Family received last letter on day they were informed their son had died
Leon Barickman was a 20-year-old Marine lance corporal when he was killed in Vietnam on July 27, 1969. He and his family always enjoyed time spent visiting at Fort Ridgely State Park located near Fairfax in the days before he went away to war. He was buried at the Fort Ridgely Cemetery after his death, and in 1996, Leon was included in a book, The Faces Behind the Names,”written by Don Ward about Minnesota’s Vietnam connection as a remembrance and tribute to the 1,124 casualties from the state. The book includes a chapter of “last letters home,” including several of them written by Leon to his family. The last one he wrote was on July 23, 1969, and is reprinted for this story with the author’s permission.
Leon Ross Barickman was born on May 2, 1949, in St. James and graduated from Truman High School in 1967.
He enrolled at the University of Minnesota School of Accounting, and in March 1968, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. After completing his second quarter at the university, he left for San Diego in April to begin basic training. On Oct. 2, 1968, he was assigned to a 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam.
He participated in several major combat operations, and on July 21, 1969 he was promoted to lance corporal. Six days later he died when the helicopter in which he was being evacuated was shot down. That day, he and his company were participating in Operation Durham Peak near the Laos-Vietnam border in rugged terrain and steep slopes.
When a medevac helicopter was summoned to remove the bodies of two Marines who had been killed that day, Leon’s intensifying fungal infection in his leg also required his evacuation from the area. He was going home. But when all were aboard the helicopter and lifting off it was hit by enemy fire about 40 feet above the ground and shot down. The helicopter crashed and plunged down the side of the mountain.
“My family was from Lewisville at the time, and my brother was always interested in military history, and he liked it at Fort Ridgely when we used to visit there,” said his brother, Kurt Barickman, of Albert Lea.
“Our church had no cemetery at the time when Leon was killed, and my parents decided that Fort Ridgely would be a good place to bury him. My mother was opposed to putting Leon’s remains in a military or national cemetery,” said Kurt. “Ironically, my parents and I were up at Fort Ridgely the same day Leon was killed in Vietnam.
“On the same day we got the last letters from him in the morning mail, that afternoon a Marine officer and chaplain came to our house to tell us Leon had been killed in action,” Kurt recalled. “That moment is something which is burned in my memory.”
Himself an author, teacher and military historian, Kurt served nine years in the Navy. Years later, he had an opportunity to speak with a soldier who helped load Leon into the chopper before it was shot down.
“He said they were in a real mountainous area, and the helicopter rolled down a mile and a half after it got hit,” Kurt said. “It took them a couple of days before they could recover the bodies of the men who were on board.”
Kurt and his family went through some tough, sad times after Leon’s death. “I was just going on 8 years old, but I remember a lot of what happened and reading Leon’s letters,” he commented. “I kept all of his stuff from Vietnam, the letters, uniforms, his medals and a scrapbook. We used to watch the TV show, Combat, together because we both had an interest in the military,” he noted.
“Leon volunteered for the service, but before he left for Vietnam, he had a premonition that he wouldn’t be coming home again,” Kurt added.
Because Leon loved Fort Ridgely so much, it was easy to make a decision to bury him there. It was a private cemetery and in the state park he enjoyed according to his mother, Gladys Barickman, also of Albert Lea.
“We were farmers and didn’t take a lot of vacations, but my boys, Ivan, Leon and Kurt, they were so interested in history, and we would take driving trips to historical sites and spent a lot of time at Fort Ridgely. They just loved it,” she commented.
“They’d slide down the big snow hill in winter, and in summer they’d run around playing cowboy games and all kinds of things,” she recalled.
“The soldier who helped put Leon in the helicopter before it crashed contacted the family about 15 years later, and the first thing he wanted to do was to go see where Leon was buried,” said Gladys. “He thought Fort Ridgely was a very peaceful place, and he said, ‘aA least it’s the high ground,’” she stated.
Kurt added that the soldier who escorted Leon’s body from San Francisco back to Minnesota died only a few years ago from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam.
Leon’s dad, Earl, died in 2002 and is buried next to his son. Kurt’s oldest brother Ivan died in 2006 and is also buried there. Gladys, now 88, says she will someday come back to the family plot at Fort Ridgely for her final resting place too.