SIOUX CITY | Since there was no evidence he ever existed, the Roman Catholic Church dropped St. Christopher from its liturgical calendar in 1969 -- the same year Maj. James Lalley was carrying a small, round money clip bearing an image of the patron of travelers in his pocket.
His late wife, Kipp, gave Lalley, now 87, the metal memento during a final embrace before he left to serve in the Army's 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry division in the III-Corps region of South Vietnam.
"She said, 'Here. This will bring you home safely,'" Lalley recalled as he held the medal in the palm of his hand in the den of his Sioux City home, known as "the bunker." Wooden shelves lining the walls were filled with models of military tanks, trucks and ships that Lalley built.
One evening in the Dau Tieng District, the home of the Michelin Rubber Plantation, Lalley said he was chatting with a captain from the Kansas National Guard when three mortar rounds struck just a short distance from where they were standing.
"He and I hit the ground and then the mortar shells just rained around us," Lalley said. "By the number of rounds that are falling I know that we are gonna be blown to pieces any second."
The mortars were landing so close that Lalley could feel the heat of them detonating. When the firing stopped, Lalley and the captain got up, looked at each other and gave a big sigh of relief. After shaking off the dirt and the shrubbery, the two men parted.
Lalley reached into his pocket and felt the St. Christopher medal.
"I said to myself, 'It was St. Christopher hovering in the area and with his staff he had to be knocking those mortar rounds to one side or the other,'" he said. "With the number that were falling, one or two of them certainly should've blown Captain Johnson and I to bits, but we escaped."
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Lalley, who said he always wanted to be a soldier, joined the Army at age 17.
He served in the Korean War and then attended Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, where he majored in economics and history.
After college, Lalley returned to Sioux City and worked as the director of customer service at the post office. Although he loved his job with the U.S. Postal Service, Lalley found that he missed the Army. His boss suggested he join the Army National Guard.
In 1956, Lalley did just that, earning a direct commission with his college degree. He started out as a platoon leader and years later ended up as a battalion commander.
"Our battalion here was mobilized for the Vietnam War shortly after the Air Guard was called. We had units in Le Mars, Cherokee, Sheldon, Ida Grove and Mapleton," Lalley recalled. "It must've been in like '63 or '64 the United States Army announced that this battalion was now a part of the selected reserves, which was called SRF. We were authorized to recruit to full strength and the Army said, 'We will equip you as you should be equipped.'"
The battalion enlisted a few hundred new soldiers and the equipment poured in, according to Lalley. In the winter of 1968, Lalley deployed to Vietnam as a logistics officer. His job was to coordinate the resupply of all the units in the brigade.
"We traveled a lot. We were the only brigade in the division, of which there are three. We were the only one that moved around," he said. "Wherever they needed some additional force, we went. We operated mostly fairly close to the Cambodian border."
Lalley and his men were in contact with live fire from the enemy almost every day, but he returned to Sioux City unharmed in December 1969.
He still carries the St. Christopher medal is his pocket. He said he doesn't go anywhere without it.