By PFC KENNETH W. AINSLIE
For most Americans a small chapel is the symbol of quiet worship. But when that chapel is 10 thousand miles from home, surrounded by the bloody horrors of war, it becomes a place to reaffirm hope for a peaceful world...a place of meditation for the weary infantryman...a place of guidance for the commander...a house of mental rebirth. Such a chapel overlooks the Song Tra Cau Valley on the coastal plains of Southern I Corps. It is the LT James E. Laird Chapel, a small stone structure at Landing Zone Liz, a fire support base for the division's 11th Inf. Bde.
The idea of building a tent church for the brigade's 3d Bn., 1st Inf. was presented to SFC Julius S. Cross, the battalion's assistant operations sergeant. He recognized the need for a place of worship, but asked that he be given the time to construct a more lasting building – and a more beautiful one.
Having sampled the ingenious sergeant's architectural ability in the construction of a mess hall, a first aid station and an officer's club-mess, LTC Henry I. Lowder, battalion commander, did not hesitate to give him a free hand in the building's design.
So, with the help of the local Vietnamese, Cross began his chipped stone chapel. "The people in Vinh Hein, a hamlet just below LZ Liz, have helped with the project since it was begun in April," he said. "They gathered and prepared most of the stone for the building."
Among his helpers were a professional Vietnamese carpenter, Nguyen Mau, and two concrete workers, Nguyen Minh and Thai Tai, who build wells, headstones, and house foundations in the village. Their skillful direction enabled work to proceed at a rapid pace.
Contributions played a major part in the chapel's construction. "This chapel was built entirely by contribution," said the 48 year-old sergeant proudly. "Money to pay for the labor has come from contributions since the day we began, and we have never had to assign a detail to work on it."
But monetary help was not the only contribution. The men on the hill pitched in during their off-duty hours to give a hand with the construction. "Everyone did what he could to help," said Cross. "Men from the artillery and infantry units came over at night to give a much needed hand."
He also noted that the chapel was built almost entirely of scrap materials. "The only things that aren't salvage material in the chapel are the cement, the screen, and the light bulbs."
One of the most striking features about the chapel is the large stone cross at its entrance. The cross, which sits on a large rock overlooking the valley, is made of small stones cemented together. Also surrounding the building are various types of fauna, adding an extra touch of life and beauty to the site.
The chapel is large enough to seat 70 people comfortably. Most of it is stone, including the inlaid pebble floor. But the roof and furniture are scrap ammunition boxes created into fascinating patterns and tinted a light green. This, too, is the sergeant's handiwork. Having made a beautiful altar and two lecterns, he hopes to add wooden ammo-box pews in the same pattern.
With beauty and cool comfort in mind, Cross has fulfilled his battalion's need for a quiet place to worship. The battalion's Protestant Chaplain, CPT Richard C. Radde, has noted that he is extremely pleased with the new chapel. "This chapel is built on one of the prettiest spots at Liz," he said, "and there is usually a gentle breeze blowing in from the ocean. By staggering the hours of the various religious services, we are able to hold all services here."
During a formal dedication ceremony on Aug. 4 of this year, Chaplain Radde accepted the key to the LT James E. Laird Chapel, marking it ready for worship services. "This chapel will be used to proclaim the glory of God," he affirmed.
At the ceremony, LTC Lowder added, "This chapel, an important and worthy addition to LZ Liz, is dedicated to LT James E. Laird, who was killed near this site, and to all the men of 3d Bn., 1st Inf. who gave their lives to the cause of freedom."
This is not the first time that SFC Cross has helped beautify a war-torn country with a chapel. Twenty-three years ago, during World War II, he built a chapel in the Philippines for the men of the 25th Inf. Div. "That chapel was built of stone and bamboo, and sits in the Crow Valley on the island of Luzon," he recalls.
And when the day comes for the Americal's 11th Inf. Bde. to gather their belongings and return to America, they will leave behind them a symbol of the freedom they fought for – a small stone chapel along the coast of Vietnam.
Photo of cross on top of a large stone. Cross appears to be made from stones mortared together. Photo credit by SP4 Bernard Gmiter.
Photo of the Chapel. Photo credit by SP4 Bernard Gmiter.
Photo Caption — Organist 1LT Jeffery Howard, a pilot for the 11th Inf. Bde.'s Primo Aviation Ltd., plays at the dedication of the LT James E. Laird Chapel, (2nd photo) as Chaplain (CPT) Richard C. Radde conducts. Photo credits to PFC Kenneth W. Ainslie.
Photo — Vietnamese man and woman sorting out stones for use in the chapel.
Two Photos — SFC Julius S. Cross gives careful attention to details, as he and his Vietnamese helpers put the finishing touches to the small stone chapel.
For this issue of the magazine, document text was primarily scanned and edited by Jay Roth. Comments and text from photos and other areas that were not scannable have been added by Leslie Hines.
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