Wayne lost first soldier in Vietnam 40 years ago today
By Dennis Hill
Published in News on February 14, 2006 1:56 PM
Forty years ago today, the war in Vietnam came home to Wayne County.
Wayne lost its first soldier on Valentine's Day 1966, when a sandy-haired, blue-eyed Goldsboro farm boy died only a month into his tour of duty.
Donald Daniels was 19 when his Army unit was dropped into the middle of a firefight in the jungles near Saigon. A Viet Cong bullet caught him as he went to help a fellow soldier. He bled to death before he could be treated for the wound.
"It's just like it was yesterday," Durwood Daniels said, recalling the news that his younger brother was gone.
There was no man in uniform to deliver the message. No words of sympathy. A taxi driver pulled up at the Daniels' home and thrust a telegram out of the window to Donald's father, Edward, himself a World War II Purple Heart veteran.
The telegram shattered the Daniels family, especially Donald's mother, Elizabeth.
"My mama went to screaming and hollering and fell at the foot of the bed," Donald's sister, Betty, recalled.
"Daddy never got over it," Durwood said. "It drove him batty."
After the initial shock, Mrs. Daniels kept her feelings to herself, seldom talking about the loss she felt.
"I think Mama kind of held it in for the most part," Betty said.
Donald Daniels was a likable young man, friendly and fun-loving. Popular with the girls, he was nicknamed "Fuzzy," a moniker he hated, his brother said.
He played trombone in the Goldsboro High band and loved to cruise around in the family's 1964 Ford, which he claimed as his own. He liked to hunt and fish, either along the banks of the Neuse River or off a pier at the coast.
"He had sandy hair and the biggest blue eyes a man could ever have," Betty said. "He was Mr. Cool."
Joining the Army was something Donald decided he wanted to do, his brother said. Perhaps his father's war record had something to do with it or maybe the incentive was that a close friend wanted to join, too. At the time, two men could join on the "buddy plan," and be guaranteed to be assigned to the same unit.
"It just became the No. 1 objective he wanted to do," Durwood said.
Kenny Ray Herring was Donald's friend, and they decided to join together. But Donald failed the physical the first time he took it and had to wait a few months to take it again. In the meantime, he and Kenny Ray got separated. His friend was shipped to Germany. Donald, assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, was sent to Hawaii to train for jungle combat.
He came home for a month in December 1965, then shipped out in January for the Far East.
He hadn't decided to make the military a career, hadn't decided what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
"He was too young to know," his brother said.
The exact details of Donald's death are sketchy. Durwood said the family never had a chance to talk with any of the soldiers in his unit. All they learned was that his outfit was sent to support soldiers already involved in a battle with the North Vietnamese.
The commander of Donald's company wrote to his parents, saying their son had died trying to help two wounded comrades. He and his fellow soldiers were supporting another company making a sweep through a Viet Cong stronghold. As U.S. soldiers returned to their lines, he went forward to help two wounded men and was shot through the left side of his chest. He was placed on a stretcher and taken to an aid station but died within minutes, the commander said.
"They got dropped into a field of snipers," Durwood said. "Our brother could have lived if they could have gotten him to a hospital, but they didn't have any way of cauterizing the wound or doing the stuff necessary to keep him alive."
Donald was "was well-liked by everyone and all had a great respect for his ability in his work and his cheerful disposition," the commander said in his letter.
His body was returned home by train, and he was buried Feb. 22 in Evergreen Cemetery west of Goldsboro.
A girlfriend broken-hearted by his death wore a pair of his socks for two years, Betty said. The girlfriend eventually married someone else and raised four sons.
News reports said thieves stole some of the flowers from his grave in the days following his funeral.
The Vietnam War would eventually claim the lives of 31 men from Wayne County. But Donald Daniels' death was the first, turning a war that had been just television footage for most of the county's residents into something closer to home, something that couldn't be ignored.
The U.S. still carries scars, both physical and psychological, from Vietnam. For many like the Daniels family, the scars will never go away. Donald's father died in 1989, his mother a few years ago, still grieving for her son.
"Of course, none of us ever got over it," Betty said. "I think about him every day."
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