- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) - A long-delayed reunion rekindled memories of four La Crosse high school graduates about their bus ride to St. Paul, Minn., for their Army physicals and inductions on Dec. 9, 1965.

The four - Aquinas High School alums Pete Opitz and Jim Bantle, and Central High School grads George Bell and Bill McArthur, all 69 - gathered for breakfast at Fayze’s in downtown La Crosse in mid-December, the first time they had been together since that 150-mile ride 50 years ago.

“It was a day almost like today,” Bell said of the clear, crisp weather Wednesday as they gathered in Riverside Park after breakfast for a reunion photo around the cannon.

During the back-to-the-future moment, the men had their feet planted in two centuries as they swapped war and life stories on the shore as the calm, mirror-like Mississippi just kept rollin’ along on an unseasonably ice-free day.

One minute, they were teenagers chuckling about a teacher who used to fall asleep during newsreels in class, and how students just sneaked out and left him to his dreams. The next, they were retirees, exchanging memories of their exposure as young men to an escalating war in a strange land far, far from home and their post-war lives.

Actually, the 1965 journey from La Crosse to Minnesota’s capital was more circuitous for Opitz, who was working for the Milwaukee Road and living in St. Paul at the time.

“I called (Army officials) and told them I already was in St. Paul and I would meet them there,” he said.

As government regulations - and military red tape, in particular - would have it, Opitz said, “They said no, that I had to ride the bus with everybody else.”

So Opitz had to hitch a ride on a train to La Crosse, where he caught the draftee bus back to St. Paul. At least, once he was there, he was able to check off his name on the bus passenger list and stay in St. Paul.

Before the trip North, Bell said, they went to Coney Island for hot dogs, which they found to be much better fare than the C-rations they endured in Vietnam, where Opitz, Bantle and McArthur served, and in the Dominican Republic, a little-known war zone at the time where Bell served with another 50,000 U.S. troops.

The La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/1INEGr9 ) reports they took basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., before being split up for their assignments - Opitz to the infantry, Bantle and Bell in transportation, and McArthur, in artillery.

As controversial as the Vietnam War became, “We had no political agenda,” said Bell, of La Crosse. “We were soldiers.”

“We all expected to be drafted,” Bantle said, as that was the era just before a lottery began in which young men were assigned numbers in a luck-of-the-draw system. Their deployments came as action was ramping up in Vietnam, so their knowledge of the conflict was limited, the four agreed.

“We used to party in the bars up and down the streets,” Opitz said.

“I wasn’t much for sitting around, watching Walter Cronkite on TV, and all of a sudden - you’re there,” said Opitz, who confessed to considering the get-out-of-the-draft-free card and mulling marriage - until he realized he wasn’t in love.

After losing friends - both from La Crosse and those met in the service - to death and seeing others maimed, all four expressed disappointment in the war’s outcome.

“We got Stars and Stripes, and were reading how back home there were demonstrations and they were calling us baby killers,” Opitz said. “We were afraid we were going to be shot, but they’d taken my gun away.”

Returning vets were a cautious lot.

“I traveled all the time in civilian clothes,” Bell said, with Opitz adding, “A lot just took off their uniforms and threw them in a trash can.”

Although troops deployed to Vietnam saw more combat action than Bell and his comrades in the Dominican Republic, Bell said, “We had people killed and injured, and there were snipers.”

Back home, Opitz returned to his job as a railroad conductor, McArthur became a sheet metal worker and started his own business, Bantle became a union carpenter, and Bell returned to work as a manufacturing engineer at Trane after using the GI Bill to get a college education.

“The GI Bill was a neat thing out of serving,” said McArthur, who now lives on Brice Prairie and is widely known by his childhood nickname of “Boober” - to the extent that that’s how he is listed in the phone book.

War memories linger, with Opitz noting that, as he rode trains, timberland along the rails sometimes reminded him of the jungle, triggering flashbacks.

“I don’t think any of that ever leaves you,” Bell said.

Boober offered, “I always wonder what soldiers I used to know are doing now. You became pretty close friends, living and sleeping with them, 24/7.”

Resentments also persisted from the conflicting images of friend and foe in combat, they said.

“For a long time, in the supermarket, if I saw someone who was Vietnamese, I wanted to kill ‘em,” Opitz said. “In Vietnam, you didn’t know who was Vietnamese and who was Viet Cong.

“They would send a kid up to you with a grenade with the pin pulled,” he said. “They would sell you a bottle of Coke already opened, with crushed glass in it, trying to kill you.”

The next moment, children would surround the soldiers, “begging for food,” Boober said, with Bell adding, “I was always struck by the poverty.”

Nonetheless, Bell said, “They would be friends by day, working in the compound, and try to shoot you at night.”

Vietnam veterans have had trouble shaking the negative image that people imposed upon them because of the war’s unpopularity.

“I think it took 9/11 to wake people up,” said Bantle, whose brother-in-law was killed in Vietnam. That loss particularly difficult on his wife, Paula, he said.

“This year, they had a memorial in Fort Benning” that helped heal the hurt, said Bantle, of Onalaska. “It was pretty special.”

To a man, they also agreed that another major breakthrough in feeling positive about their service days came during LZ Lambeau, a three-day event at Lambeau Field in Green Bay in May 2010 billed as “Welcoming Home Wisconsin’s Vietnam Veterans.” The May 21-23 commemoration was a partnership among the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, the Wisconsin Historical Society and Wisconsin Public Television.

Among the lead sponsors of the event, which was tied in with WPT’s Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories project, were LHI founder and Vietnam-era Marine veteran Don Weber and his wife, Roxanne, and initial major contributors included La Crosse-based Kwik Trip and Onalaska-headquartered Festival Foods.

“Don Weber has done more for Vietnam vets and veterans in general than anybody,” Boober said, noting LHI’s continuing sponsorship of the annual Freedom Fest in La Crosse to honor veterans.

Although the four men had bumped into each other occasionally during the past five decades, Wednesday was the first time they had settled in for an informal session of recalling old times.

Opitz, who still lives in St. Paul but summers on his boathouse on the Black River in La Crosse, has two sons and three grandchildren. Bantle has two daughters, a son and three grandkids, and Bell has two daughters and three grandchildren.

Now that they’ve broken the ice with their first reunion, they vowed not to wait another 50 years. Indeed, they made a pact to get together routinely, with Opitz extending an open invitation for beer and barbecues on his boathouse.

The four deflected a question about their opinions on global conflicts in which the United States is involved these days, with Bantle saying, “They’re a mess. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

“It’s sad to see these kids coming back with their legs blown off,” Boober said.

Asked for an overall reflection on their service, Bantle said, “I think we’re all proud for serving - not at first, but later in life.”

Boober said, and his comrades echoed the sentiment, “We all thank Don Weber for all he does for veterans.”

“It’s sad to see these kids coming back with their legs blown off.” Bill “Boober” McArthur, Vietnam veteran

___

Information from: La Crosse Tribune, http://www.lacrossetribune.com

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