September 11, 2017, my wife, Patti, and several family members attended the 2017 Veterans’ Voices Award ceremony at University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota Humanities Center started the program in 2013 to recognize Minnesota Veterans who quietly work with the underserved members of our state. I was deeply honored to be selected.
The evening had an air of celebration yet the sixteenth anniversary of 9-11-2001 hung like a pall over the ceremonies. After the White Earth Veterans Association Honor Guard posted colors, Bemidji’s own, Joe Vene, sang the National Anthem. After the Anthem, a moment of silence was observed for those lost on 9/11.
During that moment, as the White Earth Honor Guard marched slowly away, their dance bells rang mournfully, like chimes in the night calling the lost. As I accepted my award, I thought about what one of my old riverboat crewmates wrote to me a few weeks earlier when I questioned why we are still here after so many others of our Vietnam Brothers had been lost.
Brian wrote, “You and I are still here because it’s not our time yet. Someone watches over us, just the way they did when Tango 7 and Tango 11 got switched on the Cua Viet at Dong Ha. The 18th has become a day for me to remember and reflect. The Travelling Wall was in my area over the July 4 weekend, I made a point of going there to honor the men we lost those days.”
I too, remember the Marine Corps and Navy Memorial Services held on the sandy banks of the Cua Viet River and the Army/Navy Memorial Services held on a pontoon barge in the Mekong River. Fifty years later the faces blur but like chimes in the night, they echo in my memory.
In helping others, I honor the memory of those who never had a chance to grow old. Perhaps Brian is right. Our work isn’t finished yet.
These recent protests against the Trump rally and the media’s obsession comparing it to the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests have triggered memories of my 1968 confrontation with the anti-war protestors. While serving with the Brown Water Navy in Vietnam I was wounded in an ambush and medevac’d home.
On August 29, 1968, our C-141 Starlifter landed at Glenview Naval Air Station. We were transferred from the Starlifter to hospital buses for transport to Great Lakes Naval Hospital. When the buses pulled off the base we were surrounded and attacked by the protestors. For several decades I was troubled by why protestors would attack bus loads of wounded troops traveling.
(This Starlifter picture is from Beverly Dawson’s book, Images of America, Glenview Naval Air Station. (Page 108).)
This Vietnam magazine article I wrote several years ago details the event. https://www.wendellaffield.com/uncategorized/22-august-2007-revisiting-the-past
Have you ever been troubled by an event in your past? Troubled enough to revisit it? I did. I needed to make sense of why antiwar protestors would attack a hospital bus carrying wounded troops. The discoveries I made have had far-reaching effects. Here is the story, published in Vietnam magazine about my 2007 visit. Tomorrow I will post a recent development as a result of that 2007 visit.
(double click on page to enlarge)
The Mobile Riverine Force Museum visited Beltrami County Fair recently. 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. escalation in the Vietnam War, with the Tonkin Gulf incident on August 2, 1964.
Over the course of five days, while signing books and helping at the Museum, I listened to hundreds of stories as men and women reminisced about that era. I’ve come to realize that as we move into the autumn of our lives we want to make sense with our past.
I watched veterans reconnect. Perhaps the most poignant, two men studying the lists of killed in action (KIA) etched on the sides of the museum trailer. Studying the same column, they’d begin to visit, gesture animatedly, and hugged. They had served together—same unit, same time, and had friends listed on the Wall. I watched this drama unfold several times.
A man drove down from the Canadian border, walked through the museum, searched the names until he found his lost friends, then came over and introduced himself. He sat in the shade and began talking about his time on the riverboats in Vietnam. He didn’t stop for several hours; I was left with the distinct impression that this was the first time in more than four decades he had shared those memories.
A three-tour Native American brownwater sailor, confined to a wheel chair, spent the afternoon visiting and reminiscing. His body is ravaged by Agent Orange poisoning, yet his warrior spirit remains strong. His friend told me that the sailor used to ride motorcycle with the Legion Riders.
On Sunday afternoon, just as we were leaving, a man started talking to me. He had read my memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers. “You know that concrete ramp you talk about in chapter nine? I built that three months before you got there.” My words had touched his life, reconnecting him with an event from his youth.
Another riverboat veteran traveled from Minneapolis and spent two days with us. After reading the sign on my book table that I donate $5 from each sale he handed me $100. “Life has been good to me,” he said. “Use this for your Food Shelf program.”
I think he personifies the best in all of us.
Legion Escort Riders
Wendell Affield and Legion Rider organizer, Ken Kephart
Over the course of five days, while signing books and helping at the Museum, I listened to hundreds of stories as men and women reminisced about the Vietnam War and that era. I’ve come to realize that as we move into the autumn of our lives we want to make sense with our past. Universal themes emerged as I listened.
First, and most important, veterans reconnected. I watched this drama unfold several times: two men studying the lists of killed in action (KIA) etched on the sides of the museum trailer. Studying the same column, they’d begin to visit, gesture animatedly, and hug. They had served together—same unit, same time, and had friends listed on the Wall.
A man drove down from Baudette, walked through the museum, searched the names until he found his lost friends, then came over and introduced himself. He sat in the shade and began talking about his time on the riverboats in Vietnam. He didn’t stop for several hours; I was left with the distinct impression that this was the first time in more than four decades he had shared those memories.
A three-tour riverboat sailor from the village of Ball Club, confined to a wheel chair, spent the afternoon visiting and reminiscing. His body is ravaged by Agent Orange poisoning, yet his warrior spirit remains strong. His friend told me that the sailor used to ride motorcycle with the Legion Riders.
Another riverboat veteran came up from Minneapolis and spent two days with us. I like to think he personifies the good in most of us. He saw the sign at my book booth stating that I donate $5 from each local book sale to Bemidji Community Food Shelf. He read about the Community Meat Program I helped start at our local Food Shelf and handed me a $100 bill. “Life has been good to me,” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, just as we were leaving, a local resident who had served with the Seabees (Construction Battalion) started talking to me. He had read my memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers. “You know that concrete ramp you talk about in chapter nine? I built that three months before you got there.” My words had touched his life, reconnecting him with an event from his youth.
These are but a few stories.
Another universal theme that emerged was from those who did not serve in Vietnam—era veterans and men who did not go into the military. It seems a common mindset for era veterans to feel guilt that they did not go to Vietnam. I say to them, we all did what we were ordered to do.
I listened to many stories about lottery numbers and near misses. These men often shared stories of friends and schoolmates they had lost in Vietnam. Many, many nonveterans visited the museum. They were fascinated by the pictures inside. More than once I heard someone say, “they’re just kids,” as they studied the young men poised on turrets and boat gunnels.
2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. escalation in the Vietnam War, with the Tonkin Gulf incident on August 2, 1964. Looking back five decades, we were just kids.
The Mobile Riverine Force Museum opened a door to a side of the Vietnam War few people in our community were aware of. For me, personally, it was a very rewarding experience to visit with so many.
I encourage other communities to plan ahead and book the Museum for a viewing. Contact info at: email@example.com
For our community, making the visit possible was a collective effort. Beltrami County Fair Board was great to work with. Our Bemidji American Legion Post sponsored the Museum visit. Funds were raised through private donations and a generous grant from George W. Neilson Foundation. Our friends in Shevlin donated use of their lake lodge for the museum guides who travel with the display to stay at.
Thank you, everyone.
At 10:00 AM, Wednesday, July 30, 2014, American Legion Riders will gather at the Super 8 in Little Falls, MN to escort the Mobile Riverine Force Association Museum to Bemidji. All riders are welcome to join.
The escort begins in Little Falls, travels west on Hwy 10 to Motley, then turns north on Hwy 64. There will be a break in Akeley at the VFW then the escort will proceed north to Bemidji.
Veterans and non-veterans are encouraged to join the escort. Upon arrival at Beltrami County Fair there will be a short program welcoming the Museum and the Escort Riders followed by refreshments at Lazy Jacks, located near the Fairgrounds.
The sides of the Memorial and Museum Trailer list all U.S. Army 9th Infantry Division KIAs as well as all Naval KIAs in Vietnam. On the inside the viewer will get a first-hand glimpse of the American river war experience in Vietnam.
For more information please go to the April1 post: https://www.wendellaffield.com/war/mobile-riverine-force-museum-to-visit-2014-beltrami-county-fair
This past weekend I had the opportunity to do a book signing at the American Legion State Convention held in Rochester, MN. After Governor Dayton spoke to the Ladies Auxiliary members he stopped at my booth. We visited for a few minutes and I presented him with a copy of my memoir. He thanked me and said he would cherish it.
(Written by Patt Rall, Bemidji Pioneer Previews, published Sunday, April 20, 2014.)
•Northern Exposure to Lifelong Learning continues their spring season of talks with “A Healing Journey with Wendell Affield,” who is the author of “Muddy Jungle Rivers.” Affield will talk about his life after publication of his book, and his speaking engagements when he listened to hundreds of veterans and witnessed the devastating long-term effects of posttraumatic stress disorder. The program will begin at 9:30 a.m. at the Gonvick Community Center. This NELL program is offered free of charge, however, donations are gratefully accepted as is membership in the organization.
The first clue, another picture of Sergeant Thomas at an awards ceremony. Picture taken by Army Veteran, Ray Pineau, sent to me by Loren Salzman.
The second clue came from the sister of an army helicopter door gunner who went Missing In Action when his chopper was shot down during the Vietnam War. Donna Elliott’s brother is honored and remembered through the Facebook page she maintains in his name.
“Jerry W. Elliott
11:28am Apr 13
Wendell – I find a SGT Kenneth Leon Thomas in the National Archives d’base who died on 08/18/68, although it says from disease, these records are not always exact. This SGT Thomas was an African-American with the 199th Lt Inf Bdge. His mother’s name is Juanita E. Thomas, last known address 104 Northeast Shaver St, Portland, OR 97212. Hope this helps. Donna Elliott”
For more than four decades this man has haunted me. Few of us have the honor to witness actions of a true hero. I did. Yesterday I received my second clue to locating him and his family. Here is a message I just posted in a veterans chat room that is specifically for Army and Navy veterans who served with the Mobile Riverine Force in Vietnam.
Do You Know This Man?
Loren Salzman, an infantryman with Delta/Echo Company, 4th & 47th, Ninth Infantry Division, from Dec. 1967 to Dec. 1968, just emailed me, “I have attached my photo of Sgt.Thomas who was our senior NCO or First Sargent as I recall. I remember him being out in front of our formations, calling us to attention, etc. I will double check with our c/o Echo Six.”
On August 18, 1968, Sergeant Thomas, in the middle of an ambush, stuck his head up through the hatch leading to the cox’n flat on Tango 112-11. “Do you need any help,” he shouted. I was driving the boat and pointed to our unmanned Port 50 cal. Without hesitation Sargent Thomas crawled into the turret and began shooting. Moments later he took a direct hit from a B-40 that had burned through the armor. I was medevaced that day and for the past 46 years I have been troubled about Sergeant Thomas. I learned his name from Cleve Chick at the 2013 MRFA Reunion. Thanks to the article titled “Ambush Survivors reunited 45 years later” in winter edition of River Currents I just received another clue. In visiting with the other survivors at the Reunion, they all agreed, Sergeant Thomas had just been transferred to 3rd platoon, Co. D, 4/47th Inf Bn.
There was so much chaos on that day in the welldeck of Tango 112-11 ( 1 KIA, 27 WIA) that I believe Thomas’s act of heroism went completely unnoticed. I’ve checked the Wall and do not find him so I am assuming he did live.
Sergeant Thomas deserves proper recognition. If he is gone, his family deserves to know of his actions.
Anybody how might be able to add to this information—please contact me.