John O’Neal Rucker, Crew Chief
18th SOS, Nakhon Phanom and Da Nang, 1972-73
On January 27, 1973, 11 hours before the cease fire took effect, Sergeant John “O’Neal” Rucker became the last American who died at Da Nang during the Vietnam War, and that war’s last enlisted casualty. O’Neal was assigned to aircraft maintenance for the 18th Special Operations Squadron’s Stinger aircraft. Several of his friends and crewmates told his parents that they’d had rocket attacks a week earlier and that this one occurred when O’Neal was off-duty, sleeping in the barracks. O’Neal was 21 years old.
John “O’Neal” Rucker was born March 17, 1951 in Kilgore Texas and shortly thereafter moved to Linden Texas, his home town. After graduating from Linden-Kildare High School, even though he had a high draft number, he volunteered for the Air Force in February 1971. O’Neal told his parents and friends he wanted to serve, and make the Air Force a career. When the Air Force asked him for his assignment preference during basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, he volunteered for service in South East Asia. O’Neal was initially assigned to NKP, Thailand in April, 1972. In July he went TDY to Da Nang with the 18th SOS, and was PCS’d to Da Nang two days before the fatal rocket attack. O’Neal was scheduled to return to Thailand before coming home.
Mae Rucker, O’Neal’s mother, told us they called him O’Neal because he was named after his father and they couldn’t have two Johnny’s in the house. O’Neal’s sisters Marsha and Margie, and his brother Frank remembered his R&R in Linden for Christmas 1972. He told Marsha to be careful waking him since he couldn’t guarantee he wouldn’t jump pretty high. Margie remembers he really liked what he was doing there on the flight line, and Frank knew he was proud to be in the Air Force.
Shortly after the cease fire took effect, the Department of the Air Force and the Republic of South Vietnam joined together to erect and dedicate a memorial at Da Nang Air Base to recognize all Americans who lost their life protecting freedom. The memorial park included a plaque honoring Sgt. Rucker. Colonel Hoover, Da Nang’s Commander, sent this letter to O’Neal’s parents:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Rucker,
Today is the 34th day into the cease fire agreement and phase down of United States Air Force activities in the Republic of Vietnam. The particular significance of this day is the fact that at 9:30 this morning, a group of USAF and Vietnamese personnel paused to dedicate the Da Nang Air Base Memorial Park.
This dedication, attended by approximately 400 people, while recognizing the overall contributions of all Air Force personnel here at Da Nang and those who died in the cause of freedom, gave special recognition to your son, Sgt. John Rucker.
The Park contains an engraved marble plaque in his honor; and I want to assure you that his memory and supreme sacrifice will not be forgotten. The attached Memorial Brochure will help you better sense the spirit of today’s activity. I was extremely proud to have your son under my command.
WILLIAM W. HOOVER, Colonel, USAF Commander
Linden, Texas is a small town of several thousand with traditional values – patriotic, family and friends as cornerstones of life, obedience, being an individual, and foremost of all, belief in God and country. On November 11, 1973 the people of Linden erected and dedicated a monument in the courthouse square in memory of Sgt. John O’Neal Rucker. We can say it no better than Paul Rowan, who interviewed dozens of Linden’s folks shortly after O’Neal died in Vietnam, and wrote an article for the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram. He said, “Sgt. Rucker will be worth remembering because he died in the service of his country and with a firm trust in God. In Linden, a man can make no higher marks in history.”