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 Murray County Museum  

Gary Robert Cruse

Sergeant Gary Robert Cruse died in Vietnam, August 18, 1968, the third man from Murray County to be killed there. Department of Defense records reveal that 76 other American service members died in Vietnam on the same day.

The war had escalated, and the number of soldiers serving in Vietnam was near its peak for the entire war. More than 1200 American service men died there in the single month of August, 1968. The official American death toll for that year was 16,589, an average of 45 deaths per day!

American troops in Vietnam in 1968 numbered slightly more than 536,000–the highest number for any year of that war. Fighting along with the Americans that year were 820,000 South Vietnamese, 7,660 Australians, 50,000 South Koreans, 520 New Zealanders, 1,580 Filipinos, and 6,000 Thai troops.

His Early Life

Gary Robert Cruse was born November 22, 1946. His parents were Robert and Maebell (Young) Cruse who lived in the New Hope Community, a part of the Bull Pen district of Murray County. The family also included sisters Trena and Kathy and a brother, Doug.

Gary's paternal grandparents were Milous and Ida Cruse. His maternal grandparents were Kirby and Lucy Young, who also lived in Bull Pen.

Gary's grandfather Young was a preacher. Although Gary was a member of Maranatha Baptist Church, he often attended services wherever his grandfather was pastor at the time.

Gary's family lived in the country so they had the usual horses, cows, hogs, chickens, dogs, etc. During Gary's lifetime the family no longer farmed on a large scale; they did raise a large garden each year and Gary did his share of the work to make that a success. Of course, he knew that the garden would help them to eat well year-round, and Gary definitely looked forward to that–especially when his mom made a peach cobbler for dessert.

Friends and family remember that Gary loved virtually anything having to do with the outdoors. He considered himself lucky to have grown up living in the country.

Gary attended Spring Place Grammar School and thought highly of his principal there, Mr. Carl Davis. His mother recalls that Gary was a typical student, respectful but sometimes a bit mischievous, who had no real problems at school. He made friends easily, earned the respect of his classmates, and demonstrated leadership qualities at an early age.

When Gary entered Murray County High School, his greatest short-term aspiration was to honorably do his military stint, and return intact to Murray County. He could then decide what he wanted to do with the remainder of his life. Like most high school students of that time, Gary knew that the war made any other approach unrealistic. The draft had been reinstated as a means of guaranteeing that the military would have all of the soldiers needed for what seemed an ever-expanding war in southeast Asia. Unless a boy had a college student deferment or was in bad physical condition, he could count on being summoned to serve.

Gary applied himself and quickly demonstrated at MCHS that he could gain the respect and cooperation of fellow students from the entire county, especially on the football field. He responded well to coaching and developed into a very competent team player.

Kensel Headrick, a team-mate remembers Gary as "the fastest guy in 7AA Region, with an attitude that made it apparent that he wanted to win at all costs. Although he had a backbone of steel and was not afraid of anybody on the field, he would never intentionally hurt another player."

Gary counted among his very closest friends, Kensel Headrick, Ted Townsend, and Johnny Waters. He also considered his football coaches, Doug Griffin and Frank Ross his friends.

One of the lesser known aspects of Gary's young life was that he had aspirations to someday race stock cars. His uncle owned North Georgia Speedway and somehow Gary just happened to have had a key. On several occasions he and his buddy, Kensel Headrick, went there late at night and took a few turns around the track in Gary's ‘59 Ford.

Johnny Waters recalls that his family moved to Murray in January 1966, midway through his junior year. The 16 year-old knew no one at school but somehow one of the most popular jocks on campus quickly became Johnny's closest buddy. The two spent time together running track, practicing football, playing football, working at Fort Mountain State Park, and just riding around Murray's back roads. Some 18 months later they both graduated with the class of 1967.

Gary Becomes a Soldier

Gary received his draft summons immediately after graduation. He took basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, followed by advanced infantry training at Fort McClellan, Alabama.

After completing his training, Gary came home on leave, with orders to deploy to Vietnam upon completion of his leave. He confided to his mother that, because he knew that the lives of his fellow soldiers would be at stake, he had worked much harder trying to become a good soldier than he had ever worked in his quest to excel in football at Murray High.

Gary's mother also remembers him telling her that he had to go to Vietnam because he felt certain that if America did not deal with the present threat there, the enemy would eventually come to America.

Johnny Waters recalls with deep sadness driving Gary to the Atlanta Airport to board a flight to San Francisco, enroute to Vietnam. "I parked the car, got out, and got his duffel bag from the trunk, planning to walk with him into the airport. I was surprised and a bit disappointed when Gary told me that he hated goodbyes and wanted to walk into the terminal alone. We shook hands, he entered the terminal, and I drove home, knowing that I might not ever see Gary alive again."

After Gary arrived in the war zone in November 1967, he wrote home virtually every day. He knew that his family would worry and he wanted to lessen their fears by constantly reminding them with his letters that he was still okay. He sent letter far less frequently to several close friends.

Waters remembers his very pleasant surprise when he received the first letter from Gary in Vietnam. Gary told him about some of the tough fire fights his unit had engaged in. They began to correspond regularly. Johnny said "the contents of his letters grew more sober and his concerns for his life increased. I got the distinct impression that he had slowly resolved his fate to a higher being."

Once in Vietnam Gary attained the rank of Sergeant.

Because he was wounded in three different engagements, Gary was awarded three Purple Hearts. For serving in Vietnam he was authorized the National Defense Service Medal, The Vietnam Service Medal, and the Vietnam Campaign Medal. He also was awarded an Army Commendation Medal. The Army awarded Gary a Bronze Star after he died.

Murray County Historian Tim Howard, whose parents, Jim and Odetta Howard, ran a store on Highway 225 south of Spring Place, recalls that three of the Murray men who died in Vietnam, traded at the Howards' store. Tim knew and liked them because all three picked on him, treating him as a very young buddy. Tim said "though I was only 7 years old, I will never forget the day the news came about Gary. The Army guy that was going to inform the Cruse family stopped at our store to get direction to their house." That was August 19, 1968.

Mrs. Cruse was cooking breakfast when she heard a knock on the front door. She says that she instantly knew what such an early morning visitor was coming to tell her. The man told her that Gary had been killed by small arms fire on August 18, in Tay Ninh Province. His body had been recovered and would be brought back to Murray County in about a week.

The Department of Defense listed Gary Cruse as Casualty Number 31,660 of the Vietnam War. Less than 13 months earlier, Jimmy Cagle's death had been Casualty Number 13,894. This indicates that 17,766 American servicemen had died in that 13 months!

Two other men from Gary's Company D died in the same fire-fight. Sergeant John Russell Millikan, age 21, was from Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Private First Class Martiniano Valentin, Jr., age 20, hailed from Cambria Heights, New York. They undoubtedly knew each other.

Four more soldiers, from Company A, 3rd Battalion, probably also were killed in the same fire-fight. Sergeant James Clyde Kraynak, age 22, had lived in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. Sergeant Kenneth Lionel Krom, age 21, had called Walkersville, Maryland home. Private First Class Roy Dallas Lowe, Jr. Age 20, was from Charlotte Court House, Virginia. Specialist Four James Ray Moncrief, age 20, listed his home as Cordova, Alabama.

An additional four soldiers appear to have been killed in the same province on the same day, August 18, 1968, because they were supporting the 25th Infantry Division, same as all of the other soldiers named above. Specialist Four Ronald Mathias Heinecke, age 23, had entered the service from Theresa, Wisconsin. Sergeant Randolph Charles Kett, age 21, hailed from Tampa, Florida. Private First Class Lorenzo Sewell, age 18, the youngest soldier to die in this day of intense fighting in Tay Ninh Province, came from Sayreton, Alabama. Private First Class Arturo S. Zamora, age 20, called Mathis, Texas, home.

How sad that so many soldiers, many of whom probably knew each other, died on that same day in Tay Ninh Province, South Vietnam, so far from their friends and families. Sadder still, a total of 77 American service men from Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy died in that single day.

Shocked and deeply saddened classmates, friends, and neighbors paid their respects at Gary's funeral. He was buried at New Hope - Kilgore Cemetery with full military honors.

Several years later, Gary's close buddy, Johnny Waters, honored Gary by personally paying to have the MCHS field house remodeled and named for Gary Cruse. Johnny said "Gary gave his life for our country and he damn well deserved to be recognized and remembered for his gift to this country." Gary Cruse Field House seems an appropriate honor for Sergeant Cruse.

Coach Frank Ross clearly remembers that Gary "was one of the best halfbacks in this area. He always gave 110% to anything he did."

Ross said, "I can remember as well as if it were yesterday, Gary came by the gym as he was departing for Vietnam. He thanked me for coaching him. We talked for a long time. I thanked him for having been someone that reacted so well to coaching. I reminded him that in his senior year our team had a good record, due in no small part to his athletic ability. I wished him well, we said goodbye, then he departed."

For the record, Gary Cruse, in his senior year, led the Murray team to win second place in the region. He was chosen the Most Valuable Player that year.

Coach Ross reminisced that players and coaches were a very close knit group, much akin to family. He said that "we were all devastated at the news of Gary's death. Even though we can never repay those fine, young men like Gary, who gave their lives to defend out country, we can keep them and their families in our thoughts and prayers, and never forget them." A coach who can recall so vividly a halfback from nearly 45 years ago has done exactly that.

Gary Robert Cruse is on Panel 48W, line 40, of the Vietnam Memorial Wall.


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