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Watauga native Harold Dean Beach as a proud soldier in the U.S. Army. Beach was killed in Vietnam. Submitted photo

Originally published: 2013-05-25 16:35:29
Last modified: 2013-05-25 16:38:24

Vietnam veterans to honor one of their own

by Sherrie Norris

Forty-four years. "It's a long time," said Jim Jean on Tuesday, talking about his comrade and Watauga County native Harold Dean Beach, who was killed in battle on May 9, 1969, in Binh Duong, Vietnam.

"It's also a long story," Jean said, as he explained why he and 15 of his "D-Troopers," as he called them, are coming to Boone next week to honor Beach with a memorial service at his gravesite on Rich Mountain.

"There was a lot going on when Harold died, continuous action, and we just never gave him the proper memorial in Vietnam that he deserved," Jean said. "Guys tend to put war out of their minds after it's over -- or as much of it as we can."

Ten years ago, Jean said, four of the D-Troopers got together for the first time since Vietnam and started a reunion.

"The next year, eight of them connected. Thanks to the Internet, they continued to locate others," he said. "At the end of last year, they were able to finally track me down."

Jean reunited with his buddies in Washington, D.C., in April this year.
"It was the first time that some of us had seen or talked to each other in 44 years since we left the war zone," he said.

"A lot of the guys are getting older and some are already gone."

Of course, he said, memories of Beach surfaced during the gathering. "We decided that we needed to honor him and do it right," Jean said.

At 10 a.m. on Thursday, May 30, they plan to do just that at the Skyland Cemetery at Rich Mountain Baptist Church near Boone where Beach was laid to rest.

"Harold was a hero who sacrificed his life for his brothers in arms," Jean said. "He was just 18 years old, almost 19, and in my infantry platoon, the Aero Rifle Platoon of D-Troop, Infantry Division, when he was killed in an ambush."

Jean, a lieutenant at the time, remembered the day -- and what was "supposed to be a routine patrol," he said.

"No one knows how they (the North Vietnamese Army), knew where we would land, out of the many places we could have," he said. "It made me think of the Billy Joel song, 'Goodnight Saigon,' that says, 'They heard the hum of the motors, counted the rotors and waited for us to arrive.'"

Jean and Beach were the first soldiers to exit the right side of their helicopter when they were ambushed. "Harold was on the right and I was on the left," Jean said. "He was immediately targeted."

Of all the "safe actions Harold could have taken," Jean said, "his thoughts were about his buddies who were about to be massacred. He charged the NVA positions with his machine gun, along with his friend, Johnny Brannon, from the second helicopter. Harold was killed by a bullet to his chest and Johnny was wounded by one that shattered his upper leg bone."

There were many heroes that afternoon, Jean said, some of whom, including Brannon, will come to Boone for Harold's memorial service next week.

"Those guys kept our casualties down to three," Jean said. "Had Harold not acted as decisively as he had at the beginning, enabling others to join the fight, many would've been killed. Instead, it was Harold, alone."

Jean has been working closely with Beach's sister, Deborah Beach Jones, to organize Thursday's service.

Jones, who lives in Virginia, was 5 when her brother was killed.

She remembers sitting on the front porch with her mother and two sisters -- two days before Mother's Day -- when two military officers drove up into their yard in a military Jeep to deliver the heartbreaking news of his death.

"It was a pivotal moment for my family," she said. "Nothing was ever the same after that."
Jones "tried to piece it all together," she said. "But, I didn't really understand it all at the time."

It was only "by grace of God," she said, that her family survived the loss as well as it did.

Within 10 years, however, the deaths of her brother, their sister Brenda and their mother took a toll on them all.

Jones was invited by Jean to meet her late brother's buddies for the first time at their D.C. reunion in April.

"What Jim Jean is doing is awesome -- not only for us and for Harold, but also for his platoon," she said.

Beach's cousin, Darlene Greene Caudill, who lives in Deep Gap, was only 6 years old at the time; her memories are vivid.

"His military funeral was the first I can remember attending," she said. "I can recall the sounds of the 21-gun salute and how I jumped with each shot. As I have heard Taps played throughout the years, my mind always goes back to that moment in time when my brave 18-year-old cousin jumped out of the helicopter and gave his life for not only his platoon, but for his country."

Beach was the only male in a family of six children born to Stewart and Helen Perry Beach. He grew up on Rich Mountain, attended Green Valley Elementary and Watauga High School before he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

"He was determined to serve," she said. "With him being underage and the only boy in the family, our mother had to sign for him, but she didn't want to do it."

With less than a year's military service under his belt, Cpl. Beach died with honors. His awards include the Silver Star for gallantry in action, Combat Infantryman's Badge, Purple Heart, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.

His name is among the many heroes listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., on panel 25W, line 027.

On behalf of her family -- and Jean and the D-Troopers -- Jones extends an invitation to her brother's friends and relatives to attend the 10 a.m. memorial service on Thursday.
The Watauga American Legion Post 130 will participate in the memorial, as will members of the D-Troop, including the Rev. Larry Arrowood, a retired minister who served with Beach in Vietnam.
"Many will find out the full story for the first time on Thursday," Jean said.

Later that day, Jones and the D-Troopers will present the Harold Dean Beach Vietnam Memorial Scholarship, now in its 20th year, to a deserving student at Watauga High School.
"This will be the first time that our company has been assembled to make this presentation," Jean said. "The entire day is going to mean a lot to us."

Hampton Funeral Service is in charge of the arrangements.