|Ruth Ann Maynard of Winfield treasures
the bronzed combat boots worn by her brother, Roger Byus, who was
killed in the Vietnam War.
Photo by Robert Saunders
By Mary E. Sansom
After 30 years, a Winfield woman has retraced the final footsteps of her 20-year-old brother killed in the Vietnam War.
Ruth Ann Maynard until three weeks ago knew only the sketchiest details concerning the death of her younger brother, Roger Byus.
She still remembers that day after Thanksgiving in 1969, when a U.S. Army officer came to the North Poplar Fork home of her parents, Alma and Junior Byus, to tell them Roger had been killed in action Nov. 24.
A week or two later, his commanding officer sent a letter saying he had died at a base hospital, but revealing little else.
A half a year later, his personal effects arrived, including his combat boots. Their father, who died in 1981, searched far and wide for a company to have them bronzed and finally found one in Chicago to do the job for $75. At the time, the company said the boots were the largest shoes ever to be bronzed, a one-of-a-kind monument weighing 20 pounds.
In time, Maynard contacted the Army chaplain for details about her brother’s death, but the chaplain had not known Roger personally.
For three decades, the family knew only what Roger’s tombstone told them, that he had been a member of the 11th Armored Calvary.
Then along came the Internet, giving Maynard access to the Veterans’ Memorial website, where she posted what little she knew about her brother in hopes of finding more. Kind-hearted veterans, seeing it, directed her to the website of the 11th Armored Calvary, where she encountered Jim Murray of Pennsylvania, the liaison between the unit and the family members of KIAs, the call letters to refer to those killed in action.
He asked her if she would consider attending the reunion of the 11th Armored Calvary Blackhorse Regiment, which was in Vietnam from 1966 to 1972 and lost 767 men. He promised her she would find all the answers to her questions.
Murray never left her side at the Aug. 3-6 reunion in Buffalo, N.Y. On Thursday, she didn’t meet anyone from Roger’s unit, but on Friday afternoon, a man walked up to the registration desk and Maynard felt an immediate spark of recognition.
“It was the weirdest feeling. I looked at him and he looked at me. There was a link, and I felt it. He read my nametag and he reached out to me and said, ‘I knew Roger. I was with him when he was killed.’”
Maynard burst into tears, as did the stranger with whom she felt the immediate kinship, Gus Christian of Tennessee.
She and Christian sat down to talk, but he said he wanted to wait for another man to arrive that evening. Together, they would tell her everything.
When Kenny Ricord arrived from Michigan, Christian introduced them, and Ricord immediately excused himself.
When he returned, he told her he had been dreading for 30 years the day he met a family member of one of the men in his troop. He had not known that Maynard was coming to the reunion, and by her very presence, a woman alone and not the wife of a veteran, he knew she came in the stead of a dead soldier.
The three sat down together, and the two men told her the story she had waited so long to hear. They said Roger wasn’t with his platoon when he was killed near the Quan Loi base camp in war zone C near the Cambodian border, where the Blackhorse Regiment, the Army’s elite armored division, was stationed.
All three had been in the 2nd Squadron E Troop, but they were in the 1st platoon and Roger was in the 3rd. They had contact with the enemy every day, and the 1st platoon had taken several losses and was down to 16 men.
They were low on men and asked for volunteers. Roger volunteered to go with the platoon that morning, something Christian had never understood.
They said they were on dismounted patrol, meaning they had climbed out of their tanks and were on foot. They could hear the enemy in the elephant grass, which was so dense and thick that they couldn’t see into it.
Then the sergeant, they assumed, called for mortar to be fired to hit the Vietnamese. They said there was good mortar and bad mortar. Good mortar could be heard and meant it wasn’t coming towards them. If they couldn’t hear the mortar, it was a bad sign, and meant the mortar was on them.
They didn’t hear the mortar coming, so they hit the ground. The mortar fell short, hitting the very center of the 17-man platoon and leaving no more than five capable of walking.
One man, who had been in Vietnam three days, was killed instantly. Another man, whose arm and leg had been ripped away by the explosion, was still conscious.
They said Roger tried to get up, but they made him lie back down. Ricord said Roger had a wound in his back the size of a quarter. With no medic in the field, Ricord took gauze and dabbed at the wound.
Then medical helicopters arrived to evacuate or “dust off” the injured and the dead, taking them to base hospitals.
Ricord said the men who remained never knew what had happened to their comrades after they were taken away in the chopper. He said they never really wanted to know and hoped they all made it.
“He said he never knew Roger was killed until Gus told him I was at the reunion.”
Later that night, Don Middleton of Florida arrived. He was on the mortar tank that fired into the unit. Maynard was not ready to meet a man who might have been responsible for Roger’s death by friendly fire.
Middleton said the men fired the mortar as told, but when the sergeant had called in the coordinates telling where to fire the test round, the sergeant had reversed the two sets of numbers with tragic consequences.
A military investigation found that the sergeant had indeed reversed the coordinates, and three days later, he was removed from the platoon.
But the sergeant was supposed to protect the lives of all those men he held in his hands, Maynard told Middleton, wanting to blame someone.
But Middleton had been there, and he could perhaps more easily put himself in the sergeant’s place.
“He said, ‘Bear this in mind. The families of these men have lived with this loss for 30 years, but if the sergeant made it out alive, he’s lived with his mistake for 30 years.’”
Crying, he apologized.
Maynard reassured him that she did not blame him for Roger’s death, and she realized she finally felt at peace.
At the memorial service for the Blackhorse Regiment, Christian carried Roger’s heavy bronze combat boots, which had been on display the entire weekend and had brought tears to the eyes of many a veteran.
Roger would have worn his pants legs tucked into the Size 11 combat boots, with the extra length of laces wrapped a couple of times around the top, which is the way they have been bronzed.
Under the coppery patina, which has traditionally preserved the white lace-up baby boots worn by past generations as they took their first steps, but which have fallen out of favor with parents today, signs of wear are evident.
The insteps are crumpled and the heels worn down, the left more so than the right, to the point where a woman’s fingers can slide beneath.
The combat boots are mounted on a round wooden plaque, with a metal placard bearing his death date, Nov. 24, 1969. He served in Vietnam one month and one day.
The family’s grief seems to be summed up by a single, heart-wrenching phrase: “In memory of our darling son.”
“We found out later he had told so many friends he wouldn’t be back,” said Maynard, looking at faded 3-by-3-inch photos with the date September 1969 along the white edges.
The photos show Roger in his uniform, Roger in a brown suit, Roger handsome in a white T-shirt, putting clothes into a black traveling bag placed on the bed, smiling slightly but not at the camera, as he goes off to war.
“He was killed on my daughter’s fourth birthday. He sent her a cross on a necklace and a mud-stained letter, and he said he never wanted her to forget him. She said the necklace and the letter are her two most-prized possessions.
“These boots are cherished in our family. I told one of my brothers, as long as we remember and our children and theirs, he will never die. Whenever we see these boots, we see him.”
Reporter Mary E. Sansom can be reached at 348-4840 or by e-mail at email@example.com