By Jonathon Austin
Global Studies professor Derek Frisby and a group of six students ventured to Vietnam in March to locate the positions where nine alumni, soldiers, Marines and seamen, died during the war.
“As a student I cannot imagine making the sacrifice that these nine gentlemen did. It really puts into perspective all that our veterans have done for us,” said Erica Bettross, a member of Frisby’s group and public history Graduate student.
On July 19, 1968, Cpl. Prentice Bennett lost his life on a small rise during a mortar attack. Prentice, from Hohenwald, attended the university. About 20 minutes out of Dong Ha in South Vietnam, Hill 70 lies within the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and is now covered in pine trees that have been transplanted by the locals to harvest for the sap and timber. Forty-five years ago the area had a much different look as war had left the hills barren and blemished with bomb craters.
On a humid rainy day, Frisby’s group drove far off Highway One on a narrow dirt road until the road turned to a path. The group walked about a mile on foot through heavily forested hills before reaching the pine-populated hillside where the grid coordinates had led them. Though the area was now more vegetated than it was the day of Bennett’s death, there was still an eerie sense that war had raged through the area sometime ago. A few craters about 15 feet in diameter still remained under moss and shade form pine tree.
Willie Zavala Jr. is a Marine who served in the Vietnam War who later recalled his experiences of war in the book “Childhood Lost: A Marines Experience in Vietnam.” Zavala also trudged through the hills with Prentice Bennett and remembered the scenery as it was years ago.
“We were walking across a barren area of hills, which are now described as heavily planted with pine trees,” he said. “All around us were different size bomb craters. Some measuring about 20 to 25 feet in diameter.”
During the war, Bennett became good friends with Zavala.
“[He] was actually the first one to greet me in Vietnam in November of 1967,” he said. “It was Camp Evans where I met up with Bravo Company.”
According to Zavala, he and Bennett shared stories of home, fishing and family during the days of the war.
“We got to be very close, which is not uncommon in a tense situation like the one we were in,” Zavala said.
Being best friends in war has its benefits, but Zavala found it makes death all the more painful.
On July 17, 1968, Bennett and Zavala’s regiment came under machine gun fire on Hill 70. According to Zavala, many soldiers took cover in bomb craters when the enemy began to launch mortar rounds. Within minutes, bodies were being carried out of the craters in ponchos.
Bennett, Zavala and five other men jumped into a crater together. Zavala described that moment as wanting to “melt into the dirt.” Soon after positioning in the crater, a mortar round landed in the middle of the hole.
“It probably would never happen again in one hundred tries, but a rocket round landed right in the middle of the bomb crater,” he said. “All I remember was smoke, smell and a ringing in my ears. As I looked to my left, Gary Tice was dead. I then looked to my right and [Bennett] had a piece of shrapnel go through his temple.”
Zavala was the only Marine to survive the mortar round that day. He originally thought that others had survived the event, but he was told years later that no one had made it out alive.
“The situation is so vivid and hard to forget,” he said. “I guess I will never be able to forget it.”
The place where Bennett drew his last breath was one of seven locations that Frisby’s group matched with the death of a MTSU alumni. Others include John Fuqua, James Howard, Kenneth Kirkes, James Luscinski Jerry Lovell and Ned Brown.
The Veterans Memorial outside Tom H. Jackson Building remembers the alumni of MTSU, but the stories of some of these veterans will go untold.
Presently, the country of Vietnam is very peaceful. Some evidence of war has been left behind as a reminder; however, it is mostly overgrown with plants or has been replaced with museums or statues.
Frisby’s class immersed themselves within Vietnamese society in order to gain an understanding of how the war has affected the people. The students gathered different aspects of Vietnamese culture, while also studying the history of the Vietnamese War.
“Before the trip I understood the war had a major impact on everyone involved, but until I arrived in Vietnam, I did not realize how much the war is still impacting the Vietnamese citizens today,” said Erica Betross.
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