The last time Michael O’Hara saw his friend, Larry C. Banks, was 50 years ago.
Banks was waving as he backed out of the O’Hara family’s driveway on Jackson Branch Road. They had spent their three weeks of leave after boot camp together in Brown County “drinking beer, horsing around and having fun,” O’Hara said.
They had been friends since grade school. In their teens, they volunteered to go into the military together: O’Hara with the Marine Corps, Banks with the Army.
Banks was a “a sole surviving son” in his family, and there were laws in place that protected those sons from military service, O’Hara said. But he volunteered to go to Vietnam anyway.
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The two friends went their separate ways on separate airplanes. O’Hara to Camp Pendleton and Banks to Fort Lewis in Washington, for additional training before heading to war.
Banks left for Vietnam a day before his 19th birthday. Both friends landed in Vietnam on Oct. 11, 1967.
Banks was stationed in southern Vietnam, northwest of Saigon, “way south” of where the Marines had sent O’Hara in the mountains of Khe Sanh.
Banks was assigned to Charlie Company, first battalion, 26th infantry regiment, nicknamed the Blue Spaders. His regiment was part of the first infantry division otherwise known as the Big Red One — the same unit his father had served in World War II.
The younger Banks’ job was to follow the machine gun crew and make sure there was enough ammo. This meant he carried a backpack with 60 to 80 pounds of steel cans in it.
On, Nov. 7, 1967, Banks was on a search-and-destroy mission in Loc Ninh. He was right behind the machine gunner and assistant machine gunner, making sure they had extra ammunition as they made their way into a rubber tree plantation, O’Hara said.
Then, the ambush came.
“They had people in the top of the rubber trees tied to ropes, so when the ambush was on they could jump out of the trees, swing down and start shooting soldiers,” O’Hara said.
The machine gunner and assistant machine gunner “were knocked out of action,” O’Hara said.
“Without any hesitation, Larry picked that big heavy gun with all of that ammo on his back and he started shooting it from the hip and charged the enemy tree line,” O’Hara said, through tears.
“Eventually, he was mortally wounded, but in picking that gun up and giving the suppressive fire that he did that day, he saved countless lives. Countless lives.”
For months, O’Hara had no idea his friend had been killed in combat. His parents would write him, but they never mentioned Banks’ death, he said.
Banks, a 1966 graduate of Brown County High School, was the only Brown County resident to be killed in combat during the Vietnam War.
“When I got home, it was just like he didn’t even exist. Nobody wanted to talk about him and they didn’t want to hear about it,” O’Hara said.
When O’Hara started gathering information for a book about veterans affairs in Brown County, he found little to no information about his friend’s ultimate sacrifice.
“During that time frame, the Vietnam War was very unpopular. It’s not like it is today when somebody comes home. The only thing I found about Larry coming home was an article in The Democrat that stated he would be home in a few days and just the bare suggestion that maybe people ought to lower their flags to half-staff,” O’Hara said.
“What I found in history books does not make me feel well about him coming home. That bothered me for a long time. It really hurt my heart.”
In 1993, the Brown County Veterans Memorial was dedicated on the Brown County Courthouse lawn. O’Hara was asked to read his friend’s name.
“I was really upset, so I kind of scolded the crowd a little bit,” he said. “When I got done I made a smart-aleck remark to my mother about, ‘I told them, didn’t I?’ You know how mothers are, boy, she laid it to me right there on the courthouse square. She just asked me, ‘What have you done?’”
In 1993, O’Hara formed a committee with four other classmates to establish a lasting memorial to Banks, who people described as friendly, happy and handsome.
Around that time, O’Hara heard about a new gymnasium that was built in Virginia and named after a man who was killed in battle and earned a Silver Star. “That’s when the light bulb went on. I came home and told the guys, ‘We need to do the gym.’ Finally, a year later, it came to fruition and it’s grown ever since,” O’Hara said.
The Brown County High School gymnasium was dedicated as the Larry C. Banks Memorial Gymnasium on Veterans Day in 1994.
O’Hara and the committee also started collecting money for the Larry C. Banks Bronze Star Scholarship in 1994. It’s awarded more than $20,000 to 19 Brown County students.
Banks’ name is displayed outside on the front of the gymnasium and inside on the gymnasium floor.
Last week, to mark the 50th anniversary of Banks’ death, his name also went up on the side of the building that faces State Road 46.
“What I love about the decision to put it on the south side of the gymnasium facing 46 is that the entire community of Brown County passes by and will see that name … and will have the name of Larry C. Banks on their mind,” Superintendent Laura Hammack said.
District leaders want people to ask: Who is Larry C. Banks?
“It’s our commitment to continue to tell the story,” Hammack said.
“Genuinely, he is Brown County’s son who is the only one to have made that ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War. … When I hear Michael (O’Hara) talk about his best friend, and he tears up to this day, I have to know that this was an extraordinary guy,” Hammack said.
“I am so grateful that we get to continue to tell the story to our students.”
At the Community Veterans Day Program on Nov. 10, the student-led Brown County History Club presented a documentary they created about Banks’ life and service.
Banks’ sisters, Sandra Summers and Linda Pantoja, also attended the program; they were introduced by Banks’ great-niece and great-nephew high school students Emma Summers and Riley Arnholt.
O’Hara spoke about a Marine gunnery sergeant who was killed in battle. “He used to always tell his troops, ‘No one is ever dead until they are forgotten.’
“I am not going to let that happen to Larry,” O’Hara said.