War may be hell, but contact -- getting shot at -- is a 12-letter word that can't be repeated in a family newspaper.
That, at least, is how several Merced veterans who escaped combat's clutches recall vivid memories of near-death experiences that have lingered throughout their lives.
While opinions about whether America should be fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are as diverse as the Merced men themselves, local veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam channel an unmatched empathy for their 21st century comrades-in-arms. They care because they share the same harrowing experiences they themselves weathered two or three generations ago.
In the warrior's code, they've got one another's "6" -- their backs.
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Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman uttered the famous "War is hell" mantra back in 1864 during the Civil War. Since then, any war involving the United States has done little to soften the savage reality of combat. It forever changes those caught in its web.
Memory experts theorize that human recall of past events varies. Circumstances and events are best remembered if they are exciting. That's a given when bombs are exploding a few feet away and mortar rounds are crumping next door. Like the faded black-and-white photographs in an album, some memories have dulled, while others remain as colorful as yesterday's sunset, local veterans say.
In Merced County, military veterans are as thick on the ground as almond groves. At the end of September, the Department of Veterans Affairs reckoned there were 13,792 in a county of 252,544 people -- that means nearly one in five Mercedians has served Uncle Sam at some point. Many of them were stationed at the giant Strategic Air Command base at Castle during the Cold War, liked the area and stayed after they retired or after the base closed down.
Traditionally, military veterans are a conservative, or at least libertarian, lot. The notions of sacrifice, brotherhood and loyalty loom, not as abstract virtues, but real-life experiences they call on when needed.
For some, war was the best time of their lives. For others, the worst. For many, it was both.
Brigade and squadron reunions were a way of post-war life until Vietnam, when entire units stopped being deployed as one, and individual troops rotated in and out -- moving, expendable parts -- for their yearlong tours.
Today, veterans' organizations in Merced report thriving memberships -- with one worrisome trend line. The federal veterans agency estimates that in seven years, the number of Merced vets will drop to just under 11,600 -- even with the hundreds of local boys and girls who signed up after Sept. 11, 2001. Whatever the numbers, a lifelong camaraderie shared by no other group of humans explains why the Shakespearean phrase "band of brothers" means so much to Merced veterans.
Pull up an easy chair and unlimber your listening skills. What follows is a collection, literally, of war stories.
As he was eating breakfast in South Vietnam after an all-night firefight with the Viet Cong, Charlie Pigott felt a stinging sensation. A bullet had pierced his neck. That was the climax of nearly a year's U.S. Army deployment in Indochina -- but the welcome back home proved equally painful.
Pete Komlenich's best explanation for living through his B-24 being shot down over Italy and being a "guest of the Gestapo" for one-and-a-half years during World War II is that angels were resting on his shoulders. At age 94, he figures he needs to live many more years to pay back all his good fortune.
Bob Abasta's Seabees construction battalion was flying into Da Nang, South Vietnam's giant port, at night when he heard "little pop-pop noises" and discovered his cargo plane was taking small-arms rounds. That was part of his first sobering realization of the Vietnam War -- someone he had never met, and probably never would -- was shooting at him and wanted him dead.
Olen Bartlett was getting ready to serve chow to troops on the USS Wake Island when a Japanese kamikaze pilot's plane lanced the ship's bow, and the vessel took on water. The sailor with him in the ship's galley started crying while a calmer Bartlett urged him to get down on his knees and pray.
Don Thomas remembers the bitter cold and the constant foxhole battles during his six months of combat in the Korean War. Getting shot in the left shoulder and tumbling wounded down a hill form a dense chapter in his mental diary; after three months in the hospital, he returned to the Korean front lines for four months' more fighting.
Bill Dacus was the crew chief on a Sikorsky SH-3A helicopter rescuing downed fighter pilots in Vietnam. He remembers helping unload many wounded American pilots missing arms and legs. During his Vietnam days, American troops seemed well equipped. Local veterans' groups don't see the same level of preparedness in Iraq, Dacus said.
What all these veterans have in common is that they served their country and came home, for the most part, whole. They left part of themselves in faraway war zones, and they found part of themselves there too. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but once these men became civilians again, they viewed their service through distinctly personal prisms.
While the brush of wartime fear didn't paint broad strokes on Dacus, for example, there are smudges on those near to him. He said he has a friend who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder; other military friends don't speak openly about their service experiences.
About 10 days before Pigott, 58, was wounded outside his base camp in Vietnam, the tank he was driving lurched over a land mine. He suffered a concussion, cuts, bruises and a hip injury when the lightweight Sheridan tank encountered the 1960s version of today's improvised explosive devices so common in Iraq.
Thomas was wounded on New Year's Eve, 1950, but remembers it "like it was yesterday." The 75-year-old Atwater man wrote a 40-page book about his experiences in Korea. Counting the chill factor, it was 70 degrees below zero while he was riding a tank; enduring the cold is among his strongest memories from the frigid peninsula.
Komlenich, who has lived in Merced since 1965, thought he was a goner when he faced execution for inadvertently hitting a German prison guard. He spent time in a bleak and windowless, unheated cell called a "cooler" and freely credits angels with sparing his life.
Abasta, 66, doesn't feel any differently about Iraq than he did about Vietnam. He said soldiers shouldn't talk politics, repeating the familiar line, "Loose lips sink ships." His experience in the military was a positive one, one he's glad he had.
Olen Bartlett (World War II)
Bartlett, 85, said on their fifth day in Okinawa in 1945, two Japanese suicide planes buzzed overhead. One was shot down, but the second punched a 40-by-80-foot hole in the carrier. For awhile he wasn't sure what their fate would be. The 850 sailors onboard received a "stand by to abandon ship" order, and Bartlett admits he did a considerable amount of praying.
"The guy down with me started crying," Bartlett recalled. "His wife had just had a baby, and he thought he'd never get to see the baby. I remember it pretty good; it's pretty hard to forget sometimes."
The American people were behind World War II, Bartlett observed. He's not so sure about the current mission in Iraq. "I don't understand why we're over there," Bartlett said. "They were hollering for men; in World War II you knew what you were out there for. What Bush is doing isn't right, putting 19- and 20-year-olds over there without experience and killing them off. They're breaking us, money-wise. We'll never get out of debt."
Bartlett said he used to get together at reunions with his Navy buddies, but most have since died. Not all the time, but once in a while, he dreams about those Navy days: "I wake up and think how lucky I am to be here now. Would I do it over again? I guess I would."
He joined the Navy right after Pearl Harbor. Two of his brothers were in the Army and told him the Army would "march your ass off."
A Mercedian for the last decade, Bartlett thinks World War II veterans are almost forgotten compared with those from the Korean and Vietnam eras. He believes there are about 300 World War II veterans living in the Merced-Atwater area now and is happy the Veterans of Foreign Wars post will recognize these servicemen at a Feb. 6 ceremony.
Bartlett belongs to an honor guard from the VFW and American Legion Post No. 83. He goes to the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella every third Wednesday during rites for dead veterans. "If we didn't go out there, a lot of guys wouldn't have a funeral," he said.
Charlie Pigott (Vietnam)
In a measured, reflective tone, Pigott rates himself a decent soldier. He reckons he may have been in about 10 firefights in Vietnam when he was there in 1969-70. Some of these gunfire exchanges were quick, while others lasted hours -- even all night long.
He hasn't decided yet on his position about America's military involvement in Iraq, but doesn't believe the American people know the truth why U.S. forces are there.
His thoughts run an emotional gamut. "The hardest part was accepting my own self," Pigott said. "We did claim some lives. I didn't do all that much wrong; that's war. It's up and down. Some feelings creep up on you, and my memories bounce around. I left the entire country (of South Vietnam) not hating anybody."
The toughest part was coming back home. "There's a saying that going over there was a pisser, but coming back was a whole lot harder," Pigott said. "It's kind of disheartening. People didn't have the patience to listen; they were fed up with the war. It sure didn't seem like a lot of sympathy."
Pigott received a sucking chest wound early on the fateful morning he was wounded by a remotely detonated land mine. He panicked when he could hear himself breathing -- through his neck. He was airlifted to a medical complex in Chu Lai and then spent a month in Okinawa before being shuttled home. He spent another month at a veteran's hospital in Brentwood.
He recovered quickly. Regardless of his injuries, Pigott called his time in the Army's First Cavalry "quite an experience." He's bitter that returning Vietnam servicemen weren't treated well, and he hopes today's soldiers are "treated a little better this time." He still loves watching war movies and noted there's a considerable difference between Hollywood's version and the real deal.
Pigott belongs to the Disabled American Veterans and Vietnam Veterans of America groups. He used to be able to climb into a tank in a split second. Now he said it would take three guys to hoist him up: "I know I wouldn't be any good for them now. I'm glad it's them and not me."
Don Thomas (Korea)
Thomas can tell you every piece of equipment he carried and minute details of his experiences more than 55 years ago in Korea. Night after night the temperature dipped to 15 or 20 degrees below zero. He wore seven layers of clothing on his upper body and three pairs of wool socks, but still had to keep his toes moving to avoid frostbite.
"That was the worst," he remembered. "War is hell. We were up near Manchuria. Night after night you were digging in and not sure if you'd see the light of day. Later I was sent to Alaska, but we had warm barracks and vehicles there and it was no big thing."
Joining the Army at age 15 in the summer of 1947, Thomas thought the Korean conflict would be short-lived -- until the Chinese Communist Army intervened. Thomas, who retired from the Army after 20 years in 1967 as a sergeant first class, said he came out of the war feeling pretty good and "left it all behind me."
Not that there weren't close calls: plenty of bullets stirred up snow and knicked the ground around him, and he felt the vertical vortex of many a mortar round that just missed its mark.
Fighting in Korea was different from Afghanistan or Iraq. Off the front lines in Korea, soldiers were safe and could relax. Not so in the Middle East or South Asia. "These guys can't relax anyplace. We've got to put pressure on the (Iraqi) government to take over their own destiny," Thomas said.
In addition to Korea and Alaska, Thomas' Army career took him to France, Germany, Japan, Texas, Oklahoma and Kentucky. He received a Purple Heart for his service in Korea.
Pete Komlenich (World War II)
Twice a day, while a prisoner-of-war at Stalag Luft 1 about 100 miles north of Berlin, Komlenich would be interrogated by a German captain who spoke fluent English. After volunteering only name, rank and serial number, Komlenich got his teeth kicked in. But the Germans never learned that he had been a bombardier, a certain death sentence at the time.
Once the Germans showed him a man who looked like an American getting shot but Komlenich said he "kinda ignored that." During confinement, his normal weight of 138 withered to 91 pounds.
As a POW, when times seemed desperate, Komlenich transported his mind back to Chicago and focused on his wife, Millie, and his young daughter. He still can't put into words how he escaped death countless times, particularly on the ill-fated B-24 mission, his 13th, when the plane was shot down over Vicenza, Italy.
As the plane was being bombarded with flak Dec. 28, 1943, Komlenich was shot in the right elbow and was bleeding heavily. Most of the crew, pilots included, had bailed out of the doomed plane without telling others. Komlenich's oxygen mask was damaged, he lost consciousness and doesn't remember opening his parachute. "I was unconscious," Komlenich said. "The Good Lord opened my chute. In less than 10 minutes the whole squadron was lost."
The miracles didn't stop there. Italian villagers were executing downed Americans with pitchforks as they landed in the fields. Two monks in long robes hid him in a vegetable truck, and German and Italian soldiers later took him in an open roadster, speeding at 60 mph along narrow, winding roads, to a hospital somewhere in Italy.
He remembers April 28, 1945, the day American soldiers realized the Germans had abandoned the prison camp. A makeshift American flag was raised with much jubilation, and the Nazi swastika was torn to shreds by the 200 now-liberated GIs.
"I'm the most religious guy you've ever talked to," Komlenich said. "I can't put it in words, can't explain it. After a certain point, you just thank the Good Lord you're still alive."
After the war, Komlenich stayed in the service for 30 years, retiring from the Air Force in 1970 at Castle AFB. He has three daughters and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
As far as the U.S. presence in Iraq, Komlenich believes that someone has to help those people. He said President Bush can't be blamed since he makes decisions based on others' information. If the United States wasn't waging war against terrorism, eventually terrorists would be knocking on America's borders. "I would do it over again," he insists about his service. "A lot of tragedies turned out to be blessings."
Bob Abasta (Vietnam)
A Merced resident for 25 years, Abasta figures his experiences with the Navy Seabees construction battalion equipped him well for his later career as a handyman. What he wasn't prepared for was what he called the "unwelcome welcome" he got coming home from Vietnam in 1969.
Abasta spent two tours in Vietnam, about a year apart, in Da Nang and Dong Ha. While Seabees concentrated on building roads, putting up telephone poles and supporting other forces, they couldn't escape the need to carry weapons or the fact they might be caught in the line of fire. They were plumbers, welders, mechanics and electricians -- expected to defend themselves against the enemy.
When the C141 cargo plane carrying Abasta and his comrades descended into Da Nang, the sergeant told the troops to "lock and load" their weapons. Abasta realized the plane was taking small-arms fire even as it descended into a combat zone.
"That was my welcome to Vietnam," Abasta said. "Until it touches you, you wonder who would want to shoot me? It was weird, strange, surreal. We were in the middle of a firefight, with tracers going back and forth. For me, it was a little like a movie. It hadn't settled into my mind this was a shooting-type war."
He came under fire several times. Once the Viet Cong ran through his camp on the way to Marble Mountain. Another time a mortar round landed near his hooch, a wood-framed shelter with a canvas skin where soldiers slept. "I didn't lose anything or gain anything," he shrugged. "I came back with everything I went over there with."
Abasta considers his Vietnam service somewhat similar to what today's armed forces are facing in Iraq -- not knowing who was friend or foe. During the day, soldiers might be walking next to Vietnamese people who might become the enemy once night fell. Sometimes the Seabees would have to drop their construction tools and make a patrol sweep in the nearby jungle. "Charlie looked like a regular civilian. Who wears a uniform anymore?" he asked.
Abasta said the emotional baggage he carries weighed heaviest when the traveling veterans' walls come to the area or when he went back to Washington, D.C., to see the Vietnam memorial itself. About 50,000 Vietnam vets went to Branson, Mo., two years ago, and this reunion with other veterans moved him deeply.
"When I do school programs, kids will ask, did you kill anybody? I don't think so; I don't know if I hit anything. I hope I didn't," Abasta said. The father of three children, Abasta has 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His grandson, Michael Dominguez, now is serving in the Army in Baghdad. Abasta is president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 691.
Abasta doesn't criticize the military and feels such second-guessing is like being a Monday morning quarterback. "It's one thing to disagree with policy," Abasta said. "It's another thing to say so publicly. It's demoralizing when it's said out loud. Since no one is over there, there's no way of knowing if the tactics are good."
As his father, a World War II veteran, told him in the 1960s, military service is a must for every young single man. If he doesn't know discipline when he enlists, he'll learn it fast.
Bill Dacus (Vietnam)
Dacus, 63, spent seven months in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of Vietnam. A maintenance scheduler and crew chief on rescue helicopters, he would wind up cleaning up blood from wounded American pilots. It was his first experience with the gory nature of war.
The Sikorskys also came back riddled with bullet holes, mostly from small arms fire. It was Dacus' job to keep them flying, and he worked 12-hour shifts keeping maintenance logs on the fixed-wing aircraft.
After four years in the Navy, Dacus got out in 1967; but the Los Angeles job market wasn't that robust, and the Air Force signed him up right away. After spending time as a maintenance scheduler, he cross-trained in flight refueling and became a boom operator on KC-135 aerial tankers.
During the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, Dacus performed in-flight refueling, including nighttime missions with no lights or even the moon for reference, on air reconnaissance missions in the Persian Gulf. He retired in 1983 as a technical sergeant and a boom operator instructor.
Dacus, the adjutant of American Legion Post 83 and VFW Post 4327, feels that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is necessary. "Congress is more in control than the military," Dacus said. "It almost seems like Vietnam all over again. I wonder why they don't let the military go in and end it, but I'm sure it's not that simple. If we don't stop terrorism now, we'll never get it stopped."
Dacus said veterans service organizations have had to fight to get service personnel better armored vests and more strongly fortified Humvees for duty in Iraq. The Veterans Administration, still chronically underfunded, also seems to be caring for returning servicemen better than it did in the Vietnam era.
Dacus retired in 2002 after 18 years as a correctional officer with the Merced County Sheriff's Department and said he saw more combat at the Sandy Mush Jail than in the military.
That's his story -- and he's sticking to it. In fact, that's all their stories.
Whether the lunar wastelands of Nazi Germany, the frozen trenches of Korea, the steamy jungles of Vietnam or the searing chaos of Baghdad, the abiding brotherhood of American veterans and their love of country spans the passage of time and place.
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.