Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Ollie James Gross will be one of 11 Highland County men who will be honored in coming days at the Southern Ohio Vietnam Veterans Tribute Event, which will be held Thursday through Sunday at the Chillicothe Veterans Administration Medical Center.
In addition to exhibits that tell the history of the war in Southeast Asia, the event is hosting the Traveling Tribute Vietnam Wall, which is an 80-percent size replica of the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C. that will be on display inside the VA Memorial Stadium.
Etched into the highly polished black granite memorial are the names of 58,317 men and women who didn’t return from the war that ended more than four decades ago.
According to Stephanie Roland, outreach coordinator for the Highland County Veterans Service Office, Highland County lost 11 sons in Vietnam.
“Pfc. David McConnaughey is listed with a military home of record as being from Lebanon in Warren County, but he actually was from Hillsboro,” she said, “and Cpl. James Waulk, Jr. is originally from the Greenfield/Rainsboro area as well, but his military home of record is listed as being from Washington Court House, because that’s where he and his wife were residing when he enlisted.”
She also told The Times-Gazette that Spc. 4 Charles Vest, whose military home of record is Lynchburg, sustained wounds in battle in Vietnam, and those wounds were a direct cause of his death seven years later on Oct. 7, 1974.
Six men were from Hillsboro, two from Greenfield, two from Lynchburg, and one from Leesburg.
On panel W26, Line 32 of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. is the name of one of Highland County’s honored sons: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Ollie Gross, who was killed when his UH-I Iroquois “Huey” helicopter crashed in Hau Nghia Province of South Vietnam on April 23, 1969.
According to virtualwall.com, a guide to the thousands of names on the memorial, the 23-year-old New Market man was on his second tour of duty serving as an Aviation Ordnanceman with the “Seawolves,” a helicopter attack squadron operating in support of the Navy’s Operation Game Warden forces, which teamed up with river patrol boats to destroy Viet Cong troop movements on the Mekong Delta. Gross’ crew also flew rocket and machine gun strikes on enemy targets, and provided fire cover for medical evacuations.
Clifford Gross, who operates Cliff’s Service in New Market and Sugar Tree Ridge, was only 12 years old when he was told his big brother wasn’t coming home.
“The only thing I remember is two guys came to the door in uniform,” he said, “and they told us ‘we got some bad news to tell you,’ and they said Ollie had been killed in Vietnam.”
Gross told The Times-Gazette that the servicemen informed the family that their son’s helicopter had crashed upon returning from a mission.
“They told us that as they were landing,” he said, “the helicopter hit a high-tension electric wire, and as it crashed, it went down on his side and the whole bird caught fire.”
According to the Seawolves website, seawolf.org, the official crash report states that at 10:30 p.m., the helicopter, of which Gross was crew chief and a gunner, began its final approach when the pilot realized he was landing in the wrong area.
Aborting the landing attempt, the pilot flew briefly down a road, but the main rotor of the helicopter struck a power line and heavy supporting cable that was stretched across the road.
The bird crashed and burst into flames, the report concluded, with the pilot, co-pilot and one crewman safely getting out of the aircraft severely injured.
The only casualty of the crash was Ollie Gross.
His parents were devastated at the loss of their eldest son.
“Mom, even at the funeral, kept fainting,” Clifford Gross said, “and Dad had a real tough time with it, too, but a mother never gets over losing a child, especially when it’s your oldest son.”
The family did receive some comfort and closure about a year later when one of the surviving crew members visited them, though he was still recovering from severe burns sustained in the crash.
“He said he did all he could to pull Ollie from that burning helicopter,” Gross said. “He told us what happened when they hit that power line and went down, and he tried to get my brother out of there but it was all engulfed in fire.”
Almost 50 years have passed since that April morning when a military car pulled into the Gross’ driveway, and today only the best memories remain of an older brother.
“He actually signed up for the National Guard, but my other brother Harold was going to go in the Navy,” Clifford Gross said, “and Harold wanted him to go in the buddy system with him.”
Gross recalled that when the Navy found out he had already had completed basic and weapons training in the National Guard, he was shipped out to Vietnam.
“Ollie used to be a big breakfast eater,” Clifford Gross said. “He’d sit down and put away a half dozen eggs with no problem at all.”
According to Gross, Ollie was also a hard worker on the family farm.
“He’d work like a mule and wasn’t afraid of putting in hay on a hot summer day,” he said, “and helping out with cattle and doing the milking, but I will tell you, we had our differences like brothers usually do, and sometimes we’d get into it.”
Daily programs and ceremonies are planned during the four-day event in Chillicothe, beginning with the Traveling Wall’s escort departing the Fayette County Fairgrounds in Washington Court House late Wednesday afternoon.
The Traveling Wall will be open to the public 24 hours a day starting at noon on Thursday through the event’s closing ceremony at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, and many other tributes will be open for public viewing from around 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Friends, family and those not alive during the time of the Vietnam War are invited to pay their respects to those from Highland County who gave the ultimate sacrifice:
Hillsboro: Spc. 4 William Brown, Spc. 4 John Crouse, Petty Officer Ollie Gross, Pfc. Mark Hook, Capt. Cary McAfee, Pfc. David McConnaughey
Greenfield: Pfc. Neil Morris, Cpl. James Waulk Jr.
Lynchburg: 1st Lt. Charles Lovedahl, Spc. 4 Charles Vest.
Leesburg: Spc. 4 Donald Priest, Jr.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.