As the Binh Thanh/Hong Ha/An Hoa medical team enters their last weekend home for three weeks, and while the Hoa Hai/Hoa Heip Nam medical team goes about completing their final preparations, lets reflect on Memorial Day with this posting:
…Thousands of Americans will officially kick-off their summer by camping out, going to the lake, or having their first official Bar-Be-Que over Memorial Day weekend. It’s the traditional start of summer!
It’s a great time for family fun and all of us have fond memories, from both childhood and adulthood, of the outings we’ve taken that last weekend in May. While I think about family and friends on canoe trips and camp-outs, there is also a sadness that dwells up in me each and every year.
The year was 1966. Over that winter we were the starting five on the Assumption High School varsity bowling team. Besides myself there was Bill Hart, Charlie Geller, John Lindner, and Johnny Pondoff. This was a small private Catholic high school in East St. Louis, IL. The senior class was also small, and everyone knew each other. Those were the days when we brought pocket-knives to class, and rifles or shot-guns on racks in pick-up trucks. No one ever got stabbed or shot.
I remember the day one of my classmates jabbed Johnny in the knee with a stylus during geometry class. The student sitting behind him kept pestering him, and I guess Pondoff had had enough. Also, when Bill set off a firecracker in class. He said it was an accident, which I don’t think it was. Mr. Hart was sent down to the principal’s office and awarded a three day suspension. The rest of us were pretty compliant young men, just kids really as Charlie, John, and I stayed out of trouble. I remember that Charlie was seriously thinking about becoming a Priest.
After graduation that spring, we all went our separate ways mostly to different colleges, but all of us except Bill were home in less than two years for various reasons. My reason was that I spent a lot of time “at” college instead of “in” college, if you know what I mean. My student deferment was rescinded and I was eligible for the draft. It was the same story for John, Charlie and Johnny. This was now the fall of 1967, and the US was fully engaged in a war at a far-away place called “Vietnam.” I remember what we did next.
You know how much bravado young men can have about things like this and after all, our Fathers were WWII veterans of the Pacific and Europe. Well, all of us, less Bill went together to the Army and Marine Corps recruiting offices. Taking Hart’s place was my best friend at the time, Ron Courtney. I really wanted to join the Marines, but didn’t think I could hack it. Ron wanted to join the Navy, and we ended up going in on the “Buddy Plan” volunteering for aviation and Vietnam.
Johnny and Charlie did join the Marines, but John said he didn’t want to serve four years. He’d said he could do two years, if he was drafted, and that he was shortly thereafter. By 1968 three members on that bowling team were in Vietnam, and three were dead. Except me, of course.
The first one, John, died on January 5, 1968, as a result of his wounds sustained on December 30. It was a booby trap. I remember how his casket had a bubble like plexi-glass cover. Evidently they didn’t know if the dead were bringing anything back that could make the rest of us sick. It was bitterly cold, with sleet and snow falling that day, when he was buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
“Lefty” is what we called him because he was the only non-right hand bowler on the team. On February 25, 1968, Charlie was a member of the infamous “Jacques Patrol” sometimes called the “Lost or Ghost Patrol” ambushed at Khe Sanh. Twenty-four other Marines were KIA with Charlie, although the families were told they were officially MIA. Due to several thousand NVA right outside of the base, the bodies weren’t recovered until March 30. I remember that I didn’t go to the funeral or burial that took place in April, I just couldn’t. That’s because I ended up going to another one before Charlie’s remains even got home.
Johnny was killed in Quang Tri Province on February 2, 1968, during the Tet Offensive and Battle of Hue. I was able to pay my respects at the wake and go to the cemetery. I remember how after an emotional rendition of Taps, and the flag was given to his Mother, she got up from her seat. She walked over to the casket, climbed up on it, and laid down embracing her son one last time. No more funerals for me.
Over the years, as Memorial Day Weekend approached, I’ve tried to think about fun high school memories and positive things. I am focused on grilling-out, family, and Cardinal baseball games. I’ve even deliberately decided I’m not going to think about the funerals or the cemeteries. But I remember.
So on this Memorial Day Weekend when you see a vet looking off in the distance, a Dad or Mom staring down at the grill, give them a break.
They are just remembering…
Chuck Ward, Memorial Day, 2013
As these two medical teams prepare to leave for Vietnam, please remember the vets on both teams. I am continually amazed at the forgiveness, spirit of reconciliation, and the pride they have in their service four and five decades ago. They are universally generous, caring and still the “Best and the Brightest” just as they were called so long ago.
It is an honor for VWAM to have them return to Vietnam with us.