The stories of fallen heroes are composed of long lists of “All American Boys.” Young men often went from their high school playing fields to the jungles of Vietnam within a few short months. They, like many heroes before them, gave their lives far from the people they loved and the country they served.
The Struchen family arrived in Warwick Township, Tuscarawas County in the late 1850s with the immigration of Abraham Struchen (1835- bef. 1900) from Switzerland. He married a Pennsylvania woman named Melinda Born (1838-1909) and together they settled down and started a family. Abraham made his living as a coal miner, a trade that would be followed by his son and grandson alike. His great grandson, Melvin Struchen (1917-1958) worked in the clay industry during his lifetime. He married local girl Martha Risher (1917-2004) in 1938 and the couple began their own family with the arrival of a daughter and then a son.
Their son, Thomas Michael Struchen, was born October 1, 1947. The couple was living on West High Avenue in New Philadelphia when, in September 1951, Thomas walked into the path of a pick-up truck driving down the street. Luckily Thomas was not injured beyond a few scrapes and bruises, but it was enough to make the local newspaper. Tragedy struck the family in August 1958 when Melvin, then working as a truck driver, was killed in a horrible accident in Steubenville, Ohio. Martha, Thomas, and his older sister were now on their own.
After the death of her husband, Martha continued to be active in her local church and social groups. The children attended school in New Philadelphia and Thomas, as he matured and entered high school, became a stand-out athlete. Thomas particularly excelled on the basketball court where he played for three of his four years in high school, being named the team’s most valuable player his senior year. Following graduation, Thomas briefly attended Stout State University in Wisconsin before entering the United States Army in April 1968.
Thomas completed his basic training and was then given twelve weeks of advanced training at Fort Knox, Kentucky as an armored intelligence specialist. He was sent to Vietnam in the fall of 1968, arriving there in September, and assigned to A Troop, 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry Regiment (3/5 Cavalry) then attached to the 9th Infantry Division. Thomas, now a Specialist 4, was given duty as an armored personnel carrier driver.
Thomas’s unit took part in a number of operations between his arrival in Vietnam and his death. The 3/5 Cavalry were positioned in northern Quảng Trị Province, close to the DMZ between North and South Vietnam and the border with Laos. The 3/5 Cavalry was assigned to the 5th Infantry Division in February 1969 as planning was underway for an action to make contact and engage with elements of the 27th North Vietnamese Army Regiment known to be operating in the vicinity. This effort was given the name Operation Montana Mauler and was scheduled to begin on March 22, 1969.
The morning of March 22, 1969, A and B Troop of 3/5 Cavalry with infantry support, moved westward into the Khe Chua Valley. The troops searched the small valleys and ridgelines but no enemy contact was made until after 3 pm. Shortly after 3:00, a supporting helicopter spotted two North Vietnamese soldiers in the valley, and another was spotted about an hour later. A couple of hours after, as A Troop approached a crossing site over the Khe Chua River, they were fired upon with rocket propelled grenades. Thomas’s troop returned the fire and killed two enemy soldiers and suffered the loss of one of their own and four others wounded. Afterwards, both troops took up defensive positions for the night.
Just after 2:00 am that night (now March 23, 1969) Thomas’s unit received mortar fire from an unknown enemy position. Later that morning A Troop continued its westward movement into the valley and noticed North Vietnamese troops observing their movements from afar. Troop B rejoined with Troop A around noon and, shortly after, the command post received two periods of sporadic rocket propelled grenade fire. During the second, and last occasion, a grenade struck Thomas’s armored personnel carrier. Thomas was killed and four other American soldiers were wounded.
Thomas’s memorial service was held on April 2, 1969 and he was laid to rest with military honors in the family plot in Evergreen Cemetery later that day. A memorial fund raised enough money to honor Thomas’s service with a new bookshelf at the Tuscarawas County Public Library later that year. His name, as it appears on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, graced the front page of The Times Reporter on Memorial Day 2012.
Click here to read the Combat After Action Report for Operation Montana Mauler.
For more information on the 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry in Vietnam visit: https://3-5cav-blackknights.org/
© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.