Family sustains Sunday salute to loved one killed in Vietnam

Soldier's mother, sister have visited his grave every Sunday for more than four decades

December 19, 2010|By DAN DEARTH |
  • Whylmenia Knight holds a family photo Wednesday in her kitchen in Dargan. It shows her and husband Francis 'Skunk' Knight with their four children, from left, Doris, Orville Lee, Frances, and David. Orville Lee, born 62 years ago today, was killed in Vietnam in 1969.
By Kevin G. Gilbert, staff photographer

Cpl. Orville Lee Knight’s place in history is engraved on Panel 27W Line 39 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

On April 8, 1969, the former Dargan resident was killed when he stepped on a land mine in Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam.

Today would have been his 62nd birthday.

Knight’s 89-year-old mother, Whylmenia Knight, and his sister, Doris Shoemaker, have visited his grave every Sunday since his remains were interred at Fairview Cemetery in Keedysville more than four decades ago.

They said today will be no different.

“I remember him all the time,” Whylmenia Knight said. “I just told him to be careful when he left and watch what he was doing. That’s all I could say.”

In the front window of her Dargan home, a small flag hangs with a single gold star, an honor bestowed only to American mothers who have lost a child to war.

Knight and Shoemaker said they hope and pray that no other families will have to endure the same pain of losing a son and brother, particularly now that the United States is at war in the Middle East.

“I’d like to see them all come home,” Whylmenia Knight said. “I don’t want to see any boy over there.”

Shoemaker said her brother was a new husband and father working at the Fairchild plant in Hagerstown when he was drafted by the Army in 1967.

Orville Knight often wrote letters home from Vietnam, saying he was afraid that his heavy gear might drag him under the water when his infantry unit was on patrol.

“He said if the snakes didn’t get him, the water would,” Shoemaker said.

She said she found out that Orville Knight had been killed after hearing that soldiers were at his wife Kathy’s home on Main Street in Keedysville.

“I called Kathy,” Shoemaker said. “She said, ‘Doris, he’s dead.’”

Shoemaker said she then raced in her car to the sewing plant where her mother worked.

“I just told her Orville Lee was dead,” Shoemaker said. “She just started screaming and hollering.”

Orville Knight’s childhood friend, Lloyd “Pete” Waters, said the two grew up playing baseball together and later graduated from Boonsboro High School in 1966.

He remembered a conversation they had just before Orville left for Vietnam.

“We talked about life. We talked about families. We talked about his daughter,” Waters said. “It was kind of encouraging. We left each other and I said I’d see him again ... I think we were supposed to have that conversation. I’m glad we did.”

Waters, who also served in Vietnam and later became warden of the Maryland Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown, said he was stationed at Fort Lee, Va., when he heard his friend had been killed.

“I was kind of shocked,” Waters said. “He had just become a dad.”

Waters said he often reflects on America’s involvement in Vietnam and questions whether it was necessary.   

“It was a waste. It was a waste of lives,” he said. “Fifty-eight thousand (American) lives lost. I haven’t heard the answer why.”

Shoemaker said her brother returned home in a coffin with a semi-glass top that allowed a view of his upper torso. She said she was shocked when she saw that he had grown a mustache.

Samples Manor Church of God was packed for her brother’s funeral service.

“The people around here brought food,” she said. “They sent cards. Anything we needed, they would do for us.”

Orville’s wife later remarried, and his daughter, Samantha Crist, shared her life in Keedysville with her husband, Tony, and two sons, Max and Collin.

Samantha died in 2005 at the age of 37 after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. She was laid to rest next to her father.

“Samantha is beside him now,” Shoemaker said. “He has company”

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