The national tragedy of September 11 and its aftermath kept all but a handful from attending the 2001 reunion. Perhaps for that reason it seemed there was a renewed sense of purpose that brought more than 100 Vietnam Manchus and family members to Las Vegas for our fifth national reunion in 2002.
It was certainly worth the wait.
In fact, so many came early that we decided to host an impromptu reception on Thursday evening that saw nearly 40 Manchus renewing acquaintances and making new ones. The momentum built on Friday and by noontime some 60 Manchus had signed in. With family members and guests that made the head count for this gathering well over 100.
We were especially honored to have as special guests Sandy Morales, her son and daughter-in-law. Sandy is the widow of Leslie Morales (KIA 1966). Bob Thompson, brother of Stan Thompson (KIA 1967) was also with us. The participation of these special members of the Manchu family added an important dimension to the experience. Thanks to them for coming. We hope they can make it a habit.
Friday, the first "official" day of the reunion was spent in the meeting room sharing slides and personal remembrances. We were fortunate to have a number of excellent videos to screen as well. First timer Gary Heeter (Bravo 67-68) brought a copy of the History channel TV special on tunnel rats that featured interviews with him and fellow Manchu C.W. Bowman. Bear Criteser had a professionally produced video of the special 4/9 Manchu memorial service held at The Wall during the 2000 reunion in Washington, D.C. Al Saxe (HHC 67-68) brought a great historical video compiled from original 8 mm film he shot during his tour -- including footage of a convoy trip from Cu Chi to Tay Ninh.
Alen Fife (Delta 67-68) provided several showings of slides of Cu Chi and Tay Ninh. Seeing those old pictures helped to re-orient at least one old soldiers who, through the fog of time, had managed to move the company hooches around -- at least in his mind.
Saturday morning was given over to sightseeing for those so inclined. From all accounts the time was well, if not profitably, spent (see Al Baker and Willie Gin for details).
We held our annual business meeting in the afternoon.
Willy Dixson brought everyone up to date on the operation of TheWall-USA and Manchu web sites. He reports that the number of visitors to The Wall site should reach 1 million within the next month. Since our association acquired the site in March 2001 we have really been able to cast the net wider in search of Manchus to bring to this and future reunions.
In other important business the group decided on a slight modification to the procedure for deciding on the location of future reunions. You may recall at the 1999 business meeting in Las Vegas it was agreed that all reunions were to be held on the third weekend of September. The only issue to be resolved annually was the question of the location.
Here is how it will work now.
It was decided that reunions would rotate between East Coast and West Coast venues each year. Since the 2002 reunion was West Coast the 2003 reunion will be East Coast. East Coast was defined as all cities East of the Mississippi. West Coast -- all cities West of the river.
The membership voted to require the Executive Committee (President, Vice President and Secretary Treasurer) to come up with a maximum of three sites for the 2003 reunion and, like years past, conduct an online vote to determine the winner. In addition, it was agreed by unanimous ballot to expand the effort by mailing paper ballots to all those Manchus for whom we have a snail mail but no e-mail address. Monty Sutcliffe volunteered to take on that task. The intent is to give everyone a chance to have his voice heard.
To summarize then -- the next reunion will be held September 12 and 13, 2003 in a city east of the Mississippi that will be determined by either online vote or paper ballot. Watch your respective mailboxes for details.
The last major item of business was the election of officers. There was some discussion of the need to bring new people into these positions but the consensus opinion was that given the youth of our organization it could be useful to continue with the current slate. The end result was that the current officers were elected to serve another term. The officers are Larry James - President, Alen Fife - Vice President, and Cheri Criteser - Secretary/Treasurer.
The meeting concluded with a presentation from Ron Price (Charlie - 70) on closer cooperation with the 9th Infantry Regiment Association. Ron, who serves as 1st Vice President of that Association and who will assume the presidency there in two years, suggested that we explore the possibility of having the two associations hold reunions together in future years. Ron said the members of the 9th Association had expressed to him a strong desire to have the Vietnam Manchus join them. He said the members, mostly from the Korean War era, recognized that Vietnam Vets may not have always felt welcome in the past and it was time that that changed. Things are still very preliminary at this point with many details to be arranged before such a joint reunion may even be proposed. Ron has promised to keep up informed of any concrete proposals the 9th Infantry Regimen Association might make.
With the business out of the way we closed the meeting room and began preparations for the banquet -- an event that turned out to be the most powerful and moving we have had since we first began getting together in 1998.
It was clear this was going to be something special when the Manchus and their guests walked into the banquet hall. For there, at the head of the room, between the national colors and the regimental colors, a small table was set. On the immaculate tablecloth was placed a single rose and one place setting -- symbolic of those Manchus who were lost.
Following the invocation by Don Crowley, who was our Chaplain in Vietnam (67-68), Alen Fife led us through a poignant moment of remembrance. The brief but moving ceremony will be a permanent feature of future reunions.
After dinner Al Baker (Bravo CO 67-68) spoke. Al's remarks have become the signature feature of each of our reunions. This time was the most powerful yet. He spoke honestly and from the heart and eloquently put into words feelings shared by us all ... "we proud, we few, we band of brothers."
Chaplain Crowley then closed with a touching personal remembrance of just one of the more than 400 Manchus lost in the Vietnam War. His expression of the deep sense of loss he personally felt over the loss of Bill Roush brought home to all of us the painful price so many paid.
The formal dinner was then followed by the auction, an event that has become part and parcel of the reunions. If you weren't there you missed something. Even one of those who was there missed something too. Ask Jim Bennett for an explanation. Better yet, ask him how he enjoyed his cheesecake. The best news was that, due to the generosity of those in the audience and the deft handling of auctioneer Alen Fife, our treasury was enhanced significantly -- and that is important for an organization like ours that charges no dues for membership.
Sunday morning was departure time for many who had come. But a few stayed on to enjoy the many attractions Las Vegas offers. A handful just had to stay behind to see if Willy would take up the dare to make a permanent statement to the world about his commitment to the Manchus. Those of us who know our webmaster and spiritual guide never doubted that commitment. It is also evident to everyone who visits the many web sites he runs on our behalf. But now the rest of the world knows it too. All they have to do is to note while they check out the manly turn of his right calf - the tattooed brand 4/9 MANCHUS that runs from his right knee to his ankle. Could this be a tradition in the making? Make sure you are there at the next reunion to see if Willy has blazed yet another trail the rest of us will be bound to follow.
D Company '68-'69