Joseph Vernon Mathias was born on September 30th, 1944, in Moline, Illinois to Jack and Bernadine Mathias. After high school, Mathias enlisted with the United States Army. He was first stationed in Korea, where he met his wife Chong Cha Lee. The two married in 1967 and would have two children: Richard Westmoreland Mathias and Susie Mathias. The Mathias family was in the process of moving to Burlington, IA when Joseph was deployed to Vietnam. What would be his final tour of duty in Vietnam began on February 14th, 1969.
Mathias was deployed to Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry “Black Lions”, which mobilized with the 1st Infantry Division. The 1st Infantry was involved with numerous engagements with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army who opposed the U.S. ally South Vietnam:
Their sector and command was known as III Corps and they engaged Viet Cong (VC) and regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces in the jungles northwest of Saigon to the Cambodian border. Many battles occurred along the Highway 13 corridor and various spurs North-Northwest of Saigon on the road to An Loc. During the enemy Tet Offensive of 1968, the 1st Infantry Division secured the Tan Son Nhut Airbase the primary hub for air operations within all of Vietnam.
Mathias was initially on volunteer reconnaissance duty during this deployment. He decided to leave recon duty after a harrowing ambush killed 6 of his 11 fellow recon soldiers and wounded himself and two others. After leaving the reconnaissance team, he was placed as a platoon sergeant in D Company. Unfortunately for Mathias, this duty would lead to more combat engagements than he had seen in his entire career thus far. While leading his platoon, Mathias took great pride in keeping his soldiers alive: “I have seen more action this time than I did in 66 and 67. I have a real great bunch of guys in my platoon. I have not had one killed in my platoon since I became Sgt. The other platoon can’t say that. My platoon also has the highest body count this month in the battalion. That’s dead VC. We have 29 body count as of now for this month.” Managing to keep his men alive in the face of such ferocious fighting speaks to Mathias’ capacity as a leader.
Mathias would tragically meet his end in an accident with explosive equipment on September 14th, 1969. While placing a claymore mine around a defensive perimeter Northwest of Lai Khe, South Vietnam, some accident, or faulty equipment, caused the mine to explode. Mathias and seven of his soldiers were killed in the resulting explosion. Mathias was returned to his final resting place at the National Cemetery on Arsenal Island in his native Quad Cities on October 7th, 1969. His family had recently immigrated to Burlington, IA, and Chong Cha was naturalized as part of a program that allowed widows of Vietnam servicemen to become citizens. Along with the family that he loved dearly, Joseph Vernon Mathias leaves behind a legacy of guardianship toward his fellow soldiers, as well as the tragic reality of the dangers of everyday life while on deployment.