Wineka column: For three men, decades can’t break bonds of a wartime friendship
SALISBURY — These friends came in small, medium and large.
Randy Campbell was the large — 6-5, with red hair and a red handlebar mustache. The other soldiers didn’t mess with you when you were with “Big Red.”
George DeLay, stood about 6 feet tall and went by “Crow.” It would be the determined DeLay who made it possible for the friends to get together again.
He was the middle man.
In Vietnam, Michael Carlson answered to a couple of names. His closest friends, DeLay and Campbell, liked to call him “Weed,” but other guys preferred “Short-Round,” because he was only 5-2 and hardly weighed more than 100 pounds.
Campbell, DeLay and Carlson spent much of Friday and Saturday talking about those three years when the Army brought together a good old Southern boy in Campbell and two Yankees in DeLay and Carlson, forged their bonds and eventually sent them to Vietnam.
Campbell has a framed photograph of the trio, standing in the front yard of DeLay’s parents’ house in Indiana, just days before shipping out. Another snapshot shows them outside their barracks on the Army’s Pleiku base in the central highlands of Vietnam.
Forty-five years later, here they were in Salisbury posing together for more photographs — a cherished reunion on Campbell’s 66th birthday, which is today.
A lot can happen over four-and-a-half decades, but Big Red, Crow and Weed were young again, remembering the sergeant major who constantly rode Campbell, or how Carlson made sure he took no unnecessary chances by leaving the base once he arrived in Vietnam.
He even refused to go on R&R.
“If they’re going to get me,” Weed told his buddies, “they’re going to get me coming in or going out.”
Much of the friends’ reunion had to take place around the in-home hospital bed of Campbell, whose multiple sclerosis has confined him to the bed and only brief periods when he can be hoisted into a wheelchair.
First diagnosed with MS in 1998, Campbell has been living these kinds of days for many years now.
Vietnam veteran Mike Fletcher serves as his certified nursing assistant for six days a week, helping Campbell’s movements, feeding and bathing.
When Fletcher isn’t around, Randy’s wife, Grace takes over, and their dachshund, Ailee, is a constant companion.
With the help of a hunting buddy’s computer research, DeLay was able to track down Campbell in 2011. Within an hour of talking to Grace on the telephone, he was driving from his home in Columbus, Ind., to Salisbury.
When Campbell told DeLay he had to find Weed, DeLay knew he couldn’t rest until he did. But more on that later. For now, let’s just say Friday was the first time Big Red and Weed saw each other since the day in February 1970 when they were discharged.
Campbell quit Catawba College and enlisted in the Army in 1967, almost exactly the same time as Carlson and DeLay. Campbell went through his basic training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, while the other two took basic at Fort Knox, Ky.
Campbell joined them at Fort Knox, when they all took four weeks of training in things clerical, such as typewriting and accounting. Then came Army finance school at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis.
It so happened DeLay’s father worked for the Army finance center as a civilian, so George and his friends often were able to go to his parents’ house on weekends.
The guys knew what they were doing, hoping office training would help keep them out of harm’s way when their time came to go to Vietnam.
“Your odds of not going were slim,” Carlson says.
But even as most of their time was spent in payroll and disbursements, they would have plenty of uncomfortable moments in Vietnam, conducting periodic sweeps around the base for Viet Cong and standing guard duty every third night in the rat-infested bunkers.
“We got shot at — it wasn’t all peaches and cream,” DeLay says.
Before going to Vietnam, the men also were stationed at Fort Benning, Ga. Randy had a girlfriend back in Salisbury, and George had a car — a 1966 Plymouth Satellite.
So the guys, particularly George and Randy, made trips every other weekend to Salisbury, even though they were technically AWOL once they got past Atlanta.
DeLay went fishing with Randy at High Rock Lake. He’d have breakfast at Randy’s grandmother’s house. The guys would hang out at Al’s Night Hawk and Blackwelder’s. DeLay also came to know Campbell’s parents, his two sisters and the girlfriend.
Campbell’s parents always gave the boys money for gas so they could make the long trip back to Fort Benning.
In Vietnam, DeLay and Campbell played on the same softball team.
One time on R&R, they went to Sydney, Australia, while Weed stayed back at the camp.
A Sydney newspaper reporter accompanied DeLay and Campbell on their travels through Sydney and wrote about the city from the perspective of U.S. soldiers on leave.
The men ate lots of steak, hit the bars at night and even spent a day with an American tour group’s bus.
DeLay, Campbell and Carlson were part of the 4th Infantry Division. As with all other soldiers, they endured Vietnam’s monsoon season and the drastic changes in temperature from day to night.
There were times it seemed you couldn’t get dry.
DeLay had a close call one night on guard duty. A B-40 rocket bomb hit over Bunker 53, killing one soldier and injuring the other two. DeLay was in Bunker 54.
When it came time to leave Vietnam, Campbell and Carlson were more than glad to go. They left Southeast Asia in September 1969 and finished out their time at Fort Bragg. By February 1970, they were finished.
DeLay opted to stay an additional two months in Vietnam, visiting various hospitals as part of his duties. By staying the extra two months, he was discharged from the Army in Seattle before the end of 1969.
The friends went their separate ways. Once, in about 1974, DeLay brought his parents to see Campbell, but that was the only contact they would have after the war.
DeLay, 65, built a 40-year career at Cummings and retired in 2010.
Carlson, 67, worked in accounting for the Navy Finance Center in Cleveland and later became a security guard, retiring in 2006.
Over the years Carlson’s hearing progressively got worse. An unsuccessful operation robbed all of the hearing in his right ear, and he came to have only 5 percent hearing in his left.
Modern hearing aids have helped.
Until his illness, Campbell was a workaholic, building successful careers at Power Curbers and for PAPCO. He and Grace, his second wife, have been married close to 23 years.
Carlson never married. Delay, married 12 years to his second wife, has two children, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
DeLay tracked down Campbell through Salisbury newspaper articles mentioning his battle with MS and an obituary for Campbell’s mother.
It led him to sisters, who led him to Grace, who led him to Randy.
Finding Carlson proved more difficult. It took a year.
DeLay started in Carlson’s hometown of Gallipolis and proceeded from there, calling the VA and American Legion, finding connections to his father and tracking him through his brother Steve’s obituary.
The search led him to Kent, Ohio.
DeLay contacted Carlton’s sister in North Carolina who had an email address for Weed. But Carlson deleted all the emails from DeLay, thinking they were spam.
Last November, DeLay decided he was going to drive five-and-a-half hours to Kent and look for Carlson in person.
Carlton’s poor hearing made it difficult for him to hear the doorbell when DeLay found him. It took neighbors and the apartment house manager to help, but DeLay was inside Carlson’s apartment when he emerged from the bathroom.
“Do you know who I am?” DeLay asked.
‘Yep,” Carlson said.
The men talked non-stop for two-and-a-half hours, also making enthusiastic plans to visit Campbell.
When old friends get together, the natural thing to do is to resort to some ribbing.
Campbell is so happy to see Carlson, he says, “No, I can’t give him a hard time.”
Then he adds, “I know he hasn’t grown up any.”
At first glance Friday, he also knew exactly who Carlson was.
“We just hit it off together,” Campbell says, looking back to 1967. “We were friends from the word ‘go.’ We were all in the same boat.”
Happy birthday, Big Red.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or firstname.lastname@example.org.