JACKSON — It seems an unlikely place for hallowed ground, but wooded paths behind the Jackson Harley-Davison dealership lead deep into American history — and the human heart.
It’s called the “Trail of Honor: A Tribute to American Veterans,” and it’s held here each year, with exhibits from every American war from the French and Indian Wars to the latest conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
On Friday, Vietnam veteran Ramon Morgan of Amite County made his annual trip to the trail, this time accompanied by his neighbor, Jewel Watts. Morgan, 77, served with the Green Berets in the early 1960s.
The two had no sooner arrived Friday when they ran into another Amite County veteran, Doyle Whitehead of Gloster, who served as an Air Force steward aboard Air Force One with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. He has his own exhibit at the Trail of Honor, and on May 25 will tell his story for the Library of Congress in Baton Rouge.
When he and Morgan met, the stories began immediately.
Whitehead recalled flying with a three-star general in Vietnam in 1966 when he got word that six Green Berets had been found murdered north of Saigon. Whitehead’s crew had to pick them up and put them in body bags.
He described in detail how the North Vietnamese had mutilated the corpses.
“It was awful, awful,” he said.
“We were supposed to treat them well and they treated us like ****,” Morgan said.
This was going to be an emotional journey.
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Provided with a golf cart to ride the trail, Watts and Morgan set out behind the Harley building, where two dirt roads led into the woods.
To the left were exhibits of wars of the 19th century, including the French and Indian War, Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Texas War of Independence, Mexican-American War, Civil War and Spanish American War.
To the right were conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, including World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm.
Watts and Morgan passed old vehicles from WWI, a command tent from WWII, and got out at Vietnam exhibits, which included a crude wooden guard tower and the hulk of a crashed Huey helicopter, the type Morgan flew in in Vietnam.
In one incident, Morgan had to bail out of a twin-engine helicopter just before it crash-landed after taking fire. As if to awaken such memories, Huey and Cobra helicopters roared overhead back and forth, taking people on rides.
Three uniformed volunteers were busy setting up an exhibit but stopped when they saw Morgan’s Airborne cap, shook his hand and thanked him for his service.
The trail led past a bamboo cage with a mannequin inside, and a wooden shack with another, both representing prisoners of war.
Next was a pair of large tents full of Vietnam memorabilia, including guns.
“We could carry anything we wanted,” Morgan recalled. “I carried a submachine gun, a 12-gauge riot gun with double-aught buckshot, but my favorite was an M2 carbine with a switch for semiautomatic or automatic. I’d tape three 30-round magazines together.”
One table was covered with wooden crossbows and bamboo arrows used by Montagnard tribesmen of Vietnam. Morgan recognized the weapons instantly. He had worked as an advisor with the Montagnards, who sided with Americans against the North Vietnamese.
Busy setting up the exhibit was a grizzled man named John Hosier from St. Louis.
“This is my personal collection,” Hosier said.
He was a paratrooper in Vietnam severely wounded by shrapnel in a firefight in 1967. When he recovered, he wanted to return to active duty but was sent in as a combat photographer instead. As a photographer he was allowed to ship items home, so during his stay he sent a huge variety to his grandmother’s house.
After the war he battled Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and stashed his photos in the attic — until one day his 11-year-old daughter asked him to speak to her fifth-grade class for Veterans Day. Hosier reluctantly complied, and to his shock entered the classroom to find a banner saying welcome home.
“All these kids stood up and saluted me and they came up and thanked me,” he said.
Unknown to him, his daughter had taken some of his photos out of the attic to display.
“She said, ‘Daddy, these aren’t your pictures. These pictures belong to everybody, and God wants you to let people see them.’ ”
The next day Hosier learned his grandmother had died, and he found his Vietnam collection well preserved in a storage shed. He was later asked to display them at events like the Trail of Honor.
“This is a place of healing and closure,” he said. “It’s a place where you can go and see something, and if it tugs at your heart, you can cry and it’s safe.”
It took Hosier a long time to find healing after the war.
Though he hadn’t graduated from high school before going to Vietnam, Hosier went on to get a Ph.D with graduate work on the Vietnam War and Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
One day a student asked Hosier to go with him to Vietnam to look for the site where his father had crashed. Hosier reluctantly went, despite attacks of anxiety. He met with a warm reception and wound up meeting not only some of the men he had fought against but the very man who had shot him.
“Miracles happened. No more nightmares,” Hosier said.
“I re-established a connection with Jesus Christ — in Vietnam! ... It was a healing thing. We went all over the country and made peace and forgiveness.”
Hosier wound up moving with his family to Hanoi for three years. Now he leads small groups of veterans on two-week trips to Vietnam.
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After visiting with Hosier, Morgan took a seat in the shade while Watts went to inquire about the Vietnam memorial wall in the next clearing.
Asked how all this was affecting him, Morgan said, “Got my heart going about 200 miles an hour. I did shed some tears (during Hosier’s story). Brought back memories.”
Watts was looking to find the name of a distant relative, Robert Blount of Livingston Parish, La., who was killed in the Vietnam War. Blount’s was one of 58,000 names on the wall, but a register book tells how to locate individuals.
Volunteer Phillip D’Avy of Jackson led Watts to the name and helped him make a rubbing.
The wall travels around the United States “so people that can’t go to Washington can see this,” D’Avy said, citing a 72-year-old woman who had found her son’s name on it.
On Friday, an opening ceremony was held for the traveling wall, with a brief speech by Copiah County Sheriff Harold Jones, a Vietnam veteran and retired Mississippi Highway Patrol pilot.
Jones recalled being posted at an Army mortuary in Saigon where the bodies of American soldiers were received, identified and prepared for shipment home. The memories still bring tears to the seasoned sheriff.
“It was the most solemn place I have ever been in my life,” he said. “To this very day I can see those boys.”
Earl Rottman owns the Harley dealership and, though not a veteran, has hosted the Trail of Honor for 17 years. Admission is free, and he provides golf carts and bottled water to visitors. Food and T-shirts are also available.
Project director David McElroy, who works at the dealership, has a license plate on his motorcycle that reads NVR4GT.
“That’s why we’re here,” he said. “So that we never forget.”
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The Trail of Honor continues 9 am. to 5 p.m. today and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Harley-Davidson of Jackson, 3509 Interstate 55 South, Exits 90-A and 90-B. Admission is free. Call 601-372-5770 for details.