Editor's note: This is the eleventh in a series of stories profiling the veterans of Whitfield and Murray counties who lost their lives during the Vietnam War.
Jerry Williams and his wife, the former Carol Beavers, rushed to his parents' home to tell them the good news – he had passed the exams to go to work for Western Electric and they would be moving to Atlanta. His mother rejoiced with them and gave him his mail. It was his draft notice.
Army Sgt. Kenneth Jerry Williams, 23, initially listed as missing in action (MIA) in Vietnam, was killed in combat on Feb. 2, 1968, in My Tho of Dinh Tuong Province. He had been in-country for around four months, and was the son of Joseph Isaac and Lovel Buchanan Williams. Jerry served in a light weapons unit, A Company in the 47th Infantry, 4th Battalion of the 9th Infantry Division. He is buried in West Hill Cemetery.
Jerry died from multiple fragmentation wounds during a hostile action, according to honorstates.org. The Coffelt Database of Vietnam Casualties stated his death came “from wounds received while on combat operation when (his) unit was hit by hostile rocket.”
A 1963 graduate of Valley Point High School, Jerry was involved with FFA, FBLA, Spanish Club, played B-team basketball, was a senior fullback on the Green Wave football team and ran track. He also served on School Patrol. Carol, a 1965 Valley Point grad, said they met in high school.
“Jerry was a nice guy – he'd do anything in the world for anybody,” she said, adding she is still friends with his family to this day.
Jerry's sister, Sandra, was 18 months younger.
“He was a good person and did everything for anybody that needed something done. The biggest thing between us is that we always fought over who was going to do the dishes!” she said with a laugh. “I had gotten married, but was still here when he got killed … Everybody loved him, he never got in with the wrong crowd. When he graduated from school, he went right on into working with Dalton Utilities.”
Younger by eight years, Rick said of his older brother, “He was my hero, I was his shadow.”
“Jerry was born in Gilmer County (Ellijay) in 1944, (and) all my ancestors are buried at Clear Creek Baptist Church,” Rick said of family history. “The Homer Wright farm was my great-granddaddy's farm, Homer was a cousin. Mother and Daddy moved to Dalton in 1948, when Jerry would have been 4. They moved to Old Rome Road below Dalton, there's a little church there now, where the old Peach State Motel used to be (on Dixie Highway). I was born in 1952. The family later moved further down Highway 41.”
When the brothers were both young, they did what boys in the country do – “rode bicycles, swam in creeks, things like that.”
“Once Jerry got a car, I went everywhere with him if he'd let me go,” Rick recalled. “Growing up, Daddy was always working and Jerry was more like a daddy to me. I stayed with him all the time. Daddy started a carpet mill and yarn mill there close to the house, and Jerry worked down there. Jerry was kinda the rock of the family, even among the uncles and aunts and everybody. He was the oldest grandchild and everybody just depended on him.”
'Like it happened yesterday'
Rick was asked about Jerry getting the draft notice.
“I remember it like it happened yesterday,” he said. “He and Carol Sue got married on Aug. 10, 1963, and they had been married a few years. He had worked around here, and there wasn't any jobs that paid any money back then. (There was) a man that worked for Southern Bell, and they encouraged Jerry to go to Atlanta and apply to work for them. He went down there and had to do some testing, and he had gotten hired at Western Electric, which was part of Southern Bell back then.
“I'll never forget he came home that afternoon, and he was very excited. Him and Carol came to Mother's house to tell her he had gotten the job, and they were fixin' to move to Atlanta. And when he got there Mother handed him his mail – it was his draft notice.”
The boys and Sandra had an uncle who was a captain in the Army, and he told Jerry to go talk to a recruiter because there might be a possibility he could get deferred from serving, Rick recalled.
“The recruiter said if you'll enlist we'll put you in communications and Western Electric will hold your job until you get out,” he relayed. “You'll be in for three years, but you'll be getting all the training. So he enlisted for three years. He went through AIT (advanced infantry training) and all that, and was trained in communications … then they changed the entire communication company, their MOS (military occupational specialty) to infantry. He came home from (deploying to) Germany, then they sent him to Vietnam.”
Rick said Army officials told Jerry that by enlisting he wouldn't be deployed to Vietnam.
“Daddy tried to get him out because it was a breach of contract,” he said. “But Jerry wouldn't do it. He said all these other guys got to go, so I've got to go too. So he went.”
Sandra said Jerry had written Mother a letter that said, “'Whatever happens, God has the key to turn. So whichever way he turns it, that's the way it will be.' So it's like he was expecting trouble.”
Confusion at home
Rick, who was 15 at the time, said the family hadn't heard from Jerry in awhile.
“We used to get letters from him every day or every other day – and he said he'd been out in the field and they'd come in to be in for awhile,” he recalled. “Then another letter said they had to go out again, and he'd finish (the letter) later. And he never finished it.”
Then one day an Army major from Chattanooga arrived.
“We knew something bad (happened), when an Army man shows up at your door,” Rick said. “They said he was missing in action (and) they didn't know where he was. So we rocked along there a week or two and hadn't heard anything, then all of a sudden we get a letter in the mail from a guy who wasn't actually on the mission. And in the letter he kept saying (of Jerry), 'He was … he was' (in the past tense), you know, 'He was a great guy' (and) 'He was a friend of mine.'”
An anxious chain of letters began.
“So we wrote him back and said, 'What do you mean, 'he was'?” Rick continued. “He came back and said, 'I'm sorry, I thought y'all would have known by now.'
"They had went out on a maneuver on (what) he called half-tracs, and they went up a road and the guy that was on the mission, who finished the letter to my parents, said they got off the tracs and into the woods and the tracs went on up the road. When they called the tracs back, rockets came at them out of a rice paddy and the guy said they dove back into the woods. The guy said, 'I saw (Jerry) jump, he jumped when I did. I crawled through the woods back to the base, and I never saw him again.' The guy said he didn't think Jerry got hit, but he got hit with some shrapnel that killed him. That was how he died. It was a very big blow when he got killed.”
Army officials eventually confirmed Jerry's death.
“After my dad confronted them with that letter – he had blacked out the (sender's) name so they wouldn't know who sent it, because he wasn't supposed to have done it,” he said. “The guys (in the unit) had agreed that if anything happened to any of them, they would contact the family.”
Rick remembered they couldn't have Jerry's funeral until mid-March. Carol also noted his body “didn't come home for awhile.”
“He was in the Tet Offensive and he was killed that weekend,” she said. “Charles Beavers (also killed in Vietnam in October 1967) is my double-first cousin, and he and Jerry had been communicating – Charles was in the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and Jerry was in the delta.”
Of Jerry missing in action, Carol said, “They have to tell you that until they check everything. They had so many (U.S. troops) killed at one time, like 500 of them, and they took awhile to get them all processed.”
Sandra called the news “devastating.”
“When they told us he was dead (after being missing), it was hard to take. You just don't know what you're going to do when you get that news, and it's devastating,” she said through tears. “Ricky was younger, and he took it really hard too.”
'Small act of kindness'
Jerry's memorial service at Love Funeral Home was packed.
“Everybody came,” Sandra recalled. “Everybody in the church loved Jerry, everybody from school. He was just a really loved person, he never made anybody mad. We had a very big outpouring at the funeral home, it was kinda overrun, but we pretty much expected that.”
Rick added, “The fact that he was killed in the line of duty in Vietnam added to a lot of it. At the time, Love's (staff) said that was the most flower arrangements they'd ever had at a funeral. When the funeral procession went down to West Hill (Cemetery), they were asking people to double up in cars because of the length.
"And it wasn't just Jerry, it was based on the fact there was a lot of sentiment about the Vietnam War. There was a lot of people there that knew him, but probably didn't know him that personally. But he was a Vietnam vet, and he was the rock of our family – we had a bunch of cousins, and we were all close. It just devastated all of us. Even the cousins never got over it. He was the oldest, and everybody looked up to him and followed him.”
Juanita Wells Burnette worked at Dalton Utilities where Jerry was a meter reader.
“He was a super nice guy,” she said. “He told some of us if he went to Vietnam he didn't think he would make it back. (It was) so sad for his wife, Carol, and family.”
BJ Wright said Jerry seemed immune to peer pressure.
“Jerry sat behind me in a class at Valley Point,” she remembered. “I dropped a big armful of books once and he helped me pick them up – with the other guys teasing him all the time. He was a sweet guy. I was sorry when I heard he was killed in Vietnam. I immediately recalled his small act of kindness in helping me with the books.”
Rick said, “I'm just glad these guys are getting some notice, because they didn't get any back then. Even the ones that came back, they were very badly treated.”
Sgt. Kenneth Jerry Williams' commendations include a Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, Marksmanship Badge, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Army Presidential Unit Citation, Vietnam Gallantry Cross and Army Good Conduct Medal, according to honorstates.org.
'Jerry was everybody's friend'
By Charlene Ruddell, Dalton
My family moved to Dalton, two houses from the Williams' home, in 1956. Shortly after, my father and pastor of a small church, Charles Moulton, visited the family and invited them to join us in worship the next Sunday. This was the beginning of our friendship with the family of five, who to this day are more like family than just friends.
Jerry was everybody's friend! He served as the Bus Patrol on our school bus, maintaining discipline among the students, assisting small children on and off the bus and making sure they safely crossed the roads, as necessary. His love of working with children didn't end there. He was always available and willing to help with any children's event involving the church, Temple Baptist, then located on City View Street.
While a young teen, Jerry was baptized in Anderson's Lake off Cleveland Highway, the same Sunday afternoon in 1957 as his sister, Sandra, and several others who had joined the church during the annual Vacation Bible School. He often filled in as the music director for church services. As pastor, my father often said that any time he asked Jerry to lead the music, he would respond with “I'll try.”
One song he almost always chose to lead was an older hymn, “We'll Work Till Jesus Comes.” Following his death, the church purchased new pulpit furniture featuring a plaque “In Memory of Jerry Williams” and also adopted “We'll Work Till Jesus Comes” as the official church song. Jerry was learning to play the piano and could play quite well, as I often heard him practicing. His sister, Sandra, became best friends with my sister, Carol, and me. We spent many hours playing at their home.
Jerry was like an older brother to us, as well. I remember how he loved working on bicycles. He seemed to be able to repair or improve anyone's bicycle, and did it with pleasure. As we grew into teenagers, Jerry purchased the neatest car I thought I'd ever seen – a black 1963 Ford Galaxy 500 with a high-performance, 390-cubic-inch engine and that had been converted from an automatic to a four-speed floor shift.
Dalton had its own version of “American Graffiti” before the movie was released, dragging Main Street (Hamilton Street in downtown Dalton) traveling south to circle the Dairy Queen, then located at the first traffic light coming into Dalton on Highway 41 South, then back to Main Street traveling north to the Chow Time located on Glenwood Avenue, and then around and around. Somehow, riding in that bulky, souped-up Galaxy made you feel like you existed in those days.
Jerry was a true “Southern gentleman,” and also a “gentle man.” He wore a smile continuously. There was calmness about him that everyone could feel when in his presence. Our loss is Heaven's gain.
'Jerry's name was on the list'
When Jerry got orders to go to Germany before deploying to Vietnam, Carol went with him.
“(It was) for about a year, but he was never there, they were out in the field all the time,” she said, noting they were married for four-and-a-half years. “We lived in Viernheim near the Army base at Frankfurt. When the men were out in the field training, many of their wives would come over because they knew I would make homemade biscuits.”
Carol remembers how she found out Jerry had been killed.
“A Maj. Wilhoyt from Chattanooga came down to the house,” she said. “It was weird – and people will think I'm crazy when I tell you this – but I had dreams about it the night before. It was like a premonition, and I got up and told my mother, 'Jerry got killed last night.' She said I was just watching too much TV and stuff, but I knew. I dreamed where he was at, how he was killed and the whole nine yards, the area he was in, the delta, and all that. I said I think maybe it's just God's warning me, I don't know.”
Larry Siniard was with Jerry in boot camp and also through AIT (advanced infantry training), and then in signal school at Fort Gordon (Georgia). They were both assigned to the 197th (Mechanized) Infantry Brigade when they arrived in Germany.
“We'd sit around and write letters home, go to the movies, go to the PX and talk about bringing our wives over,” said Larry, a lifelong Cartersville resident. “Jerry was a good old guy, he was a good friend. He was easygoing and never got upset about anything; his personality was the same every day. I never saw him get ill at anybody.”
Then Larry got an unenviable, but necessary, task.
“Jerry had made E-5 (enlisted rank of sergeant), which is a squad leader,” Larry said. “Each squad had an APC (armored personnel carrier) and they were getting us ready to go to Vietnam … Every month they would post on a bulletin board people who were going to 'Nam, and you could go and see if your name was on a list. I remember the particular day that I went up there and looked, and Jerry's name was on the list. He wasn't there that day, he was on guard duty or something. They asked me if I would go tell him.”
Larry went to where Jerry and Carol lived in off-base housing.
“I remember going over there and I told him he had orders to go to Vietnam,” he said. “I'm sure it bothered him, although he didn't seem real upset about it. But Carol lost it. I remember her saying, 'You'll never come back!' He tried to encourage her and tell her he would (come back).”
Carol saw to it that a Black soldier – one of Jerry's drill sergeants in boot camp – was not overlooked when he attended the funeral.
“I had (the funeral home staff) put him up front with us,” she recalled. “I said, 'I don't want you in the back of the building, I want you up here with us.'”
When he heard Jerry had been killed, probably from Carol calling him, Larry “reflected back to all the time we'd spent together.”
“It hit home, rather than hearing about somebody you didn't know getting killed,” he said. “I lost a good friend.”
Other memories of Jerry Williams
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Wall of Faces
“Jerry was one of the most dedicated Christians I ever met. He was so good to the core … The troops he led down countless jungle trails followed in his footsteps. Knowing Jerry, he probably was taking the lead and first steps ahead of his men to protect their lives. (He was a) true hero that gave his life to protect his men.”
“(Jerry) was a schoolmate of me and my siblings. He was best friends with my sister, and was married to a good friend of ours, Carol Beavers Williams. Jerry was a truly good guy and it was an honor to have known him. God be with you, RIP my friend.”
E. Faye Stanley Fowler
“Rest with the warriors in heaven. Thank you, Sarge.”
Find A Grave
“Sir, thank you for your courage. Rest.”
Other memories can be read at vvmf.org/wall-of-faces.