It all looks so familiar to Vietnam soldier's parents PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

January 21, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Katherine and Gus Mannion watch television reports from the war in the Persian Gulf and see reflections of their son, hear echoes of his voice and remember the day he came home.

"Tod was 19 when he went in the service," Katherine Mannion recalls. "He was in six months when he went to Vietnam. They brought him home to me on his 21st birthday.

He was killed on Dec. 20, 1966."

"He came home on the 27th and he was buried on New Year's Eve," Gus Mannion says. "He brought us honor all his life."

Tod Mannion was an adviser with a South Vietnamese unit at a place called Phu Bon in the Central Highlands, a place so small it hardly ever appears on a map.

Tod volunteered to go along on a truck convoy to Pleiku, a province capital. The convoy was ambushed on the Pleiku road. Tod was killed rallying his Vietnamese troops to fight the Viet Cong.

Nineteen men out of 35 on the convoy were killed. He was the only American casualty.

"We had the porch all decorated up for Christmas," Gus Mannion says. "We were going to leave the decorations up until he came home. Christmas Day I took 'em down."

Tod is in uniform in the three photos on the television set. He's a good-looking, athletic young man, with brown eyes no one ever forgot.

"The first time we saw those boys get on those big transport planes to go to Arabia," Katherine Mannion says, "we just sat there and cried. It brought back memories of 24 years ago.

"I heard those boys talk and I remember the first letter my son sent from Vietnam. He wrote, 'Why are we pussy-footing around? Let's get it over with.'

"And that's what those boys were saying," she says. "But those boys are going into something they don't know anything about."

Gus Mannion was a firefighter for 41 years. He's 80 now, and a little slow climbing the stairs. He retired 17 years ago as a captain, the commander of a million-dollar firehouse in Fairfield, an area of tank farms, industrial plants and poverty on the southern edge of the city.

"I always say you do what you have to do, whether you like it or not," Gus says."

He believes his son, too, did what he had to do.

"You hate to go into a burning building," Gus Mannion says. "But you have a job to do. If somebody's in there, you've got to go in.

"I know those poor boys out there are going to see a lot of adversities," he says. "But the worst thing you see is the young ones you have to carry out. And that's what will be heartbreakers for the boys in the gulf: when they see their buddies and pals killed."

"They're all so young," Katherine says.

She's got soft white hair and the fine lines in her face define her character. She wears a small gold star on her blouse, the emblem of a mother who has lost her son in war.

She became active in the Gold Star Mothers organization soon after her son died. She was national president in 1980, she's been the Maryland-Delaware department president six times, and she's still the Baltimore Chapter president. She was active in getting a Maryland Vietnam War Memorial.

"I know we have one gold star mother already in Arabia," Katherine Mannion says. "One of the first planes was shot down. We know we're going to get more Gold Star Mothers.

"We know we can help them over the hurdles," she says, "because we've been through them ourselves. It's a gold bond. We're obligated to help each other.

"The only way we get membership is when something like this happens," she says. "We'd rather not have any more members so that there would not be any more killings, no more wars. I think every Gold Star Mother would say, 'I hope I'm the last!' "

The Mannions still live in the same tidy brick rowhouse on Elmley Avenue in which their son grew up. Tod's medals -- the Bronze Star with a V for Valor and the Purple Heart -- and his baseball trophies -- are in the basement.

"And this is the neighborhood where he played baseball and went to school and had his buddies and served papers."

Their house is easy to spot: The Mannions have flown the flag every day during the gulf crisis. They've tied a yellow ribbon to the porch rail. They support the president's decision to go to war in the Middle East.

The Mannions still visit their son's grave in Holy Redeemer Cemetery every week.

"You feel differently when you go to the graveyard," she says. "It gives me an uplift. I can talk to him. I can say, 'We're here, Tod,' or 'Merry Christmas, Tod.' "

Katherine Mannion helped break the ground for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. She's got the shovel in the basement with Tod's medals.

She remembers her first visit to the memorial.

"There were no lights and it rained and everything."

A young soldier helped them find Tod's name.

"He lit a match, and he said, 'Here's Tod.'

"That really hit me," she says. "That really hits you when you stand there. I touched his name on the wall. It hits you. You're sad. And you feel proud, too."

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