By Gene Metrick
© 2000 by the Rocky Mount Telegram
In September, Hughes will take the final step in keeping that promise when he travels to Texas to meet the family and visit the grave of the man who saved his life in Vietnam, Sgt. James Warren Smith. "I think about that every day," he said.
Hughes' saga began in the summer of 1968. After six weeks in South Vietnam serving in the Aviation Battalian of the 4th Infantry Division, Hughes was assigned to refuel helicopters at a Special Forces airborne base in Dar Lac province. On the morning of his third day in Dar Loc, Hughes met 26-year-old Green Beret Sgt. James Smith, of detachment A-233 of the 5th Special Forces Group. "He didn't act like a typical sergeant -- he was very mild mannered," Hughes said. "I guess that's why he took me under his wing."
Smith was in his second 12-month tour of duty in Vietnam. He looked out after the new arrival, and the two young men soon struck up a friendship. "He taught me the ins and outs, what to look for," Hughes said. "Smitty was almost six feet tall and I'm about five-four, so they got to calling us 'Mutt and Jeff.'"
Hughes remembers the base as a "huge dirt field consisting of bunkers, tents and make-shift barracks with tin roofs." Surrounded by dense jungle and sloping hills - and hostile Viet Cong guerrilla units -- the base was enclosed with barbed wire and sandbags. "We were down in a valley, so if Charley wanted to, he could have taken us at any time," Hughes said.
Just after 5 p.m. on Aug. 23, 1968, Smith and Hughes heard incoming fire as they stood in the chow line. The two young soldiers ran to the mortar pit they were assigned to man during enemy attacks and began to return fire. It was 21-year-old Hughes' first firefight. "They were doing most of the shooting," he said. "You can imagine how shook up I was."
They fired off two rounds, but as Hughes handed Smith a third mortar shell, a huge explosion tore up the ground in front of their pit. "I remember saying, 'Boy, were we lucky,'" Hughes said. "Smitty carried me into the bunker right beside us, then grabbed his chest and went to his knees."
To his horror, Hughes realized that Smith had taken a major shrapnel wound to the chest. Struggling to keep pressure on the wound as his friend gasped for breath, Hughes didn't realize at first that he, too, had been wounded.
It was in that bunker, waiting for help as the battle raged around them, that Hughes promised his friend to find his family and tell them of his "strength and courage" during his final moments of life. "It should have been me that died that day, but he saved my life," Hughes said.
Smith was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and a Bronze Medal. Hughes spent 35 days in a military hospital in Japan before returning to Vietnam to complete his first and then a second tour of duty. He was wounded again during his second tour. Like his buddy Smitty, he was awarded a Silver Star and Bronze Medal for his actions defending the Dar Lac Special Forces' base.
After returning to civilian life, Hughes faced a daunting task in trying to find Smith's relatives. He knew his friend was from Texas, but he couldn't call or write to every Smith in the state. He contacted the Defense Department, but that avenue of investigation yielded information that only added to the apparent hopelessness of his search: at least 26 men named James Smith had been killed during the Vietnam War.
"I was up against a brick wall," Hughes said. "Trying to find his family was like trying to find a needle in a haystack."
The trail led to many dead ends. He learned that Smith's father had lived in Houston, but he continued to fall well short of the answers he was seeking. But when Hughes bought his family a personal computer and got hooked up to the Internet, his search was suddenly reinvigorated by the seemingly limitless resources of the World Wide Web. "When we got on the Web, I thought, 'Now I can really find them,'" he said.
And in June, his Internet detective work began to really pay off when Hughes came across a Web site named TAPS, where friends and family can post tributes to fallen Vietnam servicemen.
As he scrolled down the list of names, he couldn't believe his eyes when he came to the entry, "Sgt. James Warren Smith." "My heart stopped and I yelled for my wife," he said. "I kept saying, 'Robin, look at this, look at this - I found him!'"
"He let out a big yell," Robin said. "I thought he had fallen out of his chair or something."
The tribute entered for Smith came from Linda Burns, a cousin of Smith's father, Ben. Burns, 53, of Red Rock, Texas, had first come across her second cousin's name on the TAPS Web site in October 1999 while looking for a friend's brother's name. "I saw James' name there with nothing written underneath it, and I thought that it was a shame that someone hadn't posted something there," she said. "When I visited the site again in November, I thought to myself, 'Maybe that someone is me.'"
But Hughes' hope soon turned to frustration, for the e-mail messages he sent to Burns' posted reply address came back to him as undeliverable. "That e-mail address was wrong," he said. "She had changed her e-mail address shortly after posting that."
After telling his friend Pat Ezzelle about finding the TAPS posting, Ezzelle told him about a Web site he had heard of that helped veterans contact lost comrades. Hughes ran a Web search and found the American Veteran Search home page, and e-mailed his story to it. "No one person could have done this all by themselves," he said.
American Veteran Search was the brainchild of New Yorkers Rich Palmeri and Jack Gentile. The two veterans created AVS to be exactly what Hughes needed -- an online resource where veterans and their families could connect with military comrades they or their loved ones had served with. The AVS Web site went online at www.veteransearch.com on Veteran's Day in 1998. "Lynn sounded real to us right up front, and we verified his story," Palmeri said. "We help out with a lot of these cases, and every reunion is great - but this is a special story."
Palmeri, 48, located Burns using Internet databases. He telephoned her in early July, planning to tell her about Lynn, give her his telephone number and let her decide if she wanted to call.
But Burns was at work when Palmeri called, so he left a message on her answering machine. And when she got home she found her husband, Tommy, also a Vietnam veteran, waiting for her at the door. "He said, 'I'm going to tell you something that is going to change your life.'" she said. "And that was true."
During the Vietnam War, Burns served as an army nurse at an evacuation hospital at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. In an almost unbelievable coincidence, Robin Hughes also served as an army nurse at the same hospital during the same time, although the two women never met.
Burns was 21 when Smith was killed in action. But even though she worked with wounded soldiers at the hospital, she said her second cousin's death brought the reality of war home to her in a very personal way. "It was the end of innocence for me," she said. "When he died, I realized for the first time that bad things really can happen to good people."
Hughes said it's practically impossible for him to put into words how he felt the day Burns called him. "It was very emotional," he said. "She cried; I cried."
Hearing from Hughes had an equally strong impact on her, Burns said. "I'm not the same person I was ... it restored the faith I have lost over the years," she said. "The whole family has benefitted from what he did."
Burns told Hughes that his old friend's father had passed away, but that his mother, Oleta Smith, was living in Dumas, Texas. She gave Smith's telephone number to Hughes, but the two agreed that Burns should call her first to make sure Smith would want to speak with him. "I didn't want to open up any old wounds by talking to Mrs. Smith -- I didn't want to hurt her," Hughes said. "She had already been hurt enough by losing her only son."
The first telephone conversation between Hughes and the 83-year-old Smith was intiated by a wrong number. "I thought I was calling Linda back, because I had a few more questions about (Hughes) that I forgot to ask her," Smith said. "But I hung up without saying anything when he answered the phone."
Hughes recognized Smith's number on his caller ID display and called her right back. His heart froze when he heard her voice answer the phone, he said. "I knew I was talking to Smitty's mother, but I could hardly say anything at first," he said.
Both described their first conversation as a very bittersweet experience. "It was hard to get started talking - I didn't know know how to express myself," Smith said. "I wanted to make sure he was talking about my son."
Like Burns before her, Smith quizzed Hughes in an attempt to authenticate his story, asking him questions only someone who had served with her son would know. "I understand why they asked - I don't blame them," Hughes said. "You can say you were somewhere, but you have to prove it."
Soon their discussion started to warm up as the two strangers began to connect with each other through their common bond. They talked for 90 minutes during that first telephone conversation. "It brought back many, many tears. We cried a lot, but we also laughed a little, too," Smith said. "It did upset me, but I'm very grateful for it."
Hughes said he felt the years of pent-up emotions surging through him as he realized that his quest had finally reached its long-awaited goal. "It was really very emotional for both of us," he said. "I remember her saying, 'You're a part of my life now.' And I said, 'Yes ma'am!'"
Two young American servicemen named James Warren Smith were killed during the Vietnam War, and Smith said that talking to Lynn quelled any buried doubts inside of her that her son was killed that August day in Dar Loc province. "I was really glad that I talked to him. It really relieved a lot of questions that I wanted answers to," she said. "Talking to someone who was with my son when he died -- knowing that he didn't die alone -- was a big help. And I hope it has helped him, too. I know it has been a burden for him."
The Hugheses have already purchased the tickets for the airline flight that will take them to Houston on Sept. 22. On the following day, they plan to drive to San Antonio to meet Oleta Smith, Linda and Tommy Burns, and several other members of their family at Fort Sam Houston Military Cemetery.
"I'm happy and I'm also very excited, but I know it will be very emotional," Hughes said. "The main thing that I'm worried about isn't visiting Mrs. Smith or the family -- I think the most hurtful thing for me will be seeing James' resting site."
Burns said she also has mixed feelings about the upcoming meeting. "I will be very happy to meet them because they're very nice people and I think the world of them, but I'm also extremely nervous about it," she said. "I can't help but think about the past -- it brings back things I'd rather not think about."
Although Smith said she too is concerned about the many conflicting emotions that meeting Hughes in person will likely arouse in her, she is looking forward to it. "I've been wanting to meet him in person because I feel very close to him," she said. "I think it will more or less bring a closure to this for me, because I really hadn't had that yet."
Reunions of this sort can generally help bring about such a sense of ending to years of internal turmoil for the people involved, Palmeri said. "It's often the final chapter for these folks, and it works both ways - for the vets and their families," he said. "When we see the response of these vets, that's our payment right there. Our motto is, 'We make grown men cry.'"
Burns said she believes Hughes' story "cries to be told."
"Maybe it can encourage others to do the same kind of thing," she said. "We all need to heal from this war, and this is one way we can do that."
And after 32 years, full healing has finally begun for Lynn Hughes. "Just to take away all that guilt I've felt for all these years and have it lifted away is just a simply wonderful feeling," he said. "There are no tears now - the weight is off my heart."
"TAPS" was started by the "VVHP's" creator and CO, Bill McBride -- Career Marine, Lt.Col.Ret., in country '67-'68, 3rd Recon Bn. Thanks, CO, for making this possible.