A drive that will never be the same again
RICHMOND — A drive along state Route 152 in the rural Richmond-Toronto area will never be quite the same again for local sisters Sherry Hoobler and Pam Mettenberger.
And that’s because a stretch of highway between Jefferson County Road 56 and Township Road 249 is designated as “PFC George Dennis McClelland Memorial Highway.”
That tribute is to their brother, “Denny,” a part of “A” Company of the 3rd Engineer Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, who was killed in action in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, on June 23, 1969.
He was 20.
“When I go past it, Dennis and I salute,” Sherry said of her and her husband’s response when they drive by the marker that was erected in early September.
“Hi, Denny. I love you,” is what Pam says.
Although the marker was a sibling-supported pursuit, it was an effort initiated by Loretta Crouso Colflesh and Janet Yocum Hoobler, who were part of McClelland’s 1967 graduating class at Jefferson Union High School.
“They’re the ones who started it and got everything rolling,” Sherry said.
In messages sent through Facebook, the two classmates explained their role in the process and why it was important to see it come to fruition.
“Several years ago Loretta Colflesh and I, with the support of our ’67 JUHS Class, began the process of securing a commemorative road sign for our classmate, Denny McClelland,” Janet wrote. “The first step was to get his name on the list to be considered. In order to do this, we were required to contact the office of our Ohio House Representative, Jack Cera. After many months, Loretta received a call saying that the House Bill that included the commemorative road signs was tabled and would be addressed at a later time. It was about a year or so later that Jack Cera’s office sent an e-mail stating that House Bill 276 with the commemorative road signs was moving forward and would be going up for a vote soon,” she continued. “Early this year, we received notification telling us the bill had passed and would be signed into law March 4, 2020, by Gov. Mike DeWine. Family and friends were invited to observe the signing of the bill,” she added, describing it as a privilege to be in attendance for it.
“It is so very important that we never forget the sacrifice Denny and so many others have made to secure our freedom,” Janet wrote.
“My classmates and I were talking about the nice sign that was on state Route 43 in memory of Carl Bernhart and wondered why no sign was on state Route 152 for Denny,” Loretta began her comments. A Richmond resident and 1966 graduate of JUHS, Bernhart was 20 when he was killed under hostile ground fire on March 16, 1968, in Kontum, South Vietnam.
It was 2017 when the “Army Corporal Carl H. Bernhart Memorial Highway” marker was erected.
There was no McClelland marker acknowledgment simply because no one had tried to have one put up, according to Loretta, and that fueled the movement to do so.
“Gov. DeWine sent an invitation for the family or friends to come to the Capital building for the signing of the bill so that the sign would finally be put on Route 152,” Loretta noted. “The two sisters were not able to come because of illness so Janet and Bob Hoobler and I went, and it was a wonderful experience seeing government work. Gov. DeWine and his staff were wonderful. I am so glad we finally have a sign that is in memory of Denny who gave his life for us. We had many young men go to Vietnam from our high school, and they all gave a part of their life for us,” she wrote.
But Bernhart and McClelland made the ultimate sacrifice.
The classmates’ thoughtfulness to have a marker erected was appreciated by the sisters.
“I was surprised, very touched that they would do that because it is a lot of work to get it through,” Pam said recently as she and Sherry reminisced about their parents, the late Robert and Esther McClelland, and their brothers — Denny and Gary, who died of cancer in 1983.
It was an emotional day for the two sisters when they went to see the marker for the first time, accompanied by Sherry’s daughter Troylynn Boggs, who took pictures.
“We took a ride and went up to Knoxville to the cemetery where his gravesite is and the church is right there that he went to when he was little and then we came back and took a picture of the house and the high school,” Sherry said of the outing.
Where the marker is has significance.
“It was selected because it went past the home where we grew up,” Pam explained.
Sherry was the eldest of the McClelland children, then Gary, then Denny, then Pam, who was days shy of turning 12 when Denny died.
An age gap in the siblings prompts different memories, different perspectives.
“There were six years between me and Denny,” Sherry said. “He was a little curly haired baby that I carried around all the time. He was blonde.
“Denny was really funny. He was really quiet. I said I thought at times he lived in Gary’s shadow. This is just my memories, because Gary was so outgoing, and he was always the life of the party and Denny was kind of in his shadow, but he could be funny,” Sherry said. “He could get you to laugh,” she recalled of how he would put on a hat sometimes and imitate comedian Frankie Fontain’s character Crazy Guggenheim.
“I remember all that, and I remember when I had Troylynn and he was home from the service at that time, and he was holding her, she was just a baby before he went overseas, and a lot of the letters that I got from him, he’d always say how’s the little one,” Sherry said. “And he was a squirrel hunter. The year before he left, he got all these squirrels and put the squirrel tails on his antennae,” she laughed.
“He had an old station wagon,” Sherry continued, noting Denny worked as an orderly at Ohio Valley Hospital. His plan was to get a fancy Chevy and fix up his station wagon so he’d have “two cool cars,” she said.
Sherry married at 18.
“It was mostly him and me,” Pam said of the family dynamics, “because I was only 4 when Sherry got married, and I was 8 when Gary got married, so it was mostly Denny and me there in my memories of us in the household.” Denny was 8 years older than Pam.
“He was a good big brother,” Pam said. “We had moments,” she said with a chuckle. “We fought some because he would tease me, you know, but it was good natured fun, and I said I always admired him now that I’m older, but when he would have friends over, he’d let me hang out with them for a while, and they were boys. He’d let me hang out a little while and then I knew when to disappear, but he would take me to the gas station (Knoxville Carry Out) and get ice cream as soon as he could drive, and we would go to Swickard’s Meat Market and get a pop, because we didn’t have pop at home, so he would take me out and buy me pop,” Pam said.
Denny loved to fish and loved to play the guitar, Pam added. “He played it all the time,” she said, noting her son Jeff has the guitar as a keepsake. Denny had a close group of friends and was more content to be at home playing his guitar, according to Pam, who can draw personality parallels between her own two sons as she does her two brothers.
Denny didn’t wait to be drafted but anticipated it. He enlisted in the Marines. Mom put on “a good face,” they said when that happened. Dad understood service to country, having been in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
Denny’s decision to enlist brought reserved reactions from parents who were emotionally conservative.
He entered the service Oct. 21, 1968, heading for basic training at Parris Island, S.C., and attending engineering school at Camp Lejuene, N.C. He was stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., before leaving for Vietnam. He celebrated his 20th birthday in Okinawa en route there, arriving April 27, 1969.
Sherry recalled that after Denny had been to Camp Lejuene, he came home different.
“It was like this young boy was a man — that was my memory of it, and I thought who is this man now. He was always smaller than Gary but when he came home after training, he was actually a little bit taller than Gary and more muscular. It was like he is now a man so that memory of him coming home on leave before he was sent on to San Francisco is something I have,” Sherry said.
There are letters the two sisters look at occasionally and other memorabilia, all of which they intend to have be part of a future dedication/memorial service in light of the highway marker being erected.
The letters bring memories good and bad.
“One of the letters I got from him, he said something about when he got over there and things got a little tough, he said, what was I thinking by enlisting,” Sherry said.
“You go through all the emotions,” Sherry said. “When I went through the letters, you laugh because of some of the things he wrote, and then you’re sad because of some of the things he wrote, and you cry because of the outcome. It’s too difficult to do even after all these years,” she said.
Denny and Gary were close, according to the sisters. “There were two years between them, and so they were different, but they hung out together,” Sherry said.
Pam said her mother had a stack of letters written to her by Denny. “He always started his letters with ‘Mom, I’m OK.'”
Denny’s job in Vietnam was that of a mine sweeper with a certain road to patrol.
“It was very frightening from the letters, that he would get up in the morning and that would be what his job would be,” Sherry said. “The mine sweeper looks like a metal detector and so he said in one of the letters that they had to be awful careful. Sometimes they would blow up before they got there but they weren’t close enough to be hurt but that’s exactly how he was killed.”
As a member of a mine sweep team that went over 4 miles of road each morning, checking for hostile devices, Denny suffered fragmentation wounds of the head from hostile mines while on a road sweep near Vandegrifft Combat Base, Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, according to his obituary.
“We were all afraid when he came home of what we would see, if we could see anything, and he looked like Denny sleeping. It was just that one piece that killed him, so there was no other damage that we could see,” Sherry said.
News of his death came June 29, 1969, when two visitors came to the house, Pam said. “I saw them coming, and I went back and said, ‘Mom, Rev. Winnett’s here with a Marine, and she immediately started crying because she knew, so she came out and they sat her down, and Rev. Winnett said, ‘Is your Dad here?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘You need to go get him.'”
Sherry recalled how her parents and Pam later came to her house in Richmond. “As soon as I saw their faces, I thought I don’t want to hear this, please don’t tell me this. I can remember I went in to my shower because I was trying to be strong for them, and as soon as they left, I went into my shower and I can remember saying this can’t be, it can’t be, but it was.”
Pam said, “I remember my dad, he excused himself and went to the back of the house, and I could hear him just wail, which was devastating to me because I had never even seen a tear from my dad. He was not an emotional type person,” Pam said.
“And mom, she changed,” Sherry said. “There for a while, I was very concerned about her. I really feel she had an emotional breakdown,” she said.
No one really talked about what had happened. “We were taught don’t cry, be tough, you’ll get through this so that’s what my memories were,” Sherry said.
“I remember my mom was always there for me,” Pam said after listening to Sherry’s comment about their mother. “I had nightmares for a long time.”
Afterward, their father drew closer to Gary, who didn’t pass the physical for the military and was married with a baby. Denny’s death left Gary with survivor’s remorse, that it should have been him instead of his brother.
After Gary died, the sisters said their parents “just existed,” having buried two sons.
“There was always an emptiness in them, you could see it,” Sherry said.
Denny’s name is inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Panel 22w, Line 123.
Web searches of his name produce military connections, including on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website where his service information and photo are posted.
There also are opportunities for visitors to post comments.
One is from Norman Breth, a veteran himself who wrote: “I remember coming home from Vietnam in September of 1969. I went to the J.U. homecoming game and ran into his dad, Robert, at the concession stand. After an awkward few seconds, he hugged me and said “welcome home.” As I pulled back, I saw a tear in his eye, that was when I found out that Denny had died only a few months before that. To this day, that is the only “welcome home” that I felt came right from the heart. Denny is buried a few feet from my Mom and Dad, and when I visit their graves, I always visit Denny’s, too.
“I have always wondered what kind of man he would have become.”