The virtually unbreakable bond among military veterans, especially those within the same branch of service, was evident when four U.S. Marine Corps veterans met Monday in a rural Champaign County cemetery to pay tribute to a fallen comrade.
Forty-nine years after being killed in action in Vietnam at age 19, Pfc. Wetzel L. Eldridge, of Urbana, received a small token of gratitude from the U.S. government in the form of a 12-by-24 bronze memorial plaque that now rests in front of his headstone in the Terre Haute Cemetery.
On hand for the unveiling of the plaque, supplied free of charge by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, were members of Eldridge’s family, members of the H. Eugene Doak Walker Detachment 963 of the Marine Corps League, and five members of the U.S. Marine Corps Boot Camp Hoosier Platoon 1108, of which Eldridge was a part of in 1967.
The ceremony honoring Eldridge was organized by four of his former platoon-mates: Gale Paxson (Logansport, Indiana), Steve Haisley (North Vernon, Illinois), Jim Bang (New Palestine, Indiana) and Kerry Skaggs (Sonora, Kentucky). Fellow platoon-mate Terry Bucksot also attended the ceremony.
“We are Marines, and we take care of one another,” Haisley said. “This ceremony is our way of remembering (Eldridge) and making sure his sacrifice is never forgotten. It’s also a way to honor him and his family, who paid a price as well.”
Paxson added that helping to pay tribute to Eldridge by helping to secure the memorial plaque was “therapeutic.”
Paxson’s wife, Ginny, who handled the legwork for the remembrance honoring Eldridge, said her husband and the three other men have grown close over the past decade and made it their mission to ensure former Hoosier Platoon 1108 members killed during the Vietnam War – six in total – are never forgotten.
She added that during a road trip to visit Eldridge’s gravesite, the Marine Corps veterans discovered his final resting place was missing something – the bronze memorial plaque recognizing Eldridge’s service to his country.
During the process of obtaining the plaque, the group spoke with some of Eldridge’s 11 siblings, who revealed Eldridge was married shortly before he left for Vietnam. After his death, his military belongings were sent to his wife, leaving them without any of their brother’s military items, including his Purple Heart medal.
On Monday, the family finally received the Purple Heart awarded to Eldridge, thanks to the work of his fellow platoon-mates, three of whom (Haisley, Paxson and Skaggs) are Purple Heart recipients themselves.
“His wife got all his medals, so we had nothing until now,” said Urbana resident Cora Taylor, one of Eldridge’s sisters.
Another of Eldridge’s sisters, Alendia Pound, of Enon, was grateful for everything the Hoosier Platoon did to honor her brother, including presenting the family with Purple Heart pins and Hoosier Platoon ball caps.
“It’s a great thing that they’ve done. I really appreciate it,” she said. “It means everything to us.”
According to government records, Eldridge, a rifleman with the 3rd Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, was killed eight days into his tour in Vietnam on May 28, 1968, in Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam. The cause of death is listed as small arms enemy fire.
Haisley, who lost use of his left arm after being hit with shrapnel while in Vietnam, said after boot camp, members of the Hoosier Platoon were scattered here and there, and many went their separate ways. Fifty years later, however, Haisley said he has never forgotten Eldridge.
When asked what he remembered most about Eldridge, Haisley said there was one thing that stood out most about his former platoon-mate.
“I just remember his smile. I do,” he said.
In addition to the unveiling of the memorial plaque and the awarding of a Purple Heart to Eldridge’s family, the Springfield-based chapter of the Marine Corps League presented the family with “three symbolic rounds” (spent shell casings) after providing a 21-gun salute and performing “Taps.”
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-508-2304 or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.