UC Davis is honoring its war casualties in a beautiful new way — on the Gold Star Aggies Wall that will be unveiled during the campus’s fifth annual Memorial Day Ceremony, this Thursday (May 25). Everyone is welcome: students, staff, faculty and others from the Davis community.
The Gold Star Aggies Wall is in the newly remodeled Memorial Union, dedicated in 1955 as a memorial to Aggies lost in war. Their names have always been on display in the Memorial Union — first on nameplates on the mantle of the fireplace in Griffin Lounge, then engraved on stainless-steel panels on a wall to the rear of the fireplace.
Now those 135 names are in a much more prominent location: the East Wing hallway. The Golden Memory Book is there, too, in a display case, alongside a pair of touch-screen monitors where people can call up pages from UC Davis' Golden Memory Book to read about our fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and see their pictures.
The Vietnam era
Phil Knox was a transfer student here, 1974-76, when he discovered the Golden Memory Book by chance. He was in Griffin Lounge, studying, when he saw the book tucked away in a dark corner. Thumbing through the book, he wondered why it didn’t have any names beyond the 1950s — beyond the Korean War. He asked himself: “Where are the Vietnam casualties?” He himself served in the Army during the time of that war, as a radio intercept operator in Ethiopia and Germany.
As an undergraduate, double-majoring in political science and history, Knox worked as a student recruiter, visiting community colleges to encourage veterans to come to UC Davis like he had done. After his graduation in 1976, he became veterans program coordinator. “The reason that I got into this veterans business is because of the unkind treatment our Vietnam vets received upon coming home,” he said.
And so he took on the solemn task of adding UC Davis’ Vietnam War casualties to the Golden Memory Book. First he had to find out who had died from UC Davis. The best the Department of Defense could do was send him a computer printout of all California casualties — more than 5,000 names, 10 percent of all U.S. casualties.
Knox arranged with the registrar to cross-check those names with Aggie admission records — and four names matched. He then ed the families to gather the information for each soldier’s page in the Golden Memory Book, and worked to have each of those pages typed up in the same manner as the other pages that had been created for Aggies from World Wars I and II and Korea.
Purpose and meaning of the Memorial Union
“If it hadn’t been for Phil Knox, I believe the Golden Memory Book would have eventually disappeared,” said John Campbell, associate vice chancellor in the Division of Student Affairs. Five years ago, Campbell was running Campus Recreation when it merged with Campus Unions; as the executive director of Campus Recreation and Unions, his portfolio included the Memorial Union, home of the Golden Memory Book and the names of our fallen Aggies.
“Phil Knox and I had a series of conversations about emphasizing, to the entire campus community, the purpose and value of why the Memorial Union was named the Memorial Union,” Campbell said. “Working together, we decided to reconstitute an annual ceremony to help place purpose and meaning to the name.”
Subsequently, as part of the Memorial Union renewal project, Campbell and others planned for a new Gold Star Aggies memorial — the result of which is the wall that is under wraps until this week’s ceremony.
Knox, who retired in 2011, will give the keynote address. He is no stranger to the unveiling of veterans monuments — having attended the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1982 and the California veterans memorial in Sacramento’s Capitol Park in 1988.
In his prepared remarks for May 25, Knox notes how the Memorial Union has undergone many renovations over the years. But none “has touched the very heart of the MU as profoundly as this one.”
“What this renovation has accomplished that the others did not was bring this memorial out of the shadows and into the light.”
Family members to attend
Knox’s dedication to the Golden Memory Book did not stop with his retirement. Just recently he launched an internet search for photos of the 18 Gold Star Aggies without pictures in the book. He found four.
He’s also interested in seeing more of our fallen Aggies’ family members attend the Memorial Day Ceremony. Roberta Taylor attended three years ago when her son’s page was added to the book — her son being Lt. Col. Mark Douglas Taylor (Class of ’86), an Army surgeon, killed in Iraq in 2004 — and she is coming this week.
Also attending will be Brian Bohlig, the son of Marine Corps 1st Lt. James R. Bohlig, one of the four Vietnam War casualties whose names Knox added to the Golden Memory Book decades ago. Recently, with the help of the internet, Knox tracked down the Marine’s son in Orinda (Contra Costa County). James Bohlig also is survived by his wife, Lenore, and daughter, Colleen Perez.
Brian Bohlig did not know about the UC Davis memorial to fallen Aggies until Knox told him about it. “As the son of a Gold Star Aggie, I am extremely grateful that my father’s memory is being honored in this way,” Bohlig told Dateline UC Davis by email. “It is very easy to forget that most of these were young men with hopes and dreams about their futures. Their lives were in front of them, and, in the case of my father, he voluntarily raised his hand for the simple reason that he felt it was his duty to serve.
“Regardless of your political views or feelings about war, the sacrifice these men made should be honored and reflected upon. That is why remembering these Gold Star Aggies is so important.”
The ultimate sacrifice
James Bohlig, of Crockett (Contra Costa County), graduated from UC Davis in 1966, the same year as his wife, Lenore Coates Bohlig. They met at the university and got married their senior year. Both majored in political science; James had thought about law school, but he also loved flying, his son said.
He entered the Marine Corps, went to Officer Candidate School and flight school and became a fighter pilot. Brian Bohlig was 5 months old when his father went to Vietnam in March 1969. The two would never see each other again.
“Lieutenant James R. Bohlig was killed in action 8/19/69 off Quang Tin Province — aircraft did not return from night mission,” reads his page in the Golden Memory Book. The page gives the year of his admission to UC Davis, his major and year of graduation; notes that he was a member of the varsity rugby team his senior year; and lists his military honors, including Bronze Star, Air Medal and Purple Heart.
The book has 134 more stories like this one, stories behind the names on the Gold Star Aggies Wall, stories of heroism and lives cut short — stories of the men to whom we pay tribute with our Memorial Union and Memorial Day Ceremony.