A compelling book links the story of two families — one in idyllic San Luis Obispo, the other in war-torn Vietnam.
There are two tragedies separated by 23 years that struck the Schultz family of San Luis Obispo. The first hit in the last months of World War II and was caused by route the Southern Pacific railroad tracks cut across the streets of San Luis Obispo.
The second occurred in Hoc Mon, Vietnam, in early March 1968. It was part of a global conflict that we are still trying to come to grips with.
On Easter morning, April 1, 1945, Cornelia and Sam Schultz lost their daughter, Erma Elaine, in an accident that happened far too often in San Luis Obispo, a railroad town with many level grade crossings. During World War II, there were 12 or more fast-moving passenger trains plus endless freights moving through town.
Residents were never entirely inured to reading news of the inevitable collisions between trains and motor vehicles in the Telegram-Tribune. Erma Elaine was only 16. She had been baby-sitting and was being driven home by a young soldier from Camp Roberts who had been drinking too much.
The soldier tried to beat a train at the now closed Palm Street crossing. The train pushed the car a full block, where it then fell off the Monterey Street overpass onto what was then Highway 101.
Eddy Schultz was born 16 months later, in 1946. The Schultzes leased a farm off Santa Rosa Street and Foothill Boulevard. It was replaced by Stenner Glen Student Housing in 1968.
Eddy was more like a big brother to his niece, Lynne Lorine Ludwick Higgins, who was three years younger. She spent as much time as possible on her grandparents’ farm. She looked up to him as “the good cowboy. The one who saves the day.”
Eddy did in fact save Lynne from serious injury once, as she started to slide down the muddy slope into Stenner Creek.
Throughout his youth, Eddy played ranching games, “the things ranchers do.” He told Lynne, “Someday I’ll be a ranch manager. I won’t ever have the money to own one, but I know I can be the manager.”
Eddy, both through Future Farmers of America and working on the Schultz farm, was progressing toward his goal. He graduated from San Luis Obispo High School and was attending Cuesta College when he was drafted into the Army in August 1967.
He arrived in Vietnam shortly before the 1968 Tet Offensive. Because of the sudden increase in the ferocity of combat, his battalion was quickly brought into some of the fiercest fighting in American military history.
His unit fought a six-day battle at Tan Hoa in mid-February 1968. Eddie was a radio man, carrying more than 70 pounds of equipment plus his rifle. In early March, he was ambushed and killed at Hoc Mon.
The family was told that Eddy’s entire platoon had been “wiped out.” Forty years later, Lynne connected to surviving members of Eddy’s platoon and found that the Army had lied about the unit’s fate.
Eddy’s body was returned to San Luis Obispo. Lynne was not allowed to view her uncle’s remains, but describes the sadness of the funeral at Zion Lutheran Church, where Eddy’s best friend, Tom St. John, served as one of the pallbearers. The church was only a few hundred feet away from where the Schultz farm had been.
Forty years later, Lynne, approaching retirement as a special needs teacher, began to put together the story of the life and death of her beloved “big brother” in “The Box: A Memoir,” which is available through Amazon.
Her ex-husband, Jim, retired from the Marines as a pilot and was going to Vietnam working in a consulting firm. Jim never knew Eddy, but liked everything he had heard from Lynne and her family. He traveled to Hoc Mon and described Eddy through government interpreters.
He met a former Viet Cong soldier whose life had been surrounded by war, from the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, the withdrawal of the French in 1954 and the American intervention. The man, shedding tears, gave Jim an inlaid box wrapped in tattered red ribbon to take to Eddy’s family in San Luis Obispo.
That content of that “box” formed the theme and title of Lynne’s book, which is a must read. We finished reading “The Box: A Memoir” as President Barack Obama was on his three-day trip to Vietnam to improve relations with our one-time enemy.
We are indebted to Vietnam War historian Bill Killian, who brought Eddy Schultz’s story to our attention.
Lynne Ludwick Higgins will do a radio interview with Guy Rathbun to air at 1:30 p.m. on Memorial Day on San Luis Obispo KCBX, 90.1 FM.
Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian. Dan is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.