Vietnam - Angel of Death

Friday, July 26, 2002

Harry Spiller recruited Marines for an unpopular war and gave bad news to anguished families.

By Sam Blackwell ~ Southeast Missourian

Ten years ago, Vietnam War veteran Harry Spiller published a memoir of his days in country. Titled "Death Angel," the book also delved into the guilt he felt as a Marine recruiter stationed in Cape Girardeau who had to deliver death notices to the families of boys he had recruited.

Now Spiller has written "Vietnam: Angel of Death," a book that digs much further into his own experiences as a Marine recruiter and into the lives and deaths of some of those he recruited.

As a recruiter, Spiller did not develop the insensitivity some others had.

"Well, we'll plant this one and see if we can recruit one to replace him. The name of the game is to stay ahead," said one recruiter riding in the motorcade to one recruit's burial.

For Spiller the experience was devastating. "I began to feel responsible for the lives lost," he writes. He threw his uniforms away after leaving the Marine Corps in 1973. But, he says, "It's an experience you can't ever forget. I've heard people say, 'I'm going to put this behind me.' You can't put it behind you."

Writing about it and telling the stories of the families and young men has helped him, Spiller says. But, he adds, "This is more the experience of what happened to the people I dealt with than my experience."

KIA, killed in action, was the term they used. One day in May 1968, he and a minister went looking for Velma and Otto Dobbs in Chaffee, Mo., to tell them their 21-year-old son, Cpl. Ronald Dobbs, had been killed in action. The Marine and the minister were waiting when a car pulled into the driveway.

Spiller writes: "It was Otto and Velma. They looked at me for a moment, and then Mrs. Dobbs began crying uncontrollably. Mr. Dobbs got out of the car. 'Don't say it. Just don't say it,' he said."

Spiller recruited at least nine men from Marquand, Mo., meeting with them at the three oak trees at the edge of the Creek Rock parking lot in the middle of town. Three were killed in action.

One of them was Pfc. Clifford D. Combs, whose excitement on the day he enlisted is recounted. Six months later he was dead.

"These were my experiences in Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois, but this was going on all over the country," Spiller says.

Spiller lives in Marion, Ill., and teaches criminal justice and government at John A. Logan College in Carterville. He is the former sheriff of Williamson County in Illinois.

Many books have been written about the Vietnam War from the perspective of being in it, he says. "There hasn't been anything written about the experience at home, the perspective of the families, the casualties and the effects of the war."

The book was just published by Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University. It is available at the University Bookstore, Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks or through the Center for Regional History at 651-2833.

335-6611, extension 182

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