Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Lieutenant Ralph Foulks: 1-5-68

by Margaret Sizemore Clark

    This simple inscription was on a metal bracelet my sister wore back in the early 1970’s. 
It was kind of a fad to wear one, so a lot of people wore them, but then stuck them in a jewelry box or footlocker and forgot them. To be sure, some of the kids wearing them wore them because “everyone” was, but for a few those names inscribed on the bracelets belonged to real people, and they were worn for the purpose for which they were made: to keep POW’s and MIA’s in the forefront of people’s minds.

    My sister is one of those people.  In remodeling her home this week, she was going through boxes of things that had been moved several times, but now needed to be seriously thinned out.  In her jewelry box she found her bracelet and wondered what had become of that serviceman.  Had he been found?  Did he return home after the war?  Had he been a POW?  More importantly, where could she find out how to return her bracelet to Lt. Foulkes or a family member?  Her questions started a chain of events that that resulted in nothing short of a modern-day miracle. I assigned that status because had she tried to make her inquiries during one of her previous moves, the bracelet could not have revealed its story. The information wasn’t there, and if it was, she would have to have gotten permission to see it and probably would have to have personally gone wherever it was kept to actually view it. Additionally, the information held some surprises for us as well as some of those people who were able to find the information that was needed.

    The Vietnam War ushered in a scary time for those of us who had been born after the Korean Conflict. We had known nothing put peace and safety during our young lives, but the advent of television brought the brutality and violence of Vietnam right into our living rooms every night. Thousands of men and women, some of whom we knew, were being sent to Vietnam to fight a war that was extremely unpopular with the public. Those of us who lived through those years can recall the protests, riots, and marches, and young men burning their draft cards. The numbers of those killed, wounded, or missing in action were in all the newspapers and magazines. All this turmoil was directed at the government with the clear message: the United States needed to get out of Vietnam.  

    A couple of college students, Carol Bates and Kay Hunter, wanted to DO something positive, but what?  They tossed around ideas that weren’t met with much enthusiasm by other students or the public, but they persisted.  They went to meetings and talked with others who felt the need to do something to support the families and friends of those who were killed or lost.  At one of these meetings, they met Bob Dornan, a former fighter pilot who had survived two ejections and now was a vehemently anti-Communist television talk show host.  He was wearing a bracelet he had received from a Montagnard tribesman in Vietnam.  The Montagnards were an Indigenous minority who fought alongside American Special Forces, which made them a target of the Communist People’s Army.  His bracelet was made from the metal of crashed aircraft and it had the word “Montagnard” inscribed on it. The tribesman had asked Dornan to wear the bracelet while “thinking of my suffering people who are being murdered and killed by the Communists.  Do not take it off, till my people are free.” Dornan vowed he would not.

    The idea of inscribing the name, rank, and date of loss on a metal bracelet hit a chord with the girls and started the ball rolling, but it wasn’t an instant success. There were those who were concerned about what would become of the money the bracelets made, and who would manage it. Some of the families of the lost service people didn’t want their loved-one’s names being used without their permission.  Over the months the objections were ironed out. Carol Bates and Kay Hunter met Gloria Coppin, a wealthy Los Angeles socialite, the adult advisor of VIVA (Voices In Vital America), and she joined their cause.  She supplied her checkbook and tireless energy to further the cause of making and distributing the bracelets. Gloria’s husband donated enough metal to make 1,200 bracelets, and the girls found an engraver, Jack Zelder, who agreed to make prototypes of the bracelets. The bracelets caught on, orders started pouring in, and the demand increased. Nearly 5 million were sold, and notable persons such as John Wayne, Johnny Cash, Fred Astaire, and Billy Graham started wearing a bracelet.  

    My sister’s bracelet carried the name of Lt. Ralph Foulks, a Navy pilot.  He was shot down on January 5, 1968 but that’s the last the family heard about him.  No wreckage of his plane could be confirmed. 

    The war ended in 1973 and soldiers began returning home to a country that wasn’t interested in hailing them as heroes.  These soldiers had “lost” the war and it stung.  Everyone would just as soon forget Vietnam and move on, but not everyone did.  Several organizations were born over the years that wanted closure for all the service people that didn’t come home.  They wanted answers and slowly they were able to get the information they needed from military records, and the periodic return of remains of service people to the United States. Lt. Foulks’s remains were repatriated in 1988, but authorities were unable to positively identify the remains of Lt. Foulks until 1993. 

    When she discovered her bracelet my sister put a picture of it on Facebook, hoping to get an idea of where to start looking for any family of Lt. Foulks that might be living, with the goal of returning the bracelet to his family.  Within minutes she received replies from several classmates from high school that knew where to go for such information.  One classmate was able to find a website that could match the bracelet to Lt. Foulks’s family.  Another classmate was able to find that the lieutenant’s remains had been discovered and returned. He also learned that Lt. Foulkes’s city of residence was given as Ridgecrest, the town located outside the gates that guarded Naval Ordinance Test Station. It was where our father worked and where we had been raised.  (Lt. Foulks’s sister told me that her brother had graduated from the high school we had attended, and that he had played on the tennis team!  

    Those helping to garner this information had also gone to the same high school.) Next, a friend of my sister found yet a third website that provided contact information for the sister of the lieutenant, but it was from 2006.  My sister wrote to the email anyway and received an immediate reply from her!  When my sister told her what she had, Lt. Foulks’s sister was surprised.  She recounted the day when she was 12 years old, and the Navy chaplain had come to the door to inform her mother that her brother had been lost in action.  She told my sister that she thinks of her brother every day and she was very appreciative to get the bracelet.  In just a matter of hours, thanks to the skills and knowledge of several people, the needed information was gathered that would allow the bracelet to complete its journey home. The technology and websites that exist in 2024 allowed all the connections to be pieced together, thirty-one years after the return of the lieutenant’s remains, and 56 years after he was lost. That is a miracle!

    I contacted Lieutenant Foulks’s sister, and she graciously agreed to allow me to tell the bracelet’s story. She also supplied a few details about her brother and other members of her family, such as their father was serving in Pearl Harbor the day it was bombed.  Another of Lt. Foulks’s sisters was one of the first 16 ‘experimental’ women accepted into ROTC and went on to retire as a commander.  She explained that Lt. Foulkes’s medals and Vietnam paperwork are being donated to Naval Air Station Pensacola, and that Lt. Foulkes, along with both of his parents, are interred at Barrancas National Cemetery.  The pride and tradition of service to the United States was evident by the profuse thanks Lt. Foulks’s sister gave my sister and me.

    My sister summed up the experience best. “It does my heart good to know my bracelet made it back to where it belongs.” 

    I would like to recognize and thank Coronado Magazine and Taylor Baldwin Kiland for the facts they supplied describing the story behind the POW and MIA bracelets.  Additionally, my sister and I would like to acknowledge and thank Kitty Reeve, Michael Peacock, Linda Blake, and Stephen Harrison for providing their expertise in knowing where to start looking, locating military information, providing the answers to what happened to Lt. Foulks, and finally, where to return the bracelet.


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