There is something fascinating about following the common thread that runs through people because of their connection to Mansfield. Countless stories in our history seem to show how the city links us in mysterious ways; how it impacts us in a deep level of spiritual interconnection, and adds depth of meaning to our lives.
This is one of these Mansfield stories, one of the most moving I have ever heard.
It is about two young men who met on the other side of the world, before they discovered they both came from Mansfield. In fact, they were 8,426 miles from home before they learned that they grew up only about 200 yards away from each other.
They both graduated from Senior High, but in the two years when they were each walking those halls at the same time, they never happened to cross paths in school.
The more they talked, the more they had in common: they both bought Jones Chips at the T&A; they both cheered at Arlin Field, they both hummed along to WMAN.
It turned out that one of them had even been the paper boy who delivered the News Journal to the other one’s house.
When you’re on the other side of the world, it is these very small, seemingly inconsequential hometown commonalities that make all the difference. It is a true bond that creates instant family, as comfort in a hostile environment. And make no mistake, where these two men met was a very hostile environment: it was 1968 in the jungles of Vietnam.
Each of these young men took his own circuitous route to get from Mansfield to Vietnam. One of them enlisted: Jeff Hamilton, Class of 1964. The other was drafted: Jim Ackerman, Class of 1966.
By the time they encountered each other in-country, Jeff was a First Lieutenant, who had risen through the ranks to be placed in command of the 3rd Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry. It was the very unit where Jim was already stationed as the PFC in charge of the unit’s radio. In terms of rank and battle command, the two of them—Platoon Leader and radioman—were necessarily as close as any two soldiers get in line, humping through the jungle: leader and communications should be inseparable.
But any soldier in the patrol could tell you, Jeff and Jim were close as brothers regardless of their rank and role; and everyone knew that the bond between the two men was their hometown.
When Jim wrote home to his sister in Mansfield on February 16, 1968, there was amazement in his voice: “Our new platoon leader is from Mansfield, he lives on Brickman Avenue.”
If you look through the pile of all the letters Jim sent home to his family during his US Army experience, there is barely a mention of any other soldier he met over there. His new commanding officer was not only a welcome breath of home in a dangerous foreign assignment; he was in many ways, the childhood pal he never had back home.
Classmates who knew each of them growing up said the same thing of them both: they were each intelligent, spirited, talented and friendly as kids growing up; yet likeable as they were, each of them had few close friends, and were seen by their peers as slightly aloof.
But there in the rainy jungle and debilitating tension of hazardous duty, their soldier compatriots said the two of them joked and sang, pranked and collaborated like lifelong pals.
Jim wrote his Grandmother that he and Jeff had downed a few beers and then, “we had a contest to see which of us could stuff the most saltines in our mouth without swallowing. He won 19-17, but it was so damn funny I kept blowing crumbs all over when I laughed. After a couple more beers we tried Indian wrestling, I was so weak from laughing so hard that he won that too. Actually he’s just a skinny little shit like me.”
It is a wonderful blessing to find a genuine friend in life: someone who truly has your back. How much more wonderful when it happens so unexpectedly in a perilous part of the world in a time of high anxiety. And how sublime, that it should happen for the critical moments at the end of your life.
Shoulder to Shoulder
The time period when the two men from Mansfield met in the war was during the famous Tet Offensive, which is remembered for its fierce fighting on all fronts of the war at once. They found themselves stationed near the city of Hue, which was considered the worst of those worst times.
The Battle of Hue was already mostly over by March 18, when Jeff wrote to his parents, “Your Viet Nam correspondent reporting again—good news. It’s been almost peaceful here.” That was the last letter he wrote home.
Their task on the day of March 22—the objective of Bravo Company—was scanning, clearing, and securing the mountains outlying the city. In several days of humping through the steep and heavily forested terrain, they had found nothing at all that posed a threat.
That Friday, they set off into the hills with another Squad in the lead, and Lt. Hamilton was back in the line, even though he was in charge. When the point men discovered a fork in the path, they called their leader forward to make a command decision on which way to proceed.
When Lt. Hamilton got to the front of the line, he had his radioman with him close by—Pfc. Ackerman—because a sniper in the jungle had opened fire, and the commander needed to radio their coordinates to a helicopter artillery gunship overhead.
The two men could not have been closer—Hamilton talking on the radio that Ackerman was carrying. So when Jeff went down, hit by the sniper, the man who leaped to cover him was the one closest at hand: his best friend. Within only seconds they both were gone.
The other soldiers who were nearest to them in the jungle expressed their astonishment and admiration at the bravery and selfless reflexes of both men; of each of them.
The two friends departed the earth together; they left their bodies on the forest floor leaning against one another, as they had in life.
Letters and Words
News of the casualties was relayed back the line through the jungle quickly; it made it across the ocean only slightly less rapidly, so that by the next day Jeff’s and Jim’s families heard they were gone.
Government notification is necessarily terse—there were not enough details from the Army to tell the story; only enough to start the tears.
The memory of the two friends entered into the registry of history with even fewer details: nothing to say that Jeff was 21 and Jim was 20; nothing to indicate that they both had been on 25 combat missions each; nothing to document that Jimmy was making plans for his wedding when he got home, or that Jeff was headed toward the family business in Mansfield; nothing to note that the two of them only met each other barely more than a month before they sacrificed their lives, yet in that month they had a lifetime of friendship so rich that their comrades said “they very nearly completed each other’s sentences”. Official recognition is in Washington DC where their names are carved into the granite of the Vietnam Memorial.
The names on panel 45E of all the US soldiers who gave their lives on March 22 are inscribed alphabetically, so there are about 11 inches of stone that separate the names of Ackerman and Hamilton.
But if the memorial were true to life, the names of Jim and Jeff would be right next to each other, as they were in the last days of their lives.