RINCON — Important stories aren’t always easy to tell, especially for veterans.
Men and women who served their country in the military are often hesitant to share their experiences, particularly the unpleasant ones. Usually, they don’t reveal anything unless they are prodded.
“You’ve got to pull it out of them,” said Jerry Maennche, a 73-year-old Vietnam War veteran from Springfield. “I was that way. In fact, I still am, really.”
Maennche, however, recently came to the realization that veterans need to share their military histories or they will be lost forever and Americans will lose their appreciation of the sacrifices required to attain and preserve freedom.
“My wife had a cousin, a World War II veteran, and none of his family knew about his experiences and all the medals he won until after he died,” Maennche said. “They found in a chest where he had written a history on himself. He never discussed it with his family.
“Even his kids were shocked at what he had done.”
Maennche believes he knows why veterans aren’t forthcoming with information.
“I think one of the reasons we don’t talk about it — the ones who came back (from fighting in a war) — is that you carry a lot of guilt about the people who didn’t come back,” he said. “They are the ones I want to hear about. My story is not that big of a deal because I’m home.
“That’s always been my feeling.”
Maennche was injured during his second Army tour in Vietnam. He was set on returning to battle after recuperating but his plans were derailed in 1972.
“After I got out of the hospital, I came home from lunch one day,” he said. “I had put in paperwork to go back to Vietnam for the third time but my wife found it. She told me, ‘If you want to go back, you stop and see your lawyer.’”
The divorce threat was enough for Maennche to reconsider his plans. He didn’t go back to Vietnam but went on cap a 22-year Army career in 1986.
Johnny Boston, a 75-year-old Springfield resident, also served in the Army in Vietnam. He was injured for the third time just 10 days before he was slated to return to the United States.
“I was on a chopper but had to get back off, (to fight),” he said.
Boston was at LZ Grant, an isolated outpost of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. It acted as a tactical control point and logistical supply area.
“We got attacked by about 2,000 NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and there were only 200 of us,” Boston said. “We had some 8-inch artillery guns and we had help from other artillery units, and they dropped napalm and anything they could get.”
LZ Grant was underground base but Boston left it and went outside because he didn’t feel safe in it while it was being slammed by rockets.
“I (went outside and) shot all the ammunition I had and went back and got more,” said Boston, figuring he killed about three soldiers. “My battalion commander was next door to me. The battalion commander is a pretty big dude but he had to fight that night.”
Boston’s battalion fought all night and killed 350 NVA members. He was one of 36 Americans wounded — he took a projectile in the back — and 116 more died.
While he was on R&R in Hong Kong, Boston’s squad was wiped out.
“And it happened to be friendly fire,” Boston, the squad leader, explained.
Boston’s squad was killed by U.S. helicopter fire.
“There is a good explanation as to why it happened, but it happened,” he said. “Our company was in heavy contact (with the enemy) and this platoon over here was being overrun. The platoon leader, or someone, popped a purple smoke grenade, threw it down and they withdrew. They called for an all-rocket assault for where the purple smoke grenade was.
“The problem, before the choppers got there, is that one of guys in my squad was shot in the back. We carried smoke grenades and fragmentation grenades, and it just so happened that the mechanism in his smoke grenade was tripped and the smoke started coming out right there.
“So the chopper pilot comes by five or ten minutes later and calls to verify purple smoke. He saw purple smoke and the other purple smoke had probably drifted away or there was just a hint of it.
“He saw fresh purple smoke and verified it before he shot in there. He worked the area over.”
Boston was overcome with emotion recently when he saw the names of his buddies etched on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I had silent moments and tears,” he said.
Boston recalled accompanying the body of one of his cousins, a war victim, as it was returned home..
“I flew into San Francisco at Travis Air Field,” he said. “I got off the plane in jungle fatigues. The toes were out of my boots and full of mud and clay.
“I still had my old jungle hat on and this little lady, an Asian lady, came up to me, spit on me and hollered, ‘Baby killer! Baby killer!'
"She went the whole length of the airport hollering that at me.”
Boston, who was drafted and shipped to Vietnam when his son just 10 days old, was stunned to be treated so shabbily. He was 23.
“I came from Screven County off a farm,” he said. “I was young and naive, and didn’t know much about the world’s ways. I respected everybody and I was trying to be a gentleman.
“She was hollering and spitting at me, and I never came close to killing a baby. Today, after hardening up some, I would have confronted her but I ignored her.”
For decades, Boston tried to push Vietnam memories to the back of his mind.
“From 1970 until 2005, I didn’t even request my medals,” he said.
Boston, with a confirmed kill count of 23, earned multiple commendations, including one for capturing a Chinese captain.
“It wasn’t a big deal to me back then,” he said. “I said, ‘Medals aren’t that big of a thing.’ I knew what I did ...”
Recently, however, Boston decided to talk to his son about his war experiences. He thinks other veterans should do likewise.
“You should tell them what you did and what your job was,” he said. “You don’t have to tell them about the blood and guts. A lot of people were clerks and on the flight lines.
“Everybody had their own job (that was important). There are a lot of stories that people could tell.”
Boston has put his military memories on paper.
“It’s a five- or six-page note of what I did,” he said. “I read it and explained it to my son at the same time. It has the good and the bad.”
Maennche said he greatly enjoyed hearing heroic stories shared by D-Day survivors during the recent 75th anniversary of that momentous invasion. Many were televised during observances in France.
Allied casualties on the first day of the fighting in Normandy totaled at least 10,000, with 4,414 dead.
“There have been too many generations of people who don’t understand what they went through that day,” Maennche said. “They ain’t got a clue.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Maennche is a representative of Honor Flight Savannah, a 501(c)3 nonprofit charitable organization dedicated to transporting veterans, at no cost to them, to Washington, D.C., so that they may visit war memorials.
The next trip is slated for September. If interested in going, contact Maennche at (912) 663-0322 or firstname.lastname@example.org.