Even though many people believe that this country’s involvement in Vietnam was wrong, no one can deny that out of this much vilified conflict, heroes emerged. One of those was a local man — S/Sgt Darrell Eugene Ayers. He was proved to be a virtuous young man—one who served his country as a Marine in an unpopular war, and sacrificed his own life so that another might live.
On March 29, 1973, close to 45 years ago, the last of the United States combat troops left South Vietnam and returned home. Reported as killed and missing in action, Gene Ayers was one of those left behind—somewhere in the soil of South Vietnam.
Darrell Eugene “Gene” Ayers was born April 4, 1937, the son of Vera L. (Hamerly) Highsmith Ayers (1916-2002), and later became the adopted son of William T. Ayers (1914-1982). When he enlisted in the Marines in 1957, Gene Ayers gave the name of his hometown as Alderwood Manor, Washington. Of, course in our day, most of what was once Alderwood Manor is now Lynnwood. If Gene Ayers was living in the city of Lynnwood today, he would be 81 years old. Probably a husband, a father, a grandfather and maybe even a great-grandfather. Gene Ayers never had that chance. Instead he became one of the casualties of the Vietnam conflict.
When he mustered into the Marine Corps in Seattle as a private in July of 1957, Gene Ayers was 20 years old and single. As a recruit, he received his training in San Diego.
In Vietnam he served as an Antitank Assaultman with the 1st Force Recon Company, 1st Recon Battalion, 1st Marine Division, U. S. Marine Corps (Reg.) and was a Sergeant E5 at the time of his death—he was promoted to Staff Sergeant posthumously.
Sgt. Ayers was reported as killed in action on March 19, 1970 in Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam — a ground casualty from hostile small arms fire.
Decades later, for nine days in July of 2005 — using the coordinates retained from the incident report on the loss of Sgt. Ayers — a recovery team from Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii conducted an excavation operation to find and recover the remains of Sgt. Ayers, the sole victim in this skirmish with hostile forces. The team recovered personal items possibly belonging to him and other effects that had been confiscated as souvenirs by residents of the nearby villages.
During this investigation, the recovery team interviewed three men who had actually witnessed the gunfire death of Sgt. Ayers. It was determined that Sgt. Ayers and the men in his platoon had been ambushed by members of the local enemy militia who resided at nearby villages about 27 miles southwest of Danang in Quang Nam Province. When the other members of Sgt. Ayers’ platoon were outnumbered and forced to retreat, they were unable to recover and remove Sgt. Ayers’ body — he was left behind. The men of the platoon were then evacuated from the area by helicopter. The local witnesses reported that following the Marines’ retreat, Sgt. Ayers’ body was stripped by the local militia of what were considered souvenirs He was then left unburied at the incident location—next to an ant hill.
Although evidence of the actual ambush was unearthed during the recovery efforts, no remains of the body of Sgt. Ayers were found. The final report on the failed recovery effort was received by the proper authorities in Washington, D.C. on October 6, 2005. The full report has recently been unclassified by the government and is now available for public viewing.
To this day, Sgt. Ayers body is listed as unrecovered. However, his name is inscribed on the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial in Hawaii and at Panel 12W-Line 19 on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. Locally, he is remembered at Edmonds Memorial Cemetery; his name listed on the Veterans Memorial Monument now located at the cemetery. In addition, if you visit the Veterans Plaza in Edmonds, you will also find his name on the wall listing the names of those who lost their lives while serving their country.
Because at the age of 32, Sgt. Ayers was much older than the other men in his platoon, they called him Pappy, and those who served with him remember him with affection. However, it was not until 38 years after his death that his country honored him for his valiant sacrifice. On April 2, 2008, President George Bush posthumously awarded the Navy Cross to S/Sgt. Ayers. The following wording on this award explains the circumstances of his death and his heroism.
The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Staff Sergeant Darrell Eugene Ayers (MCSN 2341301) United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving as a Platoon Sergeant with the First Force Reconnaissance Company, First Marine Division (Reinforced), Fleet Marine Force, in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam.
“On 19 March 1970, Platoon Sergeant Ayers was leading a seven-man patrol on a mission to locate primary enemy infiltration routes in the western section of Quang Nam Province. Two days previously, the aircraft by which the team had been heli-lifted into the territory had come under intense hostile fire as the Marines were disembarking and, in the intervening period, Staff Sergeant Ayers had skillfully avoided any contact which would compromise his mission. As the Marines approached a small river which was spanned by a bamboo bridge, Staff Sergeant Ayers, realizing the danger of encountering the enemy at this position, moved ahead of the point man and accompanied by another Marine, reconnoitered the approach to the river. When the two men halted to analyze the surrounding terrain, they suddenly came under a heavy volume of automatic weapons fire from enemy soldiers concealed nearby In an effort to shield his comrade, Staff Sergeant Ayers placed himself between the fusillade of hostile fire and his comrade. Mortally wounded moments thereafter, Staff Sergeant Ayers, by his valiant and selfless efforts, was directly responsible for saving the life of a fellow Marine. His heroic actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Information regarding this hero seems to be never-ending. Since I first wrote S/Sgt. Ayers’ story in my book Etched in Stone eight years ago, additional facts keep coming to light and, with permission, I am hoping that in the near future I will be able to tell the rest of his story—a very unusual and a bittersweet one.
— By Betty Lou Gaeng
Betty Lou Gaeng is a long-time resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, coming to the area in 1933. She researches and writes about the history and the people of both early-day Lynnwood and Edmonds. She is also a member of the Edmonds Cemetery Board