Dick Frazier's war medals went up for public auction the evening of April 28.
They included his Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with the V, for valor, which he got after his armored gun truck was ambushed on the road to Khe Sanh in February 1971.
The medals had his name, Richard B. Frazier, on the back, and the star said it was for "heroic or meritorious achievement." But neither said that he was a roughneck from Montana, a mechanic's son who died at 27 in that ambush near the DMZ in South Vietnam, or that he was buried back home in Great Falls three decades ago.
President Nixon wrote a condolence letter to his wife, praying she would be sustained by the "eternal" respect her husband's courage deserved.
The letter also was up for sale on eBay, the Internet auction site, this month.
For the emblems of his courage, the opening bid was $125.
After World War I, the British poet and combat officer Siegfried Sassoon said: "Nobody knew how much a decoration was worth except the man who received it." And Ernest Hemingway wrote of touring Toronto pawn shops to see what price tag was put on a medal won in battle.
Aside from the Medal of Honor -- which, by law, cannot be sold -- decorations for combat, bravery or service, in conflicts recent or long forgotten, regularly show up for sale on the Internet, at collectors shows, and in newspaper ads.
They can come from flea markets, estate sales and from the veterans themselves. Alexandria dealer and collector Jeffrey Floyd said he once acquired the medals of a World War II fighter ace at a garage sale. "It was just stuff to him," Floyd said. "They had been in his sock drawer for 20 years."
The cost can vary from a few dollars to thousands, for those deemed historic. But Floyd said many collectors are drawn to medals awarded to otherwise unheralded members of the service.
Often, he said, a medal awarded to a slain young soldier "is the only tangible evidence of the individual's passage through history."
Frazier got a bit more than that: His name is listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall, on Panel 5W, Row 123, along with the names of 22 other young Americans on the wall who died in Vietnam on the same day.
Frazier's medals first turned up April 23 at an auction in Post Falls, Idaho, according to Brenda Brunko, a dealer in collectibles there, who offered the lot on eBay.
She said her husband paid about $230 for the items at Post Falls Auction, which is run out of an old grocery store in the small town near the border with Washington state. She said the auction handled the lot on behalf of a storage facility in Spokane, Wash., about 20 miles away, where the items had been left unclaimed.
Brunko said she knew little about Frazier, beyond what the lot suggested.
By early Wednesday, May 5, there had been seven bids, according to eBay, and the price had inched up to $177.50.
The Road to Khe Sanh
In the winter of 1971, Dick Frazier at age 27 had already served several years in the Army, and was doing a job that was as hazardous in Vietnam as it is now in Iraq: guarding truck convoys.
According to interviews with his family and old Army comrades who were with him the night he died, he was a Montana native who left school after the eighth grade and gravitated to the military. His older brother, Norman, 66, of Livingston, Mont., said Dick was married and had a 2-year-old daughter, but was separated from his wife at the time of his death.
In February of that year, Dick Frazier was a crewman on one of the Army's notoriously dangerous gun trucks. Crude contraptions, they were heavily armed and armored five-ton vehicles whose job was to protect convoys ferrying supplies and ammunition among military bases.
Protected by slabs of metal with a layer of sandbags in between, gun trucks usually mounted three .50-caliber machine guns and an array of other heavy weapons in the roofless cargo bay. Three gunners and a driver made up the crew. The trucks had names like "The Justifier," "Hanoi's Headache" and "Iron Butterfly."
It was exhausting and hazardous work, said Chester Israel, 53, of Levelland, Tex., who said he was in charge of the gun truck "Satan's Li'l Angel," which Frazier was aboard the night of Feb. 20, 1971.
The trucks could be on duty 24 hours at a stretch. And in the event of an attack, "our job was to go into the ambush, into the kill zone," and slug it out, he said.
Israel said there were usually three gun trucks per 50-vehicle convoy, placed in the front, middle and rear of the column. There was little secrecy about their movements. At night they often ran with their lights on.
"If you're running down the road in five-ton diesels, hitting chuckholes and banging and clanging, you're making so much noise . . . it don't matter if the lights are on or not," he said.
Israel, then 20, said he and Frazier were together on Satan's Li'l Angel only a short time. A faded color snapshot taken by a friend shows the light-haired Israel, who was known as Red, in the bed of a gun truck with Frazier in the background, wearing shorts and sitting beside a machine gun.
Israel said his truck, which had a painting on its side of a stubby red devil holding a pitchfork, had set out from Dong Ha on Highway 9 at about 11 p.m. The convoy was bound for Khe Sanh, about a four-hour trip. He said he's not sure what the cargo was, but Satan's Li'l Angel was bringing up the rear.
In a telephone interview from his home, he said that Frazier was on the right-side .50-caliber that night, and he was on the left-side gun. Calvin Bennett of Campbellsville, Ky., was on the rear gun, and Robert Thorne of Denver was the driver.
Israel said the convoy was about an hour out, and near an American firebase, when it was ambushed.
"Ka-boom," Israel said. "We just got hit."
He said a rocket-propelled grenade streaked out of the darkness, burned through the truck's plating, and blew up in Frazier's face. Israel said Frazier had probably seen it coming and had ducked down behind the armor. It was to no avail. He was killed instantly.
Israel, too, was severely wounded. The rocket's explosion "blew me off the left wall and I hit the floor like a ton of [expletive]," he said. The blast drove 18 hunks of shrapnel into his back, tore a piece out of his right calf, and left his clothes smoking.
He said he checked Frazier, who was down beside him. "I could tell right off, you know, there wasn't no hope for him," Israel said.
He said he got up and returned fire, and was then shot in the shoulder and side. He said he was later hospitalized for five months. Bennett and Thorne were unhurt, although Thorne was killed about three weeks later.
Calvin Bennett, the rear gunner, now 53 and the only man from Satan's Li'l Angel to survive the war uninjured, said in a telephone interview that Frazier was a good soldier, but "a little bit of a roughneck." He seemed to be a guy who was in the war because there was no better place to be, Bennett said, the type who "didn't have a hell of a lot to go back to."
Bennett said he thought it was a shame his comrade's medals were for sale.
"I don't know who would want to buy one," he said. "They only mean something to the people that earned them."
The Long Trip Home
Frazier's medals, in a glass-covered display case, had come out of an abandoned storage shed in Spokane, according to Leanne Nichols, one of the owners of Post Falls Auction.
"They were attractive and in good condition," she said in a telephone interview. "They looked like they were cared for." Nichols said the storage unit contained an array of things, including cookware, some clothing and furnishings.
Norman Frazier was stunned when he was contacted on May 5 and asked about the sale of his brother's medals.
"This is brand-new to us," he said from his home. "It has just blown us. What the hell's going on here?"
He said his brother was the youngest of three children and was reared in Great Falls and Lincoln, Mont.
"He went through the eighth grade of school, and that's as far as he went," Norman Frazier said. "He did not like school." He entered the Army and served in Korea, Japan, Germany and Vietnam, according to his brother.
He explained that after his brother was killed, Dick's daughter, Marti, was adopted and raised by his parents, who are now deceased. He said Marti Frazier has been largely out of touch with the family for many years.
Norman Frazier and his sister, Evelyn Chavez, said that they believe the auctioned items were originally in their parents' home, having been passed on by their brother's wife.
They said they have learned that their father, Ernest B. Frazier, gave them to Marti Frazier, who about 10 years ago placed them in storage in the basement of a bar in Spokane, where she then lived. There, the items were confiscated with other things during a police investigation, the siblings said. Later, they were apparently placed in a new storage location, and never reclaimed.
Norman Frazier, a retired railroad electrician, said he did not have the money to bid on the eBay items.
But his three children quickly pooled their funds and purchased them before the auction ended the evening of May 5. "The kids got together and bought them," he said the next day. They gave his brother's medals to him as an early Father's Day present, he said.
"It shook all of us up," Norman Frazier said of the episode.
"Here's a guy that gave his life for his country," he said. "He was honored, and this is all that's left that he had, what they gave him from his government."
In the end, eBay received 20 bids for Dick Frazier's war medals and presidential letter.
The final price, with shipping, was $362.01.