REAL HEROS JERRY ZERFASS, FORMER STAR AT LIBERTY HIGH SCHOOL, AND JIM DETRIXHE, A STANDOUT WRESTLER AT LEHIGH UNIVERSITY, WERE AMONG THE FIRST AREA ATHLETES WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY IN THE VIETNAM WAR.


-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

They won trophies of posed football and basketball players and wrestlers and they generated headlines on the sports pages. Then they went away.

They would occasionally write home and, in rare moments when a phone was nearby, sometimes they would call at an odd hour.

Then they suddenly were news again for a couple of days, this time on the front page. They had become leaders not of basketball teams, but of rifle platoons and infantry companies. They had won purple hearts and air medals.

And all too often, the word `posthumously` appeared in the same sentence with their names.

Of the 58,193 U.S. service personnel who lost their lives in the Vietnam War, 145 were from The Morning Call's eight-county coverage area. Many of the 145 were young men whose athletic exploits made them recognizable figures in the Lehigh Valley.

Among the first such casualties of the war were Bethlehem residents Jerome `Jerry` Zerfass and James B. Detrixhe. They were seemingly indestructible on area playing fields and wrestling mats. But in jungles halfway around the world, they were anything but indestructible.

Everything in the file of newspaper clippings that detail Jerry Zerfass' life-cut-short describes an `All-American boy.`

So does everything in the bulging envelope of newspaper clippings that recount the life and death of James B. Detrixhe.

`He was just a very impressive young guy,` Thad Turner, Detrixhe's wrestling teammate at Lehigh University, recalled recently. `He came from (Pottstown's ) Hill School, but was a Bethlehem boy.`

Gerry Leeman, Detrixhe's wrestling coach at Lehigh, repeatedly used the word `wonderful` in remembering Detrixhe via phone from retirement in Florida.

Julius Detrixhe Jr., James' brother, remembers, `He could pick up any sport. He was pretty good at swimming, tennis, whatever he tried.`

Jim Detrixhe married a Bethlehem woman and a Liberty High graduate, Mary Patricia Koons, who had attended modeling school in New York City.

That was yet one more aspect of the story of an All-American boy who had been co-captain of Lehigh's undefeated 1961-62 wrestling team and a two-time Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association champ at 177 pounds.

Much of Jim Detrixhe's wrestling success came after he suffered a knee injury that ended his football career as a freshman at Lehigh. But the injury didn't end the career Detrixhe intended to make his life's work.

`When he got hurt playing football, they were going to let him out of ROTC because they didn't think he could make it because of his knee,` Julius Detrixhe said. `But he went through all kinds of tests to prove he could stay in. That's how bad he wanted to be in the Army.`

Turner, a member of Lehigh's alumni relations staff, recalls that in the early 1960s, the university required students to participate in ROTC or Air Force ROTC for two years. After that, each student had the option of dropping ROTC or continuing to work toward a commission as a second lieutenant.

There was no doubt what Jim Detrixhe would do, according to Julius Detrixhe.

`As a little kid, he always wanted to read books about the Army and guns,` said Julius Detrixhe, who himself served from 1961 to 1964 with the Army in occupied Germany. `We grew up right after WWII, and he was always interested in the military. I never asked why.`

Julius recalls his brother spent 18 months as an aide to the First Air Cavalry Division's commander, Gen. John Wright.

`But that would only take him so far, so he took a company command,` Julius Detrixhe said.

Ten days into the latter assignment and unaware he had been promoted to captain, James B. Detrixhe became a casualty.

`We heard that one of his men got hit by a sniper, he tried to help him and got shot in the head,` Julius Detrixhe said. `I remember I was bowling on a Friday (in February 1966 ) when word arrived.`

Another 143 families in The Morning Call's eight-county coverage area received the same word before the U.S. left Vietnam on April 30, 1975.

`You always thought he'd be OK,` Bob Zerfass, Jerry's brother, recalled last week. `He was like a cat. If he fell out of a tree, he'd land on his feet.`

Jerry Zerfass dodged enough would-be tacklers at Liberty High School that he received what Bob Zerfass remembers being as many as 35 football scholarship offers before going to West Texas State University and lasting one semester.

`He and a friend decided they didn't like it, so they joined the service,` said Bob Zerfass, a long-time Blue Mountain League baseball player and assistant baseball coach at Moravian College. `I knew he didn't like school from Day One of first grade.

`He said we shouldn't get upset. But we were upset. It was the height of Vietnam. And then just being in the Army wasn't good enough -- he went and joined the airborne.`

Pfc. Jerry Zerfass and the 173rd Airborne Brigade -- the `Sky Soldiers` who rode a new weapon, helicopters, into battle -- went to Vietnam in October 1966

`He died January 16, 1967,` Bob Zerfass said. `I spoke to him in 1966 when he was in Hong Kong, and then we received several letters from him. The last one told how it was going to be a tough battle at Bien Hua.`

In a 1988 story about Zerfass by Morning Call photographer Chuck Zovko, squad leader Pete Perry, a Kentuckian, recounted Jerry Zerfass' last moments.

`Jerry was my machine gunner,` Perry said, recalling a patrol that was protecting bulldozers clearing a jungle path 20 miles north of Saigon. `Raymond (Pvt. Raymond Daugherty ) was my ammo man. We were moving along when two shots rang out. Jerry got hit first. Right in the chest. Raymond got hit in the hand. Jerry's wound was like a sledgehammer hitting you as hard as it could. He bent over and yelled three times: 'Help! Help! Help!' `

Perry recalled Daugherty yelling, `You aren't going to die, are you?`

And Jerry Zerfass responding with: `Hell no, I ain't going to die.`

But those were Jerry Zerfass' last words.

`It's hard for me yet,` Bob Zerfass said. `It's 33 years, and when war movies are on TV, I can't watch them. I know it was so wrong, and so many people died. If anything like that came up again, I'd be the first person to say, 'You can't do this.' At the time, it was the thing to do -- fight for your country -- and that's what the 'All- American boys' did.`

The parents of one of Jerome Zerfass' Liberty High football teammates, Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph P. Fry, were notified in November 1967, that their 20-year-old son was killed in action.

And Pfc. Jerry Zerfass' family received one more jolt.

`Four months after my brother died, I got my draft notice,` Bob Zerfass said. `It said to report to Williamsport. I couldn't believe it. My brother was just killed, and here I was thinking, 'What am I doing to do?' `

Bob Zerfass recalled going to the draft board in Bethlehem and telling them his brother had been killed in action.

`They told me they didn't know that,` Bob Zerfass said. `I guess the rule went back to (World War II ) that you couldn't get drafted if your brother had been killed. But I was thinking, 'What will I do?' They told me I didn't have to go, but I was thinking, 'What will I do?' I'm glad I didn't have to make that decision.`

Julius Detrixhe recalls his father simply giving up when word arrived that Jim, the talented athlete, had been killed.

`My dad died three years later,` Julius said. `My dad took it really hard. He kind of gave up on life, wouldn't listen to doctors or anything.`

Newspaper stories from March 1966, tell of `ghoulish` prank calls that were made to Detrixhe's surviving family members by war protestors.

`I guess a lot of people don't think we should have been there in the first place,` Julius Detrixhe said. `The '60s were wild. For some reason, the Vietnam vets weren't looked up to the same way (as veterans of previous wars ).`

Nearly 500 people attended Jerome Zerfass' funeral mass, according to Zovko, who as a seventh-grader stood outside St. Anne's Church to catch a glimpse of the casket of a young man whose runs from scrimmage he had admired.

`When I look back on discovering death, I don't think of my grandparents, I think of my grade-school football hero,` Zovko wrote in the first paragraph of his 1988 tribute.

War proved Pfc. Jerome Zerfass, Capt. James B. Detrixhe and 58,191 other Americans were not indestructible

Previous Page

Back to Menu

Next Page