I found a photo in my high school annual last week. It’s a group photo of the 1966 Varsity Football Team of Kingsport, Tennessee’s Dobyns-Bennett High School. I was a sophomore and a starter on the school’s first (as far as I know) junior varsity team but also snagged a spot on the varsity as the team’s third-string offensive center. There were a great many memories that flooded in, but one caught my attention.
In the team photo, I am in the fourth row, second from the right, wearing jersey #50. Next to me, on my left is a junior, Joe Meade, #23. Both of us, unbeknownst to each other, would enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps following graduation during the Vietnam War. He would enlist after his 1968 graduation, and I would do the same early in February 1970 after a 1969 graduation and trying college for a term.
Joe was not a huge kid, nor was he all that tall. But he had a lion’s heart. One upperclassman decided one day that Joe was a good target for bullying. After unsuccessfully attempting to get the other teammate to stop, Joe exploded in a whirring mass of fists, much to the surprise and dismay of the much bigger team member. He was just as tough on the field. Off the field, Joe had an easygoing way about him and was a friendly guy.
After completion of boot camp at Parris Island, SC, Joe was designated an 0311—a rifleman. After additional training at Camp Lejeune, NC, he became part of M Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines, 1st Marine Division. Joe, now PFC Meade, arrived in Vietnam, on December 3, 1968.
A note from the Virtual Wall reads, “In the latter part of January 1969, the 3/26 Marines participated in Operation Bold Mariner, a sweep of the Batangan Peninsula. By the 24th, M Company had been withdrawn from the tightening cordon and was employed in the extremely hazardous business of searching booby-trapped tunnels and equipment caches. On January 25, twelve Marines and one Navy Corpsman were killed by booby traps and mines.”
Marine James Hyde recalled, “Our platoon walked into a minefield that Sunday about noon time, two marines to my left, about 50 ft. away, were the first to get hit and continued for about an hour. We had probably 40. Joe was helping load the wounded and actually helped on one of the flights that left for the hospital ship, but he came back on the chopper to help with other wounded and that’s when he was killed. I only knew him for two months, but he was one of the happiest Marines I ever met, he was always smiling.” Joe had been in Vietnam less than two months. He was 19 years old.
But on that fateful day, Joe placed himself in harm’s way trying to rescue the wounded and the dying. For his heroism, the young Marine was awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest decoration for valor, behind only the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. His citation reads:
“The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Silver Star (Posthumously) to Private First Class Joseph L. Meade (MCSN: 2450534), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving as a Rifleman with Company M. Third Battalion, Twenty-Sixth Marines, Ninth Marine Amphibious Brigade in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam.
“On 25 January 1969, Company M was participating in a combat operation south of Chu Lai in Quang Ngai Province when two Marines detonated enemy mines, resulting in several casualties. Completely disregarding his own safety, Private First Class Meade fearlessly rushed into the hazardous area to assist his injured squad leader. Arriving at the man’s side, he commenced mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and continued this process aboard the evacuation helicopter until the casualty reached a medical facility.
“Returning to the operational area, Private First Class Meade unhesitatingly re-entered the minefield on several occasions to provide medical aid to his comrades and carry injured men to awaiting evacuation aircraft. [emphasis, mine] While engaged in this selfless task, he was mortally wounded by the detonation of an enemy explosive device.
“By his courage, bold initiative, and unwavering devotion to duty, Private First Class Meade inspired all who observed him and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.”
There were 23 men from my hometown who were killed in that war. I knew a few who were wounded. Joe was the only one I knew who was killed. I didn’t go to Vietnam. I would have gone if sent but I wasn’t. Even today, as I look at this team photo, and see the blond kid with the lion’s heart, I have some survivor’s guilt. I am here and he is not. Joe would have been 74 years old now, with a wife, a career, kids, grandkids, and maybe, as I have, even a few great-grandkids.
There are four rows of student athletes standing in the team photo. Many would go on to lead accomplished and impressive lives. But of those boys, only one would become a hero of the United States Marine Corps. My honor was to stand next to him all those years ago.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are on Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and on livestream at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]