By Col. Frank Harris III, USMC (Ret.)
The Circle of Trees on the campus of Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge commemorates the lives of 13 Marines from the 7th Engineer Battalion who were killed on March 28, 1967, in Vietnam when an M-16 mine accidentally detonated. Since that time, members of the 7th Engineers who served in Vietnam have continued to honor the fallen Marines and contribute to Freedoms Foundation’s maintenance of this living memorial.
In March 1967, the 7th Engineer Battalion was tasked to remove a minefield at DaNang in order to lengthen the airstrip. “A” Company was assigned the task and, in conformity with Battalion directives, held a mine warfare school before their work in the field. Second Lt. Glen McCarty, the platoon commander, oversaw preparations along with Staff Sgt. Jackie Kinslow, who had experience with explosives and demolitions.
The mine used in the training, the M-16, is known as a “Bouncing Betty.” When detonated it goes 10 to 12 feet in the air and sprays metal outward in a cone shape.
The tragedy occurred at 0815 on March 28 during the course on landmine safety. The instructor had been to mine warfare school at Courthouse Bay and several minor schools. He thought that he had deactivated the demonstration M-16 by removing the detonator. However, he didn’t realize there was a second method of activation. During the training, he inadvertently ignited the primer and set off the mine, seriously injuring himself and killing the 13 Marines gathered around him.
A number of the Marines who were killed were from eastern Pennsylvania. The parents of one, Lance Cpl. Don L. Shockley, came up with the idea of honoring their son and his fellow Marines with a circle of 13 crabapple trees and a monument in the middle that would include all their names. They consulted with other parents and family members and contacted Freedoms Foundation, which agreed to provide a location on their campus at Valley Forge.
The monument was dedicated in 1969. Since that time, veterans of the Battalion have held an annual commemorative ceremony each December. In 2017, when one of the 13 crabapple trees died, several veterans of the 7th Engineers contacted a local arbor to replace the tree. The arborist’s father had died in Vietnam and he replaced the tree at no cost. A rededication was held in December 2017.
The 13 Marines memorialized on the monument are:
Second Lt. Glen M. McCarty
Cpl. Daniel R. Laird
Cpl. Ronald W. Porter
Cpl. Howard S. Stevens
Cpl. Verrel D. Stiles
Lance Cpl. Thomas C. Bekiempis
Lance Cpl. Stanley Davidheiser Jr.
Lance Cpl. Larry C. Dye
Lance Cpl. Anthony Hawkins
Lance Cpl. Eugene J. Payne III
Lance Cpl. Glenn W. Shafer
Lance Cpl. Don L. Shockley
Private First Class Otis R. Ellis Jr.
Col. Frank Harris III, USMC (Ret.) was in command of the 7th Engineer Battalion at the time of the accident. He wrote this in time for the annual December commemoration at the Circle of Trees in 2019, held on the same day as Wreaths Across the Medal of Honor Grove.
Read more about the Circle of Trees and see pictures from the dedication here.