By Mike Whittlesey
Last week, more than 90 veterans from eastern and central Iowa were aboard the 15th Honor Flight sponsored by Sullivan-Hartogh-Davis Post 730 in Waterloo. The Progress Review has been fortunate to have a photographer along for the ride for 13 of those flights, as part of our commitment to provide each veteran with a commemorative DVD documenting their experience in Washington DC. Last week’s trip marked the first opportunity for Waterloo area veterans of the Vietnam War to make an Honor Flight, and more than 60 of the 90+ veterans aboard the flight served their country during that conflict.
Prior to the flight, I wondered if this first trip with Vietnam veterans to Washington would make for a different Honor Flight experience. It most certainly did, and in a way that was far more powerful than I could have imagined.
The challenge of shooting photos and video on the journey from Waterloo to Washington DC and back makes for a very busy day. That’s what makes the time spent in the air so enjoyable. The two hour flight provides an excellent opportunity to meet and visit with some of the veterans, always an educational experience when they describe their time in the military.
On this trip, I sat next to a veteran who spoke about serving on an LST (Landing Ship, Tank), a ship designed to support amphibious operations by carrying vehicles, cargo, and landing troops directly onto an unimproved shore. While serving in Vietnam, he described an incredibly harrowing experience, a sneak attack carried out by the enemy that claimed the lives of seventeen of his shipmates.
Researching the incident, I learned that at 3:22 AM on November 1, 1968, two large mines were detonated on the starboard side of the U.S.S. Westchester County (LST-1167). Boiler Technician Gary Wood, from Decorah, Iowa, was one of the lucky crew members who survived the initial attack. In the moments after the blast, his responsibility was to seal a door below deck to help prevent the ship from sinking.
Chest deep in water and oil, Gary knew that sealing the door would more than likely also seal the fate of anyone still alive in that compartment, a thought, he said, he has had to live with since that fateful day.
Forty-eight years later, as he prepared to visit the Vietnam War Memorial for the first time, Gary Wood carried with him a small piece of paper upon which he had written several names.
“These are my guys!” he told me.
A unique feature about the Vietnam War Memorial is that the names inscribed upon the wall are listed chronologically, so that those who served and died together will forever be memorialized together on the black granite. Gary’s search for his brothers, the shipmates who lost their lives while serving their country nearly 50 years ago, would take him to panels 39 and 40 of the west wall. Among the names listed there were the following U.S. Navy sailors:
Jackie C Carter, Richard C Cartwright, Chester D Dale, Keith William Duffy, Timothy C Dunning, David G Fell, Thomas G Funke, Gerald E B Hamm, Floyd Houghtaling III, Aristotoles D Ibanez, Jerry S Leonard, Joesph A Miller Jr, Rodney W Peters, Cary F Rundle, Reinhard J Schnurrer Jr, Thomas H Smith, Anthony R Torcivia
Gary would later admit to getting emotional at that moment. Who could blame him? Standing there with a camera in my hand, it didn’t feel right to point it in his direction, as this very personal moment played out among the hundreds of people who were milling about. Looking up and down along the 246 feet of polished granite, Gary was not alone in his emotion. Tears were evident as other veterans, family members and friends located the names for whom they searched. Some stood quietly, while others kneeled at the wall, deep in prayer.
The Vietnam War Memorial Wall was constructed in 1982 in an effort to heal the scars, still evident today, that this controversial war left behind. Standing there in the bright sunshine on a beautiful day in the nation’s capital, I was reminded why the Honor Flight program is so beneficial for the veterans who make the trip to Washington DC. It’s a journey that is perhaps even more important for our Vietnam War veterans, the men and women who did not receive the homecoming they deserved for their service to the nation.
Finally, as I ascended the walkway to return to our tour bus, I couldn’t help but think how glad Gary’s guys must have been that he stopped by to pay them a visit.
Did you know it takes more than $100,000 to make one Honor Flight from Waterloo to Washington DC? For more information about upcoming flights, how to apply as a volunteer, guardian or veteran, or how you can donate or assist the Honor Flight organization, logon to www.CedarValleyHonorFlights.org send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org