I drove around Riverhead Cemetery for a while this afternoon, searching for the grave of PFC Garfield McConnell Langhorn.
Langhorn is a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the United States of America’s highest and most prestigious personal military decoration awarded to recognize military service members who distinguished themselves by acts of valor. There have been only 3,515 Medal of Honor recipients since its creation in 1868.
And one of them grew up right here in Riverhead. He graduated from Riverhead High School, Class of 1967. A devout Christian, he was a young man with big dreams and an easy smile.
I never met Garfield Langhorn, but I’ve met and interviewed his mother Mary several times, and the woman he was engaged to marry when he shipped off to Vietnam in November 1968, after he’d been drafted into the Army. I know people who were his friends.
I see Langhorn’s portrait every time I enter the Riverhead post office, which was named in his honor by an act of Congress in 2010. I always pause for a moment to look at the portrait, to reflect on the valor of the young man who threw himself on a live grenade to protect injured soldiers under attack by enemy fire. He was only 20 years old on Jan 15, 1969, when his life ended that way in a jungle in Pleiku Province. Twenty years old.
His fiancee Joan Brown-Smith told me she had a premonition on the day he boarded a plane to begin his journey to Vietnam. (See prior story.) He was on the tarmac and turned around to wave to her and his family members.
“There was something about that moment,” Brown-Smith recalled. “I knew — I somehow just knew — he was never coming back.”
Langhorn’s story haunts me. His face haunts me.
His fiancee wants people to know the serious expression he wears in his official portrait and his high school yearbook photo was not typical.
“[T]hat wasn’t Garfield at all,” she said. “Garfield had the most beautiful smile, and he was always smiling,” Brown-Smith recalled. “I want people to know that about him.”
Twenty years old. What went through his mind that night in the jungle?
His “platoon was inserted into a landing zone to rescue two pilots of a Cobra helicopter shot down by enemy fire on a heavily timbered slope,” according to his Medal of Honor Citation.
A radio operator, Langhorn “provided radio coordination with the command-and-control aircraft overhead while the troops hacked their way through dense undergrowth to the wreckage, where both aviators were found dead,” the citation says.
“As the men were taking the bodies to a pickup site, they suddenly came under intense fire from North Vietnamese soldiers…”
Langhorn “lay between the platoon leader and another man, operating the radio and providing covering fire for the wounded who had been moved to the center of the small perimeter.
“Darkness soon fell, making it impossible for the gunships to give accurate support, and the aggressors began to probe the perimeter.
“An enemy hand grenade landed in front of PFC. Langhorn and a few feet from personnel who had become casualties.”
Langhorn “unhesitatingly threw himself on the grenade, scooped it beneath his body and absorbed the blast.”
What went through his mind when he made the decision to protect his fallen comrades by covering the grenade with his own body?
Mary Langhorn wonders that about her son. A loss like that can make a person bitter. She and her husband learned of how their son was killed from news reports. Though they knew their son’s giving nature, “We didn’t know what to believe,” she said.
Then they got a call from Rodney Eve, a West Islip man who said he served with their son and wanted to visit them. Eve came to Riverhead and described to them their son’s heroic actions that saved fellow soldiers’ lives, including his own.
“It was good to hear it from an eyewitness,” Mary Langhorn said in a 2010 interview.
Eve succumbed to cancer in 2007, but his son Eric, a history teacher, honors his own father’s memory by recounting the story of the hero that saved the life of the man who would be his father.
“I am here today because of his actions,” Eric Eve said.
Ever so brief, Garfield Langhorn’s life was a life well-lived.
Riverhead should do a better job of remembering and honoring this war hero, our town’s Medal of Honor recipient. It is a unique distinction for our town to have a Medal of Honor recipient.
Yet, there are no ceremonies at his gravesite on Memorial Day. Town Board members I asked couldn’t tell me where his grave was, or even that it was in Riverhead Cemetery. The only decoration on his grave today was the same small American flag placed on every veteran’s grave by — I’m guessing here — volunteers with the American Legion or VFW or their auxiliaries.
There are no ceremonies at the bronze bust of Langhorn erected by the town in 1993, nearly a quarter-century after his supreme sacrifice.
Riverhead officials in 2011 named Maple Avenue — where Langhorn grew up — in honor of the fallen hero. That was certainly a nice gesture, but it’s not a substitute for remembering the young man and his heroism every year on Memorial Day.
Today, on Memorial Day, the name of Riverhead’s Medal of Honor recipient Garfield M. Langhorn Jr. was not mentioned. Not once. Sadly, this Memorial Day was no different from any other.
We should all ask ourselves why.
We should also wonder why it took 24 years after his death for the Town of Riverhead to honor its hometown hero — 23 years after President Richard Nixon bestowed the Medal of Honor on Langhorn.
I wonder, if this Medal of Honor recipient had been a young white man, would this town have taken a different course? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I’d like to think it’s “no.”
But an outstanding war hero, decorated with the highest military honor in our land has been largely ignored by his hometown for nearly a half-century. Think about that. In my opinion, it merits — at a minimum — some serious reflection and self-examination.
Race is a difficult subject. Race in Riverhead is a particularly fraught subject. The repercussions of racial segregation here are still being felt, in so many ways. (Even our local cemetery has a “black section” — remember that.)
I think it would be naive, even foolish, to believe that race has had nothing to do with how we’ve honored — or failed to honor — our hometown hero, Medal of Honor Recipient Garfield M. Langhorn Jr.
The good news is, there is still time to do right by Langhorn’s memory while the people who knew and loved him — including his mother, now 93 — are still alive.
Langhorn deserves to be treated as the true American hero he was. His memory deserves to be honored for the way he died — as well as the way he lived. He should be remembered and honored every year on Memorial Day for his exceptional valor and selfless sacrifice.
No ceremony will every bring Mary Langhorn’s young son back to her. But knowing he is remembered for the man he was, the life he lived, and the heroic way he died will underscore for this Gold Star Mother that he did not die in vain.
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