Some were spit on, called baby killers or doused with blood when they came home after serving in Vietnam and Korea some 50 years ago. They hid their uniforms in duffle bags while traveling so no one would guess they were soldiers.
But on Saturday, 13 Lancaster area veterans received a surprise hero’s welcome in New Holland after landing at the Philadelphia International Airport. They finished a two-week journey to Vietnam that focused on healing.
Meanwhile, more than 500 people gathered at Garden Spot High School stadium, and the celebration brought closure to many painful memories, according to those who made the trip.
“I was tremendously amazed and surprised,” said James Supeck of Willow Street. “I had no idea any of this was happening.” The 74-year-old served as a teletype communicator in Saigon in 1968-69.
Michael Mazzaro of Lancaster also served in communications during Vietnam. “I was not aware of how elaborate this would be,” the 74-year-old said. “When we got off the bus, we knew something was going on.”
“It brought a tear to my eye when speakers welcomed us home,” recalled Chuck Bechtel, 76, of Hershey. He led a 43-man platoon and jumped out of helicopters in Vietnam during that same time frame before a parasitic jungle infection sent him to a hospital.
How do you keep a 600-person or so party a secret? “There were a lot of moving parts,” said Lei Williams, who led the veterans’ trip and teaches ESL at Garden Spot High School. “I was nervous about our flight being on time.”
The group spent 30 hours in the air, flying from Saigon to Tokyo and then to Dallas before arriving in Philadelphia. The plane was about a half-hour late, and several relatives held banners and signs as the veterans, wearing matching blue shirts, entered baggage claim. Most appeared too tired to notice Williams constantly texting or making and answering phone calls on the chartered bus heading to Lancaster County. Instead, they munched on donated Girl Scout cookies and drank bottled water.
The veterans, 12 men and one woman, talked about getting hamburgers, taking a nice shower or warm bath and then going to sleep when they returned home.
Meanwhile, Lancaster and York county residents started entering the stadium around 3 p.m. and listened to Vietnam War-era music or bought snacks from one of four food trucks that arrived around 4 p.m. Volunteers also handed out free treats from Hope’s Country Fresh Cookies in Bryn Mawr.
Boy Scouts and Heritage Girls members stood on the field while an announcer updated attendees on the bus journey. A school’s choir waited to sing the national anthem, while about 50 American Legion members, riding motorcycles, roared through the parking lot on their way to escort the bus partway home. A restored Huey helicopter used in Vietnam circled the stadium before flying to escort the bus to New Holland.
Veterans say they were surprised when the bus slowed down and the motorcycle brigade joined in Honeybrook. Many then heard the unique whomp-whomp from the helicopter flying over the bus.
They still didn’t put it together, though. Supeck saw a filled parking lot when the bus arrived around 6 p.m. and thought the cars came from people who were going to drive the veterans home.
Then he saw the crowd cheering and waving flags. He and other veterans left the bus as patriotic music played. The Huey landed, and soldiers were led out on the stadium field with a military color guard.
Michael Snopkowski, Eastern Lancaster County School District superintendent, welcomed the veterans. “This is one small way we can say thank you,” he told the group.
“Thank you for your service,” said State Sen. Ryan Aument (R-36).
“We can do our job only because you did yours,” added U.S. Rep Lloyd Smucker, the Republican who represents the state’s 11th district.
Some 50 volunteers began top-secret meetings in February to put together the large gathering without any veterans finding out. Of the 20 people who went on the trip, only relatives, a documentary filmmaker, Williams and husband Bruce knew what waited in New Holland.
No one wanted to advertise the celebration until the group left for Vietnam June 9, though. Notices then appeared in church bulletins, and posters went up in boroughs and cities. A private Facebook group also spread information.
Colleen Hecker, purchasing manager for Hope’s Cookies in Denver, and Carla and Tom O’Neil, of East Earl and Juanita Kreider, of Terre Hill, helped plan the party.
Kreider, an Eastern Lancaster County School District employee, coordinated the stadium celebration.
“The purpose of the celebration is to give them what they didn’t get the first time around,” Kreider said before the veterans pulled into the parking lot. “ How do you pay somebody back when they laid down their lives for you?”
Williams is no stranger to Vietnam. The refugee was 5 years old when a Vietnamese soldier stopped her biological mother from crossing a barricade the day before Saigon fell to communists on April 30, 1975. Williams’ mother was able to hand Williams and Amy, her 3-year-old sister, over the barrier so they could join a helicopter airlift out of Vietnam. The girls’ biological father, an American pilot, had died several months before.
“I remember having this sense that I had to take care of my little sister,” Williams said, explaining that the focus on her sibling helped mitigate the heart-wrenching feelings she experienced leaving her mother behind.
A family from Nebraska adopted the sisters. “We were lucky we got to stay together,” Williams said. She then researched her mother’s history while in college and finally went back with Amy to meet the woman in 1998.
“I got closure for my story,” Williams said. “I understood why my mother gave us up.” With young children at the time, Williams said she could see that her mother’s fierce love pushed her to surrender her daughters.
That healing, Williams said, prompted her to look for veterans so she could give them the same feeling. “I wanted to provide the opportunity to go to a place so (veterans) could make peace with where they were wounded,” she said. “When you get there, it brings back memories.”
Bechtel would have to agree. “Have we healed a lot of wounds on the trip? Yes,” he said recalling when the group visited a Catholic Shrine that the soldier first saw in 1968. “I stood by the Blessed Mother 54 years later,” he said. “It was gut-wrenching for me.”
Charles Miller, 72 and a former Marine, recalled being seriously wounded in an ambush in Vietnam. He came home with shrapnel inside his body and a diagnosis that said he would never walk again. In addition, brother James Edward Miller died in Vietnam.
This trip back achieved two goals, the Willow Street resident said. He was able to psychologically heal when he physically buried his brother’s picture under a street where his brother had walked and buried his own photo and a military coin near the area where he, himself, had served. “I put the past in the past,” he said.
Mazzaro, who fought with the first calvary division, came home the first time unannounced. “There were people who didn’t like us,” he recalls. He flew to Los Angeles and took a cab from the airport because his sister was home with her children and his brother-in-law was working, “There was nobody to meet us.” Mazzaro said he went to Vietnam a second time because, “I wanted to see where I’d been stationed,” he said.
Williams had taken two groups of Garden Spot students to Vietnam when, in 2019, she decided to offer the opportunity to veterans who often volunteered to speak about their experiences. Students supported the idea, but COVID-19 stopped the group from going in 2020.
Money from fundraisers paid the $3,400 price for each veteran. Williams said she invited and also paid for a filmmaker to go so he could document the trip. She planned an itinerary but remained flexible when a veteran suggested a stop at a place he or she had visited the first time around.
The trip and reception seemed successful. “Vietnam vets were shunned,” Supeck recalled. So, he said he was stunned Saturday to see wife Maggie, his sister, nephews, son and granddaughter waiting to greet the bus.
“They spat at us, they cursed us, and we just had to walk around it,” the veteran said of his first trip back. “This time I got tears in my eyes.”
“We were kids,” Bechtel said about the first time he and his comrades served. “I’m glad I went back.”