Gathered together under a perfect blue sky, a group of Marines shared smiles and told tales on a long-awaited Sunday afternoon in Columbia Falls. Next to the camp fire, James Cooper, aka “Coop,” stood up to tell the story of how he pulled the wool over “Hawk’s” eyes with a complete piece of fiction about his first wife and the mafia and “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” As the crowd leaned in close they were all smiles (except for Hawk) as the yarn unwound.
Hawk took the ribbing with grace because the men standing around him were the same ones he served with in Vietnam five decades ago. Most of them went their separate ways after their tour of duty, and the June 24 reunion was the first time they had gathered in 50 years.
The campfire was in Michael Jaworsky’s backyard, aka “Ski,” who lives near Columbia Falls. The men were all part of a Counter Mortar Radar unit, mostly hailing from the Fourth Battalion/Eleventh Marines (the 4/11). They served together in Vietnam between 1968-69.
Only a few in the unit kept in touch, but as the years passed and technology advanced, and the 50-year mark approached, Jaworsky stepped up his efforts to find out what had become of the men he knew from so long ago.
“Five of us stayed in touch from the beginning,” said Jaworsky. “We would get together every couple of years, but as the years went by, the intervals between those get-togethers grew. ‘JD’ [John DeNardo] and I stayed in regular contact. Last year, he came out for his first visit. He was the first one to ask, ‘Why don’t we have a reunion?’ And so we started planning.”
Of the original Marines, 20 are alive and accounted for, 14 have died and the fate of nine is still unknown.
Some years back, Jaworsky began his search for the men he had served with. His search resulted in incredible moments of joy and getting to talk with long-lost friends — like Hawk (John Frisby). Jaworsky only found Frisby in April of this year. As soon as they talked, Frisby booked his flight to Montana for the reunion.
Jaworsky found a reference to another fellow Marine, Jim Daly, on a real-estate listing for a house in Michigan. He contacted Daly through the Realtor and soon after they were talking and laughing saying, “It’s me!” and “You got the right guy!”
Tim Donovan was another Marine found only recently.
“Coop gave Ski a clue that led to me,” said Donovan. “He found my number and left me a message. Hearing his voice was a total shock. I had to sit down for a minute and try to take it all in. People change over time, and 50 years is a long time. I had to ask myself, ‘If I return this call, am I ready for what comes next?’ The truth is, I hesitated. But then I called. And I am so glad I did.”
They all held back tears as Donovan talked about the fear of disappointment that could have ruined precious memories, a fear they all had to overcome.
“I’ve been missing these guys for 50 years,” said Donovan. “I’m so happy to have this connection. It’s like coming home.”
In the search there have also been moments of great sadness. Jaworsky found too many gravestones. He was the one to learn how many died of heart and lung complications, or other diseases. And he was left to wonder how many of these friends were victims of Agent Orange?
Of the 14 confirmed deceased, two died in Vietnam, four died with heart issues, five were taken by cancer, one died from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, one from alcoholism, and one is unknown. For the last, they found his grave, but were unable to find a next of kin or other information.
Another sadness comes from the fact that of the 20 known, some have chosen not to reconnect. Jaworsky looks down sadly as he talks about a few of the calls that came down to: thanks for tracking me down, don’t call again. For whatever reason, they have chosen not to look back.
“What you have to understand is what a difficult time that was,” said Donovan. “We weren’t welcomed home. Jim was spit on when his plane landed. I was accosted out with my parents on my first day back. Mike offered me what I have been longing for, to reconnect with the ones who know and understand. There was no way I was going to miss this.”
At the reunion, all the sadness was set aside. There was only the brotherhood and the closeness of friends formed in battle.
“We had a lot in common in those days,” said Daly. “We were similar physically, we had our training, and we were from a smaller unit. We also had a lot of pride in being Marines. And there were a lot of shared emotions, shared stress. In Vietnam, we grew up together.”
Some traveled from as far away as Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas to be at the reunion.
There was Charles Draine — drinking a beer, signing a song and dancing. His buddies picked on him about being the only black man who can’t dance. Of course, two seconds later they were whispering about how much they admired him saying, “he was always one squared-away Marine.”
There was “Big Will” (Jim Williamson), who smiled at his friends and took photos to remember the reunion.
Joe (Silva) and JD and Hawk bickered and engaged in one-upmanship like brothers who had never spent a day apart. But for them, the reunion was just a picking up of where they left off. The others smiled and said, “They behaved exactly the same when we served together.”
There was “Bruno” (Larry Bruining) and Fred Sotello looking over photo albums. Sotello was the only one who stuck with the Corps for the full 20 years and retired as a Master Sergeant.
And in the back, near the grill, there was Jaworsky. When surrounded by the Marines and other guests, he laughed right along with them. But in a moment to himself, he looked around with a sad and sweet smile that showed the cost and the blessing he received. These were his brothers, they came to his home, and he knew when the week was up they would go — and some would not get to return.
“I can’t describe it,” said Jaworsky. “For some of those phone calls, the guys would say to me, ‘This is the happiest day of my life.’ That’s not because of me, but because of what the call represented. Reconnection. Finding one led to finding others and now all of us together again — that’s my happiness.”
Decades have passed and still these men are living up to the motto of the United States Marine Corps: “Semper Fidelis” — Latin for always faithful. A faithfulness that extends most especially to each other.