During the Vietnam conflict that began in the 1960s, a total of 851 Iowans gave their lives fighting to help end the conflict between North and South. It was a war that was fraught with varying opinions as to whether or not the U.S. should be involved. It was a war that left some families torn apart.
It was a Wednesday night in March 1969, and Cindy Kelly's mother was readying to go to a meeting with a neighbor, when there was an unexpected knock at the door.
A U.S. Marine, accompanied by the town's Methodist minister and a police officer stood at the door when Delores Kelly answered and learned her oldest son, James Marvin Lee, was dead.
Delores and her young children lived on East Water Street in Fayette, with Delores' parents, Marvin and Leona Lee, when they got the news that Jim, 21, had died on March 16, while serving his country in Vietnam. The young soldier had been driving an ammunition truck in Quang Tri Province when the truck struck a land mine.
Jim's body arrived back in Fayette on March 27, remembers Cindy, now married to Dale Olson and living in Oelwein. Cindy was about 15 at the time, and her younger sister Connie, about 10.
Both girls can still vividly remember seeing the Marine at the door bearing the news of their big brother's death. "He was quite a brother," says Connie, now married to Rick Cole and living in rural Fayette. "He always called me Pixie and would take us for rides in the car."
Cindy says Jim was her 'knight in shining armor.' "He was always going to come back and rescue me," she says, referring to letters her big brother had written to her during that time. "He was killed in March, and we had expected him to come home in August," she added.
Cindy and Connie have two brothers, Ron Kelly of Maynard and Joe Kelly, of Buckley, Wash., and all would admit their lives weren't easy growing up. Their mother worked at Lucy's restaurant. Jim worked part-time at Zbornik Body Shop before he enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps.
At the military service on March 29 at the Methodist Church in Fayette, Cindy says she recalls how other Marines formed an arch with their swords as part of the ceremony to remember her brother. The day was very emotional for them all. Then, just as they began to again carry on with their lives, Cindy says a letter arrived 90 days after her brother had been buried, declaring that Jim was AWOL.
"I can remember coming home from school to my grandmother's house and everyone was hysterical. Her mother and grandmother were so upset, they could hardly speak, she says. In a time when many people opposed the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Cindy says it was just another emotional blow to the family's foundation. The issue was resolved and Jim's effects were returned to the family, including letters, and a record player which had been one of his fondest possessions. Those items are near and dear to Cindy's heart, as she was next oldest in the family and closest in age to Jim. "It's very humbling," says Connie. "We're really ecstatic about it. We're so pleased to have Jim be honored in this way."
The Vietnam War Memorial program celebration will begin at 1 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 29. Fayette native Larry Webb, now living in Cedar Falls and a veteran himself, is leading the effort to get a monument constructed and put in place in Jim Lee's honor. Donations can be made out to, "James Lee Memorial Fund" and mailed to First State Bank, P.O. Box 40, Fayette, IA 52142 or dropped off at the bank.
About $2,065 has been raised to date, and another $750 or so is still needed, Webb said. Vietnam-era war dead from Fayette County will also be remembered at that time. The memorial will be placed on the lawn near the park shelter where the open air market is held in Fayette.
While the ceremony and memorial itself will recognize Fayette's only Vietnam-era casualty, James Marvin Lee, other servicemen from Fayette County killed in Vietnam will also be recognized. The families and friends of those servicemen are welcome and encouraged to attend the Aug. 29 program. Those servicemen include: • Harlan Bilden, Elgin • David Johnson, Eldorado • Duane Clefisch, Maynard • David Michael, Nabor Tafolla and Eugene Ward, Oelwein • James Kruse, Donald Thompson, West Union • Lauren Everett, Wadena • Gerald Rosenbaum, Waucoma
Lee was the only soldier from Fayette, and one of eight from Fayette County to die in the conflict.