By Pat Hammert/Staff Writer
The small gravestone lines up neatly with others of similar size, like soldiers standing sentry on the early summer grass of the cemetery.
Simply inscribed, the headstone marks the spot where Army Spec. Ronald Lee Watson was interred 40 years ago in an official ceremony conducted by the Army. It was at the end of summer in 1966 and the Vietnam War was being waged a world away.
The 22-year-old was mortally wounded in a now-famous battle with the Viet Cong on Aug. 25, 1966, Battle of Bong Trang.
At the funeral, men in Army uniforms stood with Watson’s family members and official-looking cars and Army trucks lined the narrow cemetery road, recalls Watson’s sister, Shirley House.
A folded American flag was handed over to a family member and a 21-gun salute rang through the quiet peace.
“I remember my aunt screamed out when they shot the guns,” said Connie Farrell, Watson’s niece.
Kyzer, her sister, Connie Ferrell and their mother, Shirley House, said the heartbreak is still vivid even though many years have passed. They place flowers and small American flags at the grave. And tears come.
“Whenever I see a veteran who served in Vietnam,” Kyzer said, “I always make a point of walking up to him and telling him how proud I am that he served his country. I think they need that.”
All the Vietnam veterans are heroes to them, but they believe their brother and uncle was a hero in the purest sense. A year after Watson’s body was flown to the United States, the Bronze Star with V device was posthumously presented in ceremonies at the El Reno National Guard Armory.
The citation reads: “Specialist Four Watson’s company was participating in a multi-battalion road clearing operation along Highway 16 near Binh Duong province. In the early morning hours, Watson, as a member of a 16-man long-range reconnaissance patrol, unknowingly walked into the perimeter of the long-sought insurgent Phu Lo Battalion.
“Immediately recognizing the precarious situation,” the citation reads, “Specialist Watson unhesitatingly began to engage the Viet Cong. Due to the overwhelming odds and the heavy volume of fire, the patrol began taking casualties.
“Specialist Watson was instrumental by the use of his firepower in creating confusion and casualties on the onrushing insurgents. Moving from the position to another, he exposed himself to a tremendous barrage of hostile fire so that members of his patrol could remove their critically wounded comrades from the danger areas.
“During this valorous act, (he) was mortally wounded. His heroic actions in the face of a well-armed and numerically superior Viet Cong force inspired his embattled companions to renew efforts and resulted in the complete rout of the hostile forces.
“(His) outstanding display of aggressiveness, devotion to duty and personal bravery is in keeping with the finest tradition of the military service.”
Watson also earned the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with oak leaf cluster, considered the highest honor the Vietnamese government awarded for that conflict. His family also cherishes his Purple Heart.
In 1962, after his tour of duty with Oklahoma’s 45th Infantry, Watson joined the Army and served with Company C. First Battalion, Second Infantry Division. Other than the citation narrative, the family has few details about what action he was in when he died.
The bits and pieces they have gleaned have been told and retold among family members. Kyzer has been in contact with Watson’s commander, long retired from military duty, who is working with a writer on what they are now calling the Battle of Bong Trang. Writer Tracy Derks, who is a regular contributor to the magazine, Vietnam, terms that battle — that occurred over the course of 24 hours — as “Armageddon in the jungle, the nastiest single day of America’s longest war.”
Watson was in Vietnam about six months but his letters home did not include many details other than to mention several times about going on patrol and having to carry the bodies of his dead buddies from the fighting.
The skirmish when he was fatally wounded occurred far into enemy territory. Most of his 16-man patrol was killed.
His name appears on the Vietnam War Memorial on the Washington Mall, along with the 58,000 soldiers who gave their lives in the war.
Some 990 Oklahoma dead are listed on the wall.
Besides Watson, nine other El Reno men died in Vietnam. They are Chester Avnard, James Bayne, Clarence Blanton, Alpha Buford, Donald Gustafson, John Holloway, Robert Plato, Joe Riley and Sammy Smith.
Kyzer believes her uncle should have received the Medal of Honor for his deeds in battle. But she believes paperwork was lost and the battle was fairly early in a war that ultimately became so unpopular on the home front.
It doesn’t matter what medals he earned, House said, “I don’t need for him to get medals to know he was a hero.”