Quincy News

50TH REUNION: Men of 126th will always remember 'we all came home'

By Herald-Whig
Posted: May. 15, 2018 10:10 am Updated: May. 15, 2018 8:47 pm

QUINCY -- Granted, time has taken a toll on these heroes.

Most of the hairlines have receded, and many would prefer an elevator to the stairs these days.

But their memories are as sharp as the day they left -- and later returned -- from Southeast Asia at the height of the Vietnam War.

"There are less and less of us who remain, but it is always good to touch base with who is left," said Quincy's Dennis Hildebrand, 76, one of the veterans who will gather this weekend for the 50th reunion of the 1968 deployment of the Army National Guard's 126th Company.

BAND OF BROTHERS: Click here for a story and slideshow from April 2016 when 126th members were getting ready to go on a Great River Honor Flight. 

It was a difficult time, but it was also a special time.

The music of the Beatles' "Hey Jude" and Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" served as a generational backdrop. So did movies like "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Green Berets."

Bill Waters, 77, was also a part of the 126th, and he remembers spring 1968 as if it were yesterday.

Company members received notice they were being called to duty, and four months later -- after a training regimen in Colorado -- they were shipped to Southeast Asia, to a war that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers.

"We always try to meet (as a group) every five years," Waters said. "Some meet (locally) as often as every other month."

A turnout of about 135 to 140 is expected for Saturday night's gathering at the Quincy Senior and Family Resource Center that will include wives and widows.

They will come from all across the country to rekindle memories and relive a part of their past they will forever carry with them. Organizers say attendees will be coming from as far away as Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama.

"This will be a chance to see old friends, old brothers," Hildebrand said. "It still feels like we are a band of brothers."

In 2016, many members of the 126th traveled to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Each year, fewer and fewer remain from a company that sent more than 140 men to Vietnam.

"There were carpenters, mechanics, lawyers, barbers ...," recalls Ron Kooken, 75, of Quincy.

Although every last one of the 140-plus men returned home, there are now fewer than 100 who remain from the 126th, which was the only National Guard unit from Illinois to be activated. All members of the 126th made sure their wills had been made out before heading to Southeast Asia.

"Our lives were put on hold. Everything was put on hold," Hildebrand said.

Names like Da Nang and Chu Lai became more than names on a map. The Viet Cong were an ever-present threat.

The stench was, most of the time, almost overwhelming.

The heat was oppressive, and local villagers used to offer the American soldiers bottles of Coca-Cola, which superiors told them never to drink because all too often they might contain ground-up glass.

The enemy was everywhere.

"We made the best of a bad situation," Waters said.

Hildebrand still remembers the initial landing in Da Nang.

"Was scared to death," he said.

Jim Loscher, 75, of Quincy, said he remembers seeing coffins stacked up at the airport in Da Nang.

"Spooky times," he said. "Spooky times."

There were some good times mixed in with the bad. Kooken recalls making a trade for 81 lobster tails, an acquisition that also involved some pizza pans. It was one of many transactions that will never be found in any accounting books.

"We all took care of each other," Kooken said. "Hell, I couldn't eat 81 lobster tails, but (others) could."

Loscher also served as a barber and was never short on one-liners. He still isn't.

"I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up," he said.

Loscher said one of the experiences he will always remember was the extreme poverty of the Vietnamese people. He talked of how many lived in crates and cardboard boxes.

"The Vietnamese people would wait for us to throw out our garbage," Loscher said. "They would then (sift) through it."

One of the members of the 126th who will not be in attendance is the late Don Keil, who served as the company's commanding officer and was a highly respected leader. Keil died of cancer several years ago.

"(Keil) was very conscious about everyone coming back -- and we all came back in one piece," company member Mike Holzgrafe of Quincy said in a 2016 Herald-Whig article.

That has always been the overriding theme with the men of the 126th.

"We all came home," Waters said.

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