"Wars never go away. They just stick with you. Bad. bad."
— Retired Maj. Jerry Headley, U.S. Army
WINCHESTER — As Jerry Headley spoke these words earlier this week, his eyes welled up. And this from a man whose equilibrium, even after 22 years of active duty, including a 90-day crucible of war (December 1968 to February 1969) known as "Mini-Tet," seldom wavers.
But on Wednesday, Headley was en route to San Antonio to bury another member of his troop, a soldier who was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross.
These trips take on a special meaning for Headley, a 1956 graduate of Handley High School, for it was he that was a driving force behind the organization of his unit's memorial cadre, the 3/4th Cavalry Chapter of the 25th Division. President of the chapter for more than 20 years since its inception in 1988, he spent countless hours trying to pinpoint the more than 1,400 troopers who once served in his squadron.
It was a labor of love for a man whose military record merits honor rather increased service to his fellow soldier. But then that's the sort of gentleman Jerry Headley is. There is little refuting he is the most decorated 20th-century serviceman to hail from the Northern Valley. Five Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, and an Air Medal, all earned over less than a year in Vietnam lend credence to this record.
And yet from his demeanor — affable to the point of gentle — one would never know, or fathom, the warrior within.
Growing up on Bond Street, Headley, like many of his breed, did not hail from a martial background. He had an uncle in the Navy during World War II and claims some "cousins on my mother's side" who saw service post-World War II and pre-Korea.
His initiation began as a junior in high school when legendary Handley coach Hunter Maddex pulled him aside and suggested he join the National Guard, which was possible for youngsters of his age.
"Coach Maddex said it might be good for me," says Headley, now 81. "You might like it."
Back then, Winchester was home to two National Guard companies — Co. 1, which hit Omaha Beach in the third wave on D-Day and Headquarters Co. Winchester Mayor Miff Clowe, who led Co. I across "the shingle" at Normandy, was battalion commander. The units were filled with hard-bitten World War II and Korean War vets, which, Headley says, made for "some interesting stories."
But Headley did not stay in the Guard. Upon graduation from Handley, he and a "real close friend," Bill Carver, enlisted in the Marine Corps. Headley served a four-year stint that included two years of sea duty on the USS Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Mediterranean cruise, shore duty at the Brooklyn Navy Yard building aircraft carriers, and a shakedown cruise in the Caribbean in which Headley almost saw action when Cuban rebels took over a American mining concern.
After his four years were up, Headley returned to Winchester and, at the encouragement of a friend from Pennsylvania, joined the Merchant Marine for a year. He then settled down, found employment at 3-M, got married, and started a family (two daughters, Leigh and Rhonda).
But the military bug had bitten him. Headley missed the Guard — both the military aspect and the extra pay.So he "re-upped" and, with the Guard converting from infantry to armor, elected to sign up for the state's Officers Candidates School, completing the course as an armor officer in 1964 after two years training.
After serving in local Guard contingents — Berryville (platoon leader) and Wnchester (Scout platoon leader) — he sought advice from unit leaders on how to get ahead. Even though he was married, he was told to go on active duty. So he volunteered, and January 1968 found him in Fort Knox,Ky. His family remained in Winchester.
Initially a company's executive officer and then a Recon platoon leader, Headley arrived in Kentucky just as the Tet offensive exploded halfway around the world. So again the question gnawed at him: What did he need to do to advance in the military? The answer was uniform: "I needed to go to 'Nam. I said OK. I need to go, so send me."
So in May 1968, with the situation in Vietnam still "volatile" after Tet, Jerry Headley left Fort Knox. The "peak years" of the war lay ahead, he notes. and he was poised to join the fray at that intense juncture.
Assigned as a platoon leader to Bravo Troop in the 3rd Squadron, 4th Co., 25th Infantry Division, Headley underwent a brisk indoctrination period upon arriving "in country."
"I rode with the outgoing platoon leader," he says with a chuckle. "After five days, he said, 'You got it.'"
It was a matter of necessity that Headley become acclimated to his jungle surroundings fraught with danger at nearly every turn. But as an incoming platoon leader, he was blessed with top-notch NCOs (non-commisioned officers). Based at Cu Chi, he learned about the intricacies of the wet and dry seasons and even the daily weather (showers most every day at 4 p.m.)
Despite the presence of tanks and "tracks" (armored personnel vehicles), protecting the supply routes proved no easy task; improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were everywhere.
Finally, there was the matter of simple fatigue. "We couldn't get any rest," Headley says."You had other operations, and you had to react to 'Charlie's' antics."
Mistakes wrought of inexperience and anxiety had the capacity to keep everyone on edge. One night near Hoc Mon, small-arms fire opened up, to which "someone" — American troops — "went to the rockets. It went from shambles to farce."
As a result, the South Vietnamese army chief ordered no more night surveys. "Instead," Headley says, "we'd set up in strong positions near bridges."
Since landing in Vietnam the previous spring, Headley had been involved in "many skirmishes" and underwent his "baptism of fire" near his base camp near Tay Ninh, a large city with a big temple and a critical bridge.
But it can reasonably be said that nothing previously could have prepared Headley and his command for the night of Aug. 25, 1968.
Headley's task was to protect — actually "suspect" and "anticipate" — the supply route over which 30 trucks, he said, would be carrying "bullets and beans" to the men at the base camp, roughly 12 kilometers from the Cambodian border.
Near a former Michelin plantation nicknamed "Little Rubber," enemy units ambushed the convoy. Many trucks managed to escape, but, as Headley recalls, about 12 to 13 tractor-trailers failed to get through. It was 11 a.m. on the 25th.
Twice, Headley's unit changed direction; the other two platoons were engaged, but his was last in line and pressed up against a village.
The platoon assumed a "Herringbone position," in which the squad leader faces forward, while the rest of the squad lines up behind him (or his vehicle) facing left and right, alternating as such.
But with trucks burning and three MPs dead, stabilization of the situation did not come easily. Headley received a call from the vehicle commander, a Sgt. Humphrey, who said, "You need to come up; the troop commander is down."
Well, as it turned out, the troop commander was dead. So Headley took off on a 50-yard gallop, exposing himself, so noted the Silver Star commendation, "to a massive volume of hostile small-arms and automatic ... fire."
By the time he got there, he was the acting troop commander. He immediately told Humphrey to put him in touch with the brigade commander who told him to "interdict" the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) leaving the area.
Feverishly working two phones, Headley maneuvered his troops to flank the enemy. Specifically, they extracted the "bad guys" from the north end of "Little Rubber." The hour had passed 3 p.m., with the standard rain shower just an hour away.
Headley's two platoons swept through the villages near the rubber plantations employing "tracks" and infantry support to push the 9th NVA in the open. The hour had reached 4 p.m.
The battle, though, was not over. Heavy RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) fire was coming from a ditch. And the doomed trucks were still on the road. But, come night, the NVA enticed the villagers to take them out of immediate harm's way.
As Headley and his men foraged through the village, they came upon a massive man — six feet or more, who was definitely not Vietnamese, but more than likely a Chinese national lending aid to the NVA.
Following the battle, Headley, just a lieutenant, yielded the acting troop commander designation, but was promoted to captain.
Back in Tay Ninh the next day, Headley was debriefed — and received a much-welcome call. Earlier in the war, he and Jim Pierce, a first sergeant, had become close friends of the sort you could playfully joke with and pick on. And now Pierce was back to run Headley's base camp.
"This was the best thing that could have happened," Headley says. "I never had to worry about anything in base camp. He was a God-send. I knew I could trust him."
As harrowing as Nov. 25, 1968, was, the period described as "Little Tet." was relentless. and it was during this three-month period that Headley's heroics prompted the reception of most of his commendations, particularly four of his five Silver Stars. To wit: Jan. 15, 1969, Silver Star (Fourth Oak Leaf Cluster) for directing a sweep that destroyed a bunker and for also carrying several wounded men to safety; Jan. 16, 1969, Silver Star (Third Oak Leaf Cluster) when he directed his unit's fire from the top of his vehicle; Jan. 20, 1969, Silver Star, again direction of action from the top of his vehicle; and Jan. 26, 1969, Silver Star (Second Oak Leaf Cluster) when he exposed himself "to the deadly holocaust of exploding projectiles."
Over that 13-month period beginning with Tet, the 25th stopped the Viet Cong repeatedly from seizing Tan Son Nhut airfield and participated in the defense of Saigon. Of Tet, Headley said, "there was no big uprising. The NVA got their clock cleaned. And the VC (Viet Cong), too, but they just hung around."
During "Little Tet," the Tropic Lightning consistently repulsed the Communist forces wherever they were uncovered in the Iron Triangle, Boi Loi Woods, HoBo Woods, Hoc Mon, War Zone C and Cambodia. But one squadron — Headley's — over that 90-day period "in country" faced combat every three days.
Headley himself remained with the troop until the end of February 1969 and then moved to Headquarters, where he stayed until the end of May.
Every once and so often, an enlisted man or draftee from an officer's hometown will surprise his superior by showing up as a member of his unit. From then on, the newcomer is known — sometimes kiddingly and sometimes not — as "the pet."
Greg Franklin, a student at Handley, was one such soldier. Headley know his parents, who were active in the Moose, quite well. Headley described him as a "really good kid."
One day before Thanksgiving in 1968, Headley's squadron held a ceremony for a new commander. Franklin's unit went to the "Fill-Hole Area" where they were supposed to enjoy a day in the sun.
It never materialized. Just as the squadron ceremony ended, an explosion — a rocket-propelled grenade — rocked a full box of shells at the Fill-Hole. Greg happened to be driving the "track" that day and suffered fragment wounds to the head. Medics managed to get him to the hospital in Japan and finally home to Oqequon Avenue..
Sadly, Greg lost use of an arm and sustained a speech impediment. Whenever Headley was in Winchester, he would make sure to visit him. Greg, the fourth Handley student to die in Vietnam, passed away in 1979. His name now resides on the Vietnam Wall for those who died of war wounds years later.
Returning from Vietnam to Fort Knox, Headley was still essentially "a high-school kid." After all the action he had seen and administrative work he had observed, he still had no college degree. That was about to change.
Through the Army, he enrolled in the University of Kentucky, but then a friend — Jim Taylor, a Medal of Honor of recipient — was accepted at the University of Tampa and convinced Headley to join him. A young man in a hurry, he completed his degrees, major and minor, in history and political science, in 18 months.
Then, in succession, he served at Fort Riley, Kan. (1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry), Fortress Monroe (combat development), Germany (training and planning during the Cold War, stationed in the forever-tense Fulda Gap), Fort Jackson, S.C., and then the Pentagon.
While at the Pentagon during the first Gulf War, he played a key role in mobilizing National Guard units and choosing which would go overseas.
After 22 years on active duty, Headley retired as a major on July 18, 1995, as deputy chief of the Readiness Division.
In his retirement, Headley has remained active in the development of the 3/4th Cavalry Chapter of the 25th Division and has also returned twice to Vietnam.
More than a half-century after experiencing the hell-fires of battle and reaching the conclusion that "wars never go away," Jerry Headley can call Vietnam "a beautiful country."
And so, one surmises, he's a man at peace with his past — and with himself.