Morgan couple wants to honor soldiers killed in Vietnam

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — Every time Heather Collins talks about Cpl. David Lee Turner and his burial site, she becomes emotional.

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“It’s a shame,” she said about Davidson Cemetery in Lacey’s Spring where Turner was interred. “He deserves better. All our soldiers do.”

For about three months, Heather Collins and her husband, Don, have been on a journey to identify the burial sites and tell the stories of every soldier from Morgan County killed in the Vietnam War.

Turner, a member of Company B, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, was 26 and had been in Vietnam one month when he died on Jan. 31, 1968.

The cemetery where he is buried is “snake infested, overgrown and just not an appropriate site for any person who served this country,” Heather Collins said.

The Morgan County Archives has a permanent display for veterans and soldiers and hundreds of vertical files about service members, but no one has ever focused on just the soldiers who died in Vietnam, said Morgan County Archivist John Allison.

“It’s real worthy what they are doing,” he said, adding that the information may spur some organizations to keep clean cemeteries where Vietnam service members are buried.

The Collins' project started about three months ago when they were in the Morgan County Archives and the Falkville couple questioned Allison about a picture of Pfc. Tommy Lee Nicholas in the permanent exhibit.

For several years, there were questions about which Morgan County soldier was the first to be killed in Vietnam. About a decade ago, research determined that it was Nicholas, Allison explained.

The Collinses said they wanted to know the burial sites of Nicholas and the other 22 service members from Morgan County killed in the war.

“It was personal for me,” said Don Collins, a 1966 Falkville graduate who served in Vietnam from 1967-1973. “These guys are the 23 unsung heroes of Morgan County. Many of them were teenagers and everybody in the county needs to know about them.”

Army Cpl. Johnnie Sewell is one of the 23 from Morgan County. He is buried in Winston County and Don Collins said the soldier is “close to his heart” because he met Sewell at a truck stop in Hartselle about six months before his death.

“I was on leave after basic training and we both had our uniforms on,” Don recalled. “We talked, but I never got to see him again.”

Sewell was killed on July 25, 1968.

The remains of all the Morgan County soldiers killed in Vietnam have been returned except those of Lt. Col. Ralph Pattillo of Hartselle. He graduated from Morgan County High School in 1951 and Baylor Military Academy in 1953. Pattillo attended the University of Alabama two years before joining the U.S. Air Force.

He graduated flight school in 1957 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. During his second tour in Vietnam, Pattillo’s F-4D aircraft was shot down Feb. 16, 1971. The Air Force listed him as missing in action until July 1978, when the secretary of the Air Force changed his status to “presumed deceased.”

The family did not receive any of his personal possessions, but in 2006, one of Pattillo’s former flight students gave the family tape recordings of Pattillo.

He has a marker in Hartselle City Cemetery that lists his date of death as Feb. 16, 1971.

About five years before Pattillo was shot down, a headline in The Decatur Daily about Nicholas’ death said: “Viet war takes first casualty from Decatur.”

Nicholas, a 1963 Lakeside High School graduate, was the second of eight children born to Oscar and Minnie Nicholas. He was the oldest son.

After his parents separated, he got a job at Busy Bee Supermarket on Vine Street and became the father of the family.

Two years after graduating from high school, when recruiters came to Lakeside in 1965, he was the first to volunteer for service. On June 30, 1965, he completed basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and was assigned to the 1st Calvary Division at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he remained until he was deployed to Vietnam in December 1965.

In his last letter to his mother, Nicholas wrote: “So Mom, if you don’t hear from me anymore, remember that it was meant to be.”

He died in Vietnam on Feb. 23, 1966.

The Collinses said they plan to compile the stories of all 23 soldiers and put them in the Archives.

“This is the least we can do,” said Don Collins.

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