JAMES D HAGELSTEIN

JAMES D HAGELSTEIN - PFC

  • HOMETOWN:
  • glassboro
  • COUNTY:
  • Gloucester
  • DATE OF BIRTH:
  • March 21, 1949
  • DATE OF CASUALTY:
  • February 14, 1970
  • BRANCH OF SERVICE:
  • Marines
  • RANK:
  • PFC
  • STATUS:
  • KIA
  • COUNTRY:
  • South Vietnam

Biography


James D. Hagelstein was born on March 21, 1949, in Glassboro, NJ.  His home of record is Glassboro, NJ.  He attended Clayton High School and enjoyed hunting, fishing, and all sports.

He entered the US Marine Corps and attained the rank of Private First Class (PFC).  In September 1969, he left for Vietnam and became a rifleman in D Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

On February 14, 1970, at the age of 20, Hagelstein was killed in action when shot by enemy gunfire during a "sweep" mission in South Vietnam.

Jimmy

March 21, 1949-February 14, 1970
PFC, Marines         Glassboro, NJ

In the spring of 1988, an adult Sunday school class from Glassboro, NJ, traveled to Washington, DC, to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  It was a gorgeous Saturday, and the city was full of tourists, most of whom regard the Wall as a curiosity point; just another stop in a day full of sightseeing.  But rare is the person who comes away unmoved or unaffected.

            Earl 'Butch' Hovermill is a Vietnam veteran living in Arlington, Virginia.  He is a volunteer fireman and splits his spare time between the fire company and the National Park Service as a volunteer at the Wall.

            "I was on my way to the fire house that morning." recalls Butch.  "But I saw what a beautiful day it was and kept right on going.  It had been about a month since I had been to the Wall.   And for me, that's too long."

            Among other things, National Park Service volunteers answer questions, help people find particular names, and provide paper to make name tracings.  They work very closely with park rangers to maintain the area and its dignity.

            The group from Glassboro spent most of the afternoon at the Wall.   As always, several letters, flowers, photos, and other memorabilia had been left there and with the insights a Vietnam veteran class member provided, time passed quickly.

            Marilyn Plasket, an avid historian, was a member of the group.   She made a project of obtaining name rubbings of the five men lost from Glassboro to take home.  She finished four but found the last name on her list to be placed too high for her to reach.  Several volunteers were on duty so Marilyn asked one for help.  The man asked the panel number and said that he would meet her there as soon as the ladder became available.

After a few minutes, he returned and set the ladder in position at the base of panel 13 West.  He routinely asked Marilyn for the line number and name and she replied,  "Line nine, James Hagelstein."

            The man's eyes immediately froze as he gripped the ladder to steady himself.  The color drained from his face and he could not make eye contact with Marilyn.  She was convinced she had said something wrong.

            He finally looked at her but struggled with every word.  "I was standing next to him when he was killed," he said.  "I've been doing this for four years, hoping that someone would ask me about him...and you're the first one."

Butch Hovermill then steadily and proudly climbed the ladder to etch Hagelstein's name onto the paper.   Addresses were exchanged and a bond was formed.  Butch shared some memories and the group related to him what they knew about Hagelstein's family.  The Sunday School class and Butch Hovermill returned to their normal lives feeling blessed and thankful they picked that Saturday to go to the Wall.  And that Marilyn Plasket picked Butch to ask for help.

Jimmy Hagelstein was a Clayton, NJ boy, according to most who knew him.  He married before entering the service and had an apartment with his wife and infant son in Glassboro, therefore his official home of record at the time of his death.

            Frank Lolli was a barber in Clayton for thirty years.  "He was a great kid," he says.  "He had more spunk than any three kids."  Frank would look forward to those Saturday mornings when he knew Jimmy was due for a haircut.  "When he came into my shop, the whole place seemed to light up.  He was that charged with energy."

Jim McLaughlin, of Clayton and a Vietnam veteran, remembers his brother-in-law.  "He was not only my wife's brother, he was my friend," he says.  "I was two years older, but we had some great times growing up.  He was an avid hunter and fisherman.  And he was very deeply in love with his wife and son, Jimmy, Jr."

One of Jimmy's friends said, "We all knew him.  He wasn't the school football hero or the class valedictorian or anything like that.  He was just plain Jimmy...an all-American boy."

Jimmy's mother raised eight children by herself.  He dropped out of high school and went to work doing anything that would help his mother make ends meet.  "He picked peaches.  He dug holes. He was a carpenter's helper," the friend said.  "He was a good boy.  No pot, no breaking in, no stealing."

He did have a couple brushes with local police but as his friend said, "Eventually, Jimmy matured into a healthy, handsome, sport loving man.  He worked, fell in love, married and became a father.  Work was scarce and pay was so low, Jimmy joined the Marine Corps."

            Jim McLaughlin adds, "He was the proudest Marine I ever met, bar none.  He felt strongly about the war and wanted to go to Vietnam."

By September of 1969, Hagelstein was granted his wish.  He became a rifleman in D Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.  The U.S. combat activity in 1969 was limited to search and destroy missions and 'pacification' of the countryside.  Units were air lifted by helicopter to suspected 'hot spots' and then extracted hours or days later.  Contact with the enemy was sometimes sporadic, sometimes relentless but always terrifying.

            Stanley Stutts is a construction business owner in Pittsboro, NC.  He was a member of Jimmy's company in Vietnam from January of 1969 to February of 1970.

            "We would go days without contact," he says.  "They'd drop us into an LZ and we'd make it to every checkpoint without a bit of activity.  We spent plenty of time being bored but you knew all hell could break loose any second."

                 Twenty-three years after his return from Vietnam, Stanley submitted an application to In Touch, a computer-based locator service designed to promote the healing legacy of the Wall by connecting veterans with families, friends and loved ones of those whose names are on the memorial.  Stanley felt it time to share his memories, and was willing to tell anyone who was interested what he thought of men like Jimmy Hagelstein.

"I wasn't sure about digging up a lot of painful memories," he says.  "But there were some good things that came out of my experience.  Like getting to know "Hamburger."  I never knew why, but that's what we called him."

            Jimmy was in a rifle squad of about eight men.  Stanley was in the mortar platoon.   They would search each other out during down times at their base camp or in the field during breaks.  "If I heard a bunch of guys laughing, I knew Hamburger was in the middle of it," Stanley recalls.  "He kept everyone in stitches.  The guys loved him."

            Butch Hovermill also remembers the comical side of Jimmy, but then adds,  "He was one guy who would put his life on the line for you and everybody knew it.  We all tried to be that way but with Hamburger, it was different.  He made it seem natural.  We all looked up to him."

            "He used to tell me that some people back home thought he was a smart-ass," Stanley recalls.  "I'll tell you what...If I heard anyone say that, they'd have an indignant Marine in their face real fast.  The world should be full of people like him."

            The military services sometimes removed soldiers from the field when their tours in Vietnam neared completion.  The 'short-timers', as they were called, were to be envied and respected.  They had done their time; they had won their war.

On February 13th, Stanley saw Jimmy for the last time.  "I was extremely 'short'.  My days in the bush were over," he says.  "We made sure we got together because I was going back to the 'world' and the company was going back to the bush.  We mostly talked about my incredible luck at making it through thirteen months of Vietnam.   And about being back in the 'world' and all the things we missed."

            The next morning, D Company was airlifted to a suspected hot spot.  There was plenty of fire support prior to the insertion and once on the ground, the unit started a forward sweep of the area.  As the helicopters were leaving, one of the pilots noticed, and then reported to the ground commanders, some movement behind the company's position.  Jimmy's platoon was ordered to reverse direction and to check out the possible existence of enemy troops to the company's rear.

"The VC were in spider holes and as we swept through, they must have realized that we were about to walk right on them," Butch says.  He pauses and then looks in the distance at nothing but the memory.  "One came up shooting about ten feet in front of Hamburger...it was already too late."

Jimmy died instantly from his wounds.  The remainder of the platoon and then the rest of the company quickly eliminated the enemy in the area and were then evacuated.  Butch found himself with the rest of his squad, Jimmy's body and a Viet Cong prisoner on the helicopter heading back to their base camp.

"We were really upset.  Guys were screaming at the female prisoner and a couple wanted to throw her out of the chopper," Butch says.  "If the crew chief hadn't intervened, they would have."

            The platoon leader was a First Lieutenant who was very close to his men, especially Jimmy.   "He took it real hard," Butch recalls.  "We all were angry but LT was really hurt.  He didn't say much for a long time afterwards.  He knew Hamburger was the heart and soul of the platoon."

Stanley Stutts was two days from leaving Vietnam when he heard of Jimmy's death.  "I volunteered to stay another tour," he says.  "I was out for revenge.  I wasn't going to let them get away with that.  Thank goodness, some of the guys talked me out of it.  It would not have brought Hamburger back.  So I tried to bury that whole year and got on with the rest of my life."

Stanley's life paralleled most Vietnam veterans for the next decade or two.  He seemed outwardly adjusted but deep inside there were some unresolved issues; some unspoken farewells. 

"It's good that after so long, I've been finally able to deal with my involvement in that war, the friends I lost and what a screwed up mess the whole thing was," he says.  "I never really said goodbye to Hamburger.  It was more like a 'See ya later' that night.  Being able to reach out and let people know what I thought of James Hagelstein has to substitute for saying goodbye.  He was, and we were, the best this country had to offer, no matter how it turned out."

Jim McLaughlin speaks for the family when he says, "His death was a traumatic shock and we all feel he died a hero fighting for his country."  He then adds a more personal observation.  "I wasn't totally surprised.  I knew his efforts would be total and he wouldn't back away from anything."

Butch Hovermill still works at healing and reconciliation.  He wants people to understand what being in Vietnam meant; to him and to his country.  He wants them to feel the Wall and its power.  But more than anything, he wants people to remember guys like Jimmy Hagelstein.

            "Sometimes, when tourists ask me if I have any friends on the Wall, I take them right to panel 13 West," he says.  "And I never have to do more than point to his name for them to know what kind of friend he was to me and to the rest of the Marines in his unit."

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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