On Tuesday, three men will present the local American Legion with a collection of medals awarded to a McComb man killed in Vietnam — a collection that almost wound up in the trash.
Whitney Rawlings, Harold Blossman and Don Bullock will make the presentation at the 7 p.m. meeting of American Legion Harry Harvey Post No. 14 at the Legion Hut on Lakeshore Drive. They will honor the memory of Van Vernon Trantham III, who was killed in Vietnam on Aug. 7, 1967.
“This guy serving our country in Vietnam, the hell hole that it was, dies at age 23,” Rawlings said. “These are medals that he earned. They’re worth preserving. Harry Harvey Post is going to do that. It’s an appropriate place for it.”
Blossman said he found the medals when he, his wife and son bought a house on Laurel Street in 2013 with plans to fix it up as a rental. It was “heavily trashed,” and they put boxes out on the curb for pickup.
Blossman was about to take a box out when he noticed a pair of military medals and a faded Army memorial certificate with Trantham’s name.
“It didn’t mean anything to me because I wasn’t here back then,” Blossman said. “I checked with the person who knew everybody in McComb — Bess Simmons.”
It turned out the longtime Enterprise-Journal columnist, who died last year, had gone to J.J. White Memorial Presbyterian Church with Trantham’s family. However, she didn’t know what had become of his parents.
Blossman then contacted Rawlings, who goes to J.J. White, but he didn’t know anything either.
Rawlings took the medals to Don Bullock to have framed, and the men did some research. They learned that Trantham was born in McComb to Van V. Trantham Jr. and Mable Trantham on Oct. 6, 1943. He went to McComb High School and played basketball.
“The tall, handsome young man was widely known,” said an article in the Aug. 11, 1967, Enterprise-Journal. “His height and agility had made him an outstanding basketball player on successive Tiger squads.”
Rawlings found a Class of 1961 yearbook and discovered Trantham was named Most Valuable Player in his senior year. In a team photo, “he’s head and shoulders higher than other players,” Rawlings said, noting Trantham stood 6 feet, 3 inches tall.
Trantham attended Southwest Mississippi Community College, Millsaps and Delta State.
“He lacked but one semester credit for graduation when he entered the Army Jan. 25,” the Enterprise-Journal article said.
“He received training at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Jackson, S.C., before leaving for Vietnam.”
Trantham’s tour of duty in Vietnam began June 28, 1967, according to military records. He was a private first class in B Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division.
On Aug. 7, a little over a month after arriving, he was killed “as a result of metal fragment wounds from a hostile mortar round while on night perimeter defense,” the article said.
Trantham died in Binh Long Province, South Vietnam, according to military records.
He was buried on a family plot in Belzoni Cemetery in the Mississippi Delta. Rawlings got to stop by the cemetery recently.
“His father is buried right next to him. His father died in December ’67” at around age 52, just four months after his son’s death.
Trantham’s mother remained in McComb, where she died Sept. 14, 1994, at age 85. She was buried in Belzoni Cemetery as well.
She was a retired sewing machine operator for Kellwood Co. and a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Auxiliary. Rawlings said her husband was no doubt a railroad man from Belzoni who had been working in McComb.
The Tranthams had no other children.
“Bess said after her son died she didn’t come out any more,” Blossman said.
Research also revealed that Trantham had earned several medals in addition to the two Blossman found. Bullock was able to get replicas and mount them all in a frame along with the certificate.
The medals include a Purple Heart, Bronze Star with a V for valor, Combat Infantry Badge, Marksmanship Badge, National Defense Medal, plus service and campaign medals from the Republic of Vietnam.
The certificate cites Trantham’s “honorable service in the Armed Forces of the United States of America” and is “in grateful memory of Private First Class Van Vernon Trantham III, who died while in the service of our country as a member of the Army of the United States on the 7th day of August, 1967. This certificate is awarded as a testimonial of honest and faithful service.”
It was signed by Stanley R. Resor, Secretary of the Army.
Trantham was not forgotten in McComb. When the McComb High School Class of 1961 held its 40th class reunion, it listed him among its deceased members.
Another Enterprise-Journal columnist, Ann Jackson, was a classmate of Trantham’s and wrote about him in a May 25, 2014, Memorial Day article.
“While I was in school at McComb High, one of my favorite people was Van Trantham,” Jackson wrote. “He was huge of stature but a truly gentle giant. He and I attended biology class together in the last period of the school day. Our instructor was David Strong, now Dr. David Strong of Brookhaven, father of Judge David Strong. Van and I sat in the very back of the classroom doing a lot of talking and laughing. He was full of life and very intelligent — just a genuine nice guy.”
Blossman has no idea how a box of Trantham’s effects wound up in the house on Laurel Street. He checked with two prior owners and neither knew. Trantham’s parents had lived on Michigan Avenue.
“I was this close to ‘Bring it to the street,’ ” he said of the box. “I said, ‘I’m going to go through it.’ ”
“I’m so grateful he didn’t throw out the box,” Rawlings said.