Young soldiers Gerald Goetsch and Denny Wardlow huddled in the fox hole together for days while mortar bombs raged around them.
It was the mid-1960s when they entrusted their lives to each other in the Vietnam War. Now, though it’s too late for Goetsch, of Ortonville, Minnesota, to reconnect with Wardlow, he has connected with Denny’s son, Mike Wardlow, of Bettendorf, who has a new perspective of his father as a combat veteran.
Now, whenever Goetsch and Mike Wardlow speak, regardless of the date on the calendar, it's a "memorial day" for Goetsch, who shared so many war-time experiences with the late Denny Wardlow. Goetsch, who never reconnected with his old war-time friend, has a captive audience in his friend's son for reliving the war. And it's introduced Mike Wardlow to a father he never knew: A parent who never shared the horrors of war with his son.
The search begins
Three years ago, after the death of Goetsch’s mother, Goetsch discovered letters he had written to her. A flood of memories made him think of Denny Wardlow.
In 1964, Goetsch got a job at the Palo Alto film processing lab for Eastman Kodak. He took a camera and film with him when he was deployed on Sept. 7, 1966, as part of a company in which Denny Wardlow also served.
“Our D Company … of the five companies, D saw the majority of the combat action over there,” Goetsch said. Company D was attached to the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division.
When his mom died, Goetsch “wanted to talk to Wardlow and find out how he was doing and how his life had gone.”
He had tried to find his friend previously, long before internet searches were common, but had no luck. This time around, he found Denny’s obituary instead. He saw that Denny Wardlow, 54, died in 2000 and was laid to rest at the National Cemetery on Rock Island Arsenal, with military services conducted by Vietnam Veterans of America Quad-Cities Chapter 299.
“It was too late. I don’t have many regrets in my life, but the one regret I have is I didn’t get to talk to him again.”
Eventually, Goetsch connected with Ed Gaudet, from the VVA Quad-Cities Chapter, and through him began to talk with Denny’s son.
Since then, “we’ve talked quite a few times,” said Goetsch, who plans to meet Wardlow and visit his dad's grave site.
Goetsch, an engaging speaker, has shared his memories publicly before.
He appeared on the PBS television documentary “Vietnam Remembered: Western/Southwestern Minnesota.” Last year, he was the featured speaker at a Veterans Day program in Ortonville.
During those talks, he always included experiences he shared with Denny. Of the 120 men in Goetsch’s unit, five died and 20 were wounded, Goetsch said.
A son “meets” a soldier
“He worked hard to find me,” said Mike Wardlow, who owns Orthopedic Solutions Inc. in Bettendorf. When he first connected with Goetsch, “I was kind of taken aback,” Mike said. “I had no idea what my dad had been through.”
Wardlow never was in the service, but always has respected veterans and members of the military.
“A couple of years ago, I was presented with the Patriot Employer Award from the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve,” he said.
One of his employees who served as a guard at Guantanamo Bay, he remembers, remained in the active reserves and didn’t want to miss work. “I said, ‘You need to fulfill your obligation with the Army,’” Wardlow said.
Without Wardlow's knowledge, the reservist “jumped through the hoops” to ensure his boss received the honor. “I was at work and these people presented this plaque to me. They told me it’s not easy to get this.”
As for his father, Mike knew Denny Wardlow the crane operator at Alcoa (now Arconic). He knew his father had served in Vietnam, "But he never told me about it. Ever.”
He was astonished to learn that his father and Goetsch were mortared for three days straight and that his father saw plenty of other action too.
When he and his dad watched “Platoon” a 1986 film about Vietnam, his dad didn’t have that much to say, Mike said. “I made the assumption he was doing construction behind enemy lines,” Mike said. “Now it means more knowing that my dad actually was in the thick of it.
“I have a different version, a different perspective, of my dad,” Mike said. “Also, it gives Gerald some type of fulfillment.”
When his father died, Mike received the American flag because he is the oldest of Denny’s children. “I still have it. “It was a very patriotic burial.”
He always figured his dad didn’t keep in touch with the rest of the guys because they didn’t want to relive the war, he said. But Goetsch never stopped thinking about his time in the war — and of his friend, Denny Wardlow. And now, Goetsch can relive those memories with Denny Wardlow's son.
Fear and near-death in a foxhole
“Denny and I went through a lot of things that were very difficult and disturbing,” Goetsch said. During the day, they worked with the rest of D company, with responsibilities such as clearing minefields and building airstrips.
“Bunkers were built. Foxholes were dug. We were trained to be infantry first, and combat engineers second,” Goetsch said.
One day, “It starts pouring down rain and we’re bailing water out of the foxhole,” Goetsch remembers. “Finally, we got so tired we just sat in the water.”
They were in the fox hole for two hours awake and two hours asleep, Goetsch said. “We depended on each other.”
Goetsch awoke to a mortar bomb less than 20 feet to his left.
He remembers the smoke that hung like fog, about 4 feet above the soldiers. “The whole thing was like a bad dream, but it was real.”
He made it to a foxhole with Denny Wardlow, and they fired a couple of rounds. The mortars stopped, and they waited.
Dawn came in about six hours, he remembered, and the smoke finally cleared.
One night, mortar bombs struck two fox holes down from where they huddled. Two men died.
Once, Goetsch saw Denny’s vehicle get hit with an explosive. “Shrapnel flew onto my windshield,” Goetsch remembers. “He parked his truck and he jumped in with me and we kept going.”
They also happened to be the first on the scene after a mortar round hit underneath a cot in a nearby tent. “There was blood and body parts all over. We saw that,” Goetsch said.
But not all of the combat involved warfare. Both Goetsch and Denny were could be pretty hot-headed, Goetsch recalled. “We got into a fight one time. It was beer-fueled. Guys came in and broke it up. The next day it was history.”
Eventually, the two men were separated into different platoons.
“I read somewhere that enduring a tour of duty in Vietnam was truly a test of character and a test of courage. Denny Wardlow passed the tests — he and all the guys from D Company 27th Combat Engineers passed those tests many times.”
Looking at a photo of the pair from 1966, Goetsch said, "We were all clean and shiny. I had just one stripe. We had been in country for less than two weeks.”
The picture was taken at Long Binh Post, east of the Đồng Nai River, northeast of what then was Saigon and now is called Hồ Chí Minh City.
Another soldier remembers
Goetsch also reached out to Larry Wymer of Edmond, Okla., the third soldier in that old 1966 photo of Goetsch and Denny.
Wymer also recalled that Denny had a bit of a temper. “You had to get to know him and not take everything too seriously," he said. “We both drove trucks for a long time until I made sergeant."
He also recalls a time when Denny was driving a truck to a special forces camp. “You had to cross a river to get to it,” he said. “They were in a jeep.
“The ferry tipped over in the middle of the river. He lost his truck and his rifle. He swam out of there with a flak jacket (which is pretty heavy). When he came back to camp, he said, ‘I’m not driving a truck anymore.’”
Despite Denny’s death, the bond between the two soldiers continues through Mike Wardlow, who learns more about his dad while Goetsch relives the decades-old experiences with his old friend.
"That’s one of the reasons I searched him out," Goetsch says. "My story is his story.”