|Clair Thurston and his several classmates in the 173d Airborne Brigade had just arrived in Vietnam when they got word
of Charlie Hutchison’s death in the Dominican Republic, half a world away. The news was shocking in itself but it also
served to heighten their awareness of their own vulnerability now that they too were in a combat zone. Even so, not
one of them could have imagined that in less than six months Clair and David Ugland would become the Class of ‘64’s
second and third fallen warriors.
On 5 May 1965 the “Sky Soldiers” of the 173d began arriving at the Ben Hoa Air Base as it became the first major U.S.
Army combat unit to fight in Vietnam. Its mission was to defend the vital complex of bases around Saigon. The brigade
did so by clearing threatening areas in the vicinity and within four months it had also penetrated War Zone D (north of
Ben Hoa) three times and flown to the Central Highlands for operations.
The “Sky Soldiers” began Operation Hump (so named because the troops had just gone over the hump – the halfway point of
their one-year tour of duty in Vietnam) in the dangerous “Iron Triangle” area on 5 November. On 8 November the First
Battalion, 503d Infantry engaged a regiment of NVA (North Vietnamese Army) in what was to be the heaviest fighting of
the war up to that time. It was later identified as the Q-761 Regiment and was estimated to be four to five times the
strength of the 1/503d that fought it.
It wasn’t long before B Company was pinned down by heavy enemy fire from its left flank. Second Lieutenant Clair Thurston,
one of the company’s platoon leaders, volunteered to lead his platoon around the flank of the hostile machine guns with the
objective of seizing a key hill. Even though he was only twenty-two years old, he had already experienced almost six months
of combat with the 173d Airborne Brigade’s search and destroy operations and had been wounded by grenade fragments just one
month before. His only thought that day, 8 November 1965, was to imspire his troops to accomplish the mission. Leading his
men in the attack, Clair took pains to maintain his own position between his soldiers and the enemy at all times. When he
was ready, he rose and gave the classic infantry order, “FOLLOW ME!” and led the assault on the hill. Just thirty feet from
his objective, he came under direct enemy fire, was hit, and died instantly. For his actions he was posthumously awarded the
Distinguished Service Cross, our nation’s second highest combat medal. Clair’s other decorations include the Purple Heart
with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and several Vietnamese service and campaign awards. John “Dutch”
Holland, one of the men on the ground with Clair that fateful day later said, “Lt. Thurston was very respected by all the
enlisted paratroopers and proved to be a real man when it was required. He was very baby-faced and non-physical looking but
in my memory he was as brave a man as I’ve ever met!”
Word of Clair’s death quickly spread throughout the battalion area. Bob Gregson, who was wounded in the same battle, was
devastated when he heard the bad news. He and Clair were like brothers, having gone through “Beast Barracks” and later
being cadet roommates. They even had shared a house together in Okinawa.
Somewhat later, the following article, “I’m Sorry, Sergeant, the Lieutenant Is Dead,” by Sergeant J. W. Ryan, was published
in The Pentagram News:
The operator answered, “Bravo switch, Sir.”
“Let me speak to Lieutenant Thurston please. ….”
“I’m sorry, Sir… Lieutenant Thurston is dead. …”
In this way I learned of the death of Clair H. Thurston, 2d Lieutenant, Infantry, 173d Airborne Brigade. The first time I
met Lieutenant Thurston I was lying very close to the ground on a landing zone just south of the Dong Nai River as Viet Cong
snipers took pot shots at his platoon. It was the first enemy fire I had experienced and it seemed as though every shot was
directed at me. He was running in a low crouch from man to man checking his platoon and was startled to see my unfamiliar
face. “Who are you?” he inquired.
“Brigade PIO, Sir, I’m going to record what I can of this operation.” I indicated a portable tape recorder and the
microphone attached to my pack suspenders.
He grinned and shook his head, “O.K., glad to have you along.” During the next three days, I followed him. I recorded the
briefings he gave his squad leaders, and bit by bit I remembered the things I had learned as an infantryman several years
before, but had little use for them as a writer in the information office.
We hacked through the dense jungle and for one stretch we never saw the sky for twelve hours. When the operation was over
and we emerged from the darkness of the forest in to the blinding sunlight of the landing zone he checked to ensure that
every man had all his equipment. He came up to me and apologized for not being able to give me more time and suggested that
I drop in at his company and chat further with him. Then he indicated an incoming flight of extraction helicopters and told
me not to miss my ride.
Months passed and the next time I saw him he was the one lying very close to the ground. The back of his trousers had been
cut away and a medic was dressing his buttocks and the back of his leg that had been literally peppered with shrapnel.
He remembered me and we joked about the first time we had met and he confided that he had been as worried as I had when the
shooting started. We had both seen considerable enemy fire in the months that separated the two meetings. He explained his
present position by telling me how clumsy he had been in tripping a booby trap.
“Well,” he quipped, “At least I’ll have a chance to sit around for a while and recuperate.” Then he winced as the medic
applied bandages, “No, I guess I won’t sit after all,” he chuckled and the medics picked up the stretcher an d began to carry
him to the waiting medical evacuation helicopter. “Nice to see you again Sergeant,” he called back from his awkward position
on the litter.
I never saw him again after that. He was a young man, four years younger than I. Younger even than my kid brother who
always seemed to be of another generation. Age is peculiar thing in Vietnam, however, it can be measured from the instant
you hear the first hostile shot fired. In that respect, Lieutenant Thurston and I were the same age.
As soldiers, we were born at the same time on the landing zone a few miles across the river from War Zone D in Vietnam. He
died on the other side of the river, charging a Viet Cong machine gun position. He would be glad to know that 394 Viet Cong
died that day opposing his battalion.
I am proud to have known him.
Clair Thurston died as he lived, a soldier’s soldier. He and David Ugland were two of fifty “Sky Soldiers” slain during that
day’s furious battle that also left eighty-two wounded. The enemy Q-761 Regiment left almost 400 of its men on the battle
field. Losing two of its finest on the same day was a severe blow for West Point’s Class of 1964. the next time such a
double tragedy would occur would be a little over two years later when Mike Kiley and Hal Kaufman would perish, also while
serving with the 173d. Clair Thurston was interred with full military honors at the West Point Cemetery on 10 November 1965,
the first Vietnam casualty of his class to be buried in Section Thirty-four of the cemetery, an area that would later become
heavily populated with other victims of that conflict.
It is said that there is nothing more devastating for parents than the loss of a child. Needless to say, it is all the worse
when the young victim is the parents’ only child. Such was the heartbreak of Clair’s parents, Colonel Clair H. Thurston (who
would later become major general, U.S. Army Reserve, and the adjutant general of the state of Maine) and his wife, Agnes.
They were as proud of their son as parents could be,for Clair, Jr., excelled in everything he ever did. Born in Lampasas,
Texas, on 20 June 1943, Clair was to attend schools in Texas, Virginia, New York, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Germany as the
army moved his father around. He achieved outstanding scholastic results in all of them and in 1960 he graduated at the top
of his class from the American High School in Heidelberg, Germany, receiving the Bausch and Lomb award for scientific
excellence and the Heidelberg American Women’s Club award for outstanding achievement.
Since his earliest childhood Clair had been determined to follow a military career so he also devoted a lot of time to his
physical development and athletic prowess in order to be a well-rounded candidate for the United States Military Academy.
His lofty credentials led to several scholarship offers to civilian colleges which he turned down in favor of an appointment
to West Point from Senator Margaret Chase Smith from his parents’ home state of Maine. He also won a presidential
appointment which he did not accept so that it could be used by someone else.
Despite his youth (he had just turned seventeen two weeks prior to arrival), Clair mad e a rapid adjustment to the demands
of the academy. He was in the same “Beast Barracks” squad as David Ugland, Dee Stone, Larry Brewer, and Bob Gregson. In
talking about Clair, Larry has said, “He was super! You wouldn’t have known that he was the youngest in the squad because
he was so serious, dedicated to perfection and mature beyond his years. We all looked up to him. Clair had a tremendous
sense of vision and a winning personality.”
After that first summer, the new cadets were split up and sent to twenty-four different cadet companies at the time (The
Corps of Cadets expanded to thirty-six companies after the authorized strength of the corps was increased from 2,529 to 4,417
in late 1964). These “permanent” company assignments were to last until graduation but there was another experiment in store
for ’64. In the spring of 1962 it was announced that each member of the class would be reassigned to another company within
the same regiment. This news was not received very well at first because of various established roots such as friendships,
roommates, intramural teams, company allegiance, etc. However, the mandate was carried out and at the end of the summer the
new “cows” (juniors) begrudgingly reported to their new companies, generally expecting the worst. However, some pleasant
surprises were encountered, and in the long run, the company changing presented the opportunity to know more people in one’s
class and in other classes. In Clair Thurston’s case, he was assigned to Company H-1, where he was reunited with old “Beast
Barracks” pals, Dee Stone, Bob Gregson, and Larry Brewer. “It was great to be with Clair, Dee and Bob again after two years
of little contact,” remembered Larry. “Clair was more squared away than ever, excelling in all areas. He was at the top
level, academically, but he always had time to help others with their studies. He was truly dedicated to his fellow man and
Clair participated in numerous extracurricular activities to include the Rugby Club, where he got to know Bob Serio, another
outstanding scholar-athlete who would also become a Vietnam casualty. Graduating twenty-second of 565 in the class, Clair
won the General Pershing Award for ranking first in the class in tactics, and the American Bar Association Award for ranking
first in law.
Standing as high as he did in the graduation order of merit, Clair had his full choice of branches and probably could have
gone directly into graduate study in some scholarship program. But his strong sense of duty prevailed and he chose the
Infantry Branch. Although the insurgency in Vietnam was relatively low level at that time, Clair sensed the conflict was
imminent and requested assignment to the Far East. After earning his Airborne wings and ranger tab, he became engaged to
Miss Virginia Baumgartner of Ballston Spa, New York, in November 1964, and joined the 173d Airborne Brigade in Okinawa a
month later. Clair enjoyed his short stay on the island and took advantage of the opportunity to get to know better his
several classmates in the unit. They, in turn, were impressed with him, especially with the outstanding speech he gave as
the youngest graduate at the annual West point Founders Day Dinner. To this day Jack Grubbs can recall in detail what was
said by his young, but wise and mature classmate.
In May 1965 Clair arrived in Vietnam, anxious to serve his country and assist a friendly nation in its fight against
Communism. In one of his last letters to his father Clair wrote: “Isn’t it strange how we are willing to fight or even
die for that little bit of red, white and blue bunting and Marian Anderson singing in ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ ‘O, thus
be it ever when free men shall stand!’”
Clair Thurston has been greatly missed by all who knew him, but especially by his classmates, who revered him; by his
fiancée, who lost the chance to share her life with him; and by his parents, for whom he was everything.
~ Fallen Warriors The West Point Class of 1964 by John Murray