Fifty years ago, a Dillard High School teenager was drafted into the Marines, and on the Fourth of July, his tour of duty in Vietnam began. He was 19, a young father.
His service lasted three months. Pfc. Gregory Carter was killed in action in October of 1969, and his body was brought home to Fort Lauderdale, where he is buried near his mother. But for all these years, Carter lay in an unmarked grave.
Carter’s anonymous status in the city cemetery was discovered recently by the Vietnam Veterans of America, and his new headstone will be dedicated in a ceremony later this month.
City commissioners this week voted to donate the $395 granite base for the bronze marker in the city-owned Sunset Memorial Gardens Cemetery.
“I did not feel that any U.S. Serviceman or woman who died for their country should lie in an unmarked grave,” the Marine who helped lead the effort, Lt. Col. (Ret.) James Davies of The Villages, wrote in an email to the city cemetery. “But, this has been remedied.”
Carter’s barren burial site was discovered as the veterans group scoured the area for a photograph of the young man. The Vietnam Veterans of America are on a mission to find photographs of all servicemen and women who were killed in Vietnam, for placement on the black, granite Wall of Faces in Washington, D.C. Occasionally, they come across someone like Carter, with no grave marker, and they work to correct it.
Carter was the son of Annie Carter Owens and Wesley Carter, residents of Fort Lauderdale. He played baseball for Dillard High.
He talked about playing in the major leagues, one of his best friends, Ernest Murray, 69, recalled. The two ran around like any fun-loving teenagers, he said, “getting into a devilment now and then.”
They graduated in 1968, he said. Murray went on to college, but Carter was drafted, according to Murray and Carter’s son, Lester Jones Sr., who owns the Neighborhood Unisex Barbershop on Sistrunk Boulevard.
When Carter left for Vietnam, his son was not yet two years old. Carter and Jones’ mother had a young, high-schoolers’ love: She was pregnant at 15. Carter was 17. When the young mother last saw him, as he left for Vietnam, she was pregnant again, with a daughter who would never meet him.
They were engaged to be married, Jones said, “but he never made it back home.”
Jones has no memories of his father but was “just filled with joy by my family telling me about him,” he said.
Mike Owens, one of Carter’s brothers, said other men and women in the family served in the military. Carter was one of 15 children, he said.
Owens was 7 when his big brother died.
Family members said they tried unsuccessfully to get him a marker through the military. They couldn’t afford the $2,000-plus bill they said the cemetery quoted them.
“I’m just happy that it’s getting straightened out and that my grandfather is being honored properly,” his granddaughter, La’Tece Jones, said in an email.
Even to those who never met Carter, the effort to honor his burial site means something.
“This event is very important to all of us who both served in the Marine Corps but during the Vietnam War as well,” Charles Schneider, an “old Marine” involved in the marker effort, said in an email. “I cannot express to all of you younger folks exactly the feelings and emotions this whole deal dredges up for many of our friends and brothers.”
The family’s history of Carter — including the date of his death — differs a bit from official U.S. military records. Military records say Carter entered the Marine Corps on Jan. 2, 1969, at Parris Island in South Carolina, Davies said. He arrived in Vietnam on July 4 and was killed in action on Oct 12. Military records don’t say how he entered the service, but family and friends say he was drafted.
In Vietnam, he was part of a squad of 13, and was killed in battle with North Vietnamese Army forces in Quang Ngai Province in South Vietnam, according to the veterans’ group.
Davies said Carter’s Combined Action Platoon had a “dangerous duty because you were working in small hamlets away from the main battalion,” which in Carter’s case was the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.
Davies said he couldn’t find a living family member and was pleased they came forward Thursday after reading about Carter on the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s website. The quest was personal to Davies.
“This is all poignant for me since I walked the same ground with the Marines in 1967,” he said in an email.
The vets couldn’t even find a photograph, at first. After multiple trips to the area, one of the group’s genealogists, Beth Braun, paged through a Dillard High yearbook and spotted Carter in the baseball team photo.
His image is now on the Wall of Faces in D.C., on on Panel 17W, Line 70. More than 58,000 service members died in the Vietnam War, and nearly all of them now have photographs on the wall.
Braun wrote a note on the Wall of Faces website, saying she was proud of the veterans who worked to get his gravestone: “Rest in peace, Gregory … you are not forgotten.”
The Florida veterans also discovered an unmarked Pompano Beach grave, where Army Private Thomas “JT” Burton was buried. Burton was killed in Vietnam a month after he arrived in 1968. He had just turned 21.
A ceremony will be held at Burton’s grave at 9 a.m March 23 in Pompano Beach Cemetery, 400 SE 23rd Ave.
At 11 a.m. March 23, Carter’s ceremony will be held, at Sunset Memorial Gardens Cemetery, 3201 NW 19th St., in Fort Lauderdale. His son, siblings and other family members said they’ll be there for the ceremony and final salute.
Written by Michael Potts for The South Florida Sun-Sentinel ~ March 7, 2019
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