Monday, October 9, 2017

Grasping at Atonement - Lehighton's Viet Nam Last Man's Club 49th Banquet

Divisions still remain.  Some old.  Some renewed.

My speech was meant as a peace offering from my generation back to theirs.  That our generation, the one that grew up in the shadow of their shaming, was here to try to understand them, that at the least, we wish nothing less for them than their full atonement.
Ed Hoats was a founding leader of the club with his brother-in-law
Bruce Geary.  Ronald Christman worked for PP&L after his service
time.  He died of a heart attack at a fairly young age.  He should not be
confused with the other Vietnam-era of the same name, Marine Lance Cpl
Ronald S. H. Christman who was killed in February 1968.

But it was not our battle.  We were not the ones who turned their back to their struggle.  We could not atone for that.  Best we can offer is to not forsake them now.  

To promise them that we will remember, who they were and what they gave.

Vietnam.  We were involved there before Korea.  And still, we weren’t ready.

While they were chasing ghosts in the jungle, our country was tearing itself apart.

Sitting down at the 49th Annual Viet Nam Last Man’s Club dinner last night I was struck by how things change and how they stay the same.
Ronald Stewart Henry Christman -
1 June 1948 to 28 February 1968
Landed in southern Vietnam on January 3rd
with the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadren
262.  In his last letter home dated 21 February,
Christman stated how his was the only unit
flying in and out of Khe Sanh with an estimated
40,000 communist ranks of soldiers below.
Perhaps unknowable is the strain on the parents
in burying their children.  Ronald's mother
Lousie died five years later at the age of 47.

Obviously these men that served fifty years ago have changed (aged) a good deal.  But what was plainly abundant was their commitment to the country they served and especially their commitment to each other.

I had the pleasure of sitting with VNLMC President Dale Nansteel and Sgt.-At-Arms Mitchell Nace and his wife Linda.  Also joining us was former Lehighton teacher and Kutztown University professor Dr. Dale Titus. 

Titus was a navy veteran who served in Viet Nam from 1967 to 1968. He shared several keen observations, including how welcomed he felt in the streets of South Vietnam upon a return visit there. 
Dr. Dale Titus, served in the navy
in Vietnam and former Lehighton
area teacher and professor emeritus
at Kutztown University.

He found citizens of his era walking up to him thanking him for his service and how they too fought on the side of the South.

Which brings me to the point of my message that evening: To measure what we have lost and what we have gained and to gather a sense of atonement from it all.

(This remainder of this article is both a paraphrase of my words as well as a record of this 49th banquet.  

The pictures of this post were presented to those in attendance via a PowerPoint presentation.  My attempt to bridge my understanding of them to their service.)

I can only imagine that it hasn’t been easy for you.

Conflict was a euphemism for the war.


Specifically, what your generation has lost and what it has given could easily be overlooked.

Recently, the Legion sold the Franz Kline mural 'Lehighton.'  This has been a cause that has divided opinion among some.  And Franz Kline too, in his short life, experience conflict as well.

Your generation and Kline both share a common distinction: you both suffered through loss and conflict.  

But we cannot go back.  We should try not to live in regret.  It is easy to allow nostalgia linger and feed those feelings.
The Lehighton Legion Menu from the early

The seafood platter served at the 49th annual club dinner was nearly
identical to the platter routinely served at the Legion in the 1950s.
But it is also where the roots of your generation’s war were, the beginnings of Vietnam.

The Vietnam ‘Conflict.’  We all know those who were in the thick of it knew it as war,
And you gathered here know more than most, how war certainly is hell.

Bill Kirkendall was a B-52 tail-gunner
with 50 missions over Europe.
Sons like David grew up in the shadow
of their fahters' glories of WWII.
For them, Vietnam was a bitter pill
to swallow.

Petty Officer David
Kirkendall served
September 1967 to
November 1971.  He was killed
in a car accident back home in
August 1972.
His Japanese wife Sumi and son
Frank were in Japan at the time.
Frank grew up to join the navy.
He died in 2007 at the age of

To add insult to injury, you couldn’t even talk about it.

Fellow veterans didn’t even dare mention their prior service to strangers, and in some cases, those strangers were veterans themselves, afraid to mention the war to new acquaintances.

Your father’s fought a glorious war, you hung around in the shadows of their popular service.

Gene Semanoff - Served in the Air
Force during Vietnam.
Gene's father, Joe Semanoff served in the
101st Airborne in Europe.

You have gathered here to honor the memory of those fallen from us and to celebrate those who are still here.

All of us are the sum of all our parts.  And sometimes we can realize how we can be greater than the sum of our parts.  This is true for this group.  This is true for you as an individual.   All of you have been molded by the Vietnam era.

You are gallant.

You are gentle men and you are gentle ladies.
Glen "Smokey" Troutman (VNLMC VP), Randy Rabenold (Korean Last Man's Club), Henry Long, Captain Pete Semanoff, and father Gene Semanoff at a 2014 Memorial Day Service at the Lehighton Area Middle School.

Glenn "Smokey" Troutman from his Lehighton yearbook along with fellow Vietnam veteran classmate Gary Vanage.  Gary's name was added to the list of the dead honored at each year's banquet in 2005.
You are heroes.

You have served us well, and we the community of Lehighton are better for having fine men and women like you who she can call her sons and her daughters.

As a historian and fellow son of Lehighton, a son of a Korean War soldier, I want you to know, how grateful I am to you.  I am proud to have grown up under the shadow of your great and self-less serving and sacrifice.

I hope you will accept my deepest gratitude.

Near the end of our conversation, Dr. Titus made one last observation.

Our modern fleet ships are built differently: Gone are the side-decks, staffing is down, and with everything so dependent on sonar, control is made from a windowless room.   He believed these were the conditions that have lead to the current spate of collisions.

In other words, the new navy is so stealthy that command and control is left with a limited view.  
Clearly the WWII veterans vanquished an evil and were
victorious.  The Korean Vets, though far from a complete
victory, has had been granted many shows of gratitude
from the South Korean government over the years.
Though relations between Vietnam and the West
have recently improved, our Vietnam veterans
have not received the same regard as their fathers

Perhaps that is where atonement can begin, in seeing the whole picture.

It was suggested by Titus to find a Vietnamese refugee that found a new home here in America to speak at next year's banquet.

Surely these veterans could find some solace in hearing a survivor's story, someone who has benefited from their toil and sacrifice.

After the toast to the dead with the red wine and the toast to the living with the white, names of VNLMC members who died in the previous year were named: Al Buchignani, Stewart Alboucq, Robert Emmert, and Gary Neifert.

VNLMC Chaplain Sue Snyder offered both the opening and closing prayer.  And Sec/Treas David Bryfolge wished for prayers to all in attendance that they will once again be with them in 2018.
Multiple generations of Lehighton soldiers could celebrate
their service with pride.  Here Marines from WWI to Korea join in celebrating
the Marine Corps' 193rd birthday in 1968.  Absent is a representative
of that current war.  Vietnam vets found it tougher to receive
public recognition for their service.  Shown here are (l-r): WWII Walter Metzger, Frank Wehr of Summit Hill, Korea Don Blauch, and WWI Charles Shutt (who was best known for firing the cannon at Lehighton home football games.  Don Blauch's daughter was a member of the VNLMC.

End Notes:
The following names are recorded by the club as those who were killed in action and those members who have since died of other causes.
The former high school/junior high in Lehighton was recently named
after Pfc Clyde Houser who was lived just down the street
on South St before moving to Held St on Union Hill.

KIA: Ronald S.H. Christman (Not to be confused with the Ronald Christman pictured earlier.)
Clyde R. Houser Jr.
Leon D. Eckhart
Charles R. Jones
Merlin Hollenbach
Twenty-one year old Merlin Hollenbach had visited
back home to Lehighton between boot camp and
landing in Vietnam.  His good-byes are still
remembered as prophetic to his friends who look
back at that time.

Newly married, arrived in Vietnam
on his 21st birthday.  He died 3 days
before Christmas, 1968.

Subsequent Deaths:
Charles Ahner, Douglas Beck, Henry Beck, William Beck, Douglas Beers, Robert Beers, Wilmer Berger, Donna Blauch, Kenneth Bretz, Ronald Christman, William Crowley, Bert David, Richard Dean, Warren Dresher, Ernest Eidem, Dennis Exner, Dean Gilbert, William Graver, Kermit Heiland, Robert Q. Koch, Robert Horvath, Raymond Heiland, David Kirkendall, Edward Korastinsky, Robert Lewis, Albert Lichenwalter, David Mertz, Harold Long, Harr D. Miller, Walter S. Metzger, Charles Moser, Robert G. Mowery, Donald Niehoff, Donald Reichard, Richard J. Richter, Carl Schoenberger, Joe J. Slanina, Terry Snyder, Kenneth Snyder, Gary G. Solt, Philip I. Stiegerwalt, Dennis Sullivan, Gary Vanage, Lee F. Wentz, Neal E. Yehl, Jim Young, Charles Yenser, Edward Zellner, Thomas V. Smith, Fred Young, William M. Graver Sr., Robert Yanero, Charles Solt III, Warren E. Long Sr., Ronald E. Taschler, Donald E. Ziegenfus, Dennis Sander, Thomas A. Meehan, Leroy A. Hefflefinger, Thomas C. Geshel, John S. Kobal, Thomas A. Polk, William C. Newton Jr., Leonard K. Zellner, John Kriel, Paul Hancharik, James Holland, Larry E. Smith, Robert C. Stien, Robert G. Moser, Warren R. Remaley, Dennis C. Dotter, Roger L. Kocher, Conrad A. Stahre, Martin L. Rex, George N. Kraftician, Dana Beisel, Richard Beltz, Lamont Hunsicker, Carl Everett.  
From the 1971 Lehighton yearbook.
Holland was a member of the Lehighton
Fire Company, served on the school board,
and a member of the VNLMC.

Daughter of Korean war Veteran Donald Blauch, Donna Blauch
enlisted out of Lehighton High in the early 1970s.  She rose in the
naval ranks and served President Carter's family as their personal
dental hygienist working on them at Camp David.  She died due to
complications of M.S. at the Wilkes-Barre V.A. Hospital in 2007.

Within the past year:
Al Buchignani, Stewart A. Alboucq, Robert N. Emmert, and Gary Neifert.

Major Laurence J. Law was
married to cousin Patsy Stegura
Law (her mother was my father's
sister).  He volunteered for Vietnam
and received the Silver Star, the
military's third highest honor. 

My cousin Patricia Stegura Law of Nanticoke's husband.

The Morning Call - February 1966