CHESTER — Julie Gangloff has taken a vow never to forget.
She has dedicated much of her time these last two years to gathering a comprehensive list of Randolph County soldiers who died or went missing during the Vietnam War.
Running through the end of the month, Gangloff has created Never Forgotten, a series of six exhibits at the Chester, Steeleville, Coulterville, Sparta and Red Bud libraries as well as the county courthouse in Chester. The exhibits tell the stories of the men who were lost through newspaper articles and personal artifacts shared by the families.
PFC Leonard A. Nitzsche and Lance Cpl. Charles W. Rader are two such soldiers. Nitzsche died April 8, 1970, and Rader on March 3, 1968. Nitzsche was drafted and Rader was an enlisted Marine. Beyond a common home, they both now share family — Linda Rader is Nitzshe’s sister and is also married to Russell Rader, brother of Charles.
Both Russell and Linda said they grew up in families who largely supported the mission in Vietnam, but mostly they supported the men fighting it.
“I hated it that my brother was there but I also was proud of him,” Linda Rader said.
Russell Rader, who also served but was not stationed in Vietnam, said he and his family were worried about his older brother.
“You are scared for them when they are in there. It’s about all you can do,” he said.
Barbara Swany also knew about worrying. Her brother, 1st Lt. Stephen Gerlach, also died in the war. She said he was working and attending school when he decided to enlist to help pay for college. She said her father was proud and nervous, especially as the war ramped up.
“I think he had a little reservations because of Vietnam. I had a lot of reservations because of Vietnam. That was not something I really wanted him to do,” Swany said of her concern for her brother’s safety.
Swany said she went to the airport with the family when he shipped out to basic training.
“I told him to be careful and I loved him and he said, ‘Don’t worry if I get shot, it’ll be in the ass,’” she remembered, laughing.
In January 1968, Swany said her brother was finally being deployed to a war zone. She wrote him often, but he never read a single word. When he shipped out, Swany said her brother was scheduled to go to one location, but when he landed was ordered to go to another. The mail took time to catch up to him — too much time.
“I wrote a lot of letters," Swany said. "He never got one.”
Both Carolyn Bert, Gerlach’s cousin, and Swany were living in St. Louis when they were given notice of Gerlach's death. Both remembered having to ask a doctor for help with coping — they were “devastated.”
Swany said this kind of emotional support they received when her brother died is something she knows soldiers did not receive coming home.
“They didn’t get help they should have gotten when they came home,” Swany said, adding that she doesn’t know why the soldiers had to suffer.
“Why didn’t they say, ‘Thank you for your service’ to these boys,” she said.
Bert said there was a line out the door of Gerlach’s visitation in Steeleville. Despite national scrutiny on the war, she said he was given a proper homecoming.
Swany said she had always known that her brother died in a foxhole and was killed by a mortar, but never got too many details — until about five years ago. She said it was then that she was contacted out of the blue by a man who said he served with her brother when he was killed. In fact, he said Gerlach had saved his life.
All he wanted, Swany said, was a photograph of Gerlach in order to show his children the man who kept him safe during the war.
Swany said the man explained that they were in a foxhole together when they were overtaken by their enemy and they were running out of ammo. She said her brother took two in the foxhole with him behind enemy lines to get ammunition and came back to distribute it to the other soldiers. During the fighting, Gerlach was hit by a mortar.
“He told me, when [Gerlach] got hit with the mortar, that was it and that helped,” Swany said, learning that her brother likely did not suffer before he died.
The Raders, as well as Swany and Bert, all said history and time have altered their feelings on the war itself. They said watching the recent Ken Burns PBS documentary about it has shifted their thinking.
“It’s really kind of changed my perspective about the Vietnamese people. They were really just wanting freedom,” Russell Rader said.
Swany said after watching the first part of the documentary she realized she never knew why the U.S. was involved.
“It’s very hard to figure out why we ever was there,” Swany said.
Nevertheless, she said at the time she believed in her brother, who she said knew it was important that he be in the war to try to prevent the perceived threat of the domino effect of communism.
“If he thought it was right, well, I thought it was right,” she said.
These memories and family members are what Gangloff said she created these exhibits for. In a news release about the series, she said she wanted to reach out to as many local veterans and relatives as she could, letting them know that their community has not forgotten them.
Her next project will be an extension of that.
Spurred by her role in the Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution and their participation in the Department of the Defense’s 50th Commemorative of the Vietnam War, she used the DOD database to get what she hoped was a comprehensive list of local fallen soldiers — she needed it for a declaration to be read by the county board.
Gangloff decided to publish the list in a local newspaper to make sure everyone was accounted for. Sure enough, she received calls letting her know that some soldiers had been left off the list — she explained that the DOD had listed their homes of record as where they had enlisted or been drafted from.
There were four in total and she has now committed to helping get corrected their home of record, which she said is no easy task. After that, she is moving on to a list of other fallen or missing Vietnam War vets in the state that have incorrect homes of record and from there she plans to go nationwide.
It’s a matter of posterity. She said it is important that 50 years from now when none are left who remember, that communities be able to celebrate their fallen soldiers without leaving any gaps.
“These men paid with their lives. The least that the can do is be honored when the county they lived in wants to honor them,” Gangloff said.