Thomas Folden – Corporal, United States Marine Corps

Date of Birth: 7/6/1949
Date of Casualty: 3/22/1969
Branch of Service: MARINE CORPS
Rank: CPL
Casualty Country: SOUTH VIETNAM
Casualty Province: QUANG NAM

The problem with memories
Courtesy of the Palm Beach Post
Sunday, September 16, 2007

When her son died a war hero 38 years ago, she stuffed her memories – and 99 letters from Vietnam – into a bag and pushed it deep into the back of a closet. She's in her 70s now and wants to remember her boy – but it's complicated. There are other letters, darker memories to sort hair is freshly done. Her cheeks, pink with makeup. She is expecting a visitor to help her with her problem. The one in the closet. The one she can't bear to face.

“I need you to help me with the letters.”

When we found the body it was so sad because it was a 6-year-old-girl shot right through the face.

She pulls the mystery bag out of the closet. It is clear plastic, adorned with colorful hot-air balloon decorations that have faded with time.

Inside are four large manila envelopes. Each one is stuffed with letters. They are all that is left of her boys.

“I want to burn them,” she says.

I put 13 rounds right in his gut not 5 ft from me firing from the waist John Wayne style.

She lives alone. Her husband of 48 years, former Belle Glade Police Lieutenant Arthur Jerome Folden, was buried a decade ago. Smoked all his life. Lung cancer.

It's just her and the letters now. Some are from halfway around the world, stamped airmail or “free mail.” Others bear postmarks much closer to home.

Forty years ago, as the letters began arriving, she took out a pen or pencil and marked the envelopes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 …

She read them once, then tucked them away in the bag.

Tom and Jerry. Both of them gone.

One, a chubby boy who became a man in Vietnam. The other – well, she'd rather not say.

But this much is clear: Tommy, Jerry and the lady with the pink cheeks are all casualties of war, one that is still taking its toll 32 years after the last American soldier came home.

God has been a very good friend to me in Vietnam and I will go to church when I get home.

She is seventysomething. She wears a gold star pin on her sweater, indicating that she is the mother of someone who died in combat. She doesn't want her full name or picture in the newspaper. She has been in a self-imposed prison since the day men in crisp uniforms knocked on her door to tell her Tommy wasn't coming home. She didn't go to the funeral. She has never seen his grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

She is reaching out now because she doesn't know what to do with the memories in the bag as she grows older. It's OK to write about Tommy, she says. He was a good boy, a hero. But just forget it if you want to write about Jerry. “He was a bum.”

And then, “He could charm the birds out of the trees,” she says. “He was a genius.”

I could have gotten out on bond, but I wanted to stay clean and figure out what to do next. I'm in minimum security.

She hands the bag over and says, “You'll know what to do with this.”

Over the course of a lifetime, memories stack up like cordwood. Anything can spark them to life – a lock of hair from an old flame, a faded photo, a bronze baby shoe, a letter. In every home, these things are stuffed in boxes, tossed in dresser drawers, locked in safes and stored away in closets. But the problem with memories is that you don't get to pick and choose. The good ones always come with the bad. The lady with the pink cheeks thought the closet would be a nice place for her memories to die. But they didn't.


There are 99 letters from Thomas Folden. The postman began delivering them to the mailbox at 600 N.E. 3rd St., Belle Glade, in the spring of 1967.

No. 1

May 14, 1967

Dear Mom, Dad and Jerry,

Well, I survived my second day here at Perris. …

Tommy Folden was a lousy speller. He meant Parris, as in Parris Island, S.C., where the Marine Corps has been transforming recruits “mentally, physically and morally” since 1915.

At Belle Glade High School, Tommy had been a good kid, but not the most dedicated student. He wasn't popular with the cool boys or the pretty girls. Even though the brown-haired, brown-eyed boy was big – 6 feet, 11/2 inches, and 225 pounds – he didn't play for the football team. Instead, he was the water boy.

“He didn't like school,” says his friend, Alan L. LeBeau, who was taken in by the Folden family and shared a bedroom with Tommy and Jerry for two years. “I imagine I wouldn't like it either if people made fun of me and poked me all the time.”

So, Tommy Folden quit school at the age of 16 and decided to become a Marine.

It was the worst possible time. With 40,000 young men being drafted each month, the war in Vietnam was escalating rapidly, and so was the body count. Tommy saw action during 1967, '68 and '69 – by far, the deadliest three years (a total of 39,356 dead) in a conflict that would ultimately claim 58,178 American lives and more than a million Vietnamese.

But Tommy wasn't thinking about death. Parris Island was a place for him to transform himself, from chubby water boy to chiseled he-man.

He was so determined to succeed that when a recruiter told him he had to lose 25 pounds before reporting to Parris Island, he went on a crash diet and began training. His father would drive the car around the block over and over again, while Tommy ran alongside.

By the time he got to Parris, he had already become someone else.

The troubled son

Tommy's letters were stuffed in three of the manila envelopes. But there was a fourth envelope devoted to Jerry. He was a handsome, dark-haired boy who played the guitar and wanted to be a rock star.

The girls loved him – something that would complicate his life to no end. How many children did he father? By how many women? His mother won't say. But there are at least two women and four children. All sons. Eric Jerome, named after guitarist Eric Clapton; Thomas Jerome, or “T.J.,” named after Jerry's big brother; Hunter Jerome and Christopher Jerome. They are now young men.

In March 1993, one of the boys sent a letter on pink loose-leaf paper to Grandpa and Grandma Folden.

Dear G.P. & G.M.

I tell you this. I love you very much. I hope you love me, too.

I love you.

P.S. Write back soon.

From Christopher

Jerry's mother hasn't seen her grandchildren in years. “I have nothing to do with them,” she says.

One of the letters from Jerry has no date; just a day of the week: Sunday. But it is the early 1970s. In it, Jerry tells his parents that he has entered a program for substance abuse. Again. He is hopeful.

Whatever it takes for me to do, to really get my life straight, is what I'm going to do.

It is the only letter of more than 150 in the bag that is ripped in half, from top to bottom, right down the middle.

Many years earlier, his older brother, Tommy, had warned him not to join the military. But Jerry's father feared he would be drafted, so he marched his son to the recruiter's office and signed him up.

In the Army, he was stationed at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, where he served as a military policeman. He was slated for duty in Vietnam, but his mother says she and Jerry's father interceded, calling in favors from the mayor of Belle Glade and others to successfully lobby the brass.

Jerry never went to Vietnam. But when his brother died, he may as well have. “He'd tell you in right plain English that they killed his brother,” the mother says.

“He was such a great kid,” says Alan L. LeBeau, the friend who lived with the Foldens. “After I left Belle Glade (also to go to Vietnam), he started hanging around with some kids just going down that wrong road. Then he lost his brother. The last time I saw him, when his dad died, he looked like an old man. It was sad. I just loved Jerry.”

There is no question that Jerry was tortured, that he kept failing and kept trying.

In one letter, he tells his parents he has entered Liberty Lodge, a Christian “regeneration” facility in Titusville, for nine months because he is out of money and doesn't know what else to do.

I didn't want to hurt you or Dad by calling you all with any more sad news so I came here. … All I know is that I don't want to be any trouble to anyone. … I really love you & Dad very much. Somehow we will all be happy soon.

But things got worse. In a letter with a 1991 postmark and a Sanford address, he writes from jail.

I am a survivor you know. I haven't given up, even though everyone else has.

And then, mixed in with his letters, is this:

Office of Vital Statistics, Certificate of Death, Florida.
Decedent's name: Arthur J. Folden
Date of death: July 11, 2002.
Immediate cause of death: Multi-system failure. End-stage liver disease. Malignancy, undertermined.

Arthur Jerome Folden III, “Jerry,” was 51 years old.

His mother says she doesn't know where he is buried.

Reaching back into the bag

When she is told that the bag holds Jerry's letters, as well as Tommy's, she says, “I had wondered where those had gotten to.” She relents and says it's OK to write about Jerry, too. “Just don't mention my name.”

She was raised by nuns in a Catholic orphanage where she learned to be tough. She met her husband, Arthur Jerome Folden, in his father's Fifth Avenue beauty salon.

She was a hairdresser there, and he was a sharp-looking young man looking to make a life for himself as a motorcycle cop. He was 19. She was 17. They fell for each other and got married. First came Tommy. Then Jerry. They set up their home in Levittown, N.Y.

“I was a baby. I didn't know anything about boys,” she says. “But I didn't want to raise them in Levittown.”

So they moved to Belle Glade. Eventually, Arthur Folden became a sergeant, then a lieutenant, in the Belle Glade Police Department. He was strict, the closest thing to a Marine drill instructor you could find in Belle Glade. She worked at a hair salon. She was a doting mother.

“I used to put peroxide in Tommy's shampoo to give him blond highlights,” she says. “He was an angel.”

When Tommy told her he wanted to become a Marine, she went to the library and looked up Vietnam.

Mom, don't worry about me smoking. I won't smoke.

On July 14, 1967, Tommy graduated from Marine Recruit Training at Parris Island. The 225-pound water boy everyone picked on at school weighed just 179 pounds.

“I don't even know how to explain what he meant to me,” his mother says. “He was my first son.”

After 38 years of not wanting to remember these details, she reaches into the bag of memories and pulls out one letter. It is postmarked July 22, 1968. Tommy has been in Vietnam for nine months.

No. 38

Mom, while I remember it, no more, ‘Hi, baby son.' It's awful embarrassing.

And by the way, he says, please send cartons of Marlboros.

I figure if I am old enough to fight and die I am old enough to smoke without criticism from anyone. And mom, when I get home, not a word about it from you mom. Just be glad I'm home in one piece.

“Can you believe that?” his mother says.


Tommy Folden arrives in Vietnam on October 20, 1967. The next day, more than 100,000 antiwar demonstrators march on the Lincoln Memorial and the Pentagon in Washington, stuffing flowers in the rifle barrels of soldiers guarding the Secretary of Defense and the generals who are prosecuting the war.

Tommy's mother restarts her letter count at No. 1 – the first letter from the war zone.

No. 1


Well, here I am at Danang.

His 13-month tour has begun. He is assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Delta Company, 3rd Platoon. He is stationed at Delta Company Combat Base, Hill 41, Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam.

I can't wait to get into action. We have firefights here all the time. But I'll be home in 13 months and it will go fast. Things aren't as bad here as people make them out. We are surrounded by VCs (Viet Cong) but we don't even give them a second thought.

No. 3

Oct. 24, 1967

Dad, I want to tell you, I'm crazy. I want a gook's blood so bad I can taste it.

In November 1967, Tommy gives his parents a taste of what war is like.

A new guy shot a gook in the back of the head. We put a flower in the bullet hole and then put the ace of spaces in his mouth, took off his clothes, then threw him in the bushes. (The ace of spaces is the death card. The gooks are very superstitious).

In letter No. 10, in December 1967, he mentions a huge battle involving 100 enemy soldiers that results in more than 40 kills. After the fight, about 300 yards from the hill, a “gook started running,” and another squad yelled for the person to halt. Dung lai!

But the gook kept right on going. So they shot it. When we found the body it was so sad because it was a 6-year-old girl shot right through the face. She died right in the squad leader's hands. Most of us felt pretty bad.

He says her family came to collect the body.

What I don't get is that when a Marine kills a water buffalo the owners get $100. But for a member of the family $50.

In a letter to his father on Dec. 20, 1967, he writes excitedly about his first firefight.

I found out what fear was. I felt like getting down but something kept me going.

The day after the battle, “we found some troops dead and alive, but the guys finished them off.” He talks of finding a rocket tube. While he examines it, an enemy soldier jumps out of the bushes and charges him.

Here comes the good part. I got my first confirmed kill. I put 13 rounds right in his gut not 5 ft from me firing from the waist John Wayne style. … I actually enjoyed killing him and am looking for more.

He marks the date and time. It is four days before Christmas 1967, between 6:45 a.m. and 7 a.m. – the moment the water boy became a warrior.

Tommy's No. 1 girl

A month later, on January 30, 1968, during Tet, a sacred holiday, North Vietnamese Army regulars and Viet Cong guerrillas launch coordinated attacks across the country, including an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Even though U.S. forces beat back the attacks and inflict heavy damage, the images of the Tet Offensive beamed back home convince many Americans that their leaders are not being truthful about the war. The attacks go on for months. The enemy suffers 45,000 casualties; the Americans, 9,000; the South Vietnamese, 11,000.

As the carnage mounts, Tommy's enthusiasm fades. On February 9, 1968, he writes of a battle involving 1,500 enemy troops and 35 Marines. Nine are killed and 23 wounded.

I lost a few of my best friends. This war is hard. We blew away a bunch of vills and shot a lot of civilians. My squad brought in a lot of prisoners. Well, I don't want to talk about it.

A few days later, he writes a letter just to his mother. “I hope you know you're still my No. 1 girl and will stay that way. I sure love you.” He tells her he doesn't think he'll make a career of the Marines. Not enough pay and too much time away from the family. “I want you to start things rolling on a new Camero just like the one at home only rally green with a white top.”

But there will be no new Camaro.

On February 27, 1968, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America,” delivers his extraordinary broadcast, in which he says the war seems unwinnable.

In April 1968, as student demonstrators occupy buildings and shut down Columbia University in New York, Tommy is assigned to the 3rd Marine Amphibious Forces, 2nd Combined Action Group, 2nd Company, 1st Platoon. The mission: Marines and South Vietnamese forces will live and fight together. According to notes from his training, Tommy will study the language and culture, work with and train paramilitary forces “so that ultimately the proficiency of such forces will permit the eventual withdrawal of U.S. Marines.”

At first, Tommy isn't impressed. He writes that the Popular Force Vietnamese Forces, or PFs, are “equivalent to a Cub Scout with a rifle.”

But soon, he becomes a believer.

No. 42

Aug. 6, 1968

I've picked up the language like a champ and can hold a kind of conversation with them. I am the most popular Marine here, really! I can go anywhere within 10 miles north of here and 6 miles south of here and I'll be damned if some gook don't come up to me and say, ‘Hi Tom or Hi Folden.'

Tommy is counting down the days until he returns home. Still, he seems conflicted about the end of his tour in Vietnam.

You know, Vietnam isn't so bad once you get to know the scoop on the place.

He tells his father he appreciates that “you don't baby me like mom does.” To his mother, he says, “You refuse to let me grow up.” He again mentions that he smokes, and, “to tell you the truth, quite often.”

Here I sit, a 19-year-old war vet. Writing home to tell his mommy that he is a big boy now and he wants to smoke. Now ain't that silly. Really mom think about it.

He derides hippies, bums and draftcard-burners and says he better not run into any when he comes home. For the first time, he says he is thinking about extending his tour.

In Vietnam, waves of B-52 Stratofortress planes carpet-bombed vast areas of the country, killing great numbers of enemy troops and civilians. This “collateral damage” happens in every war.

No. 43

Aug. 11, 1968

One of the guys had to go and kill somebody's father, very well known in the vill, so now we have to start from scratch. People distrust us now more than ever and will help the V.C. if possible.

In September, he tells his family of his plans to come home in six weeks.

No. 51

Sept. 13, 1968

Mom, when I told you you would get the same Tom back I didn't lie, but remember I've been through a lot and not to sound like I'm bragging but I have matured a lot so don't be disappointed, okay?

For the first time, he writes “peace” on the back of the envelope.

The last letter he writes on his first tour in Vietnam is the only one that is typewritten. It is his most eloquent, funny, triumphant letter of the war.

Dear Civilians, Friends, Draft Dodgers, etc.

… Show no alarm if he insists on carrying a weapon to the dinner table

… take it with a smile when he insists on digging up the garden to fill sandbags for the bunker he is building

… and if it should rain, pay no attention to him if he pulls off his clothes, grabs a bar of soap and runs outside for a shower.


Last letter home

But not for long. After a brief stay in Belle Glade, where he fell in love with a girl named Sandra, he returns to Vietnam. He has extended his tour by six months. There is no explanation for his decision in the letters. His mother can't remember why he decided to return to the war. She continues numbering the letters, but she starts at No. 1 again.

No. 1

Dec. 3, 1968

Hey Mom, what does her mother say about us? Call Sandra up and tell her I love her (mushey stuff).

On the back of the letter, 38 years ago, his mother writes “re-up” and underlines it twice. She adds, “195 days to go.”

By January, he is on the move. No longer is his Combined Action Platoon stationed in a compound surrounded by wire, with bunkers and claymore mines protecting him.

“My CAP went mobile,” he says. He is now a corporal, an assistant squad leader. He has come a long way from carrying other people's water.

Feb. 25, 1969

Tommy's mother does not number this envelope. Instead, she writes, “A bad letter for sure.”

Them bastards got me with a mortar. I am fine and have 2 holes in my left arm.

Tommy tells her that, the day before, his platoon boxed in a battalion of heavily armed NVA troops, when they began firing while he was crossing a rice paddy. He is hit by shrapnel. Wounded, in pain, he calls in air and artillery strikes. “Another mortar landed less than 1 foot from my face and it was a dud! Another one landed behind me. Also a dud. Boy was God good to me. We fought all day and then had to pull out. Fighting is still going on and I will have to cut this short. We are going back soon. But I am fine and will be wearing a Purple Heart when I come home.”

On February 28, he writes to his family that he has been nominated for a Bronze Star, “although I don't think I rate it because I was just doing my job.”

It is his last letter in the bag.

He dies when a land mine explodes on March 22, 1969. He is 19 years old, the youngest of the 10 American soldiers killed that day in Vietnam. In all, more than 25,000 men 20 years old or younger are casualties of the Vietnam War – equivalent to every man, woman and child in Belle Glade today, plus 10,000 more.

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the NAVY COMMENDATION MEDAL posthumously to Corporal Thomas Folden … for heroic achievement while serving as assistant squad leader …

“I have all his medals,” his mother says. “I don't know what they mean.”

She does know how she learned that Tommy was dead.

“Two uniformed men came into my kitchen and called him ‘the deceased.' I corrected them. I said his name was Tommy. I was just like crazy. If you had a nuthouse, I'd have moved in it.”

Alan L. LeBeau, the family friend, says it took 21 days for Tommy's body to make it home.

“I went to the funeral home. I had worked there when I was in high school. I was there, and Art was there when we brought the body in. Art handled it a lot better than I did. He loved his son. It was a closed casket. I stayed out of the room. They went in and opened the casket up. But his mother didn't go in. She didn't go to the funeral, either.”

But many others did. Belle Glade High dismissed classes so students could attend. Hundreds of police officers and servicemen were there, as well.

Tommy's old Camaro sat parked on the family's lawn for 10 years after his death.

LeBeau says Tommy's mother lost it, plain and simple.

“The way she went after Tommy died, I doubt if there was any room for Jerry,” says LeBeau. “She just went over the edge. She didn't leave the house for 20 years. When I got back from Vietnam, she wouldn't see me, wouldn't even talk to me. I think she got mad that I came home, and Tommy didn't.”

Eighteen years later, she did leave her home.

In January 1987, when a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Memorial came to the South Florida Fair, Mrs. Folden went to see her son's name on Panel 28W, Line 10 – one of 76 people from Palm Beach County listed on the wall.

“He was just a kid,” she told a reporter for the Belle Glade Sun. “Everybody loved Tom. He was a nice kid. He wanted to be like his father.”

Now, 20 more years have passed, but the pain is just as sharp.

“I'm mad at him,” the mother says, “because he shouldn't have done that to me. No. He shouldn't have gone. He wanted to please his father. Now I'm just mad at the whole world.”

And finally, she says, “they killed my babies.”

At least now people know about the letters in the bag, the fallen Marine, his troubled brother and the lady with pink cheeks who wants to forget.

But can't.


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 07/06/1949
  • DATE OF DEATH: 03/22/1969

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