By STEVE EIGHINGER
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Joe Koetters has no problem remembering way back when.
Late 1968 and most of 1969 represent a special time for Joe and his brother, Dick, plus more than 140 of their comrades in the Army National Guard's former 126th Supply and Service Company.
For many, that period likely synonymous with the transitioning of the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon presidencies, or possibly the premier of the iconic film "Easy Rider," when Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda helped redefine American cinema. Others might even recall Bob Gibson's famous 1968 summer and fall of "1.12" with the Cardinals.
For the men of the 126th, that period meant preparing for the worst -- and then making the most -- out of an 11-month tour of duty in Vietnam at the height of the conflict in southeast Asia. Vietnam was where the U.S. armed forces were taking a stand against the encroachment of communism in that area of the world, and that was where the men of the 126th -- most of them from West-Central Illinois, Northeast Missouri and southeast Iowa -- called home for almost a year.
The remnants of that company gathered this weekend for a two-day reunion at the Triple Oaks Club on Friday night and Cedar Crest Country Club on Saturday night. Most of the men, now well into retirement, gather every five years. Counting wives, this weekend's reunion includes a turnout of about 125.
Some of those on hand are part of the company's band of brothers.
The 126th featured nine combinations of brothers, including Joe and Dick Koetters, both lifelong residents of Quincy.
"The unit always had a ‘family' feel to it," Joe said
Joe said the unit picked up the nickname "Hallmark" Company somewhere along the line -- which he still finds amusing 45 years later.
"That's because (the United States) cared enough to send the very best (the 126th)," he said.
Now 67 years old, Joe still remembers his time in Vietnam in great detail. He also remembers always feeling safe, even though shortly after its arrival, the 126th was met with a rocket barrage from the North Vietnamese.
"For the most part, it was like a 9-to-5 job for five or six days every week," Joe said.
The 126th's primary job was delivering jet fuel to landing zones. Some members of the company would go to the beach on weekends.
"We were close to the China Sea, and we'd take down some air mattresses and do some surfing," Joe recalled.
Dick, too, said the idea of "not coming back" from Vietnam was rarely a thought.
"We always tried to look on the bright side," he said.
The closeness of the 126th probably had a lot to with that peace of mind.
"A lot of us knew each other before (Vietnam), and I'd guess that about 90 percent of the (remaining) guys still live around here," Dick said.
For Dick, one of the longest-lasting memories of Vietnam has been the Army food.
"I sure missed the food back home when we were over there," he said. "They served us a lot of roast beef -- a lot. Just about every meal. It was about a year after we got home before I could eat roast beef again."
Dick, 73, said he has noticed -- and appreciated -- the difference in the way veterans are now perceived. During the Vietnam era, with the country torn regarding U.S. involvement, recognition for homecoming veterans was miniscule at best.
Joe remembered a local parade, but nothing close to the ceremonies that commemorate today's veterans.
"When most of us came back (from Vietnam), there was no fanfare," Dick said. "We just came home and went back to work."
The 126th was the only Illinois National Guard unit sent to Vietnam. The 126th, which eventually evolved into the 1844th Transportation Company that now represents this area, was reorganized from an ordnance field supply company to a quartermaster (general) supply and service company before it was sent to Vietnam.
Anna Marie Veile, a former schoolteacher in rural Adams County, had three sons who were part of the 126th --John (who was known as "Jack") Wilson, Clyde Wilson and Frank (who was also known as "Lynn") Wilson. John is deceased, Clyde now lives in Monticello, Mo., and Frank resides in Pahrump, Nev.
The three Wilsons and the rest of the 126th were informed May 13, 1968, they would be going to Vietnam. The unit was sent first to Fort Carson, Colo., by train and bus. In September, the 126th was shipped to Chu Lai, South Vietnam.
"It was a rough year when the boys were (in Vietnam)," Anna Marie said. She's now 94 and is enjoying her senior years in assisted-living retirement.
When her boys were gone, Anna Marie would often share some of the boys' letters with the elementary classes she taught. At night, she would watch network news reports to try and glean information about what was happening on the other side of the world.
Anna Marie prayed for all the soldiers' safety, not just her sons'.
The 126th returned from Vietnam and was released from active federal service on Aug. 19, 1969 -- with every man it left with alive and well.
"I knew God would take care of them," Anna Marie said.