Category Archives: Veterans' Histories

Alpha Company didn’t mutiny, says officer who was there

Lt. Alan Freeman in Vietnam, 1969

Much has been written about the reported mutiny of soldiers in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade on August 25, 1969, in Vietnam’s Song Chang Valley. I learned about it in the 1990s while interviewing retired Lt. Col. Bobby Bacon for my book Tragedy at Chu Lai, about a grenade accident in an Army classroom that killed my cousin Nicky Venditti and two other newly arrived Americal Division soldiers. Bacon had briefly headed the replacement and training unit at Chu Lai before taking command of the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment.

I previously blogged about Bacon’s account of the supposed mutiny and also presented a version by James Dieli, a soldier who was there. Now here’s another account, this one from an artillery officer who served in the unit’s headquarters.

It comes from Alan Freeman.

As Freeman sees it, Alpha Company’s headline-making troubles in Vietnam began with a brawl that had nothing to do with fighting the enemy. Company A, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry had seen a month-and-a-half of intense combat in the mountainous jungles south of Da Nang. The Americal Division, as it did occasionally with other units under its command, pulled the soldiers out of the field and brought them back to the coastal base at Chu Lai for rest and recuperation, R&R.

Lt. Freeman, a 21-year-old artillery forward observer detailed to Alpha Company, was with them. “We went to shows and drank a lot of booze,” he told me. “I think the second day we were there, we were watching a show and this chair came flying over my head.” A brawl had broken out with the men of another company. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Eli Howard, took action over this breach of discipline. “We got kicked off R&R and got helicoptered the next morning into a really bad situation.”

It was a U-shaped ambush, with the enemy firing from both sides on the Americans caught in the middle. Freeman landed with the company commander, Capt. Dennis Chudoba. Mortars hit around them. Freeman saw the dirt kicking up next to him and couldn’t figure out why. He turned and saw there was someone shooting at him. “If he’s a good shot, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

Freeman had been dodging bullets since arriving in Vietnam in May 1969 after completing a six-month officer candidate program at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He had been working closely with Chudoba even though they were in different units. An infantry company typically had two field artillery men – a forward observer and a radio operator. Freeman was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment at Landing Zone Center and was immediately sent out with Alpha Company as its forward observer.

That spring, the company came under fire almost daily. In June, Freeman said, he was wounded by a couple of Chi-Com (Chinese Communist) grenades.

Freeman was glad that Chudoba was in charge. A West Point graduate on his second tour of duty, he was the ideal company commander, Freeman said. He had fought the enemy, he knew tactics, he was “really sharp” and, on top of all that, he was a nice guy. Freeman, as forward observer, was almost always at his side. “We respected Chudoba, we trusted him.”

The U-shaped ambush lasted a few days, after which the inexplicable happened. Lt. Col. Howard, the 3rd Battalion commander, flew in by helicopter and replaced Chudoba with a young first lieutenant, Eugene Shurtz Jr. Shurtz had gotten his commission through ROTC and had no combat experience. Freeman said the move deprived Alpha Company of a “great leader.”

“We had been through 40 days of hell, and we held together. But after we lost Chudoba, there was no continuity with the company.”

With Shurtz in charge, Alpha Company got orders to scout a part of the Song Chong Valley, about 30 miles south of Da Nang. “It was supposed to be a one-day in-and-out,” Freeman said. “We didn’t bring any food. All we brought was water and ammo.”

They were helicoptered in and took fire as they landed. They came to a village, where the company’s Kit Carson scouts – former Viet Cong who scouted for U.S. infantry units and served as interpreters – spoke with villagers and returned to report there were no Viet Cong in the area. Alpha Company’s grunts started walking through the village in single file.

“Our first five or six people got through to the other side and then all hell broke loose,” Freeman said. The next several men in line were gunned down. The unit was under attack.

Freeman was astounded that the enemy had fired .50-caliber guns at the helicopters. In his four months of combat, he had never come across an enemy unit that was firing guns of such large caliber. It led him to believe that Alpha Company was up against a large outfit.

They later found out it was a North Vietnamese Army regiment of about 10,000 soldiers who were planning to overrun a couple of U.S. batteries, including the one at LZ Center. “How our intelligence didn’t know they were there, to me is mind-boggling,” Freeman said.

Alpha Company got cut off and took heavy casualties. “We just started getting slaughtered, and so we finally pulled back. I was calling in artillery like crazy to try to help us.”

The men clustered in one area, not realizing the size of the NVA force pitted against them in the jungle. The enemy kept probing as artillery shells screamed in. An Associated Press photographer, Oliver Noonan, was with Alpha Company’s headquarters section with Freeman, Shurtz, the radio operators and a sergeant-major. Noonan had accompanied the unit from LZ Center. He told Shurtz to get him out.

Shurtz called battalion headquarters and explained the situation to Howard, who said, “We’ll come in and get him.” One of the officers with Shurtz told him, “Do not bring that helicopter in here. It’s too hot.” But Shurtz let the UH-1 Huey from the 71st Aviation Company come in. It arrived safely with Howard aboard and picked up Noonan. But as the chopper left, it was “blown out of the sky,” Freeman said. Everyone aboard was killed.

Alpha Company was surrounded for several days. “Sometimes we dug as much as we could into the ground. We’d try to fortify as much as we could, because every time we moved in a different direction, people would get mowed down. I thought I was going to die.”

Eventually, the firing stopped. Battalion headquarters determined that the NVA had left the area and ordered the men to move up to the top of a hill, where they regrouped. They figured on spending a couple of nights there before returning to LZ Center.

But then the new battalion commander, Lt. Col. Bobby Bacon, ordered Alpha Company to go back down the hill to recover the bodies from the helicopter wreck. Shurtz got the order and held a briefing with his remaining officers – Freeman and one platoon leader, a lieutenant. (Of the two other lieutenants, one was killed and the other wounded. Sergeants had replaced them.)

When the word got out, five men said they weren’t going to go. They came to the command post where Shurtz, Freeman and the one other lieutenant were. “They told Lt. Shurtz that they weren’t going, that they had like five days left in the country and they’d had it. They weren’t going down the hill.” Freeman said Shurtz was so green, he didn’t know what to do. Shurtz called back to battalion HQ and told Bacon: “My company refuses to move.”

Unfortunately, Freeman said, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, who was covering the death of Noonan, was standing right next to Lt. Col. Bacon. Soon after, Freeman said, Arnett “notified the world” that an Americal Division company had refused to move.

While Shurtz was on the phone, Freeman and the other lieutenant told the men who had spoken up, “If you don’t go with us, we’re taking your guns. You can stay up on the hill without any guns.” That changed their minds; they agreed to go.

Freeman said Shurtz’s report to Bacon “blew me and the other lieutenant away.” When Shurtz got off the phone, Freeman asked him why he’d said that to the battalion commander. “He just had this shell-shocked look on his face.”

Soon after that, the company started down the hill. But Shurtz didn’t call Bacon back and tell him that they were now on the move. Meanwhile, Bacon was flying in his executive officer and a sergeant to deal with the recalcitrant soldiers. “We get halfway down the hill and we have to turn around and go back up the hill to secure it so the helicopter can come in,” Freeman said.

Several days later, what remained of Alpha Company went to a secure area. Freeman guessed the unit was down about 40 soldiers out of more than 100. It was replenished with 50-60 soldiers who had not been involved in the battle.

“All these reporters come in – ABC, NBC, Time, Newsweek – and they start talking to everybody about what went on. You can imagine the stories they got when they talked with people who weren’t even there. For some reason, the reporters did not ask anyone who had actually been there during the firefights. Not one talked to me.”

After six months in the field as a forward observer, Freeman ran a battery at LZ Center, then returned to the field with an air cavalry unit – tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The so-called mutiny has stuck with him all these years. “It’s always bothered me that that’s what our company was noted for – and it was not true.”

Freeman laid the blame on a “tremendous failure of leadership,” starting with Howard, the battalion commander. “One time, Howard flew in to observe our company and decided he would walk point. It struck us all as very odd for him to do this, almost like a death wish.”

Shurtz was young and inexperienced, and “should never have been put in the position that he was put in.” As a result, he didn’t know what to do when the five soldiers said they wouldn’t go down the hill.

“If Chudoba had been with us, we’d have taken casualties but it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad,” said Freeman, a retired engineer in San Diego. “He would have known how to handle the soldiers when they did not want to go back down the hill.”

Freeman described a run-in he’d had with Howard, described as a “hot-tempered taskmaster” in Keith William Nolan’s 1987 book, Death Valley, about the summer 1969 offensive in northern South Vietnam, the I Corps tactical zone. Freeman said that when he was in the field, he didn’t wear his rank and didn’t shave, because he wanted to look like the guys he was with. They didn’t call him Lieutenant; they called him Arty, for artillery. Howard overheard that one day, “and he called me in and he raked my ass over the coals for not having their respect.”

But it wasn’t about respect, Freeman said. It was about the forward observer and his radio operator fitting in with the other soldiers so they wouldn’t stand out as targets. “When we went out, we had three antennas. The Viet Cong and the NVA weren’t stupid when they saw the antennas. Who do you think they were shooting at?” Howard, he said, should have known that, just as he should have known the risk of putting a green lieutenant in charge of a company.

Freeman said Alpha Company doesn’t deserve a bad rap, especially in light of the heavy fighting it faced in the Song Chang Valley – fighting he said is glossed over in the record-keeping at the time. He said he has seen some of the unit daily records supposedly showing what was happening hour by hour, and they don’t reflect the intensity of Alpha Company’s contact with the enemy. He also has copies of citations for medals awarded to soldiers who were with him in the battle.

“When you look at the number of medals awarded versus the daily reports, it’s mind-boggling. It’s as if nothing was going on.”

A day of great stories about Americans at war

It’s terrific to hear authors talk in person, right in front of you. You experience firsthand the passion behind their work.

I got a quadruple dose of that May 6 during the Civil War Round Table of Eastern Pa.’s daylong conference, Americans at War, at the Holiday Inn in Fogelsville. Four of the five speakers have written books and had them on hand for sale.

Despite the sponsor’s name, the lineup wasn’t limited to Civil War topics. That’s what drew me after I found out about the conference at an April meeting of the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project. I was there to talk about my Vietnam War book Tragedy at Chu Lai. Sitting beside me, my friends Ed Root and Tony Major of the Civil War Round Table told me about the event, gave me a flier and encouraged me to attend.

Later, when I read about the presentations, I thought wow! The speakers were experts on battles of the Revolution, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II, and on the search and recovery of POWs and MIAs. I had to go.

I had a particular interest in the talk by Michael C. Harris, author of Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America. As a boy in Downingtown, I played in the East Branch of the Brandywine Creek. In the 1990s, I read Thomas J. McGuire’s Battle of Paoli, about the “Paoli Massacre” that happened nine days after the fighting at nearby Brandywine.

Allentown, where I’ve lived for three decades, is steeped in Revolutionary history. It was the site of several Continental Army hospitals, a prison for enemy soldiers, and the church where the Liberty Bell was hidden. One Christmas week, after reading Richard J. Ketchum’s The Winter Soldiers, I drove to Washington Crossing and stood in the snow and cold on the bank from which Washington’s ragged army pushed off for Trenton. I had to get a sense of the moment.

In his talk, Harris laid out how the Battle of Brandywine happened and in particular the role of the American general John Sullivan. I bought Harris’ book, and while he was signing it for me, he invited me on a carpool tour of the battlefield he’ll be giving May 20. I’m going.

D. Scott Hartwig, author of To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, talked about how the bloodiest single day in American history happened. Army Col. Douglas Mastriano talked about his search for the truth about World War I hero Alvin York through archeology and ballistic forensics analysis, which led to his book Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne. In a sidelight, he entertained us with the amazing story of Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon that saved America’s “Lost Battalion.” Gregory J.W. Urwin told what happened to the U.S. defenders of Wake Island after the Japanese captured them in December 1941, the subject of his book Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity.

Retired Army Col. Ward Nickisch, who led teams that recovered the remains of POWs and MIAs, capped the conference with stories of perseverance, dedication and the far reaches of science.

It was a day of eye-opening scholarship into aspects of our military history I knew little about. If another one like it comes along, count me in.

Busting the Lane Gang: the John LoPinto story

John LoPinto, CID agent

John LoPinto, an agent with the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division in Rome, was one of the top investigators of the Lane Gang. This photo was taken Aug. 8, 1944. He was 36.

Just past noon on the day after Christmas 1944, gun-toting U.S. and British criminal investigators and Italian police converged on an apartment building in Rome. A tipster had revealed that one of the most dangerous Army outlaws of World War II, a rogue private from Pennsylvania, was hiding inside with a Canadian cohort.

Werner E. Schmiedel, alias Robert Lane, had led a gang of American and Canadian army deserters that terrorized soldiers and citizens from Naples to Rome. Collared after a months-long spree of violence, he faced charges that included carjacking a Polish general’s Cadillac and gunning down an Italian man in a wine shop. But on Christmas Eve, he and other Allied bad guys busted out of a Rome jail and scattered.

The soldier who got the tip on Schmiedel’s whereabouts was Technical Sgt. John LoPinto of Ithaca, N.Y., an agent with the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigations Division in Rome. He took a lead role in planning and carrying out the December 26 raid that bagged Schmiedel without a shot being fired, bringing the swaggering malcontent to justice.

Werner E. Schmiedel

Lane Gang leader Werner E. Schmiedel of Weisenberg Township, Lehigh County

Schmiedel’s capture that day had all the drama of a Hollywood gangster showdown. But I didn’t have the details on it and didn’t know about LoPinto’s role when I was working on an article about Schmiedel for The Morning Call a few years ago. (It ran in July 2015. Here’s the link: Schmiedel was of interest to Lehigh Valley readers because he grew up on a farm near Allentown. To tell his story, I’d spent almost a year-and-a-half gathering material that included his court-martial records and personnel file from the National Archives at St. Louis, and contemporary accounts in the press. Early on, in 2013, I wrote a blog about Schmiedel and updated it after my story appeared in The Morning Call.

Despite my effort to cover all the bases, it turns out I didn’t have all of the official paperwork the case generated. The revelation came last month, when I heard from a man in upstate New York who alerted me to an extraordinary document.

The man is LoPinto’s son Joe LoPinto of Freeville, N.Y., near Ithaca. He posted a note on my blog site saying he could provide more information because his father was a top investigator of the Lane Gang. Joe’s older son, John, found my story on the internet and wondered why his grandfather’s name wasn’t in it.

The name wasn’t familiar to me, but it had been more than a year since I’d looked at the records. Why wasn’t LoPinto in my story? I couldn’t say for sure. It might have been for the same reason I didn’t use the names of, for example, the Army prosecutor and Schmiedel’s lawyer – it wasn’t something I felt readers had to know. But I did remember that the court records don’t give details of Schmiedel’s recapture. There’s only a brief mention of the raid in a Stars and Stripes story about the Lane Gang’s wild doings.

“Lane and his second in command were surrounded in a civilian apartment,” staff writer Dean Boswell wrote in the GI newspaper at the time. “When the two refused to surrender, the CID and [British] SIB agents, accompanied by MPs, crashed the door to an apartment and discovered the two men cowering inside a closet.”

Joe LoPinto told me over the phone that his father and three other Criminal Investigations Division agents wrote the report on the Lane Gang that Army prosecutors used to nail Schmiedel. That document, 70 pages long, is not among the voluminous court-martial records I’d gotten from St. Louis. But LoPinto has it, and he sent it to me on a disc.

John LoPinto stateside

John LoPinto stateside with a new Buick Roadmaster

He said of his dad, “He was instrumental in the prosecution.”

Some Schmiedel anecdotes the former investigator told his family aren’t part of the CID report, his son said. When Schmiedel was on the loose and knew the military police were hunting him, he baited LoPinto by calling the CID’s Rome headquarters and telling the agent to meet him in various parts of the city and they’d shoot it out.
“Dad would take his police special .38 service revolver and go down there in a jeep and Schmiedel wouldn’t show up.”

After authorities identified Schmiedel’s girlfriend, a prostitute, LoPinto and several partners found her in a dance hall. LoPinto asked her to dance, and as they took a few turns, one of his associates went through her purse. He snatched a photo of Schmiedel, hurried off to CID headquarters and had it copied, and then put it back in her purse within the hour, before she knew it was missing. Copies of the pilfered picture were distributed throughout Rome, Naples and vicinity.

Part of that anecdote is in my story, based on a Stars and Stripes account. But the GI paper doesn’t have the gem about luring the woman onto the dance floor.

Joe LoPinto said the Italian press called his dad a hurricane or tornado because he would storm into whorehouses, where AWOLs and criminals hung out, and everyone there would jump out the windows to get away from him.

John LoPinto’s path to becoming a wartime criminal investigator started in Flushing, N.Y., where the son of immigrants from Sicily grew up. “He was basically a street kid, but he was very bright,” said his son, who is 64 and a builder. “He found the public library because it was a place to get warm, and then he discovered all the books in it.”

He went to City College of New York and Dartmouth, where he was a Golden Gloves boxer, and then to law school at New York University, where he edited the Law Review. After a stint as an attorney in Greenwich Village, he moved to Ithaca in the 1930s. When war broke out, he volunteered as an infantryman and fought in North Africa. But the CID needed people like him. He spoke Italian, was college-educated, had a background in law and was tough and aggressive. He joined the CID on Sicily and moved up to Rome.

“Dad was tenacious, well-educated and was just intent on doing everything properly, doing his job, especially given that he was the son of immigrants. The books he read were Horatio Alger. He was a self-made man.”

Lane Gang arsenal

The Lane Gang arsenal, in photo that was included in CID Report No. 115

LoPinto and fellow agents John X. Monahan, Henry L. Manfredi and Eugene F. Land of the 6709th CID Platoon in Rome laid out their case against Schmiedel in Report No. 115, marked “Confidential” and dated February 12, 1945. In a summary, the Report of Investigation of Activities of the Lane Gang says that all of the living military members were in custody by November 3, 1944. That was the day Schmiedel was first arrested in Rome, with Land making the pinch. On November 25, five civilian members were arrested in Naples, followed by three more in mid-January.

The narrative of the Christmas Eve breakout begins on Page 13 with the statement that eight prisoners escaped from the Central MP Jail in Piazza Collegio Romano about 1:40 a.m. Among them were Schmiedel and two other members of the gang – Delmar Joseph McFarlane, a Canadian, and Carl F. Green, an American.

Within hours, MPs nabbed Green and two others on Via Carla Alberto and locked them up. LoPinto got 20 civilian police officers to help MPs surround the buildings where the remaining escapees were believed to be holed up.

“On 26 December 1944,” the report says, “Agent LoPinto received confidential information to the effect that Schmiedel and McFarlane were in hiding in civilian clothes in Apartment No. 4, at No. 13 Via Carla Alberto, Rome.”

LoPinto, Monahan and Manfredi of the CID, and Sgt. Eric Swetnam of the British Special Investigation Branch hatched a plan to seize the two fugitives.

“Accordingly about eight MPs and five Italian police were called to cover the exits of the apartment building. The five civilian police in plain clothes … were placed around the front entrance of the building with orders to let no one leave. Then a confidential contact was made with the apartment in which Schmiedel and McFarlane were hiding. When it was ascertained with certainty that they were still in the apartment, Agents LoPinto, Monahan and Manfredi, Sgt. Swetnam and about three MPs entered the building and proceeded up the stairs one floor to the apartment. Schmiedel and McFarlane were ordered to come out.”

They did not respond, so the agents and Swetnam went into the apartment, followed by some MPs. Confidential sources had revealed that Schmiedel and McFarlane were concealed in a standalone closet, a wardrobe. Again they were ordered to come out and didn’t respond.

“Agent Manfredi and Sgt. Swetnam pushed over the closet. As it was falling over, Schmiedel and McFarlane jumped out of it in the face of drawn guns. They were dressed in civilian clothes and had their hair recently bleached. Bottles of hair bleaching chemicals were found on a stand near the closet, evidencing recent use.”

The two thugs were returned to the Central MP Jail. Within six months, Schmiedel – who ran away from home at 17, joined the Army, and lied and bullied his way from post to post – met his fate. He was court-martialed, convicted and executed for robbery and murder. LoPinto was in the crowd June 11, 1945, at an Army stockade near Aversa, Italy, when the 22-year-old badass died at the end of a rope.

I keep the copies of his records in my attic. The pile of paper in a plastic bin is about 8 inches high. I went through it page by page the other night, looking for LoPinto’s name, and found it typed at the bottom of statements from witnesses he had heard. Elsewhere, his signature is at the end of handwritten statements from Schmiedel and James W. Adams, a crony from Oklahoma. Adams was convicted with his boss in the October 10, 1944, shooting death at the wine shop in Rome, even though it was Schmiedel who pulled the trigger as the pair robbed patrons. Adams got the death sentence as well, but his penalty was changed to life in prison.

The trial transcript shows that the court-martial prosecutor twice called LoPinto to the stand to answer questions about aspects of the investigation and what he knew about the defendants. It was nuts-and-bolts police stuff that didn’t grab my attention when I read his testimony several years ago.

John LoPinto medals

CID Agent John LoPinto’s Order of the Crown of Italy and Bronze Star

LoPinto’s work in Italy earned him a Bronze Star medal for meritorious service. “He spent many sleepless nights and many days of fruitless search and investigation,” the citation reads in part, “but by his perseverance, planning and technical knowledge, he was able to contribute immeasurably to the tracking down and capture of the most dangerous members of these gangs and was instrumental in the recovery of important quantities of Allied military supplies and equipment.”

The Italians showed their appreciation by knighting him with the Order of the Crown of Italy, an honor his son said made him a hero back home in Ithaca.

LoPinto about 1978

John LoPinto about 1978

In civilian life, LoPinto was a lawyer handling a wide range of civil and criminal cases for five decades. He died in 1988 at age 80. His wife, Mary, died in 2008. They had two sons, Joe and John, and daughters Rosalia Miller and Cornelia Fiocco.

Lopinto’s legacy of military service to the country was passed on to his son Joe, a Marine Corps veteran, and Joe’s younger son, Scott, who will soon be deployed to the Middle East with the 1st Marines.

Joe said he once asked his father why he never became a district attorney.

“When you’ve hunted a man down and tried him and watched him hang,” said the onetime soldier who fought to put Schmiedel and his henchmen behind bars, “it dissuades you from wanting to pursue that career path.”

The mystery of RAF air gunner W.J.D. Carter

Wellington Mk. 1 bombers

Wellington Mk. 1 long-range medium bombers

I’m writing again about 1938 Allentown High School grad Bob Riedy, who ran off and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was killed on a training flight in England early in 1942. This time I have yet another angle.

Riedy died when the twin-engine Wellington bomber he was co-piloting crashed at a Royal Air Force base near Oxford. He and the pilot died instantly when the plane hit the ground. The only other crewman, a gunner, was seriously injured.

In the 1990s, when I started looking into Riedy’s life and death, I wondered what became of the gunner. If he survived his injuries and were still living, maybe he could tell me what he knew of Flight Sgt. Robert Harvey Riedy and what happened that day.

He is listed in RAF records as Sgt. W.J.D. Carter, an air gunner with the RAF Volunteer Reserve. His job would have been to man one of the Wellington’s .303 Browning machine guns mounted in the nose, tail and waist.

According to the accident report, Flight Sgt. C.G. Wiley of the RCAF was the captain/pilot of the Wellington Mk. 1 medium bomber, serial number L4265. He, Riedy and Carter were on a training flight when the accident happened at 1:25 p.m. March 18, 1942, at Mount Farm in Oxfordshire, a satellite base for No. 15 Operational Training Unit.

The report notes L4265 “swung off runway during takeoff, attempted to become airbourne but struck stationary aircraft on edge of fire track, aircraft rose 200 ft in vertical climb, stalled and crashed.” It goes on to blame Wiley: “Pilot contrary to training instructions failed to stop aircraft and line up runway prior to takeoff.” The station commander determined that the accident was due to “swing” from side to side, pilot inexperience and error of judgment.

The Vickers-built Wellington was a “write-off.” The other plane, a Hudson light bomber of the Training Ferry Pilots Pool with serial number N7332, was “damaged but repairable.”

RAF expert Frank Gee wrote to me in 2002 that the Wellington in the crash “was a very elderly aircraft. She was built pre-war and I’m pretty sure she was on No. 9 Squadron at the outbreak of war.” That squadron, he said, sent six Wellingtons to attack German warships at Brunsbuettel, Germany, on Sept. 4, 1939, and two were shot down. “By March 1942,” he said, “L4265 was somewhat knackered.”

Gee, of Surrey, England, was skeptical of the report’s findings. “I don’t accept that Wiley should be blamed for the crash. It is so easy to put it down to pilot error without taking into account that the Wellington was war-weary and should have been pensioned off. Just think of the punishment she took in the hands of sprog pilots [novices] in the OTU, the heavy landings, etc. Anything could have happened to cause her to swing from side to side during the takeoff run.”

Another RAF expert in the U.K., author and researcher Ross McNeill, noted that the damaged Hudson had been among 200 aircraft flown in from the Lockheed plant in Burbank, California, in 1939 and 1940. He said it was repaired and used at the No. 12 School of Technical Training before being scrapped in February 1946.

Concerning the crash, McNeill emailed me in 2000 that Wiley had been in charge of the Wellington. In RAF planes, he said, the captain was the pilot regardless of rank.

Bob Riedy in Allentown High yearbook

Robert Harvey Riedy in the 1938 Allentown High School yearbook, the Comus. He studied English and science. “Bob is a quiet, good-looking lad,” reads the text alongside the graduate’s photo. “He likes football and basketball. Since he has good common sense and good judgment, we may wager that he will succeed in anything he takes up. Because his mind is usually wandering around in the air, he is planning for a career in aviation. Besides this, he has a love for the water. It just seems that Bob isn’t adapted to land at all.”

“If the clerk who recorded the crew details was being efficient,” McNeill wrote, “then Sgt. Wiley was in the left-hand seat in the cockpit, Sgt. Riedy was in the right-hand seat. For takeoff the gunner [Carter] would have been seated close to the wing root.” That’s the part of the wing closest to the fuselage.

Carter was admitted to Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, with serious injuries, L.C. Morrison of the Air Historical Branch (RAF), Ministry of Defence, wrote to me from London in 2000.

Gee said Carter “must have survived the war because I have made inquiries at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and he is not listed as a casualty. Pity we don’t know what squadron he joined after getting fit again, presuming he wasn’t grounded because of his injuries. That may have been a way of tracing him, through his squadron association.”

I asked Morrison how I could find Carter.

“The Ministry of Defence does not retain contact with former Royal Air Force personnel once they have left the service,” he said. “The RAF Personnel section at RAF Innsworth will forward a prepaid envelope on to the last known address, bearing in mind that this will now be nearly 60 years old.” He gave me the address in Gloucester.

McNeill, of Worcestershire, helped me with the process.

“The way to go about this is to draft a letter to both the serviceman and his next of kin,” he wrote. “Put these into unsealed, individual envelopes and address with the serviceman’s rank, full name and serial number. Be sure to write your address clearly on the back [with] ‘If undelivered please return to.’

“Now send both the letters in one envelope to the RAF Personnel Management Agency. Include a letter explaining why you want to contact the serviceman or his living relatives and ask that they be sent to the last known address.

“One of three things will happen.

1. “The letter is returned as ‘addressee unknown’ by the post office. Look at the postmark to see where it was returned from and write to the local paper with a contact request. They will usually print it and sometimes an aunt or uncle will reply.

2. “The letter is returned by the new occupier of the house. Try a personal letter to the new occupier asking if they still have the forwarding address of the person they bought the house from. Follow the trail until you reach the serviceman’s family.

3. “The letter is answered by the serviceman or his next of kin. Bingo!”

I did as McNeill suggested in April 2000 and got this reply from P.L. Stafford of the RAF Personnel Management Agency, who provided the former sergeant’s full name – William John Donald Carter.

Stafford wrote, in part: “I have forwarded your two enclosures to the last known home address and next-of-kin address still held on record after 54 years, as requested, in the hope that a favourable response will be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. I will inform you should either letter be returned to me for whatever reason.”

But there was a fourth possible outcome that McNeill hadn’t mentioned: that I would never hear anything. And that’s the way it went. I got no response at all. My letter was never returned, and I didn’t hear back from the RAF’s Stafford.

McNeill had also suggested I write to the Royal British Legion, which he described as “the U.K. equivalent of the VA.” I did that but never got a reply.

Morrison, at the Ministry of Defence, had suggested I place ads in two publications for RAF veterans – Air Mail, the magazine of the Royal Air Forces Association, and Intercom, the magazine of the Aircrew Association. I paid 10 pounds sterling ($21.72) for the following item in the Information Wanted section of Intercom’s autumn 2000 edition:

Ex-Sgt. W.J.D. Carter RAFVR, Air Gunner. He was injured 18 March 1942 when a Wellington Mk. 1 of 15 OTU crashed on takeoff at RAF Mount Farm, Oxfordshire. I wish to contact him or anyone who knows his whereabouts.

For 20 pounds sterling, I put a similar notice in Air Mail.

Nothing came of either inquiry. No one has ever contacted me with any information about Carter.

His fate remains a mystery.

The Channel Dash and a Yank in the RCAF

Bob Riedy in photo that ran in Times of London, 1942

This photo ran in The Times of London and shows Bob Riedy at far right. It ran under the heading, “They swept into battle against the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.”

It’s time to put to rest whether Bob Riedy saw combat before a training accident killed him.

I say he did.

The evidence is convincing, and it’s been out there since 1942, but I always hedged about it because I hadn’t checked one last authoritative source.

Recently, I did that, capping a search I began 25 years ago.

I’ve written before about Bob Riedy, from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who ran off to join the Royal Canadian Air Force before the U.S. entered World War II. He learned to fly and was sent to England, where he was killed on a training flight at a Royal Air Force base near Oxford.

Almost a month after Riedy’s death, his parents received what The Morning Call of Allentown called a “voice from the dead” – a letter their son had penned. In the envelope, Riedy had enclosed a clipping of a photo from The Times of London that shows him and five other airmen standing in front of a British bomber and grinning broadly. They are not named. Over the photo, a line reads: “They swept into battle against the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.” Beneath it is a caption titled “Breather” with text saying the men were among fliers who desperately tried to prevent the two German battleships from fleeing Brest on the French coast to reach German ports. The action on Feb. 12-13, 1942, was called the Channel Dash but formally was Operation Fuller. It pitted the RAF against 250 Luftwaffe aircraft, with the British losing 40 planes, the Germans, 17, and the battleships escaping largely intact.

Riedy, a 20-year-old sergeant-pilot, was killed the next month, on March 18. His parents were told only that he died in action. A boyhood friend from Allentown, Paul L. Fritz Jr., was serving with the RAF and found Riedy’s grave at a cemetery in Brentwood, Surrey, and cabled Riedy’s mother he had planted flowers there. For a 1992 article in The Morning Call, Fritz said he remembered hearing that Riedy was shot down over the English Channel in his Hurricane fighter.

Though Robert Harvey Riedy had wanted to fly fighters, he was assigned to bombers. The details of his death came out later in 1992 after I obtained RCAF and RAF records. They show he died at the RAF’s Mount Farm airfield in Oxfordshire on a practice flight when his twin-engine Wellington bomber clipped a parked bomber on takeoff, rose 200 feet and plummeted to the ground. Riedy was in the co-pilot’s seat. Both he and the pilot died, and the only other crewman on board, a gunner, was badly injured but survived.

Riedy had died in an accident, not in a blaze of glory over the channel.

The Morning Call published the The Times photo on April 16, 1942. The accompanying story doesn’t mention what Riedy said in the letter to his parents, the fourth one they received from him after his death. Evidently, his parents didn’t share with the newspaper the contents of any of their son’s last letters, and it’s not clear whether they still exist. His mother, Eva, died in 1968, and his father, Harvey, a Democratic leader in Lehigh County, died the next year. They had no other children.

The clipping Riedy sent his parents in 1942 points to his role in combat. But at the time of the Channel Dash, he was still in training, assigned to No. 15 Operational Training Unit, part of RAF Bomber Command’s No. 6 Group. That OTU trained night crews on the Vickers Wellington, the RAF’s main medium bomber early in the war. It had a crew of five or six, the capacity for 4,500 pounds of bombs, and machine guns in the nose and tail turrets and at the waist.

My question was: Were trainees pressed into the fight against Germany?

Early in 2000, I got help on this from an expert in England – Ross McNeill of Bewdley, Worcestershire. He had been a glider instructor in the RAF Volunteer Reserve and was an author and researcher into Allied aircraft losses of 1939-45.

“OTUs were the final training stage for an operational crew and included operational sorties,” McNeill emailed. “As the crew neared the end of OTU training, the pilot was detached to an operational squadron to fly two sorties as a second pilot or ‘second dickey.’ The operational crews detested this duty, as they believed that it used up their quota of luck. Many aircrews were shot down, and the loss of the pilot meant that the ‘headless’ crew at OTU had to disband … and repeat the training with a new pilot.

“Once the second-dickey trips had been completed, the crew were required to graduate by taking part in an operational sortie in an OTU aircraft as either mine-laying or leaflet-dropping. After this trip, the crew would be posted to an operational squadron. OTUs were also used as diversions for main-force raids by flying navigation exercises close to the enemy coast, then returning.”

After arriving in England in the fall of 1941, Riedy was first posted to the 20th OTU at the Scottish port of Lossiemouth, which also trained night bombing crews flying the Wellington. He reported to the 15th OTU at Harwell on Feb. 3, 1942.

“This means that he was at OTUs for four months, … about right for the 30 hours’ OTU training and the additional ‘pilot in command’ hours required by a change in training requirements,” McNeill wrote. “I suspect that the posting to No. 15 OTU was due to the crew nearing the end of training and being moved down to a base closer to the occupied coast for their graduation operation, and were engaged in circuit/area familiarization flying.”

No. 15 OTU went on seven operational missions the year Riedy was in it. Was the Channel Dash one of them?

“The records for units involved in Operation Fuller are very confused and incomplete,” McNeill said. “In essence, Bomber Command flew 472 sorties and used every available aircraft, with the exception of Whitleys on the 12th February 1942 …. The RAF was initially not aware that the [German battleships] had sailed, and most RAF aircraft were intercepted before reaching the ships.

“So in summary, Riedy could have taken part in the attack, but it would take quite a search of the archives to prove it.”

He said all RAF units had to keep Operations Record Books, which came in two basic types, Forms 540 and 541. “One was the day-to-day war diary of the unit and consisted of aircraft serials, time up, time down, crews, mission details, etc. The other was the monthly summary of the unit missions and normally included postings in/out, casualties and social events. These ORBs still exist in the Public Records Office at Kew, London. The problem is that they vary in content from unit to unit and clerk to clerk.”

I wanted to keep looking, but the Public Records Office would not do the research for me, and short of visiting the place, which wasn’t practical, I’d have to hire a “record agent” who would do the work for an agreed fee. This would involve pulling the books, finding the entries, copying them and presenting the results.

That was the end of it. I dropped my search.

Recently, while going through my file on Riedy, I remembered that I hadn’t ever pursued a Public Records Office inquiry. Seventeen years had passed. Would I now be able to search online for the information? It was worth a try.

Sure enough, I found help on the website for the National Archives of the U.K. I set up an account online at no cost and went hunting. Navigating the site might have been difficult if I hadn’t come across a key reference code in a letter I’d saved in my Riedy file. The January 1994 letter concerned my search for information on the fatal training accident at Oxfordshire. It was from S.H. Clarke at the Air Historical Branch (RAF), Ministry of Defence in London. He said I could find the operations records for No. 15 OTU at the Public Records Office under catalog reference “Air 29/654.” I entered that code on the website and got a hit, but not what I was hoping for. Instead there was a line saying those records weren’t available online. Still, I had an inexpensive option: For 8.24 pounds, or $10.38, I could request a “page check” by the office staff. They would let me know if they found anything.

This was the last authoritative source I needed to tap, and I was finally getting around to it. Do the records show Riedy had gone up against the Germans in the Channel Dash, or anywhere?

No, they don’t. Not even close.

Here’s the National Archives’ response, sent by email two weeks after my inquiry: “Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we have been unable to locate any evidence for a Sergeant Riedy participating in a combined RAF and RCAF effort 12-13 February 1942 to stop the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst from reaching German ports after fleeing Brest, France. There is only the evidence for the unit carrying out the ferrying of aircraft to the Middle East.”

Disappointing, but conclusive? Was this an example of confused and incomplete records?

In the end, it all goes back to The Times clipping that Riedy sent his parents early in 1942. I’ve often wondered what he said, if anything, about the Channel Dash in his letter. Maybe it was something like, “This picture was taken after we returned to our base. The Germans gave us a hard time, but I got home OK.” I also considered that maybe he hadn’t been in pursuit of the enemy battleships and had written: “Mom and Dad, the paper was wrong about this. We were in our planes but didn’t get near the action.” If that were the case, though, I can’t believe his parents would have shared the clipping with The Morning Call without clarifying the circumstances. Or that the newspaper would have withheld that information, deliberately deceiving its readers about Riedy’s role.

No, this proud young man, a 1938 graduate of Allentown High School and former aircraft engineer eager to do his part for freedom, wanted his family to know he was not just in training anymore. He had gotten into the air war against the Nazis and hoped to have another crack at them.

During Vietnam War, how the press handled one soldier’s death

Evening Bulletin story on Nicky Venditti's death

The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia’s story on Warrant Officer Nicholas L. Venditti’s death in Vietnam.

In my book Tragedy at Chu Lai, about my cousin Nicky’s death in Vietnam under unusual circumstances, I wrote that the local newspaper somehow got the story wrong.

Nicky’s hometown was Malvern, on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The local paper was the Daily Local News in West Chester, the Chester County seat. Its story ran July 21, 1969, six days after Nicky died of wounds from a training accident at Chu Lai, along Vietnam’s central coast south of Da Nang.

Under the one-column headline “Malvern G.I. dies of wounds in Vietnam,” with a boot camp photo of Nicky, the story reads: “A 20-year-old Malvern soldier died in Vietnam last week as the result of wounds suffered in action about a week after he arrived in the war zone.”

The misleading words are “suffered in action,” which tell the reader he was wounded in combat, in some kind of contact with the enemy.

The 6-inch-long article doesn’t give the circumstances that led to the death of Warrant Officer Nicholas L. Venditti, only that he was wounded July 10, “just a few days after his arrival in Vietnam.” It goes on to say he was a 1966 graduate of Great Valley High School, that his parents were Sally Pusey and Louis Venditti, that he used to work at Plastomatic in Malvern, and that he had been trained as a helicopter pilot and commissioned as a warrant officer at Fort Rucker, Ala.

No one in the family was quoted in the story, which has no byline. The announcement of Nicky’s death was attributed to the Defense Department, in which case it was the Pentagon that apparently passed on inaccurate information that the newspaper picked up and didn’t, or couldn’t, verify with the family. In my 40 years as a newspaper writer and editor, I saw things like that happen many times.

Whoever wrote the story included a line that “The soldier’s body is en route home and funeral arrangements will be scheduled at a later date,” which might have come from a family member. There’s a paragraph that names the survivors: Nicky’s younger brother, Harold, known as L.B.; stepbrothers Johnny Pusey and Joe Gray; stepsister Bonnie Pusey and half-sister Lorraine Pusey; and his paternal grandfather, Nicola Venditta. (It omits Nicky’s stepfather, John Pusey, and stepmother, Bert Venditti.) That survivor information would not have come from the Defense Department.

My parents cut out the clipping and kept it in a photo album. It reinforced the impression I had that Nicky’s death came as a result of hostile action. The story in my immediate family was that he and other new arrivals were waiting for a transport of some kind when an enemy rocket hit, the scenario I held onto for 25 years. I later found out Nicky’s parents knew from the start what really happened. An Army telegram dated July 12, 1969, informed them that he was in a training session when a grenade went off by accident and there was “cause for concern” about whether he would live.

I discovered the truth in 1994, when a group called the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial unveiled a database that had casualty information on each of the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam. In the ensuing years, I learned that the rocket-attack account wasn’t the only version that circulated among Nicky’s friends and extended family in Malvern. One of our cousins said he thought Nicky and some other guys were playing cards when someone tossed a grenade into their barracks. A Vietnam veteran who grew up with Nicky told me that he heard Nicky stepped on a mine after getting out of a Huey helicopter.

Yet a major newspaper did have the story right, 10 days after Nicky’s death. I found that out during my first visit with Nicky’s mom, Sally, in 1996. She had the July 25, 1969, article that appeared in The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia with a photo of Nicky. The headline is “Malvern Copter Pilot Killed in Accidental Grenade Blast.” A reporter had interviewed Sally’s husband, John, who knew the facts because Sally had received the same Army telegram as Nicky’s dad, Louie.

The Evening Bulletin story, which Sally had on a plaque under the words “Memorial Obituary: Entered into Eternal Rest Tuesday, July 15, 1969,” has no more information on what it calls, in the first sentence, “an accidental grenade explosion.” It does not say, for example, that the explosion happened during a training session, which was noted in the telegram.

But Nicky’s stepfather was quoted in the story. “Nicky had always wanted to be a helicopter pilot in the Army,” John said. “He was a crack shot, too. Nicky and our police chief here in town used to go out to the police rifle range quite a bit to shoot and talk about flying. … The first thing he wanted to do when he came home was to rent a copter and fly us both into the back country to do some hunting.”

At the end of its article, The Evening Bulletin listed other Pennsylvania casualties from mid-July 1969 – John G. Gertsch of Pittsburgh, who would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and William D. Lounsbury of Warren, Warren County. Their names apparently were culled from a Pentagon press release.

Aunt Sally had a clipping from another newspaper that was unidentified but clearly smaller than the Daily Local News. The story, 6 inches long and riddled with typos, and with no photo of Nicky, is headlined “Pilot Dies in Vietnam” and was based on an interview with Sally. It incorrectly states the Army telegram described Nicky as having been “wounded in action,” and goes on to quote Sally as saying her son had always wanted to be a pilot and he enjoyed hunting and was an expert marksman.

In the weeks ahead, Nicky’s parents would learn disturbing details of a training session gone bad. That additional information came in an Aug. 14, 1969, letter bearing the name of an Americal Division commander in Vietnam, Lt. Col. Robert C. Bacon. It says:

“On the morning of July 10, 1969, Nicholas was attending a class on the use of grenades at the Americal Division Combat Center located at the Division’s base camp at Chu Lai, Republic of South Vietnam. At 10:15 a.m., the class instructor removed the safety pin from a hand grenade that was thought to have been disarmed for instructional purposes. However, the grenade detonated when he threw it to the floor of the classroom.”

Newspaper readers at the time could not have known that two other soldiers died with Nicky — Warrant Officer Wilbur J. Vachon III of Portland, Maine, and Specialist Timothy T. Williams of Toledo, Ohio. Their deaths were reported separately. There was no overarching story from a wire service or a national newspaper like The New York Times saying three Americal Division soldiers who had just arrived at Chu Lai had died because an Army instructor unwittingly tossed a live grenade. A story like that might have drawn wider coverage. In 1967, a training accident that killed 13 Marines near Da Nang made front pages across the U.S.

Ultimately, though, the reported details of Nicky’s death didn’t matter to his parents. It only mattered that he was gone.

An old army trick by a Yank in the RCAF

Warren Neubauer with his mother, Eva, in Allentown during World War II.

Warren Neubauer with his mother, Eva, in Allentown during World War II.

It was the fall of 1940, a year before the U.S. entered World War II. A teenager from Pennsylvania ran off to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. He wanted to come home for Christmas, but apparently because of the urgent need for pilots to take up the fight against Germany, the trainees had to remain at the base in Canada. He wrote to a friend back home in Allentown, asking him to play a trick that might allow the budding flier to see his family and friends over the holidays.

Did they pull it off?

I’ve written before about Bob Riedy. The 1938 Allentown High School graduate studied aircraft maintenance at the Curtiss-Wright trade school near Los Angeles and worked as an engineer at the company’s plant in Buffalo, New York, before signing up with the RCAF. This year, Ernie Neubauer of Barnesville, Georgia, saw my February 2011 post and wrote to me that his father and Riedy were best friends in high school. Neubauer’s father, Warren Neubauer, died in 1999, and his mother, Dora, died last March in Neenah, Wisconsin.

“As we were going through her things,” Neubauer wrote, “we found two letters that Bob had written my father while he was in basic training in Canada. My father was never much on keeping things, but he did keep these. They were just letters from one friend to another but are interesting.”

I asked Neubauer to send me the letters. The first one, on RCAF stationery, was dated Nov. 27, 1940.

Dear Warren,
… You should see the classy uniform they’ve given me. It’s much more attractive than that Boy Scout uniform which I once wore. The darn trouble is that there are several thousand more like it right here in Toronto; so, I haven’t been able to make much of an impression. I am working for a commission (so are several hundred other gentlemen here) which would be awarded at the completion of my course. If I don’t get that they will give me a sarg. [sergeant]-pilot’s stripes. Right now they have us drilling, marching, kicking a rifle around and on rare occasions shooting it on the range. We’ve also been given bayonet drills. At the rate we have been going, they must be giving the army flying lessons. We will be doing this for several weeks yet after which we go to initial training school. There we are put in a decompression chamber and given another stiff physical exam. We’ve had two already. If that physical is passed, OK, I’ll be on my way. There isn’t much likelihood of the latter though….”

Saying “Now to get away from myself,” Riedy goes on to ask about a mutual friend. “How is Iacocca (How does my spelling compare with his?) making out? Tell him to give my affectionate regards to Hollywood Boulevard.” He closes with “Yours till the cows come home. — Bob”

Riedy spelled the name correctly, but Neubauer wrote it’s not clear whom exactly Riedy is referring to. Neubauer said his dad knew Lee Iacocca but was a few years older than the future Chrysler Corporation chairman and didn’t hang around with him.

“I assume it was Lee’s cousin or brother. I do know my dad worked at Yocco’s Hot Dogs while he was in high school.” (Yocco’s was an Iacocca family enterprise. Theodore Iacocca, Lee’s uncle, founded the Allentown eatery in 1922.)

In the second letter Warren Neubauer kept, Riedy hatches the plot for a Christmas getaway. It’s dated Dec. 8, 1940, again on RCAF stationery, with a return address of No. 1 Manning Depot, Toronto.

Dear Warren,

It’s not often that I write before receiving a reply from you, but in this case it is different. I want you to do a favor for me.

Here is the story. All Christmas leaves in the RCAF have been cancelled for aircrew members – that is pilots and observors. Why I don’t know, for the weather is too bloomin bloody lousy to fly in anyhow. Well yours truly figures on spending Christmas Day at home as long as I am stationed in Toronto. Now you’re going to help me play the old army trick. On the Sunday morning just preceding Christmas please send me the following telegram:

Dear Bob,
Mother needs you. It is imperative that you try to come home immediately.

Please be sure that you include the above in its entirety. I shall reimburse you for all expenses incurred, I promise you. It is also very important that you mention this to no one. If I can possibly make it, I want to surprise my parents. If I can’t, I don’t want them to be disappointed. There are so many things that can go wrong that it is not too likely that I can make it: I may be transferred, I may have difficulty getting across the border, etc. But in any case, I’m going to try my darndest.

I wish you’d acknowledge receipt of this letter as soon as you receive it; so, I’ll know whether or not to expect your telegram.

Thank you my dear sir
Your pal,

Ernie Neubauer found this letter “hilarious.” After Riedy sent it, according to his RCAF personnel file, he was transferred Dec. 17 from Toronto to Debert, Nova Scotia, site of a training camp and staging area for Canadian troops bound for the European Theater.

It isn’t clear whether Neubauer’s father followed through on the ruse, but Riedy did get home to Allentown that Christmas. A photo in the Dec. 24, 1940, issue of the Allentown Call-Chronicle shows Riedy with a former Allentown High classmate, Martin Schulte, both with big smiles. They’re in uniforms, but Schulte’s is that of the U.S. Army Air Forces. The caption reads in part, “Today the two school pals, who haven’t seen each other in a year, were chumming around Allentown on their Christmas leaves.” According to the newspaper, Riedy arrived in Allentown from Nova Scotia on Dec. 23 via United Airlines and Canadian Colonial Airways.

On Dec. 30, the Call-Chronicle reported that Riedy, 19 years old, would be flying that day back to Debert.

Maybe the RCAF changed its mind and allowed aircrew trainees to go home for the holidays. Or maybe Warren Neubauer did as his friend asked, and they got away with using “the old army trick” to spring Riedy for a one-week interlude.

Sgt. Bob Riedy of the Royal Canadian Air Force in England a few weeks before his death.

Sgt. Bob Riedy of the Royal Canadian Air Force in England a few weeks before his death.

Whatever it was, Riedy did not have much time left. He completed his training in Canada less than a year later, ferried an American-built bomber to England and was assigned to No. 15 Operational Training Unit. On Feb. 12 and 13, 1942, he might have participated in a large Royal Air Force effort to stop two German battleships as they dashed across the English Channel for home. Riedy appears with five other grinning fliers in a Times of London photo under the headline, “They swept into battle against the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.” But it’s not clear whether Riedy was actually in on the chase.

The next month, Sgt. Robert Harvey Riedy of the Royal Canadian Air Force was killed in a training accident. It happened March 18, 1942, at the RAF’s Mount Farm airfield in Oxfordshire, near Oxford. The 20-year-old pilot was in the cockpit of a twin-engine Wellington bomber. Another sergeant was in the pilot’s seat, and there was a gunner on board. Roaring down the runway for takeoff at 1:25 p.m., the Wellington clipped a twin-engine Hudson bomber parked on the edge of the fire track. The Wellington rose vertically to 200 feet, then plummeted to the ground. It crashed and burned. Riedy and the pilot died instantly; the gunner was seriously injured.

Riedy was memorialized as the first Allentown serviceman to die in Europe during the war. He was buried in Brookwood Military Cemetery at Surrey, U.K.

Neubauer’s father, Warren, who was a tire re-capper after graduating from Allentown High School, grieved over the loss of his friend.

“When he was initially drafted,” Ernie Neubauer said of his dad, “he failed his physical because he was legally blind in one eye. Bob Riedy’s death affected him so much that he tried to enlist in the army again and passed his physical by memorizing the eye chart. He passed his infantry basic training but was transferred to the Medical Corps and served in the Pacific Theater with the 31st Station Hospital in New Caledonia, Okinawa and Korea.”

Ernie Neubauer said that after the war, his father used the GI Bill to get a college education and had a successful career of over 35 years with Kimberly-Clark Corp., working in the U.S., Europe and Africa for the maker of health and hygiene products. Warren and Dora had four children — Ernie, Kristina, Frederick and Cynthia. Warren’s brother, Glenn, was a Lutheran pastor for 40 years, the last 35 in the Lehigh Valley at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Wilson. He died in 2015 at age 97.

Warren Neubauer did not forget his friend’s sacrifice in the war. To honor Riedy’s memory, he gave Ernie the middle name Harvey – the same as Riedy’s.

Hueys and my Vietnam War book

Mary took this photo of me Aug. 4 in front of a UH-1 Huey helicopter at the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum in Rio Grande, N.J.

Mary took this photo of me Aug. 4 in front of a UH-1 Huey helicopter at the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum in Rio Grande, N.J.

In 1998 when I was working on the story about my cousin Nicky’s death in Vietnam, I arranged to see a Huey helicopter up close at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station near Philadelphia. That was the kind of aircraft Nicky learned to fly in the spring of 1969 at Fort Rucker, Ala., but which he didn’t live long enough to fly in a combat zone. At Willow Grove, I was escorted to the tarmac where the Huey was parked. I put my hands on the sleek body, felt the smooth metal, examined the interior and took many pictures.

This June 9, my book Tragedy at Chu Lai was published by McFarland & Co., 21 years after I started the writing and research. My wife, Mary, and I followed that milestone this month with a three-day vacation to Cape May, N.J., on the last day touring the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum. Among the more than two dozen aircraft on display in a World War II hangar were two Hueys, one of which had been flown in Vietnam. We took photos of ourselves posing in front of the iconic symbols of the war.

It seemed fitting that up-close encounters with the Bell UH-1 Iroquois had opened and closed the work on my book about Nicky. A 20-year-old pilot, he was undergoing Americal Division orientation at Chu Lai in July 1969, hoping to be assigned to the 176th Assault Helicopter Company. But he and his friend Billy Vachon and another soldier, Tim Williams, were cut down when an Army instructor teaching grenade safety unwittingly tossed a live grenade into their midst.

I invite you to join me at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10 at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum in Allentown, where I’ll be talking about the story and my long search for the details of how this deadly training accident happened. It will be a Q&A format, with my editor Ardith Hilliard asking questions. Copies of Tragedy at Chu Lai will be available for purchase, and I’ll be signing them. The book is available online at and from the publisher at Visit my website at For more about the Huey, go to the U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center website at

How war veterans have touched my life

Judy Greenhalgh, me and Dick Musselman

Judy Greenhalgh, me and Dick Musselman of the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge at the group’s July 19 meeting in the Best Western outside Bethlehem. My wife, Mary, took the photo.

In 17 years of interviewing war veterans, I got back much more than I gave.

It was an honor and a privilege to meet with men and women who put on a uniform when the country called and did their duty, sometimes at risk of life and limb. I met with more than a hundred of them and considered all of them my friends. They taught me the meaning of courage and sacrifice. It hurts when I see the names and faces of the many who have since died.

I was grateful that veterans welcomed me into their homes and put their trust in me – a confidence that allowed some to reveal dangers they faced that they had never even told their own families about. Sometimes our conversations coaxed long-suppressed memories to the surface. During two interviews, I looked on dumbly as the old men fell from composure to shoulder-heaving sobs in a split second. It was post-traumatic stress flaring up after more than a half-century, exposing raw emotional wounds. The one veteran had just told me about bayoneting a German officer to death. The other was flatly describing the “canyon of death” that kamikazes created on his aircraft carrier.

Some found that talking about their experiences upset them. Joe Poster yelled at me once when I showed up at his door, saying I was causing old horrors to haunt him in the night. He had endured the Bataan Death March and three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.

When the stories made it into print and onto The Morning Call’s website, I had the satisfaction of seeing the veterans receive the attention and recognition they deserved, and of knowing their families were filled with pride. The night before publication of every story, I would ask God to be with my subject. One veteran, Poster, had told me he was anxious about his account being seen by perhaps tens of thousands of readers. He worried that people wouldn’t believe the fear and suffering he had known in the war. But weeks after his story ran, he told me excitedly, “Since that story was in, I can do no wrong!”

It was also rewarding to have a role in bringing long-ago foes together. One of my storytellers was Eddie Sakasitz, who had served in an anti-tank unit of the German army on the Eastern Front and in Italy, where he was machine-gunned in the legs. After his story ran, the Lehigh Valley Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge invited him to attend its monthly luncheon meetings. Almost until the end of his life, he did, bringing along his wife, Catherine. He liked to repeat a joke he and his Wehrmacht buddies used to tell: “We lost the First World War. We’ll win this one, too.” German soldiers, he explained, risked harsh punishment if officers heard them sounding defeatist. At one meeting, I saw Eddie sitting and chatting amiably with Ray Christman, another of my subjects. Captured by the Germans during the Bulge, Ray almost died in a POW camp.

Over the years, I had gone to meetings of veterans groups like the “I Was Shot At” club and the Lehigh Valley unit of the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II, both of which met at the City View Diner in Whitehall. But no group I spent time with was more active than the Bulge veterans, VBOB for short. I became an associate member about 20 years ago, when they were meeting at the Terrace restaurant in Walnutport, and interviewed many of its members, including longtime president Morris Metz. They now meet at the Best Western outside Bethlehem, still on the third Tuesday of each month.

Some interviews led to opportunities to present war stories at public events. While Don Burdick was telling me about his experience at Bastogne, he showed me something he had kept under wraps – gruesome photos he’d taken during the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. That led me to write a follow-up story about Don and his collection of images. After that, the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley invited me to do an on-stage interview with Don to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. Several hundred people at the Jewish Community Center in Allentown heard Don articulately convey his horror over what he’d seen at the Nazi camp.

For this past Memorial Day, ArtsQuest invited me to do a program at the SteelStacks campus in south Bethlehem. I had three World War II veterans on stage, all men in their 90s whose stories I’ve written: Joseph E. Motil, who hit Utah Beach on D-Day; Carl A. Schroeter, who was captured by the Germans in the opening days of the Battle of the Bulge; and Bob Holden, a crewman aboard the USS Finback when the submarine rescued downed flier George W. Bush.

Such accounts exist beyond The Morning Call’s website, where they are permanently posted at The WWII stories also go to the archives at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

My work has always been about informing people of what servicemen and women have seen and accomplished, and preserving their remembrances for future generations. I don’t like the limelight; I’d much rather labor in the trenches. But after I retired from The Morning Call on July 1, VBOB turned the tables by saluting me, a non-veteran. My wife, Mary, and I were treated to lunch at the July 19 meeting and heard kind words from Dick Musselman, Lionel Adda, Judy Greenhalgh and others.

The VBOB group also presented gifts. They included a large, framed certificate showing the patches of all the major units that participated in the Battle of the Bulge, with a personal message thanking me for my “passion and perseverance in giving a voice to local veterans whose stories would have otherwise been lost to posterity, for bringing to light the personal accounts of bravery, courage and suffering of the local men and women who served in defense of our country’s values and freedoms.” I received an album of pictures showing many friends I’d made through my work, and a Case knife gift set commemorating V-E Day. I also got a written message from a great friend and admirer of the veterans, who congratulated me on my “contributions to the LV Chapter Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.” The signer: Mario Andretti.

For many years, my reward has been in meeting veterans, spending time with them and getting their stories into the newspaper. This tribute from VBOB was icing on the cake, one of the nicest things that has happened to me.

The veterans I’ve known have given my life added meaning. I will always cherish their friendship.

A 17-year tally of war stories that had to be told

My last night of work at The Morning Call

My last night of work at The Morning Call in Allentown, after cleaning out my desk. My co-worker Frank Warner took the picture at shift’s end.

With my retirement from The Morning Call on July 1 after 32 years, I left behind a trove of stories about war veterans. I did an accounting in my last days at the newspaper and found that of 102 veterans I interviewed for my “War Stories: In Their Own Words” series that started in 1999 — most of them from World War II — 63 have since died.

Here again is the sad reality: Sixty-two percent of the war veterans I’ve interviewed over the past 17 years have died.

It points to the importance of getting these stories told before they are lost to the ages. I’m glad I wrote them. Not only will these accounts live for future generations, but there was a personal reward in seeing the veterans’ pride over the recognition they received when their stories were published. It was meaningful work.

(I got a big thank you July 19 at the monthly meeting of the Lehigh Valley Chapter, Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. I’ll tell you about that later.)

My “In Their Own Words” series had a total of 112 stories. In five that I handled, the subject was deceased and his written remembrance appeared with the help of his family. Another five were written by other members of The Morning Call staff. Under the format, the veteran – not the writer – told his or her story, culled from recorded interviews and fashioned into a narrative. Sometimes the interviews extended over weeks or months and took countless hours.

The series had one veteran from the World War I era, Olaf Marthinson, who was 102 when reporter Ron Devlin and I interviewed him in 1999 about his role in the 1916 hunt for Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa. There was one story from the Cold War, on Berlin Airlift pilot Harry D. Yoder; six Korean War stories; six Vietnam War stories; and one Iraq War story, on decorated helicopter pilot Michael B. Hultquist. The rest were all from World War II, including two who served in the German army.

You can read the “In Their Own Words” stories at In 2011, The Morning Call published a collection of my interviews in the book War Stories in Their Own Words, available online at

I wrote a dozen other war stories that were not in the “in their own words” format. These included an interview with reclusive World War II Medal of Honor recipient Alton W. Knappenberger that is posted on the Arlington National Cemetery website, interviews with Pearl Harbor radar men Joseph L. Lockard, Robert D. McKenney and Richard G. Schimmel, and a feature about Werner E. Schmiedel of Lehigh County, leader of the Lane Gang who was executed by the U.S. Army in 1945 for a violent crime spree that included his murder of an Italian civilian.

For the record, here is a list of the people I wrote about and the people whose stories appeared in the “In Their Own Words” series:

Olaf Marthinson (deceased), Willard “Bill” Haas (deceased), John Feninez Jr. (deceased), McRae A. Lilly (deceased), Dick Acker, Robert A. Carl (deceased), Oliver L. Cleaver (deceased), Frank J. Cudzil (deceased), John B. Dorsey (deceased), Lamar J.T. Farrel, Elizabeth Granger (deceased), Robert Holden, Marian Arner Jones (deceased), Earl “Lee” Leaser (deceased), Rothacker C. Smith Jr., Charles A. Yenser (deceased), James W. Murdy, Wilbur “Will” R. Weaver (deceased), John B. Desrosiers Jr. (deceased), John H. Minnich (deceased), Joseph T. Poster (deceased), Robert E. Serafin (deceased), Edward A. Goldschmidt (deceased), Ernest E. “Whitey” Eschbach (deceased), Paul R. Moyer (deceased), Julius Barkis (deceased), Earl R. Metz (deceased), Earl R. Schantzenbach (deceased), Rev. Edward W. McElduff, John C. Umlauf (deceased), Frank E. Speer (deceased), Robert F. Kauffman (deceased), Alton W. Knappenberger (deceased), Andrew V. Cisar (deceased), Ernest P. Leh (deceased), Benson B. Hartney Jr. (deceased), Joseph P. Anfuso, James A. Creech, James J. Ahern (deceased), Rolland J. “Joe” Correll, Harold E. Saylor (deceased), Jared S. “Jerry” Webre (deceased), Aleck H. Jensen (deceased), Joseph B. Moore (deceased), Florence B. Michaels (deceased), Charles J. Toth (deceased), Howard W. “Bench” Hartman (deceased), Evangeline R. Coeyman, Daniel Hasenecz (deceased), Clifford Ryerson (deceased), Jack Davis (deceased), Edward Sakasitz (deceased), Horace F. Rehrig (deceased), Joseph E. Motil, Charles Kowalchuk (deceased), Richard G. Schimmel, Bohdan T. Pacala (deceased), Robert J. Hutchings, William J. Walker (deceased), Raymond J. Christman Jr., Dr. John J. Hoch, Chris R. Showalter, Warren “Jake” Fegely (deceased), Warren G.H. “Pete” Peters (deceased), Donald W. Burdick, Joseph L. Szczepanski (deceased), Daniel L. Curatola, Nathan Kline, Graydon “Woody” Woods (deceased), Alfred R. Taglang (deceased), Louis H. Vargo, Hank Kudzik, Dick Richards (deceased), E. Duncan Cameron (deceased), Donald F. Mack (deceased), Samuel F. Shireman (deceased), Stanley A. Parks (deceased), Burdell S. Hontz, John A. Caponigro (deceased), John “Reds” Urban (deceased), Jerome Y. Neff (deceased), Ralph H. Mann (deceased), Donald E. Miller, Joseph L. Lockard (deceased), Robert D. McKenney (deceased), Bert Winzer, Robert H. Gangewere, William R. Munsch (deceased), Gloria Mitchell, Robert L. Kroner (deceased), Walter Kuchinos, Dick Schermerhorn, Bill Fritz, Clifford A. Hahn (deceased), Raymond F. Davis, Walter A.L. King (deceased), Pauline Haydt Minnich, Carl A. Schroeter, Charles L. Gubish, Carl J. Manone (deceased), Morris D. Metz, William E. D’Huyvetters, Werner E. Schmiedel (executed by U.S. Army), Leonard V. Siegfried, Garrett S. Runey, Charles F. Remington (deceased), Walter Warda, Harold G. “Gordon” Higgins, Harry D. Yoder (deceased), Francis Phillips (deceased), Randolph Rabenold, Robert W. Reichard, Cecelia Ann Sulkowski (deceased), Gene Salay (deceased), Jim W. Snyder Jr. (deceased), Victor L. Doddy (killed in Vietnam), Bernard J. Dugan, Juan Jimenez (deceased), Levi “Chip” Borger Jr., Clifford J. Treese, Eric R. Shimer, Michael B. Hultquist.