Fallen Heroes: Specialist 5 James B. Alexander

The first Tuscarawas County soldier to lose his life in Vietnam was not some young-faced draftee straight out of high school. He was a career soldier who had served in two previous wars and been wounded in battle once. His death, and those that died with him that day, would bring the Vietnam War into the consciousness of America.

James B. Alexander, Senior (1901-c. 1955) was born in North Carolina. His father and relatives had worked on farms in North Carolina during the latter half of the 19th century, perhaps even on land their ancestors had worked on as enslaved persons. James on the other hand moved to Norfolk, Virginia where, in 1920 at the age of 19, he was working as a longshoreman for a railroad. Perhaps it was the railroad that ultimately brought him to Tuscarawas County sometime in the early 1920s because, by the spring of 1925, it was recorded that he was a passenger in a vehicle that accidently struck and killed a woman in Midvale.

Around the same time of the incident above, James was working at the sewer pipe factory in Dennison and had met a local girl named Ida Olmstead (1909-1995) who he went on to marry. The couple would have eight children by 1940 and the eldest, a son, they named James B. Alexander, Junior (1925-1965). James, Sr. was employed at the sewer pipe factory for many years and, in 1941, put together a softball team composed of other black employees and sponsored by the United Brick and Clay Workers Local No. 490. They named the team “The 490”.

James Alexander, circled, on the 1944 Dennison High School football team. (Source: ancestry.com)

The younger James, attended schools in Dennison throughout his education. James turned 18 in the fall of 1943 and, like many other young men his age, registered for the draft. James played football for Dennison High School throughout his studies there and graduated in the spring of 1944. Shortly after graduating he enlisted in the United States Army and was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training. Based on his later service it is likely that he was trained for, and served in, a transportation unit during the latter years of World War Two.

Perhaps seeing military service as a career, James reenlisted in the Army in 1950. Shortly after reenlisting he was sent to fight in Korea. Few details emerge from the record about his service in Korea, but he was working close enough to combat operations to become wounded. James was wounded during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in the early part of December 1950 and was not able to return to duty until late January 1951. When he returned home from Korea is not entirely clear but it must have been sometime in early 1952 because, in March 1952, he married Waltress L. Sims (1926-?) in Canton, Ohio. There is very little information available on his marriage to Waltress, but her family had been living in West Virginia in 1940. Her mother, then a widow, did general housework for a private family and raising ten children with the help of her eldest daughters.

James would continue his service in the United States Army during the 1950s, learning to work on a variety of military vehicles and moving from post to post as the army required. By the end of the 1950s he was stationed in Germany and whether or not Waltress was with him is undocumented. Regardless, at some point during the decade the couple separated. James was then transferred to service with the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1960. There he would meet his second wife, Dorothy Gooden (1934-2020), and they would marry in September 1961.

Still image from a French television news report on the bombing of the Qui Nhon Barracks that killed James Alexander, February 1965. (Source: https://iht-retrospective.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/10/1965-bomb-hits-g-i-barracks/)

After his marriage to Dorothy, James Alexander was transferred again, this time to Fort Hood in Texas where the US Army was beginning to prepare helicopter units and crews for service in Vietnam. Specialist 5 Alexander, with almost twenty years under his belt, was assigned to one of the first helicopter maintenance units sent to Vietnam. That unit was the 140th Transportation Brigade, a part of US Army Support Command, where James was now repairing and maintaining helicopters. He arrived in Vietnam in May 1964.

The 140th was supporting the 117th Assault Helicopter Company and the 8th Transportation Company’s operations in Qui Nhon, Vietnam. The primary role of these units in 1964 was transporting Vietnamese Army troops, resupplying posts, picking up North Vietnamese prisoners, and performing medical evacuations when needed. James Alexander, and his men, were kept busy keeping the units flying. While most of the troops were stationed and housed at an Army post called Camp Goldberg, Alexander and 59 men of the 140th were housed in a hotel in Qui Nhon named the Viet Cuong Hotel.

The United States escalated its aerial bombardments of North Vietnam throughout 1964 and into 1965. Vietnamese guerillas attacked an American installation on the 6th and 7th of February 1965 as retaliation. The United States responded by launching more airstrikes against North Vietnam, called Operation Flaming Dart. The Viet Cong decided to strike another American target, and on the evening of February 10, 1965 they attacked the Viet Cuong Hotel. Two of the guerillas were killed by machine-gun fire from an Army sentry on the hotel roof, but others managed to kill the South Vietnamese guards outside the hotel. They then placed explosive charges at the main door and next to the staircase, which provided the main structural support for the building. The subsequent explosion caused the entire hotel to collapse to the ground. There were 21 members of the 140th Transportation Detachment killed, including James Alexander, Jr.

The bombing of the hotel barracks made national headlines and was one of the first times that the Vietnam War was brought into the living rooms of Americans. James Alexander, Jr. was four months from retirement when he was killed, leaving behind a wife and young daughter. He is buried in Union Cemetery, Uhrichsville.

James Alexander’s headstone at Union Cemetery, Uhrichsville. (Source: findagrave.com)

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© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.


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