Trying to keep the memory of a fallen soldier alive, Philip Stanley has started a wonderful new family.
In 1967, Private First Class Stanley of Hampton, SC, lost a friend to small arms fire in Vietnam. It has been 54 years since a solemn army officer obscured this family’s door with the tragic news, but Stanley worked to ensure that this soldier’s memory lives on and his sacrifice is never forgotten.
In September 1966, Stanley was drafted into the 25th Infantry Division of the United States Army with orders for Vietnam. He was 22 years old. He had a new wife and a good job at the Varnville Hardware & Supply Company. On March 11, 1967, he set foot on Vietnamese soil at the heart of one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern American history.
Stanley quickly befriended another South Carolina soldier, Melvin Sutherland, and a boy from North Carolina, Jimmy Morrison.
“The three of us hung out together all the time,” recalls Stanley, now 77. “We became very good friends, stayed together and did a lot of operations together. “
One of these operations was unfortunate. On May 26, 1967, the trio of friends were part of a search and destroy exercise near the Saigon River in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) when they were ambushed by the Viet Cong.
Stanley was on the left flank as Morrison, an M-60 machine gunner, advanced through a paddy field in front, when Viet Cong guerrillas opened fire from both sides. Morrison was among several men killed that day.
“They heard our boats coming and they were waiting for us,” recalls a moved Stanley, five decades later and a Purple Heart. “We lost a lot of good friends that day, and Jimmy was one of them. The last words he said to me as he walked past were, “Take care of yourself, Stanley.”
Stanley paused for a moment with emotion, then added, “He was a good boy, a good Christian boy from a good Christian family.”
Morrison was only 20 when he died. About 58,220 Americans died during the Vietnam War. Of these, 39,996 were under 22 when they were killed.
At the time, Morrison, a son of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Morrison, was the seventh young man from Cleveland County, North Carolina, to die in Vietnam. Morrison had just written a letter to his family telling them that if anything happened to him on the battlefield, he was ready to meet his Maker.
Morrison was killed a day before this letter reached his family’s mailbox.
Stanley would eventually rise to the rank of Platoon Sergeant, complete his combat tour, and return to the “States,” but the painful loss of friends like Morrison never faded.
“In battle, you depend on your friends,” Stanley explained. “We depended on each other to stay alive. It’s a different kind of friendship.
Determined to pay homage to Morrison at his home, in March 1968, Stanley and Sutherland, along with their wives, visited his family and his grave at Community Baptist Church in Shelby, North Carolina. The two army buddies met their friend’s parents and had a visit to the cemetery.
Then, like many American veterans, the men tried to put the war behind them, heal mental and physical wounds, and learn to become civilians again. Stanley worked at the local hardware store until it closed, then began a career as a manager for Walmart, where he would retire in 2015. Over the decades, he lost touch with the Morrison family.
But the memories of a fallen soldier continued to haunt him. In 2014 or 2015 (to the best of his memory), Stanley decided he wanted to revisit Morrison’s grave on the anniversary of his death and try to reconnect with the Morrison family. But the years had not been gentle on his memory – he couldn’t remember where Morrison was buried or where his family lived.
Stanley’s wife Peggy was quickly able to locate the cemetery again by searching the obituaries online. This step was easy; finding the Morrison family took a little more effort. Each May, Phil and Peggy made the annual pilgrimage to Shelby to lay flowers on Morrison’s gravestone and honor the fallen soldier. On each trip, they asked about family in town, to no avail.
In May 2020, the Stanleyes left a note at the grave, asking all surviving members of the Morrison family to contact them. They had no idea the family was still living a few miles away in Boiling Springs.
Two days later, on May 28, the phone rang. A man was crying on the other end of the phone. It was Ronnie Morrison, one of Jimmy’s brothers.
“He was so emotional,” Stanley said. “He said he had already sent the note to his siblings. It turns out that Jimmy was one of 13 children. Soon I started getting phone calls from several of his brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, all of whom wanted to know when we could get together.
But the Carolinas, like the rest of the world, were in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Reunion dreams would have to wait, and it would be another year before Stanley could once visit his late friend. Meanwhile, one of the Morrison siblings has passed away.
On May 26, 2021, Phil and Peggy Stanley drove into the churchyard at Shelby Church to find a crowd of cars and people waiting for them.
“We got out of the truck and almost the whole family was there,” recalls Stanley. “It was a time of crying, hugging and hugging. A niece sang two patriotic songs, then we stood around the grave talking and sharing stories for over three hours. They had so many questions. They wondered who left the flowers each year. It was just a very emotional moment.
“The family were so excited, saying, ‘Mr. Stanley, we just had to meet you!’ “, he added. “And I really think Jimmy was with us in spirit that day as well.”
The Morrisons insisted that the Stanley join them for a barbecue dinner, where Phil and Peggy met other family members. The Stanley’s spent the night and then had breakfast, where they met even more family members. The Morrisons asked about Hampton and began planning a visit to the Lowcountry.
It’s 225 miles from Hampton, SC to Shelby, NC, 3 hours and 45 minutes one way, and Stanley has driven it every year in hopes of keeping a friend’s memory alive, saying a few words about his grave, and leaving behind a batch of fresh flowers. But he found a lot more at the end of this long road trip.
“Thanks to this, I have a new family, a good Christian family. As long as I can, I return to this grave every year and let him know that he is not forgotten.