James Alton Gardner
Date of Birth: February 7, 1943
Date of Death: February 7, 1966 -- in Vietnam from hostile action.
Age: 23 years young.
Interred: Fairview Cemetery in Dyersburg, TN - View or Post a Eulogy
James Gardner was born in Dyersburg, Tennessee on 7 February 1943. He was recruited as a football player for West Point by Coach Tony Bullotta along with a number of other promising talents from Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. He played plebe football as an undersized interior lineman/fullback. He was most notable for his humor, red hair and foot-speed.
Jim attended Dyersburg High School in Dyersburg, Tennessee where he was a star athlete, in the 4-H and sometimes a prankster. Janie Putnam, Jim’s 4-H advisor, recalls a time when rounding up the energetic boys after swimming in a lake observed Jim staying with his friend, Bert, who had reduced swimming ability. Jim accompanied the young boy safely to shore and Janie believes that but for Jim’s action his friend would not have been able to return to shore. It was a good thing Jim stayed with Bert. Burt returned the favor some time later by introducing Jim to his first cousin, Joella, the girl Jim eventually married.
His contact with the Class of '65 started at Messick High School in Memphis, TN where he met Eddy Dye while dating his sweetheart, Joella Garner, who he eventually married. Jim took his entrance exam for West Point at Fort Campbell, KY with John Pickler and John McCullough in the spring of 1960 and started his short cadet career in Second New Cadet Company in the same squad as Bob Doughty. Eddy Dye remembers the march to Camp Buckner at the end of Beast where he and Jim swam out to the big rock in Lake Frederick and talked about personal feelings.
After Beast Barracks, Jim was assigned to A-2 where he roomed with Jerry Lipsit. Jerry remembers him being a really dedicated cadet but lonesome for his sweetheart, Joella. Jim left the Academy before the end of Plebe year but didn’t give up his dedication to the Army.
In 1964 Jim joined OCS Class 4-64, 52nd Company (OC), 5th Student Battalion, Fort Benning, Georgia where he excelled in sports and military aptitude. He “maxed” the PT test … twice … and was an excellent marksman with the M-14. He was a star on the intramural flag 4-64 football team (football at OCS was anything but “flag” with the Benning games being just short of semi-pro) justifying the talent Coach Bullotta saw in him 5 years before.
During the OCS days Jim’s room was across the hall from Jack Easton who recalls the lonely weekends when they were both tied to the barracks for some foolish TAC Officer minor infraction. They would trade or exchange “how sad I am” stories as they shined boots or immersed themselves in brain drain infantry nonsense… such as the range of the .50 cal machine gun, etc., etc. They traveled together to Auburn, Alabama in Jim’s brand new red Triumph TR6. The top was always down on the weekends after they had turned “OCS Blue.” After OCS, Jim and Jack were Ranger buddies throughout the entire Ranger School training cycle and stick buddies through jump school. Jim was always conscious of the fact he was commissioned a year ahead of his West Point Class.
After Airborne training Jim joined the 101st Airborne Division. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 327th Infantry, 1st Brigade in Vietnam. Jim was in operation Gibraltar and shortly thereafter organized and was the first commander of the 1/327 Infantry’s elite Tiger Force. He led the Tiger Force with skill and without fear or concern for his personal safety while always concerned for the safety and well-being of his paratroopers. On his 23rd birthday, 7 February 1966, Jim distinguished himself in combat earning the Medal of Honor while leading his Tiger Force near My Canh. Jim’s platoon sergeant, Phill Belden, wrapped Jim’s body in a poncho liner and then wrapped himself in one next to him and watched over his friend and leader all night until the medevacs were able to land in the morning. Jack Easton was not surprised to hear Jim distinguished himself as he considered Jim one of the most “gun-ho” OCS candidates on record.
Jim is in good company. Two other OCS classmates, 1LT Joseph X. Grand (posthumous) and 1LT Ronald E. Ray, and one West Point classmate, CPT Paul Bucha, were also Medal of Honor recipients.
Jim was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame on 29 June 2006 at a ceremony at Fort Benning, Georgia and his Medal of Honor was donated to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) on 14 August 2009. It is displayed at the Headquarters’ Atrium in its Hall of Heroes. A bowling center at Fort Campbell, an athletic field at Fort Benning, the National Guard Armory in Dyersburg and a primary conference room at the Pentagon are fittingly named after James Alton Gardner.
James Alton Gardner is survived by his widow, Joella Gardner McManus of Huntsville, AL, his sister, Lynda Gardner-Park, and niece, Kimberly Pruitt. Kimberly never knew her uncle, Jim Gardner, though she read about him and heard stories from her grandmother. Kimberly, this is dedicated to you and all the others who never knew the people who touched their lives through their dedication to their family, friends and the Nation.
Be thou at peace.