Marine mom honors son killed in Vietnam

John A Pavoncello
York Dispatch

Mary Fuhrman knew there was something special about her son James Michael Fuhrman when he was born.

After delivering the healthy baby boy March 26, 1949, with his head still encased in the embryonic sack, the doctor walked into Fuhrman's room holding the membrane and asked if she wanted to keep it.

Mary Fuhrman, 95 of Dallastown, keeps her son Jim's memory alive with her "adopted" sons, the members of USMC 3rd Force Recon who served with her son in Vietnam. John A. Pavoncello photo

"I not only don't want to keep it, I don't even know what it is," Mary Fuhrman recalled telling the doctor, who went on to say that in his family's country of Greece, if a baby was born with the sack still covering its head it was a sign. "He will be gifted, and he will make his mark in some way in life," the doctor told her.

"And he really did," said Mary Fuhrman.

James went on to serve in the military in Vietnam. In fact, he gave his life for his country.

George "Butch: Mennie greets Mary Fuhrman, 95 of Dallastown, as she arrives with a car full of snacks for the members of USMC 3rd Force Recon who served with her son in Vietnam during their reunion in York, Monday, May 22, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

This year, the surviving members of James Fuhrman's unit, 3rd Force Recon, are holding their annual reunion in York so Mary Fuhrman, 95, can attend without having to travel a long distance.

And she is grateful for the connection.

"I know my son thought a good deal of them, he respected them and honored them," Fuhrman said.  "It makes me feel closer to him, and I know he would want me to look out for them and be kind to them."

Life of service: The youngest of Mary and Russ Fuhrman's three children, James grew up living in a home shared with his maternal grandparents. Mary's father and husband both served in the military, one in World War I, the other in World War II — so it was only natural the young man would want to follow the tradition to make his grandfather proud.

"My father had been in the service, and my husband was in the service, and I knew what it could do to a person; it makes a man out of a boy," Mary Fuhrman said.

A standout basketball player at William Penn High School, James had more than 30 colleges vying for his talent. Instead, he decided to join the U.S. Marines during his senior year.

"He came home and said, 'Mom, I joined the Marines today,' and I said, 'Oh Jim, you didn't,'" Mary Fuhrman remembered.

After basic training at Parris Island as a rifleman, James went on to become a member of the the Marine Corps elite unit, Force Recon. Working in teams of six men, members of 3rd Force Recon spent much of their time behind enemy lines.

Orlando "Speedy" Gonzalez, now a semi-retired New York state trooper, went through boot camp and recon training and deployed with James to Vietnam in April 1967. Gonzalez describes the unit as "a close-knit company, brothers as we can best describe it."

For 10 months, James and his fellow Force Recon Marines would slip behind enemy lines and watch the North Vietnamese soldiers to gain intelligence. They weren't a direct-action force like the well-known Navy SEALs, but they occasionally grabbed an enemy soldier for interrogation.

And though their purpose was gathering intelligence, the 3rd Force Recon Marines hit fast and hard when engaging the enemy, leaving behind an ace of spades playing card on the enemy dead, according to Charles "Tommy" Sexton, who served with James Fuhrman. They earned the moniker "the green ghosts" from Soviet KGB advisers to the North Vietnamese military, added Butch Memmie, who also served with the 3rd Force Recon.

Tragic ending: On Feb. 7, 1970, James and five teammates walked into an ambush after helicoptering into the A Shau Valley. James Fuhrman was killed instantly by fire from an AK-47, according to military records.

In the days leading up to the tragic mission, James seemed to know something was going to happen. Instead of eating the lavish meal served before every mission, he stayed behind to get his gear in order and write letters to his family, his fellow Marines recalled.

At home, Mary Fuhrman was dealing with her own clairvoyant misery.

"On a Monday night, I dreamed he was killed," she said. She had a dream that two Marines came to her house and knocked on her door, and she answered, "Oh God, not Jim."

Mary kept the dream to herself all that week because she didn't want to worry her family.

Six days later, with a house full of Sunday company, some of the family were down in the basement to make a tape to send to James when her daughter saw two men walking down the street, "just as I dreamed it," Fuhrman said. The men came to the door, and Mary Fuhrman's daughter called to her that she was wanted upstairs.

"I came up and I saw two men and I said, 'Oh God, not Jim.'"

Lifelong ties: Lance Cpl. James Fuhrman's teammates came home to deal with the homecoming most Vietnam veterans encountered. Gonzalez reached out to Mary Fuhrman as he promised his friend he would, out of love and and in memory of his best friend. For more than 40 years, Gonzalez has been visiting Mary three or four times a year.

"I lost my mom a few years back, and Mother Fuhrman" — as she is called by all the surviving members of 3rd Force Recon — "is my second mother."

Mary Fuhrman was invited to the first reunion for her son's 3rd Force Recon buddies. Now 95, Mary Fuhrman can't travel long distances. When she received the call several months ago that this year's reunion was going to be in Florida, she wished them the best but said she couldn't make the trip. So, as Marines do, the group adapted and overcame the situation and changed the reunion to be held in York this week so their "Recon Mom" could attend.

"I love them dearly," Mary Fuhrman said. "And they are just a wonderful bunch of fellows."