“Welcome home.” Two simple words that mean so much. To know that someone is glad to have you back from your journey and to know that you have a place to call home are two monumental sanctions. It is unfortunate that not every pilgrim gets to hear these words, especially if the pilgrim was a soldier in the Vietnam War. Due to political rifts in the country, those who returned alive from the southeast Asian country were not welcomed with the fanfare and accolades that their service merited. Often, they entered homelessness and isolation upon re-entering the land for which they fought.
Honoring the Marine
Those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam were also denied the recognition and respect that fallen soldiers deserve. Their funeral services were often quiet and lacked pomp. Many times, there were protests at the funeral services.
For a Washington County family, the shock and trauma of losing their 18-year old son, never lessened. Sam Busby’s death, three weeks’ shy of his nineteenth birthday, is known of throughout the county. It is Sam’s life, prior to becoming a United States Marine that only few recall. At a service in St. Stephens last month, Sam was celebrated with full rights, fanfare and accolades. For members of his family, the ceremony brought comfort and even relief. More than 130 family members, friends, neighbors and veterans assembled to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Savage Sam’s” death.
The ceremony was a culmination of a year’s worth of planning for Gerald Deas of Montana. Deas was a friend of Sam’s in St. Stephens and when he was old enough, he too became a Marine. Over 130 people were at the ceremony to pay homage to the sacrifices of one whose life was cut short, but whose legacy lives on. Thirty-four of those present were veterans.
The young man who refused to give up
Sam William Busby loved life to the fullest. He never backed down from a challenge, no matter if that challenge was breaking a wild horse in St. Stephens or facing enemy fire in Vietnam. His siblings remember him as a true outdoorsman and an athlete with a passion for life and an outgoing personality. An avid hunter and excellent marksman, Sam found his niche as a Marine machine gunner at boot camp and military occupation specialty school. In a matter of weeks, he was training other young men to properly use machine guns.
Sam valued deep, authentic relationships. He had close relationships with his siblings and his parents. He loved his friends deeply also and was known for being honest and intentional in his relationships. In letters to his mother, he vividly described the atrocities of war. He felt that his family and friends at home should know the realities of what soldiers were facing.
Sam’s brother Kedrick and sisters-in law Ginger and Norma shared stories of Sam that have been preserved through retelling over the years. Norma was a member of the Leroy High School Class of 1968 and knew Sam as the likeable, mischievous, athletic classmate who was voted “Most Athletic.” Like most teen boys, Sam sometimes drove a bit too fast. Sam was tenacious, never giving up on any task that he deemed worthy.
Kedrick was only 7 months old when his older brother was killed, but he says that he would know his older brother because of the great lengths that his parents, Valton and Nell Busby, went to ensure that their son’s legacy endured. “I’d know who Sam was if I met him in the middle of the night. My mama told me, ‘You’re going to know him.’” Kedrick has carefully preserved the family lore and indeed knows his brother, Sam.
The eldest Busby son, Levone, was drafted to Vietnam. Levone Busby, knowing the gravity of the situation in Vietnam, offered to stay for a longer tour so that his younger brother could have more time at home. He was aware that Sam had willingly joined the Marines prior to his graduation from high school in 1968, but for his parents’ sake, he hoped that his little brother would be able to avoid Vietnam for a while longer. Unfortunately, the U.S. government does not honor the wishes of concerned big brothers. It issues the orders and the soldiers go where they are told to go and do what they are told to do.
The entire family was on American soil together for two weeks before Sam’s tour in Vietnam began on Dec. 10, 2968. Sam was eager to defend his country. Busby’s intensity and resolve became widely known within his squadron, who dubbed him, “Savage Sam.” In his last letter to his mother, dated Feb. 27, 1969, Busby wrote, “My squad leader got killed and I took over the squad. The reason I am up for a meritorious promotion and medal is because of the actions I took in battle.” Marines who knew Sam have told the family that he never faltered and refused to back down in any situation.
As he faced the enemy in hostile fire on February 27, 1969, Sam was shot in the leg. Rather than retreating, he continued to fight, saving the lives of five other men who were with him. The gun that Busby was using jammed, still he did not retreat. Captain Daniel Hitzelberger detailed Busby’s death in a letter to his parents in March, 1969. “Sam did not stop his attempt to clear the weapon, but died as he continued his efforts. Every man that died that day was fatally wounded helping another Marine. Your son died as he lived, honorably.”
Valton Busby was watching CBS news on Thursday, Feb. 27. 1969. As Busby watched film from Vietnam, he insisted that he saw his son’s body on a gurney. Though some doubted what he saw, Busby knew that his son had not survived and was so convinced of this that he went to his pastor for consolation, knowing that a funeral would soon need to be planned. Busby’s concerns were validated on Sunday, March 2 when the family, gathered for Sunday lunch, received the dreaded knock on the front door.
Sam’s funeral was the first to be conducted in what was then the new sanctuary of First Baptist Church of St. Stephens. His traumatized family sat in the sanctuary and listened to the words of Revs. Darnell Archie and Bobby Rone. Their cousin, Wanda Pezent, sang a favorite hymn, “What a Day That Will Be.” A Marine delegation and a Navy firing squad conducted military rites. Sam was home, but home was never the same again.
With each year that passed the Busby family, honored their brother, but this year’s service was unique and offered healing and hope to the Busby family and to each of the veterans in attendance. The service marking the 50th anniversary of Sam’s death was much different than the first. For this one, the family had time to prepare and time to process. The ceremony gave his siblings a time to grieve and to recall the five decades that have passed with pride amidst their grief. Kedrick described the ceremony as “refreshing” and stated that for himself and his siblings a burden was lifted as their brother was remembered and honored properly. As they gathered around his grave this time, the grief remained without the shock and the true impact of Sam’s sacrifice was known. As she did fifty years prior, Wanda Pezent sang, “What a Day That Will Be.”
Levone Busby wore his Army dress coat and saluted his brother and the veterans in attendance at the memorial ceremony. . Together, Kedrick and Levone placed a wreath on their brother’s grave and accepted a medal commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Levone was honored for his service with the presentation of the U.S. Cold War Medal. Another Busby brother who served was recognized posthumously. Louie Busby was an Army veteran, His wife Judy accepted the Silver Dollar Freedom Medal from Deas in his honor.
In 1920, as he accepted the Republican nomination for vice-president, Calvin Coolidge warned, “The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.” May we never forget.
For Sam and for every veteran, “Welcome Home.”
Weekly columnist. Feature Writer.