Discovery leads to story about how Vietnam era soldier died

Oil City resident Steven Klinger was cleaning out the basement of a home in Oil City that he was remodeling when he found two faded rectangular boards that bore a name: Lt. Donald L. Taylor.

There were other clues on the boards.

The stenciled black letters listed Taylor’s service number, 343 085, U.S. Army, and, ominously, along the lower edge the word “HEAD.” The lower board read “FLAG INSIDE.”

There was no known connection between the soldier and Oil City, and it was a mystery as to how the boards arrived at the home. Klinger’s curiosity led him to reach out to Clarion County Veterans Affairs Director Judy Zerbe, who immediately realized there was more to the story.

The objects were a part of something larger and tragic: a packing crate that contained the remains of an American soldier.

Zerbe spent a year compiling research on the casket box. She obtained a photo of it and sent the picture to Jack Buzard, who was in the Army’s mortuary service in Vietnam.

“He said it wasn’t from Vietnam because the caskets containing the remains of those killed in action were sent home inside a metal container,” Zerbe said. “That created a little confusion.”

Zerbe found some old records on Three Fold, a military information site.

“I found he was actually a member of the Army Reserve,” she said.

“He died while on active duty, which is why the carton was stamped with that military information. He did not die in combat, however. He died in a training accident with the Green Berets in Okinawa. A grenade went off and that is how he died.”

Zerbe turned to a friend who used an ancestry site to find Taylor’s obituary.

“His father was the pastor at the Lutheran church in Edenburg at that time,” Zerbe said.

The obituary ran in the Nov. 2, 1968, issue of The Derrick. The obituary stated Lt. Taylor’s body was due to arrive at the Roy P. Stuart Funeral Home in Knox. His body was taken to the Edenburg Presbyterian Church until funeral services began. After the services, Taylor’s body was removed to the Perseverance Christian Church in Dundas, Virginia, for burial.

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, Taylor was a graduate of Washington County High School in Sandersville, Georgia. He earned a bachelor’s degree from East Tennessee State University and a second lieutenant’s commission through the ROTC program.

Zerbe said Taylor’s enlistment in the Reserve was for seven years and not the standard six-year commitment.

“Once I got going I had to learn more about this man,” Zerbe said. “I sort of had to piece things together to come up with the rest of the information. It was a real search.”

Additional information revealed Taylor’s father, the Rev. Cecil Robert Taylor, died in 2015. He is buried close to his son.

Zerbe’s determination to dig up information could be traced back to when she was 10 years-old. At that time, the son of a friend of her family was drafted and sent to Vietnam.

“He was killed 10 days after arriving in the country,” Zerbe said. “I will always remember going into the funeral home and seeing that closed casket. People need to know what actually took place.”