Houston attorney David Nelson always knew he had a special friend in Lee Roy Herron. When the two met in the seventh grade in Lubbock, they became entwined in a fateful, yet inspiring tale of just how powerful a friendship can become. While juniors at Texas Tech University, Herron convinced Nelson to join the Marine Corps Officer Training program in 1965. Two years later, Nelson transferred to the Marine Corps Judge Advocate program, where he started his law career. Meanwhile, Herron, after attending Vietnamese language training school in California, plunged into the teeth of the Vietnam War thousands of miles from home. In 1969, Herron was killed in action after taking the place of a wounded officer in a heated battle. Nelson, recovering from a three-story fall in a roofing accident at the time, received the tragic news and many questions surrounding the nature of his friend’s death went unanswered for the next 28 years. Nelson spoke with the Texas Bar Journal about his own time in the Corps, the story of Herron that he finally pieced together, and the meaning of Herron’s sacrifice for his country.
Describe how you felt in the late 1960s, as the U.S. was fully embroiled in the Vietnam War. The stress of law school combined with the tension of wartime must have been difficult to bear.
When I joined the Marine Corps on October 21, 1965, it was just months after President Lyndon Johnson had ordered thousands of troops to Vietnam. I was a junior at Texas Tech University and most of the country supported the war. But by the time of the Tet Offensive in early 1968, I was in law school at SMU, the war had dragged on for three years, and U.S. enthusiasm was waning. In my last semester during the spring of 1970, the tragic killing of Kent State University students occurred. I could hardly believe we had been embroiled in Vietnam over five years and protests against the war were rampant, including on the campus at SMU. And there I was, about to go on active duty in the Marine Corps. Needless to say, times were intensely stressful, both for me personally and for our country.
What do you remember most about Lee Herron? What were his greatest qualities as a person and a friend?
I met Lee Herron in the seventh grade at R.W. Matthews Junior High School in Lubbock. We became fast friends, although Lee was extremely competitive in all areas of his life, including sports and academics. He was the type of friend that would tackle you hard in football practice and then cheerfully lift you up, asking if you were OK. He genuinely cared for his friends’ well-being. In mid-season in the ninth grade, he broke his arm in a tough game and refused to leave until the coach forced him to go to the hospital. Even at a young age, Lee was extremely “gung-ho,” to coin a Marine Corps phrase.
How did Lee convince you to join the officer candidate program?
When I began my junior year at Texas Tech in the fall of 1965, I realized that due to the mandatory draft in effect, I needed to take care of my military obligation. I spoke to Lee Herron, and he strongly recommended a Marine Corps program that allowed you to attend officer training in the summer, with no interruption of college studies. And the commitment was for three years of active duty versus four for the Navy and Air Force. Lee had joined in 1964 and already had attended the first part of officer training that summer. I liked the program and figured if Lee could endure Marine Corps training, so could I! I joined up a few weeks later.
Lee was in language training school in California learning Vietnamese. Did you ever hear from him before he went to Vietnam?
He called me from California in early 1968 to tell me he was engaged to Danelle Davis, whom we both knew at Lubbock High School. Lee wanted me to attend his wedding, set in May of that year. Unfortunately, on the weekend of the planned wedding in Lubbock, I was scheduled to be in the middle of law school final exams in Dallas. I declined the invitation, a decision I later deeply regretted.
You were recovering from injuries related to your roofing fall right as you got thae news Lee had died in action in 1969. Prior to 1997, how did you handle all the uncertainty of the details of Lee’s death?
When I first learned of Lee’s death, all I heard was that Lee had volunteered to take a wounded officer’s place in a fierce battle, had personally charged the enemy, and promptly gotten shot and killed. It seemed like his death had been both tragic and pointless. I tried not to think of his death, and when I did, I mourned his loss silently. I rarely spoke about him. However, in 1990, I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. for the first time, and I found Lee’s name on the wall. I wrote my parents about how emotional and sad the experience was, but I tried not to think of Lee and the futile war in Vietnam.
What was the feeling like to hear Col. Wesley Fox speak about Lee and begin to reveal some of the specifics of his death?
On August 2, 1997, Medal of Honor recipient and retired Marine Col. Wesley Fox came to Houston to speak to the Texas Association of Former Marines. Especially since Fox had been one of my instructors in 1971 at Marine officers’ training at Quantico, Virginia, I went to hear him speak. In talking about the battle for which he received the Medal of Honor, Fox mentioned that two lieutenants were key to the victory. One was “a stout young man from West Texas named Lee Herron.” I was stunned and felt lightheaded—almost falling out of my chair. After the speech was over, I spent about an hour with Col. Fox, learning about Lee’s actions and heroism. I was elated to learn that Lee did not die needlessly.
As you started to connect with those closest to Lee on the battlefield that day, describe the thoughts and feelings you began having.
After deciding with a few of my Lubbock High School friends on how to honor Lee and preserve his legacy, I began contacting all of his fellow Marines that had served with him, particularly survivors from Lee’s time in Vietnam. All those I contacted told me how much Lee was respected and how much he cared for the troops. Many also mentioned that Lee had been a strong spiritual leader to his Marines. After a lengthy search, I even managed to contact Frank Stoppiello, the one Marine who had been with Lee when Lee destroyed an enemy machine gun bunker. As Lee and Frank then attempted to destroy a third and final bunker, Lee was mortally wounded and Frank was shot in the stomach, damaging his spine and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. As I learned more details about Lee, I became even more proud of Lee and our friendship. I became determined to continue my efforts to let others know about Lee, his heroism, and his lasting influence on those that came in contact with him.
What was it like to retell the story in your 2011 book “David and Lee Roy: A Vietnam Story?”
Actually, I never expected to write a book about Lee and myself. I thought a March 3, 2001, event at Texas Tech was the major culmination of efforts by my Lubbock High School classmates and me to honor Lee and preserve his memory. At that event, we presented an endowed scholarship in Lee’s name to Texas Tech’s Vietnam Center, along with a beautiful bronze relief crafted by classmate Norman Flanagan. The mayor of Lubbock declared March 3, 2001, Lee Roy Herron Day, and at a moving ceremony, Lee was honored by various speakers. Col. Wes Fox, Lee’s company commander in Vietnam, was the keynote speaker. Although I intended to continue writing articles about Lee, I did not consider writing a complete book until two Texas Tech individuals suggested a book and offered to help. Jeff Whitley assisted, and Randolph Schiffer became my co-author. Over the years, we compiled as much information as possible, and in 2011, Texas Tech University Press published the book. I was able to present my first copy of the book to Lorea Herron, Lee’s mother. She was one proud mother to see her only son honored by the book—and I was pleased to see her so happy.
What do you remember most about your time on Okinawa in 1972?
I arrived on Okinawa on December 7, 1972, Pearl Harbor Day. It was a sad occasion for me, as I left behind my wife, Martie, and our 1-year-old daughter, Amy. I was assigned to the Third Marine Division, the same outfit Lee was with in Vietnam before the division returned to its home base on Okinawa in 1970. Soon after my arrival on the island, the so-called Christmas bombings of North Vietnam began. The refueling KC-135 tanker jets flew from Kadena Air Force Base, near where I was stationed at Camp Hansen. For days the jets flew early each morning over my quarters, waking me up with a thunderous roar. Soon thereafter, I was driving near Kadena when one of our spy planes, the SR-71 Blackbird (called the “Habu” on Okinawa) landed just in front of me. I almost lost control of the small Fiat I was driving!
As a veteran yourself, what does Veterans Day mean to you?
This is a day to honor all our veterans, current and past. I admire those who are willing to serve in our volunteer military to protect our country. I do wish that more individuals in Congress had some military service, as such experience should make you think twice before committing our troops to potential futile wars, especially when there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
What would you like the world to know about Lee?
Lee was a unique individual who had many close friends, and he genuinely cared for each of us. He was an honors grad in government at Texas Tech and was just the type of person we need to help govern our country today. He loved God, our country, and the Marine Corps. He would have placed loyalty to country above loyalty to a political party or person.
Texas Veterans Legal Aid Week clinics
Texas veterans are invited to participate in Texas Veterans Legal Aid Week, a statewide effort in honor of Veterans Day coordinated by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, or TAJF, and legal aid programs across the state. During the week of November 4-11, legal aid programs, local bar associations, law schools, and pro bono private lawyers will provide civil legal services for qualified Texas veterans in various locations throughout the state.
A full list of clinics and events is available here.