After 4 decades, former Vietnam War shipmates are brothers once again

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 10:01 PM

Mustang Billy bit his lip as he waited with his black POW-MIA flag at the end of the airport walkway for his old shipmate, Foggy, to get off the flight from Charlotte on Thursday.

Billy - Bill White, 63, of Germantown, had not seen Foggy - Jim Ryon, 63, of Chattanooga - since they parted ways on the old Navy destroyer USS Stormes in Norfolk four decades ago.

In those days, they had been 20-year-old sailors, heaving powder and shell into a five-inch gun amid the smoke and noise of the number-two mount as the Stormes plastered the coast of Vietnam in September 1966.

Thursday morning at Reagan National Airport, they were two middle-aged men who had now lived the lives that were once before them, looking back on Veterans Day to see whether the old bonds were still there.

At 8:59 a.m., White, a distinguished-looking man in a white shirt and red V-neck sweater, spotted a smiling, portly, bearded chap with a gray ponytail walking up to him with a suitcase.

It was Foggy.

They embraced, slapped each other on the back and shook hands.

"Oh, man," Ryon said. "Bill! Look at my buddy."

They embraced again. "Welcome home, brother," Ryon said. "What a day!"

"This is my boy," White said.

"Forty-four years," exclaimed Ryon, who was wearing a Vietnam War-motif lapel button that read "Brothers Forever."

"Life," White had said earlier with a snap of his fingers. "Here's 44 years that's gone by, and it seems like yesterday."

Ryon, whose nickname stemmed from his penchant for daydreaming, had been one of the organizers of a Stormes reunion.

And he and White, who was nicknamed for the Ford Mustang he once drove, had contacted other shipmates - about 10 of whom were gathering at Arlington National Cemetery for the day's commemorations.

After their airport meeting, White and Ryon walked with arms around each other to White's car for the drive to the cemetery.

There, amid crisp fall weather and blue skies, they joined the other Stormes sailors and gathered around White's flag.

They were gray-haired retirees, for the most part. They had health problems, had been through divorces and the death of children. Several had poor hearing - the result, they believe, of the roar of the destroyer's guns.

Jack Kaperka, 68, who was retired from the hotel business and was wearing a yellow jacket patch that said "Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club," had flown in from Tucson.

He had run the Stormes' post office.

"It's like seeing your brothers," he said. "We were family. Six months together, 325 guys. ... You ate together. You slept together. You cried together. You laughed. You got drunk."

Tom Cox, 66, of Northfield, N.J., was there. He was an IC3 on the ship - an internal communications technician - but is best known as the guy who ran the ship's movies.

Mike "Buddy" Sukeena, 66, drove up from Manassas. The native of Branchdale, in the Pennsylvania anthracite country, was a ship-fitter. "We kept it afloat," he said.

"When you're in the military, there's basically a bond, a bond that you never, never lose," he said. "When you see these guys, like right now, it's like we never left."

Allen Reed, 80, of Portsmouth, Va., was there, too. A boiler technician and chief petty officer, he was still referred to on Thursday as "Chief Reed."

"I left the ship in '67," he said, and had not seen any of his shipmates since. "This is a day for me. ... It's a happy time."

The stories began to flow immediately.

There was the time in Norfolk when White and Ryon had bought black plastic shoes, Hawaiian shirts and new pants (though ill-fitting) to impress two women, who took one look at them and disappeared. "We haven't seen them since," Ryon joked.

"I'm ... enclutched in a yesteryear frame of mind," he said. "Everything's coming back. ... Everything's there like it used to be."

They remembered the time on ship when they dragged a sailor who failed to bathe into the shower and pummeled him with socks stuffed with bars of soap.

White and Ryon laughed about the woman in France they both wanted to marry.

They recalled the typhoon that had the Stormes doing what Sukeena said were 48-degree rolls and almost sank it off Hong Kong. "It was rough," he said.

They laughed about the night Cox showed the movie "Shenandoah" on deck, and the sailors of a nearby Soviet ship they were tracking watched, too.

Some expressed anguish over the Stormes' shelling of the Vietnamese coast, which they said they believed had killed scores of people.

And at 11 a.m., on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in the grand, pillared amphitheater behind the Tomb of the Unknowns, they stood with hundreds of other veterans to accept the country's praise.

As an artillery salute echoed in the distance, they heard Vice President Biden call them the most tested of Americans: "the heart and soul, the very spine of the nation."

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