It was 1968 and, in the words of Ron Daniels, “Nam was hot.”
The American war effort was at its peak in Vietnam and the North Vietnamese People’s Army and the Viet Cong had launched their massive Tet Offensive.
A year earlier Daniels had been a senior at Dunbar High School and now he was part of a 561st Transportation Company providing support at Utah Beach, the U.S. Army logistics and supply base on the coast east of Quang Tri, some 12 miles from the DMZ.
The 561 was attached to a Marine Corps unit and he remembered a particular night he pulled guard duty with a couple of the Marines.
“They were like ‘Where you from back in the world?’ — that’s how we referred to home — and I told them Dayton, Ohio,” he said. “They told me they had just a week left before they went back home.
“Early in the morning I went back with the Army guys to the LZ and they stayed in the bunker.
“About midday we heard it: ‘Wooof…wooof, wooof…wooof!’
“A bunch of rockets came down out there and pretty soon one guy came running up to me, saying, ‘Dan! Dan! They hit the bunker you were on last night. They killed all of ‘em out there!’ ”
The Marines became part of a growing casualty list that would see 16,592 American soldiers killed in Vietnam in 1968.
“That was a long time ago and I don’t think about it so much anymore, but you never forget it,” he said in a half-whisper the other evening as he sat in the College Hill-area home he shares with his wife Billie. “War is just a terrible thing.”
Today is Veterans Day and it’s doubtful anyone in the Miami Valley knows more about fighting — the good kind and the bad kind — than the 70-year-old Daniels.
An example of the good kind came 25 years later and involved another Marine, this time at UD Arena.
LaMark Davis, a former Marine who had withstood the bombing of the USMC barracks in Beirut in 1983, was fighting for the Ohio junior middleweight title against Wilson “Honeyboy” Smith in the 12-round main event.
Going into the last round, Davis trailed on two of the three judges’ scorecards.
Daniels, who trained Davis along with Willie Dixon, was working the corner and urged his boxer to “jump on him with both hands!”
And in storybook fashion, Davis unleashed a relentless attack, backed Smith to the ropes and then landed a right uppercut and a straight right hand that sent him tumbling to the canvas, where he was counted out.
Instantly Daniels was through the ropes, wrapped his arms around Davis and lifted him toward the heavens to celebrate the KO victory.
Since that 1993 fight — until recently slowed by health issues related to Vietnam and including the effects of Agent Orange — Daniels has made a name as one of the best boxing trainers in the Miami Valley.
Over the years he’s mentored some of the area’s best including Donnie Branch, who fought for the U.S. national team, and Mike Evans, the former captain of USA Boxing, a two-time National Golden Gloves champ and a Goodwill Games bronze medalist.
He worked with Terry Dixon, Ron Carter, Michael Blount, Jeff Camp and more recently DaQuan Mays and Will Clemmons, now both relocated to Floyd Mayweather’s camp in Las Vegas. And he’s especially had a hand in the development of Trotwood’s Chris Pearson, one of the nation’s top amateur junior middleweights, who is 14-2 as a pro.
Several other boxers could be added to that list, which proves the foresight of two old fight trainers here — Bob Jackson and Ted Crosby — who once trained Daniels at a second-story gym above a storefront at Third St. and Williams.
When he got back from Vietnam, Daniels said the pair convinced him to help train young kids with them:
“Mr. Crosby said, ‘Son, just teach ‘em everything we put on you , the things your dad put on you and all that stuff your learned in the Army.”
Vernon Daniels, Ron’s dad, who fought in the Pacific in World War II, also was a successful Army boxer.
Once home, he and wife Bernice raised their kids — four sons and a daughter — on Bolander Ave. and especially Heck Ave.
“Starting when I was in kindergarten, my dad would come home from work and take all the boys down in the basement and train us in boxing,” Daniels said. “He hung up his old green army bag packed with clothes. That was our heavy bag.”
Daniels had begun to make a name for himself as a boxer when he was drafted. His brother Gerald had gone to Vietnam the year before and another brother, Junior, was in the Navy.
“When I first got to Nam, I was down south, not far from Saigon. But then they sent us up north near the DMZ. I was there eight months.”
He went off and returned with a fading photo of himself and four Army buddies — two from California, one from North Carolina and the other from New York — before an assault by the North Vietnamese Army.
He recalled another time, when his company first came to Utah Beach and how many guys ended up sleeping on the bare ground until the bunkers were built. He said he found a wooden box the sand bags had come in and slept in that.
“It fit almost like a coffin,” he said.
And it nearly turned into one, too.
A rocket attack blew him out of the box and through the air. He tore up his right knee, which would later land him in the Dayton VA and today still gives him trouble.
“Some guys were really hurt that night,” he said, his voice suddenly wavered with emotion. “Some guys didn’t have their weapons and they were running around in a panic in the dark. The explosions kept coming and I heard guys calling their mommas.”
While there and in Dong Ha, he said his company got attached to the 101st Airborne, the Marines and the 1st Cavalry Division.
“There were some good times, but some real bad ones, too,” he said. “I saw a lot of stuff. We went by the Geneva Convention rules but Charlie didn’t. They did a lot of things to our guys when they caught them.”
When he finally came home he said he got a jarring reception when he flew into a West Coast airport.
“I came through the airport and people were there, calling us ‘Baby killers!’ and spitting on us.
“That was tough.”
Lessons paid off
After Vietnam, Daniels boxed when he was stationed in Colorado and then played on an Army basketball team that won a title when he was sent to Italy.
Once “back in the world,” he worked various factory jobs in Dayton, including 30 years at the Truck and Bus plant. That’s where he met Willie Dixon, also a Vietnam vet, and they trained Willie’s son Terry, a veteran of Desert Storm, and once one of this town’s best boxers.
Dixon died 23 years ago and in recent times Daniels has teamed up with Milt Pearson and trained Milt’s son, Chris.
Along the way, Daniels has had to deal with the lingering effects of Vietnam.
His brother Gerald died in his 20s from the effects of Agent Orange, Daniels said, and he said he’s plagued by it, too. He’s undergone 26 eye surgeries, is being treated for diabetes and said he needs a kidney transplant.
Yet, if Pearson opens a new gym, Daniels said he hopes to again dispense the “old school” training methods he learned from his dad, Crosby and Jackson.
He knows they work. He learned that long ago at Whittier Elementary.
“When I was in about seventh or eighth grade, we had this guy who used to pick on me all the time. He was a real bully and when we’d stand in line, he’d turn around and ‘BAM!’ He’d hit me so hard in the chest I thought I was going to have a heart attack.
“I was scared of him. He bullied everybody.”
But that’s the same time Daniels’ dad was giving him instructions at home. And on Saturdays, he and some other kids would assemble on their patio for makeshift sparring sessions:
“We didn’t have a mouth guard, we’d just put an old rag in our mouth, push it up under our lip and bite down. We had no headgear, nothing, but I got sharper and sharper.
“Finally, one day in school, the bully turns around again and nails me right in the chest.
“But out of reflex, I fired back a combination hard and fast. Caught him twice. I hit him so hard, it knocked him up against the window pane.
“I still cut out though. I was afraid and ran, but this time I didn’t hear no footsteps behind me. And from then on, there was never a problem.
“I knew I could handle him and he knew it, too.”