Elmon C. Ware proudly served his county during World War II and came home as thousands of young men did. A young man, vital and strong, full of hope and ambition. He and Mrs. Inez carved out their picture of the great American dream: family, home, success, and a respected place in a community. Bay Springs, Mississippi, was fortunate to have such a man.
The Wares lived in town in a tidy red brick ranch-style house on a nice street in the very best of times, the fifties. Ware’s Cleaners, their business, was within walking distance. It was the place everyone used for dry cleaning. They welcomed their first child, Richard, lovingly referred to as Dickie. That nickname stuck with him all the way through graduation from the local high school. Dickie became a big brother to Mary, who was my classmate, and the next little sister, Gail, soon followed. All the kids were redheads and had a few freckles scattered, and they were all good kids, too. I don’t know if you could have commissioned a better portrait of the dream.
Dickie graduated from Bay Springs High School and attended Jones County Junior College in nearby Ellisville, Mississippi. He put in a few years of work, and as Viet Nam heated up, he volunteered for the U.S. Army and began his service in April 1967. After training, he left for Viet Nam in December 1967. Read that again … Dickie volunteered to go to Viet Nam. Numerous other young men were burning draft cards, protesting, and slipping across the border into Canada.
His picture in uniform is heartbreaking. Look at that face, that smile. He looks all of fourteen. He could have been Opie Taylor or Richie on Happy Days. If he felt any trepidation about being sent to combat, his face gives no clue. I know Mr. Elmon and Mrs. Inez must have been so proud … and terribly afraid. Mr. Elmon had already experienced what war does to men. He probably could have called in some favors, pulled a few strings, and managed an exemption of some sort for Dickie, the only male child of a war veteran. But he didn’t. Dickie wanted to serve his country, and that was the end of that.
Mary and I had just started our new school year as juniors. We were friendly but ran with different groups. Mary was a little shy and tended to be quiet. I found my place as a noisy, goofy sort of class clown. But we were sweet and nice to one another in a time when bullying, in general, was limited to one or two particular boys who usually got their comeuppance and mended their ways. I don’t remember a bad word coming out of Mary’s mouth about anybody.
Dickie was killed on Saturday, August 24, 1968. In the darkness of a tropical land on the other side of the world, in a country whose name we weren’t even sure how to pronounce, in a war we didn’t understand for people we’d never even seen. Mostly, we were interested in each other, our football team, our band, and staying in the good graces of our teachers and keeping our parents off our backs at report card time. We lived in the bliss of ignorance.
The military uniforms delivered the news to his parents on a Monday morning. I could see the parking lot of the school from my desk, and always a daydreamer, my mind had already begun to wander. I sat up a little straighter when I saw a law enforcement vehicle parked close to the entrance and the principal’s office. It wasn’t long before class was interrupted by an announcement that Mary Ware needed to come to the office. I’m positive it was the only time Mary was ever called to the principal’s office.
Dickie had volunteered for a demolitions team working in the dark; it wasn’t even his turn to go out. They came under heavy attack, and Dickie found himself in the mud of that foreign land dodging bullets and small anti-tank rockets. He was first thrown from the vehicle that took an RPG round but rose in the darkness and instinctively began trying to help his fellow soldiers under fire. He actually found cover in a safe area when he turned and saw his injured brothers lying in the dirt. He plowed directly into the onslaught of the enemy, hefting his unconscious buddies as far as he could. Dickie took a direct hit from behind and died instantly. “With complete disregard for his own safety,” one account of the battle gives, “as he was evacuating a wounded comrade to safety.”
Dickie was 21 years old when he came home to Bay Springs for burial. Waiting for him were his heartbroken family and an entire little town. Now we knew where Viet Nam was.
The Wares were devastated. All the medals and framed awards in the world could not replace their smiling boy, whose face and heart were honest and open to the entire world.
Dickie received a Bronze Star for meritorious service and a second one for heroism; a Purple Heart; the Military Merit Medal and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, Unit Citation. The American Legion Post No. 71 was named after him; the National Guard Armory is located at 174 Dickie Ware Avenue in Bay Springs, Mississippi. A portion of Mississippi Highway 15 running through Jasper County is named in his memory.
Of course, Dickie’s name is found among more than 58,000 others on the black granite memorial in our nation’s capital.
Mr. Elmon passed away about two years later, and was buried alongside his only son, his sweet smiling boy. I suspect a broken heart had something to do with it.
Thirty years after Dickie’s death, First Lt. Jim Barry made the trip from Washington State all the way to Bay Springs to visit Dickie’s family. He spoke of the bravery shown on more than one occasion by his much-admired warrior, Dick. Dickie had matured during his time in the war and become a full-grown man, leaving his nickname in the past. Barry shared that it had taken all those years to gather the strength and courage to make the trip. He was still grieving, too. He had been unaware that Dickie received his Bronze Star. Barry had been the individual who recommended that recognition.
One thing is certain. Dickie’s name is engraved forever on the heart of everyone who ever knew him. Richard Alexandra Ware. Remember his name.