When Mike Drea died in an explosion in Vietnam in January 1970, odds are he was wearing his high school class ring. He always did.
Drea had been a wrestler and football player at Weston High School, near Cazenovia in Richland County. In those days, class rings, like letter jackets, were a big deal. Every photograph of Mike showed him wearing the ring. It had an eagle insignia and Drea’s initials: M.D. He wore it when he left for Vietnam in June 1969.
Mike’s real name was Terrance Lee Drea. His parents had a disagreement over his name, and though Terrance landed on the official record, everyone called the boy Mike. He had nine brothers and sisters. They lived on a dairy farm outside Cazenovia.
The explosion that killed Drea — he was 20 — also took the lives of 12 other American soldiers. An ammunition truck exploded while it was being unloaded at Fire Base Nancy, near Xuan Loc, South Vietnam. Whether it was an accident or sabotage was in some dispute.
Mike’s younger sister, Mary, remembers the package with her brother’s belongings arriving at the farm. Today she is Mary Krekeler, and she has lived in the Madison area for several decades. In 1970, Mary was 14. She recalls the government package with Mike’s wallet and a few photos, charred at the edges.
At the time, her mother said, "His class ring isn’t here."
A small sorrow on top of the larger one. Mary said, "We thought it must have been buried in all the rubble."
Around the same time, a similar package arrived at the home of Jerry Sain in Pennsylvania. Jerry was 21 when he died in the explosion. He had been in Vietnam a little over a month. His brother, Joe, was 15. Today Joe Sain is 58 and lives in St. Marys, Pa.
The package delivered to Pennsylvania in early 1970 with Jerry’s belongings included a high school class ring that was not his. Joe said his family checked the initials on the ring — M.D. — against the names of the others killed in the explosion. Nobody matched.
They might have done more digging, but less than a year after Jerry’s death in Vietnam, Joe’s father suffered a fatal heart attack. Joe recalled it as time of grieving and a fight for survival for the rest of the family. The class ring, origin unknown, was put away in a box.
Some 25 years later — the mid-1990s — Joe’s mother, facing health issues, was taking stock.
"She wanted to get things in order," Joe said, and that included going through the things that had come back from Vietnam when her son Jerry died. Joe was visiting his mother the day she came across the mystery ring. She urged him to take it with him, and he did, to the high school in Milford, Pa., where he taught.
Joe tried to interest a visiting salesman of class rings in his project. There were a few clues: Weston High School, the bird insignia, the initials M.D.
"He wasn’t helpful," Sain said, and once again, the ring was put away.
Years later, sometime in 2010, Joe joined other family members in a visit to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. It moved him, as it has so many, and he thought again of the class ring.
As it happened, a few years earlier, in 2007 — the 25th anniversary of the wall’s opening — the Drea family from Wisconsin had visited the wall. Mary and her sister read Mike’s name during the ceremony. They met members of Mike’s 199th Infantry Company.
Recently Joe Sain retired from teaching in Pennsylvania. He turned to the Internet to try to solve the puzzle of the class ring. He found three Weston High Schools, including one in Wisconsin with an eagle insignia.
In November 2012, Sain flew to Wisconsin. His daughter coaches the women’s basketball team at the University of Chicago, and there was a tournament in Ripon. While in Wisconsin, Joe called Weston High School, and reached someone who cleared up the mystery of the ring’s initials. Terrance Drea, who died in Vietnam in 1970, was known to everyone as Mike: M.D.
Joe was given the name of Mike’s brother, Bill Drea, who still lives on the family farm outside Cazenovia. Joe drove over with the ring. On the same trip he visited Mary in Madison. The families have become close and plan to meet again at a pending reunion of the 199th Infantry.
For now, the ring is with Bill on the farm. Its unlikely journey still has the power to amaze.
"It’s been wonderful for both families," Joe said.
"It’s remarkable," Mary said. "After so many years. My parents would have been thrilled."
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or email@example.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.