Chatwin Strother, KIA Vietnam
"Bravery is when you walk into a battle you are not sure of winning." -Jeffry Fry
Chatwin wrote the final letter of his life at age 22, during a quiet but tense evening in Vietnam in 1970, to my life long friend, Jamie Culbertson. "For the first time in my life," he wrote, "I'm really frightened about our next mission. We are going into an area where no one has ever been. There have been reports of about 5,000 NVA in that area. Also they have sighted many artillery and the possibility of tanks. We expect to make contact. There will be 500 men involved and it will be a six day mission. Now here is the bad part about our squad work. We will be walking 50 meters in front of the rest of the company. Our objective is to draw fire from the enemy so that the rest of the companies will not be ambushed. In other words, we are going to be moving targets for those ------. Also, if we run into a large force, we are going to get hit first. I've always gambled a bit, but the odds are against us this time. I sure as hell wouldn't bet on the mission. Our whole squad is nervous tonight. Ya know, our squad is looked upon as very special men and brave men. We've built a name for ourselves and we've been decorated well. But tonight we've been talking to each other as if some of us aren't coming back. If it is meant that way, well, we will die brave. It's just that I have that feeling about this mission. I just feel that some of us in our squad aren't coming back."
Chatwin Arnold Strother did not come back. He died in the medivac, after taking gunfire on this May 29th mission. He knew the risk was great. He knew he would be a target to draw fire from the rest of the company. Someone who was in the rest of that company, who was 40 feet away from Chat when he was shot, was his childhood friend, Jim Cunningham.
Jim was in Chatwin's class, played baseball with him and was his friend. Jim is the brother of my sister's life long friend and we were all in elementary school together, however, I never knew Chatwin. He and Jim were one grade ahead of me; Chatwin's brother, Barry, was in my class.
(4th grade: Chatwin is third from right, 2nd row, and Jim is next to him; 2nd picture is 6th grade, Chatwin is 5th from left, 2nd row, Jim is 2nd from left, first row)
Chat moved to Illinois during 8th grade, so years had gone by that Jim and Chat hadn't seen each other, until one day on a mission in Vietnam, Jim thought he spotted Chatwin ahead of him in the jungle. Back in the chow line, he saw the same fellow again and spoke to him. It was definitely his childhood friend. They were both in C Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, 25th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, in Tay Ninh, but they were in separate platoons. Their bunkers were only three or four bunkers apart. When they weren't on missions, they spent time visiting, catching up and exchanging news from home whenever they got letters. For Jim, it was a little piece of home to have Chatwin there. They had arrived in Vietnam just 9 days apart.
Chatwin was born in Washington D.C. on November 29, 1947 to Calvin and Nell Strother, the first of three boys. His dad had graduated from Harvard, with honors. After working as a lawyer and then a District Attorney in Grady County, Oklahoma, he brought his family to San Luis Obispo, CA to accept a position as a professor of history at Cal Poly. His mother, Nell, had been a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps and during WWll was on board the U.S.S. Benevolence in the South Pacific. After leaving the military, she held nursing positions throughout her life.
(Barry, Chatwin and Jeff; Chatwin, Barry and dad, Calvin; Chatwin in 7th grade)
The Strothers lived in my neighborhood, about a block and a half away, across the street from my friend Jamie. Jamie's father was also a professor at Cal Poly and the two families became like family to each other. After the Strothers had been in Illinois for a few years, Jamie moved there to live with them during part of her high school years and Chatwin became like a brother to her. She remembers him being very protective and taught her self-defense skills. He was interested in and had some training in martial arts. Jamie tells how Chat loved baseball and as a child always wore a referee whistle around his neck, as can be seen in the picture below. He was on a Little League Team, the Red Sox. She remembers him always listening to both sides of things, and was always kind and fair. He was very popular and good looking. She recalls his honesty; she was with him at a bank when the cashier gave him too much money. He caught the mistake and gave it back to her. He taught Jamie how to play poker, which was one of his favorite things to do. He would tell Jamie in his letters from Vietnam about the poker games he played with the guys.
(Left to right: Barry Strother, Jamie and Hazel Culbertson, Chatwin Strother with the referee whistle around his neck, Sam Culbertson; Jamie's sister, Hazel, later married Tom St. John, who was Eddy Schultz's best friend, who was my uncle who was also killed in Vietnam)
The reason the Strothers moved to Illinois was that in Sept. 1960, Chatwin's father died at age 36 of heart complications from a case of rheumatic fever that he'd had when younger. Nell, Chatwin's mother, wanted to return to her family in Illinois so she packed up her three sons and moved. Chatwin was almost 13. According to Chat's youngest brother, Jeff, who was only six at the time, Chatwin took on their father's role. He felt he had to be the man of the house, and he became a father figure to little Jeff. Jeff remembers that their dad was strict, so Chat became strict with him, as their father would have done. But he also remembers Chat as being outgoing, friendly, likable, lots of fun to be around and he had lots of friends. He remembers his brother lifting weights and being interested in martial arts. A karate teacher came to the house to train 4 other students and Chat for competitions, on mats laid out on the basement floor.
Chatwin's brother Barry was just a year and a half younger, so there was much fighting between the two of them, as Barry recalls. Sometimes they would have egg fights, throwing raw eggs at one another in the yard.
Barry remembers that when Chat turned 16, he wanted a car very badly. He had one picked out - an old Chevy convertible. But their mom, Nell, said no, that he couldn't have it. After Chat died, Nell regretted that decision for the rest of her life. She wished she had let her son have that car.
Because he wasn't allowed to get that car, Chat decided to take flying lessons. He wanted to become a military pilot and at 16, he had earned his private pilot's license. After graduating in June of 1966 from Lockport Central High School in Illinois, he attended Dade College in Miami with a major in aviation. I've been wondering why he dropped out of college to join the Army, when he could have been on track to become a military pilot, but nobody seems to know for sure. However, his brother Barry sheds some light on it. He remembers that Chatwin had a low draft number and was concerned about getting drafted. His friend, Jim, recalls that Chatwin volunteered to be drafted, rather than wait for the draft notice and added that there were certain restrictions on getting a college deferment. Barry said that Chatwin had expressed the thought that if he volunteered, he might get a chance to fly helicopters since he had his pilot's license. But it doesn't work that way. To become a military pilot you must become an officer and attend military flight training, which Chatwin could have done had he enlisted into an officer training program.
But he chose a different path. He joined the Army in February, 1969 and instead of becoming the helicopter pilot like he had hoped, the Army saw that he had had rifle training, that he was a marksman and had belonged to the National Rifle Association. So they put him in the infantry as a Specialist Four, rank of E4. He had attended basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and his AIT in the state of Washington. He began his Vietnam tour on July 22, 1969, after a few days with his family. They never saw him again. His girlfriend, Sue, whom he had been dating since high school, got to see him in Honolulu for a week during his R & R, just two weeks before he was killed. She shared that they had a wonderful time.
When Jim Cunningham found his childhood friend in the jungles of Vietnam in September of 1969, and then in the chow line, so far from home, in a war zone, surrounded by strangers, it meant a great deal to him. Jim remembers that Chat was well-liked by the others in the company. During the next several months, Jim and Chat survived many operations together. In March of 1970 their base camp at Tay Ninh was attacked by the enemy and Chat received a Bronze Star for bravery from that battle. Chat also received the Army Commendation Medal and an Air Medal, among other awards. Chat had been one of ten men selected to serve in the special infantry unit which did advance scouting for the troops. This meant he was on the point squad, which put him in front, leading the others into dangerous territory.
In May, their company was sent into Cambodia to destroy the NVA/VC sanctuaries where they had been hiding out since the start of the war. Jim talked to Chatwin at the helicopter pick up zone on their way in. They relished in the fact that they would be going home soon. Chatwin said he had saved his money to buy a Jaguar when he got back. He was going to tour the U.S. to see his Vietnam buddies. Jim and Chat made a pact to get together in San Luis Obispo when they got home.
According to Jim, they were in Cambodia for 28 days and made enemy contact at least 20 of those days. On May 29th, they walked into an ambush and Chatwin was shot, just 30 or 40 feet to the left of Jim. At least 15 were wounded in this ambush and they started carrying them to the medivac helicopter. The guy being lifted directly in front of Jim was Chatwin, who had not died yet, but Jim heard later that night that he had died in transit. Jim says it was the worst evening of his life and all he could think about was that the Strother family was about to get the worst news of their lives (aside from their father dying at 36 years old).
On May 29, 1970 Chatwin Strother died a hero, exactly 6 months to the day after his 22nd birthday and 45 days before he was to go home. Many are alive today, because of Chatwin's bravery.
Chatwin Arnold Strother, 50 years later, you are not forgotten, and are still loved and missed by family and friends. I'm posting this remembrance of you in time for what would have been your 73rd birthday on Nov. 29, 2020.
Every two years, his company has a reunion. Jim says that Chatwin's Point Squad buddies have a hard time talking about him, but they never fail to bring up that he was an epic poker player. In that final letter to Jamie, Chatwin wrote about his poker playing. He said, "So far now, I've won $1200 in two months. When I get back, we can have one hell of a time. All on me."
If it is meant that way, well, we will die brave. -- Chatwin Strother
(Chatwin bottom right corner in the first picture and with the mustache in the other two pictures)
(Crosses posted at one of their company reunions, the medals he earned, Chatwin's high school picture, and his military picture)