By Glen Miller
El Reno Tribune
EL RENO – Each step Johnny Hensley took across the parade grounds at Fort Reno was like a step back in time.
While his movement was slow and deliberate, due partly to his battle with cancer after being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, the Piedmont resident’s eyes were laser-focused on the 330-foot memorial wall set up on the north side of the grounds.
“Do you know if they have the sheet that shows which panels names are on?” asked Hensley, a U.S. Navy veteran.
After a few minutes of searching, he found his destination – Panel 16, Lines 90 and 103.
To the workers setting up the replica of the wall, Panel 16 was one of more than 100 making up the American Veterans Traveling Tribute (AVTT). To Hensley, the panel was a portal to the past.
“It’s like walking back in time,” he said.
Among the men listed on Line 90, toward the end, Hensley touched the name James F. Rost. Thirteen more down, also near the end, he rubbed his finger across the name Eldon W. Tozer.
The pair were among the more than 58,000 names on the wall, but to Hensley they are more than a soldier’s name. They were his friends. They were his buddies on a Patrol Boat River, better known as a PBR.
“It was special to come over here and see this,” Hensley said. “It was really bad over there. There were guys getting killed every other day.
“I was 19 years old, and all my hair was falling out from the stress. I remember walking around with my shotgun and you would step over a dead guy and think to yourself, ‘Oh man.’ It was just crazy.”
Hensley lost both his buddies within days of each other. Rost, a lieutenant (junior class), was killed Nov. 17, 1969, by gun or small arms fire in the Vinh Long Province of South Vietnam.
Tozer, a chief petty officer, was killed three days later by rocket or mortar fire in the Chau Doc Province.
Hensley recalled the day Tozer was killed as he was pulled off the same mission before leaving to stay behind and man base camp. Hensley said the four-man PBR took on a blunt of enemy fire.
“The boat had so many AKA rounds shot into it,” Hensley said. “It was 2 a.m. in the morning and anyone could be ambushed. He (Tozer) had his leg blown off and he was so wounded, he died right there.
“They gave me his leg to bury it and I just could not do it.”
This was one of the “bad memories” brought about by his visit to the wall.
“It brings back some of the bad memories. You saw a lot of death,” Hensley said.
Like another friend on what Hensley and others termed as a “Zippo Boat.”
“It was a boat with a flamethrower on it,” he said. “One guy I knew was manning the flamethrower and you could tell it was driving him crazy because you could see the men (enemy) running through the jungle on fire.
“He was killing them to help protect us but in his mind he really didn’t want to do it.”
GOOD MEMORIES SHINE
Yet, through all the bad memories, shine the good ones. The ones Hensley says he likes to focus on more.
“You love to touch their names,” he said. “It brings back the good memories as well. Like their smiles or something that was funny they did. You had a lot of dark humor and that was a way to get the stress off.”
Hensley recalls one mission in which both men in the boat with him as they went down the Vinh Te Canel.
“There was a mortar round that hit in the water on one side of us and then a few seconds later another round hits on the other side,” he said. “Here we are, four teenagers in a boat getting shot at by mortars.
“I jumped back on the 50-caliber gun to shoot into the jungle but you could not see them so I never fired. Then this airplane, a Black Ponies (OV-10A Bronco), flew over and opened up with the mini-gun and rockets and blew all the bad guys to pieces.
“We were very thankful. It was something else and we didn’t get any mortar fire after that.”
Hensley was among several veterans who watched the wall being assembled. Each panel was lifted and bolted into place by local citizens, many of them veterans themselves.
Helping were students and educators from El Reno High School and Learning Center.
Each connected panel is braced from behind by metal poles that are staked into the ground. Sandbags, supplied by Ross Seed, were used as added bracing.
The wall will overlook the 2023 U.S. Calvary Association’s National Competition and Annual Bivouac, which runs through Saturday.
“This is something to see and I hope everyone gets out to see it,” said USCA Chairman William Glenn Yarborough Jr.
Yarborough, a Vietnam veteran himself, was handing out special pins supplied by Washington, D.C., to those veterans from the era visiting the memorial wall.
Note: According to El Reno Public Schools historian Brian Rukes, there are 10 El Reno names listed on the wall. Among those are Chester Melvin Ovnand, who lived in the city for a time but did not attend school here.
Ovnand married an El Reno High graduate and was one of the first two casualties in Vietnam.