By Jim Nowlan
Vietnam combat infantryman Sam Rice is on a “search for a friend of mine who got lost, was kinda lost all his life. He deserved better.”
Sam’s friend is Monte Henderson—Monte is still alive to Sam, you might say—a friend from school days who fought and died from a sniper’s bullet in the same far north of South Vietnam, where both patrolled the treacherous Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The quest began in 2009 when long-time Toulon resident Sam was invited to Flora in southeastern Illinois to participate in a dinner celebrating POWs and MIAs who had made it back to the states somehow from various conflicts.
Long active in the American Legion leadership, Sam has been chairman of the Illinois POW-MIA Committee, so such gatherings are among his responsibilities.
Sam knew his friend Monte had been buried in his birth city of Flora, leaving that city at age 11, so he paid his respects at the cemetery.
Sam was distressed to see that Monte, who received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star in Vietnam, had only a small flat marker to identify his location, rather than the proper headstone provided for most veterans.
“I thought Monte deserved something more, and better,” Sam recalls.
Back home, Sam came across Galesburg Register-Mail reporter Tom Loewy and mentioned the small marker. Mike wrote a feature on Monte’s plight, which caused readers to start sending Sam checks and cash for a headstone.
Then Harvey Ponder at Lacky Monument in Galesburg became involved, contributing money, engraving, and a trip to the Flora cemetery for Sam in his private airplane.
Soon, a 1,100-pound dignified base and headstone was placed above Monte’s grave.
But Sam wasn’t finished. He wanted to learn more about the life of his one-time schoolmate, a friend certainly, but never a bosom buddy. Monte was always too quiet and withdrawn for such.
Monte sometimes lived in a ravine
Sam had known Monte when both were in grade school in Williamsfield, and later when both were at Toulon High in the 1960s, Monte for just his freshman year in Toulon.
Sam learned from his many interviews that Monte’s stepfather had been Don (Goose) Thompson, a drunk and family abuser, especially of Monte.
The continual beatings were so bad that Monte would sometimes escape to a ravine beyond the family’s tenant farm residence near West Jersey to sleep in the timber.
“If you can believe it,” recounts Sam, “the school bus would sometimes pick Monte up at the gravel road near the ravine in winter, Monte’s blue FFA jacket covered with frost.”
The home life was so bad that Monte’s mother turned him over to a state child welfare agency, which placed him with a foster family near Knoxville, where he lived, helped on the farm and attended Knoxville High School his sophomore year.
After that year, Monte was returned to his mother and Thompson, where the abuse resumed during Goose’s drunken fits.
Finally, mother Dorothy could take it no more. In 1967, she and a daughter drove Monte, 17, to the Army recruiting station in Kewanee. Dorothy signed papers that it was okay from them to enlist underage Monte.
Anything to get Monte away from his stepfather.
“Some kids at Toulon High thought Monte was ‘slow,’ but that wasn’t so,” says Sam. “He was just so quiet and withdrawn—wouldn’t you be if you were him and had gone through all he had?”
“I have scores of photos of Monte,” Sam continues, “and he is smiling in only two of them. Once when he was just a child, and another when he was living with his foster parents in Knoxville.”
“Monte was about the best soldier in the field I ever knew”
In the Army, Monte wrote letters back home to friends such as Toulon classmate Rozanne (Nelson) Mohr, in Toulon. Monte had worked some on “Big Ivan” Nelson’s farm north of Toulon.
In one letter Monte tells of meeting a girl outside Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, whom he planned to marry. Then he shipped out to join B Company, 1st of the 20th Regiment, 11th Light Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division. This was the same brigade Sam served in, though they never met in Vietnam.
Up in the densely wooded hills near Laos, Monte, Sam and their respective comrades patrolled the Ho Chi Minh Trail, exchanging ambushes, patrols and sniper fire with the Viet Cong.
In his research, Sam has come across a veteran who was company clerk of B Company, Monte’s unit. That clerk put Sam in contact with a guy from Jonesboro, Arkansas, who was in Monte’s platoon and was with him when Monte was killed. He told Sam that, “Monte was just about the best soldier in the field I ever knew,” the veteran recalls.
Monte was wounded April 9, 1968, and killed by sniper fire July 10, just 2 months before he was to come home. He was awarded two Purple Hearts and, posthumously, the Bronze Star.
Sam’s quest continues
Recently, Sam was asked to participate in an elaborate cemetery walk in Flora. Each year, the city’s Rotary honors eight persons who are buried at the Elmwood Cemetery in Flora.
This year they wanted to honor Monte, but nobody locally knew anything about him, so, as someone knew of Sam’s friendship with Monte, Sam was asked to portray Monte.
Throughout one Friday and Saturday each fall, from 4 until 9 p.m., the Rotary circulates flatbed trucks with 22 persons aboard each around the cemetery to the eight gravesites. Many hundreds buy tickets each year, the money going to good causes.
At each site, re-enactors dressed in period costumes give three to six-minute talks about the deceased. Beth Cooper, of Flora, portrayed Monte’s mom Dorothy. Sam wrote the script.
The Monte Henderson stop was last on the “walk.”
“They wanted to end with a somber story,” Sam says. “We even had people crying, and received two standing ovations.”
Sam’s wife Carol took a video of one of the scores of times Sam and Beth gave their presentation over two days. You can see it on You Tube at: https://youtu.be/-NSiD-kykMI.
Sam has written in rough draft about 40 pages of single-space typescript thus far for what he plans to publish as a memoir of both Monte and of Sam’s search “For a friend who got lost. He deserved better.”
By Jim Nowlan