It was a day that ended the lives of his two good friends and changed his forever. Yet, Aug. 23, 1966, remained a blur in Lonnie Larsen’s memory for many years. It was another blazing hot day in Vietnam as his company of Marines hung onto tanks that lumbered across rugged terrain through tall brush. Suddenly, the sticky air exploded with rocket-propelled grenades.
Ambush. Exchange of fire. A ditch where a Marine lay. Larsen vaguely recalled pulling the Marine out of the ditch before the North Vietnamese overran the spot. Next, “all I remember was going through the air and hitting a big blue flash.” Larsen spent the next 23 months in a hospital, regaining his hearing and sight.
For years after that, the Utah rancher wondered: What exactly happened?
Steve Hohenstein, a high school teacher and football coach in Pennsylvania, had even less memory of that day. The first round of shrapnel had brought him down. A question lingered for years in his mind: Who saved his life that day?
Back home in Nebraska, Mike Rask retained vivid memories of the battle, which visited his dreams all too often. After “the kid from Utah” was evacuated to a medical unit, Rask took his collection of photos for safekeeping. For the next 47 years, Rask kept the photos, wondering: Did Larsen survive?
“We’ve been looking for you”
Charles “Tag” Guthrie of Virginia Beach does not like unanswered questions. What his robust memory cannot recall from his 13 months in Vietnam, his daily — even hourly — journal fills in.
As a rifleman and squad leader in Alpha Company of the 4th Marines, 1st Battalion, Cpl. Guthrie was given a daily map with his orders. On the back of each map he scribbled notes about the day’s events and the men with whom he served. So as not to fall into enemy hands, the notes were mailed back home to his wife. After he retired from the U.S. Marine Corps as a captain in 1992, Guthrie used the notes and maps to compile a journal and invited others who served in the same time and place to add more details.
The journal eventually expanded to about 6,000 pages. Even though it’s not an official history, Guthrie frequently gets requests from authors and others for details about a particular event that his journal might clarify.
More importantly, the journal has helped Guthrie reconnect with Marines who left Vietnam with him 50 years ago.
After returning to careers and families, they often lost touch with each other. But Guthrie remembered a lot from the conversations among the men in his squad that filled long periods of boredom. “All you have to do is sit there and talk about your families, the type of car you had, their girlfriends,” Guthrie said.
Using the journal and his memories, Guthrie became a sleuth to track down Marines with whom he had served decades ago. With no more than a name and hometown, he combed the internet and, with the help of a core group of other retired Marines, traversed the country, visiting veterans’ groups, police stations, neighborhoods, newspaper archives, mortuaries and cemeteries to find them.
That’s how Mike Rask learned five years ago that Lonnie Larsen was alive and returned Larsen’s photographs to him. Rask had found a website of Marines who had served together in Vietnam. “I put my contact information on there and got an email from Tag. He said, ‘We’ve been looking for you.’”
Guthrie had met Larsen a few years earlier at a reunion of their Alpha company. Since they had been in different squads, they had not known each other in Vietnam, but their squads were in that same August 1966 battle. As Larsen talked about that day, Guthrie realized that Larsen was the one who had pulled his wounded buddy Hohenstein to safety. That discovery led to an emotional reunion between Larsen and Hohenstein in Utah in 2012.
“We’re sitting there with Lonnie and his family,” Hohenstein said, a quiver in his voice. “We’re rehashing the story, and, quite frankly, at that point you feel that guy is part of you, part of your family.”
“Steve was so amazed that I had lived that day,” Larsen said. “For 45 years, he had thought I might have died. I didn’t know what had happened to him either. … To reconnect with guys I knew in Vietnam — I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.”
Crossing the country
It wasn’t a one-time reunion. The visits have continued, as Guthrie and Hohenstein, along with other Marine friends, make cross-country trips each year to see Marine veterans they have found and to search for others who have not stayed connected with their former comrades.
The trips began in 2010. A small group of men who served together in 1966-67 had been gathering since 1992 and would talk about Marines they’d lost contact with. Guthrie began to search for them. So far, he has found and visited 66 Marine veterans who survived the war. He has found another 10 who died in Vietnam or since, and his group has visited their graves and sometimes their families. Since 2010, they have been to 31 states and Canada, logging a total of 50,636 miles.
When they first meet a former comrade, they catch up on what they’ve been doing since they were last together in Vietnam and talk about memories of their time together.
“For some, it’s the first time they’ve talked about the experience,” Guthrie said.
Some men they contact are hesitant at first to re-engage with former comrades in war, but they eventually appreciate the renewed friendship, he noted. About five have declined to meet, and that wish is respected, he added.
Rask said the group’s visits to his Nebraska home and the frequent phone calls and emails with his old Marine buddies have helped him work through painful memories. “The dreams have kind of, not gone, but they’ve slowed down a bit. We have talked about that day to get it out in the open. I will talk to those guys about things I wouldn’t talk to anyone else about.”
The personal bond runs deep, Guthrie remarked. “We were fused together by a common confrontation with death and a sharing of hardships, dangers and fears, the very ugliness of the war, the sordidness in our daily lives and the degradation of having to do things we would not normally do. … At times, the comradeship was the war’s only redeeming quality.”
That explains his personal drive to rekindle relationships, he said. “You want to keep that friendship alive.”
The long delay in reconnecting was natural, Hohenstein added. “When we came back from Vietnam, it was a lot different from the guys coming back (from service) now. There was no ‘welcome home; you’re doing a great job.’ We came back and all disappeared into our next life, our next 20 years, and got absorbed into our occupations and our families. It’s not that we didn’t stop thinking about the guys we served with. But it took a spark from Tag. … Tag is the No. 1 force behind this whole thing. Without Tag Guthrie, we would never have gotten in touch with each other, except by chance.”
Each spring, Guthrie and three companions visit four to six men – some for the first time and others on repeat visits. The annual journey takes 9 to 13 days.
Guthrie is known for making meticulous plans for each trip, including itinerary, route, alternate route, checkpoints where wives receive text messages, lodging, budget and a timetable that limits each driver to three hours and each fuel/restroom stop to 12 minutes.
“He’s one step above Type A,” joked John Wilcox, a retired teacher and athletic director from Michigan, who joins the annual treks. He also credits Guthrie for making it happen. “He is our historian. He has the historical drive to try to find these guys and contact them and see if they would like to meet.”
Filling the voids
Wilcox and Guthrie were there for the reunion between Larsen and Hohenstein. “Between the four of us, we filled the void in both of their minds,” Wilcox noted. “To me that is just exhilarating to have those types of questions answered.”
The visits and reunions have helped Wilcox fill his own memory voids created by a bomb blast. “They fill in dark spots, names of operations and places we were.”
At the same time, he added, the conversations are not what one might expect. “A lot of people wonder if our reunions are morbid and maudlin, that all we talk about is death and destruction. We don’t. … We talk about the guys we served with and remember them fondly.”
But death and destruction were a big part of their common experience. Guthrie led four different squads during his 13-month tour, as battle casualties led to a continual turnover. During that time, 34 Marines he knew in his company were killed.
Guthrie himself was never wounded, although “there had been split seconds in my tour when I’d felt death brush past,” he said. “When the 13 months passed, I surveyed the carnage around me and felt wildly, implausibly lucky.”
Those who survived the war were left with many questions, Guthrie said. “When talking to my friends of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, I have learned that they did not have a sense of the who, what, when or where we were and what we were doing while we were in Vietnam. What were our objectives of each operation or, essentially, what was the big picture?”
As Guthrie’s group continues to meet and reminisce with Marines with whom they served, Hohenstein said the picture of his Vietnam experience becomes a little clearer. “Especially for me, because I had questions of what really happened. In combat, you go through it, but you don’t know what the unit 100 yards from you went through. It’s just an amazing way of learning what the true story of Vietnam really was.”