By Harold Payne
Last spring, Harold Payne was in the chair at Fred Fromm’s barbershop at 15th Street and Cornell Avenue in Springfield. Harold is a Vietnam veteran. Like many of those who saw action over there, he came back determined to move on with life and never again think about what he had just experienced.
But that day in Fred’s barbershop, Harold revisited something that happened to him in Vietnam, something that reverberated throughout his life. This is the story he told:
‘Tell my wife…’
It was Aug. 17, 1969, Woodstock weekend in the States, but Harold Payne was on a beach in South Vietnam, a long way from three days of peace and music.
Harold was in the Navy, assigned to a Mobile Riverine Force along the Vam Co Dong River in Tay Ninh Province, bordering Cambodia. An American patrol boat was docked at the river. On one of the boats was a South Vietnamese soldier.
The boat was armed with a 20 mm cannon with an electric fire key. The South Vietnamese soldier, either deliberately or by accident, engaged the trigger. The gun fired randomly onto the shore. Harold watched as the bullets churned up the beach.
“You could see the rounds tracking right toward a truck in which a couple of soldiers were sitting,” Harold recalls. “It was utter confusion and astonishment.”
He knew what was going to happen, but was helpless to stop it.
The truck was hit and caught fire. One of the soldiers inside was badly hurt. Harold was one of the first to reach the wounded man as he crawled out. He was a stranger to Harold, but Harold held him as they waited for a helicopter to take the man for treatment.
“I grabbed him and pulled him over,” he says. “It wasn’t the bullets; it was the shrapnel from the truck that injured him.”
Before the helicopter arrived, the man said something to Harold. He clearly said, “Tell my wife I love her.”
“I told the guy, ‘Hey, buddy, you can tell her yourself when you get home,’” says Harold. “You know, like you do. But the other guy who was with me, he looked at me and shook his head like, ‘He’s not going to make it.’”
A helicopter took the wounded soldier away and the war went on just as before.
Harold came home determined to put some distance between himself and Vietnam. He and his wife, Cherie, married in 1972. They raised two children, Chad and Rachel.
Before the war, Harold had worked at FiatAllis in Springfield. That job was gone when he returned. He spent most of his life working at the John Hobbs factory. He also owned a Phillips 66 gas station at 11th and Ash streets.
But somewhere in the back of his mind were the words he heard that day on the beach in Tay Ninh: “Tell my wife I love her.”
What if the guy didn’t make it? Harold didn’t know his fate, much less his name. What if somewhere there was a woman who never saw her husband again and never knew what his final wish in this life was? What if?
The questions gained a louder voice as he got older. The wounds of those Vietnam years had healed. He enjoyed attending reunions of his outfit, where they could talk about the war. Maybe it was time to take another step toward “whole.” And so, Harold did something he had never done before.
He told the story of the wounded soldier to his wife, Cherie. In more than 30 years of marriage, Harold had never said anything about it until 2003. Cherie knows what it would be like if the woman had lost her husband in war. Her reaction to Harold’s story was emphatic: “You have to find that woman.”
Cherie told Harold that when he attended the 2004 reunion of his Riverine outfit, he should tell his story and ask for suggestions on how to find the man’s name and eventual fate.
The reunion that year was in Fort Mitchell, KY. Cherie and Harold talked about his story on the way. Harold arrived in Fort Mitchell committed to taking the next step.
His buddies were amazed at what Harold told them. They agreed that he owed it to that wounded soldier to at least try to find him or, if he died, to find his widow, whoever and wherever she was. If the guy had survived and made it home to tell his wife himself, then no harm done. But if he hadn’t?
They suggested Harold contact Ralph Christopher, who had been their base commander in Vietnam. Someone had his email address, so when Harold returned to Springfield, he sent an email to Christopher telling the story and asking if there was any way Christopher could identify the soldier wounded in the truck on Aug. 17, 1969.
He hit “send,” then waited. Christopher’s response arrived in Harold’s inbox on Feb. 4, 2005.
Fate stepped in
Christopher found the name. He was Ronald Dean Tillery from Kansas City, Mo. His wounds had been fatal.
“Sorry to have to bring you this sad message,” Christopher wrote to Harold in 2005, “and I understand you wanting to know. …”
From the record: Ronald Dean Tillery. U.S. Navy. Builder 3rd Class. ID No. 487545384. Two year’s service. Age at loss: 20. Casualty Type: Non-hostile, died of other causes. Casualty Reason: Ground casualty.
Ron’s name is on The Wall. Panel W19. Line 56.
After 36 years, Harold finally knew the wounded man didn’t make it. But at least now Harold had a name and a city.
“I still wasn’t done,” says Harold. “This wasn’t going to be the end of the story.”
One night at VFW Post 755 on Old Jacksonville Road, Harold told the story to the guys and wondered how he would ever find the widow of Ronald Tillery of Kansas City. Was she still there? Had she remarried? Taken another last name? Was she even alive? It seemed impossible so many years later.
“This is the Internet age, Harold,” they told him. “You can find anybody.”
Harold isn’t all that Internet savvy, but he was determined. When he got home that night, he put the Tillery name into a search engine. He came up with telephone numbers and addresses for quite a few Tillerys in Kansas City.
Now what, he asked Cherie? Start dialing, she said. Start at the top and work your way down the list.
“And this,” says Harold, “is where fate steps in.”
A woman answered at the first number he called. When she did, Harold realized something important. He never thought about what he would say if he ever got this far. But there was no going back now. He plunged on.
“I say, ‘My name is Harold Payne. In 1969, I was in Vietnam …’ And I tell the story and that I was looking for someone who was in the family of Ronald D. Tillery of Kansas City and did she know anybody by that name.”
The next few seconds he will never forget.
“There was this big, long pause. I hear her take a big, deep breath. She said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this phone call for 35 years.’”
Fate, indeed. The first phone number was the right one.
Delore June Tillery told Harold that she had never been given the details on how or why her young husband had been killed. She knew only that it was some kind of accident.
‘I’m going to tell you now,’” Harold said to June, which is the name she went by, “‘what he told me just before he died.’ And I told her that Ron’s last words were of her and she cried. She said she was grateful for me to fill in what had happened.
“I didn’t ask to meet her. I told her I had some pictures and would send them to her if she wanted.”
After that initial phone conversation, Harold and June exchanged letters, photographs and Christmas cards. June’s first letter to Harold was six pages long. In it, she described “Ronnie” and their marriage and the hard life she had since he had died.
“He liked his ’57 Chevy,” she wrote. “He liked ‘50s and ‘60s music. Liked to dance. But he loved to water ski. And he was very, very good at it. He played the sax in high school, he was only fair at that, but enjoyed it. He liked to kid around. He was good with people and had a lot of friends. He was just one of those tremendous guys.”
She sent pictures of herself and Ron. She wrote that he had worked in construction with his father in Kansas City, which led him to joining the Seabees. In 1969, he was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam.
“I was so angry at God when He took him,” June wrote. “But I’m past that, and I know God had his reasons. He’s buried at a local cemetery. I still go there quite often.”
She sent her thanks to Harold for finding her: “God also allowed you to bless me with Ronnie’s last words. I cannot thank you enough.”
The most poignant part of her letter comes toward the end: “Jeff, our son, doesn’t talk about him much. But he was only one when Ronnie died. So he never knew him.”
After a couple of years of letters and holiday cards, Harold and June had said everything they had to say to each other. The cards and letters ceased, and life, once again, moved on its way.
After I heard the story, I knew that I had to talk to June. I spent this summer searching for her. Her phone was disconnected. Harold sent her a letter, but there was no reply, though the letter did not come back to Springfield marked ”undeliverable.”
I contacted an amateur genealogist who found some distant Tillery relatives, including Shirley Banner, a second cousin to Ron. Shirley, who lives in California, agreed to contact June and Jeff through social media and email. She received no reply.
By late summer, Harold and I became convinced that June knew we were looking for her, but did not want to be found. We reluctantly dropped the project and chalked it up as just one of those things that happen. Not everyone wants to be in the newspaper, but without June’s permission and her side of things, I couldn’t go forward.
Then, a month ago, we learned the reason why we never heard from June Tillery this summer. She was dying.
Her husband died in Vietnam on Aug. 17, 1969. Cancer took June’s life in Kansas City on Sept. 17 this year, 43 years and one month later.
Shirley Banner got the news from June’s son, Jeff. He agreed to talk with me, and we spoke briefly by telephone a couple of weeks ago. He had never heard the story of his father and Harold Payne.
“I had a call years ago from somebody with a connection, but the understanding wasn’t quite there,” Jeff says. “He said he knew something about my dad or something.”
Jeff says his mother had a cedar chest in her apartment that held the U.S. flag from Ron’s casket, along with letters he and June had exchanged. “I’m not certain what happened with that,” Jeff says.
June’s memorial service was held at Free Will Baptist Church in Kansas City. Her body was cremated. Her ashes were spread in Arkansas, where she was born.
Harold and June never met.
June Tillery never remarried.
Originally printed in “The State Journal-Register, Springfiled, IL
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