Slain Sailor Touched Lives of Children, Family
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ Teacher John Roberts took up a pupil’s suggestion and had his fourth-grade class write letters this week to a murder suspect, a white supremacist charged with killing a black sailor.
Not the usual fare for 10- and 11-year-olds, but the late Petty Officer 3rd Class Harold J. Mansfield had been the personal Persian Gulf War hero of 29 students at Shidler Elementary School in Oklahoma City.
On Thursday, the pupils attended military funeral services for Mansfield in Oklahoma City, his hometown.
Mansfield survived the rigors of war only to be gunned down in the Jacksonville suburb of Neptune Beach after an argument over a near-accident in a supermarket parking lot.
Mansfield drove to a shipmate’s home and they returned to confront the man, who hurled racial insults at Mansfield, who was carrying a brick, police said. The assailant fired a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol into Mansfield’s chest, police said.
Police issued a murder warrant for George David Loeb, 34, the Jacksonville leader of The Church of the Creator, a white supremacist organization based in Otto, N.C. He had not been arrested by Thursday.
The school class, comprised mainly of blacks and Hispanics, had adopted Mansfield at the start of the Persian Gulf conflict last August.
The students wrote letters and Mansfield sent occasional videotapes from the USS Saratoga, where he was an air traffic controller, Roberts said. Mansfield visited the class April 25, and received a hero’s welcome.
″They were appreciative that he had risked his life. They were proud of him that he was a black American,″ said Roberts, who had taught for several years with Mansfield’s mother, Connie.
The students were so devastated by Mansfield’s death last Friday night that grief counselors were called in to the class this week.
″We discussed that this man that killed Harold didn’t only kill Harold - he killed a piece of all of us. We all were very dramatically touched by this horrible act of violence,″ Roberts said.
He saw the letters as a way to ″vent our rage in a positive way.″
″I feel very mad about what you did,″ wrote Toniya Franklin. I dislike you very much. Why did you have to kill Harold? That’s all right, I already know why.
″I think you are not a great somebody. I believe you are fettered by a lack of intelligence and I think you are maniacal.″
Amanda Bartholomew wrote: ″He really didn’t do anything to you. We loved Harold so much. Why did you kill him? Why? I loved him. He was my friend.″
Elboni Lowrey wrote: ″But only if you could have know how much Harold meant to us, you would not have done what you did to him. ... ″He was our friend, and now we don’t have him anymore and we have no one to care for. For now, he has fallen cold and dead.″
Connie Mansfield, who also lives in Oklahoma City, said her son, a gentle man with a quick smile, had never really experienced problems with racism.
″We used to have problems like this a long time ago. Twenty years ago, laws were passed to make sure all human beings are treated the same,″ she said. ″I’m starting to wonder, though, if things aren’t getting worse.″
She believes her son was an innocent victim of the gunman’s rage.
″It looks like he was looking for anybody to run off the road. It just happened to be my son. He was going to do this to someone,″ she said.
Cmdr. Tom Linthicum, air operations officer aboard the USS Saratoga, said Mansfield worked well with his mixed racial group for eight months at sea.
″I think a white supremacist confronting him, probably boggled his mind. I would think it was something that he was not used to dealing with.″
″This is the first time that anything racial has happened to him. I’ve never heard him say anything about bad experiences in the past,″ said Lucretia Peterson, Mansfield’s fiancee, who lives in Dallas.
″He loved to laugh. He was full of fun,″ said Ms. Peterson, 24.
Mansfield entertained Roberts’ class by writing backwards, a skill used on an aircraft carrier to post information that must be read on the other side of a Plexiglass board. As his parting gesture on his school visit, Mansfield wrote backwards on a piece of plastic: ″All People Can Be Heroes.″