Black wall reunites long-lost comrades County veterans recall Vietnam VETERANS DAY

November 12, 1992|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

In the early morning sunlight on The Mall in Washington, two men who hadn't seen each other since the war they shared 22 years ago met and hugged.

Tears brimmed in Roy Gray Jr.'s eyes. He hadn't expected to see anyone from his old outfit when he left his home in Manchester early yesterday morning. He and other members of the Carroll County chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America were just going to Washington to participate in Veterans Day ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the Vietnam veterans memorial.

Mr. Gray didn't even have on his own uniform. He was wearing combat fatigues issued to his son, a Marine. But he had donned his black beret, and that's how his buddy Tom Wieber, now a Lusby resident and president of the Maryland chapter of the Brotherhood Roll of All Veterans Organizations, spotted him.

The beret "is from an outfit you never heard of," HAL-3, the Navy's first helicopter attack squadron, Mr. Gray said. The squadron, based at Bien Thuy, provided support and cover for river forces in the Mekong Delta.

Mr. Gray was a maintenance crew chief. One day, he and three other men had checked out a helicopter on the ground and were ready to test it in the air. The men invited him along, but Mr. Gray said he would stay behind and finish some paperwork. Minutes after takeoff, the rotor blade apparently malfunctioned, the chopper crashed and his three friends were killed. Mr. Gray knows where their names are among the 58,183 chiseled into the black granite of the wall.

Wednesday was his fifth visit to the memorial. Once, he came at night and found that it evoked a different feeling.

"It's a little more in-depth; would serenity be the word? It's like you go to someone's grave the first time and the sun is shining and you just pay your respects. The next time it's like they're talking to you," he said.

The Vietnam Veterans of America had scheduled a parade and a ceremony at the wall that included speeches by Vice President-elect Al Gore and Terry Anderson, the longest-held American hostage in Lebanon and a Vietnam veteran. Between the scheduled events, men found each other and hugged and reminisced. Native Americans chanted. People came to the site of the planned women's memorial and left folded $1 and $5 bills beside the miniature of the proposed sculpture.

In the interlude between the parade and the ceremony, Ernie and Debra Clayton of Manchester found some of Mr. Clayton's friends from his old outfit, the 1st signal brigade, 550th Signal Battalion, U.S. Army.

"And we went to the wall and found [the name of] a friend, and cried and had a hot dog," Mrs. Clayton said.

Mr. Clayton said he first visited the wall two years after its dedication. "You really don't get a feeling of how many troopers we lost until you look at the wall and see the names," he said.

On the wall was the name of the man who had been his roommate in Vietnam. Mr. Clayton had known that when the unit was evacuated, his roommate was in the platoon left behind to tear down the signal station. He had heard the platoon was hit, but he didn't know until yesterday that his roommate was among those killed.

This was Carl Myers' first visit to the wall. A draftee who can tell you he served two years, nine months and 12 days, Mr. Myers came home from Vietnam, left behind his role as a supply clerk at Can Tho, went to work for the C&P Telephone Co. and got on with his life.

He found the name of Manchester resident James Zumbrun. Mr. Myers, newly discharged in the fall of 1969, ran into Mr. Zumbrun, who was home on leave before heading to Vietnam for his third tour of duty. A few months later, in January 1970, Mr. Zumbrun died when his plane was shot down over Hanoi.

Mr. Myers struggled for words to describe the feeling of the wall. "Standing down in there, a feeling just comes over you," he said. "I don't know how to describe it. I never felt it before."

Rick Will, a Manchester resident and president of the Carroll chapter of VVA, got angry the first time he visited the wall. Mr. Will had been stationed at Pleiku with the Army Signal Corps. He said that when he visited the memorial, he realized he had been hanging onto his anger at the way the war was conducted and at the way returning servicemen and women were treated.

Despite the emotional impact of the names, Mr. Will said, "I don't look at the wall as a sad place. . . . The love and brotherhood you get from people down here helps in the healing process."

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