Welcome home Vietnam Veterans!
On Sunday March 29, 2020, our nation observed Vietnam Veteran’s Day.
I’ve interviewed several Vietnam veterans. This story of LeRoy Jesfield whom I met during a speaking event near his home is special to me. He was at the outdoor event carrying a big camera as he enjoyed taking photos, along with his wife Wanda. He had an even bigger smile. Something drew me to him and am I ever glad we had a chat. Our friendship grew and I often had the opportunity to visit with LeRoy and Wanda and learn more about them. LeRoy, a talented painter, loved God and people and always seemed to have a smile.
Please remember to observe our military holidays in some way, even if it’s a little late off the mark. Better late than never, right?
LeRoy Jesfield of Berne, Indiana, never forgot the day he and others of the 221st Signal Corps were roused from sleep in their barracks. “Captain Bill Kelly called us in on our only day off,” he said. “We weren’t too happy about it.”
The call was justified. On Sunday, May 9, 1970 – one day prior — five members of the 221st had been killed when their Huey helicopter was shot down over Cambodia. The five were a camera crew with four crew men from the 189th Assault Helicopter Company. They were shot down near Pleiku, Vietnam and all died in the crash.
A second helicopter saw the explosion. The crew landed and retrieved the bodies of those killed, including SP5 Douglas John Itri, a close friend of Jesfield’s. Itri, born in 1948, was from Boston.
Jesfield specialized in portraits for the 221st. He honored his friend Doug in a special way. “I did my first posthumous portrait of him,” Jesfield said. “I sent it to his family.”
At the time 20-year-old Jesfield of Billings, Montana, arrived in Vietnam, it was during the height of the Vietnam conflict. Five hundred thousand US troops were stationed at various locations in Vietnam.
At first Jesfield was attached to a National Guard unit from Rhode Island. “We lived in tents and were kind of like the misfits from the TV show MASH,” he said.
Jesfield had been assigned to a cryptography unit at a school at Fort Gordon in Georgia. Now he was told to forget everything he had learned about cryptography. “The soldiers in the field had advanced from teletype to computers,” he said.
Jesfield and others in the cryptography unit worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week. They had direct access to troop movements and even a direct line to American President Richard Nixon.
At first the work in cryptography excited Jesfield. Then, desiring a change, he talked to a friend in the 221st Signal Corps. Jesfield had always enjoyed drawing faces of classmates in school. He knew his friend had worked for Hallmark as an illustrator. In Vietnam the friend worked as a graphic designer for the Southeast Asia Pictorial Center in Long Binh. The friend thought Jesfield might be a good fit in the 221st.
Despite having no formal training, Jesfield submitted sample drawings. Officials from the 221st liked his work and agreed to accept Jesfield into the program.
As an illustrator, Jesfield drew pictures used for training aids. “They were to help new soldiers adapt to the country of Vietnam,” he said. “We provided various scenarios of the culture and told them what was acceptable to do and say and what was not.”
The 221st made brochures, slides, maps, and presentations for the news media and films for the Army buddy system. Jesfield also contributed to a comic strip called O.D. (Olive drab) Strat of a soldier returning to the United States. “The character was like Maxwell Smart of the TV spoof spy show Get Smart,” he said. The strip was printed in the First Signal Brigade newspaper.
Some of Jesfield’s work was general purposes, but some was classified. He used pencils to draw his projects, including portraits. Eventually he could draw a portrait in one hour.
After 10 months, Jesfield returned to the United States. He was stationed with the Third Army Soldier Show based in Fort McPherson in Atlanta. He sang, did set designs and created posters. “There were 10 of us in permanent party,” he said. “We performed shows throughout the South.
In 1970 Jesfield received an Army commendation medal from General Thomas Matthew Rienzi, First Signal Brigade Commander. In November 1971 Jesfield was discharged at the rank of Spc5 (Buck sergeant E5).
After his discharge, Jesfield worked at various jobs which did not require artistic talent. During his retirement years beginning in 2001, Jesfield resumed his craft of illustrating. He created paintings and drawings of friends and family as well as landscapes.
At the request of a friend Jesfield sketched from a photo the head shot of a soldier killed in Afghanistan. “My friend and the soldier’s grandfather asked me to draw it,” he said. “I was honored to comply.”
Each year on May 9 the Signal Corps gathered to remember the five guys from their group who were shot down in 1970. In later years, Jesfield was unable to attend the reunions due to ill health.
In 2016 LeRoy Jesfield was thrilled to participate in Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana. During the day, he was part of a small group of vets who laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “It was so exciting to do that,” he said. “It was one of the most special moments of my life.”
He and his wife, Wanda, stayed active at their home in Berne, Indiana. They attended church regularly, met with friends at restaurants and LeRoy led singing at a local nursing home.
On November 27, 2017, LeRoy Jesfield died due to complications from cancer. He served his country and community well.