It was a memorable weekend weeks before Memorial Day when Tommy Townsend, a Vietnam veteran, met 10 fellow soldiers for their 10th anniversary reunion near his hometown area of Cleveland in April.
Members of the 25th Infantry Division’s C-Battery 1st Battalion, 8th Artillery, came together from Williamsburg, Va., Saint Clair, Mo., New Palestine, Ind., Lebeco, S.C., Huntsville, Ala., and as far away as Live Oaks, Calif., to join Townsend in a reunion that celebrated friendship, service and bravery, and honored the memory of what happened in Chu Chi, Vietnam, where they all served in 1966.
Townsend, a Cleveland native who lives in the Ocoee area, said, “We were all in Hawaii together in 1965 and in January 1966 they activated the whole division and took us to Vietnam.”
The things that happened during their deployment were intense, graphic, war-torn experiences none of them would ever forget, according to Townsend, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from his tour of duty.
The list of Townsend’s fellow soldiers include corporals, a sergeant, a captain, a first lieutenant and a chief of the fire and battery, which they fondly called “chief of smoke,” Townsend said with a soft chuckle.
“We were all there for a year. Some were there a little bit longer,” he added. “Russ Dowden, who attended the reunion, was wounded by shrapnel in Vietnam. They had to evacuate him to Japan. That was on Valentine’s Day of 1966. He was a second lieutenant when he got wounded and retired as a full bird colonel. He’s a great guy.”
According to Townsend, who served as a U.S. Army corporal in Vietnam, he and others from the 25th Division experienced nightmares and flashbacks after serving in what historians called “Hell’s Half Acre,” due to the fierce fighting in the area where they had base camp. Other soldiers had reportedly passed through the area but none had attempted to stay. Townsend and his unit supported clearing operations for the base camp. When the 25th Division tried to do what no other division had yet done, Townsend and the other soldiers found themselves living through a nightmare and losing fellow soldiers to a Claymore mine explosion.
Looking back at those harrowing events 46 years later, the valiant young men who put their lives on the line for their country — now older and wiser — came together and talked of honor, valor and reflected on a bond only they can understand.
“We’re real close and we enjoy each other’s company,” Townsend explained. “There’s a bond there I can’t really describe. It’s closer than a brother. As the saying goes, we ‘had each other’s back.’ We didn’t have to worry about anything. We could lay down and go to sleep knowing we were there for each other.”
Townsend, who is the treasurer of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 25 in Cleveland, said he was excited to have his fellow veterans join him in East Tennessee to ride the riverboat in Chattanooga, dine there and meet in a conference room provided by the hotel. Later some visited the Tennessee Aquarium. Others went to Rock City and Chickamauga Battlefield.
“That was on Friday. It was real nice. Saturday we had a free day up until 3 p.m. Then we went to Cookson Creek Baptist Church in Ocoee,” Townsend said. “The church cooked burgers and hot dogs. We had a great time. Last year we were in Huntsville and we enjoyed ourselves. We go somewhere different every year.”
The 65-year-old veteran gave his fellow soldiers an unexpected treat this year by bringing them face-to-face with a team of military vehicles.
“I didn’t tell them where we were going,” he said with a reflective smile. “When we pulled up to the church and they saw all those military vehicles they were really surprised. The owner of Williams Construction Company also owns those military vehicles. He put us in the back of one and rode us through the fields — through the woods. We had a real good time.”
As the 11 men from the 25th infantry Division ended their 10th anniversary reunion in Tennessee, Townsend and his former comrades in arms bid each other a fond farewell until next year. Their reunion was not only lighthearted, relaxing and fun but also therapeutic, according to Townsend, who confessed, “I feel a lot better whenever we get together. I love those guys. I really do.”