Apr 10, 2017

Major Donald "Jack" Crocker...

Captain Donald "Jack" Crocker -- 1937-1967 -- RIP
I reported for duty at the Naval ROTC unit at the University of Oklahoma on August 16, 1965.  I had just driven my 1932 Plymouth from New London, Connecticut, via Schenectady, New York and Marquette University in Milwaukee ultimately to Norman, Oklahoma.  During my stay with my parents in Schenectady, my sister Ann had died in an accident on July 9th.  I was involved in her funeral and helping my parents deal with the tragedy.  The long slow trip to Norman had been a good time to grieve and prepare for a new phase in my life.  I would be done with sea duty for a while, I thought I could get much of an engineering degree completed during my shore duty, and I looked forward to this next stage in what I hoped would become a naval career.

The night of August 15th, I had stayed in a motel in Oklahoma City.  I arose early and donned my tropical khaki uniform and called Lt. Joe Montanaro, a fellow instructor whom I had just met at the Marquette training program a couple of weeks previous.  I asked Joe for directions to the campus, and in particular to the armory building in which the NROTC was housed.  Joe suggested we meet at the Holiday Inn on west Main Street just off of I-35.  We met there and proceeded to the campus for breakfast at the Student Union.  Then we went to the armory building, where I would meet Captain Marcus L. Lowe, Jr., and the rest of the staff.

The Oklahoma armory building,
where Jack Crocker and I met and worked
Within the next few days, I got to meet the staff of the Army ROTC, who shared the building with us.  They were a terrific group of dedicated Americans, many of whom had served in Viet Nam. One of those whom I met was Captain Donald "Jack" Crocker, of Monroe, LA.  Jack and I hit it off immediately.  He was the only bachelor on the army staff and I was the token bachelor for the navy staff.  Jack was 3 years older than me and had earned a civil engineering degree and earned his commission through the ROTC program at the University of Louisiana - Monroe.  He had gone to school in his home town.  Within a few weeks, we were socially active, often double dating and taking our dates to the Tinker Air Force Base Officers Club.  We became very good friends.

Jack had purchased a brand new 1965 Buick Riviera, cream colored with every possible option.  When he and I traveled, we went in style!  I rode in that car to my first OU-Texas game in Dallas, where Jack introduced me to the chaos that is the Red River rivalry.  He and I were also active in the Tinker Aero Club.  He had his private pilot's license and I was taking flight instruction.  For the next year, we saw each other every day and probably did something together on at least 20 weekends.  About halfway through that academic year, he started dating a young lady named Star Bobys, a native of Corpus Christi who lived in Oklahoma City.  Star's brother, Bruce, had also moved to Oklahoma City and was employed by a prominent jeweler.  His path and mine would cross when I purchased an engagement ring from him in 1966.

In the Spring of 1966, Jack got orders to Viet Nam.  He would be proceeding to the 919th Engineer Company (Armor), 11th Armored Cavalry in August, serving in the Phuoc Tuy Province.  Around May or June, Jack confided in me that he and Star were going to be married before he left for Viet Nam.  He said he recognized that they hadn't been dating very long, but he knew she was "the one."  He recognized that there was the real possibility that he might not come home.  If that were to happen, he wanted Star to benefit from his estate.  They were married in a private ceremony with a couple of witnesses.

In July, Jack and Star headed for Monroe to visit his family and soon he departed for Viet Nam.  During his stay there, he and I corresponded a few times.  Mostly, I heard reports from Star, with whom I spoke every few weeks.  We can get a sense of the environment he worked in from this description on the home page of the 919th Engineer Company:
"On 5 August 1966, the first elements of the 919th Engineer Company (Armored), Regimental engineers of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, departed Fort Hood, Texas, via Bergstrom Air Force Base for the Republic of Vietnam.  By 8 August, the entire company 0f 154 combat ready engineers had arrived at LONG BINH, the temporary home of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment 20 kilometers northeast of SAIGON.

With the beginning of combat operations in the first part of October 1966, the men of the 919th "Red Devils" found themselves in the unique position of being the only armored engineers fighting in Vietnam.  In essence, they had to write the textbook for the armored engineer operations in a counterinsurgency environment.  The 919th Engineers also had the distinction of being the first element of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment to inflict casualties upon the Viet Cong.

Captain Jack Crocker in theater, April, 1967
Missions tasked to the Company are numerous: Building timber trestle bridges; searching booby-trapped tunnel complexes; destroying Viet Cong tunnel and bunker fortifications; constructing ford and culvert sites; conducting river crossing operations; clearing landing zones; constructing fighting positions; detecting, removing, and destroying Viet Cong mines on road sweeping operations; procuring and delivering barrier material for the upgrading of ARVN Regional Force and Popular Force outposts; and fabricating aircraft revetments are only a few of the missions assigned to this versatile unit.  The heavy workload has not prevented the 919th Engineers from foiling Viet Cong plans.  In the night of 16 November 1966, the Viet Cong launched a mortar and recoilless rifle attack against Blackhorse Base Camp.  The first rounds had hardly struck when the alert tank crew of the First Platoon spun their 90-mm. gun in on the flashes and returned fire.  The attack abruptly halted, and further investigation revealed that the timely, accurate counter-fire delivered by the "Red Devils" had forced the enemy to flee and abandon unexpended mortar and recoil-less rifle rounds as well as personal equipment.  The Regimental Commander personally awarded the Tank Commander of the First Platoon a Bronze Star.

In another action, the Third Platoon, 919th Engineers, was securing the Command Post of the Third Squadron,11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, in the early morning hours of 18 June 1967 on slope 30.  The Platoon had put in a long day and did not take its place on the perimeter until after darkness.  Apparently, the Viet Cong had surveyed the perimeter in daylight and thought that the space reserved for the Third Platoon would be unguarded that night.  Suddenly, at 0200 hours a ground attack supported by intense mortar and rocket fire was launched directly at the Engineer position.  Proving their combat effectiveness, the platoon viciously fought back and held their position; and, at daylight, over 35 enemy bodies were found strewn in front of the Third Platoon's position.  The 919th Engineer Company (Armored) has been much decorated for its valor and achievement while serving in the Republic of Vietnam.  Two Silver Stars, twenty-one Bronze Stars with 'V', thirty-seven Bronze Stars for Service, ten Army Commendation Medals with 'V', sixty-five Army Commendation Medals for Service, sixty-seven Purple Hearts, one Air Medal and ten Vietnamese Gallantry Crosses with Bronze Star have been awarded to the Engineers from August 1966 to September 1968."

As his tour approached completion, we planned a big homecoming.  The staff of the Army ROTC wanted to be involved, as many of them remained from Jack's time in the unit.  Then, on July 15, 1967, we heard the tragic news.  With only two weeks left in his one-year deployment, Captain Jack Crocker had stepped on a freshly-planted land mine and had died instantly.  Gone were his dreams and those of his loved ones.  I had lost a dear friend, but his role as one of my heroes had only grown.  I still think of all that might have been.

Jack was promoted to Major posthumously.  His remains were placed in Twin Cities Memorial Garden in Monroe, LA.  His name is forever engraved on The Wall at Panel 23E - Row 074.  Rest in Peace, my brave comrade.

If I should die, and leave you here awhile
Be not like others sore undone, who keep
Long vigils by the silent dust and weep.
For my sake, turn again to life, and smile,
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do
Something to comfort weaker hearts than thine.
Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mine,
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you!-- Mary Lee Hall

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