On Jan. 8, 1970, Sgt. Willard Croy of Gainesville died during combat in Binh Dinh Province of what used to be South Vietnam.
Fifty years later, the fallen Army soldier’s resting place now displays a Vietnam War marker.
Walking up a hill at Memorial Park Cemetery on Wednesday, May 20, Willard’s wife, Mary Croy, and his childhood friend, Johnny Hulsey, saw the bronze headstone in its new home for the first time.
“It’s a great feeling,” Hulsey said, tearing up. “It’s been such a struggle to get this far along.”
For 10 years, Hulsey and Mary had worked together to give Willard a Vietnam War marker. Hulsey said the effort proved challenging because when his friend died, the funeral home made a tiny mistake on the death certificate, which resulted in the federal government not furnishing the headstone.
After years of being turned down for the marker, Hulsey decided to purchase it himself. He said Jimmy Brewer, former owner of Ward’s Funeral Home in Gainesville, graciously sold it to him at cost, which was $325. The Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 772 also stepped in and paid for a $250 marble border to surround the marker.
The stone was placed on Tuesday, May 19, right in time for Memorial Day.
“I was hoping it would get here for Memorial Day, but wasn’t sure,” Hulsey said. “I’m so thankful that it’s finally here.”
Looking down at the marker, Mary said she remembers the day soldiers knocked on her door with the news of her husband’s death.
“He was 22 when he died,” Mary said. “That was 50 years ago, but it seems like yesterday.”
She married Willard at 16, and recalls writing letters to him while he served in Vietnam for three months.
Mary said he was a tank commander, who fought bravely up until his death. Even barely into his 20s, Willard was a highly decorated soldier honored with a Purple Heart medal, combat service medal, expert rifleman medal and more.
Although many will remember Willard for his ultimate sacrifice, Hulsey said he’ll never forget the precious moments they shared as best buds at Tadmore Elementary and East Hall High School.
“When we met at Tadmore, our favorite subject was recess,” Hulsey said, smiling. “We shot marbles on the playground. To shoot marbles, you’ve got to be on your knees. We’d wear the knees(out) of our blue jeans.”
If not for the pandemic, Hulsey said all of Willard’s Tadmore friends would’ve visited his grave on Wednesday to pay their respects.
Like Willard, Hulsey was also an Army tanker during the Vietnam War. He had already returned home to Gainesville when he heard about his friend’s death.
“I lost three of my high school buddies from East Hall High School,” Hulsey said. “I think that’s what motivated me to do what I have done.”
This Memorial Day, Hulsey said he wants people not to think of the holiday as a picnic, but about the soldiers like his friend who gave their lives for freedom.
“He was only 90 days in the country when he lost his life,” Hulsey said. “He paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country, for our freedom.”