The Glenn Duncan Story

by RYAN VIHLEN

In 1981, The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Fund contracted Atlanta-based company Datalantic to collate, re-case and typeset the 58,159 names that were to appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. The iconic wall of reflective black granite was dedicated in November of 1982 during a five-day ceremony that involved the procession of tens of thousands of Vietnam War veterans. The scene was visceral, emotional and occasionally seasoned with the sounds of impromptu patriotic singing and the shouts of protestors. Many of these pilgrims had tears streaming down their cheeks as they gazed upon The Wall for the very first time. They touched the cold granite and felt the names. They thought about their own sacrifices, and they thought about the deep and abiding tragedy of so many lives lost and so many families irrevocably broken. Amongst the vast sea of etched and sandblasted text was the name GLENN C DUNCAN.

GLENN CHRISTIE DUNCAN ’67 was born in the rural town of Baldwyn, Miss., on Feb. 13, 1949. The family called him “Butch,” and he was the first child born to PAUL WESLEY DUNCAN and EVELYN MARY (CHRISTIE) DUNCAN. In the mid 1950s, they moved into a small home in the Grove Park community of northwest Atlanta. During the post-war period, the hilly neighborhood teemed with young families. 

A childhood friend, Tom Temple, fondly remembers: “We roamed the local pine forest and built rafts to float down Procter Creek. Glenn and the boys on his street [Hortense Place] and Florence Place formed one circle of kids, while I lived on a deadend street with 19 kids. We had our own gang. We used to do neighborhood vs neighborhood football when we were third and fourth graders.” They attended Lena H. Cox Elementary and then West Fulton High School together. Tom remembers a particularly memorable experience during their eighth-grade year: “Our gym teacher was a rough and tumble kind of guy that thought that boxing—gloves and all—was a good way to build character. One day, Glenn got picked as my match and we squared off. I was a tall, lanky kid with long arms, and Glenn was shorter and more compact. As I found, that was no disadvantage since he showed no fear and came right at me. A few right hooks to my jaw and I was ready to quit. Basically, he kicked my butt.”

Around 1964, the NAACP and other civil rights groups selected Grove Park as a target community for housing integration. “Our parents' response became known as ‘White Flight.’ Our tight little group of friends were dispersed in many directions,” notes Temple. Glenn’s youngest sibling, Alan, remembers, “We moved out of Atlanta during some of the racial problems in the early sixties. My dad was a trucker. He came in one day from a run, and we'd had a dynamiting in the neighborhood. My dad said: ‘That's it. I can't be on the road with this going on. We’ve gotta get away from here.’ So we moved to Smyrna.”

The Duncan family resettled in a one-story brick house just a stone’s throw from Campbell High School. The Parkmans lived two doors away, and the families became good friends. “Glenn was a couple years older than me. As was typical of the area and time, none of our houses had fenced-in yards, so all the kids played together out back,” recalls the Parkman’s oldest child, Breck. Glenn was an animal lover. He once saved the life of Breck’s dog, Tinker. On another occasion, he forcibly stopped a neighborhood boy who was hurting his Collie—his fervent sense of justice brought forth anger when he witnessed wrongs being committed.

Industrious, dependable and fiercely loyal, Glenn took care of himself and he took care of his family. When he was only 14, he got his first job at Storyland—an amusement park set in the woods on Highway 41 near Akers Mill Road. He was also good with his hands and gave Mrs. Parkman several of his projects from shop class. She kept the wooden magazine rack next to her favorite chair and cherished it for years.

Glenn attended Campbell High with NORBERT GRUENER ’67. “We did everything together. We hung out all the time, double dated. You know, it's just one of those buddy movies. Whenever we were together, we were out there to have a good time.” Gruener recalls how they both ended up transferring to Pace Academy junior year: “I started dating SHERRY KALEY ’66, and her father [FRANK KAYLEY] was the headmaster. One day, Sherry's dad asked us if we wanted to go to Pace. They were looking for jocks.” 

The Knights certainly needed all the help they could get—the Class of 1967 only graduated 18 students. “Back then, if you could walk and chew gum, you lettered,” chuckles Gruener. Glenn’s coach, BOB CHAMBERS remembers: “He was a good athlete. He was very quick, and at 5’ 11”, he could dunk the basketball easily. He had spring in his legs, and he was an excellent one-on-one defensive player—particularly outstanding. He also enjoyed track and field. We didn't have a track at that time, but we practiced at neighboring schools and up at Dobbins Air Force Base.” Because of transfer restrictions, Glenn was not allowed to play varsity his first year at Pace. 

Compared to Campbell High, Pace was “a different world.” The Duncan family was poor, and Pace was full of kids who were not. “There were times my mother had to choose between buying a bag of groceries or paying a water bill. I watched her beg someone to turn our power back on because her older brother was flying through Atlanta and was coming to the house for dinner,” remembers Alan. Despite this financial disparity, Glenn’s involvement in athletics and outgoing personality allowed him to immediately cultivate a network of friends. STEVE LEE ’67 remembers Glenn fondly: “Great guy. Always positive. He was just always happy and nice. I do remember that he didn't have any enemies. He never got into fights. He was a get along kind of guy and enjoyed hanging out with people. He just had a good heart.” 

“For years we had a goalie—a fellow named Bob Battle. He got hurt and couldn't play. The whole team was down. So, Bob Chambers selected Glenn, and he just nailed it. He was tall, fast, good hands and he just breathed life back into the team when he came out and we saw how well he could do. There couldn't have been a better pick,” says Lee. “You had to have big balls to be the goalie,” explains Gruener. “Free kicks: that's where they separate the men from the boys, because if that ball is coming at your head, you either duck it and knock that ball back or you completely drop so the ball doesn't hit you at all. Glenn was one of those guys that would stand there and take that shot. And when that ball came for his head, he lowered it and shot that ball right back.”

Chambers also lived in Smyrna and frequently gave Glenn a lift home from practice. They listened to the radio together, and Glenn spent many car rides elaborating on the nuances of the day’s popular music in a passionate attempt to indoctrinate his coach. He was especially fond of The Beatles. To this day, Glenn’s widow can’t hear Hey Jude without remembering the way he beat the drums out on the dashboard during trips home from Fort Benning. 

You will not find Glenn pictured with the varsity basketball squad his senior year. He played with the team during the first semester, but a poor grade in an academic class caused him to lose his athletic eligibility. He was embarrassed and surely felt that he was letting his teammates down. Though he improved his grades enough to graduate on time, being prevented from participating in basketball and track in his final semester was a disappointing end to an otherwise overwhelmingly positive experience at Pace.

Glenn was the very first person in his family to attend college. He enrolled at Georgia Southern College, but being far away from friends and family made him miserable. He despised the food so much that his mom would send him regular care packages with canned homemade stews. He quickly transferred to Kennesaw Junior College as a full-time student and started working at a service station in Smyrna. 

Sometime in 1967, a family from Illinois rented the house between the Duncan and Parkman residences. Their daughter, Jennie Rae Corkill, was a year older than Glenn. His effervescent personality and great sense of humor was undeniably attractive to the girl next door. “He was so easygoing and easy to be with. He was so fun. He loved life,” she remembers affectionately. Breck Parkman witnessed the relationship blossom: “She was pretty, and I’m sure every boy in the neighborhood had eyes for her. But she only had eyes for Glenn! I remember Glenn serenading Jennie. He played the guitar, and he liked playing it for her.” They’d sit on her front porch and talk and sing for hours. He wrote her a song called Little Brown Eyes. In a couple months, he proposed. She said “yes” immediately. 

The young men of Glenn’s generation grew up while America’s involvement in Vietnam escalated. During his high school years, various events led to the full-scale Americanization of the war. Following events in the Gulf of Tonkin on Aug. 2, 1964, Congress approved the Southeast Asia Resolution, giving President Lyndon Johnson broad powers to conduct military operations without a declaration of war. The resolution passed without a single dissenting vote in the House of Representatives and was only opposed by two members of the Senate.

Just one third of Americans who fought in Vietnam were drafted. Until late 1969, local draft boards controlled the process—a flawed system that led to huge inequities in the way that deferments were issued resulting in a disproportionate number of poor Americans being called to compulsory service. For those Americans who did not live through the era, it’s impossible to fully grasp the anxiety experienced by the nation’s men of draft age. The collective dread extended to friends and family members. “The kids today would not understand it at all,” says Gruener. “It was scary,” remembers Lee, “It was so scary... It was constant pressure to stay in school or go to the jungles. When somebody flunked out, you knew it was just a matter of time before they got drafted.” 

“There was not that much conversation about [the war] in high school,” Lee says. “But things started getting worse the more I progressed into college. The whole war seemed misdirected. There were way too many politicians making decisions. Then these young men would come home and people would scream at them and spit on them like it was their fault. The thousands and thousands of guys that were drafted—they didn't want to go. But they went and did their duty.” 

Despite the divisive nature of the war, Glenn was not fearful of the draft. With so many young men of his generation fighting, his patriotic heart compelled him to go if his government called him to serve. He was raised with a deep sense of duty to his country, and he would have never contemplated fleeing to Canada. To the dismay of his sweet-natured mother, Glenn’s attitude toward military service was certainly influenced by his father’s unabashed fondness for the Army. Paul had been a drill instructor during World War II before going to fight in Europe where he was wounded by shrapnel from a land mine that killed one of his men. “He was in an intelligence battalion. They were the ones that would go out and capture prisoners and do interrogations. Then, his unit was shipped to the Pacific to do the same thing there,” Alan says. “He wound up being medically discharged at the end of the war. He would’ve stayed—they would have had to kill him to get him out otherwise, because he loved the Army.” Characteristic of so many men of the era, Paul was a tough man with high expectations of his oldest son. “My mom always blamed my dad for Glenn allowing himself to be drafted.”

“When I met him he was going to Kennesaw [Junior College],” Jennie remembers. Before long, he stopped going to classes full time and lost his student deferment. “He was more interested in working at that point than going to school.” 

His draft notice arrived in early 1969. Glenn reached out to his old buddy Norbert: “He called me and said, ‘Hey, I just got the notice. I got drafted.’ I said, ‘Well damn, let's get together.’” They chose not to talk about the war. Instead, they talked about their time at Pace and the good times they had together. That was the last time they ever talked to each other. Glenn was originally commanded to report to the Army two weeks before his wedding. “We had everything planned and invitations sent out, and he had to get a deferment,” says Jennie. They were married on March 22 at the Methodist church in Tucker, Ga. It was a small and joyous ceremony; the young couple was so happy together.

“We really didn’t get a chance to be a settled, married couple,” explains Jennie. Glenn was sworn into the service two weeks after the wedding and started basic training at the United States Army Infantry School in Fort Benning, Ga. Excelling in the eight-week program, he impressed his superiors so much that he was rewarded with a weekend leave halfway through. Jennie and the rest of the Duncan family took the short drive south. “We brought home cooking and had a picnic together when he was released by his drill instructor. It was a great weekend!” remembers Alan. Glenn always loved his mother’s food, and this break from military rations must have been an incredible treat.

At the time, Glenn had the goal of becoming a military police officer (MP). Things changed in late May as he relayed in a letter to his family: “Daddy, I got recommended for NCO [noncommissioned officer]. I don’t know if I will get it, but the CO [commanding officer] did recommend me. Maybe I will get it, and I will have three stripes in 12 weeks. But, there’s one problem: If I take it I won’t be able to go to MP school. I can’t make up my mind. I guess I’ll just wait and see.” 

After basic training, Glenn went to Fort Polk in Louisiana for advanced infantry training before going back to Fort Benning for jump school. Fatefully, he was accepted to NCO school at Fort Ord, just south of San Francisco. The newlyweds drove Glenn’s green 1969 Nova across the country with the puppy they had bought together. 

While Glenn was training in California, his cousin Phillip Duncan was killed in Vietnam during an explosion on November 24, 1969. A soldier accidentally ignited a pit of disposed ordnance 100 yards from where Phillip was standing. The concussive effect of the explosion was fatal. Glenn, only a few weeks older than Phillip, was asked to be the military escort to take the body from California to Baldwyn, Miss. for burial. Glenn knew that he would be going to war, and the death of his cousin only strengthened his resolve. “At that point, he was more than ready to go to Vietnam,” says Jennie.

As Glenn’s departure drew near, the young couple talked about the family they wanted to have after the war. They longed to be parents. “He didn’t ever know for sure that I was pregnant. Before he left, I told him I thought I was,” remembers Jennie. Originally, they were going to wait until he came back from his year in Vietnam, but things changed when he attended his cousin’s funeral. Phil and his wife didn’t have any children. Glenn told Jennie: “If something happens to me, you’ll have something. You’ll have part of me.” After he left, she wrote letters confirming the pregnancy. They didn’t make it in time. 

Glenn arrived in Vietnam on April 13, 1970, as a sergeant in 2nd Platoon, B Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division (the only full-strength division remaining in Vietnam in early 1970). His unit was operating within the confines of “I Corps,” which bordered the DMZ. Fifty-five percent of the American casualties during the war occurred in this northernmost region of South Vietnam. There was no Viet Cong in the area, only well-supplied, hardcore North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The terrain they operated in was mountainous, covered in thick tropical jungle, and devoid of villages. In the field, the platoon encamped at night and broke into squads during the daytime. Bravo Company’s three platoons rarely made contact with each other in the field, but they were in frequent radio communication, working several hills apart on search and destroy missions. Sometimes, they would identify enemy locations for artillery bombardment or air strikes.

The composition of each unit was in perpetual flux as the wounded and dead were replaced one by one. “We saw a ridiculous amount of combat. In the 12 months I was in the field, our 25-man platoon lost over 50 wounded or killed,” laments Spc. Michael Alioto, who was also new to 2nd Platoon when Glenn arrived. “He was dumped into a pot of boiling shit—there is no polite way to say it,” says Sgt. Randy Shaner. “From March 1 all the way up through July was pure hell in I Corps in the A Shau Valley.” There was not a worse place to be in all of Vietnam. The fighting was ghastly—upon returning to the rear after two months in the field, multiple soldiers refused to go back. On April 17, Bravo Company suffered 16 casualties (including their captain), but it is unlikely that Glenn participated in this engagement. In-country training down south meant that it may have been late April before he joined his unit. 

“When you’re in the jungle like that, every second, every minute, every hour, every day, your life is at risk. In my opinion, Glenn had the worst job in Vietnam,” insists Sgt. Shaner. “All we did was hump up and down mountains in horrendous heat, hundred pounds on your back. You would go lots of times without sleep, without food, without water. It was tough.” 

Glenn’s fate awaited him in Quảng Nam Province on Sunday, May 3. That morning, a Huey helicopter came under fire while delivering 500 gallons of water to the mountaintop landing zone they had been dropped at a few days prior. The company’s new captain dispatched patrols to locate the enemy position. Glenn’s patrol departed the camp in a widely spaced, single-file line. After snaking through the triple-canopy jungle for about 90 minutes to two hours, the distinctly terrifying sound of a .51-caliber heavy machine gun burst from a pillbox within the hilltop above. The presence of such a weapon—designed for anti-aircraft use—was an absolute anomaly. Ssgt. Randall Phillips from Oklahoma was on point and was the first to be killed. Everyone dropped to the ground and spread out. Screams rang out through the jungle. “Any ambush is terrible, but when you fall under heavily enforced fire, it’s very traumatic,” remembers Shaner. Ssgt. Thomas Hess was next in line. The West Virginian yelled back to the rest of the patrol that he was going to try to get his friend. He crawled toward Phillips but never came back. 

It was almost certainly Glenn’s first taste of combat. As a “Cherry,” he was still acclimating to the field and getting to know the guys in his squad. “Once you stepped in your first day of real combat—the explosions and gunfire, guys that were like your brothers... if they're not laying there in pieces, they're laying there with intestines hanging out just screaming, and you're trying to save them, your life and fight. You can’t explain it to anybody that’s never been in combat,” remarks Shaner.

The dozen or so soldiers still alive were yelling at Shaner: Phillips and Hess were dead, and now he was in command of the patrol. Over the radio, the captain ordered them to go up and get those bodies. Glenn was next in line. “I don’t know whether I had ordered him, or he just automatically took it upon himself to try to get up that hill and pull someone back,” explains Shaner. With great courage, Glenn crawled forward under oppressive fire. As he moved up, his patrol lost sight of him. He made it about 50 feet before heavy machine gun fire fatally tore through his body. He was just 21 years old. 

It was approximately 10 o’clock in the morning and three of the patrol’s top four ranking soldiers had been killed in a matter of minutes. The remaining men were in a horrific predicament: they were pinned down and heavily outnumbered. The presence of a massive, mounted machine gun indicated they were likely facing a battalion-sized force or larger. Shaner was communicating with Capt. Stubblefield on the LZ and the colonel back at Fire Support Base Kathryn. Two or three more attempts were made to move the bodies. It was impossible. The heavy machine gun was firing from a commanding position and tearing down trees all around them. They were too close to the enemy to call in artillery. Finally, Cobra gunships arrived. The helicopters made several runs, but could not subdue the enemy. Shaner’s men had used up nearly all of their ammunition. He begged for a napalm strike, but his repeated requests were denied. Eventually, a pair of F-4 fighter-bombers were summoned; their ordnance whistling overhead and striking the hill. The thunderous cacophony of explosions erupted above the beleaguered Americans. The bombs were effective; sporadic AK-47 fire was still coming, but the big gun was silenced. The whole nightmarish engagement had lasted five to seven hours.

A couple of squads came to aid the exhausted men, and they were able to retrieve the bodies of Glenn and Randall Phillips. Throughout the night, incessant rain pounded on the two body bags as the LZ was illuminated by the eerie light of artillery flares employed to prevent the enemy from making a surprise attack. The sun came out the next morning, and the bodies were airlifted to the rear. There were more casualties on May 4 when Shaner’s squad went up the opposite side of the hill in another attempt to get Thomas Hess’ body, which was eventually recovered after napalm strikes cleared the hill. 

Jennie was with her mother when the military representatives came with the horrific news. In their anguish, they drove to the Duncan home. Jennie didn’t have to say a word; the Duncan family knew their boy was dead. Eleven-year-old Alan started pounding his fists into an oak tree in the backyard until his knuckles were bloodied and Jennie’s mother pulled him away. “After all these years, it still breaks my heart. Fifty years and it still hurts,” says Alan. “I would have traded places with Glenn in a heartbeat. I would have traded places with him because I knew he had a child coming, and I knew he would have been a great dad.” 

“He wasn’t there long enough for most of us to even think about him being gone,” remembers Breck Parkman. “That startled me—that you could see a friend one day and they’d be gone so soon after. But that was the nature of the Vietnam War.” Paul asked Breck’s father to accompany him to claim Glenn’s remains. Even though the transport case was marked not to be viewed, Paul insisted on looking; he needed to confirm that his son was inside. 

The interment on Thursday, May 14, at Georgia Memorial Park in Marietta featured full military honors, the reverberations of the 21-gun salute shaking every mourner gathered around the fresh grave. Breck wore the same black suit that his parents had bought him for Glenn’s wedding the previous spring. Jennie, three month pregnant at the time, received the folded American flag that had draped her husband’s casket.  

The death shocked the Pace community. Bob Chambers was studying in Denmark at the time of Glenn’s death: “I didn't get back until July. I just remember the first person I talked to about it was his mom, and of course, it was very emotional for both of us.” Choosing not to discuss the circumstances of his death, they focused instead on the student and son they would always remember. “We talked about positive things.” 

Glenn’s death was the cataclysmic event that ripped the Duncan family apart. The grief that enshrouded their home was suffocating, and the toxic environment made life for the surviving children utterly dreadful. Paul would hardly mention his oldest son afterward. “My mom would talk about Glenn, and my dad would get up and leave the room. It hurt him so much,” says Alan. Evelyn blamed Paul for their son’s death, and the constant recriminations pushed Paul to move out within two years. Though they never divorced, they were separated for the rest of their lives. 

Marc Wesley Duncan was born on December 2, 1970—213 days after his father’s death. As he grew into a man, relatives would often remark how much he resembled Glenn.

To honor her son, Evelyn volunteered over 5,000 hours at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. She was also active in numerous organizations like the American Gold Star Mothers and raised money for the Twentieth Century Veterans Memorial in Smyrna as well as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall—a monument that is visited by more than three million people each year. During his long career in education, Bob Chambers took 42 school trips to Washington, DC. “We would always go to The Wall, and then we would talk about it. The children were very interested because Glenn was my student, and he had died serving this country. It was always a really emotional thing.”

It has been 50 years, but Glenn’s memory has not faded from the hearts of those that knew him best, including his old neighbor, Breck Parkman: “Glenn’s death, along with several other personal landmark events, helped shape my worldview and ultimately led to my becoming a public servant… I have always thought that if Glenn could be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice, I figure we have a responsibility to never forget him, nor others like him. I also believe we’re not truly gone until we are forgotten.”
 

SPECIAL THANKS:

101st Airborne Division Vietnam Veterans Facebook Group

Mike Alioto

Jerome Burger

Bob Chambers

Alan Duncan

Jennie Duncan

Norbert Gruener ’67

Tavia Henderson

Steve Lee ’67

Breck Parkman

Randy Shaner

Tom Temple

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