Combat veterans always keep in mind the comrades who didn’t come home
May 24, 2015 12:00 AM
Photo Illustration/Daniel Marsula/Post-Gazette,
Arnold Benson Jr., left, killed in Vietnam; Fran Rifugiato, center, served in World War II; Jared Monti, right, killed in Afghanistan and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Francis Rifugiato, Army, World War II
Jack Snyder, Marine Corps, World War II
Windell Boggess, Army, Korea
Sgt. Gordon J. Le Vahn, killed in Korea
Lewis Cooke, Army, Vietnam
John Hawes, Army, Afghanistan
Sgt. Jared Monti, killed in Afghanistan, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Joe Capone, Army, World War II
By Kevin Farkas and Todd DePastino
If you’ve ever talked with combat veterans about their service, you’ve no doubt heard them say that they’re not heroes. The real heroes, they emphasize, didn’t come home. Many veterans keep close the memory of a particular hero — a buddy, a superior or someone they saw die in war.
As directors of the Veterans Breakfast Club and Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative, we’ve heard a thousand veterans tell a thousand stories. Almost all of them are genuinely mindful of what a precious gift their post-war lives have been — and of those who never got to rejoin their families, or start new families, or grow old.
In 1942, Larry Chrzan left his Strip District neighborhood to join the Navy, serving on the USS Cleveland in the battles of Guadalcanal, Saipan, Guam and in the Philippines. A dozen friends went to war with him. “On that whole block,” he recalls, “I was the only one that made it.”
Luck, perhaps? Marine Corps veteran Donald Myers of Whitehall thinks so. If not for the tropical illness he contracted on Guadalcanal, he’s certain he wouldn’t have returned home. “Had I survived Guam,” he says, “I’m convinced I would have been killed on Okinawa. Of the 225 in my company, 200 were killed or wounded. You think about that.”
Was it fate? Non-combat veterans often wonder about the fortunate hands they were dealt in the military. Drew Grivna of Beaver, who spent the Vietnam years with the Air Force in North Africa and Japan, thinks of his friends who were sent to war and never returned. “Why them, and not me?” he asked at a recent Veterans Breakfast Club event.
In honor of Memorial Day — our day to honor publicly those who are remembered privately by millions every day across the country — we’d like to share a few stories we’ve heard at our storytelling breakfasts and in our interviews, stories about fallen comrades told by veterans who came home and never forgot those who didn’t.
Fran Rifugiato of Monroeville, before he passed away last year, told us about his closest friend, Charles F. Erke Jr., from Tupelo, Miss., who shared Fran’s intellectual bent. The two of them spent a few days’ leave touring London before their scheduled return to combat in France with the 12th Armored Division. In Westminster Abbey, they lit votive candles. Charlie turned to Fran and said, “I don’t think I’ll ever see you again.”
“What are you saying, Charlie?” Fran replied with alarm. “Of course you’re gonna make it, don’t talk like that!”
“Nah, I got a funny feeling,” Charlie said flatly, shaking his head.
On Jan. 16, 1945, a bullet to the head killed Charles F. Erke Jr.
“I’m here, I survived,” Fran said through tears. “How can I tell people about how I got this [medal] or how I got that [award], and my buddy Charlie is in the ground? I can’t do it. I was very lucky to have survived it, and I’m grateful.”
Marine Corps, WWII
Jack Snyder can tell you immediately who he keeps in mind on Memorial Day: Marine Sgt. George L. Barlow of Verbank, N.Y.
Sgt. Barlow was a 21-year-old platoon leader on Iwo Jima on March 1, 1945, when he saved Jack’s life. Jack, who had graduated at age 17 from Monessen High School in 1942, was a machine gunner with the 4th Marine Division. Casualties were so heavy that companies of more than 200 men were whittled down to 50. Ten days after the invasion, Sgt. Barlow was with Jack’s squad in an old Japanese anti-aircraft position.
“We were silhouetted against the evening sky. [The Japanese] noticed our spot. They threw a hand grenade. It hit the parapet wall and rolled in. Sgt. Barlow shouts, ‘Grenade!’ He covers it with his body, and it explodes.”
Sgt. Barlow had saved the lives of the four other men in the hole.
Not a day goes by that Jack doesn’t think of George Barlow, the man who gave him the gift of a long, full life. He believes Sgt. Barlow deserves the Medal of Honor, or at least the Navy Cross. But, by the time the battle was over, Jack was the only surviving witness to Sgt. Barlow’s heroism. One witness isn’t enough for such awards.
Jack nevertheless has spent decades petitioning the Marines for some kind of recognition for Sgt. Barlow, at least a Bronze Star. He expects to get a final determination this year.
There is a lot about the Korean War that Windell Boggess of Rochester, Beaver County, prefers to forget. “I try to wipe those things out of my mind,” he said. But he fondly remembers Sgt. Gordon J. Le Vahn of Minneapolis.
Windell served with Sgt. Le Vahn in the 2nd Infantry Division on the 38th Parallel in Korea, along a hilly defensive line dotted with colorfully named outposts: Iron Triangle, Pork Chop and Old Baldy.
“I was a replacement for a replacement,” Windell says. “We lost a lot of guys. There was no sense in getting to know anyone very well.”
In spite of himself, Windell got to know Gordon Le Vahn. “I loved him. He was my platoon sergeant. I was his assistant.”
It was there, in the barren hills of North Korea, on Sept. 13, 1952, that Sgt. Le Vahn was killed by artillery fire while carrying ammunition.
Windell has regrets: “I was young back then, and you don’t think, but I have kicked my butt for not going to see his parents because he and I were awful close.”
Lewis Cooke inherited the dog tags of Arnold Benson Jr. of Chester, Pa. They both served in the 9th Division in Vietnam. “It was the longest year of my life,” says Lewis, of Tionesta. “I can’t believe I made it out alive. Just stupid luck maybe.”
Lewis was an 18-year-old rifleman out on search-and-destroy missions deep in the Vietnamese jungles. Once, he was out on patrol for two weeks, moving 14 miles a day through the heavy brush. No shower, no clean clothes. His fatigue pants wore thin in the heat and humidity. Then, he ran into his friend Arnie Benson, who was with another platoon on patrol.
“Hey, Arnie, do you have a pair of extra pants?”
“Yeah, Lew, I got that,” replied Arnie, reaching into his pack.
A few days later, back at base camp, Lew washed the pants and searched for Arnie to return them. “Where’s Arnie?” he asked. Another grunt replied, “Oh, didn’t you hear? They got ambushed in a rubber plantation.”
“His dog tags …” Lew explained in our interview, choking up. “Arnie left his dog tags in the pants pocket. I still have them today. It still gets me, and that was 50 years ago. It is my prize possession of the war.”
Last year, Staff Sgt. John Hawes, who still serves in the army, came to one of our Veterans Breakfast Club events and talked about his deployments in Iraq and then Afghanistan, where he received a Silver Star as a sniper with the 10th Mountain Division. “It’s not something you want,” John said of the medal, “when you realize what it takes to earn it. Friends die, and that’s not worth anything.”
One of those friends was Sgt. First Class Jared Monti of Raynham, Mass., who posthumously received the first Medal of Honor for Operation Enduring Freedom for his actions on June 21, 2006, in the Gowardesh Valley of Afghanistan.
John was a team leader with Sgt. Monti on a 16-man patrol at 8,500 feet when the Taliban detected the team’s exposed position and ambushed them. “They had us outgunned, outnumbered and pinned in place,” recalled John. “The enemy got into hand-grenade and pistol range.”
One American, Pfc. Brian J. Bradbury of Saint Joseph, Mo., lay mortally wounded on open ground, 5 meters from 60-odd Taliban fighters. Without hesitation, Sgt. Monti jumped up to rescue Pfc. Bradbury, while John rose to provide covering fire. Just as John ran out of ammunition and Sgt. Monti grabbed Pfc. Bradbury, Sgt. Monti was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. As he lay dying, Sgt. Monti recited the Lord’s Prayer, then turned to John and asked him to tell his family that he’d made his peace with God and that he loved them.
John remembers his friend by emulating him, and by telling Jared Monti’s story to new recruits. “I think every day about that tragic night,” John says. “SFC Monti is a hero in every aspect of the word.”
We recently asked Joe Capone, who served in the 104th Timberwolf Division in World War II, who he thinks of on Memorial Day. “Well, I think of my squad, who were all killed, except me,” he replied. Joe thought a moment and added, “But I think of them every day.”
As we enjoy this Memorial Day weekend, as we honor those who died for our country, let’s also remember our veterans, for whom every day is Memorial Day.
Kevin Farkas and Todd DePastino are directors of Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh and the Veterans Breakfast Club, nonprofits that work to capture, share and preserve veterans’ stories. Everyone is invited to all Veterans Breakfast Club events, and veterans of all eras can participate in the Veteran Voices project.
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