By Susan Bromley
Brandon Twp.- Nearly 50 years ago, on the July 4 weekend of 1967, an American aircraft in Vietnam mistook James Thomas Sutton and four of his fellow U.S. Marines in Vietnam as the enemy and dropped a bomb on them.
Sutton survived the incident, but he wouldn’t survive the war. After more than three months in a Vietnam hospital recovering from his dislocated hip and internal injuries, he was returned to combat. On April 17, 1968, 10 days short of the 1-year anniversary of the start of his tour, only a month before he was to return home, and two months after his 20th birthday, Lance Corporal Sutton was killed by hostile gunfire.
James Thomas Sutton, a 1966 Brandon High School graduate, is one of more than 2,600 names on the Michigan Vietnam Veterans Traveling Memorial, which will be on display June 24 at the Brandon Township Community Park, 1414 N. Hadley Road.
In 2005 Staff Sgt Kurt Damrow, of the 127th Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard, created the memorial in memory of Navy GMG3 Oliver Damrow of Kinde, Mich. Damrow was killed in action during his second tour of duty in Vietnam.
Sutton is just one of 58,489 names on Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. and among 2,654 soldiers from Michigan. The names on the Michigan traveling memorial are etched on five-eight foot panels spanning about 25 feet. Unique to the display are several notebooks that include pictures and other information about the soldiers. There about about 300 individuals on the memorial for which photos are still being sought.
“He was a good big brother,” said Sherry Blair, Sutton’s sister and a 1969 BHS graduate who now lives in Sun City, Ariz. “He was very athletic, played lots of sports in school. He was very, very popular, one of those people that others liked to be around. He had a magnetic personality.”
Sutton went by Tom, but his sister liked his first name James, so in a compromise, she called him “JT.” Her brother played baseball, football and basketball at Brandon, and enjoyed watching football with their father. She recalls that he took her and their younger sister, Paula, to the drive-in to see Elvis Presley movies a few times before he left for Vietnam, a year after his graduation.
“He joined the Marines because he wanted to be the best,” said Blair. “He was my parents’ only son and they didn’t want him to be sent over to serve in Vietnam, but since there was a male cousin to carry on the family name, (military officials) said he could go.”
He began his tour April 27, 1967 and when he was wounded just over two months later, his mother, Mary, told him to get on a plane and come home, but sadly, her wish to see her son return safely wouldn’t happen.
“He tried to make light of things, he didn’t ever say how bad things were,” recalled Blair. “We were worried all the time, watching the news was a nightly thing to see what was going on.”
Blair treasures letters her brother sent home, including a letter he sent his paternal aunt who had been a missionary at one time. In it, he tells her that he had gone to Vietnam as an agnostic, but found his belief in God in Vietnam, particularly after the bombs dropped on him and his comrades didn’t kill him.
He would not be so lucky twice.
Blair vividly remembers the Sunday night in spring 1968 that she returned from a weekend class trip to New York City and learned she had lost her brother. As the chaperone dropped her off, her parents appeared at the door.
“They were bawling— the Marines had just left,” she said. “I knew what it was and I took off running. I thought, ‘If I’m not here, I don’t have to deal with it.’”
James Thomas Sutton died April 17, 1968, his sister’s 17th birthday. One month later, his body was returned home to be buried in his final resting place, the Ortonville Cemetery.
Blair recalls her parents visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Blair’s father, George died five years ago and her sister, Paula, passed unexpectedly last September. Although Blair has not visited the Wall in Washington, D.C., she saw a traveling Vietnam memorial with her mother, who is still living, as well as her sister several years ago in Phoenix.
“I was sad and proud to see it,” she said. “I am proud that he wanted to go and serve his country and do what he thought was the right thing to do.”
For more information, visit www.virtualwall.org.
By Susan Bromley