The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

April 5, 2013

Vietnam War buddies find each other 45 years later

By Bill Foley
The Daily Item

— WINFIELD — It’s just a small notebook, 2½ inches wide, maybe 6 inches long. Behind its brown-leather, flip-top cover, the names of nearly 20 soldiers with whom Fred Yoder fought while serving in Vietnam.

Some names printed, others in cursive, all penned in Yoder’s pad between September 1967 and September 1968 while Yoder was stationed at Pleiku.

There is Steve K. Shope’s name on the lined paper, its margins stained from time. And Robert J. Weis. And Stan Zemaites, Larry D. Reese, Vince P. Murphy, Leonard Niecgorski, Larry F. Miller, Larry M. Contreras, Michael Miel, Richard S. Hargraves, Bob Cole, James L. Stanbury, Joe W. Shook, Larry Miller, Danny Johnson, Max Weise, Clifton McMurray, Pete Maness and Thomas Baxter.

Soldiers from Providence, R.I., to Anaheim, Calif., and everywhere in between.

“That book,” said Yoder, of Winfield, “went everywhere I went. Names of guys we wanted to get together with when we got back.”

But in the 45 years since, Yoder met with only one of the men whose names he did not want to forget: Shope, in Atlanta in 1969, the year after Yoder’s 12-month tour ended and he left Vietnam at age 21. Yoder was drafted at age 20 and became a scout in the Vietnam War, attached to a mechanized tank division.

His most harrowing experience, he said, was in April 1968, when he was on guard duty at Cavalry Hill, halfway between Pleiku, in the central highlands, and Laos.

It was about 10 p.m., and Yoder was sitting behind a 50-caliber machine gun, talking to a friend.

“It was dark,” he said, probably a cloudy and moonless night. “I heard a noise which I had not heard before. Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!” He looked at his friend. “Sam, what was that?” he asked Sam Tallman, of Oklahoma.

Tallman told Yoder he had not heard anything.

Yoder then saw a flashing in the distance, on a ridge.

“I put 100 rounds out there” toward the enemy bunker before the first of 15 mortars landed, Yoder said. “Then the other position started up. We knocked that one out too.

“(The enemy) was walking them in and dropping mortars in the tubes. When you drop them in the tube, they go thoop!”

Almost 400 meters away, between Yoder and what he believes were the Viet Cong, was Niecgorski.

“I was on ambush that night,” Niecgorski said, “in a forward observing post with three or four other guys. Fred was in the camp getting hit.”

The Viet Cong — “It could have been North Vietnamese army regulars, but there were always Viet Cong out to agitate. I think if it was NVA regulars, it might have been a little more thorough, with heavier rockets” — was sending mortar fire over his head toward the base, Niecgorski said.

It’s difficult to forget ambush patrols like the one that night in April 1968.

“The anxiety builds up over the seven hours you are looking for them,” Niecgorski said, “and they are looking for you.”

Forty-five years later, almost to the month, Yoder and Niecgorski were looking for each other.

Yoder, 65, had tried to find Niecgorski, of Pittsburgh, but phone numbers changed, “and no one knew where he was or even heard of him,” Yoder said.

Then Yoder saw a message on an online veterans message board indicating the poster was a member of the B Troop First and 10th Cavalry of Fourth Division.

It was from Niecgorski, Yoder said.

“I need to see these guys: Yoder. Shope,” Niecgorski typed. “Please contact me.”

Yoder emailed Niecgorski For three years, silence. “He never checked his post until (Tuesday),” Yoder said. “He said, ‘I forgot your first name, Yoder. This is Max.’

“When he called me, it was like wow. He called me (Wednesday). He said, ‘I’m going to come out there (April 5).’ He’s going to spend the night here with us.”

Four and a half decades later, he will have met with a second wartime friend whose name appears in that leatherbound notebook.

“I always know where it is,” Yoder said. “I never got rid of it. It’s showing its years, but the names are still easy to read.”

His feelings are not, he said, as he suddenly realizes he will have his first reunion with any fellow fighter since 1969.

“The emotions I had hidden for 45 years,” he said, “they are coming out now.”

His first reunion with a veteran with whom he served in Vietnam will be like “hitting the lottery,” said Niecgorski, 65

Because 45 years is a long time,” Niecgorski said. “You always wonder how they did, what happened to them. Did they make it in civilian life?

“You hear so many horror stories. But Fred and I, we made it. We did OK.”