By Terrance BellApril 28, 2016
FORT LEE, Va. (April 28, 2016) -- For nearly two years beginning in 1964, members of the Fort Lee-based 109th Quartermaster Company (Air Drop) and later the 383rd QM Detachment in Vietnam grew as close as a unit could get, forming a glue-like bond cultivated from working and playing hard.
"This was the greatest bunch of people I've ever met," said former unit member Steven Coe. "We were behind each other, and we were friends with each other."
Despite their strong spirit and camaraderie, unit members never made contact with each other again after completing their tours, leaving a rather large blank space in their collective memories.
That was until April 19.
On that day at Camp Springs, Md., they graced each other's presence for the first time since 1966 to kick off a reunion.
"It was very emotional," said 71-year-old John Richardson, a reunion organizer and one of 13 riggers who made the trip. "… we were up until midnight just sitting around talking about what we've been doing the last 50 years."
The reunion participants made their way to Fort Lee the following day. Hosted by Brig. Gen. Ronald Kirklin, the Quartermaster General, they toured the Aerial Delivery and Field Services Department headquarters, tried their hands at a high-tech parachute simulator that did not exist 50 years ago and later walked among the confines of the "rigger shack,' the facility where today's riggers learn their trade.
A number of the reunion attendees acquired their skills at Fort Lee's rigger school back in 1964. Some were assigned to the Fort Lee-based 109th following graduation. When the 383rd was activated here in 1965, its ranks were filled from the former, and the unit deployed to Vietnam the same year. Once there, it took on the mission of preparing and delivering all types of supplies and equipment in support of U.S. forces and its allies, according to the reunion program.
"We rigged and dropped almost everything," it stated, " -- artillery shells, concertina wire and steel stakes, rations, as well as pigs, chickens, ducks and even live cows."
The 109th and 383rd were among the first units to use the low-altitude parachute-extraction system, a delivery method that allowed fixed-wing aircraft to drop goods in areas where landing was not feasible or too small to drop supplies from high altitudes.
Operating first out of Qui Nhon, South Vietnam, the 383rd was later relocated to Saigon where most unit members completed their tours. They sometimes worked 20 hours a day, rigging thousands of pounds of supplies and equipment, remembered the 74-year-old Coe.
"We had 20 loads (to rig) every day," recalled the upstate New York native. "We had 3,000 pounds of barrels filled with sand every day and chutes -- 40-by-60-feet in diameter --that weighed 175 pounds; we had to do 40 of those a day."
The work itself was complemented by the element of danger and urgency. Although the threat of combat was greater in Qui Nhon than in Saigon, Brancato said the war in general required participants to construct mental states to better cope with its circumstances.
"There's no way of explaining it other than being in an adrenaline rush," said the Detroit native. "If you've been in a car accident, and you know the feeling of being on edge, well try living that 24-7. You become used to it. It becomes a part of your life … and you only have so much leeway about things. You can only be so happy about something or sad about something. It was a controlled misery."
The state of mind of most unit members was disrupted when one of them died during an airborne operation, said Richardson. Jerry Basden was killed accidentally after jumping from a plane. Unit members not only felt the bolts of sadness that shot through their hearts because they lost a friend, they sank to the comprehension that mortality favors no one.
"He got hung up, got cut loose and the reserve (chute) got wrapped around his main and he landed in the Qui Nhon Bay and drowned," explained Richardson. "That brought the realization to each one of us that we're not bulletproof. We went over there thinking we're airborne -- nothing can touch us. It was Nov. 5, 1965. From that day on, we all got closer. We talked about Jerry a lot, and we still miss him."
Unit members grieved for Basden but had to do so while fulfilling the constant streams of mission requirements, said Brancato. The hardship of loss and work demands brought forth a willingness to indulge in activities of relief. They found it in daily banter and other opportunities to escape the realities. Once they came across a bottle of 190-proof grain alcohol while off duty.
"We were in Qui Nhon … there was no beer, no PX," said Brancato. "We're trying to figure out how we could dilute it and drink it with something. We tried powdered milk, etc., and we finally got ahold of some grapefruit juice. It had been a while since we had anything to drink. I mean, we couldn't smoke around it; it was a fire hazard, but that was the mentality of a GI -- if it was there, we were going to see if we could drink it. We had a good time …"
It was a sweet, memorable moment of young men in the midst of war in a far-off land, said Brancato; one of a myriad of experiences that took place in sometimes hostile environments that drew unit members -- black, white, protestant, Jewish, regular Army and draftee -- to one another like no experience in the states could afford. It would seem mindboggling to most, given their closeness, why unit members did not seek out one another after their redeployments.
"I wish I could answer that," said Brancato. "When we left country, we were tired. It wasn't that we were an infantry unit or anything like that, but we had spent a good part of two years together as people. Not many units, whether they were infantry or anything else, had the fortune of having guys together for two years."
Brancato said he did attempt to find some of his buddies four or five years after they returned to the states. That lone episode of his search was met with sadness.
"I tried to find two guys, and both of them were dead." I said 'I'm not going to do this anymore.'"
Richardson, idled from a knee operation last year, decided he would do it, and in fact, made it his mission to track unit members down. "I found 32 of the original 64," he said.
During his search, Richardson became intimate with life's fleeting nature and how urgent his work was. He found nine unit members had passed away. Three died within the past six months.
"We had one, Mike Lawrence, who was coming to this thing but passed 10 days ago," he said.
During the groups' tour of the rigger shack, the attendees talked with Soldiers in training, observed the equipment and reminisced. One of the unit members, Roger Oster, said the tour was a reckoning of sorts for him because he never acknowledged his service during the war.
"When I came home from Vietnam, I closed that chapter of my life," he said. "I didn't speak about it again. Forty-eight years later, I received a call from one of my battle buddies talking about this trip. I decided to go because I really wanted to see this one buddy in particular."
Oster's buddy was Lawrence.
Later during the visit, Kirklin presented the attendees with certificates, coins and a letter sent by Virginia Sen. Mark Warner thanking them for their service. When Coe received his, he stood up, looked the Quartermaster General in the eye and said, "Sir, this is the best day of my life."
The tour was made special by the presence of two Soldiers currently assigned to the 383rd, now a Reserve unit based at Fort Bragg, N.C.
In addition, ADFSD, among several CASCOM and garrison elements supporting the event, presented a framed guidon to the attendees fashioned in the style of the original.
Richardson said it was all a bit overwhelming.
"This has made my year for sure; probably made my decade" he said. "We're going to try to do this again, and hopefully, we'll all still be alive."
The other unit members were glad they made the trip.
"I was surprised by the number of people who came up and shook our hands and thanked us for our service," said John O'Neill. "We didn't get that kind of reception in '66 when we returned home. Some of us were told not to wear our uniform home because we'd get spit on.
"I had a good time at Fort Lee," O'Neill continued. "I was surprised by our reception, and gratified by our recognition. All the guys felt it."
"The honor we were shown and received at Fort Lee … it will always be a very beautiful memory that will stay in our hearts and minds for the rest of our lives," said Dick Hocking. "We are all grateful."
The group closed out its reunion with a trip the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the nation's capital.
-- Susan Garling also contributed.