For almost 33 years, Mike Newell of Moodus was haunted by the memory of a fellow Marine who had fallen right beside him and whose name had been unknown to him-until January, 2003.
When Mike was seventeen years old, he joined the United States Marine Corps and trained to be a mechanic. In 1969, at the age of 18, he was sent to Vietnam and served in the 2nd battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division.
After ten months in Vietnam, Mike was given a special assignment: to be the mechanic of a group of Marines delivering supplies to Quang Nam Province in Vietnam by way of three Huskies. A Husky was an all-terrain vehicle, armed with a 50-caliber machine gun. It had tracks instead of wheels and could pass through mud and swamps and floated in water. It was policy to assign one mechanic to three Huskies.
The Marines dropped off the supplies in Quang Nam without a hitch, but as they returned through the marshes, Mike's Husky hit a land mine. Mike who had been standing near to the back was thrown out of the Husky by the concussion of the huge blast, and landed only three or four feet away. He never lost consciousness. He saw that the Husky had been disabled: the track had been blown off, the fuel was running out of the tank, and that there was a big hole in the floor. His helmet and rifle were nowhere in sight. When he tried to stand, his right leg, which had swelled enormously, gave out from under him. Anticipating a second blast, Mike curled himself into a ball, wrapping his arms around his head, but the second explosion never came, thankfully. A chopper was radioed in and two Marines-Mike and the driver-were medivaced to a hospital.
Mike was going to be alright, but he was sad to learn at the hospital that the driver had died. The driver of a Husky is closest to the ground, cramped in the tiny cockpit. Mike spent the next month having shrapnel removed from different parts of his body and getting specialist care for
perforated eardrums, wounds for which he received the Purple Heart. Then he returned to his unit and finished his tour. Though Mike had served in the Marine Corps for only 22 months, 30 years later, the tragic experience still greatly affects him. He not only suffers today from diminished hearing and terrible ear infections every year, it's affected him psychologically. His wife Sharon described her husband's antics during a many nights past. She's seen him crouched at the foot of the bed, whispering "They're out there. They're coming." She's seen him posing as though he was holding a gun. Mike says he doesn't remember any of it. For awhile, he also had recurring nightmares about being sent back to Vietnam. When he fell asleep on the couch, Mike
said that one would only dare wake him with a broom handle, not to get too close, because he'd wake up fighting. "I've even got clocked a couple times," Sharon commented.
Many times through the years, he would tell his story of how he was wounded, and he could only refer to the driver who died as " the guy next to me." It bothered Mike that he never knew his name. " The guy next to me' seemed like such a lack of respect. I survived. He gave his life!"
relates Mike emphatically. Even though he knew him for a very short time-a few hours-Mike felt the incident bonded them forever. "Once a Marine, always a Marine" he says. "It's a brotherhood. The experience and bonds last forever."
Years of not knowing his name tormented him. Mike and Sharon had called the Marine Corps for help but got nowhere. Mike didn't have enough information for a search. All he had was the date that the man died and that he was black.
"Many people were racist then-Marines too-but I felt this way: If you respected me, I respected you. If we had been in a foxhole together, we would have been brothers protecting one another. It didn't matter what color we were."
Mike was determined to find out his name so he could have flowers placed on his grave this year, on the anniversary of his death. He would have until July 21, 2003.
Three years ago, Mike got a computer because simply, he wanted to learn how to use one. Little did he know what a blessing it would be. Using one finger from each hand to type, he learned to chat with internet users from all over the world. One day, Jim Joslin, a friend and coworker at Chester Precision in Chester Ct., who knew how much Mike's not knowing the drivers name bothered him, told him about the Vietnam Memorial web site.
On December 18, 2002. Mike logged on to http://www.TheVirtualWall.org, typed in the date of the deceased Marine, July 21, 1970 and crossed his fingers. Much to his surprise, only one name popped up on the computer screen-" Lance Corporal Johnny Fred Scott." Mike had expected a dozen names or so, was prepared to do more searching, but it wasn"t necessary. His driver was the only Marine killed that day and he was from Americus, Georgia. He finally knew his name! Mike was ecstatic!
Then, he needed to know more about Johnny Scott and his family. One reason was so he could request a family member to place the flowers on Johnny's grave for him. There was another reason, but he couldn't explain it. He knew he needed closure. So Mike searched the internet for
newspapers in Americus, hoping they would have an obituary which would contain family members' names. To make a long story short, Beth Alston who works for a newspaper in Americus hooked Mike up with Harriet Bates, a librarian who located the widow of Johnny Scott, Ethel Waters Scott of Smithville, Georgia.
A nervous Mike Newell called her. She was happy to talk to him and willing to answer any questions to help Mike find closure. It turns out Mrs. Scott was pregnant with their first child when Johnny was killed, but they managed alright because of the love and support of many aunts
and uncles and cousins. The child, Sedrick, is now 32, married, has two children and lives in Atlanta. In honor of his father, he too joined the United States Marine Corps and served for four years. He was a machine gunner in Desert Storm. Both Sedrick and his mother were happy to learn that Johnny had died instantly and had not suffered. Neither had known the circumstances surrounding his death. " Few details, if any, are given to the family, leaving many unanswered questions," Mike related to me. " A notice of death is delivered by Western Union Telegram. It's very impersonal."
After the first phone conversation with Mike, Sedrick wanted to meet him. " I just had to meet Mike," Sedrick told me in a telephone interview. " He was the last man to see my father alive. Mike would make my father real. Since I was a child, I always wanted to know what happened to him."
So a week before Easter, Sedrick hopped on a plane and came to Moodus. Though Sedrick was only able to visit the Newells for two days, it was a touching encounter. Together they looked at photographs, made a video tape of their meeting, visited the countryside and where Mike grew up. Tears and laughter provided closure for both of them. For Sedrick, it meant learning about the dad he knew a lot about but never met and for Mike, learning about the comrade he met but never knew. They each provided the connection and answers to questions that were left too long unanswered. " Finally being able to put flowers on Johnny's grave," relates Mike, " will be my way of saying, May you rest in peace, my fallen brother, You are not forgotten."
Mike and Sharon's daughter, Beckie, gave Sedrick a special gift to take home and when I asked him what he thought about it, he said, " It was awesome! Everything they did was awesome." When Beckie found out Sedrick was planning to visit them, she began to crochet the American flag. When he arrived two months later, she had finished. The flag measured 3.5 feet by 6 feet!
Mike Newell spent his entire tour with 2/1 from September 1969 to September 1970.
He was a Mechanic and Driver with H & S Company Motor Transport.
It was now January 16, 2003. not even a month since Mike had begun his search on the internet. Mrs. Bates personally made a phone call to Mrs. Scott and asked if Mike could contact her. She said it was fine.