When Ellis County native, Danny Neil, joined the Marines and began his tour of duty in Viet Nam in 1970, he had no idea that a childhood friend had joined the Marines and was completing his tour of duty. Danny, a graduate of Avalon High School, had known Ronnie Compton, a graduate of Italy High School, all his life. Their parents were friends so the boys had grown up together and knew each other very well. After graduation from high school, however, the friends lost track of each other.
“In Viet Nam, you don’t expect to see people you knew in the states, especially someone from Ellis County,” said Neil. “I realized it really is a small world when I ran into Ronnie Compton while I was serving with the Marines.”
Compton had been in Viet Nam for about eleven months and was at a base 30 miles southeast of Da Nang when he ran into his friend from home.
“I was sitting in the shade resting one day in a clearing at the top of a mountain when I looked up and saw a guy walking across the base,” Neil said. “I did not know that Ronnie was in Nam or even in the Marines, but I recognized him immediately.”
“When I called out to him, I had to call his name three times before he would answer me,” he continued. “Ronnie was not expecting to see anyone from home. Boy, were we ever glad to see each other. We sat for hours and talked about farming in Ellis County and home.”
This chance meeting was just what these two Ellis County boys needed. Serving in the Marines during the Viet Nam War was difficult. Being young and so far away from home was even harder. Because of what they had witnessed while there, they both knew that this meeting was a blessing from God. They also knew that because of the circumstances, one or both of them might have to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country and not see friends and family ever again.
As the friends parted, Ronnie promised he would visit Danny’s mother when he got home. Even though it was a lie, Neil asked him to tell her he was well and everything was fine. They also promised to look each other up after the war. When Compton got home from Nam, he kept the promise he made and visited Neil’s mother and delivered the message from her son. Somehow, the other promise they made got lost, that is until May 9, 2010.
With family and friends in attendance, Ronnie Compton and Danny Neil met in front of the Viet Nam Traveling Memorial in Ennis on Sunday. The reunion came 40 years after their chance meeting in Viet Nam. For a few minutes, they shared small talk about horses and farming and family. Finally, they began to open up and talk about their time in Viet Nam. They could talk to each other about what they had been through, things they could not share with anyone else. They could share memories that they would not share with family or close friends.
Neil sustained wounds to his right leg on September 16, 1970. His platoon was ambushed by the Viet Cong as they walked down a narrow trail.
“We had just come off the side of a mountain. The Lieutenant told us to follow the trail, but I knew we should not have gone down that trail. It was narrow and smooth. As a farm boy, I knew animals would not have done that. We followed orders and got ambushed after we had walked about 500 yards. I got hit with gun fire in my knee and was falling when a grenade went off in front of me. If I had been standing up, I probably would have been killed.”
Ronnie was also wounded in Viet Nam, but his injuries were not from enemy fire.
“There were 21 of us that got hit that day,” Compton explained. “It was a short mortar round. Someone miscalculated and it landed short. I was hit in my left arm and chest. I was carrying a radio on my back. I pulled it to shield my chest which saved me.”
Compton was awarded the Purple Heart for the injuries he sustained that day. He was very proud of the medal until it was taken back the next day.
“They told all of us that were injured that day that we did not deserve the medals,” he said. “They took them back. Guess friendly fire didn’t count.”
Both men knew soldiers that were killed in Viet Nam. While standing in front of the wall, they talked about their friends that had lost their lives in battle.
“David B. Henderson, Jr. was from Italy. He got to Viet Nam on October 5, 1968. He was killed on November 4, 1968,” Compton explained as he searched for his friends name. “He was a hero.”
Neil quickly located the name of James D. Howe. Howe was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery. The Viet Cong threw a grenade in the fox hole where he was with two other soldiers. Howe fell on the grenade and saved the lives of those men.
Some people would think that the reunion between Ronnie Compton and Danny Neil was long over due. Others would wonder what took them so long. But, they know the reunion was right on time and was worth waiting for. Seeing the wall was very emotional for both of them. It opened up some old, very painful wounds. Wounds that will be with them forever.
However, visiting the wall and seeing each other after 40 years might bring much needed closure for both of them. After all, they lost friends and comrades over there. They both realize and admit that the men that they served with whose names are on the wall are heroes and deserve to be honored by the American people. What they don’t realize or if they do don’t admit is they are heroes too. They are heroes because they were willing to sacrifice their lives for the American people. They ARE heroes in their own right because of what they endured in service to our country.
3,100,000 men and women served in Viet Nam. 58,253 died there. There are still 1,802 missing in action. 153,303 of our military members were wounded while serving in this war. I know there were probably hundreds if not thousands of stories of heroes that could have been told in front of the wall, but I chose to tell this one because these two men are MY heroes.