Friends for life

Dennis Roe, James McMahon and Warren Wilder

"Talk and eat is what we are doing." This is what three Vietnam veterans said they have been doing since getting together 45 years after leaving Vietnam.

Laughing, joking and crying as they talk, it is apparent the bonds remain even after all those years. They thought it was fitting the story of their reunion was to come out on Nov. 11, Veterans' Day.

E-4 Warren Wilder, who graduated from Handley High School in 1967 and now lives in Childersburg, Specialist 5 James McMahon of Pelham, N.Y., and Spec. 4 Dennis Roe of Ft. Worth, Texas, came together as the result of McMahon going online to see if he could find them.

The short window of 11 months in Vietnam was an intense time for them, and McMahon wondered if his friends were still alive, what their lives were like. He had talked about his Vietnam experience to his children.

About a year ago he started looking for them. He found a Warren Wilder connected to a church and said that is not Warren. His search kept leading back to Warren at the First United Methodist Church. When he looked up pastors there, he saw what was obviously Warren's photo, he said. When he called, Wilder hesitantly said yes, he was Warren Wilder and he had been in Vietnam. He is a retired Methodist pastor.

Then he looked up Roe. McMahon had an old address for him because after returning stateside they wrote for awhile, but life came in -- wives, children -- and they lost touch. But he thought about them all those years. There were questions. Did they even want to hear from him, he said. Fear and doubt beset him. He called Wilder first and they had a short conversation. He later remembered that, with his Bronx accent, Wilder used to tell him to talk slowly.

Roe said in the 1990s he took a vacation through Ohio, New York and other northeastern states, and everywhere he went he tried without success to locate them. Joking, he said he looked for an arrest record but didn't find one.

Roe married young and was married when he went to Vietnam. He has two children and five grandchildren. Wilder has four sons and four grandchildren. McMahon has two children and his first grandson. They called him a late bloomer.

They said they all had support back home. Tears flowed when Roe told about his father-in-law crying like a baby when he left. When he made the long journey home, his father-in-law was the first one he saw, running from the house in his boxer shorts, in tears, to welcome him home.

Wilder said out of his senior class, 12 were drafted at the same time, people like Darden Arrington and Larry Ramsey. Warren's brother, Ralph Wilder, was in the north end of South Vietnam near the DMZ in 1969.

Warren had recorded some things he had sent to his mother. During the visit he played some for his friends. Oddly, they had picked up each other's accents from being together so much. When McMahon got home, people chided him about his Southern accent.

"We were close over there," Wilder said. McMahon turned to the other two and said, "best friends over there."

"We're trying to catch up with what has happened in the past 45 years," Roe said.

This is the first time they have seen each other since 1970. The last time they saw each other they were young.

"We were very young people at the time; young can be foolish. We have grown and matured," McMahon said. "My wife sent me on an adventure all by myself," he added.

They all said they married above themselves, and Wilder said his wife was very supportive of the visit.

They were all drafted and worked in Headquarters Company, 31st Engineer Battalion, 20th Brigade, attached to the First Air Cavalry. Their base camp was Phuoc Vinh where there was an air strip where C130 cargo planes could land but nothing bigger. McMahon had noticed in a book that their outfit dates back to the Civil War.

They built roads and bases and kept up with supplies that came in. Roe was a specialist in water supply and kept up with water. McMahon was quartermaster and traveled to Long Binh every week to secure supplies. It was a big base, almost like home, he said.

Wilder and McMahon got to Vietnam at the same time and stayed together the whole time. They stayed together in the same "hooch" and flew out the same day sitting next to each other. Roe lived nearby.

Roe left Vietnam the early part of December, before the other two did. They said those who wanted could leave early and he volunteered. He arrived in January 1970 and left in December 1970.

Wilder said when he left, he had five and a half months left, and McMahon had six and a half months left. President Richard Nixon had signed an executive order saying those with less than six months to serve could go home. The two parted when one went through one door and the other went through another door. It was Dec. 22, 1970.

McMahon, who had been drafted for two years, was home for Christmas, then was sent to Frankfurt, Germany, to finish out his tour. After the "hell of Vietnam it was like a vacation," and he saw everything he could while there, he said. He did not have to worry about about whether mortars were incoming or outgoing there, emitting their distinctively different sounds.

Wilder said the enemy tried to knock them out in Vietnam, calling where they were "rocket alley." McMahon said they got it every night, sometimes in the day.

In Vietnam Roe was in and out of the base because he had to provide water, but in 1970 he went into Cambodia. He remembers one fellow's sign that read "First Engineers into Cambodia." He said he was fortunate he was not involved in the fighting there. There was a firefight there just before he arrived and said he was blessed to miss that. Occasionally they would hear a sniper shot, but the worst thing was the monsoons.

Wilder said when Dennis went into Cambodia and got all those weapons the shelling slowed down a lot. Roe said there were underground cities in Cambodia. They had photos of the massive collection of weapons.

They laughed and cried when telling about getting their orders to go to Vietnam and having to tell their parents. It was doubly hard on Wilder because his brother, Ralph, had been wounded, and he knew how hard it would be on his mother to tell her he had received his orders. She wrote in journals a lot, and he saw where she wrote, "The war is over for us," when he returned to Roanoke.

McMahon said the one thing he learned from Vietnam is support the war or do not support the war but support the soldiers. They talked about how they did not talk about serving in Vietnam when they got back and how the public did not support the war.

Wilder said his brother did not talk about the war either. Tears came when he told a story about having a flat tire four or five years ago and getting the tire changed. The man who moved his car came and shook his hand and thanked him for his service.

Wilder's wife had told him he needed to put his Vietnam tag back on the car, and he had eventually decided to.

Wilder returned to school after leaving the service. At one time he worked for The Roanoke Leader when it was on Chestnut Street, from about middle 1976 to middle 1977. He knew the late Harold Bonner, who also worked at The Leader then, for the past 40 years. His wife, Bonita, used to sing with David Stevenson and the Lifelighters.

For the recent reunion, McMahon said he flew into Dallas Saturday, Oct. 31, and he and Roe drove from Ft. Worth to Alabama, arriving Sunday about 9 p.m. They drove for 13 hours and really never stopped talking. The three hooked up Monday morning.

"We cemented our friendship very quickly. We were great friends. We picked up very quickly," McMahon said of their trying to fill the gaps of the past 45 years. The others agreed. He said the "core of our friendship is still there."

Wilder had taken them to eat barbecue, sightseeing, including his parents' graves at Forrester's Chapel near Wadley and his old homeplace on Wilder Boulevard. They were meeting his brother for lunch on Wednesday, their last day in Roanoke.

Roe and McMahon headed back to Texas Thursday for a brief visit there before McMahon left for home. "It'll be a bittersweet leaving," he said.

Of those long ago days, McMahon said, "We were loved."

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