Bayfield community honors fallen Marine Merlin Allen Final goodbye comes 46 yeas after his death in Vietnam

June 30, 2013

REMEMBERING A BROTHER COMRADE

David Kennedy/For The Daily Press

 

Former U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Leland Upshaw stands at attention and holds a USMC banner from the Vietnam era. Upshaw, who served in Vietnam in the same unit that Merl Allen also served in, is from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

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BAYFIELD – Hundreds of American flags lined both sides of the road leading to Bayfield High School Saturday morning, a tribute to a fallen marine who this small community lost more than four decades ago, but only now has been able to have closure for their loss.

The school gymnasium was filled with about 550 persons who came to attend a memorial service in honor of Marine Corps Lance Corporal Merlin “Merl” Raye Allen.

Forty-six years ago, when he was just 20, Allen died in Vietnam after an enemy rocket hit the helicopter he was in during a reconnaissance mission.

A joint United States-Vietnamese recovery team didn’t discover his remains until February of this year.

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For more than four decades, Allen’s family hoped and prayed that he would be returned to his beloved Bayfield County. That finally happened this week.

Allen’s oldest sister, Marilyn Neff, said she and Merl were very close.

“When Merl went to Vietnam in 1967, I was 21 and Merl was 20. I was going to college when Merl was thinking about enlisting in the Marines.

The war was escalating. Dad asked me to come home and try to talk Merl out of it. There was no talking him out of it,” Neff told those in attendance at the service.

She said her brother was a loving, vibrant person with a “signature smile” and a terrific sense of humor.

During his time in Vietnam, he wrote many letters to family members and friends, she said.

“Once you met our brother, you never forgot him,” Neff said. “I will always carry a piece of Merlin in my heart, always.”

Another sister, Cindy Hawkins, related touching and often humorous anecdotes about Merl.

A younger brother, Casey, said Merl’s return reminded him of how unpredictable life is, the need to enjoy life every day, and the importance of thinking about “the debt we owe our military for the cost of the freedom we enjoy.”

“Fast forward 16 years to February of this year, and the family is hit with the third unpredictable turn in Merl’s story, that of a military recovery team discovering Merl’s remains,” Casey Allen said. He thanked all those who have served or are serving in the American military.

“In Vietnam, fighting for freedom cost America 58,282 killed in action and 1,649 missing in action,” he said, noting that the Bayfield community sacrificed not only 20-year-old Merlin Ray Allen, but also 20-year-old Pfc. Duwayne Marshall Soulier and 21-year-old Cpl. James William Hessing.

Frank Ludwig of Ashland sang “Always” and “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Thirty years after Merlin Allen died, the family met Junior Guy and Jeff Savelkoul, two Marines who survived the crash in which Allen and five other members of his unit perished. Until then, the family had thought there were no survivors.

Guy, speaking to the hushed audience brought many to tears when he spoke about the suffering that he saw in Vietnam.

U.S. Navy chaplain Commander Kirk Morledge also spoke at the service.

The crowd was composed of friends and relatives, Bayfield and Chequamegon bay community members and those who had served their nation in the military services.

Former Marine Corps Sgt. Leland Upshaw, who served in Vietnam in the same unit that Allen had been in, came to the funeral from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

“I’m here to remember a brother comrade,” Upshaw said.

“It’s very, very important to be at this service,” said World War II veteran Leonard Zaleski of Hurley.

Members of Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who honor fallen U.S. military personnel by attending their funerals, and representatives of many Veterans groups were also there.

At the end of the ceremony, trumpeters Charlie Burchill and Christine Hulmer played “Taps.” Everyone there who had ever served in the U.S. military rose and stood at attention as the final full measure of respect was paid to their comrade-in arms.

During the recessional, bagpiper Steve Hand played “Amazing Grace, a traditional hymn of comfort and solace.

Following the service, military rites for Allen were held at Little Sand Bay.

Burial took place on York Island, where he was laid to rest alongside his mother and father.

The ceremonies brought final closure to the Allen family, who has waited more than 40 years for the circle to be closed.

“Merl has never been forgotten,” his sister, Marilyn, said. “Merl will be forever young.”