By SUSANNE M. SCHAFER
Associated Press Writer
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP/WIS) - Members of a grateful South Carolina family can finally read four heartfelt letters written by their 22-year-old relative who was killed in Vietnam before he could send them home.
Military representatives of the Army's 101st Airborne Division presented the 40-year-old letters in a ceremony Saturday.
They were found on the body of Sgt. Steve Flaherty of Columbia, killed in combat in Vietnam in 1969.
"We miss him," said Ken Cannon. "We still miss him. This is just like having him back."
Cannon is Sgt. Flaherty's uncle. He and Flaherty's sister-in-law, Martha Gibbons, accepted the letters.
"Now his name will live on in eternity through his letters," said Gibbons. "We feel like he's still fighting for his fellow men and men that he lost, he's still fighting."
The Vietnamese took the letters after Flaherty's death. They were turned over to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month when he visited Vietnam in exchange for a Vietnamese soldier's diary.
Some of Sgt. Flaherty's high school classmates who were in town for their Dentsville High reunion attended the ceremony Saturday.
"To be a part of Steve in a distant way, 43 years later is pretty amazing to me," said high school friend Ed Cerny.
Cerny played football with Sgt. Flaherty.
"Probably one of the fastest guys on the team," he said. "He played both offense and defense. He hardly ever came out of the game. Just a marvelous athlete."
Flaherty excelled in sports, often making headlines in the Columbia Record.
"He was a heck of an athlete," said Flaherty's childhood friend Dan Porter. "He was outstanding in football, basketball and of course he was an all-star in baseball."
Porter met his best friend when he was 10 years old.
"He didn't speak maybe 50 words of English when he got here," he said.
Sgt. Flaherty was the son of a Japanese woman and an American soldier. He was adopted out of the Elizabeth Sanders Orphanage in Japan by an American family.
Once he got to the states, the two boys became friends almost instantly.
They both joined the service: Porter in the Air Force and Flaherty in the Army. They wrote letters back and forth.
"I'd tell him when we fly back in and had holes all in the plane," said Porter. "He'd tell about picking off a sniper something like that. Then when he got into the rough stuff, his whole attitude changed."
"I never saw Steve scared in my life," he continued. "I can tell by his letters that he was scared and well he should have been because I flew into the Valley many a time and that was nasty. Most of the time I brought back a lot of bodies very few wounded. I miss him everyday."
Members from Flaherty's 101st Airborne Divison brought the letters to Columbia. Letters that Sgt. Flaherty held onto until the day he died.
"They're precious," said Cannon. "Probably get emotional holding something that was held by Steve."
Cannon says after the family studies the letters, they will be donated to a South Carolina military museum so they can be preserved for all to see.
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