Vietnam Veterans To Gather At Wall Of Remembrance


"I haven't even convinced myself that I can go to the Wall."

-- Pat Willis

For Payson's Vietnam veterans, it's more than history that's coming to town Thursday -- five days after the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.For them, the Vietnam War Memorial Moving Wall will also bring memories of great friendships, of human potential cut horribly short, of images so deeply seared into their brains that they cannot forget them, no matter how hard or how long they try.

It is for that reason that Pat Willis -- the prime force behind the movement to bring "The Wall that Heals" to Payson for its only public Arizona exhibition -- isn't sure if he'll be able to muster up the emotional strength to travel to the Green Valley Park amphitheater and view it, first person.

Willis, 51, is the president of Founders Bank of Arizona. Born in Mesa, he enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was 21, "Which made me old," he said. "The average age of Vietnam veterans during the war was 19, compared to WWII when it was 24."

Willis was in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971, with the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade.

"As I was heading over there, I figured the way I'd be coming back was in a body bag," Willis said. "Everybody who went over thought that. We basically didn't know what we were getting into.

"They flew us over on a commercial jet, and my first memory of Vietnam is, while all of us GIs are getting off the airplane in Cam Ranh Bay, all the stewardesses were crying."

Willis' has another early impression of Vietnam.

"(The 173rd) operated in what was commonly referred to as the Central Highlands. The coastal regions there reminded me a lot of Payson. There were a lot of mountains about the same size and steepness, heavy brush and stuff like that."

But that wasn't quite enough to make Willis feel at home. As a member of a combat infantry unit, he saw his share of fighting.

"It wasn't a total bloodbath like you might have thought based on what you'd seen in the newspapers and the six o'clock news back in the states... It was mostly three or four weeks of sheer boredom interrupted by 30 minutes of sheer fright."

At the end of those periods, Willis said, "The body count, especially on enemy soldiers, was how you kept score. After it was all over, the commanders of the various units would be talking to you on the radio, and usually the first question they'd ask is, 'How many friendly casualties, wounded or killed, were there?' The second question would be, 'What was the body count of the enemy?'

"But sometimes they would make a mistake and ask for the enemy body count before they asked about their own soldiers."

Not surprisingly, Willis said the toughest part of being a soldier in Vietnam was "seeing somebody get hit or wounded or killed, especially if he was a friend or someone you knew. But the soldiers who were there were there for a reason. They were trained to do a job, and all of us -- not just me -- kept doing our jobs even after that occurred."

Willis declines to talk about what he saw, experienced, felt.

"I'd prefer not to. That's getting into an area that's ... very ... personal," he said softly.

Willis also chooses not to reveal the names of the soldiers he'd search for on the Wall.

"I have 12 names, a list, that I will look up if I can get there," he said. "But I haven't even convinced myself that I can go to the Wall, even though I'm the one who started all of this...

"They were people I grew up with. I'll probably be one of those who hangs out in the trees like some people do at the Washington D.C. wall. There's always a group of people who kind of hang back, because it's going to be tough for them to go up there.

"It could be wives, it could be parents, it could be kids or grandkids. And they never even move."

A soldier of three wars

"Vietnam was my third war, and I tried not to get too close to anybody." -- Larry Okendo

"I was there the first day they opened up that wall" in 1983, says Larry Okendo of the original Vietnam Memorial Monument in Washington D.C.

"I waited all night for it to open, so I thought I was in the front of the line. But I wasn't. I was in the back! It took me most of the day to get up to it!"

When Okendo finally made it to the Wall, he and a fellow soldier placed a wreath in the center of the "V" where the words "Vietnam War Memorial Wall" were engraved.

"A newswoman came up and interviewed me," he said. "I was on TV that day."

That was the least that could have been done for Larry Okendo.

In 1941, the Hawaii-born Okendo was at home with his family when they heard what he describes as a "boom-boom-boom." The Okendos couldn't see anything from the ground. So they climbed up on the roof of their house and watched as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Three months later -- almost three decades before Hawaii became America's 49th state -- Okendo joined the Unites States Army and fought for this country through 31 years and three wars: WWII, Korea and Vietnam. After he retired in 1972 as a master sergeant, he was appointed commander sergeant-major.

Today, Okendo, 76, lives in Payson with his wife, Clara. Physically, he's not in the greatest shape -- partly because of his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. He's not happy that the military refuses to acknowledge the cause of his ailments, or that the drugs required to treat them are so difficult to obtain.

But Okendo could not be more proud of his service to his country.

Every wall of his home office serve as a monument to both the U.S. Army, Okendo's military career, his countless medals and citations, and the men with whom he served.

During Okendo's service in Vietnam, he was the oldest soldier in his battalion.

"The people that got killed were so young .... Vietnam was my third war, and I tried not to get too close to anybody. Because that's the worst thing -- when somebody gets killed, and it's one of your best buddies. I tried not to get too close." Okendo paused. "But of course, I often did.

"We lost a lot of people in the battle of Dak-To, which was the longest single battle of the war," Okendo said. "The 2nd Battalion had 104 people killed in action. It almost wiped out the whole company. Being there to see that was very difficult ..."

Those memories and many others, good and bad, came flowing back the first time he saw the wall.

"It seemed like everyone was accounted for on the Wall. It took quite a while to see all the names of the people you were looking for, the names of all your friends."

Okendo keeps those names in a book -- lists of men he knew and served with who were listed as KIA (killed in action) or WIA (wounded in action).

Larry Okendo, like the Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall, is a tribute to them all.

Never forgotten

"The first name I'll look for is Ray McMahon's" -- Payson Vietnam Veteran

"I don't want this to be about me," said the Payson Vietnam Vet, asking that his name not be used. "I want it to be about Ray. The first name I'll look for on the wall is Raymond Paul McMahon's. He was my squad leader. He saved my life."

The Vet couldn't tell that story, though. Too hard.

"Raymond was 22 when he died. He was a kind, gentle person, full of potential.

"I already have airline tickets to go to Washington D.C. on July 4th -- the day Raymond died in 1970, 30 years ago to the day. And I'll be there, at the wall."

It won't be the first time this Vet has gone out of his way to remember Ray McMahon.

"A while back, I decided to make a phone call to Dushore, Pa. I figured, 'How many McMahons could possibly live in Dushore, Pa.?' Well, it turned out there were eight. I thought I'd just phone all of them.

"On the first call, I reached a Mr. Arthur McMahon. I said, 'I'm looking for the parents of Raymond Paul McMahon.' He said, 'You've found them.'

"I told Mr. McMahon that I'd been with his son when he died. I told him what a great guy Raymond was, and how he saved my life, and the life of another guy named Smitty.

"Mr. McMahon was so thankful, because for those 28 years, he hadn't known how his son had died. He said, 'My son came home, he was in the casket. I didn't see any marks on him, and he had all his limbs. I didn't know how he died.'

"What had happened was, he'd been shot by an AK-47, and he drowned in his blood. A sucking chest wound.

"Calling Mr. McMahon was really good for me. And then his wife, Katherine, wrote me a letter, and I wrote her back. And then she sent me a picture of Raymond, and I sent her a Christmas card.

"Raymond is buried there in Dushore. I hope to actually get back there one day."

Reluctant warrior

"We had a saying, 'Custer's luck.' We had Custer's luck." -- Jim Spencer

"I was a reluctant warrior, drafted in Feb., 1969. And when I say reluctant, I mean very reluctant," said Payson Town Councilmember Jim Spencer. "However, both my older brother and my father, who was career military, served in Vietnam, so when I was drafted I knew it was my duty. But at that point in time I really didn't know if it was right or wrong ... I learned later that it really wasn't a righteous war.

"I was pretty much a fatalist," said Spencer, 52, who is now the Payson district manager for APS. "I figured I wouldn't make it, especially being in the infantry. But the first six months were actually nothing but boredom."

Unfortunately, the boredom didn't last.

"I had a terrible combat experience for the next six months. We were on the Cambodian border, fighting North Vietnamese soldiers... My company -- Charlie Company, First Battalion, 7th Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division -- was George Custer's unit at Little Big Horn.

"We had a saying, 'Custer's Luck.' We had Custer's luck. "I didn't know this until much later, when I did some research, but our unity lost more people than any one American group during the Cambodian invasion. We lost 19 guys, and probably double that were wounded in a company of 100."

One of Spencer's most vivid, non-combat memories occurred three days after the invasion.

"I had a subscription to my hometown newspaper. When I read about Kent State ... Here you had students protesting to bring us home, and National Guardsmen -- who are in the National Guard, for the most part, to avoid Vietnam service -- shooting students. I realized that the war really was wrong.

"But I did my duty, came home, went back to work, and just closed that chapter."

The chapter was opened again 18 years later, in 1988, when Spencer went to Washington D.C. on business -- and, for the first time, visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

"Standing there, I had this huge inrush of guilt. I couldn't remember all the guys' names. So I made the decision to set out and find the names of every one of those guys, and go back to the wall someday."

With the help of the First Cavalry Association and the Internet, Spencer found every name. "And once I saw the names and where they were from, a lot of memories kicked back in.

"So yes, for me, the Wall coming to Payson is a pretty significant event. But I don't know about closure. I don't think that any veteran who experiences combat is ever going to forget it. It's like any tragic experience of your life. You remember."

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