WASHINGTON, D.C. — As a fine mist fell over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dozens of schoolchildren from around America scurried past the stark black granite wall.
One of the groups was stopped by its leader so a young girl could make an etching of her great uncle's name, forever carved along with more than 58,000 others in the memorial known to most as “the Wall.” Another group's teacher stopped the children to point out where, on Panel 1 Line 94, the same name — Billie Joe Williams — appears twice next to each other, but represents two different men.
Near that teacher's foot, however, at the start of Line 130, is the remembrance of a more local name: the one of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Gregory Scott Copenhaver, from Port Deposit.
Copenhaver was among the last 15 servicemen to be recorded as killed in action in the Vietnam War — an unfortunate participant in a botched operation that occurred after the fall of Saigon.
A family's 'frog'
Copenhaver was born July 21, 1955, in McClure, Pa., the son of Lewis and Mary Copenhaver. His parents separated when he was young and his mother moved to the Port Deposit area, where he was raised.
As the child of a single mother, he stuck out in 1960s society and carried a chip on his shoulder, Copenhaver's lifelong friend Charlie Henson said.
“Gregg just kind of showed up the summer before I started first grade,” Henson recalled. “My dad told me recently that he was driving along Dr. Miller Road one day when he saw these two bigger kids beating up a smaller kid. So he ran them off and took the boy back to home and that kid was Gregg.”
Henson said Copenhaver was quickly welcomed as part of his family, and long treated the Hensons as an extension of his family. Charlie and Gregg spent years in Scouting together and enjoyed shooting, camping and building model rockets.
“He was a scrapper and probably one of the toughest kids I knew,” Henson said. “One day, my dad found him walking down the road with the front tire of his bike in one hand and the frame in the other. He was bleeding all over from his chin because he was riding when the front wheel came loose and he flipped over the handlebars. My dad took him to the doctor who stitched him up, but dad said Gregg never whimpered or flinched.”
Copenhaver also had a lifelong nickname — "Frog" — which came from a Boy Scouts leader who taught the boys how to dive from the high dive at Bainbridge Naval Training Center's pool.
“When Gregg would dive, he wouldn't keep his legs together in good form so somebody said he looked like a frog jumping in the water,” Henson said. “And the name just stuck.”
It did indeed, as evidenced by his inclusion of it in the Rising Sun High School Class of 1974 yearbook. “To be king of all frogs, toads and tadpoles,” he wrote under the section for “ambitions.”
Wayne Stafford, one of Copenhaver's Class of 1974 classmates, said he remembers Copenhaver as a quiet teen, but one with a good heart. Since they lived not far from one another, they attended nearly all of their grade schools together.
“If you talked to him, he'd talk to you forever, but you would have to strike up the conversation,” Stafford recalled. “He was a good person, without question. Gregg never had a harsh word for anyone. He was friendly to everybody, didn't matter to him who you were or who you hung out with.”
It was obvious to Copenhaver's classmates that he was set on entering the service after graduation, despite watching numerous upperclassmen serve in the Vietnam War and return home. With American involvement in the Vietnam conflict officially ending with the 1973 Pais Peace Accords, Copenhaver likely thought that his chances of seeing combat in Southeast Asia were scarce.
“There was no other branch of the service other than the Marines for Gregg,” Stafford recalled. “Toward the end of the year, everyone knew that he had enlisted.”
Two months after graduation, Copenhaver left for boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., although his passion for the military was unbeknownst to his immediate family, according to Cecil Whig records. His mother, Mary Mills, said she only began to understand his devotion the night before he left for basic training.
“For whatever reason, he kept it from me. I guess he was afraid I would try to stop him,” she told the Whig in 2000, noting he admired his father, who was badly wounded in the Korean War and died in 1970. “Everybody else knew.”
By the time the 19-year-old Copenhaver graduated from boot camp in February 1975, it seemed that deployment to Vietnam was becoming less likely by the day.
American forces were all but gone from the Southeast Asian battlefields, although fighting continued between the local forces and the creep of communism was speeding up. And Copenhaver, a rifleman in Company G, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, was shipped to Camp Schwab in Okinawa, Japan, to await further instructions.
He wouldn't have to wait long to serve his country, however, as the impending fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces was necessitating an evacuation plan. Copenhaver was involved in Operation Frequent Wind, which oversaw the evacuation of nearly 60,000 Americans, South Vietnamese and third-country nationals in the late days of April 1975.
His battalion was specifically tasked with landing helicopters at the American embassy and the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) compound in Saigon and ferrying out evacuees to awaiting naval aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Siam.
On April 28, North Vietnamese forces began shelling Saigon's public airport, ending the steady stream of refugees being airlifted out by a variety of means. By mid-afternoon April 29, Copenhaver and fellow Marines had landed at the DAO, securing the perimeter of the complex and allowing three dozen helicopters to pick up evacuees.
On April 30, Marines helped protect the U.S. embassy from the throng of more than 10,000 trying to push past its gates or over its walls to safety. More than two dozen airlifts helped to rescue more than 2,000 people from the embassy before President Gerald Ford ordered them to flee.
The chaotic scene saved tens of thousands of lives from communist North Vietnamese forces, and left an impression on the young Copenhaver.
“We all made it out of Saigon alive. Don't worry. I'll be home sooner than you think and I'm going to buy a car. Should be home sometime next year. I promise you that,” he wrote to the Hensons in a letter. “I'm glad to be safe and sound now and I'm also glad I had a chance to help some people.”
Unfortunately as he was writing that letter, he had no idea how a merchant ship in the Gulf of Siam would change his life dramatically.
A changing world
According to “The Mayaguez Incident: Near Disaster at Koh Tang,” a 1998 historical study written by Maj. Mark Toal of the U.S. Marine Corps War College, the setting for Copenhaver's impending mission was one of growing importance.
On April 17, 1975, two weeks prior to Copenhaver's involvement in the Saigon airlift, the radical communist Khmer Rogue regime overthrew the Cambodian government, seizing the capitol, Phnom Penh. Meanwhile, peace brokered between North and South Korea was also proving to be increasingly elusive, as the communist North Koreans continued to push their influence following the end of the Korean War of the 1950s.
With the Cold War in full swing, Americans had to throw the Watergate scandal and resignation of President Richard Nixon of the summer of 1974 into the mix.
By the time that the U.S. merchant ship SS Mayaguez was seized by Khmer Rouge forces on May 12, 1975, a tinder box of implications had been prepared for an inexperienced administration led by President Gerald Ford.
Desperate to once again assert American power and authority in the international arena following the defeats of the Vietnam War, Ford's hasty decision-making may have cost Copenhaver his life.
A planning disaster
By 5:30 a.m. May 12, 1975, Ford knew about the enemy seizure of an American ship in international waters. Over the course of two days, the president, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff met numerous times to set a course of action.
Chief on the minds of the country's leaders was an incident involving the U.S. Navy spy ship USS Pueblo, which was seized by North Korea in 1968 and led to an embarrassing set of negotiations by the Johnson Administration that saw the return of the sailors but not the ship.
Kissinger and Ford were determined not to repeat past mistakes and wanted to prevent the movement of the Mayaguez's crew to mainland Cambodia, where they feared they may be irretrievable. Unfortunately, air forces were unable to do so and surveillance teams witnessed the movement of the crew to the nearby beaches of Koh Tang, an island off the coast of Cambodia.
By the conclusion of talks on May 13, the leaders prepared to move ahead with a rescue operation that would depend on a Marine battalion securing the beaches of Koh Tang, retrieving the captured crew and evacuating to awaiting ships. Meanwhile, a Marine unit along with a Navy frigate would board the Mayaguez and return it to safe harbor.
A meeting of the Joint Chiefs determined the need for better planning, but the worry of time outweighed their concerns, according to the Toal's study.
“The Joint Chiefs of Staff reached a consensus that an extra day would provide a higher assurance of success, but agreed that the urgency of the situation overcame the degree of risk associated with a rapid military operation,” he wrote.
At 8:30 p.m. May 13, Copenhaver's 2nd Battalion was moved from Japan, where it was undergoing field training following its Saigon evacuation mission, to U-Tapao air field in Thailand in preparation for an assault on Koh Tang. They arrived in the early morning hours of May 14, and less than 24 hours later, they would already be in the air heading for the Cambodian island.
The plan was a unique mix of U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps personnel, which required an inordinate amount of planning to ensure it was executed smoothly. Unfortunately, that planning was the mission's biggest issue.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. John Burns Jr. was appointed the de facto leader of the operation, and he in turn appointed two subordinates. Perhaps of note, however, is that of the three appointed Air Force-based leaders, none of them had experience with planning a mission that utilized helicopters for insertion and extraction.
While Burns was designing the movements of his forces, he declined to relay them in person as they prepared at U-Tapao, instead staying at an Air Force base 160 miles away. That separation of planners coupled with a shortened timeline meant that some leaders didn't even know the call signs or radio frequencies for the Marines headed to the battlefield.
“The various forces that merged together to form a joint task force possessed all the tools necessary to conduct a successful operation,” Toal found in his study. “What was critically required but missing was a leader to pull all these forces together and direct everyone's efforts in the same direction.”
Also of concern to Copenhaver's battalion was the fact that although updated surveillance of the enemy was available, it never reached the planners at U-Tapao. One intelligence service report detailed approximately 100 infantrymen supported by heavy weapons, including mortars, recoilless rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), while another estimated 150 to 200 troops of trained Khmer Rouge soldiers. Air Force aircrafts also reported at least 11 incidents of anti-aircraft fire in the days preceding the rescue operation.
“The only information that assault forces received concerning enemy strength at Koh Tang included a preliminary report … estimating 20 soldiers and a former Cambodian naval officer's estimate of no more than 18 to 30 irregulars,” Toal found.
Unfortunately, the intelligence not shared with Copenhaver and his comrades would have warned that his battalion was about to fly into a heavily fortified enemy predicting a landing assault.
Chaos in Koh Tang
About 4:15 a.m. May 15, 1975, eight Air Force helicopters carrying nearly 180 Marines — including Copenhaver — set off from U-Tapao toward Koh Tang.
Their mission was to touch down in eastern and western landing zones, secure the area, search for the crew of the Mayaguez and get out before encountering heavy enemy forces.
Just after 6 a.m., the first helicopter of the American forces touched down on the western landing zone and was followed shortly there after by a second. Just before the second helicopter could land, however, entrenched enemy forces opened fire on the vulnerable Marines.
The first helicopter lost an engine and crashed three-quarters of a mile up the beach, killing one crewman while others escaped. The second helicopter had to abort its landing and was barely able to return to base with a destroyed engine.
Meanwhile, Copenhaver's helicopter, call sign Knife 31, was following a fellow helicopter, Knife 23, to the eastern landing zone, where planners had originally sought to make the bulk of the Marine insertions. As Knife 23 attempted to land, however, enemy forces shot out its engine and tail pylon, forcing its Marines to jump off board and sprint to the tree-line under fire. Copenhaver and his unit likely watched Knife 23 crash land into the water just before enemy turned machine gun fire and RPGs at their helicopter.
Their pilot tried to raise altitude to abort the landing, but it was too late. An RPG struck the cockpit, killing the helicopter's copilot. Seconds later, a second RPG hit Knife 31's external fuel tank, causing the aircraft to explode into a ball of flames and crash in 4 feet of surf just 50 meters from the landing zone.
Copenhaver was among the seven Marines and two Navy corpsman killed in the crash, while three more Marines were killed trying to get off the beach from the wreckage. Ultimately, 10 Marines and three Air Force crewman survived the Knife 31 crash, including 1st Lt. Terry Tonkin, who used his survival radio to call in jet strikes on the enemy positions.
Thirty minutes into the operation, the situation in Koh Tang was grim: 14 Americans were dead and of the 180 servicemen planned to be dropped on the beaches, only 108 were ashore. Radio communication also proved nearly impossible as the crashed helicopters lost radio abilities and an inordinate amount of communication transmissions — including from Ford's administration trying to get updates — overwhelmed needed resources.
No hostages found
While the Marines of the 2nd Battalion were pinned down by enemy forces on the beaches of Koh Tang, the unit arriving at the Mayaguez faced no opposition. By 8:22 a.m., Marines found the ship had been abandoned and cleared its removal from the scene.
Just after 10 a.m., U.S. Navy ships intercepted a small fishing vessel waving white flags — as it turns out, the crew the Mayaguez had already been let go by their captors and were awaiting a friendly presence to pick them up.
Unfortunately, the Marines on Koh Tang weren't notified for another two hours that there were no hostages on the island due to communication issues, wasting precious more time.
The extraction of the more than 100 Marines left on the battlefield took lasted into the evening, with helicopters fending off enemy fire while attempting to land. The eastern landing zone, where Copenhaver's helicopter was shot down, was evacuated under the cover of C-130 gunship support around 4:30 p.m. The western landing zone wasn't fully cleared until nearly 8 p.m., with great credit given to 1st Lt. Robert Blough, who shepherded two crews home in less than half an hour under great duress.
Unfortunately in the hectic extractions, a machine gun team of three Marines was left behind and later declared missing in action. Decades later, it would be learned that the three were either killed by enemy combatants or caught and tortured to death. They were the last casualties of 14-hour Koh Tang operation, considered by historians today as the final battle of America's Vietnam War. All told, 15 men were killed in action, three were deemed missing in action and 48 were wounded.
On the homefront
At 4 a.m. May 16, 1975, U.S. Marine Corps representatives drove from Baltimore to the Rising Sun-area home of Copenhaver's mother, Mary, and stepfather, Robert Mills. They woke the couple to inform them that their 19-year-old son — less than 90 days into his service in the Corps — was missing in action and presumed dead. Four days later, Copenhaver was officially listed among the dead in the Mayaguez Incident.
The last time that his mother spoke to him was May 11, when Copenhaver called home to wish her a happy Mother's Day, Mary told the county newspapers. He also sent a charm bracelet to her as a gift, but unfortunately it did not arrive until after he died.
Mary and Robert Mills held a funeral at Porters Grove Baptist Church and erected a memorial marker at Rosebank Cemetery, although it lacked the official military honors for a burial. In the days, weeks and months after that visit from Marines, Mary briefly held out hope that her son was alive.
“I knew — at least halfway anyway — there wasn't any hope after the first year,” she said.
But Robert Mills, until he died in 1991, always believed that his stepson was alive.
“He kept saying (Gregg) was going to walk in that door sometime,” Mary recalled to the Whig.
Henson, Copenhaver's best friend, said Mary called his family with the grim news shortly after she was informed. As it turned out, Henson was on leave from Fort Meade and staying at home when the call came.
“We were all pretty devastated,” he recalled. “It never gets real until someone gets hurt.”
The last time Henson had seen his friend was on Christmas break 1974, when Henson was on leave from the U.S. Army and Copenhaver from the Marine Corps.
“I remember that he was really proud to wear the Marine Corps uniform,” he said. “He was giving me a hard time because I was in the Army and he was in the Marines.”
For 20 years, Copenhaver was remembered by family and friends, but remained lost to the sands of far-off Koh Tang.
But in the early 1990s, American and Cambodian investigators conducted seven joint investigations, led by a U.S Department of Defense task force created to identify remains of fallen overseas servicemen and women.
In October and November 1995, task force specialists conducted an underwater recovery of the Knife 31 crash site where they located numerous remains, personal effects and aircraft debris associated with the loss.
The process of exhuming the remains was an arduous one, requiring painstaking accounting and anthropological forensic studies. But in April 2000, DNA tests confirmed that some of the remains found by investigators were of Copenhaver.
On May 8, 2000, Marine representatives once again traveled to see his mother and report that they were bringing Copenhaver home.
Although 25 years went by, Mills said it still pained her to hear without a doubt that her son died that day on the beaches of Koh Tang.
“After that first year, I kind of put it to rest in my mind,” she told the Whig. “But you really don't put it to rest until you know for sure. Now we know.”
On Memorial Day 2000, Copenhaver's family once again had a funeral, but this time they were able to erect a burial marker and have full military honors. Scores of Marine Corps veterans attended the affair along with family and friends.
The places where one can find mention of Port Deposit's long lost hero are many — but each of them seem to share a common characteristic: After more than 25 years of being lost, Copenhaver is always among friends.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Copenhaver is one of more than 58,000 names etched into the black granite wall. Because he is recognized as one of the last 18 casualties of the Vietnam War, visitors will find his name, along with his fellow Knife 31 Marines, near the bottom of the western panel at the center of the wall.
Meanwhile, at Arlington National Cemetery just across the Potomac River, a large remembrance stone also lists Copenhaver as one of the casualties abroad Knife 31.
The plot, located a few blocks away from the hallow grounds' entrance, is a peaceful place, surrounded by thousands of other neatly lined headstones. His section of the cemetery includes scores of other servicemen and women who have lost their lives in aircraft crashes, both under enemy fire and accidental, during wartime and peace.
In Cambodia, two memorial markers — one on Koh Tang and one at the American embassy — denote the sacrifice of American servicemen in a faraway land.
And back at home at Rosebank Cemetery, Copenhaver lies at rest with other Cecil County veterans killed in action. He is the only person in the community cemetery to be allowed two headstones, however, due to the uniqueness of his story.
His remains were buried next to those of his stepfather, who always believed that Copenhaver would return home one day — and he did.