Pfc. Joseph Edward Lauer was 19 when he was killed in an ambush in South Vietnam’s Quảng Trị province on May 31, 1968.
Known as “Joey” at home and “Jay” at school, Lauer grew up in a big family in Gibbsboro, graduated with the first senior class at Eastern Regional High School in 1967, and enlisted in the Marine Corps.
The viewing at the family home on Winding Way was attended by hundreds of people. Many more read an eloquent tribute, “A Star in the Sky,” that Lauer’s dad, Clarence, a Philadelphia seafood vendor, wrote about his youngest child and only son.
A half-century later, former classmates and football teammates are hoping to build a permanent memorial to Lauer outside their alma mater. They’ve been working on the project for two years, and have gained the support of the school, family, friends, and others in the community.
“Kids going to school or people coming here for an athletic event or a concert will see that a young man gave his life for his country,” said John Masso of Atco, who also graduated in ’67 and played football with Lauer.
Masso noted that his friend enlisted despite having a defense-related job that would have exempted him from the draft, and had been only 23 days in Vietnam when he was killed.
Masso’s teammate Jack Gangluff, a 1969 graduate from Berlin who also wore the Vikings uniform on the field with Lauer, showed me last week where the 55-by-40-inch blue Vermont granite monument would rise near the school’s main entrance.
The men brought along renderings of a design suggested by four Eastern students during an in-school competition and refined by Garrison Architects of Bellmawr. It calls for a walkway to be built and a dignified enclosure to be constructed around the monument, an existing flagpole and a 9/11 memorial.
A plaque on the monument will feature an excerpt from Clarence Lauer’s tribute to the fallen Marine, including this line: “Our sorrow has been turned to joy by a feeling of pride that our son gave his life to a cause that he believed in.”
“He made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Robert Tull, principal of the 2,000-student school.
Noting that Lauer is the only Eastern graduate killed while serving in the military, the principal added, “This is something for our students to reflect upon and carry with them.”
In 1968, Eastern was a brand-new institution on Camden County’s suburban frontier and Vietnam was dividing the country.
I was a freshman in high school then, and I remember those bitter, chaotic times. But as was true when my Massachusetts hometown lost a native son to the war, the death of a promising young man deeply wounded the communities around Eastern High.
“He had been very popular, a good-looking guy who was very personable. His death was a shock,” said Gangluff.
“I waited in line with everyone at the viewing,” Masso recalled. “There was a glass top on the casket. Jay was laid out in his dress blues.”
National controversy about the war notwithstanding, Lauer would not be forgotten in his hometown. Gibbsboro named a street and built a playground in his honor; the flag that draped his casket is unfurled during the borough’s annual Memorial Day ceremony.
Eastern put together a display about him in its media center 10 years ago. More recently, Tull said, the display was moved to a more prominent spot in the main lobby.
And the outdoor memorial project so inspired Eastern ’67 alum Rick Philipsen that he drove from his western North Carolina home in December to offer support during a meeting of the regional high school’s board.
“I was in the Army for six years, and I would have to say part of that was due to Jay Lauer,” Philipsen, 68, told me by phone. “One of my real regrets was not saying goodbye to Jay. We all thought we’d live forever.”
Susan Jones, 68, of Lorton, Va., did have a chance to say goodbye to Lauer before his deployment. But she couldn’t have imagined it would be their last time together.
“We were high school sweethearts, and it was like, ‘What do I do now?’ In part because of Joe, I went and joined the Marine Corps,” said Jones, who went on to have a successful career in the military and later as a civilian in the Defense Department.
“I haven’t gotten emotional about this in 40 years, but when John contacted me, I kind of froze a little bit,” she said. “I’m very proud of what he and [Gangluff] are working so hard to do.”
Masso said he had been thinking about doing something for Lauer for a long time. He discovered his classmate’s grave during a Christmas visit to Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Berlin 25 years ago, and the passage of time provided a growing sense of urgency.
“Jay was 19 years old when he died,” Masso said. “To show respect, that’s all you can do for him.”
Mary Huber is one of Lauer’s four older sisters. She’s 75, lives in Berlin, and said her family “is very grateful” for the memorial project.
Her little brother “was just a regular kid who did what he believed in,” she said.
Huber’s voice trembled a bit.
“It’s wonderful that my brother will always be remembered.”
Donations may be made to the Joseph E. Lauer Memorial Fund, c/o Columbia Bank, 900 White Horse Rd., Box 1645, Voorhees, N.J. 08043.