Gold Star Hall ceremony recognizes two ISU alumni

David Gerhold

They made the ultimate sacrifice to secure American freedom. On Friday, Nov. 8, three days before the celebration of Veterans Day, Iowa State honored two alumni who lost their lives during a time of war.

“We do this to really bring the individuals we’re honoring to life,” said Richard Reynolds, Memorial Union director. “We want to tell their stories prior to their military services and portray them as individuals, as brothers, as sons, as uncles.”

Each year, the Memorial Union staff researches people who have not been added to the Gold Star Hall walls or who have not been honored individually yet. They have to verify if they attended Iowa State for at least one semester and that they died in the field of battle.

“After that, we spend as much time as possible to find out all the details about the persons, so that we can their stories as accurately as possible,” Reynolds said.

The staff places ads in local newspapers of the soldiers’ hometowns and conduct detailed web searches.

“We often find groups of war veterans on the Internet who served in the same unit,” Reynolds said. “They organize reunions and try to keep up with where everyone is. On more than one occasion, groups like these were able to provide us with a lot of information.”

Kristin Erdman, marketing coordinator at the Memorial Union, said they looked at more than 300 websites to find one of the veterans.

“After that, we had to carefully piece together the little bits we found into a full story,” Erdman said. “That took a very long time.”

Even 40 to 60 years after the soldiers passed away, the efforts of the Memorial Union are still deeply appreciated by the families, Reynolds said.

“There have been times when family members approached us after the ceremony and thanked us,” Reynolds said. “The service we provide can bring closure to the loss of their loved ones.”

One of this year’s honorees was James Lee Merrick Jr., whose name has already been etched on the Gold Star Hall wall. 

James Olberding, member of the Gold Star Hall Committee and Vietnam War veteran, brought this name to Reynolds’s attention.

“James Merrick was a pilot of an air reconnaissance aircraft in the Vietnam War,” Reynolds said. “He was based on an aircraft carrier. On his way back to his base, he crashed in the Gulf of Tonkin.”

After a through amount of research was performed to conduct Merrick’s story, Reynolds and his team managed to contact his mother, who still lives in Ames.

“She could provide us with a lot of stories about James’s childhood and youth,” Reynolds said.

Friday, a new name was be added to the Gold Star Hall wall: Robert Lynn Hodson.

“In this particular case, we were actually approached by Hodson’s nephew,” Reynolds said.

Robert Hodson was a navigator during World War II. Hodson’s nephew was able to share his compelling story with the Memorial Union researchers, Reynolds said.

“He told me that Robert was part of a large air raid over Germany and got attacked and severly injured,” Reynolds said.

After that, Hodson still managed to redirect the course of his aircraft and safely return to England. Everyone aboard survived, except for him.

“It is amazing to me that both of the honorees knew that their jobs would put them in situations they might not return from,” Reynolds said.

Erdman said it was very important for ISU students to attend the ceremony.

“I believe, as they walk through Gold Star Hall every day, they tend to forget that the Memorial Union actually is what the title says — a memorial,” Erdman said. “So, I think it is really important to take the time and remember those, who gave their lives for us.”