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Army buddies: Bonds forged 45 years ago among military families stand the test of time

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Most of the people gathered in John O’Neal’s home hadn’t seen one another in 45 years. But they picked up where they left off, as if it had been hours rather than years since they last left each other’s company.

It sounds trite, admits O’Neal, a Pawleys Plantation resident, “but it’s like it was yesterday and I’m not exaggerating that.”

Surveying a large dining room behind him, filled with the sounds of laughter and reminiscing from the people who were O’Neal’s family when he was stationed in Aschaffenburg, Germany, in the Army’s 2/7 Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, during the Cold War and the Vietnam War, it’s clear he’s not the only one who feels that way.

The men, all of whom were officers and most on their first tour of duty, swap war stories and tease each other about the misadventures they shared. The women do much the same, except they’re recalling what it was like living and raising children in a foreign country while their husbands were away for weeks at a time on maneuvers.

“I had three children under 26 months old. We all had babies and nobody had any money,” recalled Mary Ann McKenney of Boylston, Mass., whose ex-husband was stationed in Aschaffenburg. “A big Saturday night would be going to somebody’s house and playing cards for pennies. We were all in the same boat and all away from home, so we all got very close very quickly.”

McKenney’s ex-husband wasn’t interested in keeping in touch with the people from that period of his life, she said, but she kept in contact with many of them via Facebook, and that’s how last month’s reunion came about.

She mentioned the idea to O’Neal and he and his wife, Terry, signed on to host the gathering. A number of phone calls later, his old Army buddies and their wives were converging on Pawleys Island for three days last month, beginning with a dinner at the O’Neal home.

“It’s totally overwhelming. When two of them walked in, I actually broke down, I was so happy to see them,” McKenney said, tearing up again at the memory. “And John is the most amazing host. We walked in and his dinner table was set up with flowers and everybody had name tags on the table. He has been absolutely incredible.”

In addition to dinner at the O’Neal home, the O’Neals gave their visitors, most of whom had never been to the area, a tour of Pawleys Island the following day. Other than the O’Neals, Bob and Louise Alford, who live outside Columbia, are the only visitors who didn’t come from out of state.

The O’Neals took the group to the beach and several shops including the Hammock Shops, where the O’Neals’ daughters and a son-in-law run Pawleys Island Mercantile. They had lunch at Roz’s Rice Mill Cafe and went to Nosh for dinner that night, where they continued reminiscing and passed around photos and mementos from their days in Aschaffenburg. They gave updates on careers that followed the Army, children, grandchildren, their health and amusing anecdotes.

Joe Bolt recalled how he went to work at the Pentagon and accidentally ended up springing a promotion on his wife, Diana, during what was supposed to have been his retirement party.

The group finished their visit with a tour of Hobcaw Barony on day three. But the first night was probably the most emotional and memorable.

“If you had sat at dinner at my house and heard the buzz – everybody enjoying it and sharing the stories, the wives contributing and sharing the frivolity – it was a terribly warm feeling,” O’Neal said.

But it was also sad at times as they remembered some of their friends who never made it home from Vietnam. Converse “Connie” Smith of Gulf Shores, Ala., said he had feared there were more who didn’t survive.

“I lost track of everyone when I went to Vietnam and I really didn’t know if we all came back,” he said. “Just finding out that we all made it, it’s fantastic.”

Smith and his wife, Lovina, were married in Aschaffenburg. They were college friends who reconnected while Lovina was touring Europe. Four days later, he proposed.

“We were the gossip of the whole brigade because I went over there and got this flaming bachelor,” Lovina said. “Nobody thought our marriage would last and here we are 47 years later.”

Many of the couples present were at or closing in on 50 years of marriage.

Even after all that time Connie still hasn’t forgotten one of the pranks he was the victim of. He was headed off for training and his air officer invited Lovina to stay with his family while he was away. Connie got half a mile from the compound and his vehicle broke down. He was waiting for a wrecker when “here comes Vic with my new wife in the car yelling ‘Hey’ as they drove by. I took more grief for that…”

The dinner in her home was actually the first time Terry O’Neal met any of those her husband knew in Aschaffenburg. They married long after his service was over.

“It has really been a fun experience to see them have such a good time,” she said. “They’ve really enjoyed every minute.”

Kay Carroll, the wife of Mark Harran of Litchfield, Conn., was also meeting the group for the first time. Both women said they enjoyed listening to the stories. They already knew most of them, but some were new.

“I already knew the funny stories from John,” Terry said, but she had never heard several of the more serious ones.

Penny Bolden of Berkley Heights, N.J., was a new bride, just 21, when her husband, Frank, was stationed in Aschaffenburg and said the bond she formed with the other wives there still means the world to her.

She recalls what it was like being the only black woman among the officers’ wives and how out of her depth she felt. She had no idea what was expected of an officer’s wife. She had to learn the culture.

There was one day a colonel’s wife knocked on her door unexpectedly to introduce herself while Frank was gone. The woman was dressed up and wearing neat, little, white gloves. Penny greeted her in her husband’s long johns. She had no idea what a breach that was and that etiquette called for her to invite the woman in for tea.

“That’s probably one of my most memorable experiences in life,” she said.

When she told Frank about it later, “I could see my career floating away,” he said. He eventually left the Army to become a lawyer and fight another battle – for civil rights – but at that point he still wanted to be a career officer.

Penny’s experience didn’t cause him any problems in the end. The colonel’s wife, Joan Sutton, said Penny was “refreshing.” She and her husband, Paul, also attended the reunion and Frank thanked them for being such good friends, for being kind to his young wife and helping her find her balance.

Mike and Lucy Watkins weren’t there, but the Boldens thanked them, too. When Frank went to Vietnam and Penny went back home to the U.S. alone, she didn’t know how she was going to get through.

The Watkinses came cross-country into what was then an all-black neighborhood and showed up at Penny’s door one day as a surprise. They spent a whole day with her, rescuing her at what she calls her worst moment. When they dropped her off that night, she was ready to face the days and months ahead.

“The people in this group were always there for each other,” Frank said.

Serge Olive of Manassas, Va., agrees. “There’s a very, very strong bond here,” he said. “We went through a lot of learning and mistakes together.”

There was never any doubt that any one of them would have another’s back, he added.

“It’s an honor to see these people and that their health is good. It’s difficult to explain, except this bond never seems to weaken,” Olive said.

“It’s amazing how it just clicks and all the years fall away,” said Susan Brennan of Waxhaw, N.C., with her husband, Ambrose.

Ambrose stills gets grief over his laundry practices from his bachelor days. If tales are to be believed, he didn’t even bother to take his clothes out of the green laundry bag. He’d just throw the whole bag in the washer, wait out the cycle, put the bag in the dryer, put in 10 dimes and head out to a movie or a bar until it was finished.

“As a bachelor I did do my laundry that way,” he confesses. But he denies teaching Smith that was how it was done.

Brennan is brought to tears as he remembers what it was like in Aschaffenburg, waiting for the Russians to attack the U.S. and what might have happened had that situation not been resolved peacefully.

“There would have been no one in this room,” he said. “I’m so grateful.”

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