Conducting research for his new book, Assistant Professor of History Mark Boulton (center) talks with veterans at the Beallsville American Legion Post.
This past summer, Westminster History Professor Mark Boulton used the generous faculty development grant provided to the college by Ron and Dianne Winney to spend two weeks in Beallsville in Eastern Ohio researching his next book. Says Professor Boulton, “I had been researching a different project for my next book, but when I first heard about Beallsville’s experience during the Vietnam War I immediately shelved it and set about finding ways of telling the community’s story.”
A Town Devastated by Vietnam War
Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the town of Beallsville seems unremarkable in almost every way. Comprised mostly of mining and farming families, the town has seen its population dwindle in recent decades to a little over 400 residents. But Beallsville holds one unenviable distinction: it suffered the highest per capita number of inhabitants killed of any American village, town, or city during the Vietnam War.
From a population of 475 at the height of the war, Beallsville gave six of its unfortunate sons. Jack Pittman, Duane T. Greenlee, Charles G. Schnegg, Richard L. Rucker, William Robert (Bobby) Lucas, and Phillip M. Brandon all died in action while serving in Vietnam. Each one entered the service with different backgrounds, different hopes, and different fears. Each one died in separate incidents and at different times and places in Vietnam between 1966 and 1971.
Professor Boulton says he had no idea what to expect when, in mid July, he set off on the 10-hour journey across I-70 to eastern Ohio in search of friends and family members of the victims to interview.
Says Boulton, “I would be asking these people to dredge up the most painful memories of their lives and to bare their souls to someone they had never met and who was not even from the same country—they had every right to turn their backs on me. So, I was nervous when I first picked up the phone in a run-down Days Inn and called a veteran who had given an interview to a television crew back in 1969—the very height of the town’s grief. He had talked then; I thought maybe he would talk to me now.
Having introduced myself and given him a moment to adjust to my accent, he began to ask questions of me. Before too long he seemed genuinely interested that someone was going to tell the boys’ story. I arranged to meet him the next day, and from that point on, the project developed a terrific momentum. He gave me a lot of useful background information on the town and willingly shared his memories of growing up with the boys as he had been good friends with several of them. More importantly, perhaps, he seemed to trust me and began calling other people—mostly relatives of the six boys and told them that he believed in what I was doing.
With his help, I arranged interviews with fifteen other people during my time in Beallsville, including friends, brothers, and cousins of the boys and even the last surviving parents of one of the victims. I also spent some time at the local American Legion where I sat and recorded stories from several veterans of their experiences in service and of growing up in the Beallsville area.”
Honoring Their Sacrifice
“This was more than I could ever have hoped for. The town and the family members had let me in. Many tears were shed—mine included—as the stories started to flow around family tables—stories of boys growing up hunting, fishing, and playing football. I even held the .22 Winchester rifle that one of the boys had hunted with growing up, as well as the last letter he wrote home just before his death. And then came the awful stories of uniformed Casualty Notification Officers hand-delivering telegrams to the next of kin, and of the hundreds of mourners that lined the funeral routes as each boy was laid to rest.
The whole experience left me humbled, emotionally drained, and determined to write something that both honors the sacrifice of the six boys and of the resilience shown by the community in the aftermath of such tragedy. The brother of one of the boys thanked me for trying to keep the boys memories alive and after our interview had one simple request: come back with a book.”
Professor Boulton plans on spending the coming months tracking down more people to interview, including veterans who undertook training or who served with the six boys. He hopes to complete a draft of the book by 2016—the fiftieth anniversary of the first casualty. He has also made a short film about his experiences and hopes to turn the town’s story into a feature-length documentary. He looks forward to bringing Westminster students for the next stage of the project to give them experience of conducting research, creating oral histories, and of producing finished historical works.
He is extremely grateful for the support provided by Mr. and Mrs. Winney. “There is just no way that I could have undertaken a project like this without the grant so I am extremely grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Winney for their support. I hope I can produce something that will make them and the people of Beallsville proud.”