November 20, 2013

Mark Millican: ‘I will never forget’

It sounds excessive, but around 1,000 World War II vets are dying ... every ... single ... day, veterans organizations tell us. That’s an average of 20 a day for each state in the union, and approximately 365,000 a year.

And it makes one wonder, how many more are left?

The stat was given again on Veterans Day here at a ceremony I attended in Ellijay, and it’s also been felt in the region. Around three weeks ago, John Godwin, 92, who was featured recently in the Times-Courier for his 53 flights in the South Pacific during World War II without getting a scratch, passed away in a local assisted living facility.

Then just the other day I got an email from a woman in Catoosa County whose father-in-law I had profiled in 2011 in The Daily Citizen. Dewey Wallin fought in Italy during World War II, and had gone back there for a reunion tour of sorts, even meeting some of his former enemies. He celebrated his 89th birthday Nov. 4, and passed away three days later. He was looking forward to Veterans Day on Nov. 11, when he and other vets were to be honored at the Chattanooga school his great-granddaughters attend.

Last year in late fall I tried to set up an interview with a Pearl Harbor survivor in Dallas, Ga., to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack but learned the Navy veteran could no longer communicate. You see, it doesn’t matter to me if they’re from our area counties or not. I know we can’t profile them all, but if they live in our mountainous north central or northwest Georgia region and served in the big war, they deserve recognition.

On the other hand, they all do — if they didn’t make it through combat, or did survive to tell about dodging bullets and surviving artillery shells. I first met Mike Pilvinsky several years ago when he was leading some hikes in the mountains around here. It was great to see Mike at the veterans breakfast in Ellijay last week, and when I asked him about his worst moment in Vietnam the first thing that came to mind was actually leaving his wife and family at age 20 to go there.

Later, he followed up on that comment in an email after he thought further about the question. As Paul Harvey would say, here’s “the rest of the story.”

Pilvinsky said his “second bad day” followed a transport plane landing at Tan Son Nut Airbase in Saigon.

“All of us who were there will always remember that smell and the stifling humidity, and then the ride on the Army bus with the heavy wire fence welded to the windows to keep the frag grenades out,” he recalled. “That was really a series of bad days.”

But Pilvinsky, who as a captain in the Army’s Airborne Rangers served as a platoon commander, said the worst days actually came after the sun went down.

“It was at night that we listened for the ‘pop, pop, pop’ of the mortars and the swoosh of the incoming rockets — those things always happened at night,” he said. “The worst night was Dec. 23, 1969. We were at a tiny fire support base called Landing Zone (LZ) Don, 2nd of the 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, somewhere in the III Corps Area outside of Tay Ninh. We were preparing to dismantle and leave LZ Don, and the battalion commander, XO (executive officer) and most of the staff had already departed.”

The battalion commanding officer — or CO — left him and another captain in charge.  

“About 10:30 that night we got hit,” said Pilvinsky, who directed both the Dalton High and Murray County High JROTC programs before retiring a second time. “We were receiving incoming mortar fire from a nearby ‘friendly village’ — the irony of getting mortared from a friendly village was that you couldn’t fire back. You can hear the mortar rounds exploding closer and closer as they ‘walk’ them across their target. You just pray you are lucky tonight. There is nothing you can do other than find the most protected place and get as low as possible.”

Still, 30 men in the battalion were wounded, some severely. But one stood out.

“One of the incoming rounds was a direct hit on one of our artillery pits,” he said. “I remember seeing one of those soldiers lying on a litter, laughing and smiling because he was ‘going back to the world!’ (the USA). He was happy. Maybe it was the morphine, but I will never forget that soldier with just a bloody stump for a leg lying there happy as could be because he was leaving hell and returning to America.”

Thanks for being there, war vets. Your stories never cease to amaze and humble us.

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