Saturday, March 03, 2012

TOP STORY >> A memorial honors those who served in Vietnam

Leader editor

(This column appeared on March 4, 1987, in the first issue of The Leader. We’re reprinting the column as we mark our 25th anniversary.)

Wanda Shireman of rural Jacksonville remembers when she heard the news that her son, Paul Jr., had died in Vietnam.

It was in the summer of 1968, a year after he graduated from Jacksonville High School and six months after he joined the Marines. The war was raging and a couple of hundred Americans were dying every week. Paul Shireman Jr. fell during one of the worst years of the war.

“Two Marines came to the door to give us the news,” Mrs. Shireman recalled. “He died on July 29, but the mail was slow, and we first found out what happened from the Marines.”

Her husband said, “We received notification in the mail the next day that he was on patrol and had walked into some land mines and was killed instantly.”

He was 18 years old.

Mrs. Shireman said, “We were in the Air Force at the time and in the process of moving to Puerto Rico. We delayed everything. His body was shipped to us, and he was buried in the family plot in Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, where we’re originally from.”

“He was the apple in his father’s eyes,” she added.

Her husband, who retired from the Air Force and works for the Jacksonville Parks and Recreation Department, said, “He was a good son. He was a good baseball player. He played Little League, Babe Ruth and American Legion, and he made real good grades.”

Paul was the oldest of four children, and Mrs. Shireman said he went off to war because he thought it was his duty. “He always wanted to go into the Marines,” she said. “That was his decision.”

Shireman said his son used to work at the air base, but he didn’t want to join the Air Force as his father did.

“He and a friend decided to join the Marine Corps, and he asked us to sign for him, which he did,” his father said. “If I had to do it over again, I’d probably do the same thing.”

He paused and said, “Even though I was a military man, it wasn’t a war we could justify.”

The elder Shireman had been in the military for 28 years and understands why Paul wanted to serve his country. Yet it’s never easy accepting the death of one’s son.

“It came as a great shock,” he said. “You never expect it.”

Mrs. Shireman said, “It’s been almost 20 years. It takes time to accept it. We have to learn to live with it. As times goes by, it becomes easier.”

Although the reason may not be clear to the American people, young men from all over the country went off to war. A disproportionate number of them were from small towns, especially in the South.

They fought as well as they could. They were no less idealistic than their fathers who went off to war before them. No one could guess that we would not win in Vietnam.

More than 600 Arkansans were killed in Vietnam, many of them from this area. The Arkansas Vietnam Veterans Memorial will be dedicated 1:30 p.m. Saturday on the southeast corner of the state Capitol grounds. The black granite memorial lists all the casualties from Arkansas. Relatives of those who were killed will be recognized at the ceremony.

Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam, will speak at the dedication, as will Gov. Bill Clinton.

The day’s activities will include a memorial service at 8:30 a.m. at St. Andrew’s Cathedral and a “Welcome Home” parade at noon ending at the Capitol.

The Shiremans have mixed feelings about the memorial since it reminds them of their painful past. Yet they are grateful that Arkansas has decided to honor its Vietnam war dead.

The elder Shireman said the memorial proves that his son and the others who died are not forgotten. “They didn’t give their lives in vain,” he said. “Somebody is still thinking of them.”

(Postscript: Paul Shireman Sr. passed away in 2004. Wanda Shireman passed away in June 2007.)