ALBEMARLE, N.C. — A collage of faded photographs, two letters — one returned unopened and another stamped, but not mailed, and a yellowed newspaper clipping of an obituary kept in a plastic bag are among mementos that remain behind.
Otherwise it is left to the memories of those who knew Mitchel T. Morton before he joined the Marines and left his native Stanly County for an unpopular war in Vietnam. It was in those Asian jungles where 20-year-old Morton lost his life, as did more than 58,000 brothers in arms fighting on behalf of a foreign country.
“Vietnam was not a very appealing war to the American people at that time,” The Rev. Kinney Wallace said.
Memories were on full display Friday at a memorial in honor of Morton at Porter Baptist Church, the 45th anniversary of his death.
It is there in the church’s cemetery where Morton is buried alongside deceased family members.
Morton and his family lived off U.S. Highway 52 near the church that also served as a playground for area youngsters. Many of the memories recounted childhood incidents on the church grounds, like boyhood tussles and pranks.
Morton, who attended South Stanly High, quit school at 16 to go to work. He was the baby brother of 10 siblings.
He joined the Marine Corps in May 1968. Morton began his tour in Vietnam the following November.
Morton corresponded with family by handwritten letters along with an occasional photo.
Wallace told those attending the memorial service that Morton also communed with his Sunday school class on the day of his death.
“This note cannot say the thoughts I had when I received the card today,” Morton wrote.
“I only can say that I?thank God that wonderful people like you are thinking and praying for me.
“Tell everyone in your families I?said hello and the people of the church, too. I also appreciate their thoughts and prayers, too. What would I do if it wasn’t for the people back home? Thank you again.”
Those from home sometimes forwarded Morton an edition of The Stanly News & Press to keep him informed of current events.
It was from a forwarded hometown newspaper that childhood friend Steve Culp learned of Morton’s death. Culp was also in the military serving in Vietnam when he got the tragic news.
“I was heartbroken,” Culp said.
Culp was one of the men who talked about how he and Morton engaged in horseplay at the Norwood church during a simple, humble time when boys entertained themselves outdoors.
Because Morton’s life ended in a war many Americans would just as soon as forget, he wanted his friend’s memory to remain relevant, Culp said.
“He deserves the same respect as if he was killed in Iwo Jima (Japan, World War II),” Culp said.
Culp told the crowd of about 40 how Vietnam veterans were met with disrespect, if they were lucky enough to have survived. They were spat at and called “baby killers.”
As a result, most Vietnam veterans prefer to keep private, instead of proudly recalling their service to country, he said.
“Vietnam was fought from Washington,” Culp said.
“When we came home people were sick of the Vietnam war. We were someone people could take it out on. We were the face of the Vietnam War.”
Only four months into his tour Morton was killed in action during a period when Americans suffered the most casualties of the war, serving as a rifleman near Danang, South Vietnam.
Because of a mixup with Morton’s address (Stanly County for Stanley, N.C.), it took four days before the family was notified of Morton’s death. But sister Vicky Almond recalls a premonition by their mother.
“She had a dream that he had been killed on the day that he was killed,” Almond, with tears welling at the memory, said.
“When she awoke she said, ‘No Lord, my baby is not dead.’ ”
Almond called Friday’s service just as emotional as the funeral decades earlier.
“You just have your memories to rely on,” she said.