James Bennett Conway graduated from Franklin High School in 1946 and went right into the Marine Corps. By then, World War II was over, and the war effort was concentrated on bringing 16 million troops home and sending German, Italian and Japanese POWs held in the United States back home.
Conway served his four years and came back to Franklin to work in the family’s hardware store – Bennett’s Hardware located on Main Street.
He stayed a couple of years but something bigger was calling him. He joined the Army in 1950 during the Korean War.
“He was posted to Korea for a while, and returned to Fort Campbell,” said his younger brother Carter, a Franklin attorney.
Conway entered Officers Candidate School and graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant.
“He continued his schooling going the War College and Language School and Flight School,” Carter said.
And he became a Green Beret.
“At one time, he was at Fort Bragg training Green Berets,” Carter added.
By the early 1960s, conflict in Southeast Asia seemed imminent, and by 1962 America’s first combat missions were being waged.
Conway was deployed twice to Vietnam. During his second deployment in 1966, 35-year Maj. James Conway was killed in action, while protecting his retreating unit of Green Berets.
According to the War Department and a letter to Carter from Sgt. Harold Palmer, a member of Conway’s 22-man elite jungle fighters, their patrol was on reconnaissance near the Cambodian border when they met heavy fire.
His unit of Green Berets “were about to be overrun by the Viet Cong,” said Carter. “He ordered his men to evacuate, called in napalm and was killed after [battling the enemy].”
Outnumbered an estimated five to one, the men fought for four hours when a bullet from a Vietnam soldier’s rifle grazed Conway’s head, Parker wrote in the letter.
According to Parker, the enemy had identified Conway as a “key kill,” and they were out to get him.
Conway yelled for his men to “Get out of here — all of you,” Parker wrote.
“Capt. Conway yelled for us to go back, that he would cover for us. Then he got it — through the head. But even as he was falling, dying, he got off a shot from his automatic and finished off the VC attacker.”
Palmer and another Green Beret disobeyed Conway’s order to retreat, crawled to his side and stayed with him until he died, then while continuing to fire their weapons, they backed away to safety.
The next day, a rescue team went back for Conway’s body, but after an extensive search through the elephant grass where he had been seen, they lost the trail.
“His body was never recovered,” Carter said. “There was a bounty on the bodies of American troops, especially officers,”
Capt. Conway is a hero and saved my life, wrote Parker.
“I’ve never been much at words, but Capt. Conway was one of the finest men I have ever served under,” he finished.
Capt. James Conway was promoted posthumously and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
After 50 years, Carter and his sister Betsey Conway Snodgrass still mourn their brother. About 10 years ago Betsey donated a photo exhibit she and her husband created of Williamson County residents killed in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and dedicated it to Jim‘s memory to the Williamson County Archives and Museum.
”My husband and I spent a couple of years putting it together, and every minute was worthwhile,” Betsey wrote in a letter to the Williamson Herald.
“He was always looking out for me, teaching me things that were helpful,” Carter said.
He taught Carter to ride a bike, to play football and helped him with Boy Scout projects.
“You couldn’t ask for a better brother,” he said. “I think America would be a lot better off if we had more Jim Conways.”
Before he left on his final deployment, Capt. Conway told his brother, if anything happened to him in Vietnam, he did not want anything heroic on his tombstone.
“Just have engraved on it my name, the date of my birth and death and one other word. I want that word to be ‘Soldier.”
A tombstone in Mount Hope Cemetery where no body lies beneath, reads simply: “James Bennett Conway, Major US Army, Vietnam, November 23, 1930, April 11, 1966.”
He remains Missing in Action.