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Marine Lance Cpl. Chris Totora, 19, Marine Pfc. Jim Stassi, 19, and Marine Lance Cpl. Rick Bennett, 19, all of Wood River, pose with Bennett’s nephew Steve in California shortly before being deployed to Vietnam in 1967. All three were killed in action that year.
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Photo by Fred Pollard
Mary Roberts of Wood River poses with the pillowcase her brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Chris Totora sent shortly before he was killed in action in 1967. Roberts is working with the Veterans’ Grave Restoration Project to have a memorial plaque placed at her brother’s grave at Woodland Hill Cemetery in Wood River.
WOOD RIVER — Nestled throughout the cemeteries scattered across the Greater Alton area, stories of inspiration, hope and heroism born of violence are begging to be retold.
Woodland Hills Cemetery in Wood River is no exception. Winding through the quiet rows, it is easy to miss the graves of three local teenagers gone for decades — Chris Totora, Jim Stassi, and Rick Bennett.
“They were proud to do what they felt they needed to do,” the sister of one of the boys said. “These boys were doing a job.”
The three friends attended East Alton-Wood River Community High School, Stassi graduating in 1965 and Totora and Bennett following the next year. All three enlisted in the Marines following graduation, reuniting at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton before serving together in Vietnam.
On June 27, 1967, Marine Pfc. Jim Stassi, 19, was killed in South Vietnam when he stepped on a land mine. While on water detail, Marine Lance Cpl. Rick Bennett, 19, died Aug. 10, 1967, by enemy explosion fragments in Thua Thien. Following an injury in September and a return to battle, Marine Lance Cpl. Chris Totora, 19, died Oct. 25, 1967, when he was hit by enemy shrapnel in DaNang.
Within months of being deployed, all three friends were gone, changing the landscape of their families and their hometown forever.
“These boys are a big part of our town,” Sara Sladek of Wood River says. “They might not have thought they were heroes, but there is no doubt that they were.”
While all three received the Purple Heart posthumously, Sladek feels their resting place does not give the Marines the respect they deserve.
“Back then, when military came home, they were spit on,” she said. “It’s past time that we stood up for these boys and treated them like the brave heroes they are.”
Sladek volunteers with the Madison County Veterans’ Grave Restoration Project, a federally funded program designed to honor veterans by identifying and cataloguing memorials and grave markers in various stages of disrepair. The organization finds unmarked graves of soldiers and Marines, repairs deteriorating gravestones and markers, and provides plaques highlighting military service when current markers may not acknowledge that service.
“We are going township to township, searching out these graves and giving these soldiers the respect they deserve,” Sladek said. “We started with Wood River first and will move on from there.”
All services and materials provided come at no cost to the families.
Sladek became involved with the Veterans’ Grave Restoration Project when Tim Turner of the Veterans’ Assistance Commission heard of her attempts to get Alton Cemetery cleaned up.
“He asked if I would be interested in helping them,” she said. “I enjoy volunteering and this is such an important thing to be involved with.”
Through the project, Sladek is working to get the proper markings for the graves of all three fallen Marines.
Pat Haynes of California, Bennett’s sister, was seven years older than her brother and lived in California when the three young men were stationed there.
“They showed up at my house at all hours of the day and night,” Haynes said. “We didn’t have much, but it was great any time they could get off base. We kept them supplied with chicken, mashed potatoes, and ice cream.”
She remembers her sons playing ball with Rick and how impressed they were with his uniform.
“He just died too young,” she said. “They were all scared, and they were great kids. You couldn’t ask for better men, all three of them. Their families have the right to be very proud.”
Stassi’s sister, Madilyn “Susie” Stassi of Wood River, was 24 years old when her brother was killed and remembers receiving the news as if it were yesterday.
“It was 44 days shy of his 20th birthday,” she said. “He was killed on our brother’s birthday. I remember my mother saying ‘I gave birth to one on that day, and lost one on that day.’
“His last letter arrived a week after he died.”
Stassi, who saw her brother for the last time during Christmas of 1966, describes Jim as “handsome, athletic, religious, and popular.”
“When he died, there were between 600-800 people at the funeral,” she said. “We were in a daze, but that was such a comfort. We even got letters from kids in his platoon that talked about what a good man he was.
“He was a good son and a good brother. It is such a loss, even today, and you just don’t forget.”
Mary Roberts of Wood River is Totora’s younger sister and also thinks of her brother every day.
“He was a football player, a wrestler, and very protective,” Roberts said of her brother. “Chris knew every place I went and everyone I saw. I couldn’t get by with anything.”
Totora enlisted when he was 17, aided by the signature of approval from his parents.
“It was very hard for my parents when he was killed, especially since they signed to allow him to enlist early,” Roberts said. “They knew it was what he wanted, though, and they knew it was important.”
Sladek says the city of Wood River still remembers the three teenagers who gave their lives for their country and the city they called home.
“He is not forgotten,” Roberts says of her brother. “People talk about him all the time. I go to reunions and these three are always the subject. Chris was very well-liked.”
In the quiet calm of Woodland Hills Cemetery, Stassi and Totora rest side by side, with Bennett around the corner. Nearly 50 years after their passing, all three young men continue to impact the world around them, and their voices rise above the noise of everyday life, still clear, never forgotten.
“I am proud of what I am doing,” Totora states in a letter to his parents, now his sister’s treasured possession. “I am not brave or heroic, because every man is equal.”
For more information on the Madison County Veterans’ Grave Restoration Project, call (618) 251-4626.