“You never forget the first person you see get killed,” Danny said. “Especially when it’s one of your guys.”
Danny Long is a retired police officer, a Vietnam veteran, and an answer to prayer.
At 19 years old, Danny was already on the battlefield in Vietnam when a tall, thin, young man with glasses joined his platoon.
“He had those thick, black military glasses,” Danny remembers. “He had tape on the part that goes over your nose. I remember that. He had already broken them apparently.”
We Called Him Jimmy
Those thick, black glasses belonged to James Larry Downs of Toney, Alabama. He had only been in Vietnam for a few weeks, but that didn’t matter. Bonds form quickly in the heat of battle.
“We called him Jimmy,” Danny recalls. “I didn’t find out until years later that his family called him Larry. You only knew people by their first names, but you forged those friendships. You relied on each other.”
Unfortunately, Danny and Larry’s friendship wouldn’t last long.
On March 7, 1970, Danny, Larry and a few others patrolled the perimeter of their camp. Suddenly, everything exploded around them. With their company under attack, the men received orders to return to camp and provide support.
As a rifleman, Larry saw the machine gunner needed an assistant to feed ammo into his gun, but an enemy bullet struck him, thwarting his plans for aid.
“I heard someone yell for a medic,” Danny remembers. “It was Larry. They did all they could to help him, but getting hit in the neck in the middle of the jungle … there really wasn’t much that could be done.”
With his hands folded together and the Lord’s Prayer on his lips, Larry died while the battle raged around him.
“You don’t get to mourn,” Danny said. “You take the body, ship it out, and you do it again and again and again.”
But Danny never forgot the day an enemy bullet killed his friend. Even as he talks about it today, the scene plays out in his mind. He sees it. Larry was the first friend Danny saw die in battle.
There was talk in the camp: Larry’s mother had written the company commander, and she wanted to know what happened to her son. Maybe no one knew what to say, or maybe her request got lost in the business of war. Either way, Larry’s mother didn’t receive the closure she sought. At least, not then.
“I never forgot that,” Danny said. “It was always on my mind. I wanted to know if she ever found out what happened to her son.”
In 1990, Danny visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. Specifically, he wanted to find Larry’s last name. Danny had a plan, and the last name was essential to its execution.
Enlisting the help of a ranger to find Larry’s name, he came up empty handed because he was looking for “Jimmy.”
Later that same year, Danny got an email from the man who had bunked with Larry. He came through with Larry’s full name, which allowed Danny to use his resources and skills as a police officer to locate Larry’s hometown.
The Greatest Gift
Danny pulled up phone numbers for every Downs in Toney, Alabama. Thankfully there weren’t many.
“I called the first number, and a lady answered,” Danny remembers. “I told her that she would probably think I’m crazy, but that I was looking for the mother of James Larry Downs. The lady told me she was Larry’s aunt.”
Confirming Larry’s mother would, indeed, like to talk with Danny, Larry’s aunt connected the two.
Calling Larry’s mother was the toughest call Danny has ever made. Skeptical at first, Larry’s mother didn’t open up to Danny immediately. It wasn’t until Danny mailed her some pictures of him and Larry together in Vietnam that she began to understand Danny not only knew her son, he had the answers to her questions.
After several phone conversations, Danny and his wife made the trip from Florida to Alabama to meet Larry’s mother and sisters.
An emotional day for all, Danny shared more pictures with the family, but most importantly, he told them what happened.
“She was so worried that Larry was alone when he died,” Danny recalls. “I was able to tell her that he wasn’t. That he had help. That gave her so much peace. It helped me, too. When we left that day, I told my wife that it felt like 100 pounds had been taken off my shoulders.”
Danny confesses he never truly understood why he carried the burden to reach out to Larry’s family for over 20 years. He saw other friends die on the battlefield, but Larry’s death seemed ingrained in his mind — a memory he could never shake loose.
What he didn’t know until many years later is that there was a hurting mother in the rural community of Toney, Alabama, regularly asking God to somehow let her know that her son didn’t die alone.
On the day Danny and Larry’s mother met, one experienced release; the other gained closure. They both became family.