Monday, May 27, 2013

A Couple Remembers a Son Killed in the War


Denton Crocker recalled the first time he laid eyes on Jean-Marie. It was in a small seaside town 15 miles north of Boston.

"We were both living in Swampscott, Mass., a street apart from one another," remembered Crocker, as the couple sat on the green porch of a house with a pretty garden that the family has called home for more than 40 years. The house sits on a tree-lined street a few blocks from the Broadway parade route where two officers on horseback were leading a ceremony in honor of Memorial Day.

'When I first saw Jean-Marie, she was standing on the platform for the Boston & Maine Railroad. And that just did it,' he recalled, peeling back the years with the same kind of scrutiny with which he once explored the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines with his fellow scientists and students all those years ago.

From 1942 to 1945, Crocker served with the Medical Department in an Army unit that was sent to identify disease-carrying mosquitoes. When his war-time stint was over, Crocker returned to his studies in Ithaca, where he and his young bride welcomed their first-born child on June 3, 1947. They called him Denton Jr., but he quickly was tagged with the endearing nickname 'Mogie.'

'He was a colicky baby, so his dad said, 'Oh, he's a regular Mogo,' said Jean-Marie. The family relocated to Saratoga Springs, where Denton Sr. taught as a professor of biology at Skidmore College. He chaired the department for 18 years, and the academic surroundings rubbed off at home.

By the time Denton Jr. reached high school, he was scoring high grades -- the highest of any in his years at Saratoga High -- and fourth highest overall in the entire county on the Regents scholarship exam.

'He was just fascinated with history. He was brilliant in that regard,' said his dad. The 1964 school yearbook captures Denton Jr. with his junior class, a young man schooled with the tools and filled with the promise of a bright future.

A half world away, a war was escalating.

'For a good many people, there was a lot of idealism at the time about the war in Vietnam,' Jean-Marie said. 'It wasn't until years later that people began having a different perspective. Denton Jr. was one of those that were very idealistic about it. He was concerned about people. He wanted to help them,' she said.

It was October 1964, one month into his senior year, when the young man left home. He left behind a letter addressed to his parents that told of his desire to join the service. It was something that he knew they wouldn't approve of.

'Individual freedom is the most important thing in the world, and I am willing to die to defend that idea,' he wrote. He had already accumulated enough credits to earn his high school diploma, a guidance counselor informed Jean-Marie, although due to his young age, his parents had to sign for him joining the Army. It was something they did in respect of their son's wishes.

'He was so determined. At some point, you have to let your children go and do what they feel is so important to them,' said Jean-Marie, looking out over the family's green porch on the first sunny afternoon after so many days of rain, as the air filled with the sound of rotor blades chopping swaths of grass across nearby lawns.

Denton Jr. completed basic training June 3, 1965, the day of his 18th birthday and at a time when his classmates' thoughts were occupied by things like dances and parties. Over the next 12 months, he would join the 101st Airborne Division and see combat in Vietnam with an elite force of shock troops called the Gypsies. He provided security near Nhatrang, ran with patrols at Suoi Cat and helped in strengthening defenses in Phan Rang. In the times he was not standing on alert, he would read the novels of John Cheever and write letters home describing the country with the jungle-covered mountains, its acres of rice-growing plains and the white sandy beaches.

In Saratoga, on the afternoon of her son's 19th birthday, Jean-Marie was picking lilies in her garden and thinking of him. Ten thousand miles away, is company was given the mission of securing a position near Dak To, a village where the borders of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos meet. Denton Jr. and his platoon came under heavy automatic weapons fire. It was Friday, June 3, 1966.

The following afternoon, she watched as two Army men solemnly came across the tree-lined street, approaching the house with the pretty, green porch.

"It's just as fresh (today) as it was when it happened," she said.

Killed in action from hostile fire, he was the first in this city to die in that war. A scrapbook filled with photographs, newspaper clippings and awards for bravery sits on a table on the green porch marking the life of the young man.

His mother penned a memoir, 'Son of the Cold War,' about his life that she says was a therapy of sorts. His dad said the abilities and talents his son showed at such a young age could have better served mankind.

Recalling her visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., Jean-Marie said, 'I know for some people, it's healing, But for us, at times it can be too much to take in. It is significant in our hearts, but it is a very emotional thing to see."

This story was originally published in 2006.


 

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