SA Douglas Hegdahl

SA Douglas Hegdahl

By Garland Davis

On April 6, 1967, 20-year-old Seaman Douglas Hegdahl was knocked overboard by the blast from a 5-inch gun mount from the USS Canberra in the Gulf of Tonkin, three miles off the coast. He swam until he was picked up several hours later by Cambodian fishermen who treated him well. Trying to cover for him, his shipmates did not report him missing for two days, so the commanding officer did not know to look for him. Hegdahl was turned over to Vietnamese militiamen who clubbed him repeatedly with their rifles before moving him to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison.

The interrogators first insisted that Hegdahl was a commando or an agent. His story of being blown overboard seemed unbelievable to the interrogators. Hegdahl quickly realized he would be much better off if he pretended to be a lowly fool. Hegdahl was slapped around for a few days before convincing his captors that he was of little value to them. His bumpkin demeanor, youthful appearance, and country accent aided in his ability to convince them that he was no threat to them.

When asked to write statements against the United States, he agreed but pretended to be unable to read or write, which was believable to his Vietnamese captors. Thinking they had someone who would be easily turned to their cause, they assigned someone to teach Hegdahl to read. After Hedgahl appeared to be incapable of learning to read and write, his captors gave up on him. Later, he came to be known to the Vietnamese as “The Incredibly Stupid One”, and he was given nearly free rein of the camp.

Seaman Hegdahl “helped” the prison guards by sweeping up the compound each day. I once heard a talk by one of the Officer POW’s, a Navy Captain. During his speech, he said that daily he watched SA Heghdahl sweep the compound and deposit the sweepings into the gas tanks of five trucks parked there. Eventually, the trucks were towed away.

“I flew eighty combat missions over North Vietnam in a multi-million dollar aircraft and am not sure I did any damage at all. I watched a Navy Seaman disable five trucks with a broom and a dustpan.”

With the help of Joseph Crecca, a U.S. Air Force officer and fellow prisoner, Hegdahl memorized names, capture dates, method of capture, and personal information of about 256 other prisoners—to the tune of a nursery rhyme “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. Hegdahl is still able to repeat the information to this day.

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Admiral Halsey on Chief Petty Officers

Admiral Halsey on Chief Petty Officers

The following is a true story told to ATCS(AC) Jack Reese USN Retired by his uncle, John Reese, a journalist and novelist who wrote 34 books, mostly westerns. If you ever saw the movie “Charlie Varrick”, with Walter Mathau, this was from his book, “The Looters”.

AT the end of World War II, all the towns and cities across the country were looking for a “Home town boy makes good” person to celebrate the victory with. Los Angeles chose Admiral Halsey, whom it was rumored had done quite well. The ceremony was held on the steps of the LA county courthouse, and at the end of it when Halsey was leaving, they had a line of sideboys. They were active duty and retired Chief Petty Officers that had been brought in from all over the country. As he walked through the ranks, my uncle walked apace on the outside. As Halsey approached one old CPO that my uncle described as being older than God, my uncle saw them wink at each other. Later, at a cocktail party, my uncle had the opportunity to have a chat with the great Admiral. He commented on the wink between Halsey and this old Chief and asked Halsey if he would mind explaining it. Halsey looked at me uncle very seriously and said this: ” That man was my Chief when I was an Ensign, and no one before or after taught me as much about ships or men as he did. You civilians don’t understand. You go down to Long Beach, and you see those battleships sitting there, and you think that they float on the water, don’t you? My uncle replied, “Yes sir, I guess they do”. You are wrong, replied Halsey; they are carried to sea on the backs of those Chief Petty Officers!

ATCS(AC) Jack Reese USN Retired says “For all of my uncles fame and money, he thought I had the best job and position in the world. I think he was right!!”

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Strong Drink and Sea Duty

Strong Drink and Sea Duty

Michael McGrorty

I served in the Navy from 1974-78, got out and began civilian life at age 21. Back in ’74, the navy was still adhering to the tradition of hard drinking. They called it ‘steaming,’ and there was no stigma attached to getting loaded, as long as you could make it to quarters in the morning. The berthing compartment on a ship at the pier was fun after midnight. The drunks would come rolling in, collapse on a rack (theirs or another), and pass out. It was a rare night when one or more wouldn’t toss his liquor all over the deck.

Some of you may recall when it was common for the Officer of the Deck to disappear when drunken enlisted men were brought aboard so that he didn’t ‘see’ them. This saved my skin a few times. You may also remember when an aspirin bottle was taped to the bulkhead outside sick bay for the drunks to grab a couple the next morning on their way to quarters. I suppose they have Advil now.

I was often a duty driver. On those nights I’d be dispatched to rescue shipmates who’d gotten so drunk they passed out somewhere—in San Diego, Pearl Harbor, Subic Bay—any port you could think of. Local police departments would just show me where the guy was; usually in a cell with some others, and I’d put him into the bed of our pickup truck for a bumpy ride back home. The duty corpsman would check for a pulse, and that would be that.

There were also a lot of stoners back then. Some of them smoked underway. I remember guys on watch being so stoned they couldn’t see straight. I knew men who would drop acid and stumble around for hours, wandering compartments like zombies.

Here are some highlights from my own little volume:

1. New Year’s Eve of 1974, I got blind drunk at the EM club at 32nd Street, San Diego, and couldn’t find my way back to a ship at pier three, which was not very far off. We were breasted out of the Gompers and I had to cross another destroyer to get to mine. There was a large zig-zag ladder on the pier. The challenge of that was too much for me, and I fell asleep below one of the flights. Somebody woke me up later and I shambled up the steps. I managed to cross the Gompers, but the ramp to the next ship was too steep and I went sliding down it like a man skiing a mountain, ending up in the ship’s Christmas tree. I snapped the tree in two, got covered in tinsel and broken lights, and was lucky when the LTJG on watch let me go. I had the first watch the next morning and boy was I sick.

2. One night I went out into East San Diego, got some pizza, and drank two pitchers of Schlitz Dark—maybe more. On the way home, I got a hamburger at a Jack-in-the-Box. I decided to toss the tomato, cheese, and lettuce out the window of my car. Problem was, the window was shut, so I rode home with that and the sauce running down the window and door. Back at 32nd Street, I discovered I really had to take a leak. It seemed like miles to the pier, so I just parked my car and went wee-wee against the wheel of a van. In the midst of this effort, I looked up and saw, not a foot away, the face of a shore patrolman, gazing serenely at me through the side window. He rolled down the glass and said: “If you can get to your ship before we do, you’re home free.” I never ran so fast in my life.

3. Hong Kong; Australia; Manila; Anchorage; various places in Japan, and every port on the West Coast of America. The same story, right down to the hangover. And I wasn’t considered a hard drinker. All these episodes occurred before I was 21.

4. I read the entire six volumes of Carl Sandburg’s ‘Life of Lincoln’ at the Chula Vista library in a few weeknights while fairly drunk. That’s dedication.

After I got out, things changed. They quit letting 17 year-olds drink on the base. For another, they instituted a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy for the sort of rollicking drunkenness we all engaged in. And something else: they started penalizing enlisted for steaming. You may remember when the First Classes and Chiefs would really throw it down. That was out, or no advancement. And maybe no reenlistment.

They started sending people to alcohol rehab, without penalty. But if you refused, you got the door. Mind you, I recall seeing Chiefs and First Classes who were confirmed alcoholics—men who would drink ‘mouthwash’ underway, and you were glad they did because they were terrible when sober.

And then there were the stoners. They instituted drug testing and drug searches, and that went down the pipes, too.

I could say I had a lot of fun, but the truth is, that sort of drinking (at that age!) was not a particularly good idea. The hangovers were a push in the right direction. If you think those were the Good Old Days, hear this:

I went to visit a friend in the San Diego Naval Hospital who was there for some surgery. In those days they had the old, very long wards, which were essentially aisles lined with beds. I went for a stroll down the linoleum and saw two things: a lot of old service guys with diseases of the elderly, and plenty of young men, all busted up—arms, legs, heads, looking like they’d been hit by a steam roller. The ward nurse told me that most of the injuries were from auto and motorcycle crashes, and those came from drunk driving. Around that time, we had a safety stand-down where the captain of each ship in San Diego had to read a message to his crew. The message informed us that injuries and fatalities from drunk driving had reached the point where Navy personnel were becoming incapacitated for duty at a higher rate than in the worst days of the Vietnam War.

Why did we drink so much? I can only answer for myself. I was just a kid when I joined, leaving a less-than-satisfactory home life, with a lot of unresolved issues and about half the maturity needed to become a complete adult. Just like many others. I’d never had to work that hard before, and of course, you simply had to get the job done. You had, in other words, to be a man. Manhood is a stiff pair of boots to break in. Drunkenness was medicine for that: a liquid release that made you forget being lonely, being doubtful, being far from home. It flashed a brief rainbow-tinted euphoria over the haze-gray world.

One night I got so plastered that I couldn’t find my ship, a fairly large object that was tied to the pier when I left her. I inquired of a few people who could not seem to assist me. The problem was that I wasn’t able to speak the ship’s name clearly enough to be understood. I pondered this the next day and decided that, perhaps, I was running toward shoals.

I pledged not to drink for a full year, and I didn’t. And believe me, the world is a different place when you’re about the only sober one in the house. What did I do instead? Well, I read a lot of books, walked a lot of countries, and found that there was life beyond the bottom of a glass. I did return to drinking—not the two-handed desperado type, but just enough to enjoy myself.

One of these days I’m going to re-read Sandburg’s Life of Lincoln and see what I missed the first time.

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Fiddler’s Green

Fiddler’s Green

Oh and when you are docked and the long trip is through

There’s pubs and there’s clubs and there’s lassies there too

Where the girls are all pretty and the beer is all free

And there’s bottles of rum growin off every tree

“So wrap me up in my oilskins and jumper. No more on the docks I’ll be seen. Just tell me old shipmates, I’m taken a trip mate. And I’ll see ya some day in Fiddler’s Green”.

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My Best Friends

My Best Friends

By: Garland Davis

 

I grew up with a dog. A little red Cocker Spaniel named Cookie. She was my dog from the time I was twelve until I enlisted at seventeen. We played through the woods and explored the creeks and streams of Western North Carolina during those years. Mama told me that she seemed to miss me after I left and spent a lot of time on the porch watching up the road, hoping to see me coming home. She was always excited and happy to see me when I did come home on leave. I remember the sad day I received a letter from my sister telling me of her demise.

During the fifty-four years, Kikuko and I have been married, there have been six dogs who shared the time with us. First, there was an Akita named Taro who was with us for thirteen years. For a short time, he had a companion, a Shiba named Boots who tangled with a car and lost. Then there was a Shikoku also named Taro. As he got older he was joined by a female Shiba that we called Yuri although her “paper name” was Kotobuki Hime. After Taro II died at age twelve, Yuri was alone for a number of years and then was joined by a Shiba puppy, Taro III. Yuri lived seven more years and died a month before her eighteenth birthday. Taro, as he grew older was joined by another female Shiba named Izumi. Taro succumbed to cancer at the age of twelve. Izumi is sleeping under my desk as I type this. Each of these dogs had names on their pedigree that didn’t seem to fit them or their personalities. It is probably good that they didn’t know.

Kikuko and I are both aging and don’t want to leave a dog as an orphan so we have decided that Izumi will be the last fur baby.

Someone once wrote a piece called, “The Rainbow Bridge.” According to this missive, as each dog leaves this life, they gather just this side of a rainbow-colored bridge to wait for their human companion to join them and they cross that bridge together, united once again forever. If there is a life after this, I pray that all my dogs are there.

I echo the comment of Will Rogers, the great cowboy humorist who said, “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”

I remember seeing an episode of Death Valley Days with Ronald Reagan playing the part of George Vest.  Someone posted about it the other day on Facebook. George Vest is credited with coining the term “Man’s Best Friend.” I can think of no better description of a dog’s devotion to his friend. I hesitate to use the word master as that isn’t the relationship I have had with my dogs.

George Graham Vest (1830-1904) served as U.S. Senator from Missouri from 1879 to 1903 and became one of the leading orators and debaters of his time. This delightful speech is from an earlier period in his life when he practiced law in a small Missouri town. It was given in court while representing a man who sued another for the killing of his dog. During the trial, Vest ignored the testimony, and when his turn came to present a summation to the jury, he made the following speech and won the case.

“Gentlemen of the jury, the best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter whom he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us — those whom we trust with our happiness and good name — may become traitors in their faith. The money that a man has he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action.

The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolute, unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world — the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous — is his dog. A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and poverty, in health and sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow, and the snow drives fiercely if only he can be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

“If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace, and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter, if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside, will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death.” — George Graham Vest

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Postal Clerk

Postal Clerk

Michael McGrorty

I may have admitted that I was a Postal Clerk, a rate which has gone the way of the Triceratops. I suppose this is because everybody does their communicating electronically. It’s a bit odd to be a dinosaur.

When the mail arrived in-port, a truck rolled to our ship’s brow and the clerk in the back would sign over the delivery, then dump out the gray canvas sacks, and the red, green and yellow nylon bags to my possession. I’d hand over my own bags and the truck would go on its way.

At sea, there would be a helo drop, sometimes with a landing, sometimes not. Those Chinooks could hold a huge amount of mail for a flying machine, and if they came back again, you’d have yourself quite a mail call.

The biggest I ever had was when we had no parcel mail from Hawaii on, including Australia and finally Okinawa. The passageway was sixty feet of solid mail and it took two days to sort it out. And then there was Subic Bay. Whenever you hit the pier there you had a moving van waiting.

The large canvas bags were supposed to max out at 75 pounds, but they often went to a hundred. You could drag them but it wasn’t advisable. The best method was to stand the bag on end, bend from the waist, and tip it onto your shoulder. I weighed twice a mail bag in those days but I’d hoist them up and onto the ship all day if necessary. I carried scores of bags up ladders. If they slipped you learned to let them hit the deck without you. The canvas sacks were surface mail—mainly supplies for the ship, hardware, tools, replacement parts. Once I lifted up an ‘empty’ sack to clear it out and had a five-pound box of bolts hit me on the toe of my shoe. Steel toes after that.

I worked alone on two of my three ships. You’d sort the letter mail first, get that out, and then concentrate on the parcels. If you don’t know how to sort mail it takes forever. They teach you to grab a letter with your middle or ring finger behind the end and shoot it into the pigeon hole with a flick of the finger. It should make a sharp ‘clack’ when it hits the metal of the back wall. A good sorter can do better than one a second. After you’ve got them into divisions, you put the same names together, wrap a rubber band around them and you’re ready to face your public.

The letters will go out to the divisions along with the yellow 3849s that tell people to sign for a package or certified letter. Those would either be bad news or good news; you could tell by the envelope. Bad news comes from lawyers and the IRS. Good news comes from banks and investment companies. Really bad news comes from wives right after you start a long cruise. Hawaii is the first place you get mail on a Westpac. It’s also where many a sailor gets his Dear John notice. Say what you will about women, they have exquisite timing.

Nobody knows more about a crew than the Postal Clerk. He sees the bills that are paid, the checks and money orders sent to the light company, the subscriptions to the girlie magazines. He sees the perfumed letters from girlfriends the old lady has no idea exists; he knows whose utilities have been shut off, and which landlord is complaining to the captain about a damaged rental.

It takes about a month after a ship has left a foreign port for the last of the sweethearts to get smart and quit writing. I remember some of the cleverer sailors would tell the girls a different name, which made sorting the mail difficult. You’d see one for a ‘Detroit Ray’ in ‘Boilers Room’ that had to be figured out.

I saw quite a few men who would buy money orders to send to poor families they’d met overseas. This was especially common in the Philippines, but not just there. I don’t know if this was guilt, generosity, or some combination.

Back then the limit on money orders was $299. Amazingly, many sailors (paid in cash) would execute all their transactions in money orders. This is how I’d get to know who was being paid what. You see, they’d write in the payee there at the window, seal the MO in an envelope, and hand it to me. The commonest recipient of these was either the Navy Credit Union or San Diego Gas and Electric. I paid for a new car with money orders: $78 per month. Tell that to your kids.

And then there were those sad characters who bought money orders as a safeguard to keep themselves from blowing their pay. For some reason, they’d take all their pay in hand rather than keep some on the books, then make out one or more money orders to keep themselves from spending it all in one place. Such as in a card or craps game. I can’t tell you how many times I got a grubby, finger-smeared MO from some guy who asked “How can I cash this,” despite the fact that it was filled out in both boxes to the original purchaser. Apparently, money orders were as good as cash to gamblers, and why not? They took wedding rings and watches, too.

It wasn’t uncommon for sailors to lose money orders—often when they’d failed to fill out the boxes. But other tragedies occurred. One very nice Petty Officer First Class came to me and asked if I could find out what happened to the money orders he’d sent to his wife back home. He explained that every month he sent her numerous MO’s, which she claimed never to have received. There’s a thing called a ‘proof of payment’ and I did one so we could find out what happened.

A few weeks later a fat envelope arrived, and my friend opened it to find copies of the cashed money orders, everyone having been negotiated by his spouse. Needless to say, there were some tense discussions over this matter, and, not surprisingly, correspondence from an attorney later on.

There are a few undying legends about the Navy, and some of them concern things that were allegedly mailed to or from ships. Before a cruise of any duration, I would have a little mess decks chat with the crew about (ahem) certain contraband that might be obtained and mailed to the states. Likewise about stuff from home that had no business in the mail.

Only once did I discover liquor in the mail—and it was all over the mail. I was homeported in Japan and somebody’s brother attempted to mail a fifth of booze because everybody knows you can’t get liquor in Japan ( ! ). They tried the old ‘bottle in a box of Quaker Oats’ trick, but the oats weren’t padding enough, and the glass went to pieces, saturating everybody else’s letter mail with hooch.

Once I had a guy ask me, flat out, if he could mail a pound of marijuana in a jacket he bought. He figured that if the stuff was discovered, he could just say that it was in a pocket or something. I suggested he have a nice long smoke with friends and forget about it. More than once I saw incoming envelopes with the bulging outline of a joint.

Professional hint: Never send cake or cookies in the mail. Forget what you heard about packing them in popcorn. Nothing is less appetizing than a popcorn ball with green frosting inside.

Marines posed unique problems. They had a habit of getting their postage, envelopes and money orders soaked in the field, and they used postage and money orders as currency, especially for repayment of debts. Of course, many struggles followed when one guy would demand his stuff back—I learned to demand I.D. when cashing money orders for Marines. But hear this, Sailors: It was like looking for unicorns when I needed Navy help to bring mail bags on to the ship. But one word from a Sergeant and Marines would work until they dropped from exhaustion.

To a Postal Clerk, the two ugliest words in the English language are ‘Christmas’ and ‘Valentines Day.’ The Navy has a special problem with Christmas having to do with distance and location. The problem was always how to get sailors to send things home early enough so they’d arrive on time. And if you know sailors, you know that they put off sending home the Japanese figurine until December 24th. Not to mention that they’d wrap it in a handkerchief, toss on a stamp, and stuff it through the slot in the post office wall. We weren’t allowed to wrap patron packages or affix postage, but if you didn’t, you’d get dust and fragments arriving back home in Kansas. So I saved up tons of cardboard boxes and spent evenings packaging stuff. It was actually a lot of fun.

Professional hint: You don’t lick stamps or gummed paper tape. You just run them over a bit of spit on your tongue. Be careful with the tape or you’ll get a paper cut in the corner of your mouth.

Valentines Day was another train wreck. Every guilty sailor on the ship would run around looking for a card to send to his wife/girl/mother/all the above the night before. Mothers Day was another crisis. Your average sailor was no Shakespeare. He’d sit there on the mess decks staring at a greeting card, trying to figure out how to express his love or something. It got to where I’d tell guys “Give me that,” and just start writing. I had a standard set of messages:

“Francine, I have been away for XXX months but you are never out of my thoughts.”

“Joey, your Daddy misses you and hopes that you are making me proud in school.”

Somewhere along the way one of my captains called me in and said “Stamps, you got to tell these guys to write home. There are people, some of the wives, who haven’t heard from their son or husband in months.”

And so, during the break in the evening movie, I would suggest that they write a note to a loved one—or even a relative. Men can be astonishingly dense—or maybe it’s just focused. They were like “Hell, she knew I was going on a cruise.” I think this was the reason for some of those certified letters from attorneys. I remember asking a guy “How many kids you got?” He said “Three.” “How old are they?” “Three, maybe four Westpac’s.”

The worst thing sailors ever did to me was claim that things they’d never sent, or things they wanted to ignore, were ‘lost.’ I noticed that none of these ‘lost’ items was ever searched for later on. Your ‘lost’ items tended to be tax forms; payments to credit card companies, and similar obligations. Things never received included divorce papers, overdue notices, and paternity claims. Oh, and those tax forms. Back then military people only had to have them postmarked by April 15th. You can imagine me sitting there in the post office, postmarking forms right up to midnight, and beyond. This spawned a little business in which I would do your short form for you if you’d buy me a beer when next we saw each other in town. I discovered to my shock that many of my pals hadn’t filed their taxes in years, despite the promise of refunds. Just another thing that went by the boards.

In PC school they told us “You’re going to hear one phrase constantly from now on. Get used to it and don’t get angry.” That phrase was “Where’s the mail?” One is tempted to give the typical Navy response, but I learned to simply say “When we hit Subic in two days,” or something like that.

To an overseas sailor, the happiest pair of words you could hear in the work day were ‘Mail Call!’ It was always a good thing to be part of that delivery. I knew I was bringing home to people and it made me happy every day. And sorry boys about those divorce papers. Nothing I could do about it.

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Midway Fire

Midway Fire

MS3 David McCoy

June 20, 1990

Three dead, Sixteen injured

June 20, 1990, just another boring day out at sea, as the U.S.S. Midway cut through the ocean breeze. Sailors going about their daily tasks, drinking coffee and having a few laughs. Talking about ports and the women they loved. These, tip of the swordmen, were a cut above. When all the sudden the ship shook with a roaring and thunderous blast. Sailors looked at each other, and wondered, what was that?

The mighty ship shook beneath their feet, then the familiar sound of the 1MC. Flying squad report to the area, EMERGENCY! EMERGENCY, FIRE, FIRE! cried the voice. You could hear the sailors yelling, MAKE A HOLE, was the noise. The P-ways opened up like Moses parting the Red Sea, as the flying squad made their way to the scene.

Vierra, Johnson, and Kilgore were part of that team that fateful team, called the flying squad. The first sailors to be on the scene. Bravely they fought as well as many others, with sailors’ side by side, they called their brothers. Not by blood, by race or creed, but by the oath, of loyalty. A camaraderie, known by few, these three brave young men, the fire would subdue.

The smell of fire on metal loomed in the air, after the fire settled, and water everywhere. With soot on their faces, hands, and feet. Some sailors noticed that a few were missing, they called out to their shipmates, but no one was listening. Their fears were confirmed as the search continued. The fire on the U.S.S Midway had taken the two. Another died later succumbs to his wounds, as the flying squad fought for many, and the rest of the crew.

Memories can heal and haunt the soul, the loss of a brother, we will never let go. For the memory of the fallen three, we salute you and speak about your legacy, one of courage and bravery.

As my head drops in reverence, the sounds of taps playing in the distance and a tear falls from an eye. We will never forget June 20th and the men that died.

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