Once again, members of a Yakima-based Army Reserve unit will get together and recall their time in Vietnam.
But the 50th reunion of the 737th Transport Group is taking on a greater significance as age is starting to thin their ranks.
“We lose a few every year,” said Verne Bakker, who’s helping organize the July 27 reunion at the Elks Lodge in Selah. “We used to have (the reunions) every 10 years, but since our numbers are dwindling fast, we thought we would do them every five years.”
The reunion comes as U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse is preparing for the first of three ceremonies to honor Vietnam veterans as part of the ongoing 50th anniversary commemoration of the war. The ceremonies are meant to provide Vietnam veterans with a show of gratitude they did not get when they first came home from the war, a Newhouse spokeswoman said.
U.S. Census data shows there were 4,845 Vietnam-era veterans in Yakima County in 2017, the most recent American Communities Survey.
Bakker was a sergeant in the reserve unit, which was called up in 1968. Known as the “Yakima Valley Apple Knockers,” after the Valley’s main fruit crop, the unit was assigned to drive heavy trucks through the jungles of Vietnam hauling aviation fuel to remote outposts and landing zones.
During those trips, Bakker wore a steel helmet and flak jacket to protect himself.
“Our biggest concerns were road mines and sniper fire,” Bakker recalled. “But we had helicopters flying overhead and gunships, so we were pretty well protected.”
Their convoys were headed by a gun-truck, a military truck modified in the field to provide the driver with a higher view of the road, as well as an armored bed from which soldiers could fire.
Bakker said their trips would take them through villages where they didn’t know whether there were Viet Cong guerillas or spies among the civilians.
While they did lose a few trucks to mines, Bakker said the personnel in the company “came out pretty clean.”
The unit returned to Yakima in 1969, the same year that newly elected president Richard Nixon ordered the “Vietnamization” of the war, drawing down U.S. troops and moving more of the responsibility for combat to the South Vietnamese forces.
There were no parades or welcome-home ceremonies for the Yakima Valley Apple Knockers. But Bakker said he also didn’t see the verbal and physical abuse that other soldiers coming back from Vietnam experienced.
“We didn’t have big demonstrations in Yakima like they did in other big cities,” Bakker said.
Vic Wood, a member of the Yakama Warriors and a U.S. Navy veteran, said most of the local veterans who came home just tried to go back to the lives they had before the war, without mentioning it.
“When we first came home, we didn’t dare put on anything representing Vietnam,” Wood said.
Over time, people began separating their opinions of the war from those who fought it, and Vietnam veterans began to receive thanks from their countrymen for their service.
For Bakker, that happened nearly 20 years after the war, when he was talking to an Air Force pilot at an event in Sturgis, S.D.
“We got to talking, and he said, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Bakker recalled. “It was emotional for me because it was the first time anybody thanked me. But he knew.”
While grateful for the expressions of gratitude today, Wood said things would have been better for veterans if they could have got the thanks back then, which would have made it easier for some to get help with PTSD and other war-related trauma.
But he noted that the Yakama, along with other Native people, were always supportive of their citizens who went off to war.
The Yakama Warriors worked with then-Rep. Norm Johnson in 2013 to have a Vietnam welcome home day recognized on March 30 of each year, and for the past six years the Warriors have conducted a welcome-home ceremony for Vietnam-era veterans.
As part of a 2007 act of Congress, the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration was authorized to honor veterans. As part of the commemoration, Newhouse will be giving out commemorative lapel pins and certificates of appreciation, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Daniels.
The first event will be July 29 at the American Legion Post 209 in Moses Lake. Daniels said there will be an event in Okanogan in August and one in Sunnyside in November.
Veterans can sign up for the events on Newhouse’s website, or by calling his Yakima office at 509-452-3243.