Allen Sheffield Stroud’s Army unit celebrated his 21st birthday a day early by making a cup of cocoa in the jungles of Vietnam.
The paratroopers don’t remember why they celebrated early, but they’re glad they did. Stroud died later that day when he stepped on a land mine.
The town of Garner will honor Stroud during its annual Veterans Day observance Saturday. American Legion Post 232 will present Stroud’s widow, Dora Ann Burnette Stroud, with replacements of the military honors her husband earned in the spring of 1968, including the Purple Heart award.
She thought she had safely stored his honors when she moved from Garner to Memphis soon after his death, but the awards, letters and flag that had been placed on the coffin were thrown away after she left. Stroud’s wedding band was gone too. So was a picture of him parachuting with the 82nd Airborne Division based in Fort Bragg.
About the only thing Burnette Stroud has to remember her late husband is a high school photograph. It was that picture that helped bring her to the American Legion’s attention.
The Garner Veterans Memorial honors the 66 men from the community who died while in military service. The group’s website featured pictures of many of the men but had used the wrong picture of Stroud for years.
Stroud was born in Clayton but spent much of his youth with his grandparents, Lee and Fanny Stroud, in Garner. He later stayed with other relatives in Clayton and graduated from Cooper High, an all-black school in the town.
He met Dora Ann, his girlfriend’s friend, at a birthday party and promptly changed girlfriends. They soon married and moved into a small house near downtown Garner. She was pregnant with another man’s child, but Stroud considered the boy, Timothy, his own.
“I knew Allen wasn’t the father and I asked him what he thought we should do,” Burnette Stroud recalled. “He said he loved me and the child would be ours.”
The family was struggling financially in 1967 when Stroud landed a job laying brick at N.C. State University.
“He talked about going to college,” Burnette Stroud said. “But we didn’t know how we could afford it. Then one day he mentioned something about the G.I. Bill.”
The government program helped military veterans go to college. More than 9 million former soldiers, most of them World War II veterans, used the G.I. bill between 1944 and 1949. A similar program was set up to cover the college expenses of veterans of the Vietnam War.
One day in 1967 Stroud came home and told his wife that he had been drafted.
Six weeks in Vietnam
Stroud trained as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne and arrived in Vietnam on April 13, 1968.
“Most units went out from a base camp and came back. We stayed in the jungle,” said Stanley DeRuggerio, one of Stroud’s military friends. “Once every three weeks they would bring in food, ammunition, clean socks and our mail. We slept in the open on a rubber mat or an air mattress. Our poncho was our cover when it rained. I went five months without a shower at one point.”
One man was mauled by a tiger. Despite the tough conditions, Stroud fit in well, DeRuggerio said.
“He was a great guy. He was one of the guys that always did things the right way,” DeRuggerio said. “You could count on him. He was sort of quiet, but you knew he would be there for you. He would do anything for you.
“I didn’t know him really well. He hadn’t been there long, but I knew him well enough to like him. Everybody liked him.”
Stroud had been in Vietnam for about six weeks when his wife in Garner got a call from her sister, who said to hurry home because some men from the Army were there.
A young lieutenant delivered the news: Stroud had been listed as missing in action.
“I went a little crazy,” Burnette Stroud recalled. “I yelled at those men. I was belligerent. I was screaming and crying. I kept asking the lieutenant why he got to stay home while there was a war going on. Why was he here and my husband was dead? I completely lost it.
“I told them that I would not believe my husband was dead until they put his wedding band in my hand.”
Within 48 hours, the men returned with her husband’s ring.
There were few details at first about Stroud’s death, and through the years she heard various versions.
The official report says Stroud was recovering a comrade’s body in the Lam Dong Province of South Vietnam on June 17, 1968, when he stepped on a land mine. He was killed by multiple fragmentation wounds.
The men who were with him say Stroud was blasted by a grenade and was shot. He had moved up to the front to set up a machine gun and may have moved from behind cover to retrieve a comrade’s body.
The unit was badly out-numbered and was hit by machine gun, grenade and rifle fire as it attempted a flanking maneuver against a North Vietnamese army base.
“You could tell by the sound of the weapons that they were American weapons,” said Lee Stuart, who helped man a machine gun with Stroud. “During every lull in the firing, I would yell, ‘Cease fire. Cease fire. We are Americans.’ ”
The soldiers believed they were mistakenly being fired upon by American troops. They did not know the North Vietnamese forces had captured American weapons from a South Vietnamese storage facility.
Stuart said a grenade from an M79 grenade launcher claimed the first of the seven Americans killed that day. Every man in the platoon was killed or wounded and after the paratroopers started pulling back, DeRuggiero noticed three wounded Americans, including Stroud, were being left behind.
He said he ran to the men and dove behind a large ant hill.
“I pulled Stroud behind the ant hill and tried to give him first aid,” DeRuggerio said. “I couldn’t get any air into him. ... He died at my knees. He was whispering for his family.”
DeRuggiero, who spent 32 years in the military before becoming a Defense Department contractor flying helicopters in Afghanistan, was awarded a Silver Star for his actions that day.
‘Because he loved us’
The Army advised Burnette Stroud to not open her husband’s coffin.
“I wanted to remember him alive, not dead,” she said.
Burnette Stroud stayed in Garner for less than six months after her husband’s death. There were too many memories, too many unfulfilled hopes.
She moved to Memphis and began a career at Federal Express. She retired as a manager and returned to Garner in 2010.
She said Stroud was the love of her life. Years after his death, she learned that her husband had not been drafted.
He volunteered, because he thought joining the service was the best way to help his family.
“It was the G.I. Bill. He joined because he loved us and wanted to provide for (us),” Burnette Stroud said. “He proved that he would do anything for his family.”
Tim Stevens writes stories about Garner for The News & Observer. Email him at Timstevens710@gmail.com.
Veterans Day observance
Garner will host a ceremony at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, at Aversboro Road Baptist Church.