by Myra Saturen
November 15, 2013
Five veterans shared vivid memories of their military service, spanning World War II to 9/11, at a veterans' panel discussion moderated by Dr. Michael McGovern, Northampton Community College professor of history on November 14 at the Lipkin Theatre on campus.
The discussion was part of a year-long exploration called "Off to War and Coming Home," made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, matched by generous donors. Community partners include the Bethlehem Area Public Library, Eastern Monroe Public Library, Bethlehem Area School District, Stroudsburg Area School District, Historic Bethlehem Partnership, and Monroe County Historical Organization.
George W. Whitehouse told detailed recollections dating 70 years ago, to World War II, when he served in the Army Air Corps (now the Air Force) in the Pacific. He is an active community volunteer.
Attorney Dennis F. Feeley, NCC '72, now a partner in Cohen and Feely law firm, did four tours of duty in the Navy aboard an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War.
John Marks served 37 years in the Coast Guard reserve, six of them on active duty. He attained the rank of captain, just one step below admiral. He is a friend and benefactor to NCC.
Frank Buchvalt manned a missile aircraft in Vietnam and over Cambodia during the Vietnam War as a member of the Army. He served on the NCC Board of Trustees and later worked as a design and construction project manager at the College.
Steve Repasch served in Panama during the Vietnam War, working at a meteorological station, observing and recording such factors as wind speed and direction. Currently, he is executive director of the water authority for the City of Bethlehem.
How did each of the men join the military? For Vietnam era veterans, the choice was largely not a choice, but rather responses to the draft. All were new high school graduates. Drawing a low and therefore more-likely-to-be called number, Repasch enlisted along with a buddy. When the buddy developed tuberculosis, Repasch found himself sent alone to a meteorological station in Panama. After taking a course at Fort Monmoth, New Jersey, he was assigned to Fort Sherman, a peninsula, where he and his crew members served twelve-hour shifts, reporting on weather conditions every hour on the hour.
Buchvalt enlisted in the Army at a recruitment station across from the Hotel Bethlehem. He trained for flight at a small airport, now the location of the Wagner Farms housing development in Bethlehem Township. He served a year in Southeast Asia driving an armored tank. Reassigned to aviation in 1970, he co-piloted a helicopter in the first cavalry division, flying over Cambodia.
Whitehouse, seventeen in 1937, graduated from high school in Scranton during the Depression, when choices for new grads amounted to the military or a scarce job, if one could find one. He went to work for a steel plant in Lackawanna, New York, taking a course in glider flight at the University of Buffalo. Deferred from military duty because of his essential job, he joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, doing his basic training in Atlantic City and exercising drills on the boardwalk. At his first dinner in Atlantic City, bandleader Glenn Miller entertained.
Dennis Feeley had started college when the Vietnam War escalated. His father's illness brought him back home again, and he lost his student deferment. Joining the Navy, he became an electrician on four tours of duty in Southeast Asia, flying bombing missions over the Gulf of Tonkin and nighttime surveillance over Cambodia in 1970.
Whitehouse described a harrowing wartime assignment. As part of a tow target squadron, he flew planes over the ocean. But these were no ordinary planes. The planes bore nylon banners mounted on a steel rod, functioning as targets for gunners in training. After shooting at them, the pilots pulled the targets down to examine the gunners' skill at hitting their goal. After coming through this experience, Whitehouse was sent to the Pacific.
Marks played roles in historic events. Like other panelists, he enlisted after high school, beginning 37 years of service in the Coast Guard, six of them on active duty, the rest in the reserves and attaining the second-highest rank of captain. Taking a 6-year break, he attended court reporter school in Manhattan and worked in the district attorney's office in Northampton County. Returning to the Coast Guard as a reservist, he was called up many times. His career included stints as chief petty officer, ensign, auxiliary director for the Civil Air Patrol at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and directing the Coast Guard patrol for the Statue of Liberty Centennial flotilla of tall ships at New York Harbor in 1986. Many years later, on September 11, 2001, he was escorting Polish officers on a tour of the Pentagon when a plane crashed into the edifice, barely missing the conference room where the men sat. During Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Marks was a port security officer for New York. He was also chief of security at the Allentown- Bethlehem-Easton Airport.
What adjustments did the veterans face after deployment? In the Navy, Feeley and twelve crewmates had been confined to a 12x5 compartment, rather insulated from developments in the United States. During leaves, however, he found himself in San Francisco, where the great cultural and societal changes of the 1960s bewildered him. "I was immersed into an entirely different world," he reflected.
Marks returned to school to be a court reporter in Manhattan. Coming from the strict environment of the military, he found the liberal atmosphere of New York disconcerting at first.
For Whitehouse, the major adjustment went in the other direction-adapting from a high-paying metallurgical job with a steel company to the military. After coming home, he married, started a family and fulfilled a dream by going to college on the GI Bill. He taught accounting at NCC from 1967-1983, while also working for the IRS.
Buchvalt, Repasch and Feeley experienced disturbing reactions upon their returns home from Vietnam. Buchvalt went from unnerving, sporadic nightly rocket and mortar attacks directed at American troops in Southeast Asia to unsettling hostility on his return stateside to San Francisco. On his flight home, some stewardesses refused to serve him. "We [he and other service people] were livid about the protests," he said regarding the newspaper accounts they read. "We were out there, people were trying to kill us, and we were defending ourselves," he said. At home, still tense from his war experiences, he found himself diving to the floor when his mother dropped a bowl in the kitchen.
Repasch's homecoming was a bit more benign, but he recalls drivers shunning him as he stood in his uniform, hitchhiking for a lift from ABE Airport to his home in Fountain Hill. He had to walk home.
Feeley recalled arriving at Travis Airport base to protestors holding signs reading "baby killer" that deeply upset him. "I didn't expect this," he said and believes that the military should have prepared returning soldiers for the animosity they would face. As a student at NCC, however, he found hundreds of fellow veterans and a supportive atmosphere.
What advice do the veterans have for current students considering the military?
Viewpoints differed among the panelists. Buchvalt believes there should be a draft, as there was during the Vietnam War, or mandatory public service option. "The military gave me confidence," he said, adding that service prepares people to go to school or into the workforce with self-assurance.
Whitehouse thinks that there should be a 2-year period of national service of some kind after high school. "If you want to be a doctor, work in a hospital first."
Marks said that the military taught him that there was nothing he couldn't do if he stayed focused on accomplishing a task. He added that the military is a place where one can make lifelong friends who have gone through the same experience.
Repasch cautioned his listeners that the military is not for everyone. He said that the military expanded his horizons, giving him the chance to meet people from all over the country, not just from Fountain Hill. "If you don't know what you want to do, it may be an option. It is a personal decision, and I would not recommend it for everyone. The military can chew you up and spit you out." He noted that many veterans come home with great psychological and physical damage.
Buchvalt said he is dismayed that the current military has not done enough to help returning veterans.
At the event's conclusion, the panelists thanked NCC for hosting them and for wanting to hear what they had to say.
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