By Samm Quinn
GREENFIELD – By the time supporters back home learned John Modglin had been critically injured in the Vietnam war, the young marine was already dead.
Private First Class Modglin was 18 when he died July 18, 1967, aboard the hospital ship, USS Repose, from an injury he received while guarding a naval base in Vietnam.
Two days later, the Daily Reporter printed a story stating the young man’s family had learned he’d been seriously hurt in the war. There were no other details released at the time, and the family doesn’t dwell on them now. It wasn’t until July 22, 1967, that the county learned Modglin hadn’t survived.
This week, dozens of veterans and citizens joined to remember the county’s first Vietnam casualty, 50 years after he took his final breath. They’ll come together 11 more times in the next three years to honor the other county servicemen who gave their lives to the war, which ended in 1975.
The local American Legion post and several other veterans organizations are teaming up to host the services at the Hancock County Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where each casualty’s name is listed, along State Road 9.
More than 58,000 men and women were killed in battle between February 1961, when the United States’ military involvement in the war began, and May 1975, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Among them were 12 Hancock County natives, said American Legion Post 119 commander Kurt Vetters.
As the 50th anniversary of each of their deaths passes, Hancock County will stop to remember them, holding memorial services for each to honor what they gave to protect their loved ones back home, Vetters said.
Tuesday’s ceremony was short but meaningful, a mirror of Modglin’s life, organizers said.
Modglin, who grew up in Greenfield and attended Greenfield schools, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in November 1966, just a few months before his 18th birthday. After completing basic training in San Diego, he arrived in Vietnam in spring 1967, writing to his mother to report it was “terribly hot,” newspaper clippings show. Just a few months later, Modglin was dead.
Butch Miller, the local American Legion post’s adjutant, led Tuesday’s ceremony, telling those gathered July 18, 1967, was also a Tuesday.
Miller was in the army then, stationed in Hawaii. That morning, he didn’t wake up worried about dying. Across the world, Modglin probably wasn’t worried, either, Miller guesses.
Records list his death as non-hostile, meaning he didn’t die in battle, but that listing understates the importance of his sacrifice, Miller said.
“He was doing what his country asked him to do,” Miller said.
When Modglin died, the war came to Hancock County, Vetters said. A family was torn apart, and a community mourned the loss of one of its own.
Modglin’s niece, Regina Morse, was living with his mother, Jewel Modglin, when he died. She was only 4 years old, but 50 years later, she vividly remembers the line of police cars pulling up to the family’s home on Fourth Street in Greenfield. Officers knocked on the door and told her grandmother they had terrible news.
“That’s something you don’t easily forget,” Morse said Tuesday as she reflected on that day.
Those gathered prayed for Modglin and other servicemen and women who gave their lives in defense of America’s way of life. Marines present laid a wreath for their comrade at the memorial. The Veterans Honor Guard performed a 21-gun salute.
As taps rang out through the memorial, Morse wiped tears from her eyes. She was surrounded by all of her uncle’s closest living relatives, all of them grateful for Tuesday’s turnout.
Kenneth John Modglin never met his Uncle John, but he grew up learning all about the man whose name he bears and went on to serve the years his namesake never could, spending time in the army. And when Kenneth had a son of his own, he decided on John for his middle name, vowing to never forget a family member who died too young. And that young man was drawn to military life, too; Kaleb John Modglin now serves in the U.S. Navy.
Seeing dozens of people turn out to memorialize their loved one reminded the family they’re not alone in carrying on Modglin’s legacy.
Remembering the sacrifices Modglin and others made in defense of freedom is the least the community can do on the anniversaries of their deaths, Vetters said, and their fellow veterans will lead those efforts.
“This is who we are,” he said. “We’re the people who remember.”
At a glanceEleven Hancock County men died during the Vietnam War, and one was missing in action. They were:
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