Norm & Ollie Forsythe
45 people from 15 states
'95 host Norm Forsythe 'hams it up'
during one of his three tours in Vietnam. Is
that Swafford enjoying a laugh with him?
Have you ever noticed those lists of Army units, ships' names, Marine Corps divisions and Air Force wings listed in the back of veterans' magazines: units announcing reunions, a chance for those that once served together to gather and rehash old stories and renew old friendships?
My interest in reunions began with my father's outfit. He served with the 99th Infantry Division in World War II.
The 99th had trained together, shipped overseas together and fought together in the Battle of the Bulge, crossed the bridge at Remagen and into the Rhineland, and those that survived came home together.
Each year since the end of the war, they have held a reunion. I remember attending one of these reunions as a child; and again in 1992, I accompanied my father to the 45th reunion in Orlando, Florida. It was interesting to see the comradeship of these "old guys" as they recalled, in great detail, events that occurred nearly fifty years ago. It was also inspiring to watch as they passed on the ceremonial bottle of cognac that is to be opened by the last surviving member of the unit, so that he might salute his fallen comrades. It was also enjoyable watching the old folks dance the jitterbug to the sounds of the big bands so popular during World War II, and it was heart wrenching to see the tears in the eyes of the old soldiers as they parted, many of whom would never meet again.
Imagine my surprise when 1 scanned the reunion section of the May edition of DAV Magazine (Disabled American Veterans) and came across, "7th Bn. 15th Artillery (Vietnam 1967-71). Clarksville, Tennessee July 6 - 9, 1995. Contact Norm Forsythe."
My unit was planning a reunion!
The 7/15th was a heavy artillery unit, assigned to the 41st Artillery Group, First Field Force Vietnam. It was made up of M110, 8-inch howitzers and M107, 175mm guns, both types self-propelled.
The unit served mainly in the II Corps area, with Headquarters at Phu Cat, then An Khe, and Pleiku.
I immediately sat down and wrote a short letter to Norm Forsythe explaining to him that I had served with Battery B from December 1968, until December 1969, and that I would be interested in attending the reunion.
A week or so passed and
one day, when I had just
pulled in the driveway after a hard day of work, my wife came
running out the back door with the cordless phone. "It's the guy
from the reunion," she explained, handing me the phone.
Norm had been the top
sergeant, and had brought the battalion over on a ship; he had set it up
and made it into a fighting force.
I had been little more than a
buck private and back then, this man would have struck the fear of God
But the years had melted this
all away and now we were just two guys who had been in a similar
situation, and had done the best we could with what we had to work with.
We immediately became the best
Norm explained that the reunion
would be held at the Holiday Inn in Clarksville. He had arranged a bus
trip to Fort Donnelson, the site of a Civil War battle, and a tour of
Fort Campbell, a local army base, plus a dinner after the tour.
On Saturday, we would have a
brunch and meeting in the Holiday Inn's Cumberland Room. He had also reserved two rooms to be used as hospitality rooms, a place for us to
meet. All this for $50.00, plus my room. I told him, "I'm looking
forward to it." He agreed to send me the information.
Norm's packet arrived a couple
of days later. I filled it out and made my reservations at the Holiday
Inn. I then arranged for vacation time from work, and started looking
forward to the reunion.
There were several ways I could
plan my transportation: first, I could arrange for air travel and rent a
car, or perhaps take a bus; then of course, I could drive, using the
Interstate system. I chose to drive.
If you plan to drive, it is
best to plan your trip with a road map. Detailed information can be
obtained from organizations like AAA (American Automobile Association).
Even computerized programs will give you a detailed analysis of
distance, road conditions, speed limits and the best time to pass
through large cities to avoid rush hour traffic.
Then I remembered my father's
reunion. They had what was called the "War Room", in which
they exhibited memorabilia: those things you keep in a drawer or up in
the attic like photos, books, old uniforms, orders, letters or anything
that could possibly be of interest. At these reunions, there is always
someone writing a book, looking for a lost friend or just wanting to
touch a part of the past. The trip was pleasant; there is much to enjoy
of this great country of ours along the Interstate system and I arrived at the Holiday Inn with plenty of time to check in, clean up and
relax a bit before joining the old crowd.
The hospitality room was on the ground floor, facing the courtyard. There was a sign on the door that read, "7/15 Red Legs", I knocked, somebody pulled back the shades, looked, then opened the door. Everybody was talking at once, but they all stopped and looked up at me.
Giving me a big bear hug, the
kind Vietnam veterans give each other, Norm continued, "Let me show
you around. This is Don Walters, Survey platoon, Chuck Alexander and his
wife Susie, and Paul Hunter. Paul, you were with B Battery, weren't you"?
"Yes, I commanded B
Battery the end of 1968 and the beginning of 1969", said the big
man, standing up to shake my hand.
"I remember, you're the
guy that used to pay me." I seemed to remember one of the few times
I ever came in contact with my commanding officer. I could recall
standing before his desk reporting, as he doled out my monthly supply of
Military Payment Certificates, known as MPC's,. which was what we used
for money in those days.
I took a beer from the cooler
and found a seat by the window next to the man who had opened the door
He introduced himself as
Domingo Hernandez. He had been assigned to the ammo section. I recalled
the trucks loaded with artillery rounds and powder that would come in to
resupply us after those long fire missions, and always felt, "What
a dangerous job that is, traveling at all hours in those trucks full of
explosives, always exposed to sniper fire and ambush."
Domingo and I became fast
friends as he told me that he now worked as a printer in Cedar Hill,
Texas and liked to work on old VW's in his spare time. He had made the
long trip by himself in hopes of meeting up with his old friend and
mentor, Sergeant Tate.
Big Daddy announced that it
was time to tour the local winery, a little side trip he had planned to
a place where everyone could sample local wines and if they liked, could
buy some at discount prices. Domingo and I agreed to stay behind in case
others came along and would like to check in.
It wasn't long after the
others had gone that two ladies came by. The older lady pointed to the
sign on the door and asked if this was the reunion of the 15th
Artillery. I told them the others had gone and would be back in an hour
or so, and handed them the sign-in sheet. They signed in and agreed to
be back soon. Then an older gentleman come by. He introduced himself as
Norman Barnes; he had been the executive officer and had brought the
unit over. I told him Big Daddy had taken the others to a winery, he
smiled and said, "That sounds like Big Daddy." He signed in
and said he would be back.
Things slowed down and I
decided it was time to bring in my box of memorabilia. So Domingo and I
my car and brought the old foot locker in. We decided I to
make the adjoining room into the war room and as we displayed war
relics, Domingo commented on how he had saved nothing and wished he had
at least saved his Airborne Jump wings so he would have something to
pass on to his grandchildren.
Before long, everybody started
coming back and as Domingo and I sat in the hospitality room sipping on
a cold beer, we were delighted by the excitement of the others as they
found the treasures left for them in the War Room. I could hear voices
call out, "You gotta see this stuff', and, "I remember
Big Daddy came out and, with a
bit of a tear in his eyes, asked, "Did you bring all this
stuff?" Then he gave me a big Vietnam veterans hug.. That was my
first big thrill. My second came later that night. As I stood outside
talking to a couple of the guys, a familiar face walked up. I knew him,
but I just couldn't put my finger on who he was. So I stopped him and
asked, "Were you with B Battery?" "Yes, gun 3, 1969-70,
"Oh, I remember, you were
on my gun crew. I'm Gary Harrington."
"Oh yea! You were our
driver", the short man from Ohio replied and, remembering all those
nights we pulled guard duty, K.P. and filled sandbags together in the
rain, we gave each other a big Vietnam veterans hug. Then I took him
inside to reunite him with Paul Hunter, our Battery commander .
The rest of the night was
filled with camaraderie and war stories that went on until the wee hours
of the morning.
The next morning, I slept a
little late, then went out and had breakfast. When I returned to my
room, I was going through some papers when the phone rang. It was
Domingo. "Hey, Man! You gotta get down here. There's some guy that
says he knows you." I told him I'd be right there and hung up the
The hospitality room was full
and everybody was talking at once. I found a seat across from the sofa,
where I noticed a woman sitting by herself. She had a name tag that
read, "Suzy Griffin". Then it came to me; my gun sergeant was
a guy named Tom Griffin.
Sergeant Griffin was all army,
but in a good way. I remember sitting around the gun pit, and he would
go on about how the Army had saved him from an otherwise destitute life
and how he had met his wife while serving in Korea, and the love he had
for her and his children.
I was about to introduce myself when Tom came into the room carrying a copy of my book (A Time of Innocence: A Time of Confidences: Dixie Press 1990). He was trying to explain to Suzy who I was and that he remembered me. I tapped him on the shoulder and our eyes met. It was like yesterday, though we were older, we were still the same. All those years and we still knew each other. A big Vietnam veterans hug.
Tom completed an illustrious
army career and now he and Suzy live in Weston, Ohio, where they enjoy
the company of their grandchildren. Tom's son, Tom, Jr., followed in his
father's footsteps and is now assigned to the Artillery at Fort Sill,
The boys of Battery B continue
to report in.
A little later, while standing
outside chatting with some folks, a man approached, carrying a box full
of bright red hats (for those of you that don't know, red is the color
of the Artillery, as blue is for Infantry and yellow is for Cavalry).
The hats had crossed cannons and the numbers 7/15, and read: "Big
Guns are Ready". I stopped and asked about the hats and the man
said they were $10.00, with the money going to support the 7/15 Artillery
I, like most veterans, love a
hat, so I bought one, then we got to talking.
His name was Bob Donnan, from
McMurray, Pennsylvania. He was the one who started the whole thing.
The way he had first started
was finding his old address book, the kind we all kept with the names
and addresses of buddies we promised to keep in touch with, but never
did. He found that many of these addresses and phone numbers were still
good; the addresses and numbers belonging to parents, who would know
how to contact the veterans, and those he found could contact others.
There are also vet-find
programs, military and veteran newsletters and magazines that can aid in
Bob found that once he
compiled a list of names, a newsletter of his own maintained enthusiasm
and informed the others. This is what made the whole thing work.
The bus trip began sharply at
13:00 hours. Sergeant Griffin and Suzy sat across from me and Captain
Hunter and his wife in the seat in front of them. We told war stories
and reminisced as the bus made its way through the beautiful hills and
valleys of northern Tennessee.
Our first stop was Fort
Donnelson. It had been a stronghold of the Confederacy along the
Cumberland River during the American Civil War. The Confederate forces
held valiantly until overcome by the Union forces, led by Ulysses S.
Grant, in the cold winter of 1862.
Mostly, I felt a kinship with
these men, the Confederates meeting with defeat and led off to prison
camps, the Yankees savoring their hard won victory then marching off to
In the end there are no
winners, no losers, just those that survived.
Then it was back on the bus.
Our next stop was Fort
Campbell. Fort Campbell is the home of the 101st Airborne Division. To
relate to my father's division, the 99th, the 101st also fought in the
of the Bulge. When surrounded in the town of Bastogne and asked to
surrender by the Germans, the Commanding
General, Anthony McAuliffe, simply replied, "Nuts", and the
At the museum, we were greeted
by the young service men and women of today. The exhibit consisted of
artifacts and displays from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and
today's Army. It was strange to see artifacts from my own war, so much
time has passed, but it feels good to be part of history.
We stood, once again as a
group, in front of the museum as the women snapped photos for
As we stood posing in our
bright red hats, I realized that next time, it would not be just us men
standing here, but the women too.
Our last stop was the
Sportsman Lodge for dinner .
We sat at long tables and were
served generous portions of Wiener Schnitzel with onion gravy, German
coleslaw, rolls and large
glasses of iced tea to wash it all down.
After dinner, a few of us
stepped out front to enjoy the scenery. The lodge overlooked a bend in
the river, and as we sat, several deer ran through the woods along the
bank. We were amazed at their beauty, but came to realize that none of
us, since the war, had felt the urge to hunt.
After a nap, I returned to the
hospitality room, and that's where I met Dan Gillotti. Dan is a retired
Master Sergeant who had started his career in the 7/15th.
Later, I noticed the two
ladies that Domingo and I had I signed-in the day before. The older lady
introduced herself as Barbara Penn from El Paso, Texas.
She explained that her
husband, LTC Raymond B. Penn, Jr. had commanded the 7/15th until his
death in a fiery helicopter crash on December 1, 1970. The crash also
claimed the life of SMAJ Laverne D. Coyle, the battalion's top sergeant,
along with the pilot WO Stephen C. Sellett and the Personnel Officer,
CWO Kenneth E. Crayne
Their names appear in order on the Wall in Washington, D.C.
Mrs. Penn had brought her
daughter, Marsha, to meet some of the men that had served with her
husband, and her son, Mark, would be joining them on Sunday. Some others
wanted to talk to Mrs. Penn, so I turned to Marsha.
Marsha, an attractive young lady, explained that she worked as a corporate lawyer for a major oil company in Houston, Texas. I guess the question she asked that haunted me most was, "Why?" Why had this wonderful, loving man, her father, have to go off to this horrible war and die? As a veteran, I have asked myself this same question many times. I guess we went for many reasons, but for most, we went because our country asked us to. And we ask, why did so many others die, but we didn't; and so many others were crippled or disabled, but we weren't. I guess this is a question that can only be answered by God.
she revealed the story of the day they found out I that her father had
died. She was just 12 years old at the time.
She knew something was wrong, because the house was filled with family
and friends; everyone was in a somber mood.
Her father was due to come
home in a couple of weeks, about Christmas time. Her mother had ordered
a new recliner chair for his homecoming, and the chair was being
delivered when a group of officers arrived with the news of her father's
death. Everyone was in tears.
She just wanted the chair to
go away; she just wanted the man to take the chair and put it back on
the truck and make it go away.
I guess Marsha and Mrs. Penn
helped me realize that it was not just us, the soldiers, who had
suffered alone, but the wives, children, sweethearts and loved ones that
suffered as well.
This brought me to the next
group I wanted to talk to: the wives.
I found them seated in a
semi-circle, outside on the grassy courtyard, the bright Tennessee moon
shining down on them. They talked of children, grandchildren, their
homes and the best shopping around. But they also spoke of politics,
religion and a better world for tomorrow.
When asked how they felt about
coming to the reunion, they replied that it was part of a well-needed
vacation, joining this with other points of interest along the way. Some
had been Army wives and had been stationed at the same places as the
others. They all shared an interest
in their husbands and the sentimentality of how they felt and related to
one another .They all agreed that, despite all the war stories, they
were having a good time.
As the evening ended and I
returned to my room, I felt an inner peace and kinship with these people
that I had never felt before. I guess its just a way of knowing we were
not alone out there.
Saturday morning, I had a
nice, continental breakfast, then a swim in the pool and relaxed in the
whirlpool and sauna, helped Big Daddy restock the beer in the
hospitality room, then returned to dress for our brunch.
The brunch was held in the
Cumberland room; you could have called it a dinner or just a meeting.
Its a time when decisions are made, and those that brought this off were
It began with a wonderful
buffet with everything from scrambled eggs to biscuits and gravy.
After we ate, the meeting was
called to order, with Big Daddy presiding. He introduced himself and his
wife, Ollie, Bob Donnan and Dan Gillotti, then asked each of us to stand
in turn, introduce ourselves and tell what part of the unit we served in
and in what year. Then the hat was passed to support the Association.
Some jokes and stories were told. We decided the next reunion would
tentatively be held in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1998. You can get your
name on the mailing list by writing Dave Holdorf.
Big Daddy and Bob Donnan were
presented with 'The Honorable Order of St. Barbara' medals. St. Barbara
is the patron saint of artillerymen. Both men richly deserved the honor.
The meeting was adjourned and
we all went back to the hospitality room just to sit around and talk.
Later after dinner, we
returned to the Cumberland Room to be entertained Nashville style by the
Tennessee Highway Men. I gave a try at the twist, cowboy style, with
Susie Alexander. I did the best I could, but I'm a bit rusty. Susie and
her husband, Chuck, are hosting the next reunion in Louisville.
After that we mostly just sat
and talked and reminisced.
I guess the conclusion we came
to was that our Vietnam experiences were a time during which we never
felt so alive and in all these years because of the nature of the war,
we never spoke of those things. The reunion had given us the opportunity
to do that.
In the morning, I packed. At
0900, we met at the hospitality room. Then we gathered in the courtyard.
Mrs. Penn and the twins, Mark and Marsha at her side, led us in prayer.
Then Big Daddy read the names of our fallen comrades, those that had
died in the war; then those that had passed on since. After we hugged
and said our goodbyes.
I promised Sergeant Griffin,
Captain Hunter and Bob Payton that I'd keep in touch and that I'd see
them at the next reunion, then I headed home.
As I stopped at the gas
station to fill up, I ran into my friend, Domingo. He was off in search
of his sergeant - the one that didn't come.
I told him I'd keep in touch;
he said I probably wouldn't. I did. I sent him his paratrooper wings.
As I made my way home through the beautiful wooded hillsides of Tennessee, I remembered them all. They had become more than just part of my past. They had become part of my family.
to Andy Sanford and Ollie Forsythe
thumbnail photos to enlarge
side of the formation at Reunion '95 in Clarksville. Hats were artillery red during this 2nd reunion (note the bright yellow hat from
the 1st reunion).
side of the formation. Some members of the '95 reunion group didn't go
the bus tour, when these group photos were taken.
awards of the 'Honorable Order of Saint Barbara' were made. Norm
Forsythe is shown here displaying his award certificate.
7/15 battalion executive officer Norm Barnes made the Saint Barbara award presentations
during the group business meeting on Saturday.
Bob Donnan displaying his 'Honorable Order of Saint Barbara' certificate.
order links field artillerymen of the past and present in a brotherhood
of professionalism, selfless service and sacrifice symbolized by Saint
Suhler joins Ollie and Norm
Forsythe at the Fort Donnelson Civil War historical site in Dover, TN,
during the group bus tour.
Raymond B. Penn, Jr.'s family, Mark, Barbara, and Marsha Penn attended
the '95 reunion and conducted the Memorial Service on Sunday morning.
Forsythe shares war stories with Norm Barnes. Each reunion participant
took part in recording an audio cassette tape with recollections they
had of the war.
Maughan watches the proceedings. Fearless leadership of the Commo
Section in 1971 prepared him well for his present day banking career.
reunion group watches a movie at the Ft. Campbell museum during one stop
on the bus tour. Ft Campbell, Kentucky is home to the Army's 101st
Airborne Division "Screaming Eagles"
display case showing uniforms of the Vietnam War.
& Susie Alexander (left) of Kentucky and Paul & Birgit Hunter (right)
of Washington state.
Field Artillery Regiment Historian Dan Gillotti of Ohio attended his
first 7/15th reunion with his wife Theresa.
Proctor keeps Gary Harrington company while he enjoys a cold one with
his fellow 'redlegs.'
Harrington used the second meeting room at the hotel to set up his large
collection of Vietnam War artifacts.
Suhler (right) enjoys a cold one while swapping tales with renowned
storyteller Jack Boggs.
"Tennessee Trail Hands" get the group moving at the motel on
that 'Big Daddy' (Norm Forsythe) dancing with Susie Alexander? Susie and
Chuck volunteered to host the next reunion (1998)
in Louisville, Kentucky.
and Tom Griffin look over one of the many photo albums fellow veterans
brought along with them. It had been almost 30 years since Tom
served with the battalion in Vietnam.
Hernandez drove up from Texas to join some of his brothers from Battery
B. Here he takes a well deserved break after stocking the coolers.
'sparkplugs' behind this event were Ollie and Norm Forsythe. Everything
went off without a hitch, and Norm credited Ollie with most of the
accolades for the reunion's success.
Historian Dan Gillotti (left) studies a photo album with Norm Barnes and
Barbara Penn. Dan served in battalion FDC during his tour with the
Heidbreder volunteered to bring his computer to Reunion '98 to scan
photos of the 7/15th's tour in Vietnam. Someday he plans to make the CD
available to other veterans.
Penn joined her mother and one of her brothers at the reunion. Her
father, LTC Raymond B. Penn, Jr. was close to the end of his tour as
7/15th Battalion Commander when he perished with 3 other members of the
battalion in a helicopter crash.
"Airborne" Maughan enjoys a lighter moment, while Dan
Gillotti (left) displays his photo album.
|15th Reunion Pages|
|1992 Reunion - Pittsburgh, PA|
|1995 Reunion - Clarksville, TN|
|1998 Reunion - Louisville, KY|
|7/15th Mini-Reunion - Kenosha, WI|
|2001 Reunion - Ft. Sill, OK|
|2/15th Reunions, Fort Wainwright|
|2003 Reunion - Ft. Bragg, NC|
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