Soldier’s death shattered Gold Star wife’s world
FLORENCE, S.C. -- Peggy Dearing Moore is a retired teacher, mother, grandmother and loving wife.
She volunteers one day a week at the Salvation Army, is an active member of Central United Methodist Church, helps her husband scour the landscape for what she calls “antique junk” and has more recently joined the effort to erect a Gold Star Families Memorial at Florence Veterans Park to pay tribute to those who have lost a family member while serving in the United States Armed Forces.
Her life has not always been so idyllic. Moore became a widow at the age of 20 when her first husband was killed in the Vietnam conflict, leaving her with a 22-month-old daughter to bring up alone.
“I didn’t remarry until my daughter was out of college,” she said.
She and Phil Dearing met at Wingate College, where they were both students. She said he attended the Citadel but did not graduate. He was young and patriotic in a time when the country was divided over the Vietnam War.
Before they were married, Dearing had enlisted in the U.S. Army. He received his orders to go to Vietnam while in Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant, she said. He was stationed at Fort Benning for approximately nine months before going to Vietnam.
During this time, Moore said, her husband reconnected with a high school friend who had been drafted and was also going through training before he headed to Vietnam. His friend, Eddie Collins, would be instrumental in his coming home from Vietnam, but not in the way one might imagine.
Moore said her husband left for Vietnam in May 1970, and she moved to Durham, North Carolina, to be near family.
During the year he was away, Moore said, she had little communication with her husband.
“We didn’t have internet,” she said. “He only called twice while he was there.”
She said letters were very slow in coming. In February 1971, they met in Hawaii for R&R.
“It was a great week,” she said. “My only regret is that I didn’t take our daughter, Lisa.”
She said her daughter doesn’t remember her father.
“And it is impossible to grieve or miss someone you never knew,” Moore said.
Before he left, she said, they talked a lot about the fact that the first three months and the last three months would be the most dangerous.
She said the first three months the soldiers don’t know what they were doing, and the last three they become careless because they have almost made it to the end.
As his year in Vietnam was coming to a close, Phil Dearing prepared to come home. He sent his belongings home and volunteered for one last mission.
Moore said he thought this would help advance his career.
“He came home the day he was supposed to, but not the way we wanted,” she said.
He was killed during that last mission on May 19, 1971. That was on a Wednesday, she said.
On Saturday morning about 7 a.m., Moore said, her father called and said they were coming over. She didn’t know who “they” were, and she became anxious. When she looked out the window and saw two military officers outside, she said she knew Phil had been killed.
The rest of that day she was in shock.
“I had to call the Dearings and tell them their only son had been killed,” she said.
He was an adopted child, she added. The Dearings also had an adopted daughter, Jane Ann. Mr. Dearing was president of Florence Manufacturing Company.
“They were a prominent family in Florence,” she said.
The Dearings were on vacation at the beach, so she called their minister to go to the beach to tell them.
“Their lives changed forever,” Moore said. “Their son was everything to them.”
Phil Dearing was handsome and well liked, Moore said. He wanted to make a career out of the military.
She said he was to be made a captain when he got home.
Instead of a happy reunion, Moore’s life was in disarray. She wanted to know what had gone wrong during her husband’s last mission in Vietnam.
She said what she was told is that his unit had set up camp on one side of a river but the Viet Cong were lying in wait, hidden in the jungle on the other side of the river. Once his unit set up camp, it was bombarded with small-arms fire and mortar rounds, she said.
“I was told that most of his unit was wiped out but have never been able to confirm this,” she said. “Phil died instantly.”
His body was flown back to Dover, Delaware. His parents, Claude and Helen Dearing, asked his high school friend, Collins, to get his body and escort it home.
“I didn’t want to, but I flew over to Dover Air Force Base,” he said.
Little did he know he would be repeating this service for another high school buddy months later.
Collins had come back early and was stationed at Fort Jackson. He still remembers going to get his friend’s body and being in a room with several other people and having to find out if his tag had a V on it or a NV. The V meant the body was viewable, NV that it wasn’t.
“I started praying, let that thing be a V,” he said. “I turned it over, and it was.”
“We were very blessed to be able to view his body, as I would always wonder if it was him if we could not have seen him,” Moore said.
First Lt. Philip Ray Dearing, U.S. Army, was laid to rest on Friday, May 28, 1971. He was 23 years old. Among his awards and commendations was the Purple Heart.
His funeral was at Central Methodist Church, and the church was full, she said.
“It was a scary time for me,” Moore said. “I was looking forward to being a military wife.”
She said the first day she saw Phil Dearing on the Wingate College campus, she knew she would marry him one day, and now the life she dreamed of with Phil would never happen.
“I decided I had to do something with my life,” she said.
First she earned a degree as a medical technician at Wake Memorial.
A little later, she decided she wanted to be a teacher and moved to Florence so her husband’s parents could help her with Lisa while she went to Francis Marion. She earned a degree in social work and then became certified to teach.
In May 1993, Peggy married Tom Moore.
She taught at Greenwood Elementary for 29 years in grades 3-6. She later transferred to Royall Elementary, where she taught fifth-grade social studies.
“That was my favorite subject,” she said. “I retired in 2013.”
Moore’s daughter married Russell Matthews, and they have two sons, Chase, 22, and Tyler, 20.
“My daughter often wondered what her life would be like if he (her father) had lived,” she said. “Every Father’s Day gets harder for her.”
Moore’s husband, Tom, is a retired state trooper and a member of the National Guard.
“He has been so supportive of me,” she said.
Collins said he has known Tom Moore for a long time, and he is very supportive and respectful of the military. He said he can always count on them both to participate in patriotic celebrations and services, such as the Memorial Day Service taking place today.
Collins, retired from the U.S. Army/Army National Guard, and Moore are members of the committee to erect a Gold Star Families Memorial at Florence Veterans Park. Collins said when the idea came to him, Moore was the first person he contacted to help. She is one of several Gold Star widows/family members on the committee.
First to be recognized were Gold Star Mothers, mothers of men and women who have died in service to the United States Armed Forces, he said. These were mothers of soldiers who died in World War I. Now there are Gold Star Families that include wives, mothers, fathers and children of service individuals who have lost their lives in service to their county.
Collins said they hope to have the Gold Star Families Memorial as a tribute to those who have lost a close relative while serving in the United States Armed Forces up by the next Veterans Day.
Moore will do her part as a Gold Star wife to see that these heroes are remembered.
She once wrote to a student who contacted her and was doing research: “I thought men like my husband would only be remembered by family as Vietnam was such an unpopular conflict.
“It has been 48 years,” she wrote, “and I feel like it happened last week.”