| He wasn’t a big man – 5’7” in height and maybe 150 pounds at most.
But I would soon discover this aggressive and courageous Marine had the heart of a lion and a warrior ethos intrinsic to his Cherokee heritage.
I first met Lance Corporal Locklear in March of 1966 at Camp Pendleton when 9th Engineer Battalion was coming up to full staffing strength as they prepared to deploy to Vietnam. Locklear and I were quite different in many ways but in spite of these differences we quickly developed a close friendship. Over the next several months we spent a lot of time together sharing stories about fishing, hunting, and always about girls, and about our respective families and hometowns.
Locklear was from North Carolina, his ancestry part of the eastern Cherokee who refused to be forced from their land in 1838 when the U.S. Government moved many of the tribes west to "Indian Territory" (now Oklahoma). The Cherokees’ call this forced re-location Nunna daul Isunyi – "the Trail Where We Cried." Some historians estimate that as many as 4,000 died on The Trail of Tears.
Locklear told me that his family is part of the over 400 Cherokee that refused to leave their land during this forced relocation. They escaped and hid from Federal troops in the remote Snowbird Mountains in Graham County, North Carolina. This group along with another group of Cherokee, who were granted a pardon by the government, makes up what is now known as the Eastern Band.
Ironically, it is indeed possible that my ancestral kin had a part in this forced relocation. A good portion of my family blood originates from the Scots-Irish who came to America in the colonial period and settled in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas. As time progressed more Scots-Irish immigrants and their descendants went on to populate the states of Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee in the 1780s and 1790s.
So as fate would have it, a bond developed between Locklear and me as we told our stories and proudly shared our ancestor’s history. As the 18th century English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley once said, "History is a cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of man."
A few months after our first meeting at Camp Pendleton and now in the small village of An Tan, South Vietnam, Lance Corporal Locklear and I said farewell. Of course we promised each other that we would stay in touch but a lot of things happened in Vietnam that interrupted plans like this. After wishing each other a final good luck I watched him climb onto the six-by (truck) that would transport him to his new assignment with the infantry.
We went our separate ways that day – each following our own destinies – a short friendship between two very different lads who came from a nation of very different people. Now some 40 years later, I wonder about my old friend, Locklear. Hell, I can’t even remember his first name or even know if he is still alive.
In the subsequent months after our farewell, I heard stories about, Locklear. I heard that he volunteered to be assigned to the infantry because he wanted to see more action than what he thought would come his way by operating a bulldozer with an engineer outfit. I also heard that once he was assigned to the infantry, he volunteered to be a "Tunnel Rat."
During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong used tunnel complexes as hiding places, caches for food and weapons, as headquarter camps, and as protection against air strikes and artillery fire. To combat these tactics American Tunnel Rats performed underground search and destroy missions. Whenever troops would uncover a tunnel, Tunnel Rats were sent in to kill any buried enemy and to plant explosives to destroy the tunnels. A Tunnel Rat was equipped with only a .45 caliber pistol, a K-Bar (knife), and a flashlight.
In the course of doing their jobs, Tunnel Rats ran into numerous booby traps and enemies lying in wait. Often there were flooded U-bends in the tunnels with trip-wires that were connected to a variety of deadly traps. Guards manned holes on the sides of tunnels through which spears could be thrust impaling a crawling intruder. Not only were there human enemies to deal with, but also different creatures such as snakes, spiders, scorpions, ants, and bats.
Going down into a tunnel system was risky and dangerous business. But, the tunnels yielded vital intelligence on the Viet Cong in the form of plans and documents. Armed with only their pistol, K-Bar, and flashlight, the Tunnel Rat would descend into a pitch black, claustrophobic hell, to play a deadly game of hide and seek with the enemy.
This is what Locklear volunteered to do. From the stories that I heard he definitely lived the life of the courageous Cherokee-Marine warrior that he was.
Perhaps one-day, destiny will cause our paths to cross again. If not now, then maybe – just maybe – if we’ve lived righteously – we will see each other again – on Heaven’s scenes where we will be guarding the streets with other U.S. Marines.
Go-hi-yu-gi. Ha-ni-gi gv-do-di u-ne-la-nv-hi, my old friend.