Le Roy Gee had a beautiful voice, and he was always singing.
His family can still remember Gee trying to imitate the Temptations’ dance moves and sing at the same time – and doing an “okay” job of it. He was also good at making connections with people, particularly at his alma mater, Lincoln Senior High School in East St. Louis.
“If you say his name, most of my class looks up,” said Vietnam Veteran Henry Ballard, who graduated from Lincoln Senior High around the same time. “He was just a really good guy.”
Gee graduated from Lincoln Senior High in 1967 and enrolled in the U.S. Marines – while most of his friends were being drafted for the Vietnam War. At 18, Gee started his tour in Vietnam as a rifleman on June 20, 1968, according to records on the Wall of Faces website. Ten days later, on July 9, he was killed in action.
“Most of my friends were shook up that he was killed on his first trip into combat,” Ballard said. “He never even fired his gun.”
His family was equally shaken, said his niece Cheryl Gee. Le Roy was the baby of a big family and the youngest of four close brothers.
“It was a devastating time, and I can recall my grandmother actually had a stroke after he died,” Cheryl said.
Even though she was only 7 at the time, she will never forget the date of his death because it was the day after her niece was born and several days before her youngest sister was born.
Le Roy Gee is among 59 men from East St. Louis that are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial located at 1601 Piggott Ave. in East St. Louis’ Lincoln Park. Established in 1997, the memorial is a polished black granite stone with the 59 names etched into it, along with the dates that the men died in combat. Two of the names are men who were missing in action.
Above the names, it reads: “Remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice.” The iconic bronze sculpture of three Vietnam soldiers walking into combat is embedded into the top of the stone.
Like Gee, each of the men listed has a story – and the community needed a place where these stories could be shared and remembered, Ballard said. Around 1994, a group of East St. Louis Vietnam Veterans got together and decided to honor their brothers who were killed or missing in action.
The four veterans leading the project, including Ballard, did research and raised funds for three years before the memorial became a reality – with the support of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 3480, the East St. Louis Jaycees, and the East St. Louis Park Board.
Up until a few years ago, the memorial simply consisted of the stone. However, the East St Louis Business Development Chamber of Commerce received a grant to put in a plaza with benches and landscaping, which was completed in 2015.
Although the memorial has been there for many years, Ballard said he still has people coming up to him saying that they didn’t know it existed. Gee’s family is among those who didn’t know about the memorial. This Memorial Day – on Monday, May 27 – Ballard wanted to make sure that the relatives of these men knew they had a place to pay tribute to their loved ones.
“Hopefully some of the relatives who are no longer living in the area realize it’s here and come out to see it,” Ballard said.
He also wanted the community to know that they are allowed to leave flowers.
Ballard served in North Vietnam with the U.S. Navy for eight months, working to put war-damaged ships back into service. He served in the Navy a total of four years. About 10 of the people on the memorial were Ballard’s friends from high school. There are also several East St. Louis High School alumni remembered as well. They were guys that loved to have fun, he said, and all had bright futures ahead of them.
Cheryl Gee remembers when the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, a smaller version of the wall in Washington, D.C., traveled through Granite City.
“It was tearful looking at all the names that was on that wall and seeing someone in your family listed among them,” Cheryl said. “He was still a child. He really did come from a family that loved him.”
Recently, someone from the Wall of Faces tracked her down to find a photo of Le Roy for the website. She had to dig through the family files, but she was able to provide one.
“I wanted that connection and the information out there,” she said. “When I was finally able to get her a picture, it was one of those unexplained things. It was an indescribable emotion, to have him be remembered.”
Cheryl believes she will have a similar reaction when she sees the East St. Louis memorial for the first time this weekend. She commends the work of the East St. Louis Vietnam Veterans and those around the country who have worked so hard to preserve the memory of these fallen soldiers.
Cheryl’s brother Samuel T. Gee was 3 when his uncle Le Roy died. But what he does know is that Le Roy was part of a family – and particularly a pack of brothers – who held family as their top priority.
“You can have a lot of things but the most important thing was love, and it lasts a lifetime,” Samuel said. “You can’t scrub it off. It’s all in you. That’s what they showed us.”