When she closes her eyes, she can still see herself with him, dancing. Through the haze of 45 years, in the shelter of her mind, Juanita Chambers is young again and together with her husband. Their arms are wrapped around each other as they twirl and glide across the dance floor, smiling.
“He was a wonderful dancer,” Chambers said. “He led and you followed. And I always had the first dance, I always had the last dance and some in between.”
But that was a long time ago – before the war, before the draft and before an Army chaplain came to Chambers’ house on a cold January afternoon in 1967 to tell her that her husband, Johnny, had been killed in Vietnam.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘I’m too young to be a widow,’ ” Chambers remembered.
On Friday, a group of Chambers’ brothers in arms, family members, other veterans and a group of friends from Montesano High School gathered at Wynooche Cemetery in Montesano to remember the life and memorialize the loss of Army Pfc. Johnny A. Chambers, the first Grays Harbor resident to die in combat in the Vietnam War. Local residents remembered Chambers as an energetic, fun-loving person known for his good looks, lust for life and dancing skill. Those who served with Chambers remembered him not only for his light-hearted nature, but also for the way he helped his fellow soldiers.
Chambers was one in a group of 10 men from Grays Harbor drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. Of the ten men, two were killed in Vietnam and one died many years after the war of a heart attack. The other combat casualty, Cpl. Dennis M. Thompson of Aberdeen, went missing in action Feb. 21, 1967, and was later declared dead. One man from the group, Jim Neeley, formerly of Montesano who now lives in Aberdeen, said Chambers was his best friend growing up, and was “everybody’s best friend” in their unit in the war. Members of Chambers’ unit held a reunion after the service.
During the war, Chambers was assigned to 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, a mechanized infantry unit. Chambers was the driver of a M-113 armored personnel carrier, a “tracked” vehicle. On the afternoon of Jan. 8, 1967, Chambers was driving his track in a column with other tracks of his unit through a rubber plantation.
In their area of the “Iron Triangle” things were relatively peaceful, “When all hell broke lose,” remembered Richard “War Hoop” Miller, who was in the M-113 in front of Chambers when he was hit.
According the Miller, a North Vietnamese Army soldier threw a grenade at Chambers’ vehicle, which snagged onto part of the driver’s hatch, level with Chambers’ head. When the grenade went off, Chambers was blown back into his seat, and suffered serious head injuries, rendering him unconscious instantly. The men in the column returned fire, killing the soldier, and, along with Miller, ran to the track, pulled Chambers out of the driver’s seat and arranged for a medical evacuation. Chambers was taken to an Army field hospital, but his injuries were too severe.
He died four hours after being hit. He was 25 years old.
“John was just one of the best guys I ever met,” Miller said. “He was just a fun guy. He loved his wife very much. We always had fun times together, but when the stuff hit the fan we were always right there with each other, covering each other’s back.”
With the exception of the soldier who accompanied Chambers’ body, none of the soldiers who served with him were able to attend his memorial service. They were still scattered across Vietnam fighting. At the memorial service, Miller saw Chambers’ gravesite for the first time. He said it was difficult.
“I did my tearing this morning at breakfast because I told my wife I didn’t know how I was going to handle it and I wanted Larry and Jim to be with me in case I did break down,” Miller said. “I considered John a good friend.”
Seeing Chambers’ wife for the first time made him stop for a moment.
“It makes you think, ‘How come he went and I didn’t?’ ” Miller said. “It’s survivor’s guilt.”
At the service, Chambers said the service meant a lot to her and to the people in Grays Harbor that knew her husband. Forty-five years later, he is still fresh in her mind.
“I think about him a lot all the time,” Chambers said. “I’ve got a very poor memory now, but I can still see him.”