By Steve Sears
Gary Erdmann, 77, was reflecting on the recent passing of 92-year-old Whippany resident, World War II veteran Harry L. Ettlinger, whose wake he’d recently attended.
He was feeling a touch of sadness. “They’re gone,” he responds quietly when asked if many World War II veterans remain. “We’ve got one more; he’s 89 or 90. We’re losing these guys,” he says. “This has been going on the last 10 years,” he says while sitting inside the VFW Post 10184 home on Baldwin Road in Parsippany. It is 56 years to the day that the Cuban Missile crisis started, and three years since the passing of his wife. “The one we have, Jack Carey, who’s a member of the post, I pick him up and drive him because he can’t drive anymore. But he’s been a founding father of this post.”
He has many recollections of his career of flying for the country, and plenty of documentation and photos to revisit those days long ago. Erdmann, a Lake Hiawatha resident of more than 55 years, was very involved with the U2 Dragon Fly Reconnaissance airplane during his service with the Air Force in Vietnam from 1961 – 1965.
“I was very involved during the Cuban Missile Crisis right up to Vietnam,” he says. “I was in Vietnam from ‘64 to ‘65.”
Erdmann, who was a recipient of 6 medals for his service, including a Good Conduct Medal and National Defense Medal, recalls his days of service fondly.
“I have many top memories, because my unit got a citation from President [John F.] Kennedy, of course right before he died,” he says. “I have another from the White House, saying – and this was for the Cuban Missile Crisis – thanking us for the service, and such beautiful photographs which showed Cuba building missiles on the island.” Erdmann mentions as well that he worked with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “as well our own intelligence people.”
Once a military man, always a military man, according to Erdmann. “Once you’re in the military that stays with you, I don’t care what service you were in,” he says. “My son was a Marine with [General Norman] Schwarzkopf and he’s just as happy. Once you’re in the military and you salute that flag, you don’t stop saluting it.”
He then speaks with disdain with regard to the sports players not properly saluting the red, white, and blue. “A matter of fact, these sport guys kneeling for the National Anthem or Pledge of Allegiance, I have a sign that says, ‘I stand for the flag, but I kneel for the fallen.’ In other words, our military that didn’t make it back like us lucky ones.”
John Flavin, also a Lake Hiawatha resident, was a Midshipman in the Vietnam War.
“I was in the United States Navy from 1966-1970,” says Flavin. “I was 19 years old and you had three choices: Enlist, get drafted or go to Canada. I chose to enlist instead of waiting for the draft.” Flavin, who grew up playing with toy soldiers and watching war movies, says “For some strange it seemed exciting, said my main reason [for enlisting] was love of country.”
Excitement and fear were his emotions upon entering, though.
“One day you’re home and the next day whole life has changed,” he says. “You grew up fast in basic training. There were rules, lots of rules, punishment if not followed.”
However, for a boy originally growing up in Brooklyn in 1950s, it was welcome.
“The neighborhoods were tough, and we were always getting in trouble,” he says. “The Navy changed all that – basic training – they straightened me right out.” He then adds with a chuckle, “I still fold my clothes the way the Navy showed me, and if my wife folds them after washing, I will refold them the correct way.”
Flavin, assigned to the USS Newport News CA148, a “Heavy cruiser,” he coins it, did two tours in Vietnam, and calls his ship “a war machine.” It is one of a few vivid memories for him.
“The first time we came under fire,” he says referring to the first, “You were scared out of your wits, but right away your training kicks in and we became a well-oiled machine.” The second is of a more peaceful nature. “Shore leave, in places you never thought you would be.”
During his two tours of Vietnam, his unit lost no comrades, but on the third tour of duty which he was not a part of, an explosion in a gun turret during combat killed 19 sailors.
“You still feel for their families if you knew them or not,” he adds solemnly.
He also recalls a special tale during a rest and relaxation break with fellow Navy men.
“A few of us were in a bar in Japan and the waitress brought over a round of drinks and pointed to a table full of Marines,” he describes. “I went over to thank them, and they said, ‘No, thank you. We saw your ships’ name on your uniform and if not for you guys we wouldn’t be here.’ And that thank you meant the world to us.”
For his service, Flavin was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation, Combat Action Medal, Meritorious Unit Commendation, Vietnam Service Medal, and National Defense Service Medal. The County of Morris also issued him a War Commemorative Medal.” After he was discharged in 1970, he started to work for AT&T, and eventually met his future wife there.
Like Erdmann, he is proud to have served, and loves the American flag. “I am proud to have served and there is no other flag in the world that represents freedom as our flag,” he says. “When the people in concentration camps during WW2 saw our flag, their nightmare was over. That’s what our flag represents.”