s Trojan stadium, William Davis Martin was not in attendance. Davis had been young, energetic, and full of life with all its possibilities when he chose to drop out of school and join the Marine Corps. There was a war going on and Davis was not one to miss out on a good fight. His brother tells of a time when a much larger boy was picking a fight with one of Davis’ friends when Davis spoke up, “You can go ahead and kick his butt if you really want to, but you’re gonna have to wait to do it until after you’ve kicked mine first.” …The bully backed down.
Davis was a rifleman with Charlie 2, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division; he was a grunt, and proud of it. When I arrived in Vietnam he became my first fire team leader. He was to teach me those things that must be learned first-hand in combat; those lessons that go beyond classroom lectures and field exercises—he taught me the skills that would serve to help to keep me alive for my thirteen-month tour in the An Hoa River Basin, one of the most hotly contested areas in Vietnam.
On the night of August 21, 1969, Davis was killed in an ambush while walking point near a place we called “The Alamo” on the road between Liberty Bridge and the fire base of An Hoa. Davis was nineteen years old.
In the summer of 2000, I returned to Vietnam with a group from Charlie Company and found the exact spot where Davis had fallen. My squad leader, John O’Brien, and I stood together, held hands, said a prayer, and told Davis we had not forgotten him.
In May of 2001, after spending a great deal of time tracking the information down, my wife and I visited Magee for the first time. His brothers, Billy and Buck, drove us out to the small cemetery where Davis’ grave lies in the shade of a Mississippi oak tree. There we stood together, held hands, said a prayer, and told Davis we had not forgotten him.
On our trip back to Texas I told my wife how ashamed I now felt about not having thought of the effect our visit might have had on the Martin family. I had selfishly gone there for myself—to ease my soul and to say goodbye to my old friend. I realized that I had allowed the visit to be too much about “me” and the past, and only upon leaving town and looking into the distraught faces of his brothers did I recognize how very real and in the present their pain still was. I vowed that I would find a way to let them know (that I knew—what they knew) that Davis’ loss was more than a brief trip to a cemetery. I swore I would not be the guy who waltzed into town, shed a few tears, and waltzed back out again. Their family deserved so much more than that from me—Davis deserved so much more than that from me.
I called Billy Martin and asked for his permission to begin a scholarship in Davis’ name at Magee High School. The year before, I had been able to track down the Martin family by calling the high school and talking with Principal Huffman. He told me at that time that he had never heard of a Davis Martin; he said he was sorry, but he didn’t even know if anyone from Magee had been killed in Vietnam. Furthermore, he didn’t think anyone around the school would know either. Then, just before ending our conversation he said, “Wait a minute, why don’t you talk to Kay Ethridge, she has been around here for ages and she knows everything about everyone.” Principal Huffman had been right, Kay Etheridge did know everyone and everything, and she was able to hook me up with the Martins.
Billy agreed to the plan, and with Kay’s help I was able to make arrangements with the school for the first scholarships to be awarded to the graduating class of 2002. The raising of money became a very personal thing for me. I didn’t hold any fundraisers—no golf tournaments, bake sales, or fish-frys. I just chose to send out letters to everyone I knew—a sort of a “Christmas Card” listing. I asked my children, my brother and sisters, and my nephews and nieces. I asked all of my in-laws: mother, sister, and nephews, nieces, aunts and cousins-in law. I asked all my old friends: middle school, high school and college; friends from work and friends from life in general. I especially asked for assistance from the Marines of Charlie Company; writing to those names of Marines I had served with, and also to those names of Marines whom I only knew through the brotherhood of a shared heritage—all those who showed up on the company roster my platoon commander, Mike Galyean, has compiled over the years.
I wasn’t able to make it to Magee to be present for the awards assembly that first year, so Billy Martin was there to hand out the four scholarships that were awarded to members of the class of 2002. I asked Billy to read a brief statement to the assembly explaining that the scholarships were meant to have Davis’ memory live on through the futures of those students who were assisted by these scholarships—and that they were meant to tell Davis Martin that we haven’t forgotten him. Billy told me how much it had meant to the family that we had done this thing for Davis. I asked if he wanted us to continue the scholarships and he said the family thought it would be a wonderful thing to do.
Each year I follow the same formula: I compose my letter asking for help, and mail them out to my family, friends, and members of Charlie Company. The response has been beyond what I could have dreamed for. Over the past seven years, we will have awarded approximately 55 scholarships, totaling over $50,000.00, to graduates of Magee High School.
The senior awards assembly has become an opportunity for many of us to gather at the Martin home. Marines and corpsmen I haven’t seen in years now show up for the scholarship presentation and stay to enjoy the Martin hospitality and to feast on some of the best food imaginable. We find ourselves surrounded by Davis’ loved ones: his mother and aunts, his brothers and their children and grandchildren. This year I was blessed to hold in my arms Davis’ namesake, Myles Davis Martin, born just a month ago, and I said a silent prayer for Davis and told him once again that we have not forgotten.
Just before we were to take the stage at the awards assembly to announce this year’s recipients of the William Davis Martin Memorial Scholarship, the senior sponsor, Felicia Robinson, took the stage and announced a very special surprise. She told the audience that this year’s senior class had met and agreed that they wanted to do something for Davis to show how much they appreciated what his memory had done for so many of their graduates. All of the more than eighty seniors had signed a letter that they had submitted to the school board the night before asking that Davis Martin be made a member of their class and requesting that he might graduate with them.
One member of the school board had been a member of the class of 1967—the class Davis might have graduated with had he not quit school to join the Corps. He said that he would consider it an honor if he might be the one to officially propose to the board that all unfulfilled requirements be waived and that William Davis Martin be an official member of the graduating class of 2008. The proposal had been unanimously approved.
When I later talked with Felicia, she told me that, as a teacher, she felt that it was certainly important for students to get their math, science, and English, but that she felt that the scholarships offered in Davis’ memory had been a special opportunity for the members of this year’s class to learn more than that which existed in books. She felt that the scholarships were about friendship, about dedication, and about sacrifice, and that this was, perhaps the best message about life that this group could learn from and take with them when they leave Magee High School.
I returned to Magee this past Tuesday night, May 20th, and sat in a row of honor at the foot of the home stands at Trojan Stadium along with Davis’ mother, aunts, his brothers, Billy and Buck and their wives, at the graduation ceremony. On the field, when the class of 2008 marched into the stadium, they sat in neatly arranged folding chairs in front of their parents and friends. Along with the seated graduating seniors was an empty chair—one left vacant for Davis Martin.
This year’s valedictorian is a young lady named Dolly Welch. She is the niece of Patty Martin—Billy’s, wife. She gave a wonderful speech that talked of the many possibilities that lay ahead for these graduates. She talked of hopes and dreams, of goals and aspirations. She ended her speech with a catch in her voice as she said, “… our classmate, William Davis Martin.”
As their names were called out and the seniors filed up to the area where the official guests and Principal Huffman waited to hand the graduates their diplomas, they were all smiles beaming with pride at finally having reached this stage in their lives. When it came time for Davis’ name to be called, Mrs. Robinson paused to give a brief explanation to the audience about Davis’ friends and family and the meaning of the many scholarships that have been awarded in his memory.
Davis’ name was then called and his brother Billy and I came forward. Billy accepted Davis’ diploma and shook the hand of Principal Huffman. We returned to our seats where Billy presented the diploma to Davis’ mother and then I stopped to give her a hug and a kiss. She was crying, but she had a big smile behind the tears—her son had just graduated from high school!
I have attached below a copy of Davis' diploma given to Billy this past Tuesday night. It is important that you note that it is not an honorary diploma by any means. In the graduation program, in the marching-in and seating of the graduates, in the awarding of diplomas, and in the official records of Magee High School and the state of Mississippi, William Davis Martin is a documented graduate of the class of 2008.
Memorial Day came a little early this year. It came thirty-nine years after Davis fell in the darkness of August 21st, 1969, and it came forty-one years after he might have graduated with the class of 1967, but it came nonetheless. We have not forgotten you, Davis. Semper Fi, my old friend, Semper Fi.
To those of you who fought along side Davis Martin; to those of you who fought beside all of the men like Davis Martin—those who gave their all; to all of you who served our country in combat and risked it all; to all of you who have served in the military taking the oath that potentially could have carried you into harms way—I salute you and thank you for your service. Also, to each of you who have so generously helped me over the past seven years with the scholarships in Davis’ memory—thank you from the bottom of my heart. I pray that all of you have a good Memorial Day on Monday (the second time around this year.)