4th graders' notes made a difference to Vietnam War soldiers

By Kathleen Golden
Students show off their letters on a bulletin board

My main memory as a fourth grader in 1972-73 was playing "Little Willy" by The Sweet on the classroom's record player while waiting for the school bus to arrive. I also remember Wednesday nights in front of my grandparents' television, watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news talk about the latest developments in the Vietnam War. The war was far away, and, for a nine-year-old, that was enough to know. But for a certain fourth grade class taught by Jeryl Davis in the Yorkship School in Camden, New Jersey, the war was a bit more personal. It was the 1967-1968 school year when a bunch of nine-and-ten-year-olds adopted a platoon of soldiers serving in Vietnam, and the soldiers in turn adopted them.

The story of these unlikely pen pals began in 1967, when Mrs. Davis assigned homework to her students in the form of writing letters to soldiers in Vietnam. A local boy, Glenn Williams, was the recipient of these letters. Glenn was killed in action in October that year, and in response to his death the children began sending packages and letters to other members of Co. A, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry. The children donated their Halloween candy and sent it off; Christmas packages filled with cookies and other treats were put in the mail in November. They even recorded a tape of Christmas greetings and songs for the soldiers. In return, the soldiers sent Christmas cards to the children, and photographs of their Christmas celebrations in country.

Young, blond soldier with large gun, at a high point above a mountainous landscape

A military tent with "Merry Christmas" and decorations hanging over it

Each student was assigned a pen pal within the 4th platoon; some students wrote to several soldiers that January. Letters from the soldiers were read out loud to the rest of the class, and afterward pinned onto the board Mrs. Davis had created especially for the pen pal project. The members of the platoon sometimes sent small gifts to the children, usually insignia patches or pins.

Lined notebook paper with blue pen matching students with soldiers

Black and white photo of a young boy and girl, looking at a bulletin board, with a uniformed soldier

Yellow triangular patch with horse at top right, bar going diagonally across, and pins at the bottom

In February 1968, Co. A 4th platoon's leader, LT Eugene Moppert, was killed in a sniper attack near Hue, Vietnam. Word of his death reached Mrs. Davis, who gently broke the news to her students. The students were stunned. Some began to cry. It was unthinkable that one of their pen pals had been killed in action in a war so far away.

In June of that year, Eugene Moppert's widow Sandra came with her toddler daughter to Yorkship School, bearing a special gift. It was the flag that had been draped over Moppert's casket as he was laid to rest. She felt that the children should have it, as they had given so much happiness to Moppert and his men, so it was placed in a case and hung in the hallway of the school.

Flag folded triangularly in a wooden case with a gold placard at the bottom

This past August, an inquiry made to Smithsonian Visitor Services came to my attention. The inquirer, Bill Harrison, asked if the Smithsonian would be interested in collecting the casket flag, which was still hanging in the hallway in the Yorkship School. Bill had been a member of that long ago fourth grade class. He and another of Mrs. Davis' students, Kathie Cromie Gabriel, approached the Yorkship School about the possibility of donating the flag. The story of the flag had been lost over time, so the school agreed that it would be better off in the collections of the National Museum of American History.

An adult man and woman and a uniformed soldier stand in front of the flag case in a school hallway

Bill and Kathie each had treasures to donate related to their pen pals. Bill had letters and insignia from his pen pal SGT Joseph Meskaitis, which were still in the same box he had stored them in as a child. Kathie had several pen pals, and had kept those letters, but she also had a number of letters that had been given to her by Mrs. Davis. In addition to the students, the soldiers wrote regularly to Mrs. Davis and her husband Bob, and she had kept all the letters.

Battered white shoe box with letters in black script in front

Two letters and their envelopes

On November 14, 2014, Bill and Kathie came to the museum with the casket flag, the letters, and items sent by the soldiers. Also in attendance were some of the fourth graders and their families, SGT Joseph Meskaitis and his family, and Mrs. Davis, who flew in from South Carolina. Many of the students had not seen Mrs. Davis or each other for many years. The reunion was a great success. The former Yorkship School fourth graders of 1967-68 are together again, and the museum now has a collection of letters and mementos of the Vietnam War which remind us that the soldiers in Vietnam were young men a long way from home and in need of comfort, and found it through the innocent musings of fourth graders.

Ten adults around a table with the flag and boxes of letters

Kathleen Golden is an associate curator in the Division of Armed Forces History.