Lawrence Joel: War hero

by Jordan Green

‘… As bullets dug up the dirt around him, he held plasma bottles high while kneeling, completely engrossed in his life saving mission’ Lawrence Joel was born in the slums that surround North Liberty Street in Winston-Salem in 1928, the year before the stock market crash sent the country spiraling into the Great Depression.

Too poor to provide for him, his parents unofficially gave him up for adoption, and he went to work for his adoptive father as a 10-year-old, delivering firewood, water and coal to homes in East Winston.

He signed up for the Merchant Marine and later with the Army, eager to experience the world and transcend the confines of his upbringing. But he returned in his later years to his hometown.

In 1984, on leave from the Veterans Administration and depressed because he had been turned down for disability benefits, Lawrence Joel died from a diabetic coma at his home on New Walkertown Road.

In between those two bookends, the Army medic was one of the most celebrated of Winston-Salem’s native sons in the 20 th century and a person who did something extraordinary.

“Lawrence Joel was a military hero of the first magnitude,” Mayor Wayne Corpening said during the opening of the coliseum named in honor of him and all US military veterans in 1989. “His valor has been equaled by few soldiers throughout the history of the United States of America, and exceeded by none.”

The coliseum opened with a free “Star Spangled Extravaganza” on a Wednesday, according to coverage in the Winston-Salem Journal. Dionne Warwick and the Winston- Salem Symphony performed the inaugural concert. And LL Cool J played the second night. Tickets for both concerts were priced at $16.50.

In his time, Lawrence Joel was celebrated, both in his hometown and beyond.

Joel walked side by side with President Lyndon Johnson to a speakers platform as 16 soldiers played a fanfare from the White House balcony on long, silver herald trumpets during the ceremony in which he was awarded the Medal of Valor on March 9, 1967, the Journal reported. Lawrence Joel’s wife and two teenage children were there. So were the two senators from North Carolina, Sam Ervin and Everett Jordan, along with six members of the House delegation, including Rep. Nick Galifianakis of the 5 th District.

The President spoke of Joel’s “very special kind of courage — the unarmed heroism of compassion and service to others.”

A month later, Joel rode in the backseat of a convertible through the streets of Winston-Salem with Mayor MC Benton for a homecoming tribute that drew 30,000 people, according to an account in Ebony Magazine. Two thousand soldiers and five bands marched behind the 10- car motorcade.

“The overwhelming public response — particularly when the crowd broke through the police barriers after the parade and surged towards the reviewing stand, cheering and waving and trying to get close enough to grasp Joel’s hand — was a stunning tribute to a Negro son by a Southern community,” Ebony reported in the piece, entitled, “Dixie town fetes war hero: Medal of Honor winner Lawrence Joel is hailed by Winston-Salem.”

Joel was an unlikely war hero. A March 1967 write-up in the Journal described him as “a mild sort of fellow — bespectacled, courteous, humble — not an imposing figure — 5 feet 10 ½, 168 pounds.”

What does a name mean? And is one man’s name worth remembering?

Those are questions members of the Winston-Salem City Council must wrestle with as they consider the potential sale  of the coliseum to Wake Forest University under terms that explicitly reserve naming rights for the buyer — another way of saying the university would be free to take a lucrative offer from a corporate sponsor.

What is a name worth? The citation for the Army medic’s Medal of Honor said this: “Sp6c. Joel’s profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the US Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.”

Joel’s acts of valor over the harrowing course of a 24-hour firefight with a Viet Cong force in the remote Vietnamese province of Bien Hoa on Nov. 8, 1965 have been told in numerous newspaper accounts, in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Vol. 3 and in a Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen resolution brought by Alderman Virginia Newell.

“Sp6c. Joel demonstrated indomitable courage, determination and professional skill when a numerically superior and wellconcealed Viet Cong element launched a vicious attack which wounded or killed nearly every man in the lead squad of the company,” reads the citation. “After treating the men wounded by the initial burst of gunfire, he bravely moved forward to assist others who were wounded while proceeding to their objective. While moving from man to man, he was struck in the right leg by machine gunfire.”

Joel reportedly bandaged his own wound and administered a shot of morphine to himself so that he could keep working.

“Through this period of time he constantly shouted words of encouragement to all around him,” the citation reads. “Then, completely ignoring the warnings of others, and his pain, he continued his search for wounded, exposing himself to hostile fire; and as bullets dug up the dirt around him, he held plasma bottles high while kneeling, completely engrossed in his life saving mission. Then, after being struck a second time and with a bullet lodged in his thigh, he dragged himself over the battlefield and succeeded in treating 13 more men before his medical supplies ran out. Displaying resourcefulness, he saved the life of one man by placing a plastic bag over a severe chest wound to congeal the blood.”

One of the Army platoons pursued the Viet Cong force, but a second insurgent group opened fire on the American soldiers from a concealed position. The American forces received a new stock of medical supplies, and Joel reportedly continued to shout words of encouragement and crawl through intense gunfire to tend to the wounded, until his own evacuation was ordered at the end of the 24-hour battle.

In spite of Joel’s documented valor, recognition from the president and the hometown celebration, the decision to honor him with the name of the new coliseum was not a given.

Mayor Corpening’s words of praise at the 1989 opening of the coliseum had been preceded by a less-than-enthusiastic assessment more than three years earlier.

“I think what we need to do is keep it simple,” Corpening was quoted as saying in the Winston-Salem Chronicle in December 1985. “You have to ask yourself: ‘Who is it? Where is it?’ And, ‘Will people from out of town recognize it?’” The Journal reported at the time that some veterans service groups and other constituents wanted the coliseum to be named after all veterans rather than a single person.

But Virginia Newell, the alderman who made the motion to honor Joel, recalls that the controversy was more racially tinged.

“I was really pounded all day to withdraw that proposal by both black and white citizens of this community,” Newell said recently. “I was determined. Just as I was getting breakfast they started calling. It was all day long. I couldn’t leave the house until going down to the board [for the vote].”

Newell said she didn’t know anything about Joel until a white constituent called her and asked her to sponsor the resolution. She also didn’t know initially — and apparently nor did the constituent — that Joel was black.

“The man called me back later and said, ‘I want you to withdraw it,’” Newell recalled. “I said, ‘Is it true that he’s a Medal of Honor recipient?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to continue.’” Black constituents urged her to drop the proposal because they worried they would be harmed by the backlash, Newell added.

Alderman Martha Wood, who would go on to serve as mayor, recalled that at first opposition to naming the coliseum after Joel was more subtle than explicit. But that changed when the proponents agreed to compromise by adding the words “veterans memorial.”

“That’s when the true motives unveiled themselves with a vengeance,” Wood said. “I had threatening phone calls.”

Wood said when she prepared to leave home for the meeting, she hadn’t been completely certain of which way she would vote.

“One of my sons was a freshman at Mount Tabor High School, and just before I left he looked at me and pointed his finger in my face in utter seriousness and said, ‘Mom, if you don’t vote for this, don’t come home. You are voting for the future, not the past. And you don’t want to be the person who kept Lawrence Joel’s name off the coliseum.’ So I have to say my son’s influence was pretty powerful.”

Wake Forest University has committed to retaining Joel’s name on the veterans memorial plaza outside the coliseum and in an exhibit in the lobby, and to continue annual commemoration events that take place on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. But over the past three years of negotiations with the city the university has declined to entertain any proposal that would include a restrictive covenant preventing the buyer from changing the name of the coliseum itself.

“We would have the opportunity to name the facility in whatever manner we would want to,” said Wake Forest University Athletics Director Ron Wellman said. “Normally, that’s associated with some type of corporate naming rights. The university could put its name on there as well.”

Wellman said he thought it would not be feasible for the city to reduce its asking price in consideration of the loss of potential revenue to the university in exchange for an agreement to retain the name. As it is, the $8 million that Wake Forest is offering the city is almost exactly the amount the city needs to retire its debt on the facility.

“It’s a financial consideration also, and someone who is interested in naming rights would obviously want to put their name on the facility for the financial commitment they would be making,” he said. “We cannot project making the deal work for us unless we had that opportunity.”

Wellman added that Lawrence Joel’s name means “a lot” to the community and to the university.

“It’s very important that if we are going to honor someone, we honor someone with an appropriate facility,” he said. “The coliseum needs a lot of attention right now, and that’s what we want to do.”

The board of aldermen voted 5 to 2 on Feb. 2, 1986 to name the coliseum after Joel. Wood seconded Newell’s motion. Before casting her vote, Wood remarked that the black community in segregated Winston-Salem had taught Joel the lessons of hard work, service, sacrifice and what it means to be an American.

“In deciding upon this name, the honor we pay to all our veterans and to Lawrence Joel makes us proud of Winston-Salem and of America,” Wood said. “Lawrence Joel, without concern for his own life, bound up the wounds of his countrymen with no regard for their color or creed. Let us follow his example and leave this hall tonight determined to do no less. Let the memorial stand always for our dedication to his example of healing. Let the world know what is truly unique about Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Let Lawrence Joel be for us all the symbol of our caring for each other.”