An exhibit featuring a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., will open Thursday evening in Fort Mill. Eleven people from Fort Mill were killed in the Vietnam War. Here’s a look at four of the people who accepted the call to serve their country and paid the ultimate price.
‘You really don’t have time to get scared’
Jerry Helms, Fort Mill born and raised, was fatally wounded 15 days before his second tour of Vietnam was to officially end.
His name is among the more than 58,000 on the traveling Vietnam Wall that officially goes on display in Fort Mill Thursday evening. He was the last Fort Mill soldier to die in the war.
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“He was the kind of young man who would do anything for you,” said his sister, Patricia Broom, 70, of Fort Mill, who said Helms was filling in for another solider in a helicopter the day he was shot.
A fellow soldier posted remembrances of Helms, a utility helicopter repairman, on the Vietnam Veterans’ Wall of Faces website.
“It was an ambush. They hit us so hard and fast we didn’t have time to react,” said Sgt. B. Wager in the May 28, 2001, post. He said Helms was hit three times. “I thought he was going to fall out. I pulled him in and started first aid. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes or the taste of his blood as it painted the inside of the gunship.”
Helms, who had seven brothers and one sister, barely spoke of Vietnam to his close-knit family, except to talk about war buddies.
He was the baby of the Helms family, who lived on Old Nation Road. He was expected home for good when the family received notice that their own Sgt. Jerry Donald Helms was wounded on April 1, 1971.
Both parents worked in the Springs cotton mills.
Helms died in a Saigon hospital on April 30, without family present, a fact that haunted his mother to her grave and still upsets his sister. He was 23 years old.
“That was very stressful, not knowing if he was dead or alive, Mama knowing she couldn’t go there to be with him,” said Broom, who was a young mother at the time. “He was her baby.”
In a Nov. 10, 1996, interview, his mother, Eva Helms, said the danger of Vietnam didn’t frighten Jerry when he was drafted into the U.S. Army or after he served there.
“I said, ‘Jerry, you don’t get scared?’ ” said Eva Helms, who was 80 in 1996. “He said, ‘No, you really don’t have time to get scared because you have to be on your guard.’ ”
When Helms’ body was brought home to Fort Mill and buried at Unity Cemetery, it was unreal to his family.
“The war was winding down by then,” Broom said. “We expected him back alive.”
Helms received two Purple Hearts for his sacrifices. On his first tour of duty in Vietnam, he was injured in the leg by shrapnel during a bombing of his military barracks.
Broom traveled in the mid-1990s to Washington, D.C., to see his name on the memorial there and to pray alongside other families who lost a son, a brother, or a father.
She plans to attend the ceremony Thursday to honor her fallen brother in her hometown of Fort Mill. But it will be painful and overwhelming, even 43 years later.
“It brings back bad memories, but he wanted to be there,” she said. “He wanted to fight for his country.”
‘He knew he wasn’t going to come back’
Teresa Pittman never met her father, Lance Cpl. Raymond Ervin Long, a U.S. Marine who was killed in action on Oct. 19, 1967.
But he set her up in a loving family and named and nicknamed her before he left for war. Long, 19, a motor vehicle operator, was killed when he drove over a land mine. He suffered a fatal head injury. He had been fighting in Vietnam for 13 days.
Pittman was born “Teresa Ann” three months later.
“He knew he wasn’t going to come back,” said Pittman, who was raised by Long’s father and stepmother. “He made sure I would be taken care of.”
“He was an amazing person for the short time he was on Earth.”
The Long family accepted “Teassie” with open arms. Her father’s two brothers and four sisters treated her like a sister. She called her grandparents “mom” and “dad.” She listens to stories of her father through his Fort Mill school classmates, including her father-in-law.
They bring his memory to life, she said.
To Pittman, Vietnam is a very sad subject. She has seen another traveling Vietnam wall and left a flower for her father. Friends have sent her rubbings of her father’s name from the Washington, D.C., memorial.
She expects the wall to take an emotional toll again this week.
“The wall makes it all so real that all this really happened,” she said.
She said it puts her life in perspective – despite her biological mother not wanting her and her biological father’s untimely death, she ended up with amazing parents and a wonderful family. She credits her father, a man she never met.
This time, the traveling wall will be in her hometown of Fort Mill and poignantly falling on the 47th anniversary of her father’s death.
With her comes at least nine other family members and plenty of friends to remember him and his service to his country.
“He gave the ultimate sacrifice so we want to honor him,” she said.
‘It should have been me’
Pfc. Johnnie Wylie Potts, a supplyman, was honored for heroism in ground combat.
He died a Bronze Star recipient on Feb. 18, 1968, the lone African-American from Fort Mill to be killed in action during the Vietnam War. He left behind a wife and two daughters.
“It should have been me,” said his younger brother, the Rev. Hazel Potts, who was also fighting in Vietnam, though in a different infantry unit. “I didn’t have anybody at the time. That’s the emotion I felt.”
With illness and survivor guilt, coupled with public opinion steadily turning against the war and its veterans, Vietnam was both physical and emotional for Potts. The associate minister who resides in Charlotte said he suffers from the affects Agent Orange exposure.
“There was no celebration when we got home,” he said. “It made you feel like the war was useless, and what did we accomplish – the death of a lot of men?”
With two brothers in Vietnam at the same time, it is difficult for Patricia Young, 66, to remember details of that time through stress, worry and her own busy life.
She was in college, studying to become a teacher, but was home for the telephone call her mother received about Johnnie’s death while cooking breakfast for Hazel, who was safe at home. She remembers that moment vividly.
“Momma was screaming,” she said. “I remember that like it was yesterday.”
She believes Johnnie was killed while alerting his camp of the approaching enemy. An unofficial record states that her brother was shot while attempting to rescue fellow soldiers from attacking forces.
To Young and Potts, the details no longer matter. Their brother was a hero.
Young was very close to Johnnie, the eldest in the family. He wrote many letters home, asking for prayers.
“In one, he said pray for him, it was hard to distinguish the enemy from the ones he was trying to protect,” said Young, who added he was among the soldiers instructed to kill children who were wearing bombs into the camp.
Young likes to remember him as the responsible older brother who led the four children of the Potts family in household chores and enjoyed playing the drums.
46 years later
The final mission of Army Capt. James M. Johnstone and his OV-1A Mohawk took him into heavy enemy territory over Attapu Province, Laos, in 1966.
He crashed while conducting a daytime reconnaissance mission, but his plane was not found – until 2012.
Johnstone, who was born in Baton Rouge, La., and grew up in Fort Mill, was identified through a credit card, dental records and aircraft wreckage, according to news reports.
Johnstone was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery on Dec. 12, 2012, with family members present.
The U.S. has been working with the governments of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to recover the bodies of Americans lost during the Vietnam War.
Army comrade Bill Ipock remembered Johnstone from Officer Candidate School and roomed with him during flight school.
“He was a solider’s soldier and dearly loved flying that Mohawk,” he wrote on Johnstone’s Wall of Faces webpage. “His was a dangerous business, but he loved it and I’m sure he was one of the best.”