COLUMBUS — A local group of loyal friends and family members from Shelby and Auglaize counties traveled to Columbus, Ohio, recently to honor Gary W. Gross, a native of Jackson Center. Gross was inducted into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame for Valor on Friday, May 3, 2019. The induction service took place at the State House Atrium.
Gross entered military service in October 1967 and later died in Vietnam while serving in the United States Army in 1968.
Gross was honored along with 21 other inductees from the U.S Army, U.S Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps, who served in conflicts in the Civil War (four inductees), Vietnam, and the Middle East. There were nine posthumous awards including Gross. Now in its 20th year, the hall of fame honors both veterans and active duty personnel. Nominees must be from the state of Ohio, and must have received a medal for valor for a specific act of bravery and heroism in combat.
Records indicate Gross was killed while traveling in a small convoy through enemy territory on Dec. 16, 1968. The jeep he was riding in set off a land mine that took his and another soldier’s life; Gross received a Purple Heart Medal for that incident and also The Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Ribbon, Combat Infantryman Badge, Sharpshooter Badge with rifle and automatic rifle Bars and the Marksman’s Badge with machinegun bar. Gross was also awarded another Purple Heart medal and a Bronze Star medal with a “V” device for wounds he suffered in two prior incidents one in which he was instrumental in saving the lives of others.
The citation read at the Military Hall of Fame ceremony prior to the presentation of the medal given in Gross’s honor was taken from an article published in a 1969 copy of “The Bugle Call” a publication devoted news about those in military service; information in the Bugle Call was adapted from an article in the Sidney Daily News April 11, 1969, and TV Channels 2 and 7 news reports. The article outlined the facts associated with his military career. The following is an excerpt from that article recounting an act of heroism that earned Gross one of his first medals, the Bronze Star with a “V” Device:
“Several men in Gross’ unit were wounded by a mine explosion and the group came under a heavy volume of Viet Cong sniper fire as it attempted to advance. With complete disregard for personal safety, Specialist Gross exposed himself to enemy fire and assisted in evacuating his wounded comrades to safety. Returning to his vehicle he secured ammunition and distributed it to his fellow soldiers. His various actions were responsible for saving several lives and successful thwarting of the insurgents assault. His personal bravery, aggressiveness and devotion to duty, reflected great credit upon himself, his unit, the 25th Infantry Division and the US Army.”
Gross was nominated for the Ohio Hall of Fame award by and fellow classmate Ron Leininger, of Jackson Center, who is also a veteran. Leininger was among those present at the induction ceremony. Later when interviewed about being responsible for Gross’ nomination Leininger shunned any personal recognition saying he was simply paying a debt owed to Gary Gross “for the greatest sacrifice any man can make.”
Speaking in an earnest tone of sincerity Leininger said: “This is all about Gary and what he did for us and his country; in nominating him for the Ohio Military Hall of Fame, my No. 1 priority was to make sure he received the credit he so deserved. Of course my hope is that all veterans will be remembered for who they were and what they did, but most especially Gary because he was so near and dear to my heart.
“In school he was a good-natured, humble, quiet kind of guy and a joy to be around, he was well liked by his classmates and a friend to all but never desired to be in the spotlight. Looking back it is obvious Gary had two personalities; one, Gary the civilian, a meek and quiet man, and the other, Gary the warrior; a courageous soldier that rose to every occasion when called, selflessly disregarding his own safety doing what he had to do when the chips were down,” said Leininger, who momentarily paused to regain composure when asked about how he remembered his fallen friend.
“When thinking of Gary I will always be reminded of John 15:13 and what Jesus said, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ Gary followed in the Lord’s footsteps and sacrificed himself to save the lives of others; he was a true hero in every sense of the word.”
Leininger pointed out that this is how heroes are made.
“That’s what you turn into when give your life to save someone else,” Leininger said. “You know they’ll all die if you don’t do something, you’re put in a situation where you know there’s only one way out and you don’t have time to think, you just do what you know you have to do. When his outfit was attacked, Gary had one thing in mind, getting the wounded to safety and making sure everyone else was ok — even if it meant losing his life in the process. His actions were rooted in his love for others, and a lot of his comrades got to go home to their families because of his sacrifice; sadly he never made it back with them but his legacy of loyalty lives on.”
Jim Knoch, of Wapakoneta, received Gross’s posthumous award. Knoch is Gary Gross’s uncle and like Leininger he has many fond memories of his nephew. Knoch recalled a somber morning in mid-December 1968 when Knoch was the Auglaize County Sheriff at the time. Prior to learning that Gross lost his life fighting for his country in the jungles of Vietnam, they had received word that he was missing in action after a fierce battle with the Viet Cong.
Knoch and his family resided in a house that adjoined the sheriff’s office and jail in Wapakoneta and the discussion at the breakfast table centered on Gross. News traveled slowly in those days and Knoch’s son, Jim Jr., who was 11 years old at the time, had lots of questions most of which could not be answered due to lack of information on hand.
“Our son was busy quizzing his mother and I about Gary’s welfare but we just told him we’d have to wait and see what happened; he made my wife promise to come to school and let him know if we received any news on Gary’s whereabouts,” Knoch said — and so they waited — and waited.
The next day word came that Gross was accounted for but he did not survive the explosion that took place the day before when the jeep his was riding in hit a land mine. Gross’ parents were both at their place of work when they were notified about their son’s death. Gary’s mother Ruth worked at Airstream Trailers in Jackson Center, and his father Dan at the Ford auto plant in Lima. Both were called to the office at work and told the heart-breaking news. They in turn notified family, neighbors and friends and soon all joined in mourning the loss of a dear loved one.
“Gary was a heck of a good kid,” said Knoch. “He dearly loved our country and before he went off to war he spent most of his free time helping out on his Grandpa Christler’s farm on Southland Road. Gary loved the land, the people here, and the opportunities that living in this area offered. He had a bright future ahead of him and among other things he dreamed of taking over the farming operations at his granddad’s place when he got home from the service — a dream he never lived to see come true. We lost Gary, but we hang on the precious memories and focus on the good he accomplished, had it not been for him and his love for others, things would have no doubt turned out differently for many of those he served with. We’re very proud of his sacrifices.”
In 1969 the Village of Jackson Center opened their municipal swimming pool and a small bronze plaque commemorating Gross’ service and date of passing was placed at the bottom of the flag pole that graced the lawn in from of the pool. “The flag pole and plaque was an Eagle Scout project, and for 50 years it has stood as a reminder of the sacrifice Gross made for his country.” Knoch said.
The plaque reads: “IN MEMORY OF GARY W. GROSS HHC, 1st BN, 5th Inf., 25th Inf. Div. WHO GAVE HIS LIFE IN VIETNAM Dec. 16th, 1968”
Over time the concrete base of the flag pole bearing the plaque has deteriorated to the point it needs to be replaced. Knoch, Gross’ cousin, Brent Christler and his wife Janet, along with Gross’ aunt, Rose Mary Christler, are working on replacing the small plaque with a large stone monument and granite bench bearing information about his military service and images of Gross as a student and a soldier. The new monument will be dedicated on Aug. 6, during the “National Night Out” celebration sponsored annually by the Jackson Center Police Department.
The following is a link to the awards ceremony for Gary W. Gross: https://www.ohiochannel.org/video/ohio-military-hall-of-fame-induction-ceremony-2019.
Link to the Ohio Military Hall of Fame: http://www.ohioheroes.org.
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.