When Gallatin native Ralph McMurtry was killed fighting during the Vietnam War in April 1969, members of his family assumed the 24-year-old was buried with his military dog tag.
“They had an open casket, but there was glass that went right across the top and covered the whole thing,” his brother Billy McMurtry recalled. “The people at the funeral home told me that underneath it was gas to preserve him. You couldn’t touch him or anything.”
Until last month, McMurtry’s family was unaware that the young solider had somehow become separated from his dog tag while serving overseas 50 years earlier.
That’s when they learned that a Canadian tourist had found the item buried in the sand on a beach while vacationing in Vietnam in early 2015 and had been trying to track them down in the four years since then.
“I thought it would be a very wonderful gift to be able to pass this on to somebody who lost a loved one in a war who was so young when he died,” Kyle Roerick said about finding the dog tag. “I’ve wanted to find who that somebody was now for more than four years. I think I’ve found them now.”
From Gallatin to Vietnam
Born July 1, 1944, Ralph David McMurtry was the youngest child of Lawrence and Bessie McMurtry’s six siblings.
The family lived in Portland before moving to a farm in Gallatin off Neals Lane where Ralph spent time working and hunting squirrels and raccoons on the property.
“We grew up here,” said Billy McMurtry who still lives on the property. “Me and him were close because we were so close in age. My daddy was a painter, so he would get us out painting. We painted together in Nashville and anywhere there was painting to do.”
In his free time, Ralph was known for being a talented bluegrass music performer, according to this sister Betty Liles. While he mainly played the banjo and the guitar, McMurtry also played the harp occasionally.
“He was a very sweet person,” Liles added. “He’d get along with everybody.”
McMurtry later moved to Florida where he was living when he received a call from home that he had been drafted by the United States Army. He was eventually deployed to Vietnam in September 1968.
During his time overseas, McMurtry was stationed with the 101st Airborne Division. He would routinely send letters and pictures to his family back home describing what life was like during the war.
“He had a letter started to me when he got killed,” Billy McMurtry said. “He said they called him out to take a mountain top and they were taking heavy casualties. When he’d get in a foxhole, he’d jerk that paper out (and write more).”
The 24-year-old had been digging a foxhole when his spade broke and he went to borrow another one, according to his older brother who later received a letter from another solider describing what happened. He was ambushed on his way back around the hill by a North Vietnamese solider who opened fire on the group.
McMurtry was shot twice in the stomach before the enemy was killed. He was flown by helicopter to a nearby hospital where he later died on April 13, 1969 – approximately six weeks before he was expected to return home, according to his family.
He was buried with full military honors at Beech Cemetery in Hendersonville on April 23. That fall, McMurtry’s parents were presented with several medals their late son had been awarded for his service to the nation including the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Good Conduct Medal.
Among the sea shells
Forty-six years later while on a trip to southeast Asia in January 2015, Kyle Roerick was traveling through Vietnam when he stopped in the city of Hue and decided to go to the beach. It was there that he would make an unexpected discovery while searching for shells along the shore.
“I saw this silver thing that was glistening,” said Roerick, who lives in Montreal, Canada. “It was a dog tag. I have a master’s degree in history… so it really interested me, and I wanted to research it and see if I could find any family members still alive.”
According to the National Archives, there were 58,200 United States military casualties during the Vietnam War, which lasted two decades before ending in 1975. Of those, 25 were from Sumner County.
After determining the dog tag was not a fake, Roerick began researching McMurtry to learn more about his history and where his relatives might be located. He was able to track down the soldier’s family to the Tennessee area by using the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website, but additional information was difficult find.
“The research I was able to do online didn’t really give me too much (more),” he added. “So, I kind of gave up on it because I wasn’t getting anywhere.”
In early July, Roerick renewed his efforts after attending a wedding where a friend asked him about the status the dog tag search. The breakthrough he had been looking for came after he found an obituary on the Gallatin News’ website that detailed specific information about the family of the fallen soldier.
Family ‘shocked’ by discovery
Roerick contacted members of the newspaper’s staff by email on July 18 to ask for help locating McMurtry’s family. After learning about the story, local private investigator Roger Clemons with Stealth Private Investigation Services was able to find Liles and contact her by phone two days later.
“You don’t know how happy I was when they called me,” Liles said about learning her late brother’s dog tag had been located. “I was shocked. I could have shouted over the phone when they told me. I couldn’t get over it. Bless the man that found it.”
The dog tag was mailed to McMurtry’s family last week and arrived Tuesday. Roerick said he hopes the delivery will bring some peace to those who knew and loved the fallen solider.
“I can only imagine what it must have felt like to lose your brother in such a terrible war,” Roerick added. “For me, it’s special to be able to reunite a piece of history, any piece of history, with those it means something to. I think it means the most to those of his family who he left behind.”