Just west of Appleton, a couple hundred feet south of where Highway 96 crosses Outagamie County Trunk Highway M in the tiny town of Medina, there’s a small and neatly-kept little sanctuary called Armitage Park. It was set up by Tom Armitage’s parents, who lived in the house next door to the park, in memory of their son who was killed in action at age 20 in Quang Tri Province, Viet Nam, on the 12th of February 1969.
Tom was a grade-school pal who died, they say, when he threw himself on a grenade to save the lives of his rifle squad. Tom was born the 4th of April, 1948, was drafted in ‘68, sent to Viet Nam, and died on his first tour. He was a Rifleman with G Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines.
He was one of the many unsung heroes of that horrible war.
I got an e-mail Monday from another of my grade school pals, Mike, pointing me to Tom’s page on the “Virtual Wall”, which commemorates each of the 58-thousand-plus who died in Viet Nam. You can find it at www.virtualwall.org and look up the name of any soldier who died in the war.
My friend Mike and I have similar memories of Tom. He was of average height and weight in grade school, but he got picked on a lot. He was a fun kid who had some unusual mannerisms and ideas. It’s the same now as it was back in the late 50’s – grade school is very much a place where conformity is currency. Mike and I were both bigger and taller than the average grade school kid. We both liked Tom, and often came to his defense when other kids picked on him or tried to bully him.
One of Tom’s favorite phrases was “Smarter than the average bear”….and he’d say it just like voice actor Daws Butler (a contemporary of, and collaborator with Stan Freeberg) did, as the Yogi Bear character on the Huckleberry Hound TV cartoon show. Tom just liked the sound of it, but I think the other kids thought he was trying to tell them he was smarter than them.
As near as we could tell, Tom had a little container of shoestring potatoes for lunch every day. Once in a while, one of the kids would make a quick trip to one of the stores on the main drag of Hortonville over the lunch hour, and Tom would always ask whoever was going to bring him back a 5-cent bag of Planters Peanuts. More than once Tom borrowed a nickel from me to get his peanuts, and he always paid me back.
Invariably, after the promised peanuts were delivered, Tom would stomp on the bag and smash the peanuts to small pieces. His explanation was “you get more for your money that way” - the sort of harmless eccentricity that most grade school kids abhor.
I lost track of Tom after grade school. He didn’t go to Hortonville High; I’m not even sure where his folks sent him for high school. But I remember the day my dad told me Tom had been killed in action in Viet Nam. My dad, a decorated WW2 vet, was no fan of that Asian war, and groused about good soldiers being killed by bureaucrats trying to run a war from thousands of miles away.
That rotten war that ended 35 years ago this month and took the lives of so many of the young men I grew up with or knew as a college student. It still angers me. What a horrible, horrible waste.
Marine Rifleman Thomas Leon Armitage, decorated war hero, rest in peace. Your friends still remember you, and we thank you for your service to our nation.