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FORT WALTON BEACH, FL -- This Florida Panhandle beach resort was invaded over the Columbus Day weekend with hungry sharks and dolphins. And Witchdoctors!
The weekend marked the annual reunion of members of the 174th Assault Helicopter Company and support units in an Association which continues to grow. Over 60 aviators, crewchiefs, gunners, cooks, mechanics and other assorted specialists attended the big splash to get reacquainted with old comrades and relive experiences. Good and bad.
A liberal sprinkling of enthusiastic wives attending the reunion added a touch of real class to the event.
The scene of this year's wet -- literally -- gathering was the Best Western Beachfront Hotel. The new location featured accommodating rooms, a pleasant staff, and an ideal conference room/hospitality suite; and, for the "night flight," a well-stocked bar. A couple of the hotel's young bartenders learned the hard way that the "old guys" can still "shut the place down" in the wee hours of the morning.
The Annual 174th AHC Association Business Meeting was held on Friday, October 8th at 1800 hours. Reading of last year's minutes was waived. The Treasurer's report was read and approved by the membership. The financial records had been reviewed before the meeting by a volunteer finance committee consisting of Al Sarnecki, Chairman; Marty Heuer, Eddie McNeill, and Jeanne Hewetson, representing the Fan Club. The review by the financial committee did not consist of an audit, but merely reflected that the records appeared to be complete and in good order.
No new Association officers were slated for election this year. Officers for the coming year remain: Ted Saunders, President; Eddie McNeill, Vice President; and, Bernie Cobb, Secretary/Treasurer.
Special "greetings and salutations" from some VIP well-wishes were read to the group by the Secretary.* * *
The first was a transcribed telephone conversation from a former Shark 6.
"I promised to be there this year," he said, "but unexpected events precluded my attendance.
"I promise," the caller added, "that I will be there next year. Have a great time,"
Lieutenant General, United States Army
Greetings were also received from a famous pre-WW II fighter group with special ties to the 174th AHC:* * *
"We, the surviving members of the American Volunteer Group, are pleased to know that the 174th "Shark" gunships and the warriors who manned them during combat in Viet Nam continued our Flying Tigers tradition.
"I'm sure that I speak for all of our members when I tell you that we consider it an honor to know that your fine group of airmen used our nose insignia and that it was a source of inspiration for them. Nothing could please our group more.
"You have our respect and admiration. We will never forget the Viet Nam vets.
"Have a wonderful time at your reunion. I wish I could be there with you."
/s/ Dick Rossi, President
Flying Tigers Association
The final letter of special greetings came from a former enlisted man stationed briefly at Ft. Rucker's Public Information Office in the mid-1970s:
" I am pleased to have this opportunity to send my personal greetings to everyone participating in the 174th Assault Helicopter Company reunion. While I regret not being able to join you for this important gathering, I want to extend my best wishes for a successful and productive event.
"Our commitment and obligation to America's veterans never should be taken lightly. No one is more
deserving of our recognition, our deepest thanks, and our support. Please be assured that the President and I will continue to honor all of those who have served America in the armed forces. Our nation is strong, secure, and free because of them.
"As a veteran myself, I am especially pleased to offer my warmest hopes for your continued success in the year's to come.
/s/ Al Gore
Vice President, United States of America
"Aviation Museum Tour"
Some called a bus tour to Ft. Rucker and the Aviation Museum the main highlight of the holiday weekend. In reflection, though, they readily admitted that it was the second best highlight.
The main event, of course, was the fellowship enjoyed by the former members of the 174th AHC and its support units. The day of arrival, Friday October 8th for most, was an emotional one for many as they greeted old buddies whom some had not seen for as many as 33 years.
Handshakes turned to bear hugs and, in some cases, misty eyes and a big lump in the throat.
But, grown men don't cry! (Or, do they?)
On Saturday morning, shortly after the crack of dawn, Association President, Ted Saunders, loaded up his Emerald Bus Tours Inc., privately owned bus with 29 souls and departed east for Daleville and Ft. Rucker -- the U. S. Army Aviation Center -- the "Home of Army Aviation" with its world famous motto: "Above the Best."
On arrival at Daleville City Hall, the "VIP bus" was greeted by two Daleville police cruisers and escorted elegantly to the Ft. Rucker main gate where an MP patrol vehicle joined the procession and led the
mini-convoy to the museum.
But the group roll call wasn't complete yet. At the museum, former 14th CAB commander, COL (Ret.) "Black Sam" Kalagian joined in with the reunion celebration along with another 174th AHC alumnus, Ed (Papa Ike) Israel who lives in Daleville.
In the absence of the post commanding general, MG Anthony Jones, who was in Washington, the Chief of Staff, COL Lee Gore, officially greeted the ex-warriors and their ladies and welcomed them to the Aviation
Center. Gore then placed the visitors in the capable hands of "Tour Guide Extraordinaire" CW-4 (Ret.) William Ruf. Willie, as he is affectionately called by his friends (millions of them) is well known throughout Army Aviation circles around the world.
Following the two-hour museum tour, the group "re-energized" with a pre-planned luncheon at the "Landing Zone Lounge," Daleville Inn. Claudette Gringery, Executive Director of the Daleville Chamber of Commerce
visited the group during lunch and gave them an official welcome to the city along with some token momentoes of their visit.
After the luncheon, Ms. Gringery escorted the group to a local business just outside the
Ft. Rucker/Daleville gate where an artist had painted a mural on a solid wooden fence.
The painting depicted helicopters engaged in a combat assault in Vietnam. A group photo was taken by Ms. Gringery. It will be used with an upcoming article in the Daleville Courier newspaper detailing the visit to the Aviation Museum and Daleville.
The group then returned to Fort Walton Beach, arriving shortly after 1600 hours.
Almost without exception, members of the touring group emerged from the bus with big smiles and glowing comments about the "Red Carpet" treatment that had been extended to them in Daleville and Ft. Rucker.
"You should have seen the VIP treatment we got," one happy camper exclaimed. "It was a great day."
Following a long-standing tradition, an auction of assorted items and memorabilia led off the Saturday evening activities. Perennial auctioneer, Eddie McNeill, laid down the rules for the sale. "Get out your money," he ordered, and the event was officially underway.
Two items never quite made it to the "Going, Going, Sold" stage. Ted Saunders presented a bottle of Kick-a-poo Joy Juice (who knows what?) to newly weds, Preston and Danelle Glover, who were reported to be the youngest couple at the reunion.
A scale model of UH-1, Dolphin 235, was also put up for grabs but quickly returned to its display case when Jim McDaniel suggested that the model be offered to the Army Aviation Museum for permanent display. The membership agreed since historical value was involved -- Dolphin 235 was the first helicopter to be painted with the widely-used Dolphin nose art originally drawn by WO1 Richard Machine (see http://www.americal.org/174/174ahc5.htm).
Items that did generate some interest, with generous bidding the norm, included a ceramic bowl depicting Dolphins playing gleefully in the sea; a jug of Eddie McNeill's famous "tea" (crystal clear "tea"); a can of C-rations, seat-back, autographed photo of Nancy Sinatra and Sam Sours; and a (not quite X-rated) photo of movie star Joey Heatherton. Joey's picture was donated by FAN #1, Warren Hewetson. When asked how he could part with it, Warren replied, "Oh, I got two from Joey. But, only this one is up for grabs." (A scowl from FAN #2, Jeanne, could have given one cause to wonder if she would have just as soon put the other photo up for sale, too.)
A total of $295 was placed in the Association's general fund after the auction along with another $50, donated by Jim McDaniel from the copying and sale of video tapes showing hot 174th action in Vietnam.
Looking forward to next year, 174th AHC alumni are encouraged to bring or send artifacts and memorabilia they would be willing to donate to the Association and place them on the auction block. All cash received will go into the Association's general fund and used to defray such routine expenses as postage and office supplies.
A moment of silent prayer, coupled with a moving, ad lib speech by Mel Lutgring standing in front of a befitting make-shift display, provided the only solemn occasion of the three-day reunion celebration.* * *
The brief ceremony had a sobering effect on those in attendance and was obviously well-received as total silence fell on the entire group.
Lutgring stood before his display, consisting of a cardboard box covered with a poncho liner and a SPH-4 Flight Helmet on top. In the foreground was a folded American flag from his father's funeral. A brass mug, made from a cut-down 105 howitzer shell with a 20 mm round for the handle, nestled to one side of the flag.
"I think it's appropriate," Mel spoke to the quieted crowd, "that we just take a minute to remember those in the 174th who were killed in action and those who we have lost over the years." He concluded with a poem written by Major Michael Davis O'Donnell, written January 1, 1970, in Dak To.
"After reading the poem," Lutgring recalled, "it was like being in an empty church instead of a room with close to 50 people in it. I was surprised at the effect reading the poem had on everyone. Mel plans on another, even more poignant, ceremony next year.
Wally Nunn made a late appearance at the reunion, arriving Saturday evening. The delay was the result of a special appearance Wally made in Delaware County, PA, (suburban Philadelphia), that morning where he joined Pennsylvania Governor Ridge at a Vietnam Veterans TravellingWall memorial ceremony. * * *
Addressing a crowd of an estimated 3,000 people, Nunn, the only Delaware County Councilman who is a Vietnam veteran, gave an emotional speech which he read again at the reunion by request.
"Here, today, is a monument," Nunn had said, "dedicated to the men and women who fought and the 58,000 who died during the Vietnam War. That we live in a society that is the envy of the world......is testimony to the value of their sacrifice.
"Vietnam was a battle in a long war against totalitarism and it was an honorable one -- one has only to reflect on the events in Cambodia or the plight of the 2,000,000 Vietnamese "boat people" to understand who was on the side of right."
There was more. Deep thoughts. Thoughts to ponder on every day. Nunn reminded us all of our debt of gratitude to those who did not come back:
"These were not my friends," he insisted. "They were my brothers, and I have never loved anyone more. When we were together, we were more than the sum of our parts, we were a living organism. And, when part of that organism died, part of me died -- part of our nation died.
"I will not forget them or those who loved them."
Another vivid reminder of insufferable loss came when Ted Saunders again announced the recent death of former crewchief, Jack Hester Jr. Saunders, honoring the request of Hester's widow, read a "thank you" note addressed to the entire 174th AHC Association.
"The family of Jack Hester sends our thanks for all the thoughtfulness extended to us during our most difficult time. We've never met any of you -- and spoke occasionally
with some -- and to think you were so concerned about our well being is exceptional.
"Jack was buried on August 2, 1999, with a flag draped over his casket and the VFW in Masio, Ohio, presented a 21-gun-salute. If he was watching, I know Jack would have been pleased. I was given the flag which I sleep with every nite (sic) and our two sons were given the shells from the gun salute.
"Jack had hoped to be able to come down this year. He won't be there, physically, but I know he'll be there in spirit.
"My deepest thanks to all of you--enjoy your reunion and, to all, a safe trip home."
/s/ /Gerri Hester
* The scheduled fishing trip never got off the ground this year. With too few fisherpersonwannabe's signing up for the event, the charter boat was canceled and seats on a regular party boat reserved for the die-hards. Even they, after seeing the bad weather and rough seas, opted to go on the museum tour or stay at the hotel.
* Jim McDaniel presented a tongue-in-cheek Top Secret Media Release from the
Pentagon announcing the procurement of a new weapons system prototype -- the Y2K-UDV-2000 (Urban Defense Vehicle). The futuristic "Urban Shark" was "invented and manufactured" by 174th alumnus, Steve Ratcliff. According to Steve, the new machine has many uses and it bears the famous Shark gunship "Colgate Smile." Steve says that
the only personnel to be hired as operators of the "weapon" are "the famous and heroic flight crews of the 174th AHC Association." (Watch for the photo, soon to be showing on your favorite Web Site.)
* Ted Saunders paid a special tribute to Web Master, Jim McDaniel and "Deputy Dawg," Warren Hewetson, for their continued hard efforts in making the Web Page a top-quality product.
* Saunders, in turn, received the applause and appreciation from the group for his continued dedication to the Association and his hard work in making the 1999 Annual Reunion another successful event.
.......submitted by Bernie Cobb, Secretary/Treasurer