Donetta Robben, Hays, is 61 now, but there was a summer day in early August 1968, when she was just 11, that stands out for her.
Two military men and the parish priest knocked at the door of the family's home in Ellis and Donetta overheard them tell her mother that Daniel, Donetta’s big brother, was missing in action in Vietnam.
Ten days later the family learned that First Lt. Daniel L. Neuburger, 23, had died organizing defensive fire near Kontum City as forward observer with Battery B, 6th Battalion, 29th Artillery, 4th Infantry Division.
Neuburger had been in Vietnam for just six weeks and left behind a wife, Susan, 20, eight months pregnant and living with her parents in Chicago.
It’s been 50 years since Neuburger was killed in action. But like other families of the more than 58,000 who died in the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1975, Neuburger’s family still remembers.
On Saturday, his widow Susan Murphy and 53 others who knew and loved Daniel were set to remember him at a mass at St. Mary Catholic Church in Ellis, followed by a cemetery service with a gun salute and taps, and a dinner at Cancun’s Mexican Restaurant. In a phone interview from her home in Leavenworth before the commemoration, Murphy expressed her gratitude that what started out with her creating a plaque for Daniel’s gravestone at St. Mary’s Cemetery grew into a ceremony bringing together friends and family and community, including two classmates from Thomas More Prep, Paul Rohleder and Bill Walters.
“The VFW is providing a gun salute, they wanted to do it,” she said with tears falling. On behalf of Daniel and other soldiers, she said it’s deeply moving “that your hometown in your area still remembers your sacrifice and they come out and remember you and honor you. So we’re grateful to everyone who is going to be a part of it. The VFW, Fr. Dana, and the friends and family traveling to pay their respects.”
The year 1968, when Daniel Neuburger died, stands out for John Pyle, also a Vietnam veteran, as it was the year with the war’s second highest number of casualties — more than 16,500.
“It was a tough, tough year,” said Pyle, who heads Chapter 939 of the Vietnam Veterans of America chapter in Hays. The 120 members of Chapter 939 are scattered around a dozen counties throughout Northwest Kansas. The 14-year-old local chapter meets the third Monday of every month at the Hays VFW Post 9076 and one of its annual activities is college or vo-tech scholarships to four graduating high school seniors.
The 72-year-old Pyle, who served in the U.S. Navy, was in Vietnam in 1968 for two months while his ship docked in the harbor of Vung Tau. A native of Plainville, Pyle and his friends heard war stories before enlisting from their high school buddy Kent Kaltenbach, who’d served in Vietnam and been discharged after a two-year tour of duty.
“He said it was going to get really bad. He told us we didn’t want to be in the Army or the Marines,” Pyle said. “I knew I was probably going to get drafted, so I went ahead and enlisted.”
Pyle’s younger brother, Montie Pyle, was killed up by the demilitarized zone in May 1969, a year when more than 11,600 U.S. soldiers were killed in action.
Susan Murphy’s husband, Donald Murphy, is himself a Vietnam veteran from northwest Kansas. A farm boy from the Oakley area, he was a good friend of Daniel’s when both were students at West Point. He met Susan Murphy shortly after Daniel’s death while she was visiting her in-laws, Kay and Eddie Neuburger. He was also there to pay his respects. Donald Murphy went on to serve in Vietnam, where he was wounded during his tour. When he returned, he and Susan married and had four children. He adopted Daniel’s daughter Danielle.
All the Murphy’s have maintained close ties with Daniel’s family, including with Robben and his seven other brothers and sisters. Daniel’s daughter Danielle was at the heart of that, says Susan. “We were all over the moon about the baby, it eased some of the grief for all of us,” she said. “I look back at that time and it was just a nightmare. I don’t know how I got through it.”
Danielle Murphy-Burkhart traveled Friday from Houston with her three sons, Daniel’s grandsons. Friday afternoon she took her boys to their grandfather’s grave, with plans to later see the Ellis war memorial monument downtown on Washington Street. Susan Murphy noted that Daniel’s name is on the monument, and commented that other wives have husband’s named too.
“I was not the only one,” she said. “It was something all of us were experiencing with our husband’s going away and not coming back.”
Numbers of how many boys died or even served from Ellis County and the surrounding area are hard to come by, said Pyle, who is a veterans service officer with the Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs. The Veterans Memorial on the lawn of the Ellis County Courthouse in Hays list seven Ellis County soldiers killed in action. In addition to Daniel Neuburger, there is Gary Lee Binder, Arthur Klaus, Norman A. Leikam, Charles Malone, Oliscq R. Rigby and Robert L. Urban.
Fifty years later, Robben says Donald Murphy is like her adopted brother. And Danielle Murphy-Burkhart is like her little sister, all brought together by Daniel, the big brother she will always remember.
“Us little kids always wrote letters to him at West Point,” Robben said, noting that even with his busy schedule he would write each one of them a letter back. “He would always say the same thing, ‘Listen to your mother, study hard and get good grades.’ It was almost like he was a second parent to us.’”
Daniel had said before he left for Vietnam that if anything happened he’d want to be in Arlington National Cemetery. But Susan, at the request of his parents, decided on burial in St. Mary’s Cemetery when Daniel’s body was escorted back by his good friend and best man in their wedding Ken Leonardi. She has no regrets and is at peace with her decision. Over the years it’s been a blessing, she said, that she and the other family members have been able to visit his grave at any time.
“It was a lifetime ago, but it’s always emotional. When you realize this person is not part of life anymore and ours go on and his didn’t,” said Susan. “But it’s a wonderful thing that he’s there in his hometown.”