CANTON — No hurricane, tornado — or even rain — could keep Stark County’s Vietnam veterans from finally receiving their Welcome Home some 49 years late.
That welcome came on Labor Day as an estimated 500 grateful U.S. veterans and citizens cheered their family members, friends and neighbors who helped make freedom possible for their community, the state and the nation on this holiday also honoring America’s workers.
The Welcome Home, which included a parade of military personnel, regardless of where they served, took place during the 170th annual Stark County Fair, where veterans were saluted for the third straight year.
In 2017, Purple Heart recipients from Stark were saluted by the Stark Fair Board and Tim Ross, superintendent of the fair's arts and crafts hall. Last year, the board teamed up with the Stark County Veterans Service Commission to pay tribute to Stark’s Korean War veterans and this year to salute 96 Vietnam War veterans as part of Operation Fostering Freedom.
“This was really something special for us,” said Marine veteran Jan Gusky after he received a lap quilt and Stark County Veteran and U.S. Veterans Commission pins that on the back said “Thank you for your service.”
“We came home and there was nothing; no parade, no nothing,” Gusky said of the nation's disrespect for the veterans who battled the Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces for 10 years before the war ended in 1975.
“I teared up during the parade — I’ll admit it — because I was so moved by everyone cheering and clapping for us,” Gusky said. “It truly was our welcome home.”
Many of the veterans rode in golf carts while those who could walked with them, waving back at their greeters who were waving small American flags.
All five branches of the U.S. military were saluted, including lone Coast Guard veteran David Halter, who proudly stood alone as the band played his branch’s section of the military medley.
When Lt. Col. Linley Hawthorne, 72, of Navarre, stood for his Army section of the medley, he was joined by a host of other Army veterans, including Sgt. Raymond Hanna of Perry Township and brother-in-law Terry Spencer of Canton. They grew up close to each other in Canton and joined the military the same day.
Hawthorne graduated from Canton South High School in 1965 and two years later entered the Army and went to flight school to learn to pilot his Army helicopter “[because] it seemed like a better idea than walking,” he joked.
After his military service of nearly 26 years, he retired and worked at the Massillon post office for nearly 15 years before retiring a second time.
In all his flights to rescue fellow troops across Vietnam, Hawthorne was shot down and crashed just once.
“Two other times I was shot up and had to put it on the ground pretty quick, but I only crashed once.” Then he added, “They say any landing you can walk away from is a good one, so that was a good one.”
That crash occurred Nov. 6, 1969, and Hawthorne and his three crew members and four passengers all survived.
He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1986 and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Legion of Merit and many other honors before retiring July 1, 1992.
His daughter, Lynette Kennedy, who accompanied him to the fair, said her father declined his Purple Heart “because he said he didn’t die.”
As for the parade and ceremony, he remarked: “I enjoyed it. I spent a lot of years in the service after [Vietnam] and a lot of these guys didn’t, so this was really nice.”
Since the military, he has “tried to play golf” with a foursome of Marine buddies and now close friends Richard Polka, Gusky, James Arnold and James McAlenden.
The foursome has played golf and pool together regularly over the last 15 years, but Hawthorne admitted, “I’m not a pool player.”
To Arnold’s surprise, his assigned seat was next to Canton twin brothers John and Paul Arbogast, who all celebrate their birthdays Feb. 13 and went through Dueber Elementary and Canton Lincoln High schools together.
Before the veterans were dismissed they were presented with the veterans pins. Each also received a patriotic lap quilt, afghan, large quilt or service dog bed and pillow made by untold individual area crafters who requested to remain anonymous, as well as members of the Spring Valley Quilters, The Krazy Kritters 4-H, Hollow Valley Herdsmen 4-H and Trinity Church of United Church of Christ in Canal Fulton.
Retired Massillon Municipal Judge Richard Kettler, an Air Force veteran and pilot of the Vietnam War, was the keynote speaker.
“I am truly overwhelmed by this gathering. We didn’t get a parade when we came home, but that was a hell of a parade we just had,” the 19-year jurist said to thunderous applause.
He ended by saying: “With my binoculars while flying I saw you guys [and gals] serving bravely and routinely. Today I see a whole lot of heroes … And I’m damn proud to be a Vietnam veteran.”
De Ann Williams, executive director of the Stark County Veterans Service Commission, reminded the audience that Massillon Judge Edward Elum once told her that “in the Navy you didn’t volunteer, you were voluntold.”
She ended the ceremony with two words:
George W. Davis can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org