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Thread: More than a number
05-16-08, 01:10 PM #1
More than a number
Duke Heller made sure vet's sacrifice wasn't lost to history
BY HOWARD WILKINSON | HWILKINSON@ENQUIRER.COM
Section 139, Block H, Grave 285.
For nearly 40 years, that is all there was to say that Eddie Van Oliver Jr. had ever lived.
No name etched in granite over the grave tucked away in a far corner of Spring Grove Cemetery. No marker to say that here lies a United States Marine, cut down at the age of 19, serving his country in a hellish jungle halfway around the world.
Just a number on a block of granite the size of a man's fist. 285.
There were always those who knew that there was more to Eddie Van Oliver Jr. than that number on an otherwise unadorned grave. The West End family that watched him grow into a young man and go off to war. The Marines who served with him in Vietnam in the battle-scarred 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, men for whom death was such a constant companion they called themselves "The Walking Dead."
One Marine in particular remembered - Duke Heller, a poor kid from Cleves who was there with Eddie in February 1969, in the bloody Dewey Canyon of Quang Tri Province. He heard the AK-47 fire that took Eddie's life; he helped wrap the West End Marine's bullet-riddled body in his own poncho and, for nearly a week, helped carry Eddie's body out of the jungle to the base camp, so he could be sent home and laid to rest.
Heller saw many friends die; his own body was riddled with shrapnel. The faces of his fallen comrades never left his mind, even long after he was home again and safe.
So, in the early 1970s, he went to Spring Grove Cemetery to visit the graves of his grandfather and uncle, and find the place where Eddie was buried. He went to the cemetery office where a clerk flipped through the books and found the location of Eddie's grave.
A flood of emotions - anger, frustration, sadness - hit him square in the face when he found Eddie's unmarked grave.
"I'm standing there looking down at the grave of a man I know - I know - was a hero," said Heller recently, sitting in the dining room of his home near Addyston, showing a visitor a scrapbook of his 13 months of near-continuous combat with the 1-9 Marines.
His fellow Marine, Heller said, didn't even have the standard- issue government grave marker available to any veteran.
"I was shaking, I was so angry. I told the people at the cemetery this was a travesty. I could not let this stand."
'THIS HAD TO GET DONE'
He knew that Eddie came from a poor family that could not afford its own grave marker and probably wasn't aware that the Department of Veterans Affairs would provide one for free.
The fact that a fellow Marine whose body he had helped carry out of the jungle was in an unmarked grave gnawed at him for decades.
Several years ago, he began trying on his own to get a government grave maker, but found he couldn't navigate the federal bureaucracy.
The breakthrough came when he told Eddie's story to his friend Jeff Foran, an Air Force veteran who is commander of VFW Post 2548 in Cheviot and someone who has considerable experience helping fellow veterans with benefit claims.
Foran recruited Gwen Mooney, the director of the funeral home at Spring Grove, who also knew which buttons to push to get it done.
"It was frustrating for Duke, because he didn't know how to go about it, and I knew that it was always a hassle dealing with death benefits," Foran said. "But we made up our minds this had to get done. No American hero should be lying in an unmarked grave."
A 'TYPICAL TEENAGER'
The Gwen Mooney Funeral Home at Spring Grove had the marker shipped to Cincinnati a few weeks ago. Earlier this week, it was put in place.
Sunday at 2 p.m., a crowd of veterans from the Marine Corps League, VFW Post 2548 and Eddie's family will gather around the grave for a ceremony that will, at long last, give the Marine the kind of homecoming he earned.
"All I ever wanted was for people to know who Eddie Van Oliver was and what he did," Heller said. "Now, they will."
The fact that two young men like Eddie Van Oliver and Duke Heller would come together was improbable, except in war. They grew up less than 20 miles from each other, but it might as well have been 20,000 - Eddie was an inner-city kid, growing up in the Laurel Homes projects of the West End, while Heller was raised in the sleepy river town of Cleves.
Eddie Van Oliver's parents were raising eight kids in the projects; one of them, Jeffrey, was about 7 years old when his brother joined the Marine Corps in December 1967.
"I was so young," said Jeffrey Oliver, who lives now in Finneytown. "I didn't know what was going on. All I knew was my big brother was going away."
Eddie, Jeffrey Oliver said, was "a typical teenager," hanging out with friends, having a good time.
Eddie and his buddies used to cruise the neighborhood looking for the pretty girls; they'd bring little Jeffrey along for bait.
"My job was to go up to a girl's apartment, knock on the door and tell her to look out the window," Jeffrey said. "She'd look out the window and there would be Eddie and the guys, calling her to come out. It usually worked."
Jeffrey Oliver remembers a cold day in February 1969 when he was playing in the courtyard outside Laurel Homes when he saw two tall Marines in dress uniform come to his parents' front door and go inside.
He remembers his brother's funeral at the old Pierce and People's Funeral Home on John Street; remembers looking at his brother in his casket and waiting for him to sit up. He remembers, too, the procession to Spring Grove and the burial in a grave that wasn't marked because the family couldn't afford a headstone.
'HELL, NO. CLEVES'
What Jeffrey Oliver and his family did not know was that, in a jungle halfway around the world, strong Marines were grieving as well, although they couldn't stop to let the pain overwhelm them, because they had a job to do and because death could claim them, too, at any moment.
Duke Heller was one of those Marines. He and Eddie had, by chance, ended up in the Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, a unit that had fought hard and long in Vietnam. When the unit was sent to Vietnam in 1965, Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader, said that the Marines could come but that they would be di bo chet - walking dead men.
The 1-9 Marines, in defiance, took Ho's boast as their nickname; and it was not long before it became one of the most bloodied - and battle-decorated - units in the Marines Corps. Eddie and Duke were in different platoons within Charlie Company; they met only because, in those days, Marines had the names of their home states stamped on their helmets. One day in base camp in Quang Tri Province, just days before he died, Eddie spotted the "Ohio" on Heller's helmet.
"Hey Ohio," Eddie yelled, "where you from?"
"Hell, no. Cleves. Near Cincinnati," Heller said.
"He told me he was from the West End and I had no idea where that was," Heller said. "We were poor; I'd never set foot out of Cleves until I joined the Marines. And Eddie had no idea where Cleves was."
Heller was a few months older than the Marine from the West End and, unlike Eddie, he had some experience being the man in his platoon taking the point position - the Marine who marched through the jungle just ahead of the rest of the platoon, the one who would be the first to draw fire, and, likely, the first to die.
On the morning of Feb. 20, 1969, Charlie Company set out into the jungle near the border with Laos to take out two howitzers that had been pounding the Marines. Eddie was to walk point that day; he had never done that before and sought Heller's advice.
"I said, 'Don't let the captain try to push you. Don't let them rush you.' "
It was not 15 minutes later, Heller said, when he heard the gunfire ahead of his platoon. When they reached the position, they found Oliver and several other Marines dead on the ground.
No Marine leaves another Marine behind. So, when the mission was accomplished and the howitzers taken, Heller and his fellow Marines wrapped the bodies in ponchos - tying them off so the blood and viscera would not flow onto the ground - and slung them over their shoulders for a weeklong trek out of the jungle.
All the Oliver family knew was that their boy had come home.
Jeffrey Oliver said that his mother, who died five years ago, "had always wanted a headstone or something at Eddie's grave, but nobody could ever afford it."
It was not until a week ago that Mooney tracked down Jeffrey Oliver and told him what Heller and Foran had done to honor his brother. Jeffrey talked to Foran on the phone Monday night for two solid hours, an emotional talk about his brother, Vietnam, and the quest for his grave marker.
"I was amazed, just amazed," Jeffrey Oliver said. "We had all thought everyone had forgotten Eddie. Not these guys. Now everyone will know who Eddie Oliver was."
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