Doris Gentry’s faint smile cannot betray her loss.
Fifty years ago, Nov. 9, 1967, her only son, Jerry Wayne Gentry, a private first class in the Americal Division of the First Cavalry, had been in South Vietnam only three months when his squad was ambushed west of Khe Sanh. The armored personnel carrier he was riding in was disabled by enemy fire and four soldiers lay injured. Gentry, facing a barrage of automatic weapons fire, ran to the destroyed APC and dragged three wounded soldiers to safety.
Now aided by another soldier only known as “Sonny,” he returned for the fourth, but was mortally wounded as he dragged the soldier from the kill zone.
“I could feel his breath on my back as we ran,” Sonny told Gentry’s family years later. “Then I felt the breathing stop and I looked back and saw he had been hit.”
Gentry, mortally wounded, lay dying in the jungle with a wound so severe that no one could help him.
He was the fourth Bartow Countian to die in Vietnam.
At 90, Doris Gentry has never quite resolved the loss of her son.
Sitting in her living room, surrounded by the tangible memories of Wayne — the Silver Star, Purple Hearts and Vietnam Gallantry Cross medals, photos of a schoolboy, a grinning 20-year-old man-child in his uniform and the posthumous honors bestowed after his death — she is alone with her grief and haunted by the memories.
“I will never get over this,” she said. “I can’t get over it.”'
A Pure Mayberry Childhood
Wayne’s childhood might well be described as pure Mayberry.
In the early 1950s, the family had moved to a 117-acre farm in the shadow of Ladd’s Mountain.
The Gentrys’ farm butted up next to the Satterfield place, separated by an unpaved Mission Road.
Larry Satterfield was Wayne’s best friend since they were little boys. When they weren’t working chores for their dads, they were traipsing through the fields with their shotguns, followed by Wayne’s dog, Renny, a tan mixed breed, part Collie, part mutt.
“That dog definitely could not hunt,” Satterfield chuckled as he remembered. “But we didn’t really care if we shot anything or not. We just loved being outdoors.”
As the boys grew, their activities carried them beyond the farm to Euharlee or Sugar Valley.
“On the weekends, we would ride our bikes over and play basketball or football or baseball with the Sugar Valley boys,” Satterfield said.”We couldn’t figure out why they always beat us, but later we realized we were worn out from the bike ride.”
Satterfield described Wayne as “kinda quiet, but at times he could be mischievous,” then started telling a story about a double date with twins before abruptly stopping.
“Maybe I shouldn’t tell that one,” he said.
Greeting from Uncle Sam
Wayne dropped out of Cass High School just three months before graduation and married Sherrie Hinsford, his high school sweetheart. Not long after the wedding, Uncle Sam dropped him a line.
“Greeting,” it said. “You are hereby ordered to report for induction into the ARMED FORCES of the UNITED STATES.”
Ten days later, he kissed his bride and boarded an old olive drab bus with a hundred other draftees and headed south down U.S. 27 to Fort Benning for eight weeks of basic training, followed by another four of advanced infantry training in Fort Hood, Texas.
After completing the training, he got a weeklong pass to visit his family, then departed in August for Vietnam.
“It was always assumed that — because he was the only boy in the family — he would take over the farm from Daddy one day,” Barbara Temple recalled. “He really wanted to dig a well so there would be an ample water supply when he got home, but Daddy said ‘there will be plenty of time when you get back home.’ Of course, he never came back home.”
The Call No One Wanted
On the evening of Nov. 9, 1967, the Gentry family gathered at Barbara’s house to record a holiday cassette tape for Wayne, with each family member recording a greeting for their soldier far from home.
“We wanted him to hear our voices,” she said. “And let him know that we loved him.”
Before they could get started, the phone rang.
Wayne’s father-in-law was calling for Daniel, Wayne’s father.
“Daddy took the call, but he didn’t say anything,” Barbara recalled. “He just loaded Momma in the car and left for Dallas, where Sherrie, Wayne’s wife lived.”
Doris said Sherrie met them at the door clutching a telegram.
“They had already come and told her,” Doris said.
“Mother fell to pieces,” Barbara said. “She locked herself in her bedroom and screamed because she didn’t know what had happened to her baby.”
Memories of a Heroic Son
On a beautiful summer day in 1991, Doris came to “the Wall,” in Washington D.C. She walked past the tall black granite panels in the kind of herky-jerky gait of someone rushing to their destination but fearing what they will find when they arrive. She finally reached panel 29E and with one thin pale finger traced each name along line 57, until she came to his. She covered his name with her palm and wept.
In 2007, the Gentrys were contacted by the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association. Each year, they choose a serviceman from the Vietnam Era who perished in that war. They said they wanted to honor Wayne with a stone monument detailing his valor. It stands today in Friendship Plaza in downtown Cartersville under the shade of a big fir or spruce or some kind of evergreen. It’s the perfect place because they all agreed thay Wayne loved Christmas.
A half century later, the Gentrys all agree that they still feel an emptiness beyond description.
“I think of him almost everyday and wonder what might have been if he had lived,” Barbara said.
But Wayne’s niece Karen Kirkpatrick, also feels enormous pride.
“It’s very sad,” she said. “But I can hold my head high knowing he died a hero.”