During the Vietnam War, 268 soldiers from Memphis and Shelby County gave their lives, including many African Americans.
Two of the first black casualties were Jesse James Bolton and William F. Collier Sr., whose sacrifice and valor were in keeping with the best traditions of Memphis and the United States.
Born in 1947 to Jesse Lee and Annie B. Bolton, Jesse graduated from Klondike School but chose not to attend high school. Instead he went to work at Northgate Bowling Lanes as a porter.
He soon regretted this decision and began taking night classes at Booker T. Washington High School. When he turned 17, he asked his parents for permission to join the Army.
According to his father, “One reason he enlisted was so he could learn more. Since he dropped out of school, he realized that he needed to learn more and was always trying to do that.”
Enlisting in July 1964, he was assigned to A Company, Second Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division and achieved the rank of specialist fourth class. Arriving in Vietnam in mid-1965, Specialist Bolton soon found himself in the thick of the fighting. While he was patrolling 18 miles northeast of Saigon, his unit was attacked and three soldiers were killed. Shortly before his death, a Viet Cong sniper took a pot shot at him. In his last letter home, Bolton wrote, “We are moving up Feb. 21 to the same rubber plantation that we had about 250 men killed and 300 wounded. I’m really in the stuff now, but I’m in the best company. As long as I’m with my unit I’ll be all right.”
As they moved into the plantation, Viet Cong mortar fire raked A Company and Bolton was killed.
Specialist Fourth Class William F. Collier Sr. was two years older than Bolton and was a graduate of Manassas High School, where he met his wife Barbara. Collier joined the Army after high school and had served in South Korea before being ordered to Vietnam.
In December 1965, Collier came back to Memphis on leave where he was able to enjoy the holidays with his wife, daughter Patricia Yvette and his sons William F. Collier Jr. and Tracy.
During his leave, Collier was deeply troubled by his assignment to Vietnam. When he held the newborn Tracy, he turned to his wife and said, “This is one child that’s not going to remember his father.”
According to his wife, “He seemed to have had a premonition that something was going to happen to him. He gave away all his things, suits, shoes and other clothing and said that he would never have any more use for them.”
In mid-February 1966 he was guarding an artillery base when the Viet Cong attacked. Collier was shot in the shoulder and spinal column and was taken to an aid station where he died of his wounds.
Both soldiers were buried with honors in National Cemetery where they continue to rest. All American citizens would do well to remember the courage and devotion to the Constitution exhibited by Jesse James Bolton and William F. Collier Sr. as we continue to stand vigil against those who would threaten our democratic republic.
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.