This Veterans Day, a local veteran remembers the tragic day he lost a good friend and soldier who was killed in the Vietnam War.
During an interview at The Gazette office Friday morning, Larry Willis shed light on a U.S. Army hero who he called his friend, Staff Sgt. Steve Harding of Augusta, and the unique story of how Harding’s widow finally received her late husband’s Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) after 44 years.
At the age of 19, Willis, who is a native of Tifton, served in Vietnam from June 1967 to 1968 as a sergeant with Company D, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. He said Harding joined the company in February 1968.
“He was a career soldier and I was a draftee. We were both platoon leaders as sergeants, which is normally an officer’s job,” Willis explained.
With both of them being from Georgia, they quickly became close friends. Willis stated that meetings were held with their company commander most nights and then they would go to each other foxholes to chat.
He described Harding as being strong willed, but yet easy going as well, and a great leader.
On April 26, 1968, the day Harding was killed at the age of 26 near Khe Sanh, Willis stated that before the operation of the day, Harding told him something that has remained with him all of these years. Harding asked Willis to get his pack containing some valuable items if anything should happen to him. Willis stated that the firefights that day were horrendous. While in combat later that day, he heard over the radio that Harding had been killed in a firefight. He said 10 minutes before he learned that Harding was dead, he had spoken to him over the radio, which he didn’t anticipate it would be the last time that he would hear his friend’s voice.
With chills on the back of his neck as he spoke about that tragic and unforgettable day searching for Harding’s pack in a pile of 80 other soldiers’ packs, Willis stated, “That was the only day I cried in Vietnam. I was never able to find it. It was my low point of the year.”
Harding has earned several medals, including a Vietnam Service Medal, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. However, he never received the CIB. On April 26, 1998, exactly 30 years to the day that Harding was killed, Willis said he was able to get in contact with Harding’s widow, 74-year-old Shelby Harding of Augusta.
Willis noted that Shelby and Harding never had any children, and she had never remarried after Harding’s death. He was able to get in contact with Shelby after he spoke to Sandra Wood at the local Veterans Affairs Office. From there, Wood directed him to the VA Office in Augusta, where someone there knew of Shelby.
Willis had never forgotten about the day Harding was killed, and now 30 years later in 1998, he found himself on the phone with his friend’s widow.
“I was very nervous,” he said, noting that during that time, he hadn’t even talked to anyone from his company since he served.
As he was brought back to that day, Willis remembered Shelby’s reaction as being shocked. He said he first told her who he was and how he knew Harding, as well as how he died. Shelby had never learned how her late husband had been killed, only that he had died in the war. Also, she had never heard from anyone from Harding’s company for 30 years; Willis was the first among several others to follow.
Willis explained that Shelby listened for several minutes and then stated over the phone: “Larry, I was thinking someone was playing a bad joke on me.”
He said they both cried. Shelby finally learned that Harding died in a firefight. Willis said she sent him photos of Harding before he went to Vietnam, and he sent her photos of Harding while he was serving in the war, which he still has the photos today. Willis and Shelby have developed a friendly relationship since their first phone conversation. Willis said he remains in contact with her by phone at least twice a month.
“She’s a sweet, sweet woman,” he stated.
After talking to Shelby, he said this sparked interest in him to search for other soldiers who served in his company.
“You get so close and bond immediately. You never forget them,” Willis said.
In April 2011, Willis attended a reunion for Company D in Washington, D.C.; 10 soldiers attended. Then, in April 2012, 32 soldiers attended the reunion in Branson, Mo. Willis said the next reunion will be in April 2013 in Fort Hood, Tx.; they’re expecting about 60 soldiers to attend.
“It’s increasing every year,” he stated.
What’s so interesting about the reunion in Branson, Mo., Willis says, is that he met the current commander of Company D, 28-year-old Capt. Kyle Hatzinger of Fort Hood, Tx. He said he told his story about how he knew Harding and mentioned that he never received the CIB.
Willis said Shelby mentioned it to him after her nephew, who has military experience, noticed that there wasn’t a CIB in the shadowbox that she keeps with all of Harding’s medals.
Willis said Hatzinger was instrumental in getting the CIB for Harding. A ceremony was held in honor of Harding on Sept. 1 in his hometown. Shelby was finally able to hold her late husband’s CIB in her hands, which could now be added to complete the shadowbox.
Willis attended the ceremony, as well as others who were in Company D — Al Walker of Dallas, Ralph Dahl of San Diego, Calif., Leonard Edwards of Mars Hill, N.C. and Cleve Webster of Decatur. Also, Willis noted that he has had the opportunity to talk to two veterans, Bob Dumas of San Diego, Calif. and Junior Johnson of Cumming, who both fought alongside Harding the day he was killed in the firefight.
Hatzinger presented the CIB to Shelby at the ceremony. Willis said she cried. He stated that he and some others spoke at the ceremony about their relationship with Harding. He stated that approximately 23 people were at the ceremony, which lasted about 30 minutes.
As Willis talked about his past, he noted, “Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about this.” He said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in May 2011. He travels to the VA Medical Center in Lake City, Fla. every two weeks to see a therapist. He stated that the visits have been helpful.
Through all of his struggles and the loss of his friend, Willis is still glad that he served.
“When your country asks you to go, you go,” he said. “I’m glad I did.”
He added, “This story shows how we didn’t forget him (Harding) or each other after all of these years. That bond will last until the day I die.”
To contact reporter Latasha Everson, call 382-4321.