World War II

An emotional encounter in downtown Melrose

Baseball-cap insignia triggers once-in-a-million connection

by Irving Smolens

What are the odds against two men living in a small city of about 27,000 people having served in exactly the same unit in two wars which took place a little more than twenty years apart? When one considers that millions of men served in the Army in those two wars and that the normal component of a field artillery battery is about 120 men, the odds against that happening seem astronomical.

Defying all the odds, it is a reality. The knowledge of that reality came about at our Melrose Victorian Fair several years ago. I was hanging around one of the tables manned by one of the groups with which I am affiliated. I was wearing a baseball cap with my Fourth Infantry Division Ivy Leaf insignia on it. The cap made no mention of what that insignia represented.

Joe Elia, one of our prominent citizens and a friend I have known for a number of  years, came over and said, "You were in the Fourth Infantry Division." I acknowledged that I had been and asked him how he knew, because what the Ivy Leaf insignia represents is obscure. Joe responded that he had also served in the same division, and, since I know that there is quite a difference in our ages, I also knew that his active service must have been in Vietnam. Assuming he had been an infantryman, I asked him with which regiment he had served. He responded that he had not served in a regiment; he had been in the field artillery.

After telling him that I, too, was an artilleryman, I asked him in which battalion he had served and he responded,  "The 29th": my battalion. My next question was, "Which battery"? The response from Joe, "B Battery": the same battery as the one in which I had served in WWII.

The knowledge that both of us had served in the same unit had more than odds-defying significance. Joe had subsequently told me that after he had left the battery to assume a different role in Vietnam, the B Battery fire base had been overrun by North Vietnamese forces, and the man who had been sent to the battery as his replacement had been killed. Joe, for all the years since that had happened, was troubled, because he could not remember the name of the replacement.

When I purchased my computer about three years ago, I discovered that a former sergeant who had served with our battalion in Desert Storm had established a battalion website. One of the pages is a guest book and message board. Reading through those messages, I came across one from a member of our battery who had served in Vietnam while Joe had been there. I immediately sent e-mail addresses to both men.

The man who had posted the message had indeed known the replacement and had informed Joe that his name was Charles Edward Manning of Marshall, Texas. He had been killed on May 12, 1969.

Some time later, at an event in Memorial Hall, Joe came over and put his arm around my shoulders and offered me his heartfelt thanks, saying, "Irving, you can never know what a burden you have lifted from my shoulders. On a number of occasions since learning who he was I have been to Washington to visit his name on the Vietnam Memorial 'Wall'."

You can search below for any word or words in all issues of the Melrose Mirror.
| Return to section | The Front Page | Write to us |

Write to us