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 Texas : Features : Columns : Lone Star Diary :

Thomas Lenz


by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery
They were normal high school boys – three young friends and classmates at Moulton High School. Even before they graduated in 1966, Calvin Albrecht, Marvin Zatopek, and Thomas “Tommy” Lenz, knew what they were going to do – the three friends were committed to serving their country in the armed forces.

Marvin and Tommy joined the Marine Corps, on the buddy plan, while Calvin opted for the Navy. All three of the high-school pals saw action in Vietnam – two survived and one, Tommy Lenz, would die a month after his 21st birthday and just a week before he was due to come home. He had volunteered to go on a mission to replace a man who was ill and as a result, the young Marine from Moulton was killed when his helicopter landed on a mine.
Tommy Lenz
Thomas Lenz

Photo courtesy Murray Montgomery
It came as no surprise to those who knew Tommy that he would volunteer for a dangerous mission. When he was on his senior trip to South Padre Island, Lenz along with Albrecht and several other Moulton kids were involved in saving some people from drowning. It was part of Tommy’s character to help others. So when the call came for a volunteer to go help fellow soldiers, it was only natural for him to respond.

Calvin Albrecht, who is district clerk for Lavaca County, recently shared some memories of his friend. He remembers Tommy as “easy going,” an average student, but not interested in sports or the like. He enjoyed hunting squirrels and rabbits; he also liked to go fishing. And just like most teenage boys, he was interested in girls. “Tommy was just a regular good ol’ boy,” Albrecht said.

Calvin said that he doesn’t recall that Tommy ever owned an automobile, but the two friends did like to ride around in a car belonging to Tommy’s mom. “Our favorite song was ‘Pop-a-top Again’ and we would drink a cold beer while listening to the radio,” said Albrecht.

Tommy’s humor was evident in a letter he wrote to Mrs. Albrecht, after she had shipped him some homemade cookies. He described how the other soldiers were hinting that they would like to sample the goodies and his reply to them. “At first I told them they could smell the wrapper when I was through,” wrote Tommy, “but when I saw the look of a lynch mob come upon their faces, I decided differently real quick.”

Calvin’s mother, Mrs. Adlea Albrecht and Tommy’s mother, Mrs. Elvira Schneider, were best friends. “My mom was visiting Tommy’s mom when the two Marines came to the house to tell her he had been killed,” Calvin said.

Calvin and Tommy spent their high school years living in Moulton, while their friend Marvin Zatopek lived in the country. Upon graduation from high school all three were on their way to begin their military service. Lenz and Zatopek headed for basic training with the Marines while young Albrecht would soon go to sea with the Navy. All of them probably suspected that they would soon join the many other young Americans who were fighting and dying in Vietnam.

Tommy Lenz arrived in Vietnam on May 1, 1968, and was assigned as an aerial gunner on a CH-46 helicopter. He was a member of the 161st Squadron, flying combat support missions. Before he was killed on April 22, 1969, Lenz had already seen his share of combat. In September of 1968, he sustained minor injuries when his helicopter was shot down. Then on November 13, 1968, he was wounded again when shrapnel hit his aircraft. He was awarded the Air Medal for Meritorious Achievement and the Purple Heart for his involvement in those actions.

After Tommy was killed, his mother received a letter from his commanding officer describing his last flight. Lt. Col. D.L. Elam said that Tommy died in the vicinity of Vandergrift Combat Base while flying on a helicopter assigned to an Army of the Republic of Vietnam Troop Lift. According to Elam, the landing zone was sixteen miles west of Suang Tri. “We all knew before the Suang flight departed Quang Tri that the mission would be a difficult one since there were known to be numerous enemy in the immediate vicinity of the landing zone,” wrote Elam. “The aircraft that Thomas was flying in was the lead aircraft in a flight of six CH-46’s.

“On the initial wave as the lead aircraft touched down in the zone a mine detonated, completely destroying the aircraft.” Lt. Col. Elam ended his letter by saying that medical personnel had inspected Tommy’s body and concluded that he had died instantly with no suffering. Elam also said that young Lenz was a man to be proud of and that he was an outstanding Marine.

The citizens of Moulton did everything they could to honor their fallen warrior. His body arrived at the San Antonio airport accompanied by Honor Guard Lance Cpl. Thomas L. Mankins. Tommy’s high school friend Marvin Zatopek, who had joined the Marines with him, was there to meet the honor guard. Zatopek, Taylor Biehunko, Leslie Grieve, and Father Robert Schmidt, escorted the remains back to Moulton. Tommy Lenz’ other good friend, Calvin Albrecht, didn’t even know his friend had been killed until after the funeral. Albrecht was still in Vietnam serving on a ship providing inshore fire support against enemy positions.

All the business places in the city closed for Tommy’s funeral and the school closed for the day as well; and although he was Lutheran, the services were held at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church – not a common occurrence, but permission was granted by Father Schmidt to accommodate the many people who wished to attend. Rev. Eaisey, pastor of the Warrenton Lutheran Church, delivered the sermon. He was assisted by Father Schmidt.

Lance Cpl. Thomas Wayne Lenz was buried, with full military honors, in the Florida Cemetery at Warrenton, Texas – his name, along with that of five other Lavaca County soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice, is inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial at Hallettsville.

To this day it is an emotional thing for Calvin Albrecht to talk about Tommy Lenz. The spring of the year always brings back those bad memories about when his friend was killed and the last time he saw him alive. Albrecht recalls that the day he received word about Tommy’s death, his ship was called in to provide inshore fire support to ambush an enemy convoy. The ship launched its rockets and some 40 enemy troops were killed. That event, although it didn’t ease his hurt, made him feel that he had a part in avenging the loss of his friend.

Although nearly 36 years have past since Tommy Lenz was killed, the memories of his Moulton classmate will remain with Calvin forever and he occasionally speculates on how things might have been. “For some reason, I feel like my life would somehow be different if he hadn’t got killed – I don’t know,” said Albrecht.

© Murray Montgomery
Lone Star Diary May 2, 2005 Column

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