World just learning mystery of Vietnam-era Marine hero

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marines_150By Michael Doyle | McClatchy Newspapers – On the morning of Aug. 12, 1968, amid a sweep through Quang Nam Province, Lance Cpl. Kenneth Worley awoke to shouts: Grenade! With little time to think, Worley threw himself on the grenade and absorbed its blast. He died. His colleagues lived. Worley received the Medal of Honor. But little of his life was known. Indeed, his real name wasn’t even Worley.

WASHINGTON — Kenneth L. Worley lived in Modesto with a cast on his foot and a past he had fled.      

He was a teenager in the mid-1960s, an orphan of sorts. He had left school behind; his family, too. In a few years, he would be dead; a posthumous Medal of Honor recipient, killed in Vietnam.

In Modesto, scant traces remain from Worley’s transient years. Few knew him. Those who did, adored him.

"He was a spectacular kid," said former Modesto resident Donel Swisher, "and he was an even more spectacular man."

Now, perfect strangers have symbolically adopted this Marine who changed his name and never reached the age of 21. In Farmington, N.M., a resolute Air Force retiree pushes for a Worley memorial. On Capitol Hill, California lawmakers want a ship named in his honor. In North Dakota, a psychologist considers his short life a case study in military heroism.

A week ago, Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., and George Radanovich, R-Calif., urged Navy Secretary Raymund E. Mabus Jr. to name a ship after Worley. The ship-naming effort was instigated last summer by retired Air Force Master Sgt. Bruce Salisbury, who also championed a war hero’s memorial to be dedicated in Farmington on Nov. 7.

"Ken," said his former Modesto girlfriend, Quonieta Murphy, "would probably be amazed."

Donel Swisher and Quonieta Murphy are sisters, two of eight children raised by Donald and Rosemary Feyerherm. Theirs was a gypsy family, Swisher said, speaking figuratively. After Navy service, Donald Feyerherm meandered from job to job.

How the Feyerherms ended up in Modesto, neither sister can say. They only stayed a few years while Donald worked at a Regal gas station. They left few tracks. Neither the Modesto telephone books nor city directories for 1966 through 1968 list the Feyerherms.

Still, it was in Modesto, circa 1966, that the family met young Kenneth Worley.

The city was still more "American Graffiti" than Swinging Sixties, with a population of about 50,000 — roughly one-quarter its current size. Donel was attending Stanislaus Elementary School. Quonieta was a 16-year-old sophomore at Davis High School.

Quonieta met Worley through a friend. At the time, he had a cast on his foot after accidentally shooting himself with a rifle. The 18-year-old high school dropout was driving a diesel truck full time, hauling Christmas trees.

"He was a really sweet person," Quonieta said. "He was just a kid."

Worley was a "quiet, introspective person," added Terence Barrett, a North Dakota State University psychologist who has researched Worley’s life. Even other Marines who served with Worley admit they didn’t know him, Barrett said.

Undeniably, he was a bit of a mystery. Not every story told about him is true.

Kenneth Worley wasn’t his real name, it turned out. Born in Farmington, N.M., on April 27, 1948, he had adopted a different moniker after leaving a harsh family environment.

He had an older sister, Betty Sue, who was living in California and whose married last name he apparently took for his own. She has since died, and precisely how Worley landed in Modesto remains unclear.

Quonieta felt bad about the squalid camper-trailer Worley used in Modesto, and within a month of their meeting she had invited him back to her family’s house. Her father took to him like a favorite son, getting him a gas station job and making space in the Feyerherm house.

Quonieta also became romantically entangled with Worley. Sometimes, they could only find privacy in a parked car, and in the spring of 1967 she became pregnant.

"He was a nice guy," she said, "and I loved him very dearly at that point."

Her mother, though, did not want Quonieta to marry the high school dropout. Instead, Rosemary Feyerherm insisted that Quonieta should marry another young Modesto man, whose first name was Bob.

Quonieta deferred to her mother. She married Bob — a bad match — while Worley got hit by the draft.

"He didn’t want to go into the Army, and the Navy said they couldn’t take him because he wasn’t a high school graduate," Quonieta said. "So he went into the Marines."

That was June 1967. By the time Worley finished his training, the Feyerherm family had moved again, this time to Southern California. He saw them there before shipping out to Vietnam in November 1967.

Three months later, Quonieta gave birth to their son, Robert. She wrote Worley, but he never saw the boy.

On the early morning of Aug. 12, 1968, amid a sweep through Quang Nam Province, Lance Cpl. Kenneth Worley awoke to shouts: Grenade! With little time to think, Worley threw himself on the grenade and absorbed its blast. He died. His colleagues in Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment survived. The Feyerherms, listed as next of kin, were the ones who received the news.

"My father was inconsolable," Donel said.

The Feyerherm family attended a Medal of Honor ceremony April 20, 1970, presided over by Vice President Spiro Agnew. The controversial vice president, a World War II combat veteran, impressed Donel by shaking everyone’s hand and calling them by their first names.

Life went on, some moments better than others. Robert Worley, Kenneth’s son, spent 10 years in the Army. He is now a teacher’s assistant. Quonieta got married again after Bob left, to another Navy man named Emmett Murphy. He died four years ago.

Quonieta now lives in an Oregon trailer park and at the age of 59 recently became a great-grandmother. Every now and then, she’ll field a phone call from someone curious about her long-ago love, the fated young man whose heroism is now being celebrated anew.

"I’m completely awed by this whole thing," Donel said.

Web page dedicated to Kenneth Worley

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