By BONNIE BARTEL LATINO
Special to Atmore News
The Escambia County High School Class of ‘66 has donated an additional $500 to The Pride of Atmore for a chair at the newly renovated Strand Theater on South Main Street in Atmore. This chair will bear a small plaque on the backrest that will read: SP5 RAYFORD GOHAGIN; KIA in Vietnam, 5-13-69; ECHS CLASS OF 1966.
Assigned to the US Army’s C Battery of the 2nd Division, 319th Artillery of the 101st Airborne Division, SP5 Gohagin was killed after completing his assignment in Vietnam. However, when asked by his superior officer if he would stay a few more days to help train new troops coming in to the firebase, he said “Yes.” No one who knew Rayford could have been surprised by his answer, even though he had arrived in Vietnam in 1968 as a newlywed. No doubt he was eager to get home. It will not be lost on readers that the word “Loyalty” was the by-word of his unit. When duty called, Rayford answered.
The country boy from McCullough, Ala, was not only loyal, his friendly-as-a-puppy personality and wholesome demeanor made him easy to like and to talk to. With tousled hair, a face full of boyish freckles, and trim physique, Rayford could have posed for Norman Rockwell’s paintings of scenes from everyday American life in the mid-20th century. The artist’s portrayals held optimistic, often humorous, views of human nature.
There was nothing optimistic or humorous about the 3 a.m. attack of SP5 Gohagin’s unit located in dense rainforest on the mountain (Dong) Ap Bia, or “Hill 937” in contemporary US military terminology. The attack near South Vietnam’s border with Laos, and which lasted over two hours, took the life of Sp5 Gohagin and the lives of over 30 other Americans, with many more injured. This fire fight and subsequent battles with the North Vietnamese on Ap Bia, which continued through May 20, 1969, collectively became known as “The Battle for Hamburger Hill.”
One American soldier has been quoted as saying being in those battles was like being “inside a hamburger grinder.” Those are tough words to string together for a community newspaper. However, there was nothing safe, soft, or easy about serving in the Vietnam War, particularly in 1969 in a jungle-clad mountain top battle said to have been “only about a mile from Laos,” and initiated by Viet Cong in a middle of the night sneak attack.
I hope The Pride of Atmore committee will consider placing SP5 Gohagin’s plaque on an aisle seat in The Strand Theater. I suspect people who knew Rayford, as well as those who never had the privilege, will want to trace his name with their fingertip. Members of the ECHS Class of 1966 will be among the first in line.
Atmore native Bonnie Bartel Latino, is a proud member of the mighty Class of ‘66. An award-winning novelist and journalist, she is a former columnist for Stars and Stripes newspaper in Europe, who also reviewed books for the Sunday Mobile Register from 2004 to 2012. She lives in Atmore with her husband, retired USAF Colonel Tom Latino.
Editor’s Note: The Class of ‘66 will honor Rayford Gohagin on May 13 at his last resting place, next to his parents, at McCullough Church cemetery. They will also honor Alan Gandy and Larry Gonzales, who also were students at ECHS, and who served and died in Vietnam.
Anyone who knows of any other ECHS or Training School student, who died in Vietnam, please contact Bonnie Bartel Latino by phone or text at 251-229-0343. She would also like to be in contact with family and friends of Alan Gandy and Larry Gonzales.