OLYMPIA – In 1968, 80 young men from Washington state stood in their white shirts and thin black ties in the echoing state Capitol and listened to then-Gov. Dan Evans praise them, the Marine Corps’ new “Evergreen State Platoon.”
By evening, they were on their way to boot camp in California. Many ended up in Vietnam.
On Saturday, 40 years to the day from that hot summer afternoon, about two dozen of the men returned to the Capitol to rekindle old ties and pay their respects to those who never came home.
“It’s incredible to see these guys again,” said David Oxford, a Spokane native who now lives in Missoula.
The men, some with their wives, gathered Saturday afternoon at the state’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the names of Washington’s war dead are carved into a stone wall. Half a dozen of the names belonged to platoon members.
Some of the men gathered Friday night at an Olympia pub to catch up and reminisce.
“It was like nothing had happened for 40 years,” said Doug Simpson, another Spokane native who came up with the idea of the reunion. Other than a small reunion two decades ago, many of the men hadn’t seen one another since the late 1960s. Sixteen members of the unit were from Eastern Washington.
Simpson and another Spokane member, Larry Plager, started tracking down unit members and making arrangements to sandwich the event between a couple of weddings at the Capitol on Saturday.
“And then it kind of turned into a lot more,” Plager said. Many platoon members didn’t even know how many members had died in Vietnam.
“It just started to take a life of its own on,” he said. “It felt very important to do this.”
Finding the members was the hardest part. Some didn’t respond, Plager said. But most were thrilled. Some thought more from the unit had died in the war. Some had heard that their drill instructor, retired 1st Sgt. Roy Gallihugh, had been badly injured in Vietnam.
It wasn’t true. Gallihugh lives in Maryland and is doing well. He couldn’t attend the ceremony but wrote the group a note.
“In my mind, you are all heroes,” Gallihugh wrote. “When you reunite, enjoy the brotherhood of warriors you first met some 40 years ago. Don’t be afraid to embrace and shed a tear or two. I’m 70 years old now and am tearing up as I write. I consider your request to hear from me one of my highest honors.”
Also sending good wishes: former Gov. Evans and former Miss Washington Joyce Stember, both of whom were on hand in 1968 to see the unit off.
The war “was like the adventure of my generation,” said Plager, the son of a Marine. “I’d probably seen too many John Wayne movies and read Leon Uris’ book ‘Battle Cry,’ and it sounded like a great idea at the time.”
The reality of jungle patrols, heat and shipboard life proved different from his expectations.
Plager spent weeks working on a couple of short speeches for the ceremony.
“These times seem so long ago, yet they seem like yesterday,” he said. “Some memories lost until – with help – remembered. Some things clear as glass, not to be forgotten.
“After our training, some of us went to Vietnam, some of us did not,” he said. “All of us served our country. Of those who went to Vietnam, some would never return.
“All of us,” he said, “would be changed by the experience.”
At Saturday’s ceremony, a local honor guard fired rifles and played taps as the veterans faced the memorial’s wall of names. Later they went to a local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall for cake, beer and Vietnam War-era music.
Before heading to the VFW post, someone pulled out an old photo of one of the dead men: John M. Smith, of Walla Walla. Men wrote their names on the photo and left it at the wall.
“Some good names up there,” said Oxford. “You wonder what they’d have been like older. They were pretty good young.”