Kermit LaBelle had an excellent memory, according to family members. When he was a boy, he liked to listen to the radio and mimic the programming to amuse his brother. He liked basketball and exploring in the woods.
LaBelle dabbled in poetry, and when he was at boarding school in Southeast Alaska, he performed the part of Paul Sycamore in the play “You Can’t Take It with You.”
In his high school yearbook, classmates described him as “most particular.” He was picky about his appearance, his brother said. He owned a leather jacket and liked to style his hair in keeping with the times.
In 1967, as a member of the U.S. Marines, LaBelle was killed in an attack in the Quang Tri Province in South Vietnam. He was 18. Kermit was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, one of the highest military honors.
LaBelle will be honored again at 11 a.m. July 27 at the Trooper Gabe Rich and Trooper Scott Johnson Memorial Park in North Pole. The park was built to remember borough residents who lost their lives while performing official duties serving their community, state or country.
Not much has been written about LaBelle, who was born in Fairbanks and is buried at the Birch Hill Cemetery. This is his story based on public records and interviews with two relatives who now live in Anchorage.
Kermit Harold LaBelle Jr. was born Dec. 19, 1948, at St. Joseph’s Hospital, which was Fairbanks’ first hospital.
His mother, Clara LaBelle, who was Inupiaq, was originally from Kotzebue. His father, Kermit LaBelle Sr., who was French and Irish, came to Alaska from Wisconsin.
The couple met in Nome toward the end of World War II and moved to Fairbanks in 1946. Their first son, James William LaBelle, is 18 months older than Kermit.
The LaBelle family moved around a lot. The boys’ father worked odd jobs around Interior Alaska in places such as Kantishna, Healy, Livengood and Big Delta.
“We were always constantly on the road and working in these little out of the way places,” James LaBelle said.
The boys often spent their days alone, playing in the woods and watching out for bears, he said.
In 1954, their father died of complications from alcoholism. After that, the boys spent a year in Noorvik with an aunt and uncle. James LaBelle said their mother, who also had a drinking problem, was given a choice: either send the boys to boarding school or place them in foster care.
The LaBelle brothers attended Wrangell Institute from 1955-61 and Mount Edgecumbe High School from 1961-65. Kermit was good at school and graduated early in the same class as his older brother.
A short story about Kermit on Aug. 11, 1967, in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner stated he was an active member of the Mt. Edgecumbe Pep Club and National Honor Society. He served as student body vice president during his junior year and was “well-liked by students and faculty.”
James LaBelle and a second cousin, Christopher James Kiana Sr., said that Kermit was tall and wiry; playful and talkative. He took risks. He liked to lead.
In some ways, life prepared Kermit for war. Growing up with alcoholic parents, he learned to deal with unpredictability. At an early age, he learned to fend for himself.
James LaBelle describe their childhood as “kind of a vagabond existence.”
When the LaBelle boys flew back to Fairbanks from boarding school for summer break, their mom sometimes met them at the airport. Other times, a stranger took them in. And there were years when no one met them.
One year, when the boys went to look for their mom at the house where they had stayed the summer before, “all there was was a hole in the ground,” James LaBelle said.
“We were free and doing everything we could think of to survive,” he said.
They fed themselves looking in Fairbanks alleyways for soda pop bottles to turn in for money.
“A lot of other kids did the same,” James LaBelle said. “Five cents a bottle was pretty damn good.”
They learned to run very fast.
Kermit yearned for the structure of a stable family, his brother said.
“I could see where he wanted a sense of family, and he wanted a sense of order in the family life,” James said.
During summer 1964, they were taken in by a foreman at Creamer’s Dairy, now Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge. They learned about farm work.
When Kermit was 13 or 14, he spent a summer with a Native family in Fort Yukon.
“He would run away and spend time with intact families,” said James, who was more comfortable with being on his own.
After high school, the boys, along with their cousin Christopher, attended Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Kermit dropped out after one semester. He was 17 when he joined the Marines in early 1966. His mother, a Quaker, would not have consented to sign for him so he asked a guardian at Mount Edgecumbe to sign for him.
Both Christopher and James tried to talk Kermit out of going into the military. Some of Kermit’s last words to Christopher were: “I will be a better person for serving our country.”
Kermit wrote James letters about the war, and when James saw the movie “Platoon,” it was like reading his brother’s letters from Vietnam all over again, he said.
James remembers one letter where Kermit described how the Viet Cong would pop out of tunnels and “decimate” American troops. Kermit also wrote about hiding from the Viet Cong under the dead bodies of his fellow Marines.
The U.S. Marines filled a void for Kermit, who valued structure and comradery, his brother said.
On July 28, 1967, PFC Kermit LaBelle, an anti-tank assault man, accepted an extra watch duty to cover for a fellow soldier who wanted to get ready for some R&R. LaBelle had 41 days left to serve in Vietnam.
“It was during that watch that a mortar round came in and killed him,” James LaBelle said.
By then, James had joined the U.S. Navy. He learned about his brother’s death from his Navy commander, who handed him a telegram. The telegram said that Kermit died of shrapnel wounds to his head and body.
Their second cousin, Christopher, learned of Kermit’s death Aug. 16, 1967, in a story in the Anchorage Daily News. He joined the Navy the next day.
James LaBelle was granted leave to act as the honor guard and accompany his brother’s body back to Fairbanks.
Wearing his dress uniform, James traveled through San Francisco and was met by anti-war protesters who hollered at him.
“I remember the taunts that I was getting,” he said. “I was kind of numb, anyway. I don’t know that I paid much attention at the time.”
The News-Miner report in August 1967 said the funeral at Friendship Baptist Mission was to be officiated by Chaplain Clyde J. Wood and the Rev. John Isaacs.
It was raining “pretty heavy” during the funeral, James LaBelle said. He remembers his mother shaking when the customary rifles went off.
“It was kind of like she was shot,” he said.
The rains didn’t stop and a few days later, the Chena River overflowed its banks in what would become the historic 1967 flood.
James said some time later he received his brother’s things, including a lighter and some half-finished letters. A note in the belongings came from one of Kermit’s fellow Marines. It said: “Kermit was a good man. He died fast and he took a lot of (derogatory term for a person of Vietnamese descent) with him.”
In March 1970, James LaBelle’s first son was born. He was named Kermit Harold LaBelle
In 2002, a ceremony was held at Mount Edgecumbe to honor LaBelle, one of many graduates of the Sitka boarding school who have served the country, according to the Sitka Sentinel.
Three other names also will be added to the memorial wall in 2019.
• Gilbert Ketzler Jr., of Fairbanks, who was killed in 1969 in the Thua Thien Province of South Vietnam while serving in the U.S. Army.
• Phillip E. Rounds, who died of cancer in 2008 after serving in the Interior Alaska fire service for more than 30 years.
• Steve Wengelewski Jr., who was born in Fairbanks and was killed in a motorcycle accident on Nov. 8, 2013, while serving in the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter:@FDNMborough.