Vietnam War veterans visit Mt. Pleasant armory
On roads fraught with constant danger, their bond of brotherhood was formed long ago.
It carries on today.
From Maine to California, Mississippi to Michigan and nine more states in between, the paths of 21 Vietnam War veterans who have shared so much recently realigned in the Laurel Highlands.
For the 12th year, the men gathered to revive a connection first forged while serving in the U.S. Army's 321st Transportation Co. from 1967 to 1972.
White Oak's Chris Patchel, an E-5 with the 321st, and his wife, Nancy, hosted the multi-day reunion at Days Inn Donegal.
Since 2002, the event, which has gained attendees nearly every year, has been held annually in a different location across the nation.
“These men were all strangers, and they became a family,” Nancy Patchel said. “Now, we're all a family together.”
Soldiers stand test of time
Nicknamed “The Orient Express” with the creed “Can Do,” the 321st and its members are best known for risking life and limb to deliver ammunition, explosives and other supplies to America's front lines during the Tet Offensive, which began on Jan. 31, 1968.
One of the war's largest military campaigns, the offensive was launched by guerilla forces of the Viet Cong and the Communist forces of the North Vietnamese Army, which combined efforts against those of South Vietnam, the United States and their allies.
“We have a unique experience here,” said Lt. (Ret.) Joe Haering, a Morningside native and current Atlanta resident, who served as the company's commander from March to August 1968.
“Most of us trained together as a unit at Ft. Meade, Md., then we traveled on the USS Upshur for 28 days, and then we went through that part of the war together. That's why we know each other so well,” he said.
Convoys defied death's hand
The roads of South Vietnam were covered in a fine, floury sand.
During the Tet Offensive, in which the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacked approximately 100 South Vietnamese cities and towns, E-5 Jerry Bernier estimates he took part in 300 convoys which rumbled along those passages in more than 100 degree heat.
The exercises rarely went unnoticed by the enemy, he said.
“You got 300 trucks going in a convoy, and it sent that sand up hundreds of feet in the air,” said Bernier, a resident of Biddeford, Maine.
“They knew where we were at all times, and we were sitting ducks,” he said.
But the need for the convoys by Bernier and many other members of the 321st continued as the battles raged onward through the jungles.
“More guys got killed in 1968 than all the other years of the whole war combined. We were surrounded 24/7,” Bernier said. “We would go out seven days a week ... sometimes we'd leave at 4 a.m. and come back at 9 p.m.”
Unless they couldn't.
“Sometimes there were ambushes, and we'd have to make camp wherever,” he said. “That got tricky, because the Viet Cong knew where we were.”
A fallen member is recalled
Prior to the 321st's sea voyage to the war in 1967, the plight of the late company member Bobby Johnson began to unfold.
Prior to embarking, Johnson received a telegram informing him his wife had just given birth to twins.
“As soon as he got to Vietnam, he became pretty paranoid, so he stayed at our base camp at Long Dihn and chose not to go on convoys because he figured he'd be safer,” Bernier said. “We never judged each other, because everyone is made different.”
However, personnel shortages eventually required Johnson to contribute on a particular convoy, one in which an enemy ambush brought about one of the worst possible scenarios.
“Bobby broke perimeter, laid his M-16 down and was captured,” Bernier said. “He was dragged five years through the jungles, he was tortured and maimed. He was probably the most scared guy out of the 180 men in our company, and that happened to him.”
Upon his release in 1973, Johnson returned home to Detroit and a life of seclusion, Bernier said.
“We later found out Bobby died,” he said. “Still today, after all these years, I think about it and it blows my mind.”
Host tracks down an old friend
Much like Johnson, when 321st member and E-5 Gerald Morrow came home from the war, he said there was little he wanted to remember from it.
“I wanted to forget the whole thing,” said Morrow, 72, of Corinth, Miss.
So Morrow's shock was significant when he received a telephone call the evening of Dec. 17, 2013, from his old friend Chris Patchel regarding the reunion.
“I don't even know how he found me ... he's like a bloodhound,” said Morrow with a laugh in his voice.
“I told him he should be in the FBI. I never went to the VA or the VFW, so they had no real record of me.”
Patchel, who began his search for Morrow nearly 30 years ago, chalked up his ability to locate him to a tool which evolved more recently — the Internet.
“Gerry didn't want anything to do with Vietnam,” Patchel said. “The next time he called, he said he and his brother Shelby were coming.”
At the hotel, the two were reunited for the first time in 47 years.
“We just started hugging and crying ... it was a great feeling,” Patchel said.
Group sets sights on Mt. Pleasant Armory
The reunion took another military-themed turn when those in attendance toured the Army National Guard Readiness Center in Mt. Pleasant Township.
“They were so nice there. They took the time to explain this and that. They let us shoot there. They gave a couple boxes of C-rations to everybody to take back; they were just wonderful. It was unreal,” Chris Patchel said.
U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Timothy J. Snyder and Staff Sgt. A.J. Auckerman coordinated the visit, said Lt. Col. Mark Rayburg, commander of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1-110th Infantry, an element of Pennsylvania's 28th Infantry Division (Mechanized).
“We were delighted to receive them. They were able to view weapons and vehicle displays, take a tour of grounds, and view a weapons simulator being operated up close,” Rayburg said. “It was also a good opportunity for them to interact with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, share war-time experiences, and link up with veterans from other generations.”
Gathering brings laughter, tears
All told, the Patchels welcomed the men and their families, some of whom traveled several thousands of miles, some by car, to see one another and reflect upon exactly how far they have come.
Childlike ribbing and laughter dominated the meeting as the men shared a camaraderie unchanged from the times when they were young and lived through violence, carnage and loss.
Bearing wrinkles wrought by nearly 50 years worth of post-war wisdom, they reflected mostly on the good memories they have and the new ones they look forward to making next year.
“The real heroes are the ones that didn't come back. We just consider ourselves guys who got up and did what we had to do,” Bernier said. “We were young men, 19 or 20 years old. When we see each other, it's like we're that age again. It's a good feeling, I'm so proud of my buddies, and you laugh ... and we don't talk about the war, we talk about life and the experiences we've had.”
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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