By Keysha Drexel
When Bob Arnwine celebrated his 65th birthday on May 9, the former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant said the day had special meaning because of the person who could not be there to blow out the candles with him.
And it is not just on the birthday he shared with Pfc. Vernon Pendergrass that brings the image of the courageous young Marine back to Arnwine’s mind, the Hoover man said.
“It’s not just the birthday we shared or times like Memorial Day that we’re coming up on that bring him to mind. I never hear the national anthem without a chill going up and down my spine, and not a day goes by when I don’t think of Vernon,” he said.
Arnwine and Pendergrass served in Vietnam together for about eight months before Pendergrass was killed in a firefight near the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, in North Vietnam. Arnwine tells his friend’s story in a DVD called “Identifying Courage: The Stories of Alabama Veterans” by the Alabama Veterans Memorial Foundation.
The foundation is a nonprofit organization that constructed the 22-acre woodland Alabama Veterans Memorial Park adjacent to Interstate 459. The park includes stone pavers honoring veterans and holds two dedication ceremonies a year–on Veterans Day and on Memorial Day. This year’s Memorial Day dedication service will be at 3 p.m. on May 26.
“Vernon’s story is all about courage, and like so many other soldiers’ stories, I feel like it is important to let the young people today know what has been sacrificed for their freedom,” Arnwine said. “It hasn’t always been iPods and the internet and remote controls and air conditioning. It has been a great struggle, and we have lost so many people to enjoy these freedoms.”
Arnwine grew up in Edgewood and was an Eagle Scout before graduating from Shades Valley High School. He said being involved in the Boy Scouts set him on a path of serving his community and his country.
“I was really active in scouting from the time I was 11 until I was 18 years old, and that probably had a lot to do with my sense of patriotism,” he said. “I had known from a fairly early age that I was leaning toward joining the Marine Corps and had a desire to serve.”
Arnwine graduated from high school on May 31, 1966. He went on active duty that September with the Marines.
After completing boot camp at Parris Island, he completed infantry mortar training and spent a month at a base in California before he was deployed for his first tour in Vietnam in 1967.
“I don’t remember any particularly dramatic reaction from my family when I joined the Marines and got sent to Vietnam. I’m sure they were anxious, but they tried to downplay that just like I tried to downplay everything that was going on in Vietnam when I wrote letters to them,” he said.
Arnwine spent 13 months in Vietnam during that first tour, most of the time working as a radio operator and rifleman.
Arnwine said what he remembers most about that first tour of duty in Vietnam is how exhausting it was, both physically and mentally.
“You were on edge a lot. In the area I was in, there were a lot of land mines and booby traps and snipers. You never allowed yourself to get comfortable. All of your senses were keyed up and they stayed that way,” he said. “It seemed like you were always operating on the edge of exhaustion.”
On some nights, Arnwine and the other soldiers in his squad got to sleep in two to three-hour increments. Other nights they didn’t sleep at all, he said.
“It was a grind, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.
The emotional aspects of combat also took their toll, Arnwine said.
“You were dealing with your friends getting wounded and some of them dying,” he said. “There were a number of moments when I just wanted to be back home.”
But Arnwine, like the other soldiers in Vietnam at that time, knew they had a job to do.
“We were focused on the day-to-day goings-on in Vietnam,” he said. “We were focused on staying alive and keeping our buddies alive and at that time, we weren’t really aware of all the social upheaval going on back home.”
But after he finished his first deployment to Vietnam in 1968, Arnwine said he and the other soldiers got a rude awakening upon returning home.
“I was in Okinawa on my way back home the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and they called us into formation and told us there was rioting in the States and told us not to go home through Memphis,” he said. “We had watched some news while we were in Vietnam, but we didn’t know the scope of everything that was going on back home at that point.”
On the same hand, Arnwine said, much of the American public was disconnected to what was going on in Vietnam in 1968.
“The backlash against the war wasn’t really as bad as it got to be after Walter Cronkite announced the Tet Offensive to the world. Things in this country really changed a lot after that,” he said.
At the end of January 1968, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive. Although it was a military failure for the communists in Vietnam, it ended up being a propaganda victory as the American public was shocked with the images from the war they were seeing on television.
Cronkite in February 1968 went on air to call for the United States’ honorable exit from Vietnam because he thought the war was lost. The public outrage led to the Americans entering into the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam.
The number of U.S. troops in Vietnam peaked in 1968 in what was one of the deadliest years of the Vietnam War for the U.S. and its allies.
The U.S. casualties in Vietnam in 1968 also included the soldier Arnwine says he will never forget–Vernon Pendergrass.
Arnwine and Pendergrass met one rainy night on guard duty in a bunker shortly after Vernon arrived in Vietnam.
“He was the new guy, and I was one of the old salts at that point and normally, we tried not to form any friendships with the new guys because you didn’t want to be hurt if they got injured or killed,” he said. “You learned to put up a wall to protect yourself, but Vernon got through that wall.”
After a few minutes of casual conversation, Arnwine and Pendergrass discovered they were both from the Birmingham area and were the same age–to the day.
“He was born on the same day I was–May 9, 1948, which happened to be a Mother’s Day the year we were born,” he said.
The two men hit it off immediately, and despite his initial reservations of starting a friendship with the new soldier, Arnwine said he felt like he and Pendergrass would be friends for life.
“We had a lot of the same values. We both grew up in church and held fast to those values while we were in Vietnam. We just hit it off–there was something there,” he said. “We even talked about getting together when we got back to Alabama.”
A few months later on March 4, 1968, soldiers from Arnwine’s company were assigned to conduct a patrol right up to the DMZ across the river from North Vietnam.
“They ended up getting in a firefight with an enemy squad that had come up and tried to ambush them. They had stopped beside a rice paddy field to call in that they were taking artillery fire. Vernon was the first person to spot the enemy and sound the alarm. He was running across the rice paddy when he sounded the alarm and was shot by machine gun fire in the abdomen,” he said.
The rest of Arnwine’s company loaded up to go and try to rescue their ambushed comrades fighting for their lives in the rice paddy.
“I was in the group that went out to rescue them, but by that time, Vernon was already down. He lived for about 45 minutes. Another soldier crawled out there in the middle of the firefight to stay with him until he passed,” he said.
Pendergrass was awarded the Bronze Star for keeping his squad from being overwhelmed by an enemy that had snuck up on them, Arnwine said.
His friend’s death affected Arnwine immediately and deeply, he said.
“I cried the day Vernon was killed, and it doesn’t take much to make me cry when I think about it to this day,” he said.
Arnwine came home on leave for a short time the same month Pendergrass was killed and said his first priority was to track down Pendergrass’ wife and the five-month-old child he talked so fondly of to Arnwine in Vietnam.
“I had some photos of Vernon and myself that I wanted his wife to have, so I went out to see her. When she opened the door, I could tell she was in a kind of daze and hadn’t really been able to deal with what happened to Vernon. I didn’t see her again for a long time,” he said.
After returning home from leave to find Pendergrass’ family, Arnwine volunteered for another tour of duty in Vietnam. From June 1969 until June 1970, he was assigned to office administration work away from the combat zone.
Arnwine said things were markedly different during his second tour of duty in Vietnam.
“Even though I was in a rear area during that second tour, in some ways, it was tougher. More and more, the attitudes of the soldiers were bad. Drug problems were evident. There were places on base where you knew not to go at night. In some ways, it was a reflection of what was going on back home at that time,” he said.
Race relations reached a fever pitch during that time among the soldiers, Arnwine said.
“There’s a big difference in being on the front lines in a combat area and being assigned to a rear area. In the trenches, we were all the same. We were all in the same situation trying to do the same job. But in the other situation, your life doesn’t necessarily depend on the person next to you,” he said. “Things were calmer in that second tour than in the first in some ways and less so in other ways.”
Arnwine saved enough money during his second tour of duty that he was able to pay for college after he was honorably discharged from the Marines Corps in 1970.
He enrolled at Auburn University and studied aviation management.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I was very interested in aviation. I didn’t have the eyesight to fly but thought maybe I could get a job in airport management,” he said.
But the job market in aviation was flooded with retired military personnel who supplemented their retirement income by working at small airports.
Arnwine worked at the Red Cross in Birmingham and in banking before taking a job in data processing at what was South Central Bell. He worked in that capacity for 32 years until he retired about three years ago.
And as his life unfolded and he became a husband, father and grandfather, Arnwine said his thoughts were never far away from the soldier who shared his birthday but never had a chance to come back home from Vietnam to build a life.
“By the time I got out of the service, Jackie had remarried and moved, and I had no way of finding her or getting in touch with her, and Vernon didn’t have any other family here,” he said.
But a trip out of town provided an unlikely incident that put Arnwine in touch with his friend’s family.
“Years went by, and I was out of town somewhere and was looking through the newspapers and came across an article about Deisha Pendergrass and realized that was Vernon’s daughter,” he said.
Arnwine contacted the reporter who wrote the story on Deisha, and the reporter arranged a meeting between Deisha, Jackie and Arnwine.
“I think we were all a little nervous about meeting, but it was so important to me that I tell Deisha about her father and how he died a hero, serving his country,” he said.
Arnwine and Deisha have stayed in touch ever since, exchanging emails and Christmas cards.
Arnwine, who has been involved with the Alabama Veterans Memorial Foundation and park since its inception, was called on to tell Pendergrass’ story, along with Deisha, when the foundation produced the “Identifying Courage” DVD.
Arnwine said although it was tough to recount his memories of Pendergrass, he felt it was important to share the story of his friend’s courage and sacrifice so that those visiting the Hall of Honor in the Memorial Plaza at the park know what they are looking at when they see the list of the 11,000 Alabamians who were killed in wars or military conflicts since 1900.
“These are not just names on a wall. These are fathers and brothers and uncles and nephews, and they are friends, like my friend, Vernon Pendergrass, who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “It’s not something we should ever forget.”