M ichelle Barber remembers saying goodbye to her father.
She was a little girl then, but the ER nurse, a Del Norte native, said she was clutching four angels from off her birthday cake when James Whisenhunt, a lance corporal in the U.S. Marines, left for Vietnam on Sept. 6, 1966.
Whisenhunt was killed in the First Battle of Khe Sanh, also known as the Hill Fights, on April 30, 1967. His platoon was trying to secure Hill 881S and were fired on from both sides by the Viet Cong, Barber said. He was 23 years old; she was 5.
“They were slaughtered,” Barber said. “Guys were going down left and right. Dad could see the main bunker that was hitting the guys... Dad went up with his best friend, they had to take the bunker out. Dad knew it had to come out and he went across with no cover, no nothing, taking the bunker out. He got shot across the abdomen and he died instantly.”
In addition to saving his platoon, Barber said her father brought two of his platoon mates, Donald Hossack and Tommy Wheeler, down from off the hill. He received two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star.
With the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Hill 881S approaching, Whisenhunt and the 46 other Marines who lost their lives have been commemorated on a plaque at the Vietnam War Memorial in San Antonio, Texas. The surviving members of Whisenhunt’s platoon will hold a ceremony in observance of the anniversary on April 30 at the Veterans Memorial Park in San Antonio.
Whisenhunt was the youngest son of Noah and Iva Whisenhunt. Before he joined the Marines, Whisenhunt was a Crescent City Police Officer, joining the force at 20 years old and serving under Chief of Police Danny Nations.
According to Barber, her father was already a local hero before he joined the military.
“A guy had stolen a car out of the police department parking lot, and the cops left my dad there because he was the rookie,” she said. “Dad took off running and caught the car. He’s running alongside the car, holding the door handle with his gun out telling them to pull over. I have the newspaper clipping that tells you exactly that.”
Barber said her dad felt the need to join the military after his brothers, Adreath, Everett and Alfred, joined the Army.
“Dad was the youngest out of the four boys so he didn’t have to go, but he felt the need to go,” Barber said. “He felt he was there for a reason and it was to give these people the same freedom we have.”
Even though Whisenhunt wouldn’t see his little girl grow up, Barber said her grandparents made sure she would know who her father was.
Iva Whisenhunt saved the oath her son took when he became a police officer. There’s a telegram from Gen. Wallace M. Greene notifying her of her son’s death; letters of condolences from U.S. Marine Corps Capt. W.R. Griggs and Congressman Don Clausen and a special letter to Barber from Gen. W.C. Westmoreland who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam.
Barber also has clippings from the Crescent City American and the Del Norte Triplicate about her father as well as the transcript of a broadcast on KPOD and a proclamation from the Crescent City Council, which named May 15, 1967 Jim Whisenhunt Day.
Thirty-three years later, Barber would take the Oath of Allegiance using her father’s badge and administered by her father’s former boss. She was a Crescent City Police officer for 11 years before transitioning to the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office and later pursuing a nursing degree ultimately winding up in the emergency room at McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center in Eugene.
Barber said her grandparents put down good roots for her and her own daughter, Katie Kelly, who went into the U.S. Air Force. But it was her father’s legacy that prompted her to follow in his footsteps and then strike out on her own path as a nurse.
“Dad was a very caring soul from what everybody has told me,” Barber said. “Anybody that knew him, and there’s a lot of people in this town that still know my father well, (would say) rather than take them to jail, he would take them home.”
Whisenhunt was the second Del Norte County serviceman to lose his life in the Vietnam War. The first was Donald Shanks, who was killed on a U.S. Naval destroyer off the Vietnam Coast. Other Del Norters who lost their lives include Robert G. Owen, John R. Klotz, Paul O. Klotz, Howard Cramblet, Leonard Greville, Richard K. Wells and Gene A. Mitchell, according to a March 20, 2014 Triplicate article.