Family connects with fallen Vietnam War soldier with helmet cover

HAWTHORNE – A dreamy Marine’s doodles smeared the sides of his helmet cover in black ink.

It printed the name of his high school girlfriend and the date they met. He proudly scribbled the name of his city and, in Greek letters, the name of his fraternity. And on the back he wrote “DUTCHES” and “(SNORKLE)”.

The enigmatic graffiti was all an enterprising collector of military artifacts had to count on when he set out to connect with the serviceman’s family three years ago.

But he accomplished more than that.

After the family obtained the relic from the collector in June 2021, it was loaned to the New Jersey Veterans Memorial and Vietnam Era Museum in Holmdel. It is now the centerpiece of a special exhibit.

Michael Thornton, the museum’s curator and acting director, said the helmet cover was a state treasure.

It is placed there on a helmet of the same period, resting on a base in a showcase.

“It’s very humbling to have him here,” Thornton said. “I knew instantly that this would be the middle of the show and that Billy’s story could speak for so many people.”

Billy is Lance Cpl. William G. Dutches, who was shot in the neck and killed when his platoon was ambushed near the city of Hội An in Vietnam on Flag Day in 1966. He was 21 and the first of 11 Borough soldiers to die during the war.

The helmet cover belonged to him.

The story continues under the gallery.

Quinn Matthews, the collector, didn’t know this when he bought it. In fact, he said he didn’t even realize that “DUTCH” referred to someone’s name.

Matthews, 26, of Toronto, bought the helmet cover for $200 from International Military Antiques Inc. in the Gillette section of Long Hill in August 2019. He said he was often wary of buying such artifacts online, as they can be easily faked. But his price was reasonable, so he said he decided the risk was worth it.

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When he received the helmet cover, Matthews said it was clear to him it was legit. The faded letters from those confusing marks were the first positive sign, he said. Then it was the feel between his fingers of the worn fabric and a sewn label on the underside of the piece of fabric that dated it to the early 1960s.

After some research on the Internet, Matthews came across the name of a historian from the same city written on the article: “Hawthorne, New Jersey”.

Paul Chepurko, an author who has studied the lives of fallen soldiers in the borough, reassured Matthews of the item’s authenticity. He also promised to help find the Dutches family.

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“It started to get a lot more real,” Matthews said. “He was like, ‘That must be Billy.'”

“Softened by Risk”

Dutches, who graduated from Hawthorne High School in 1964, left behind a large family on Kingston Avenue. He was the third of six children and the eldest son.

The street, off Lincoln Avenue, was dedicated to the Dutch on the anniversary of his death in 2011. The borough has maintained the tradition of renaming roads after fallen soldiers with Chepurko’s help. On Friday, authorities were to dedicate part of Rea Avenue to Leo A. Braddell, a World War II Air Force veteran who died in February 1945.

Dutches is also survived by his girlfriend, whom he hoped to marry. Her name is featured prominently on the helmet cover – “BETTY LOU” – along with her fraternity initials – “ΩΓΔ”.

His brother, Frank Dutches, now 68, was just 12 when the family learned he had been killed. He remembered that he still had to go out to complete his paper itinerary for the Paterson Evening News that same evening.

“It never leaves you,” said Dutches, the city treasurer — an elected position — in Monroe, Connecticut. “It’s a part of your life that is always there and will always be there. You don’t want him to go away.

Acting Curator and Executive Director Mike Thornton talks about a helmet cover worn by Lance Cpl.  William

Dutches said he was influenced to later enlist in the Marine Corps when he and his parents visited Billy at Parris Island in South Carolina for a pass-in ceremony. “It was a big moment,” he said, “watching your big brother graduate from boot camp.”

Billy joined the service at age 19, almost immediately after graduating from high school.

A stark statement typed under his name in the yearbook alludes to his state of mind at the time: “Everything is sweetened by risk,” he says.

Only two years would pass before Billy was gone.

Dutches said his family’s decision to part with the helmet cover was difficult, but it was made easier knowing how much the museum will cherish it. He said it was also important for him and his surviving siblings – one sister, Diane, who died in May 2019 – to understand that the relic is symbolic of a larger sacrifice of tens of thousands of soldiers who have perished during the war.

“It was a good feeling to see it and touch it, but it brings you back,” he said. “It takes you back to when the news first broke.”

According to the National Archives, 58,220 American soldiers were killed during the war. Billy was among 1,487 victims in New Jersey.

“Objects tell stories”

A question about the helmet cover will remain: that is, where on Earth was it for over 50 years?

It’s an enigma that no collector or historian – not even Matthews – can explain. Tracing his journey proved to be an impossible task.

“It’s a total mystery,” he said.

Matthews said he didn’t get very far when he asked the military antiques salesman about the origin of the helmet cover. He said he was only told it was from a dealer in Georgia.

But Thornton, the museum’s curator, said he had a theory that could clear up at least part of his story. He said it’s entirely possible the helmet cover was reissued to another Marine after Dutches died.

Acting Curator and Executive Director Mike Thornton talks about a helmet cover worn by Lance Cpl.  William

There are marks on one side of the relic which Thornton says do not belong to the Dutch. “That’s just the reality of the supply chain,” he said. “Stacks of equipment have been picked up from the battlefield.”

Thornton also speculated that the helmet cover may have been discarded when the United States finally withdrew its troops in March 1973, two months after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. The army, he said, left much of its equipment to help South Vietnam, which continued to fight North Vietnam until the fall of Saigon in April 1975.

“That’s one way he could have lingered there,” he said.

But that the helmet cover eventually made its way to the United States and survived for decades more is miraculous, Thornton said. “I like to say that objects tell stories,” he said. “This one can easily write a book.”

Matthews deserves praise, Thornton said, for understanding that the relic is bigger than his private interests.

The collector, who aspires to become a doctor, said the helmet cover’s permanent place in a museum is the perfect result of its secretive past.

“It’s been one of the pride of my life to have been able to help with that,” Matthews said. “It makes me feel like collecting is worthwhile.”

Philip DeVencentis is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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