As the driving rain pelted about 100 onlookers, Woodstock American Legion Post 1026 corrected what members saw as a long held oversight on Memorial Day, Monday, May 29, and commemorated the life of Richard Quinn, the last Woodstocker to have died in action, on July 12, 1970 in Vietnam.
The rain kept the noonday crowd down after forcing the cancellation of the traditional Memorial Day parade up Mill Hill Road, and speakers at the podium under a small tent at Woodstock Cemetery were standing toe deep in soggy grassy water.
But the setting was most fitting for the graceful, mournful ceremony that allowed Woodstock to revisit the life of a young man who the Legion’s Terry Breitenstein called “one of our own.”
“When somebody within the county pays the ultimate price and is killed in action, the community turns out and for whatever accolades there are, naming a street after them, so they won’t be forgotten,” said Breitenstein. “Soldiers today are professionals. They are a volunteer force, they’re government employees. This is a role they have chosen on their own. Richard Quinn was not a professional, he did not choose it as his occupation. He, like all others back then, was a citizen soldier. I don’t have to remind everybody of the turmoil that was created by the Vietnam war, and when it happened our soldiers came back home and were not received that well. Nothing at that time was done for Richard. I’ve lived with this for many years, and didn’t think it was right. We have to do something. He was one of our boys, one of our homegrown.”
The old soldiers were there, some now getting a bit long in the tooth: Lanny Steitz, the Grand Marshall; Don Haberski Sr., 1st Vice Post Commander; Kevin Verpent, who performed the Benediction; Post Commander Don Haberski Jr., who spoke of the history and reverence for Purple Heart recipients; Harley Avery; Walter Bolenbach read the list of Woodstock’s fallen soldiers since the Civil War; Shea Cocks, of the Sons of the Legion, bugler; The Honor Guard…
As was the Quinn family — Richard’s younger brother George, his daughter Bernadette, and his sister Susan.
George Quinn read from two pieces of writing done by his older brother.
The first showed a happy young man, enjoying a Catskill evening…
“Noises everywhere, happy voices sing out from the bars and cafes. Voices whiz by from passing cars and strollers talk loudly among themselves,” an excerpt read. “Everyone man woman and animal…to enjoy this last vestige of summer. The warmth, the smell, the aliveness of nature are now to be enjoyed, for in a short time it will be gone.”
The second was a letter from Vietnam.
“Mission started off lousy. The first day some of our men ran into bungee sticks. They are sharpened bamboo that go deep into the skin. We really have it rough now, the same clothes, and I’ve had these filthy pants on for about two weeks. We crossed a small river yesterday and it was the first time I had clean boots. Malaria cases are getting worse….”
Richard Quinn’s story was pieced together by Fern Malkine, who was at Onteora High School with Quinn, and subsequently got to know him better when both attended Ulster County Community College, back when it was on the Rondout.
She related how she got involved with the project.
“Freddie Strasberg, who ran the news shop back in the 60s, was a mentor to all of us and he felt that he was responsible for Richard’s death. And when I heard that I was horrified. He had told Richard, if you don’t want to kill anyone, become a medic, do what I did. And then he was killed as a medic, trying to save someone, so when Freddie told me that, all my friends and a lot of people were upset that all these years, nothing had been done for him…you know we’re naming streets for all these people who weren’t even born here and he grew up here and there’s nothing with his name. It’s not fair. He came from here and died and nobody did anything. So we’re coming almost to 50 years and we’re not getting any younger. I found and contacted the Sergeants that were with him, they were 15 feet from him when he died, so I have been in touch with them for eight months now and I have reams of information…”
From Fern Malkine’s research, Breitenstein told Quinn’s story.
“I don’t think I have to remind anyone of the turmoil of the 60s. The draft was there, and you got your letter, Greetings, and that was it. Richard was one of those, as were many of us here. And like many of us here, we didn’t want to go. Let that be known, it’s not something we all ran towards…we didn’t want to go and I know Richard tossed it about, whether he wanted to go…a carefree young man, college, but he made the decision and he answered the draft and went in. Richard Quinn did not want to go to war. Very few do.
“He couldn’t imagine killing anyone. He had just finished two year of college at UCCC and was going to the University of Miami. He was a Latin major and had just received a scholarship in languages. He as an honor student and he had spoken to a close friend about becoming a subway train conductor. And he loved baseball. He was part, back in the late 50s, of the first Little League players. He had big dreams about playing professional baseball.
“But the day after his 21st birthday, July 24, 1969, he received his induction notice to report on August 6 to Fort Dix to begin his basic training. After completing those eight weeks of training, Richard was sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for ten weeks for training as a medic. Ten weeks. That’s not a very long time. But that is how he had decided he would serve. He would be doing everything he could to save lives, instead of taking them.
“Richard did well in the Army, he wrote home that it wasn’t so bad, that he wasn’t being harassed and that he was being treated fairly…He learned all that he could, as quickly as he could, for he’d be responsible with only ten weeks of training to save the life of every soldier that passed through his hands…But we didn’t call them medics in the field, we called them Doc, or we called them Band aid, because you learned early in Vietnam that somebody screamed ‘Medic’ the first person that stood up got it.
“He deployed to Vietnam on January 12, 1970. Doc Quinn died exactly six months later, on July 12, 1970, during a firefight on the Cambodian border. He crawled through hundreds of yards of jungle terrain directly facing a hail of machine guns and small arms fire, yet focused, determined to reach those who needed his help. As fate would have it, he was directed toward the body of a fellow medic, Thomas Kloss. It was unusual in itself to have two medics in one platoon. Doc Kloss was a conscientious objector from California. Reaching his side, Richard put himself between the gunfire and his fellow medic. Both died there, Richard’s body later found draped over Kloss. The enemy had lobbed a grenade at them to make sure they were dead.
“Nearly 50 years after this incident, the point squad leader for the platoon and company that day, Sgt. Don Ketcham wrote, ‘Man that guy had guts.’
“As many of the soldiers back then, they didn’t go over there to be heroes. They were there for 13 months and counted the days until they could come home. When Richard went out to help Doc Kloss, I don’t think he knew at the time [Kloss] was dead.
“Low crawling, in the jungle, under enemy fire. Couple of things happened. There was an M-60 machine gun that was supposed to be providing cover, ground fire for him. That didn’t happen due to malfunction of the machine gun or somebody froze…
“He didn’t do this to be a hero. He did it because there was a need for something he felt he had been trained for. This is one of our local boys. What Richard showed was the mettle that many young men and women of the United States were made of. You are not doing something that’s popular, but you’re doing something that’s necessary.
There’s no way to know how many lives Richard saved, both on the ground and in the med-evac helicopters….
“For these actions on that day, Richard received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and many other medals and citations. But as I said, Richard didn’t cross the raging gunfire to be a hero, he simply did it to try to save anyone he possibly could.
“It turned out that the only two that died in that firefight were the two medics. Doc Kloss had just turned 19; Doc Quinn, 21…they both arrived in Vietnam from opposite sides of the country on the same day, and died together on the same day.
“Exactly a year to the day from when he received his induction notice, Richard was buried here in the Woodstock Cemetery, one day past his 22nd birthday at the Veterans Memorial, and at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, their names are side by side. Both gone way too soon.
“Richard, like so many others his age, did the best he could, under extremely difficult circumstances, and died the most honorable way one can, according to the Greeks, by sacrificing his life to save another.
“Although it’s clear that Richard’s last act on this earth was truly heroic, Richard would not have wanted it glorified, but would have wanted it appreciated and remembered. And that, long overdue is what we are doing today, and we’ll never forget. As he told his younger brother George just before leaving for Vietnam, if I don’t come back, please keep my name alive. That’s what we’re doing today, and we’ll never forget.
“Nearly half a century later, I hope you will truly appreciate that we’ve come together today just to do that. That’s the story of one of our boys, homegrown, Sgt. Richard Quinn and that’s why we’re here today. Thank you. And Thank you Fern, for putting all this together.”
“The one thing I always remembered about Richard,” said Malkine, as the rain petered out on Memorial Day following the traditional salute of arms followed by Taps, “was he had the softest voice you ever heard. And all the guys who helped me [with the research] said he was quiet. That was the one adjective they all used. And that was the last place you would have thought he ended up.”
Fern Malkine’s Memorial Album documenting the story of Richard Quinn in detail is on display and available for perusal at the Woodstock Historical Society, on Comeau Drive, open on weekends.