Johnny Paul Price – Private First Class, United States Army

From a press report: July 1998

Automatic weapons fire was coming at him from all sides, and Pfc. Johnny Paul Price had barely made it out of the clearing alive. Many in his platoon had been killed. Five wounded were left behind; men Price had just met, men he didn't know. But he knew what he had to do.

Price dodged more gunfire to seek out his company's senior medics, then led them back into the battle zone, to the place where the soldiers had fallen. His valor saved the lives of all five men. It cost him his. A Viet Cong bullet caught him in the back.

When Price's body was retrieved, a letter to his mother was found in his pocket.

Price had written the note on the back of a letter from his sister, on a thin sheet of stationery. Now his final letter is cast in bronze, part of the Norfolk Armed Services Memorial, which was dedicated Saturday in Town Point Park.

There are no statues in this memorial. No obelisks. No generals. Just 20 letters from men and women, scattered as if blowing in the breezes rising off the Elizabeth River. The shady, tree-sheltered spot near Nauticus is flanked by a gateway inscribed with the words of poet Archibald MacLeish: “We give you our deaths. Give them their meaning.”

They are voices from every war this country has ever fought, said Sen. Charles S. Robb, D-Va., asking the crowd of several hundred not to forget the sacrifice.

“We remember them, freezing at Valley Forge, charging into hell at Pickett's Charge . . . fighting off kamikaze attacks at Iwo Jima,” Robb said. “They are remembered and missed. Please listen to their voices.”

Their words, Robb said, are a glimpse into lives cut short.

“These letters remind us that each and every letter was written by a human being,” Robb said. “They were mostly young, and often scared. For every soldier, sailor, airman or Marine, there was a husband who missed his wife, a daughter who longed to see her father, a son who carried his mother's letters close to his heart.”

The memorial was made possible by a former soldier: a $500,000 gift from John R. Burton Jr., who designated the money for the memorial in his will. Burton, a local businessman and World War II Army captain, died in 1992 at age 93.

Others contributed $365,000 to complete the memorial, designed by the team of James Cutler Associates, an architectural company, and artist Maggie Smith.

Some veterans said they were surprised by the simplicity of the memorial's design. But none complained.

“It gives you insight from the troops' point of view, not the military brass,” said John Schenk, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam era.

Some of the letters speak of fear. Others are love letters. Many are last words.

On July 14, 1861, one week before he was killed in the Civil War, Sullivan Ballou wrote these words to his wife:

“The memories of all the blissful moments I have ever enjoyed with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you that I have enjoyed them so long. . . . If I do not (return), my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you.”

Frances Y. Slanger, a World War II nurse, wrote her letter one night when she couldn't sleep, watching the last few coals on the fire burn dark. The men in her hospital, she wrote, “are earth, mud, and grime, and most of them so tired. Somebody's brothers, somebody's fathers, somebody's sons.”

Somebody's daughter.

Slanger died the next day.

Another letter writer, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, died a soldier's death. She fought as a Union private in the Civil War, disguised as a man under the name Lyons Wakeman.

Price's mother Dorothy Dobrinksy has read her son's letter many times over the years, and it's still an emotional experience. The memorial includes just a few paragraphs:

“Dear Mom, I got into it pretty heavy a few days ago. . . . We were crossing a dike between two houses when we were opened up on by about 10 VC with automatic weapons. I was carrying the radio which made me a prime target. . . .

“They wounded two men, and then when the lieutenant ran over to one of them, they killed him. This put us without a leader; and the fire from the VC was going over us and into them and the company was firing back at us. So we were receiving murderous fire from both sides; we ended up with one seriously wounded by our own fire and another one — we're not sure who got him.”

Dobrinsky shared tears and consolation with her family at the ceremony.

The publication of her son's letter — which also is on display in the U.S. Postal Museum in Washington and has been included in a book — is the greatest tribute he could have received, she said, more precious to her even than his Bronze Star. All her son had ever wanted, she said, was to be a writer.

“He told me, `All my letters will be basic and true. I won't write to you like you're my mother,' ” Dobrinsky said. “He said, `Someday I'll publish them in a book, when I'm ready.' ”

Dobrinsky said she's glad this memorial is located here, where her son grew up.

He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The friends he made at Granby High School can visit the park, she said, and remember him.

“His letter will be here after we're all dead and gone,” Dobrinsky said.

“It will keep his memory fresh, both for the younger people and the older people, the ones who fight wars and the ones who make wars.”

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