'A spunky kid who wasn't afraid of anything'
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
Corporal John C. Silver was on combat duty with the 101st Airborne Division near the Cambodian border on May 16, 1967, when he exposed himself to enemy fire. He was killed attempting to save the life of a wounded member of his unit.
The young man who had graduated with Wadena's Class of 1965 was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. He was laid to rest in the Wadena Cemetery with the military supplying a marker.
For the last half-century that Silver has been gone, his high school friends and classmates have been living their lives—attending colleges and technical schools, building careers, marrying, raising families, buying homes and cars and taking vacations. Many of them are still in the Wadena area.
Earlier this year, two of Silver's high school classmates, Dave Steiner and Rich Malone, put together a letter to the Class of 1965 and mailed it out. They had established the John Silver Memorial Fund at Wadena State Bank. Their goal was to purchase a memorial for their fallen classmate—an engraved bench—and place it at the cemetery near his grave.
Steiner was a very close friend of Silver's and Malone was on the same wrestling team. The two men, now 70 years of age, had gotten together and shared their thoughts on the lives they have lived and what Silver missed out on. Fifty years after Silver's death in combat, they came up with their own mission.
Their classmates did not fail them. A sum of $5,600 was donated. Many classmates sent letters with their donations pledging more money for the memorial in case it was needed.
"Many people who hardly spoke to him in high school gave $100," Malone said. "He was just a likable kid."
Enough money was donated that Steiner and Malone purchased the bench for the cemetery and were also able to provide the Wadena VFW Club with funds for a second engraved bench at Veterans Park in Wadena. A brick with Silver's name has also been placed on the fringe of the park's patio. Large black walls of stone on the patio bear the names of Wadena area service men and women. Silver's name is among them.
"Dick and I were both touched by the response we got," Steiner said. "After half a century that people still remembered him I think speaks a lot about his personality."
Silver was the only son and the youngest of five children born to Clyde and Inez Silver. The Silvers lived in southwest Wadena. Steiner recalled the family did not own a car.
The three-sport athlete lost his father in his final year of high school and worked part-time at the National Tea Food Store to help support his family. After graduation from high school, he got a job with Kimberly-Clark, a personal care corporation specializing in paper products. The job took him out to California. Steiner recalled Silver telling him that he liked his job with Kimberly-Clark and was making a lot more money than he could in Wadena.
With the war in Vietnam dominating the news, the day came when Silver decided to enlist. He was assigned to the elite 101st Airborne. Silver was only of medium height and build but he had an outstanding training record. He had applied for officer's training school but a broken leg had derailed that dream.
There were few things as unpopular in the United States as the Vietnam War when the 101st Airborne was deployed to the war-torn country in southeast Asia. Anti-war protests were held all over the nation and the chant "hell no, we won't go" was on many lips as a military draft pulled young men into the armed forces. Draft cards were being burned and soldiers returning from Vietnam were being berated by the public. Muhammed Ali lost his world heavyweight boxing title that year when he refused induction into the U.S. Army. By the end of the year, more than 485,000 American troops would be on duty in Vietnam.
The horrors of war were being brought right into people's homes for the first time by the medium of television. Inez Silver had a map of Vietnam tacked up on the wall near her TV so she could quickly reference it. Malone believes that lies about the number of U.S. casualties were being fed to the American people by the military.
"They were really lying to us about how many died," Malone said. "There were nurses that knew 300 died in one day but they were telling us 100 died in one week. The military did not want us to know what kind of price we were paying."
Despite the anger and unrest, there were some who thought the United States had an obligation to aid South Vietnam in their war with North Vietnam. One of those men was Cpl. John Silver.
"He wrote me letters when he was over there to that effect," Steiner recalled. "He really thought we were doing the right thing over there."
Steiner received the news of Silver's death from a former classmate. So shaken was he when he reached Steiner that he blurted out, "Dave Steiner has been killed."
"Wow, that was news to me," Steiner said.
Dave's father, who was a Methodist minister, conducted the funeral service when Silver's body was returned to Wadena. After the funeral, a letter from Silver's commanding officer arrived explaining the circumstances of his death. Silver had died a hero.
"I remember my dad said he wished he would have known the circumstances of his death before the funeral because he would have changed the tone of the service a little bit," Steiner said.
Steiner recalls his parents accompanied the Silvers to the decoration ceremony.
One day while Steiner was at work in the Twin Cities 27 years after Silver's death he was called out of surgery to take a phone call from a member of the 101st who had known Silver. The Vietnam vet was going through a 12-point program and wanted to talk to members of John's family to help his recovery. Suddenly, Steiner found himself wrestling with the same emotions he had felt in 1967.
"It brought it all back to me," Steiner said.
So Silver died a hero. His family received his medals and his classmates have honored his sacrifice.
But who was he?
"He was a spunky kid who wasn't afraid of anything," Malone said.
He was 20 years old.