The knock on the door came on a Saturday in late August 1967, more than 40 years ago this Memorial Day. When Geraldine Allen saw the two soldiers standing outside, she knew instantly that her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Eddie James Allen, was dead.
“She started screaming,” son Kenneth Allen, who was 6 years old at the time, remembers. “The rest of the day was just a blur.”
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The Allens were living near Farrow Road in north Columbia, an area favored by African-American professionals. There were many military personnel there at a time when the Vietnam War was at its awful height.
“You would see those men in uniform come into the neighborhood, and you prayed they wouldn’t come to your door,” Kenneth Allen says. “You didn’t want to get that knock.”
Geraldine — Jerry to her friends — absorbed the shock and received the memorials from the Army — the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, the folded flag. She raised her four children. She built a house in the Highland Park subdivision. She went back to school and got a degree in business administration. She worked at Fort Jackson, first at the Post Exchange and then in the identification section.
Then, in the late 1970s, with the dull ache of her loss somewhat diminished and her children grown, she founded a Gold Star Wives chapter to support other widows. She worked for the next three decades to help other women through the paralyzing grief of losing their husbands.
Allen, 76, died May 2 from complications from a fall. But she always will be remembered in Columbia and particularly at Fort Jackson as someone who worked selflessly and tirelessly to ease the suffering of others.
“Helping people was her passion,” daughter Patricia Allen said. “Doing something for others brought her joy.”
Col. Kevin Shwedo, Fort Jackson’s deputy commanding officer, called Allen and other Gold Star Wives “national treasures.”
“The nation owes a debt to these great ladies that can never be repaid,” he said.
‘I SHOULD GO’
Geraldine Johnson Allen was born on July 29, 1933, to Lillian and Herschel Lee Johnson in Anniston, Ala. Her family moved to Birmingham, where Jerry met Eddie Allen at Holy Family High School.
He walked into class one day as a new student. He was handsome, tall, athletic and artistic. Jerry fell for him immediately.
“She told all the other girls to stay away from him because he was hers,” Patricia Allen said. “He was a little shy. But my mother was anything but shy. It didn’t take long.”
After high school, Eddie joined the Army and Jerry went to Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.
Eddie and Jerry married on Jerry’s birthday, July 29, 1955, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Eddie served occupation duty in Japan and Germany, and at Fort Polk in Louisiana before coming to Fort Jackson in early 1967 as a drill instructor.
It was a good, stable life for the family. Eddie loved to play basketball and fish, and often took his oldest son, Edward, with him.
“He would wake up at 4:30 in the morning, and we would fish all day,” Edward said. “He took me to play basketball at the fort before I could even get the ball up to the rim.”
Although he had been in the Army for almost 17 years, Eddie had never seen combat.
One day, while riding in the car, he told his son, Kenneth, “I should go (to Vietnam) with these young men I’m training.”
‘DEATH CAME QUICKLY’
So he volunteered for combat duty.
Before he left he took oldest son Edward aside. “He said, ‘I might not come back. If that happens, I want you to be the man.’ And it happened.”
During his flight to Vietnam, Eddie Allen wrote a letter to Jerry.
“My present wish is to get on with my job so I can be sure that what I have trained for all these years and taught others is worth the hours spent,” he wrote. “The closer I get to it (battle), the more I wonder about it.”
Three months later, Eddie Allen was leading a reconnaissance patrol with his platoon from Company A, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry (Airmobile) Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. He tripped a booby-trapped mine and was killed.
The family received the knock on the door a few days later. It might be some comfort to the family, a letter read, to know that “death came quickly and he was not subject to any unnecessary suffering.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” said oldest son Edward. “I just walked out in the street and started playing catch. I was in denial. I couldn’t even cry. It didn’t hit me until we went to the funeral.
“They wouldn’t let us see him because there wasn’t much left of him. It wasn’t until we buried him that I cried. And I miss him to this day.”
‘LIKE A MOTHER TO ME’
Jerry busied herself with raising her family, going to school and working. In addition to becoming founding president of Gold Star Wives, she joined the Medal of Honor Society.
Through those organizations, she helped young widows like Sumter native Gerline Wright.
Wright’s husband, Sgt. 1st Class Glen Wright Jr. of Sumter — they, too, were childhood sweethearts — died of a heart attack at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, on June 25, 1992. After his death, Gerline moved to Columbia to be near her home.
Wright’s aunt told Jerry Allen about her situation.
“She told me about her group. She wanted me to join. I didn’t want to be with those old ladies,” Wright said. “But I got to the point where I did call her. We got to be friends. Then she was like a sister. Then like a mother to me. I miss her dearly.”
Allen helped Wright through the red tape and paperwork that followed her husband’s death. She helped her get a job. Then she urged Wright to become an officer in the Gold Star organization. “I was the youngest widow in the group. Now, I’m the parliamentarian.”
Allen helped dozens of women through the organization, lobbying leaders — from local to national figures — to help her fellow widows.
“She wouldn’t hesitate to go to Strom Thurmond,” daughter Patricia Allen said. “She worked hard at the base. She became part of the fabric of military life.”
‘NEVER REALLY OVER IT’
In 2005, Jerry Allen developed kidney disease. Even though she had to have dialysis three times a week, she continued her work with the Gold Star Wives.
She was working to organize the first Gold Star Wives regional convention in Columbia when she tripped at a beauty shop and hit her head, Patricia Allen said.
She was checked at the hospital, bandaged and sent home. Later, she complained of headaches and was taken back to the hospital, where she lapsed into a coma, dying two weeks later.
Her children still are in mourning at the family home at Highland Park. They have been going through mementoes of their parents’ lives — the letters between them, the medals and commendations, the photographs.
“I didn’t realize, until my mother passed, the toll that my father’s death had on me,” Patricia Allen said, picking through stacks of small, black-and-white photographs. “It affects you for years and years. I guess you are never really over it.”