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Long Goodbye: Vietnam pen pal to visit Georgia 50 years later

Karen Conboy Matz is seen in an undated photo with her son, Robert.

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By DEAN POLING | The Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times | Published: April 15, 2019

HAHIRA, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — Karen Conboy Matz has always regretted not attending the military funeral of Cpl. John E. McDonald.

Fifty years ago, Monday, April 15, 1969, McDonald, who grew up in Hahira, was killed in Vietnam.

From late 1968 until his death, McDonald, a soldier fighting in Vietnam, and Matz, a teen in California, exchanged letters. She estimates receiving 16 or 17 letters from him.

She was heartbroken by his death and wanted to attend his funeral in southern Georgia. But she was 16, she lived on the other side of the country and she had never met McDonald or his family.

She had written a letter to a solider serving in Vietnam as part of a school project called Operation Christmas. McDonald received her letter. He wrote back. She wrote him again.

A correspondence developed between the 22-year-old soldier and the 16-year-old girl. Though they never met face to face, Matz said McDonald was her first crush.

And now, six months after their letters started, he had been killed in Vietnam. Her parents were willing to buy her a plane ticket to Georgia.

Karen was young and the prospect of flying alone, across the country, to meet people for the first time at the funeral of a young man she knew so well in letters but had never seen, well, it was daunting.

She wanted her mother to accompany her, but her family had just started a new business and could afford only one ticket.

Worried about going alone, Karen didn’t attend McDonald’s funeral.

“I’ve always regretted not going to his funeral when Johnny died,” Matz said recently. “I’ve regretted it for 50 years.”

Come Memorial Day weekend, she plans to ease that regret.

She plans to visit Hahira and the grave of Cpl. John E. McDonald.

Coming home

Matz, who now lives in Nevada, Tim Coombs, a Hahira resident with the Hahira Historical Society, and his wife, Linda, have been discussing a visit since he located Matz nearly three years ago.

“He’s been telling me for the past few years that they would love to have me come out and I told him recently, ‘I’m coming,’ ” Matz said.

“We hope she will come into town early and spend a few days with us,” Tim Coombs said.

He said McDonald still has family living in Lowndes County and neighboring southern Georgia counties. He plans to arrange a meeting with Matz and the family.

Organizers hope she will attend and perhaps say a few words at the Hahira Memorial Day observation at 10 a.m. Monday, May 27, at Hahira American Legion Post 218, Coombs said.

She will be taken to the 1-mile portion of Shiloh Road that was designated as the Cpl. John E. McDonald Memorial Highway in the fall of 2015.

And she likely will visit McDonald’s grave site, Tim Coombs said.

He said other things have been planned to welcome Matz to southern Georgia.

“We want to do things to show that her relationship with John was appreciated and we want to do things to honor John McDonald,” Coombs said.

Efforts to name a portion of highway for McDonald a few years ago led Coombs down the road to find Matz.

The search

The son of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard McDonald, John E. McDonald attended Hahira High School.

He was one of six children.

He loved cars and going to the races, according to family.

He reportedly worked in an air-conditioning plant before being drafted into the Army.

He was a member of the 101st Airborne Division. He served as a machine gunner in South Vietnam. He had been in the Army 11 months and in Vietnam for about five months when he was killed in action at age 22 on April 15, 1969.

Decades later, while researching information for the naming of the road, Coombs discovered the story of McDonald’s wartime pen pal, Karen Conboy. Her story was published in the Manteca, Calif., newspaper, then was republished May 22, 1969, in the Hahira Gold Leaf newspaper.

The Valdosta Daily Times published a story about Tim Coombs’ search for Conboy in April 2016. Coombs said he received several responses from attorneys and a private investigator with offers to help find her.

Coombs continued investigating, too. He found old newspapers from Manteca with a photo of the teen Karen Conboy. Using the photo as reference, he searched the internet and found a woman of about the right age who resembled the teenager. The older woman was Karen Matz, who worked in a Reno, Nev., clinic.

Coombs called the clinic but was told Matz was on leave. Coombs shared his story and why he called. Clinic personnel took his name and number and promised to try reaching Matz.

In relaying Coombs’ message, as soon as the friend at the clinic said the name John E. McDonald, Matz said, “You can give him my number.”

Matz told The Times then she was shocked to hear McDonald’s name after so many years and was even more surprised that someone was looking for her in connection with him after so many years.

Remembering Johnny

Though devastated by McDonald’s death, Karen was a teenage girl. Her life continued.

Karen married and they had a son. Her husband died. She moved to Reno to be closer to her son while he attended school. He’s now a doctor. Matz stayed in Reno, where she has many friends.

But she never forgot the young man named Johnny.

“When we were writing those letters,” Matz said, “we had so much in common.”

He wrote of the possibility of visiting her after his tour of duty in the war. Despite the age difference, her father promised to take him to see the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco if he visited.

Then, in April 1969, she was at a 4-H camp, about 50 miles from home, when her father unexpectedly arrived in his Dodge Dart.

“He said, ‘You have to come home with me now,’ ” Matz said in a past interview. “You have received a telegram. Mom and I opened it and think you should come home to see it.”

He said nothing else.

At home, the telegram informed her that John McDonald had been killed. McDonald’s mother had sent the telegram from Hahira.

“I’ll never forget that day,” Matz said. “I could not stop crying. I didn’t go to school for a couple days. I was so devastated.”

For years, her parents and the McDonalds regularly exchanged Christmas cards. Matz called the McDonalds for several years, even after she married and had a son. She estimated calling regularly until the late 1970s or the early 1980s until the calls stopped.

“I felt like I knew the family after Johnny passed,” she said. “It was comforting for me and I think it was comforting for Johnny’s mom.”

But still, Matz has lived with the regret of not coming to Hahira 50 years ago to meet his mother in person, of not coming to southern Georgia to say goodbye.

On Memorial Day, at long last, perhaps, she can put that regret to rest.

©2019 The Valdosta Daily Times (Valdosta, Ga.)
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