"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bob Staranowicz: My Story, The Beginning

Bob Staranowicz
I am a Vietnam Veteran and I am proud of my service.

I served with the 101st Airborne while in Vietnam and was assigned to northern I Corps at Camp Eagle, near Hue.

I would like to tell you a little bit about myself and maybe in a future posting, something about why I went back to Vietnam in 2009.

I was born on October 11, 1948 at home since Mom couldn’t afford, or didn’t want to go to, a hospital.  I already had three older brothers.

Where I grew up was residential, as well as industrial, within the shadow of the Philco Electronics building. Directly behind was Kissling’s Sauer Kraut. Al Kissling - yes, a real person - manufactured sauerkraut, pickles, mackerel and mush – all still available in local supermarkets.

Also in the neighborhood was a Bon Ton Potato Chip factory, a lumber yard,  and Strunk's, a trucking firm. Strunk also had a car inspection and repair service in the 200 block. 

There was a bar on almost every corner, the 200 Bar at 200 Richmond, McGuirl’s at 101 Richmond and others throughout the neighborhood. I can remember four bars from Front and Richmond to the middle of the 200 block. 

There was an Esso gas station – Wolfman’s, and another luncheonette, Wojcik’s, on Shackamaxon Street. Down the block from Wojcik’s was one more luncheonette, Conroy’s, and a Gulf gas station.

We also had a rag and newspaper reclamation plant, a kielbasa plant and a sugar house (now, the Sugar House Casino), all within a two block walk.

On the corner of Richmond and Shackamaxon, were four businesses: McCracken's which was a luncheonette, the 200 Bar, Wisnieski's Grocery Store, and Black's Drug Store. McCracken’s moved to the middle of the block later.

Then there was Tilly’s (Maryanski) Candy Store, where soda and candy were sold.  It was also where the pinball wizards of the time hung out -- five balls for a nickel! No, you never had to go far to get anything you needed.

It was an interesting place to live. A typical blue collar city neighborhood of that era, where dogs ran free, everyone knew each other, and being home by dark in the summer was really the only rule we had.

We never knew we were poor, until we got out into the world and experienced other neighborhoods. Once I started going to school in 1954, more discoveries were made. 

As I crossed Frankford Avenue on my way to Immaculate Conception School, I would pass by a steel smelting plant – Ajax. Once I got to the end of the block, I came to Front Street where the elevated train ran and crossed over to the Tip Top playground which was the school yard for Immaculate Conception school.

We had a graduating class of 35 in 1962. After leaving ICS, I attended Northeast Catholic High School and graduated in 1966. I worked in my senior year at a family shoe store on Girard Avenue – the OK Shoe Store. After graduation, I decided to take the summer off before starting a real job and ended up at Sears Roebuck before I received my letter from Uncle Sam.

I received my draft notice on April 1st 1968 and before I could be inducted I joined the Army in 1968 because I wanted to control my own fate during a time that the US was involved in what was becoming an unpopular war. 

I did my basic training at Fort Bragg, NC starting in the hottest month of the year – August. Then I was assigned to Fort Monmouth, NJ to attend a Communications School. I enlisted in order to get this school since it was so close to home and would keep me in the States for at least another 10 months and allow me to get home most weekends.

My recruiter, (who shall remain unnamed), told me that with all of this security training that I would never see Vietnam. I am still looking for him… (HA HA). I received my orders for Vietnam about six weeks before I completed my training. There were 26 of us in class and 25 were sent to Vietnam. The lone member, who had the highest average, was off to Germany.

Little did I know that my tour in Vietnam would become one of the most gratifying experiences in my life. I cannot say that it has not affected me negatively in some ways, but there are many positive experiences, as well.

So, after I finished my studies at Fort Monmouth, I came home for a 30 day leave. I had met a gal in June and saw her on weekends, along with my friends, when I came home. It was a casual friendship and since I was going away to war, I didn’t want any kind of commitment while I was away. Well, that plan failed miserably and I married that girl when I returned home the next November. I had turned 21, five days before I left and also knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Some 40 years later, we are still together.

The war was being protested more and more during that time and the day before I left, the largest moratorium aimed at ending the war took place on October 15, 1969. Almost 500,000 men and women were deployed in the conflict, and opposition to the war was growing.

The Moratorium for the first time brought out America's middle class, middle-aged voters, in large numbers. The focal point was the Capital, Washington DC, where more than 40 different activities were planned and about 250,000 demonstrators gathered to make their voices heard.

There were protests all over Europe, not just the US. Peace activists congregated outside US embassies across Europe. In London a crowd of some 300 people demonstrated opposite the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square.

So, with all of this going on, I headed to the airport after saying good bye to my Mom and Dad. Of course, my mother was upset, but it was the first time I had ever seen my Dad cry. I left with my future wife and my brother and sister-in-law and headed to the airport. Corny as it may sound, as I kissed my future mate good bye, I handed her my high school ring as an assurance that she would have to give it back to me when I returned.

Then I got on the plane, my first ever flight, headed for Chicago, then to Oakland. I was joined by several other Fort Monmouth classmates and my future best man, who at that time had no idea, nor did I.

We spent several days in Oakland, before receiving the call to get on the plane to Vietnam. We departed Travis AFB around midnight for what would be a year in Vietnam. After a brief stop in Alaska, we headed to Tokyo.

Upon landing, there was a problem with our plane and it would take at least 24 hours to repair. Our plane was carrying about 150 second lieutenants with artillery or infantry specialties, along with many enlisted men, some returning to Vietnam for another tour. The young officers all knew that that their specialty had a great deal of casualties in Vietnam.

While waiting for plane repairs and with all of this freedom, Joe and I decided to hit the bars. Little did we know that those Kirins we were drinking were high in alcohol. After several hours, we retired to our hotel and fell asleep. We were supposed to be called when the plane was repaired. 

There were two officers in our room as well and when they got the call, they failed to awaken us from our drunken stupor. Sometime later, when the hotel manager was checking rooms, he found us, woke us and told us the plane was leaving. We hopped in a cab and raced to the airport to see out plane on the tarmac ready to leave. We had just made it.

The flight to Vietnam was uneventful after that, until we landed and the hot steamy air hit us as the doors opened. Needless to say, that did not help our still existing “hangover” condition. We both walked down the steps to the tarmac on wobbly legs with queasy stomachs.

We were off to the reception center where I found, after a few days of jungle training, that I was to board a C-130 to Phu Bai. I knew nothing of the country’s geography and searched a map around the Saigon area, where I wanted to be assigned. Up and up my finger cruised to find Phu Bai in the northern I Corps region. I was shocked. I was hoping to stay in the “safer” area around Saigon but it was not to be. I was headed to the boonies.

So, I got to Camp Eagle and was happy to see one other guy from my class. It was November 2nd, almost two weeks after leaving home. This was most difficult since I was writing letters home but had yet to receive one in return. I now had a mailing address, but it would take another two weeks to receive a reply after I sent the information home.

My travel was over and I settled in to the daily 12 hour, 7 day routine. Along with the duties of the communications shop, there was KP, guard duty, and other company-related duties. I wasn’t happy but something happened in the next several weeks that would change my whole point of view about this place.

In a future blog I will continue this story and share an experience which has stayed with me until this day and which brought me back to Vietnam 39 years later.

[Bob Staranowicz is a Vietnam veteran, a member of the Doylestown Post 175 VFW, and Author of the book, "Chapter One".  He lives in Buckingham PA.]

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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