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Family holds dear to memory of first Whatcom County soldier to die in Vietnam

From left, Ernie Higman, Larry Higman, and Patty Jo Parks are pictured with a shadow box of their brother John Higman's Vietnam war memorabilia at Larry Higman's house on June 20, 2009.  John Higman was the first soldier from Whatcom County to die in Vietnam.
From left, Ernie Higman, Larry Higman, and Patty Jo Parks are pictured with a shadow box of their brother John Higman's Vietnam war memorabilia at Larry Higman's house on June 20, 2009. John Higman was the first soldier from Whatcom County to die in Vietnam. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Johnny Higman landed in a bit of trouble on the Fourth of July when he tossed fireworks on people's porches.

The good news was that his father, with whom he didn't always see eye-to-eye, came to his defense, saying his soldier son deserved some fun before going overseas.

The sad news was that Johnny didn't come back alive.

The year was 1965, and he was home in Bellingham that July on leave before going to Vietnam. Fourth months later, he died in the first big battle between U.S. and North Vietnamese troops.

Johnny was the first person from Whatcom County to die in combat in Vietnam. He was 20 years old.

MOTHER'S FAVORITE

Johnny was the second oldest of Tom and Josephine Higman's six children - five boys and a girl. Tom worked at Brooks Lumber and Josephine raised the kids.

Johnny's mother held him dear in her heart, perhaps because he was born premature and was kept in a shoebox as an infant, said a younger brother, Larry Higman, 60, of Bellingham.

Johnny started small but grew tall, about 6 feet 2 inches, thanks to height on his mother's side. Lean and easily tanned, he liked motorcycles and girls.

"He didn't hunt or fish like the rest of us boys did," said his older brother, Ernie Higman, 66, of Lynden. "The girls liked him because he was polite and very good-looking."

Johnny had his daring side, too. His sister, Patty Jo Parks, 58, of Ferndale, recalled the time he climbed atop Whatcom Middle School and walked along the ledge.

After he graduated from Bellingham High in 1963, Johnny worked that summer until he turned 18, then enlisted for a three-year stint in the U.S. Army.

Over time, three of the Higman boys found careers in the service: Ernie in the Air Force, Mike in the Navy and Bruce in the Army. Larry is retired from Alcoa Intalco Works. Patty Jo is a nurse.

After basic training, Pfc. John Everett Higman served 18 months in Korea, where he met a girl and wrote letters home to his mom.

NEW APPROACH TO WAR

In Korea, helicopters were mainly used to evacuate the wounded. That changed as the military honed tactics for a new style of warfare, one in which helicopters shuttled troops in and out of action, and provided rocket and machine gun cover from the air.

Early on, the Army's 1st Battalion, 7th Calvary was tapped to help carry out the new "airmobile" approach. After his July leave, Johnny went to Fort Benning, Ga., where the battalion had been training.

"He told me he never flew in a helicopter before," said Bill Sutphin, a battalion member. "That's all we did for a year and a half."

Sutphin, a retired building engineer in Maryland, knew Johnny for only a few days 44 years ago, but remembers him because Johnny was assigned Sutphin's bunk and other gear after a snafu in Sutphin's request to re-enlist.

"He got everything that I had," Sutphin said. "I always felt bad, like he was replacing me."

Johnny was assigned to the 7th Cavalry's Charlie Company, 1st Platoon. That summer, the battalion went to Vietnam, where the low-key presence of U.S. advisors and Special Forces was giving way to thousands of troops.

The buildup began in early 1965 after the Viet Cong attacked a U.S. advisor compound in central Vietnam. Then, that October, a large North Vietnamese force attacked a special forces camp nearby.

North Vietnamese military leaders wanted to split South Vietnam by winning control of its Central Highlands. They also hoped to tangle with U.S. troops to learn how the Americans fought.

IA DRANG VALLEY

North Vietnamese leaders soon got their wish in the Ia Drang Valley, a river valley near the border with Cambodia. The battle that November, a rare clash of large U.S. and North Vietnamese forces, was a landmark event, pitting the Army's new airmobile forces against seasoned foot soldiers who had already defeated the French.

The story was later chronicled in a 1992 best-seller, "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young," by Harold Moore, the battalion commander, and Joseph Galloway, a reporter who covered the fight. A movie followed 10 years later, "We Were Soldiers," with Mel Gibson.

On Nov. 14, 1965, Johnny and his battalion of nearly 400 men were sent to the Ia Drang Valley, expecting to find battered enemy troops on the run. Instead, their landing zone was a short distance from a base camp with more than 4,000 North Vietnamese itching to fight.

Outnumbered, the U.S. troops relied on artillery, jet fighters and helicopters to pound the enemy from above. In response, the North Vietnamese attacked the southern flank of the landing zone - Charlie Company's terrain - the morning of Nov. 15.

The company held its ground in hand-to-hand combat, but at a fearsome price: 41 soldiers dead and 20 wounded. Few members of Higman's platoon survived.

The three-day battle cost 79 U.S. soldiers their lives, plus 121 wounded. North Vietnamese casualties were estimated at 2,000. Death hung heavy in the heat.

MORNING TELEGRAM

A telegram arrived at the Higman house early Nov. 18 with the news: Johnny had died in battle.

Patty Jo Parks said her father told Larry to go to school and told her to stay home with her mom, and then went to work. The memory still troubles her.

"How does a 14-year-old comfort her mother?" she asked.

Johnny was buried 12 days later at Greenacres Memorial Park.

Today, you'll find the name "John E. Higman" on the third panel to the right of the center of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

In the last scene of "We Were Soldiers," Mel Gibson, as Harold Moore, gazes at the memorial. Just before the credits roll, the camera fixes on several names on the wall. One of them is Higman's.

Larry Higman recalled the time a relative who had been to Washington, D.C., handed him a piece of paper. It was a rubbing of Johnny's name from the memorial.

As he told the story, he began to weep.


MEMORIAL WALL

What: Display of the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall, a traveling, three-quarter-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

When: Aug. 14-16, open round-the-clock.

Where: Acacia Memorial Park, 14951 Bothell Way N.E., Seattle.



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