Of the 58,000 deceased Vietnam servicemen whose names were carved onto the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., 42 hailed from Ulster County.
When a traveling memorial wall visited Saugerties recently, members of the Kingston Veterans of Foreign Wars post, led by member Ken Swart, attempted to get in touch with the families of Ulster’s Vietnam dead. In the process, they found Elizabeth “Betty” Jeszeck, who is, to their knowledge, the last surviving Vietnam War widow in the county.
“They said they had no idea there were any widows left [in the county] from that war,” said Jeszeck, 94, currently living at the Better Community Housing facility in the village. “I didn’t read about it or realize [the wall was coming to Saugerties] until members of the VFW came to see me. It was kind of a shock — it’s been 48 years since it happened … I knew it had been going around, but I had no idea it was coming here.”
Jeszeck and her husband, U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Joseph Jeszeck, met on a blind date in June 1944 in Betty’s hometown of Chicago. Their first of five children, Mary Anne Jeszeck of Saugerties, was born in 1945 after pair moved to Wawarsing, close to where Joseph grew up in White Lake. In their home off Route 209, they had five children before he switched from reservist status to active duty enrollment in December 1969, after 10 years of inactivity.
A member of the U.S. Navy for eight years during and after World War II, Joseph had switched over to the Air Force to serve a subsequent four. He was a flight engineer, and aimed to serve the number of years required to get military retirement benefits.
On April 28, 1970, after taking off from the Tan Son Nhut Airbase, the AC-119 airplane gunship Jeszeck was riding in had a serious malfunction. At 100 feet, the right engine of the craft failed, and crashed into a dry rice paddy about 22 minutes after midnight.
“I remember sitting in the jump seat … and saying to the plane, ‘fly, fly, climb, climb, don’t crash.’ Then we hit,” wrote Maj. Bob Bokern, one of only two of the eight people aboard to survive the crash. “You also do a little praying and use some other words. They say that ‘oh shit’ is often the last expression you hear from crew members during an emergency. I do have to say that I was no exception.”
This account, which Jeszeck read just two years ago, was the most specificity she had received regarding her husband’s death.
“They crashed on takeoff, really,” said Jeszeck. “I didn’t know what happened. My youngest son was 12. I knew it was an airplane accident, but I didn’t know what has happened until my son found [Bokern’s account online].”
Jeszeck moved to Saugerties, closer to her daughter, eight years ago. VFW members visited her personally to deliver news of the traveling Vietnam memorial wall. Although Jeszeck was the only widow present, VFW Commander Matt Russell said that about 100 “Gold Star family members” were amassed. A special breakfast was held at the Village Diner before giving them first access to the wall an hour before it opened on July 19. Forty-two wooden crosses that were built by the Veteran’s Wooden Boat Shop in Kingston were laid out along with the deceased’s dog tags. The American Legion’s Museum was open all day for these family members, providing free food and dancing.
“We have to be proud as far as Saugerties and Ulster County because that’s who we take care of,” said Russell. “They’re a part of our community and they gave the ultimate sacrifice. We were proud to do this for the families. What they lost is way more than what anyone could ask for. It was unbelievable, the town of Saugerties bringing everything together like they did.”
“I went to the wall in Washington too,” said Jeszeck. “It’s not easy to go but it was quite impressive and we made a scratching of his name and heard the speeches. It was difficult just looking at it. I felt like [the traveling wall] was recognition that those that died deserved, for the rest of the country who didn’t to go to Washington to experience that ceremony could.”