Dad: You Have Not and Will Not Be Forgotten

by Tom Shepherd, Jr. and Dan Shepherd
(sons of
SFC Thomas C. Shepherd, Sr., B Co, 2nd BN, 506th, KIA March 24, 1971)

When I was five years old and my brother Dan was four, we were sat down at the kitchen table amongst a room full of crying family members and neighbors and told that our dad, SGT Thomas C. Shepherd Sr., had died. We sat in silence, not knowing what that meant. Everyone seemed to be looking at us, awaiting some dramatic outburst that never came. At some point I asked if we would be getting a new dad. At the funeral, my brother and I sat in front of the casket looking at Dad. He seemed to me to be sleeping, and I wondered when he was going to wake up. Dan was too young to connect the few memories of his father with the person sleeping before him and only remembers sitting on the casket, his uniform, and smelling the flowers. When the viewing was over, we didn't want to leave and had to be carried out. It would take us years to fully comprehend the reality of those few days and a lifetime to piece together the life and death of the man in the photos, the sleeping man, our father.

As I grew up, I would watch war movies and picture my dad as the fallen hero. I had a case full of his medals, a few newspaper clippings, and some family anecdotes.

Dad grew up in the fifties and loved to have a good time. He was a hard drinker and liked to dance. On more than one occasion, our grandfather told us with a smile a parent gets only years later, he would race the family car up and down Main Street. He also had a sense of responsibility, to his family and to his country. When he married my mother, he re-enlisted in the army to provide for us and continue to serve his country. Prior to the marriage, he had served two years upon finishing high school.

One of his proudest moments came shortly thereafter when he earned his drill sergeant's badge. Later, during his first tour of Vietnam in 1968 with the 9th Infantry Division, he was awarded a Silver Star. In a battle in the Mekong Delta, the command and control helicopter was shot down in a river. Dad and another sergeant swam out to the downed craft and helped save three of the men on board. In his letter home he stated that he didn't know why he was awarded the medal "because all I did was my job to the best of my ability -- tell the hypocrites back home that I won it for gallantry in action for the United States of America. And it is true."

And that was all. We could glean no further information from anyone. We lived in a small town, divided like any other, so not much was said -- to us in particular. The pain society felt over Vietnam kept us all, my family included, from discussing anything related to that war. For me, it was the silence that bothered me the most. As I grew, up this silence confused and angered me. On the one hand, I was terribly proud of my dad. On the other, nobody seemed to care, or were even downright hostile whenever the subject came up. So, I kept it to myself. Many times, when Dad was mentioned, he was called "gung ho." Some people had no problem telling my brother and me, to our faces, what they thought of soldiers who were "gung ho," and they still don't to this day.

Over the years my brother and I would bring out the medals and things on the anniversary of Dad's death and drink a toast to him and all the men who died over there. It didn't matter where we were or whom we were with, we always observed our personal "Memorial Day." While most people thought Dan and I used the anniversary as another excuse to indulge, we just wanted one day to say, "You have not and will not be forgotten."

And so it went. I grew up, settled down, matured and fathered a son. And when my son, who was in fifth grade at the time, started asking me questions about my dad, I realized I didn't have all, or even most, of the answers to his questions. At that point, I decided it was time to learn more about Dad and the life he lived in Nam. I got all the letters written by him and our mother to and from Vietnam, as well as all the records she had saved. I also found out all the units he was in during his two tours. Armed with this information, I started a search on the internet.

I quickly located the 506th web site and discovered - with the help of Mike Bookser (B Co, 1-506th) -- that Dad was probably involved in Lam Son 719 when he was killed. The newspaper article I had from March 1971 stated only that Dad was near FSB Vandergrift when he was hit. Mike also added Dad's name to the Currahee Memorial -- thanks Mike.

Searching deeper into the site, I came across an entry in the guest book by SGT Terry Smith (E Co, 1-506th). SGT Smith was WIA at FSB Vandergrift the day before Dad was killed. Not knowing what to expect, I nervously e-mailed SGT Smith and asked if he might share some recollections about Vandergrift and Lam Son 719. Not only did he respond with his recollections, but he also sent along pictures of the base (one of which Mike B. put on the web site). The power of those pictures remains intense for us, it is as if we are seeing through Dad's eyes. We will always be grateful to Terry for giving us that experience. In addition, he passed my e-mail along to other members of E Co, 1-506th (Stu, Manny, Fernando), and they, too, shared some of their recollections with Dan and me. The more we looked, the more we were helped, and the more we discovered.

Terry then passed along my e-mail to Chris Garrett - after reading his Currahee Newsletter report. Chris then forwarded it to LT Sam Knipmeyer, one of Dad's platoon leaders. I came into work one day and read an e-mail from LT Knipmeyer, and in it he told me how he knew Dad and was there when he was killed. He graciously extended an offer to contact him if I would like to know more. I responded.

LT Knipmeyer wrote back with many remembrances of Dad, including the time Dad was sitting on the berm at FSB Jack reading a package full of Valentine's Day cards made by my entire Kindergarten class (I still remember my class making and sending them). We have since spoken on the phone and continue to correspond through e-mail. He has also given my e-mail address to other members of B Company, and I have received, and continue to receive, e-mails and calls from some of the other men Dad served with (Bob Seitz, John Shepard, Bill Patton, Don Thies). After years of searching, the stories, anecdotes, and insights from the men who knew the soldier were forming a picture of the man that was our Dad. My brother and I would like to offer a heartfelt "Thank You" to all the men who've responded to our inquiries. You have helped us piece together the life of our father in Vietnam. We thank you for ourselves and on behalf of our children.

Our search on the internet has proved to be extremely rewarding. We have learned more in the past six months about our father than we knew in a lifetime of searching. We would like to encourage anyone who is hesitant, to just click open a browser and begin their own search. Make the connection. Never before has so much information been so readily available. And while at times it can be difficult, we have made new friends along the way and discovered a lot about not only Dad and Vietnam, but ourselves as well.

Losing your father at a young age is difficult under any circumstance, but we have always felt blessed that at least, we could look to his service to our country and be proud. Proud to be his sons. Our father is still our hero, but for different reasons now. We have learned about the man, not the "war hero." A man with a job and a family. A man like any other. A man with bills to pay, responsibilities to his family, a strong work ethic, and a sense of duty and honor. Living up to an idealized war hero is hard if not impossible. But knowing you share some of the same values or have some of the same faults brings him closer. Makes him real. Alive.

Let us just say before we go that the Association has a great bunch of guys in it, and it has been a privilege and an honor for us to be able to learn about our father from them. Again, Thank You.

These pages are maintained the
506th Airborne Infantry Regiment Association (Airmobile - Air Assault)
This page updated 04/06/13