It was October 1953. Six of us sat there, in the Wigwam, a student hangout on the edge of the Northeast Louisiana State College campus (now the University of Louisiana-Monroe). We were probably playing dominoes.
Some, if not all of us should have been in class that beautiful fall day. We were first year college students, but not very intent on an education. We just weren’t ready, so the Wigwam was our refuge.
In cancel-culture 2021, having a place called the Wigwam where students hang out for lunch and dominoes would be unheard of, but in 1953 our school was known as the Northeast Indians, and we proudly wore that mantle. Even our head football coach, Jim Malone, was full blooded Native American, and we celebrated him as such, along with our college Indian mascot identity.
It was a strange time in America. World War Two had ended when most of us were in the third or fourth grades. We had lived through the rebuilding of our nation after the war, but as children, we were too young to realize it. By the time a military conflict began on the peninsula of Korea in 1951, we were in the 16-17 age group. That conflict ended with a “cease fire” earlier in 1953, not long before we graduated high school. We were just kids from two small southern towns, Monroe and West Monroe, and we had no idea what we wanted to do.
We had entered college in September. Prior to college, we all knew one another, but some better than others. There were three high schools in our area. Neville was the city of Monroe’s school. Ouachita was the parish school. St Matthew was the Catholic school. A new school, West Monroe High would open in September 1953, but there would be no graduating class until the spring of 1954. Of the six, two of us had attended Neville and the other four had graduated from Ouachita.
So why did we decide to join the Marine Corps? There were six of us, and I don’t think any ever gave a good answer to that. I believe it was as much a dare as anything else. Whatever the reason, we found ourselves in a situation from which there was no withdrawing. From that moment when we raised our hands and took the oath, we were in. For the next two years, our every move would be choreographed by the United States Marine Corps.
After we completed boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot in San Diego, and advanced to combat training at Camp Pendleton, we were split up. Some to Korea, and some to other bases around the world. College had brought us all together, and boot camp had solidified our friendships into a brotherhood, but the Marine Corps had other ideas for us. After all that training and duty station assignments, we were separated and never spent another day together in the Corps.
When I returned from Korea, after spending 11 months there, I applied for an early release from active duty in order to return to college. Of the other five, all completed the full two-year obligation. That included my Neville alumni friend Guy Gannaway.
Ronnie Fox Walters, Ed Estep, John H Odom and Eugene Eppinette were all Ouachita High graduates. Ronnie immediately re-upped in the Corps and took a commission as an officer, eventually serving in Vietnam and another, Eugene Eppinette, re-enlisted in the Air Force as a commissioned officer. Both served distinguished careers. Once the remaining three completed their obligation, they were discharged and returned to civilian life.
Ronnie Walters left the Marine Corps as a Captain, having contracted a life-threatening illness in Vietnam after much exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant routinely sprayed there. He passed away sometime in the late 80s. And over the past 25 years, through 2020, all of the original six have passed away. Only I and Eugene Eppinette remain. When Eugene retired from the Air Force, he had achieved the rank of Colonel.
There were many young men from Monroe and surrounding communities, who, during the 1950 to 1953 years, enlisted in the armed forces. Many were there in Korea during intense fighting, and many died there serving their country. We came along just a year or two after “the greatest generation,” and for some reason, those who served between the Second World War, and the Vietnam War, have always been a footnote and mostly forgotten. The fighting in Korea was never declared a “war,” but instead was designated a “military conflict.”
They mattered. God bless all our forgotten military.