Published 10:42 am Friday, July 19, 2019

Friends, family and fellow soldiers gathered in Florala last night to honor one of America’s heroes.

On the 50th anniversary of his death, a standing-room-only crowd gathered in a building with his namesake, to pay tribute to Rodney J. Evans, a man who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Evans was killed on July 18, 1969, one day after his 21st birthday, in Tay Ninh province in Vietnam.

Fellow soldiers, Basil B. Clark and Gary DeRigne spoke at last night’s service.

Both were with Evans at the time of his death.

“As long as someone remembers us, we are still alive,” Clark said in his speech about Evans. “Rodney is not forgotten.”

Clark played Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey I Miss You,” saying it was Evans’ favorite song and made him think of his wife, Barbara, who died before his second tour of duty in Vietnam.

Clark recalled times in Vietnam, speaking about the platoon joking about what they would take from each other if the other died in combat.

“When his body was carried past me, I couldn’t joke or cry,” he said. “I was so empty inside. It was sometime later before I could cry.”

Clark said that several things had happened in his life that made him believe in premonitions.

One was that Evans ate his favorite meal — pork slices — on the day he died and commented that a man should enjoy his last meal.

Clark called Evans a hero.

“Had Rodney not jumped on the mine, he would have probably died anyway, but so would others,” he said.

DeRigne, was one of the soldiers, saved by Evans’ heroism.

“Rodney was my squad leader,” he said.

DeRigne talked about how enemy soldiers outnumbered American troops 10-20 to 1.

“We were always surrounded,” he said.

He talked about how they killed hundreds of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong protecting their landing zone.

DeRigne said they were stationed in South Vietnam near the Cambodian border.

He said that they often walked single file and cut their way through the jungle.

That’s what they were doing on July 17, 1969.

“We walked into an ambush,” he said.

Several were wounded and they called for medevac, which came down into a hole in the tree line, but as they were lowering a wench, the enemy was everywhere.

The pilot and others were killed, but the second pilot, luckily controlled the helicopter.

A firefight ensued, and eventually their platoon setup a perimeter around an area that had been bombed.

“We were very close to their (North Vietnamese) bunker,” he said. “We could hear them and called for artillery.”

The artillery couldn’t get close enough.

DeRigne said the platoon was short on supplies and they thought they would be pulled back to re-supply, but they had to go forward.

He said that the were down several men, and Evans, who was the platoon leader, made the decision that he would go first.

“We had to work up the nerve to walk in the bunker,” DeRigne said.

DeRigne said there was disagreement between he and Evans about who would walk “point” that day, but Evans said he had been there on one tour and was almost done with his second. He told them he had more experience than the rest.

“I backed him up,” DeRigne said.

Eventually, as they moved into enemy territory, DeRigne said that Evans saw a mine to his right, and he got down and crawled to it.

“We hit the ground,” he said. “My recollection is that as he crawled, he was trying to get his belt knife to cut the wire.”

DeRigne said Evans shielded the mine and it detonated.

“He lived just a short while,” he said. “I wish I could describe to you what it feels like. We were really good friends. He was the first to come talk to me. He had a very dry sense of humor.”

DeRigne said that Evans very much wanted to finish his tour of duty.

“A day never goes by that I don’t think about Rod,” he said. “I have tried to live as good a life as I can.”

DeRigne said it was powerful for him to stand in front of the people from the town Evans grew up in.

Chaplain Capt. Daniel Garnett, who served as the emcee, said that everyone in attendance stood among heroes at the night’s event.