One hundred seventy-five names are etched into the columns of the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans. They belong to 174 men and one woman who had close ties to this community before they were killed or died in the armed conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries.
It’s likely that more names will be added in the coming months. The additions will not be in deaths yet to be reported. They will be the names of soldiers who died in combat almost a half century ago in the controversial war that has come to be known simply for the country in which it took place — Vietnam — but were not included in the original roll call of county members who had made the ultimate sacrifice.
This will not be the first time new names have been etched into the memorial columns. One, Marine Sgt. Jeremy McQueary, fell in action in Afghanistan in 2010, 13 years after the memorial was dedicated. Several others were brought to the attention of the Veterans Memorial Committee after the dedication because they were not among those provided through a variety of local resources.
At least two of the names that have surfaced in recent days came to light because the Columbus/Columbus North High School Association is in the process of developing a memorial in honor of the school’s graduates who gave their lives while in service.
Hedy George, secretary of the association, had received an email from Francis McMillian, a 1966 Columbus High School graduate, who had provided her with a list of those from his class who had fallen during the Vietnam War. One of the names on his list was unfamiliar to Hedy, that of Ronald Lee Smith.
Francis had attached brief biographies with each of the names of his fallen comrades, including material relating to their high school careers and their military service. Under Ronald’s name he recapped the description in their 1966 high school yearbook, The Log. The information was brief: “Contest Club 2-3-4.” The military data noted that he had been a private first class in the Army, attached to C Company, 9th Infantry Division/47th Infantry.
“Ronald arrived in Vietnam on May 13, 1968, and was killed in action on May 26, 1968, at Kien Hoa, Vietnam,” Francis wrote, noting that his classmate had been “in country” only 13 days before being killed.
Francis obtained his information about his classmates from a number of websites. “All that I know is that their home state was listed as Indiana and their hometown is listed as Columbus,” he wrote. “I remember seeing Ronald in school, and I recall that he attended grade school at one of the county elementaries, but we didn’t know each other outside school.”
Ronald’s name was also unfamiliar to me. I was part of a group that had compiled the original list of Bartholomew County men and women who had given their lives in the wars of the 20th century. The lists came from a variety of sources. For Vietnam, for instance, The Evening Republican newspaper kept a running total of county residents killed. Often the information was first reported to the newspaper by family members.
Thinking we might have missed Ronald’s name in the original check, I went through copies of the newspapers for the month following the day he was killed. There was no such report in any of those papers.
I did find his name on a website (virtualwall.org), which listed his hometown as Beech Grove. Through another website I learned that he had been buried in a cemetery in Marion County. I was unable to find any information to link the Ronald Lee Smith killed in Vietnam to Bartholomew County.
It’s possible that there could have been two Ronald Lee Smiths, and the one killed in Vietnam did not attend school here. On the other hand it’s possible that his family might have moved to Beech Grove after his graduation but when he was killed did not notify the local newspaper. That uncertainty has cast the issue of whether to put his name on the county’s Memorial for Veterans into question.
The hope is that someone related to him or who knew him as a friend will contact me to clear up the question of whether the Ronald Lee Smith who graduated from Columbus High School in 1966 is the Ronald Lee Smith who was killed in Vietnam two years later.
Ironically, the search for Ronald bought to light the names of two other Vietnam casualties who had lived in Columbus.
In scanning the pages of The Evening Republican in the days following May 26, 1968, I came across a front page report that former Columbus resident Dale W. Dixon had been killed in Vietnam. Before being drafted into the Army in October 1966, he had worked on the first shift at Cummins Engine Co. and resided with his wife at Sixth and California streets.
I also went through the file envelopes in the newspaper’s library for local people named Smith. In the Sept. 4, 1968, issue of The Evening Republican it was reported that former Columbus resident Billy Smith had been killed in Vietnam Aug. 24. He had lived with his sister on Patterson Road and worked at Louden’s Food Fair grocery until entering service in 1967.
Because of the newspaper story reports, the names of Gale Dixon and Billy Smith will be added to the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans, according to Zack Ellison, chairman of the Veterans Memorial Commission.
Hopefully, someone will come forward with information in the coming days that will help determine whether 1966 Columbus High School graduate Ronald Lee Smith is the soldier who was killed in Vietnam two years later.
If it was, indeed, one and the same person, it would be fitting that his name, along with those of Gale Dixon and Billy Smith, be added to the columns in time for Memorial Day.