A reunion of comrades
LE MARS — Loyalty, the first of seven basic values the United States Army instills in its soldiers, asks soldiers to “bear true faith and allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, the Army, your unit and other soldiers.”
After 50 years, that value proved true for Vietnam veteran Jim Singer of Le Mars, when he and his family took a road trip to Washington, D.C., to reconnect with old loyalties and a man he’d toured a warzone with 50 years ago.
Singer was barely 20 when he deployed to Vietnam as mechanized infantry with the 1st Infantry Division, but his job quickly changed in country after injuries obtained during a mission landed him in the hospital.
“A mine went off underneath us,” the veteran shared. “When I went up in the air, I came down on the engine compartment doors, which paralyzed me for a while. Everything’s kind of a haze after that. You were scared, you didn’t know what would happen.
“When I went into the hospital after I got hit, the intention was to send me home until the colonel stepped in,” Singer continued. “He said, ‘No, you’re not going home. I have another job for you.’”
The job: play music for the service members in country. The colonel had discovered Singer’s talents on the long journey from the states to the warzone.
“When we went over on the ship, the USS Geiger, going over as a battalion, me and two other guys entertained everybody,” Singer explained. “Next minute I knew, the colonel asked me if I had access to my equipment and said, ‘you could entertain the troops.’”
Joking that he wasn’t very good, Singer shared that he was dumbfounded at the request.
“I couldn’t believe this was actually happened,” he said.
The colonel recruited two others for the assignment: Charles ‘Chic’ Colarusso and Al Seaton.
“We travelled around southern Vietnam to entertain the troops,” Singer explained. “Seaton was my drummer and Colarusso was my lead vocalist. He was unbelievable. It was quite a thrill for me to get with a guy who was a jazz drummer — possibly the best drummer I’ve heard in my entire life. We travelled around to different hospitals, officers clubs, NCO clubs, EM clubs.”
Trepidation surrounded the three-piece band when they first began their journey, but it quickly dissipated as time went on.
“At first, we weren’t sure how we would be accepted,” Singer admitted. “These people out there in combat, they come back and see us playing music, but you know, people related to us easily. I’m not sure if it was the personalities, but once they heard these guys play — they’re very gifted musicians and vocalists — it was unbelievable how we were accepted because people related it back to back home.”
The group played for soldiers of all different backgrounds. As they heard their stories, they tailored their sets to fit those in the audience.
“There was a guy in the crowd we did a song, Daddy’s Home, for him all the time because he was expecting his first child in a couple months,” Singer said. “He didn’t see the birth of his child. There were a lot of people who related to home for many different situations. It felt special that we could bring home back to these people.”
Rick Singer, Jim’s son, shared he grew up hearing stories about the men his father toured with, even had a recording of one of the performances.
“There is a recording of these guys, a reel-to-reel they’d recorded while they were over there,” Rick stated. “You can see some of the interaction with the audience and you can tell what these guys meant to those people in the audience. You could tell that the music was a release from the daily turmoil they were dealing with: poor living conditions, stress of war.”
So when Rick got older and spent time in the Air Force, he and his wife, Robin, set out to help his father reconnect to his old band mates.
“He’d mentioned they had tried to find each other,” Rick explained. “I figured, ‘let’s see what I can do?’ I had an idea from the real-to-reel — there were some addresses on the box — so I tried to look in those areas. I got onto a military forum, created an extra e-mail account under (Jim’s) name, got as much information I could get — which unit, locations, dates and posted that as my dad on this site.”
A couple months later, the post received a hit from Colarusso’s own son.
“He said, ‘well I couldn’t sleep one night, so I put my name into a search engine and my name popped up in here,’” Rick said, sharing Charles Colarusso, Jr.’s answer to how he’d found them. “He opened it up, read the post, and said, ‘that’s my dad.’ So he managed to connect with my folks and got us connected with his father.”
From there, Rick and his wife, Robin, set out to plan a meet-up for the two Vietnam veterans. Since Colarusso lived all the way in Pittston, Pennsylvania, they chose to make a road trip of it, taking Jim all way out to D.C. to see the Vietnam Memorial.
“There was a lot more to just visiting (Colarusso),” Rick explained. “On our way out there, there were a lot of stops. Every place we stopped, he met another veteran from Vietnam.”
Their journey went down to Kansas City and travelled east, stopping in different cities until they arrived on Colarusso’s doorstep.
“It was so funny when they got together,” Marcia, Jim’s wife, shared. “Jim hadn’t seen him in 51 years. They’d talked a couple of times on the phone, but it’s always awkward talking to someone on the phone, especially when you haven’t seen them in so many years. I could tell he was excited but very nervous about meeting with him. They sat down and they talked and they talked like they’d never been apart.”
“It teared me up a lot,” Jim added. “Somebody who remembers you that far back is a special friend in my mind. I never thought I would make contact with the people I was over there with. I don’t really know what happened to a lot of them. I know I lost a lot. I have pictures of people I lost over there.”
While at Colarusso’s, they had homemade spaghetti and re-lived different memories from years ago as well as sharing where their lives had taken them.
“We tried to drag it out for as long as we could,” Rick said of the evening, during which he’d also connected with Colarusso’s son. “It felt pretty good that that little effort to post that thing became fruitful.”
From Pennsylvania, the Singer family travelled to the Vietnam Memorial.
“All of the memorials were elaborate, but you didn’t need that for the Vietnam War,” Marcia explained. “It was just there, smacking you in the face with this wall of names.”
“It never hit me until I was at the wall,” Jim shared of his time in Vietnam as mechanized infantry. “I thought about it many times over the years, but you don’t connect with it. I tell you what, I was very nervous when I went to the wall. I was with other military people who were visiting people they’d lost. It’s a distance of names. What hit me the hardest was how we were treated when we came back — that’s what hit me the hardest about the wall because why didn’t they show us respect when we came home?”
Respect is another of the seven Army values. Many Vietnam veterans returned home to cold welcomes, and Jim’s experience going home to Hawarden wasn’t any different.
“I had a rough go of it,” Jim said. “I wasn’t sure what they expected of us. Did they want us to get on our hands and knees and beg? I would have done anything to get a job.”
But the veteran took it in stride. Standing before the wall in D.C., Jim struggled with remnants of survivor’s guilt. Two of the names on the wall had been in the same vehicle with Jim when he was injured in Vietnam: Cipriano J. Pantoja Jr. and James P. Boyd.
“They got direct hits the night I went to the hospital,” he shared. “They were both married — that’s what hurt me the most. Why wasn’t it me? Why was it them? — that’s what goes through your mind. I had family back home, sure, but they had wives. My life could have been forgotten. But I just got a wingding in the head. They got direct hits.”
To commemorate the men he served with, Jim and his family found Pantoja and Boyd’s names on the wall and etched the engravings onto paper with pencil.
At the memorial, hundreds of visitors did the same. Vietnam veterans and other volunteers stood ready with stationary for family and friends wanting to taking a piece of their fallen with them.
“Seeing all the vets helping one another find names — it was touching, it was emotional,” Rick said.
The trip, and the wall, represented a lot of Jim, allowing for some closure from his time in Vietnam as people went out of their way to thank him and the veterans around him for their service.
“I don’t think it was just the wall for him,” Rick said about the impact the trip to the memorial had on his father, “it was being there with the other vets.”