By John Russell Ghrist
Special to The Rock River Times
Each Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I do a radio program in honor of my father, Glenn H. Ghrist Jr., who was a medic in World War II. “Doc,” as his fellow soldiers called him, landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-6 and fought in “The Battle of the Bulge.” Dad shared many of his war stories on my show, and now, the opportunity is given to other members of the military to speak out and discuss their combat experiences. It is hoped these programs help rekindle patriotism and appreciation for the men and women who have served our country.
Joining us this time are two unique military men who were stationed in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Larry Raymond from Rochelle was a male Army nurse, and Bruce Giersch of Winnebago served in the Marines. Also appearing on the program are Stanley and Yolanda Weisensel, owners of the Camp Grant Museum and Command Post Restaurant in Rockford, who host the regular tapings of the interviews. Two other soldiers were no shows for various reasons. The program usually includes four to five guests. The Weisensels also discussed their rooms of war memorabilia and invited the public to view their museum. Yolanda often gives informative talks to community groups about the role of Camp Grant in World War I and World War II.
Larry Raymond was stationed in Vietnam for 13 months and was in the Army for eight years. He entered the military just out of high school in New York, where he passed all of his board examinations. He worked in area hospitals after his discharge. Bruce Giersch was a draftsman. He had lived in Chicago, tried college for a semester, and was dissatisfied with his classes. “One morning, I told my boss, I’ve got something to do,” Giersch said. He took the bus down to the Marine Corps recruiter and signed up that day. Giersch’s brother and father were also Marines. While some told Bruce he had made a mistake, he insisted that joining the military was a great experience. “When all of us get together, we share the same boot camp stories and talk about the hardships,” he noted. “We can chuckle about it now, but it wasn’t so funny back then.”
Bruce had heard what basic training was like from his father and was prepared for the tough life as a Marine. “I knew what to expect … keep your head down, keep your mouth shut and you can get the job done without too many problems,” he said. He was a San Diego or “Hollywood” Marine. Larry was in demand from the Army before he completed his medical exams. He was sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for officer’s basic training with 300 other military personnel.
The only humorous event Larry remembers about basic training occurred when several members of his group snuck up on an officer in a jeep, tied him up, and got away. While stationed in Vietnam one night, two other medical personnel put a live chicken and a pet boa constrictor in the same cage and took bets on which the survivor would be. The next day, only the chicken was found walking around in the cage, and it was assumed that the chicken had eaten the snake. It turned out that the reptile’s owner had removed the snake during the night and had taken it back to his quarters.
There were also sad times discussed by the men during the interview. Larry related how one person was killed in a booby-trapped bathroom explosion, and Bruce briefly mentioned how several Marines were killed in a fiery helicopter crash. Various military personnel who meet at Camp Grant discuss the perils of war, but not for the general public. Larry saw many casualties from the Vietnam War and once hitched a helicopter ride that became involved in a gunship battle. He served at the 18th Surgical Hospital and wore a gun if he left the facility. His hospital also served the medical needs of the local Vietnamese. When the women would have babies, their husbands would try to sell the kids to the medical staff.
Bruce remembers getting chewed out by a sergeant after a rocket attack on his first day in Da Nang. He and another Marine were walking to the chow hall and observed many men diving into ditches, but did not seek cover. “We never heard the rockets,” he said. “We were just not in tune with listening to what was happening. This is why lots of military personnel got killed early in the war.” Another time, he dove into a bunker that already had corpsmen casualties and later found his tent full of shrapnel. “The average person does not understand the uniforms, equipment and extreme temperatures that we had to endure,” Bruce added. Both men were asked what they missed the most while they were away during the war. They replied with: “girlfriends or wives, ice cream, good hot meals that were not coming from a can, candy, chips, soda and good clean clear water that did not smell like chlorine.”
Yolanda offered that there is a group of Vietnam soldiers who meet on Thursday mornings at Camp Grant in the back of the museum. The special room also includes one of three Rockford Airport banners that were signed by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Local military personnel felt the need to welcome the returning soldiers and not let them face the absence of honor that many Vietnam soldiers endured after the war.
Both Larry and Bruce seemed to move back into civilian life with little fanfare and — fortunately — no injuries. Larry added: “We heard from our neighbors and friends, ‘Oh, you’re back’ (as if we weren’t missed). We were not heroes, and there were little thanks for our service. It wasn’t a war that most appreciated.” Bruce mentioned that most Vietnam military personnel were rotated in and out of the country and became parts of battalions. Unlike the earlier world wars, there were very few whole units coming back for a massive celebration. “I wore my uniform through the airports and did not have any problems, but I knew guys who were spit on and cursed at,” he said. “Nowadays, very often when it is learned that someone served in Vietnam, the public is more willing to buy them a drink or pay for their meal.”
After their years of service, the men reflected back on their lives. “You become more mature,” Bruce quickly offered. “I came out of my shell when I was in the Marines. I learned responsibility and to work as a member of a team to get the job done. There’s lots of training, and good leadership comes out of it.”
Larry stated that the military offered him a career after Vietnam. “The medical training was invaluable,” he added. Both men recommended that young people with no direction in their lives join the military because of the benefits and the leadership experiences.
Both men had good things to say about services from the Veterans Administration. The local Vet Center also gives timely care to returning soldiers with yearly examinations and immunizations.
Larry says he retired in 1999 after working in several hospitals in Sandwich and Moline, Illinois. He enjoys fishing and seeing his grandchildren. Bruce is active in the Marine Corps League, repairs model trains, runs an industrial volleyball league, and still works as an engineer as he nears retirement.
Down the home stretch of the interview, the men were asked if the country was still patriotic.
Larry offered that most individuals are, but there are lots of citizens who don’t want war anymore and there’s not as many patriotic people as there used to be. Yolanda has noticed that some people do not salute the flag or stand at attention during the playing of the national anthem at sporting events. “If children do not see their parents recognizing the flag, then they won’t, either,” she said. “It is a shame because we have a beautiful country.”
Bruce remorsefully added: “If you watch a sporting event on today, there are people who don’t sing the national anthem … they’re talking … and that’s not the way I was brought up.” He went on to mention the abundance of parades and military-related activities that are well-attended in Winnebago. “Part of the problem is that today’s teachers have not been in the military, and they cannot bring those values to their students,” he suggested. “When I was growing up, my teachers had been soldiers and could relate the importance of patriotism to their classes.”
Both men thought it was important to join veterans’ groups, but younger former soldiers are concentrating more on jobs, families and careers and have little time to attend additional meetings. Larry does see more interest now by younger military members in joining and assisting in such organizations. Bruce says that VFWs and American Legion groups are good places to share stories and associate with former soldiers who have undergone the same life experiences.
Bruce has been told that he should write a book about his life in the military. Larry says that his career was sometimes like the TV series M*A*S*H, with similar tight working conditions to operate on patients.
Bruce Giersch coordinates the area’s Toys for Tots program. Camp Grant will have a collection box through the Christmas holiday season.
The Command Post Restaurant and Camp Grant Museum is at 1004 Samuelson Road, Rockford, just east of the airport. The historic building was once the camp’s old fire station. The phone number is (815) 395-0679.
This edition of “Soldiers’ Stories,” along with many patriotic tunes, will air several times around Veterans Day on Rockford’s community radio station, WTPB LP 99.3 FM, and on Midwest Ballroom on College of DuPage’s radio station WDCB 90.9 FM from 5 to 7 p.m., Nov. 8, prior to the holiday. WDCB’s Chicago signal can be heard worldwide on the Internet at wdcb.org. Much more of the men’s comments will be heard on the radio show.
From the Nov. 5-11, 2014, issue