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the Vietnam Era Museum is closed until further notice
Starting Tuesday, March 17th
Elmer "Buddy" Powell was born on August 30, 1946, in Philadelphia, PA. His home of record was Wenonah, NJ. He was named after his father, Elmer Franklin, but always answered to "Buddy." He was the middle of three children. Buddy, his sister, Louise and his brother, David were very close and always looked out for each other.
As a child, Buddy was very active. He was in the Cub Scouts and from there went to the YMCA. He was an excellent swimmer and diver. He won many medals and ribbons. Despite the awards, Buddy could never become a lifeguard because he couldn't float! Buddy was well liked and had a host of friends.
He attended Deptford High School and was very interested in mechanical drawing. He left school to enlist in the US Army in September 1964, and received his diploma while in the service. Buddy completed his basic training at Fort Dix, NJ, and then went to Fort Bragg, NC, where he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. He attained the rank of PFC (Private First Class). In 1965, Powell was sent to serve in the crisis in the Dominican Republic. He spent eight months assisting US citizens and protecting US property.
Buddy left for Vietnam in 1966 where he served as a paratrooper with the 1st Cavalry Division. While in Vietnam, Buddy wrote letters home, but didn't mention the war much. His letters were mainly concerned with how his friends and family were. In his last letter, which his parents received on May 2, 1966, Buddy wrote that, "he was leaving the next day for the field".
On May 6, 1966, Powell was killed in action while on a combat operation.
Buddy was looking forward to getting married upon his return from Vietnam. He was engaged to Lynda Florence Carpenter. He also had planned to continue his education.
Elmer Powell was awarded the Bronze Star medal with the "V' for heroism and the Purple Heart. He was also awarded two medals from the Republic of Vietnam, the Military Merit Medal, and the Gallantry Cross.
August 30, 1946-May 6, 1966 PFC, Army Wenonah, NJ
In 1978, a pair of paratrooper 'jump' boots almost literally fell off the feet of John Meyer. The hand-painted name and serial number on the inside were still visible but the twelve-year-old boots were simply worn out. Now a retired Los Angeles police officer living in Llano, CA, Meyer recalls what Elmer "Buddy" Powell did for a fellow Airborne trooper in early 1966.
"Buddy was always pleasant and had an outgoing disposition. He was liked by everyone else in the platoon and took his share of the hard work. The operations we went on were often long and hard without much rest. He was always there to help and didn't do any more complaining than the rest of us. We all did the best we could and it was a hell of an adventure...too bad the price for the ride was so high."
"Buddy and I got to know each other after we were transferred from our respective Airborne units to Alpha Co., 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division. Others were also transferred and to a man, we resented being assigned to a regular 'leg' unit and losing our jump status," Meyer says. "But being soldiers first, we did what we were told, although we didn't like it."
"We became the replacement third platoon of Alpha Company because of a plane crash on January 25, 1966 that killed everyone on board. They were on their way to an operation called 'Bong Son', when the plane hit a mountainside near An Khe. I became the platoon radio operator (RTO) and Buddy was the machine gunner."
"During the time I was in Vietnam, my father was working in Taiwan for Lockheed Aircraft. I had not seen him since I joined the Army over two years earlier. I had asked for ten days leave so I could visit him. The leave was okayed providing I could find a volunteer to take my place as RTO until I got back. Buddy said he would do it so I gave him my radio, backpack and the SOI (Signal Operating Instruction) book that had our codes and call signs. I also gave him what advice I could about carrying that damned heavy radio."
"It came time for me to go and the only pair of boots I had were of little use and would not shine up. So Buddy offered me his extra pair of Cochran jump boots so that I could go and look like the paratrooper I was. I was very grateful and I impressed my Dad with my appearance. He said later he thought I was too skinny and seemed jumpy, we all were."
"My leave over, I returned to my unit and my friends only to find out we were leaving in two days on an operation. Because of the rushing about to get ready, there wasn't enough time to get and break in a new pair of boots and I knew we were going to do some walking. Buddy let me wear the boots with the understanding I would get my 'own damn boots' when we got back."
"When we left on the operation, I had my equipment back and Buddy had returned to his squad. I was again the 3rd platoon RTO. On the morning of the second day, Lt. Hogarth told me I was to report to the Company Commander. I did so and was then told I was being transferred to battalion headquarters as Senior RTO and that I had been asked for and that no, I could not refuse. I went back to my platoon and Buddy again volunteered to take my place as RTO. I felt good about that because he had become familiar with the radio and it was such an important position for the safety of our friends. I knew it would be okay. I said my good byes and left on a truck for the airfield and from there I was taken by helicopter to the forward command post."
Elmer and June Powell moved their family from north Philadelphia to the brand new housing development called Oak Valley in 1960. Louise was the oldest child at sixteen, followed by Buddy at fourteen and David at four. Elmer is a World War II veteran and worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad at 30th Street Station for 28 years before retiring in 1982. June was the loving housewife and genuine friend to her children.
The Powell household of the early sixties became the neighborhood hangout. There were kids around all the time. "We were the ones who were allowed to have parties and sleepovers," Louise Hughes says. "We were in the youth group at church and our family was always together." Of Buddy, she warmly adds, "He was a brat, I still have the scars to prove it."
"We tried to bring all our kids up to be independent and to think for themselves, not of themselves," adds June. "And we always knew where they were."
Buddy grew interested in sports, scouting and swimming. He excelled in school, although he did not spend much time doing homework. David recalls Buddy's study habits. "He would just flip through a book and get A's," he says. "I could never understand how he did that."
Buddy also became very interested in Lynda Carpenter and their romance blossomed into an engagement. Lynda Carpenter Brown, now proprietor of the Deauville Inn in Strathmere, NJ, remembers the time well. "We were going to be married, that's it," she says. "We were engaged over Christmas of 1965. There was no doubt he was coming back."
June relates a talk she had with her son that December. "He was home on leave," she recalls. "He had picked up the ring and he told me he was going to have Lynda come over here and ask her to marry him. I remember looking at him for a time and then I said, 'No, Bud, don't do that. You take her wherever you go to park or wherever you have a favorite place and ask her there. I went to bed later but I couldn't sleep. I got up when he came home and he said, 'You know what happened?' I said, 'What?' He said, 'She cried a lot.' I waited for more and then had to ask, 'Well, did she accept?' He said, 'Oh...yeah."
Buddy left Deptford High School and enlisted into the Army in September of 1964. He had tired of school and wanted the experience that military life promised. He was determined to finish his high school requirements in the service, which he did, and then later use G.I. benefits to go to college and obtain a V.A. mortgage for him and Lynda. It was the first time he had been away from home.
"He told me that once he left this 'cracker box town', he would never be back," says his mother. "But he got so homesick, he would call almost every night just to hear the dog bark, if nothing else. The first time he was home on leave, I reminded him of that and he said, 'That was then and this is now.' He then gave me a big hug and kiss."
After basic and advanced infantry training, Buddy qualified for paratrooper school at Fort Bragg, NC, and received his 'jump' status before being assigned to the famous 82nd Airborne Division. He was sent to the Dominican Republic for eight months in 1965 and missed being able to take Lynda to her Senior Prom at West Deptford High. He left for Vietnam in January of 1966, newly engaged and eager to serve his time and his country. His older sister was pregnant and his kid brother was in the fifth grade at the Oak Valley Elementary School.
Buddy's letters home usually showed concern for his family, his love for Lynda and his desire to save enough money so they could strike out on their own. But in a letter dated in April of 1966, Buddy gives a glimpse of a soldier's life in Vietnam.
Sorry I have not written sooner. But we have been in the field. It sure is hot out here. We can never stay clean. We have not gotten any mail out here at all. It is getting hotter every day. It stays about a hundred degrees. I hope it is better at home. I hope everyone is fine. So how is Louise coming along? I hope she is alright.
I just got some good news. They said we can go down to the stream and get washed. It will be first time in about eleven days. Have you seen much of Lynda? What did you mean in the last letter I got from you about how nice it is the way Lynda is buying little things? Like what?
Well, it is Easter Sunday here. I am going to church in about ten minutes. Then I am going to get washed. So I am going to close for now. Write soon and take care.
John Meyer continues his story. "On the afternoon of May 6, 1966, a friend of mine and also a former member of the 3rd platoon of Alpha Company, found me and said our old platoon was in trouble. We went to headquarters just as they were receiving a list of casualties over the secure radio. I watched as the soldier manning the radio wrote down the names. I was stunned when I saw Buddy and Lt. Hogarth's names. I had just been with them two or three days before. I realized I still had Buddy's boots on. It was a feeling I can't describe but I'll never forget. I should have been with them. In all, nine men from 3rd platoon were killed that day."
"In October, I returned home. I was wearing Buddy's boots when I stepped onto U.S. soil. I was discharged from the Army five days before my 21st birthday. I wore them that day, too. Shined up the best I could get them and bloused smartly, in the best tradition of the Airborne."
The boots became a living memorial to Buddy's memory and in the process, helped John Meyer come to terms with his loss. "I loved those boots," he reflects. "And I wore them every time I took my motorcycle to the desert to ride, which was often, or when I went hunting or fishing. I thought of Buddy every time I looked at them. And each time I put them on, I read where he had placed his name and serial number inside those many years ago.
It was a sad day when I saw I could no longer wear them. I felt, and still feel, forever bonded to Buddy and even felt some guilt for never trying to return the boots to his family. I hope and pray they would understand what Buddy meant to me as a friend and a brother...and how those boots were a large part of that relationship. He was one of the best."
On Saturday, May 7, 1966, the day before Mother's Day, the Powells were notified Buddy had been killed. Their friends rallied around them and gave the support they needed. Buddy was buried in Wenonah Cemetery the following week after services at a packed church.
"All I remember is how long the funeral procession was," says David. "It extended all the way down Route 45, over the turnpike bridge and beyond. Of course, I was only ten and didn't really understand why Buddy was gone. It wasn't easy losing my older brother."
Lynda sensed something was wrong when her father received a call at the Deauville Inn, and then questioned why her parents were suddenly driving her to Oak Valley.
"I knew it was Buddy," she says. "Especially when I saw all the other relatives at the house. That started the longest week I ever had. My life just vanished and I didn't know what to do next."
Louise recalls the pain, but also the togetherness. "It was really tough. Buddy and I had become really close. Especially when he became engaged and I had already started a family. He said in letters he couldn't picture having children or a home to raise them in. And we all loved Lynda and felt as bad for her as for ourselves. She fit into our family real well. Our family is strong and without each other, we would not have made it."
Lynda eventually married and became a successful businesswoman. She is a mother of three and a grandmother. She has stayed close to the Powell family and every year, in early May, a feeling comes to her that she can understand but has to work through. She knows Buddy believed in what he was doing, yet she still laments the loss. "What a waste," she says. "Buddy and all the others gave their lives for nothing. It cost us all dearly."
Elmer and June share their feelings after some thirty years. "We are proud of our Buddy but it was the stupidest thing we have ever done," June says. "I could see the reason for World War II. I couldn't see that in Vietnam. The ones who went to Canada...I cheered them on. I could understand why they went. The ones that were fighting didn't have the backing of our government. It was all politics, period."
Elmer adds, "We haven't really learned anything, it seems. There's too much appeasement now." About Buddy, Elmer's eyes shine with pride. "He made up his mind to do what he saw as the right thing and that was it. Nobody could change it."
David simply and proudly salutes his big brother. "He did it is way."
Louise smiles and then adds, "And when he did it, he did it right. It's a heredity trait, I guess."
Sherry Powell is David's daughter and Buddy's niece. Several reports on the Vietnam War in school earned her high grades. She is also a trumpeter and has a special place for the uncle she never knew.
"Every time I play 'Taps', I can't think of anything else but my Uncle Buddy," she says. "It might sound strange, but I thank my family for bringing me up with that appreciation. I'm not one of those kids today who don't know or don't care to know or just don't understand. I really do."
The posthumous Bronze Star Medal for Valor, dated June 17, 1966 and awarded to PFC Elmer F. Powell reads, in part:
Under intense enemy small arms fire, Private First Class Powell, with disregard for his own life, was mortally wounded while assaulting the enemy position.
In a letter to Lynda in March, Buddy tells us all why he was in Vietnam.
No one who has not been here can begin to imagine what it is like. The fighting over here is like no fighting ever before. You live from day to day. Learning new and better ways of how to kill. Then you stop and think. What the hell am I doing here? Why should I be doing this? Or is it right to kill? Then you start to think of the ones you love back home. And the things you have. Then you start to realize what you are doing here. You are fighting to keep those loved ones and those things you have. And most everyone over here has the same reason for doing it. It is because he has a girl, or a wife, or a family who he loves very much.
As for the boots, Lynda Brown says, "We're glad Mr. Meyer kept them. They were important to him and we understand. I only wish we could have been in touch sooner. But knowing Buddy meant so much to one of his friends gives us a good feeling. He really did matter to other people. We're proud that someone who knew Buddy still cares enough to remember him to his family."
Excerpt from They Were Ours: Gloucester County's Loss in Vietnam
by John Campbell
Used with permission of author
Sources: John Campbell and NJVVMF.
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