Flying Tigers reunite on the beach
- October 24, 2015
- / Marketta Davis, pnj.com
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By Marketta Davis from pnj.com
It’s 1967 and you’re a brand new Marine, fresh out of boot camp in Vietnam.
You hop aboard a battered HR2S helicopter, nod at the crew chief by the door and take a seat. The ride is bumpy and you’re nervous. You hear all kinds of clanging sounds and realize there’s leakage coming down from the transmission.
Then all of a sudden, you see loose helicopter parts flying across the cabin.
"The crew chiefs would have a bucket hidden under their seats of various nuts and bolts and things,” said Roger "Duke” Herman, 71, Marine Corps helicopter pilot. "And as soon as the grunts weren’t looking, they would roll them down the aisle! It was one of the things we did to, kind of, loosen things up a little,” he said laughing.
Herman is just one of the Marine Helicopter Squadron 361 members who are in Pensacola this weekend for the squadron’s
annual reunion, an event that allows service brethren to reconnect through old war stories, including pranks they used to play, during their time in the Corps.
"You get around these guys, you tell the stories, and it comes back to when you were 20 and you’re reliving those times,” said John Ruffini, 45, Marine Helicopter Squadron 361 reunion coordinator.
Ruffini said some were good times and some were bad, but the best part of the reunion is spending time with the men who helped get each other through their worst moments.
"When you come home from war, sometimes you don’t have that same support structure,” he said. "You love your family but they just don’t understand. So you’re around guys that understand what you went through. And that’s why I think this reunion goes so well.”
Since the squadron’s reunions began unofficially in the mid-80s, Herman, a former reunion coordinator, said he’s seen guys each year who he hasn’t seen since serving with them. Pointing across Veterans Memorial Park Oct. 1, he’d occasionally stop and share a story of how he met a fellow Marine.
"He (pointing to another man) and I have known each other for over 50 years and he was the first guy that I met when I checked in to the military,” he said, explaining how his friend got him through boot camp because he was previously enlisted in the Navy and knew how to fold underwear and socks that would pass inspection.
Gordon Roswell, 66, a 1st Recon member who relied on pilots like Herman to get him in and out of landing zones in Vietnam, said seeing those helicopters coming was one of the best feelings in the world.
"If it wasn’t for these guys picking us up, I wouldn’t be here today,” Roswell said.
"See, these guys have a love-hate relationship with us, this is the part he’s not telling you,” said Herman, pointing to Roswell and chuckling. "They hated us when we dropped them off, but they loved us five days later when they saw us coming back to pick them up!”
Herman said he wouldn’t trade his time in the military for anything in the world. It was a great experience that came with camaraderie that can’t be matched.
"We’re talking 50 years ago in some cases — we’re all still the best of friends,” he said. "There’s no camaraderie like a bunch of Marines who’ve been in combat together. It’s lasted all these years and it’ll last until the day we die.”