April 6th, 1970 – Sometime after dark.
A group of eight Vietnamese children ranging in age from 4 to 11 years old trudge through the dense vegetation that surrounds their village in the Tra Khe area in the Quang Nam province. They are carrying knapsacks with contents supplied by the Viet Cong. Their bags contain an assortment of wire, cans and no delay grenades. These children are not soldiers, they do not hate. The children have one thing in common with the American soldiers they are setting booby traps for and that is that they want to live.
The children move about in the thick heat and enveloping darkness that can only be attributed to April 6th being the start of the new moon phase. This means no illumination in the least. The adolescents remember where they have seen American soldiers move and begin to place the rudimentary explosives like macabre gifts in the night. The explosives, once hidden, are marked with a “V” made of rocks somewhere before it on the trail.
After repeating this process of placing booby traps a handful of times in various locations the children abscond back to their homes. They are safe for now and they have put food on the table for their families, albeit it most likely consisting of black market C-rations. The children and their families sit in the good graces of the VC for the moment.
April 7th, 1970 – The Cemetery - 8:00 PM.
Lt. Dan Kellum has been in the bush with Echo Company 2/3 Marines for about a month by the time April of 1970 rolls through the rocket belt that lies around the outskirts of Da Nang. Kellum and his Marines are set up for another uncertain night in the bush. At least this time his squad has the moderate cover of an old Vietnamese cemetery. The two other components of Marine outfit in the area are patrolling a few clicks south.
For the Marines it is simply another muggy, dark and unpredictable evening. It also does not instill confidence in the men that they arrived late to their zone and did not have time to do any reconnaissance. Usually when the squad would enter a new area they would have time to study the terrain and fly helicopters over the AO to get a mental picture. This knowledge of the land is invaluable and is vital to survival. April 7th, unfortunately, required these soldiers to do without the luxury of spatial awareness and clarity.
April 7th, 1970 – One click south of the cemetery. 8:10 PM.
A short distance south of the cemetery PFC Charles Fraley is alert and leading 3rd squad to the ambush site as he has done religiously for the past nine months of his deployment. It is very strange for a soldier to walk point for nine months because it is the most dangerous job but also one allocated primarily to the greenest troops. However, Charlie was good at keeping his brothers safe and an expert at stealing the lethality of VC ordinance. The Echo Co. 2/3 Marines look up to twenty one year old Charlie Fraley. Some men think he is invincible, others think he is too confident.
Charlie is often tasked with teaching the most recent additions to the group the ropes of taking point. This night is no different. Charlie leads 3rd squad through the dense vegetation by shooting azimuths and pacing off predetermined distances to establish checkpoints.
The 3rd squad finally reaches the thin blue line demarcated on the map. The line on the gridded paper represents a stream with a suspended bridge that spans the width of the moving water. Charlie has failed twice now to find a way across the river and been stopped by the natural and unruly jungle vegetation. Charlie tells the squad that is in a single file behind him to wait for him to go ahead. He steps off an embankment that borders the blue line in hopes of finding way to get himself and his brothers safely to the other side.
April 7, 1970 – The Cemetery – 8:18 PM.
The thick heat and suppressive darkness is split with medical precision by an agonizing outcry. The sound travels from the south. Lt. Kellum knows 3rd squad is in that area. He thinks to himself, “better them than my boys.” The PRC-25 radio comes to life with Echo 2/3’s radioman explaining the situation. The word is that Echo’s point man is down with shrapnel in his legs. Kellum fears the worst, as he knows, more likely than not, Echo 2/3’s guardian angel has fallen. Kellum and his men wait.
“Foxtrot-four-zero-nine-five,” the radio perks up. Kellum’s heart sinks. The foxtrot stands for the ‘f’ in Fraley and the four numerals are the last four of his social security number. The invincible point man’s luck had run aground.
Mike Shuck, a Navy Corpsman, makes his way up the trail toward Charlie. Charlie’s back is on the embankment he had just stepped off. His legs took the majority of the shrapnel and when he fell back the rest of the swift metal came to rest in the bank. The squad reacts and secures an emergency airlift for their comrade.
Charlie is breathing but disoriented as he is placed in a Sea Knight medevac helicopter. A pair of AH-1G gunships circles the Sea Knight as it leaves for Da Nang Field Surgical Hospital. Charlie has lost a lot of blood but the tourniquet was applied quickly. The men are relatively optimistic about the Marines fate as the trio of choppers fade out.
The extraction is successful. The pilots, corpsman and surgeons have reacted with a deft ability to do their individual tasks. As a result, a wounded soldier was saved. One of Charlie’s legs was later amputated and the other weakened severely.
April 8th, 1970 – Da Nang Field Surgical Hospital
Charlie Fraley of Milledgeville, Georgia awakens in an environment that is far from what he last remembers. The young man, although mostly likely still under heavy drugs and battling exhaustion, is now forced to face his worst fear. His legs are bandaged, one of which has been partially amputated. Upon Charlie’s realization, the young Marine’s body goes into shock.Disbelief perhaps. He dies shortly after.
Charlie did not die in a murky rice paddy or behind a sandbag. He met eternal rest in a sterile recovery room on a hospital bed. He was not afraid of death or danger. He was terrified of being a handicapped ex-warrior who would have to live the rest of his life in the sweltering heat of oppression in a little southern town. That is what Lt. Dan Kellum believes in his minds eye, at least. Especially because Charlie had jokingly told his fellow soldiers he would rather go all at once than be left a cripple. Six other Marines died on April 8th in Vietnam.
April 13th, 1970- Quang Nam Province – 10:40 AM
An explosion is heard by the Echo 3/2 Marines while doing a company move. The Captain sent out a group to find the source of the noise and trudged off toward what they believed was the correct direction. Upon arrival, Echo 3/2 found eight Vietnamese children estimated to be between 4 and ll years old. Five of these children were seriously wounded and one lost a limb. When questioned the children were candid about the fact they were setting booby traps for Echo Company to stumble into. Each child was huddled around the no-delay grenade went off. The three uninjured kids explained they had been very active in setting traps in the area of Tra Khe. This event took place 200 meters from where Charlie went down. After this incident the Marines saw a drastic decrease in booby traps in the area.
Late April, 1970 – Union Baptist Church, Milledgeville.
Charlie’s funeral was held in the Union Baptist Church, which sits a block south of Bone Cemetery. As the long ceremony came to a close, the mourners and a Marine honor guard traveled the short distance to the plot purchased by the Mullins brothers, Charlie’s Uncles. The family and community laid the man in the plot next to his father, Joseph Mullins. The Marine honor guard disrupted the stillness of the cemetery by firing a round for each of the years the young man’s life.
The Union Recorder published a two-sentence obituary when word of his death reached Milledgeville.
The brief obituary says Charles Fraley was a victim of the Vietnam War. The statement is detestably untrue. Charles Fraley was casualty of war. A war that the young man deemed worth the risk to join in hopes of a better life. Charlie is an American hero who made the ultimate sacrifice. He was not drafted and he was not forced to walk point that dark April night. A victim does not have a choice, a hero has free will.
Charlie’s death marked over 54 years worth of family military involvement from both the Fraley and Mullins sides of the family. Charlie viewed the Corps as a way out of Milledgeville and a gateway to a better future. Those who knew Charlie remember him as a driven young man with a stern façade, which could be broken down over time. Charlie’s uncle, Henry Fraley, was in Okinawa when WWII was over and lost a leg in a Jeep accident. Henry lived the rest of his life in Milledgeville. This may be a factor into why Charlie’s biggest fear was to be crippled. Especially being handicapped in a town with almost no industry and few opportunities for African Americans.
Charlie’s grave sits on the east side of the all-Black Bone Cemetery that is bordered by Fraley Avenue. His headstone is the standard white rectangle given to American Service members. The headstone reads, “Charles Albert Fraley,” under an encircled cross.
Charlie was never married. However, his family strongly suspects that he had a child. After his death, the family never tried to find the child that could carry Charlie’s namesake. The family suspects another man raised the child as his own.