45 years Apart
Vietnam - Afgahnistan
Two Slain Soldiers Share Similarities
|1st Special Forces Group (Airborne)|
Ray Rivera Seattle Times staff reporter
Friday, January 11, 2002 - 12:00
Yesterday, the unit honored another member lost to combat, Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman, the first U.S. soldier to die by hostile fire in Afghanistan.
The stories of Capt. Harry Cramer, killed in a night ambush in 1957, and Chapman, who died last week, are similar in ways beyond the Green Beret unit they served or their willingness to fight for their country. Both men were 31 when they died. Both were second-generation military. And both were doting husbands and fathers who left behind young, grief-stricken families.
Cramer's son, Lt. Col. Hank Cramer of Winthrop, Okanogan County, attended yesterday's tribute to Chapman at a ceremony outside the red-brick headquarters of the 1st Special Forces Group. Chapman will be buried at 1 p.m. today at Tahoma National Cemetery near Covington.
"For such a small unit, sadly they've earned the distinction of having the first guys killed in two wars," said Cramer, who also formerly served in the unit, which today numbers about 750. It had just more than 50 troops when it was founded in June 1957.
"It speaks volumes about the nature of the operations they're performing," said Cramer, whose father died in a jungle ambush near Nha Trang.
More than 40 years earlier, on Oct. 21, 1957, Cramer's father was leading a detachment of Special Forces soldiers training a Vietnamese unit when the Viet Cong struck with mortar fire.
Trapped in a jungle clearing, several Americans were wounded, including Harry Cramer. The unit's medic, Chalmers Archer, rushed to treat him. Cramer died in Archer's arms.
Archer said the firefight and Cramer's death still haunt him. A retired college professor, he wrote an account of the action in his recently published book, "Green Berets in the Vanguard: Inside Special Forces, 1953-1963."
"He was a good man, a thinker," said Archer, who still keeps a letter Cramer had written to him.
Cramer's family was living in base housing on Okinawa, Japan, when an Army chaplain and the group's company commander knocked on the door.
"My mother knew what was happening," said Cramer's son, who was 3 at the time but still recalls that day vividly. "She sent us out to play, and she waited a couple of hours until she could really compose herself before telling us."
His mother's composure lasted only until he and his two older sisters began crying. "That's when she broke down."
His name was left off the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., when it was unveiled in 1982. Pentagon records had shown Cramer died in an accidental explosion during a training mission before the U.S. got fully involved in Vietnam.
Not until his son appealed to the National Parks Service and began uncovering the pieces of his father's death did the story become clear. Capt. Cramer's name was added to the wall in 1983.
By contrast, Chapman's death last week has been marked by extraordinary news coverage.
President Bush honored Chapman on national television, saying he died for freedom. On Sunday, national media ran features devoted to the slain soldier. His funeral today will be telecast live.
Cramer holds no resentment.
"Guys like Sergeant Chapman and my dad, they understand the premise of what they're doing. When guys go into Special Forces, they know it's all real low-profile. You're not out to be a hero or for personal aggrandizement."
Still, Cramer's son says, "if I could rewrite the past, it would have been wonderful if President Eisenhower had come out on television and honored my dad, but we understood it was secret at the time."
Yesterday, Chapman's name was added to a memorial stone, which honors all 1st Special Forces Group soldiers who have died since the unit was reactivated in 1984. Chapman's was the 28th name. It was added under that of Maj. Wallace Cole Hogan, Chapman's former team leader, who died Sept. 11 at the Pentagon.
It was the news accounts of Chapman's death, and the tragedy facing his widow and two children, that rekindled memories of the loss of his own father, said Cramer, now a member of the Army Reserve and a folk singer.
"My best memories are of him giving me pony rides. I would ride him all around the house and wrestle and tussle with him."
Cramer said his mom, a former school teacher, never remarried. "She's still in love with my dad, 41 years later."
Interviews with Chapman's relatives and former colleagues tell of a man who was equally devoted to his wife, and gushed over his children, Amanda, 2, and Brandon, 1.
"I was completely blindsided by him," said his widow, Renae, earlier this week. "God just handed him over to me when I wasn't looking."
Years after Cramer's death, the 1st Special Forces Group paid tribute to him by naming the street going into its Fort Lewis compound in his memory.
It's called Cramer Avenue.
Soon, the area around the unit's granite memorial will be renamed Chapman Circle, said Col. David Fridovich, the group's commander, at yesterday's memorial, "to honor the sacrifice Nathan made to our nation and to God."
"He is everything in the world that is good and strong and hallowed."
Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company