First reunion of Vietnam unit about to unfold here
As you get busy with your plans this Memorial Day weekend, here’s a story to take with you.
It’s about a young man and the life he made in his all too brief a time on this earth, and about the imprints that have carried and grown over the many decades of his absence. His is the story of one serviceman. His is a story for all of them.
“Jim never backed down from anything.”
Ted Unruh is talking about his brother and best friend who was 22 years old when he was killed in the mountains of Cambodia on Memorial Day of 1970. And 44 years to the day when Jim Unruh, a 1965 graduate of Cocalico High School, gave his life as a member of the 1st Cavalry Division, six members of his battalion will be coming to Lancaster County for a reunion with the Unruh clan, who grew up in Stevens and all still live in or near the Cocalico area
It started with a photograph that sister Jane had developed recently which showed her brother sitting on a rock in Cambodia reading a copy of The Ephrata Review. As photographs are known to do, this particular one helped stir up a conversation; which in turn convinced Jane to write a letter to one of Jim’s old squad members, Doyle Miller. With the help of Miller and his daughter, Jane was able to locate 25 members from across the country with letters and phone calls and Facebook.
“It’s going to be very emotional.” Says Jane of the reunion. “These men have given so much, they’re still giving, they’re still tied to that past they all lived through and hopefully this will be something positive they can share.” She says if the phone calls she has had with many of the men are any indication, there is going to be plenty of laughter to go around as well.
As for Ted, he says he can’t wait to meet his brother’s squad members and listen to the stories of ‘Jungle Jim’ &tstr; a moniker his brother earned for his skillful navigation of the bush and his ability to sneak behind enemy lines without detection. “Jim looked out for the guys. He was quiet but he had this presence about him that drew you in.”
Sister Judy nods her head in agreement.
“They only knew our brother for six months and here it is 44 years later and his life is still speaking to them. Just as with us, Jim will always be a part of their lives.”
In late May of 1970 Jim’s unit found itself in the deep of Cambodia’s jungles &tstr; known as the Fishhook Region &tstr; on a search and destroy mission of the North Vietnamese caches. The men worked tirelessly to locate and eliminate the vast labyrinth of murderous devices built by the Viet Cong. They crawled everywhere, slept fitfully and oftentimes went without bathing in order to stave off mosquitoes.
Respites were brief excursions whose peace was deceptive. As Jim’s Lieutenant recalls, the men always made the most of it. Jim would only talk up his sister Jane to the guys he considered ‘good candidates.’ The men would talk about where they wanted to be. Some pined for the beach, others couldn’t wait to go hunting or fishing, while Jim talked about going to Hersheypark. They all shared the unspoken thought: anyplace but there.
The possibility of ambush was everywhere &tstr; from the battlefields to the tiny hamlets they passed through. Weeks earlier, Jim had defused a potentially deadly conflict involving a tax collector and a town chieftain and on the morning he was killed, he had radioed in to the men that one of his traps had been tampered with by the enemy.
“Jimmy Dolan remembers that morning as if it happened five minutes ago,” says Jane, referring to one of the members of her brother’s unit. “He remembers how the sun shined down on the trees and how the bamboo was glistening and how there was a feeling that overcame him. Not a good one.”
On the other side of the world, Jim’s mother Grace experienced the very same feeling long before the minister and a U.S. Army representative appeared at her door to make it official.
“We were preparing for our annual Memorial Day picnic, but mom just wasn’t herself. She had lost her brother in WWII and she had been having premonitions for a while. On that morning, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong,” says Judy.
Jim’s siblings know this reunion is not about happy endings, they are well aware there are no simple conclusions to be had despite all the time that has passed. This realization was most evident when they began discussing a trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. &tstr; a journey the family and Jim’s squad members will take by van on May 29.
Jane says her family was mindful of the fact that the healing qualities of the Wall do not always translate.
“When I talked with Doyle about visiting the Wall he was on board because the way he saw it, he wasn’t making the trip for himself but for the men on that wall.
“When (Doyle) he talks about his time over there, he says he remembers being angry all the time. Like a lot of these men, he shut down when he came back home. It’s only recently that he began opening up about his experiences.”
One of the first people Doyle expressed an interest in meeting was Jim’s father, J. Howard, who passed in 2013. Like all of the men, Doyle feels like a member of the Unruh family.
Jane says they are grateful to those who decided to come, they are sorry for those who could not make it due to scheduling conflicts or travel concerns, and they are respectful and understanding of those who decided to let the past remain where it is.
As it is with every soldier, the men carried home their own personal collection of wounds &tstr; both physically and emotionally.
“It hasn’t been easy for these men, it never is,” says Ted. “Some have battled alcoholism, one of the members of Jim’s squad who made it back committed suicide. A few of the men suffer from diabetes…several have had to deal with the effects of exposure to Agent Orange.”
“They carry survivor’s guilt,” says Jane, as she explains the powerful dynamic that occurs when strangers become friends and brothers inside the vicious crucible of war. The guilt speaks to a soldier’s selflessness inside the worst of times and their willingness to sacrifice their lives for a brother who would surely do the same for them.
Ted says there was a common thread that ran through these men once it was clear they would be going off to fight.
“They didn’t go over (to Vietnam) with hatred in their hearts, there was no animosity. They were called to duty and they went, simple as that. They knew that if they didn’t go, someone else had to.”
In Jim’s last letter home, his words are hopeful and strong and he is thankful for the family pictures. He says the idea of feeling down “Don’t mean nothing.” It’s a well-worn phrase among soldiers meant to convey a brave face in the most trying of times. He ends with the news that he just found out he made Sergeant. His faith &tstr; he had taken communion not long before this writing &tstr; is unwavering. He is 22 years old
This Memorial Day, the past will come together with the present when Jim’s squad members make the journey from places like Michigan and Texas, Oklahoma and New York. There will be humorous anecdotes that spiral into warm, embracing stories, because no memory of Jim ever goes short. The tears and the laughter will take turns with each other at a table made bigger by the ties that bind. Of course, Jim will have his seat at this table. The boy who never made it home, the man whose impact never left.
Marc Anthony is a correspondent for The Ephrata Review.