Prideful Vietnam veterans meeting
Friday, May 04, 2007

For nearly 20 years after he returned from Southeast Asia, Mayville resident Frank Franzel wouldn't even admit he was a Vietnam veteran.

Saturday, he will acknowledge it proudly as he reunites -- for the first time in 37 years -- with nearly 100 other members of the U.S. Army Fourth Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, Charlie Company.

"I want to be one of the first ones there because I want to have time to prepare myself," Franzel said.

"Just thinking about it makes me tear up. I just don't know what to expect. It's been a long time. A lot of our guys have already passed away. A lot have cancer."

Maybe it's because time heals most wounds.

Maybe it's because of the way the nation largely has embraced a new generation of soldiers and Marines.

Whatever the reason, Franzel feels the time has come for Vietnam veterans to hold their heads up.

The reunion will take place at the Crown Plaza Hotel in St. Louis, Mo. Franzel said two other Michigan veterans, Colon Laney of Coleman and Chris Welch of LeRoy, may attend.

A Houston woman, Kitty Millard, organized the reunion but can't attend because of a family emergency.

"Without her searching and digging and her perseverance, none of this would have happened," Franzel said. "She knows none of us. I have no idea how she picked us out when she started this back in April of 2006. But now she is held dear in the hearts of all the men of 4/21 Charlie."

Charlie Company was in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, Franzel said.

"It's not like they do now," he explained. "We constantly had a rotation of guys. We didn't go as a unit or come back as a unit, so we lost contact with each other."

Charlie Company worked a "pretty rough area" where the Vietnamese jungle approaches the South China Sea along the Indochina Peninsula's eastern coast, Franzel said.

"I was in the infantry, so I was in the jungle the whole time," he said. "Our job was to scout the jungle, looking for anyone. Anyone we saw was an enemy.

"We were traveling in a heavily-Viet Cong-populated area. Forty guys had already walked past this trap. I was the radio operator at the time and the company commander told me to take a break. I took a few more steps, going up the side of a hill, the guy behind me sat down on the side of the trail and hit a trap."

The soldier lost both his legs in the explosion.

"We don't know what kind of explosive it was, probably one of our dud mortar rounds that they rigged to a trip wire," Franzel said. "That's how most of our guys got injured. Traps."

It's not unlike the improvised explosive devices that have injured or killed hundreds in Iraq.

"It's sad to see the same thing happening," Franzel said. "It's hard to see guys dying and coming back mangled, losing arms and legs, because I already saw so much of it.

"If the enemy would come out and fight face to face, we'd beat them."

Franzel said he expects to reminisce about places like Duc Pho and Chu Lai, and camps they called LZ Debbie, San Juan Hill, Fire Base Liz and Leach Valley, the latter named for the endless supply of leaches it produced.

"It was loaded with leaches," Franzel said.

"We'd be in the field for three to four weeks at a time, then we'd come in for a week at a fire base, a remote base near the end of a village, while another unit went out. We'd rest and get clean clothes and have hot food, then return for three to four weeks."

The old Army buddies no doubt will talk about how they had to have new boots every couple of months because trudging through swamps caused boots, not to mention clothing, to rot right off their bodies.

"We were in the monsoons, so it would rain every day for six months straight," Franzel said.

They'll recall the little details of daily military life.

"We didn't have MREs (meals ready-to-eat) then," Franzel said. "We had what they called C-rations."

Combat Individual Meals, or C-rations, contained a canned entrée, a "B2" unit made up of cheese, crackers and candy, a canned dessert and accessories such as can openers and plastic utensils, hot beverage mixes, salt and sugar, gum, four cigarettes and a few sheets of toilet paper.

"The supplies came in off helicopters," Franzel said. "The helicopters would bring our C-rations, ammo, boots, clothes. They'd bring a whole shipment of clothes and we'd just rut through them and try to find something that would remotely fit. Then they'd take the old stuff, because we couldn't let the enemy get hold of it."

Franzel said he also expects to compare notes about health issues.

"You know, they never gave us water," he said. "All the water we got we had to get out of creeks and rivers."

Franzel said he's looking forward to reacquainting with his brothers in arms.

"The time we hit the booby trap, the helicopter couldn't land because it was a triple-canopy jungle," Franzel said. "We couldn't see the sky. They had to bring a special helicopter in and drop a cable through the jungle.

"The guy who was hurt, the one who was right behind me in line, I loaded him on the helicopter and, well, I thought he died. I could never find him after that. I tried for 35 years. All I knew was his last name."

The Army, he said, didn't keep good records of what became of its soldiers once their service had ended.

Much to Franzel's surprise, Millard found the man, Ken Crawford.

"I was looking in the wrong state," Franzel said. "He was from Wisconsin, not Michigan. She found him in three days. He called me, and I still couldn't believe it was him. He started to tell me some things that happened and then he said, 'You know, I don't know why everybody thinks I'm dead.' Well he's fine, although he has no legs. They were blown off below his knees. But he's alive, and none of us knew it."

Franzel said he's also eager to meet a special guest at the reunion: the daughter of a man, Charles Waterson, who was killed in action.

"I saw her dad five minutes before he died," Franzel said. "I saw him, and then in an instant, he was dead. It will be good to see her and share some pictures I have of her dad, the last pictures he had taken."

Franzel remembers Waterson as a hero.

"I remember that we'd had two of our snipers get overrun while they were on a night mission," he said. "One was killed and the other got away, but the enemy got hold of a very valuable weapon with a special scope. It would have been very, very deadly to us in the hands of the enemy.

"Our mission was to retrieve this thing. So we set up a trap and, two days later, we got it. We killed two of the enemy and one of them had the dog tags from our guy who he had killed. A couple of our guys got Silver Stars and Bronze Stars. It was a good thing for our unit. But a month later, the same guy who got a Silver Star (Waterson) got killed. His daughter was just a baby then."

Waterson was on his second or third tour of duty when he died. He was a sergeant.

"We looked up to him," Franzel said. "He had a lot of experience that a lot of us new guys didn't have."

Franzel chokes back tears when he talks about the tone of today's war in Iraq.

It was with a full heart that he read newspaper reports of the warm welcome that members of Company B, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines received Sunday when they returned to Saginaw.

"I wish we'd had that when we came home," he said. "A lot of guys were spit on at airports. They were called baby killers. It wasn't like World War II, when they came home as heroes. I didn't ask for this thing. I didn't want to do it. But I wasn't going to run, either."

Franzel volunteered for the draft -- a special Army initiative allowed people to have their names placed on the top of the draft list, making them eligible to serve two years instead of the three years volunteers served -- when he was 18, right out of high school. He wasn't old enough to drink alcohol and he couldn't vote.

But the country that denied him those privileges had no qualms about sending him off to face death.

"It was a weird feeling," he said. "We were there at the tail end, but out of our unit, 25 percent were killed and almost half were wounded." v

LaNia Coleman is a staff writer for The Saginaw News. You may reach her at 776-9690.