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Huff and puff before you stuff at United Way 5K

Regardless of fitness level, the annual Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning provides families with competition and opportunity for trash talk before the big meal.

Runners and walkers in the 5K benefiting the Nacogdoches Area United Way each receive a chip timer, a device that is activated when the participant crossing the beginning point at Pecan Park, and stops when he or she crosses the finish line.

“For a lot of families, it’s a tradition,” said Turkey Trot organizer Kinnie Reina. “But it’s also about getting out and being active on Thanksgiving morning. It’s exciting to be able to offer it in person and support the United Way.”

To receive permits from the city, some safety guidelines were required for this year’s Trot. Masks will be worn when participants cannot maintain 6 feet distance from others, and water and pre-packaged snacks will be distributed only at the end of the route. Online registration is encouraged, and a Wednesday packet pick-up will be done drive-thru style at the C.L. Simon Recreation Center.

Staggering the race start so that participants can begin any time between 8:30-8:45 a.m. helps maintain distance between the walkers and runners, Reina said.

“We always do chip time, so it measures when you cross the line and when you come back across,” she said.

First through third place awards will be presented for various age categories, along with best overall male and female.

The 5K winds through the Lanana Creek trail and residential streets, and includes a turkey costume contest. It is among a handful of in-person events hosted by the local United Way, which in August launched a “Better Days Ahead” campaign with a goal of $300,000. These funds support 20 partner agencies that assist families, seniors and children in Nacogdoches, Shelby and San Augustine counties.

Pledges recently surpassed the $200,000 mark, but Nacogdoches Area United Way CEO Gary Lee Ashcraft said there is much work left to do to support nonprofits that have been hit hard with need during the pandemic.

“The companies are coming through the best they can and we’re going to best we can with what we’ve got,” he said. “This money is going to go to help agencies next year to execute their programs.”

The Turkey Trot remains in need of volunteers, he adds. Volunteers assemble at 7 to 7:30 a.m. at Pecan Park, and the event is completed by 10 a.m.

Race entry is $35 with a free Kids K for 10 and under at 8 a.m. For information about the current year’s United Way campaign, volunteering at events or to register for the Turkey Trot, call 564-5869 or visit unitedwaynac.org.

Veteran recalls famous Son Tay raid

The call to participate in one of the most daring raids ever conducted by the U.S. military came to Ronnie Strahan’s parent’s home in Melrose a few hours before he arrived.

In July 1970, Strahan took 30 days of leave and he, his pregnant wife, Marion, and their daughter drove to Nacogdoches County from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he served as a Green Beret. As they pulled up to the house, his father, Buck, ran outside.

“You had a call this afternoon from Fort Bragg. You’ve been selected for some mission, and they want you to get ready to go,” Strahan recalled his father saying.

What neither man knew then was that four months later, Strahan would be one of 56 elite Special Forces soldiers raiding the Son Tay prison camp near the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi in an effort to rescue more than 50 prisoners of war.

“We knew that Americans were being tortured and killed in North Vietnam. Talk about an honor being selected to go try to bring some of them home,” Strahan said.

He had volunteered earlier in the year to participate in an unknown mission that was described as “rigorous” and “moderately hazardous.”

“We knew pretty much what it was. We didn’t know where it was,” he said.

The daring raid is just one of many high points in a Special Forces career that spanned three decades. When Strahan retired in 1995 as a command sergeant major — the Army’s highest enlisted rank — he was the primary adviser to the commandant of Army Sergeant Majors Academy. He was also among the first leadership of the Joint Special Operations Command formed in 1980.

“He’s one of those living legends of the community,” said Jim Hogg, the Nacogdoches County veterans’ services officer and a former Special Forces soldier. “The Son Tay raid even by itself was such a phenomenal feat and it really set the tone for Special Forces operations on the future. It’s one of the first things you learn about in school.”

After months of training and isolation at Elgin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, Strahan and the others shipped out to Thailand. In the early hours of Nov. 21, 1970 — 50 years ago this week — they launched the assault on Son Tay, flying under the radar though the twisting valleys of Laos and North Vietnam.

They were divided into three assault groups codenamed Blueboy — 14 men who would intentionally crash land inside the prison — Greenleaf — a 22-man support group — and Redwine — a 20-man command group meant to stop enemy reinforcements, clear landing zones and provide backup should either of the other groups be lost.

“I was basically a pathfinder,” said Strahan, a member of the Redwine command group.

As soldiers blew a hole in the compound wall, Strahan was to help clear the camp’s pumping station, destroy a large electrical tower and secure a landing zone for extracting POWs. Things didn’t go quite as planned.

“It went off all right. No operation every goes without some glitch, but it wasn’t a bad glitch that happened in that regard,” he said.

The glitch in this case was Greenleaf being dropped off at the wrong location, a building recorded in military intelligence as the “secondary school.” The building was several hundred yards away from the prison and contained somewhere between 200 and 300 North Vietnamese Army soldiers.

The Greenleaf team prevented reinforcements from arriving, but their actions spread the Redwine team thin. Strahan and his partner ended up working alone rather than together, but they’d trained for this. Over and over. Hundreds of times. Every contingency had a plan.

Soon into the 22-minute raid, the news came. The POWs weren’t there. After a flood, the NVA had moved prisoners to a camp around seven miles away.

“I heard it come over the radio,” he said. “That’s kind of a kick in the ass, you know. They called the helicopters back in and I was on the last helicopter out of town. It wasn’t a success.”

Military officials and historians judge the Son Tay raid as a major success, but Strahan and the other raiders wouldn’t know that for years.

“We didn’t have a reunion or nothing for 20 years. We were told, ‘Don’t talk about it. Forget about it. Don’t talk about what the opposition was on the ground at Son Tay.’ So we didn’t,” he said.

Sure they knew the mission was a tactical success. That much was clear.

“When you look at the operational activity of the mission, it was a complete success,” Hogg, the veterans’ service officer said.

Only two men were injured — one was shot and another broke his ankle — as the Special Forces and Air Force navigated their way though and landed in the most heavily guarded airspace on Earth.

“I did get to meet a lot of the POWs later, and they said their position in life improved dramatically,” Strahan said.

After the raid, the NVA abandoned outlying camps and moved American prisoners into the infamous compound known as the Hanoi Hilton. Extreme isolation was over.

“They put them in groups of like 40 where they could communicate with each other instead of using tap code through the wall,” Strahan said.

It wasn’t the type of success Special Forces wanted, but it was a victory nonetheless.The success of the mission, Strahan notes, comes from joint cooperation between the Air Force, Army and Navy.

“While it may be glorious to be the guys who get their feet on the ground, this was not just an Army Special Forces operation,” he said.

The Son Tay raid was Strahan’s second time in Vietnam. He served in Special Forces in the swampy part of the country near Saigon in 1967-68 conducting what the Army calls “population and resource control missions” — military jargon for eliminating the enemy and seizing weaponry. U.S. Special Forces fought alongside South Vietnamese soldiers and hired mercenaries.

“We trained them, would take them out on combat operations and do sweeps. A lot of caches of equipment and explosives were stationed in that area. We didn’t know at the time that they were staging for the Tet Offensive,” Strahan aid.

The enemy there was primarily the Viet Cong, an insurgent force backed by the NVA that relied on the stealth, surprise and knowledge of the local terrain for quick and often deadly attacks on Americans.

The special forces troops in the field received $70 a month to pay for food.

“We were in the middle of nowhere. It was a free bomb zone. You’re not just going out to the store and buy something,” he said. “We primarily got our food by bartering.”

Strahan joined the Army in January 1963 after spending a few years with the Marine Corps Reserves. He found life in the corps boring sitting on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Panama during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He joined Special Forces in 1965.

After retiring, he came home to Nacogdoches to spend time with his aging parents. His mother died in 2005 and his father died in 2008.

“I got 10 good years with both of them,” he said.

Strahan is a life member of Veterans of Foreign War, but he isn’t active. When contacted this week, most local veterans groups were unaware until recently that a Son Tay raider was living in Nacogdoches County.

“I don’t go to many meetings,” Strahan said. “You can’t live in the past.”

Cornyn says he’s seen no evidence of voter fraud

Sen. John Cornyn said Thursday that he’s unaware of any evidence backing up President Donald Trump’s claims of widespread fraud but believes the challenges need to be “resolved in a public and transparent way so that any faulty conspiracy theories can be discounted and disproven.”

“The process needs to play itself out and ultimately if there’s no evidence, what that means in a court of law is you lose and that would be a definitive resolution of the election,” the senior senator from Texas said during a press call with news outlets in the state.

Cornyn was an attorney and judge before being elected to the Senate, and the legalistic approach is similar to how he addressed questions about congressional inquiries into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“If you’re going to make allegations of election misconduct and fraud and inadvertent mistakes like not counting ballots, you’re going to have to have proof of that. I don’t begrudge the president or any candidate from seeing that all lawful votes are counted and that votes that do not comply for the law are not counted,” Cornyn said.

Earlier this week, Cornyn told reporters that Democrat Joe Biden “will probably” be sworn in as president Jan. 20. Thursday he stopped short of calling Biden president-elect, saying that the title would be premature until votes are officially canvassed.

“I’m absolutely confident this will be resolved in a way that’s clear, not only to the candidates but also to the 150 million people who voted in the election, including those who voted for the losing candidate,” Cornyn said.

Trump’s legal team has lost repeatedly in court and failed to uncover the kind of widespread fraud that might challenge Biden’s leads in several key battleground states. His lawyers and allies have still pressed forward with asking judges and certification authorities to block the results.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and other Trump lawyers held a press conference Thursday in which they berated reporters for questioning their claims and cited a Michigan affidavit already dismissed by a judge. They also argued a debunked conspiracy theory that Venezuela could have hacked election results through machines used by local authorities.

“I know crimes. I can smell them,” Giuliani said. “You don’t have to smell this one. I can prove it to you 18 different ways.”

Experts have noted that Trump is not employing the Republican Party’s top election lawyers, including those who represented the GOP in the Florida recount two decades ago. Law firms have faced public pressure from Trump opponents not to fight the election on his behalf. Legal giant Porter Wright Morris & Arthur withdrew from a case in Pennsylvania last week.

The day before a major argument in Pennsylvania, three lawyers for Trump withdrew and were replaced in part by Marc Scaringi, an attorney and talk show host who wrote a blog post after the election referring to “President-elect Joe Biden.” Scaringi himself had told listeners on his radio show days after the election that “there are really no bombshells” about to drop “that will derail a Biden presidency,” and noting that several of the lawsuits “don’t seem to have much evidence to substantiate their claims.”

Much of the derision has focused on Giuliani, who appeared in court on Tuesday in the Pennsylvania case. It was the first time he had represented a client in federal court in almost three decades.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

At least 30 with Deep East Texas roots died in Jonestown Massacre

Wednesday marked the 42nd anniversary of the notorious Jonestown Massacre, which claimed the lives of more than 900 people in a settlement in Guyana.

Among the 913 dead were 118 Texans, including at least 30 with roots in Deep East Texas.

Their stories are largely forgotten.

Jim Jones was from the Midwest and began a legitimate Christian ministry there before going off the rails, rejecting the Bible and promoting Marxism. He settled his cult in California in the 1970s, and most assume his followers came exclusively from the West Coast.

But that’s not true.

They came from places like Timpson, Lufkin and Center — small cities dotted around rural areas of the South. Working class Blacks from rural areas joined Jones’ Peoples Temple in droves as its members toured the country in buses on recruiting missions.

For decades the Jonestown Massacre has been viewed as a mass suicide, but evidence points to murder. Jones brainwashed his followers and urged them to drink Flavor-Aid laced with poison. Many resisted. Those who didn’t follow his words were shot or injected with the stuff.

Following are stories of some of the East Texans who died that day.

Luberta “Birdie” Arnold

Born in 1907, Luberta Arnold was the daughter of former slaves living near Timpson.

Arnold was a tall, stout woman with wide eyes and a beaming smile. At some point before 1945, Arnold moved to Los Angeles where she was fingerprinted by the U.S. Civil Services Commission. We know this because those fingerprints were used to identify her body in 1978.

She first came to Jonestown — a promised paradise — in August 1977. Most people brought a spouse, children and even grandchildren. Arnold came alone. What family did she leave behind? It appears her Texas relatives are buried in New Liberty Cemetery in Shelby County.

She worked as a nurse caring for the elderly — many younger than she — in that makeshift town in jungle of Guyana.

She died in the massacre, and her body was laid to rest at Paradise Memorial park in Los Angeles.

Earnestine Thomas March

Earnestine Thomas March was born in Lufkin in 1930, and by the time she was 35 she had moved to California.

There she had three children, Anita, born first, followed by twins Alfreda and Alfred.

“Earnestine’s children were highly intelligent, conscientious and deeply idealistic,” wrote author and ex-Peoples Temple member Kathryn Barbour, who was in San Francisco the day of the massacre.

Outside the Peoples Temple, March worked as a secretary, a nurse and a cashier. The children’s father, Alfred Sr., was not present in Guyana, and it is unclear if he was a member of the Peoples Temple.

March and her three children, ages 16 and 14, all died in the massacre.

Margrette and Eartis Jeffery

Margrette was born in Center in September 1913 while her husband, Eartis, was born in Longview the same year.

Photos of the couple show them dressed in Sunday best, smiling. The two went to Guyana together in August 1977 after having lived for at least a year in Los Angeles.

Margrette wore cat eye glasses and was a hair dresser. Eartis looked like he should have been a Baptist preacher, but worked outdoors. Peoples Temple members described him as a pillar of agricultural production there, and he was in charge of the settlement’s smokehouse.

“As sweet and soft as her husband was a live wire, Margrette and Eartis were a beautiful couple,” Barbour wrote of them.

Several pieces of information and photos for this story come from Alternative Consideration of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, a project at San Diego State University. Learn more at https://jonestown.sdsu.edu if you have more information about the lives of East Texans who died at Jonestown in 1978 or were involved with Peoples Temple, email Josh Edwards at jedwards@dailysentinel.com or call 936-558-3201.