- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

SUNBURY, Pa. (AP) - Michael Johns and Tom “Randy” Chalmers became the best of friends in the worst of places.

Barely 20 years old, the two fellow radio operators in a U.S. Army mortar platoon in Vietnam formed a bond as they tried to stay alive during some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

Johns, a Kulpmont native, and Chalmers, of Poughkeepsie, New York, became so inseparable, they convinced some of the local villagers they were brothers with different fathers.

When his yearlong tour was up in October 1968, Johns, now of rural Sunbury, gave Chalmers one of his dog tags and told him to give it back to him next time they saw each other.

“Our plan was to keep in touch,” Johns, 68, recalled. “He got married, I went back to ‘Nam.”

Johns served another tour in Vietnam the following year. But neither man knew where the other was for decades.

They didn’t see each other until 45 years later at a reunion, when Chalmers handed Johns the dog tag.

It was an emotional moment for both men.

Johns, who had enlisted for his first tour in Vietnam, decided to go back so that his brother, who had been drafted, could stay in Germany. Johns figured since he already had been there, he was better prepared. As it turned out, his second tour, from 1969 to 1970 on a fire base, “was like a party,” he said.

But he had survived fierce combat during his first tour with his first unit, the U.S. Army’s Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division. The worst of that fighting came during the Tet Offensive in early 1968, when North Vietnamese and Vietcong fighters launched a number of surprise attacks into South Vietnam.

He was wounded once when he pushed another soldier to the ground after a grenade landed nearby, he said. Johns took some shrapnel in the leg. That earned him a Purple Heart and about two weeks off. But even as he underwent treatment in a field hospital, a mortar attack forced an evacuation.

Other memories of other days, other battles, still play in his head decades later, memories of patrolling through villages and rice paddies, the enemy firing at the Americans from the jungle. Johns, who also received the Bronze Star, Army Commendation and several service medals, said he saw a number of his fellow soldiers killed, once by friendly fire from American fighter jets that also accidently dropped the flaming jellied napalm close by.

In contrast, Chalmers put the war behind him, despite the close friendship he had formed with Johns.

“I had actually forgotten about the service, to be honest,” Chalmers, 68, of Boca Raton, Florida, said in a telephone interview. “People didn’t look very favorably on veterans. I was trying not to let people know I was a veteran.”

Johns said that when he came home, people yelled at him and someone hurled a soda at him at the San Francisco airport. His own friends called him a baby killer.

“My brother wouldn’t even sleep in the room,” he recalled. “I was yelling in my sleep.”

He used drugs and alcohol to quiet the demons that haunted him. He worked as a miner, then as a carpet installer and ran his own carpet store.

Chalmers immersed himself in his own life.

“I was really busy,” he said. “I had a child, I started a career, I went to college, all at the same time.”

He began working for IBM in software support, and 30 years ago he transferred to Florida.

Johns lived in Shamokin for nearly 50 years before moving to the country outside Sunbury.

“We didn’t swap addresses,” Chalmers said. “It didn’t occur to me there would be a lot of Johns in Pennsylvania, and I moved.”

He did search for Johns once the Internet came into being.

“I didn’t know anything besides that he lived in Pennsylvania,” Chalmers said. “I didn’t even know what city.”

Then in 2012, a fellow unit member was organizing a reunion and Johns had been pestering him to find Chalmers. The reunion organizer gave Johns’ phone number to Chalmers.

“I called him using our old call signs,” Chalmers wrote in his recollection of that time. “I have to admit we both broke down crying.”

They met at the 2013 unit reunion in St. Louis, but didn’t recognize the older versions of each other, at first.

“To prove I was actually Randy from so long ago- I gave him back the dog tag he had given me 45 years ago.”

It was even more emotional because Johns had forgotten about the dog tag.

“I never remembered giving it to him,” he said.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1mcT1n2

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Information from: The Daily Item, https://www.dailyitem.com

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