Army rifleman Pfc. John C. DeMarr Jr. of White Plains was walking flank to protect his platoon while navigating a rubber plantation near D’ An in Vietnam on July 22, 1968, when he spotted an enemy encampment. Upon closer inspection, small arms and machine gun fire erupted and DeMarr was struck in the face and neck, though not before he was able to kill one of the Vietcong shooting at him. His action alerted his platoon to the possible ambush, allowing it to eventually repel the enemy group.
DeMarr was flown out to the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, Vietnam, where the now paraplegic was operated on and stabilized before a flight out to the 249th General Hospital at Camp Drake in Japan. On Aug. 2, not quite 2½ months after arriving in Vietnam, DeMarr died because of his wounds. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star for heroism and bravery in action and a Purple Heart, which is awarded to those who are wounded or die in military action.
This year marks the 51st anniversary of the then-20-year-old’s death. He is interred at Trinity Memorial Gardens in Waldorf, where the Pfc. John C. DeMarr Jr. Memorial Chapter 36 of the Disabled American Veterans lays a wreath every Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
“We were on I guess what you’d call a search-and-destroy mission,” said former platoon sergeant and friend Jack Durst in a telephone interview before last year’s 50th anniversary of DeMarr’s death. “John was walking flank — what flank is, we put people out to the sides so people can’t come around to our side — he spotted an ambush we were walking into and he opened up on them. I think it was a machine gun position, and they turned the gun on him.
“He kept the platoon from walking into the kill zone. He probably saved the lives of a lot of men that day.”
In a letter written around the time of DeMarr’s death, platoon leader Lt. Lee F. Jones wrote to the wounded soldier, “Everyone in the platoon says ‘hi,’ if you hadn’t been doing such a good job walking flank, maybe there wouldn’t be too many of us left to say anything. We all owe you a lot.”
Both Jones and Durst have visited DeMarr’s grave at Trinity Memorial Gardens in Waldorf and send flowers every Memorial Day to his graveside.
Durst, now 70 and living in Mentor, Ohio, had quickly become friends with DeMarr, and the affable young infantryman had, in his two months in Vietnam, become a favorite in the tight-knit platoon.
“I’m pretty sure we were at Sông Bé when he joined us,” Durst said. “I have a picture of John and I there roasting marshmallows. We got to be pretty close because John was from Maryland and I was originally from [Cumberland], Maryland, myself.
“John just had a personality where he was instantly liked by everybody,” he added.
Durst himself wasn’t in Vietnam very long. He arrived on April 1, 1968, and was flown out on Dec. 19, 1968, after being wounded for the fourth time. “Two weren’t very serious, but the other two were pretty serious,” he said of his wounds. “The last one I walked into an ambush and got shot in the stomach.”
Turning back to the friend he lost in Vietnam, Durst said, “John was a good soldier, a great person and he died way too early. But so did a lot of veterans.”
“He was a fantastic young man. Everybody loved him,” said DeMarr’s sister Janice C. Hall of La Plata, while going through a pile of papers and old photographs at the Maryland Veterans Museum in Newburg. “He just loved everybody, and everybody loved him.”
Hall said all John could think of while boarding the plane to begin the journey to Vietnam was that he wanted his sister-in-law, Cathy DeMarr, to deliver her baby — a would-be future niece — before he left. “He called from California to see if the baby had been born, but she hadn’t been,” Hall said.
DeMarr’s three siblings were Hall, older brother David R. DeMarr Sr. and husband of Cathy — all of whom still live in the area — and sister Julie Hammonds who died five years ago. DeMarr’s mother and father, both of whom have since died, were Blanche E. DeMarr (1994) and Charles DeMarr (2010).
The four siblings grew up on the farm established by their grandfather near White Plains, where some family members, including David, still live. They all went to school in La Plata, though John was held back. He eventually graduated from La Plata High School at the age of 19 shortly before being drafted in 1967.
“He loved to dance, and ‘Johnny B. Goode’ was his favorite song,” Hall said.
He worked at a lumber mill for a time, went out dancing regularly and worked to finish high school. Hall said he always seemed to be in a hurry, “like he needed to get everything done.”
He and friends were known to take the family tractor to the 301 Drive-In in Waldorf to take in movies.
“He lived life in the fast lane, but he was close to his mother,” Hall said. “He was just fun-loving and loved life. He was just go, go, go, like maybe he knew he only had … a short time.”
Hall said John totaled his mother’s brand new 1967 Plymouth Belvedere when he crashed it into a tree not long before he went to Vietnam. That crash left him with six stitches to his head.
John wrote to his sisters daily from Vietnam, usually asking them to look after their mother and about the trials and tribulations of life, and asking about the newly born niece as well as other family members. He also wrote his mother and father.
In a letter to his father, dated May 27, 1968, shortly after arriving in Vietnam, John wrote: “The word for the place is Hell + Hot + Dirty all the time.”
When asked if she missed him, Hall responded, “I certainly do. He was a fine, fine brother.”
“There’d be a few more kids around,” David DeMarr Sr. said of his brother if he were around today. “We all miss him. Time goes by so fast.”
“Every year is special but with the 50th anniversary … it just doesn’t seem possible it has been 50 years,” Hall said last year.