Special flag to be present at special Memorial Day event

May 26—When Meadville's Memorial Day parade heads up Water Street on Monday, color guard members from Veterans of the Vietnam War Post 52 will be leading the way.

The men in uniform won't be the only veterans on hand — they will be carrying another with them.

The U.S. flag being used by the color guard served in Vietnam as well, according to Post 52 Commander Phil Davis. It was flown at Camp Holloway near Pleiku, Vietnam, during much of 1969.

"A friend of mine who was stationed there came over to the post a couple of weeks ago," David recalled on Thursday. "He said 'I have a flag that was flown there if you guys would like to use it.'"

The friend, Meadville resident Tom Kafferlin, brought the flag home with him when returned to the U.S. in early 1970 after 14 months in Vietnam.

Citing his role as a clerk at the helicopter base, Kafferlin downplayed the significance of his service.

"I don't have any real heroic story to tell you," he said, laughing, "and I'm OK with that."

As for the flag, Kafferlin said the story there wasn't too exciting either, but it made for an interesting piece of history — one that fits in nicely with the color guard's role and the observance's theme this year: "Vietnam veterans, welcome home. POWs/MIAs, we will never forget."

After flying over the base for months, with guards raising it each morning and taking it down each night, the flag was eventually replaced and stored in the orderly room where Kafferlin worked.

And there it stayed.

A formal retirement and disposal ceremony didn't seem likely and the flag was largely forgotten as new troops rotated through the base. Kafferlin thought it might end up simply being thrown away at some point.

"I think our captain said 'if you want it, you can take it' about the time I was going home," he recalled.

Kafferlin did just that — he took it home, had it dry cleaned and then stored it for the next half-century and more.

"I was tickled to have it, and nobody else wanted it," he said. "I've never flown it. It's just hung in the closet on that hanger from the dry cleaners."

Now the flag that flew over Camp Holloway — that was lowered to half-mast at the death of President Dwight D. Eisenhower — will fly above the Meadville Memorial Day parade on Monday.

Like the other veterans of the Vietnam War marching in the parade, the flag may show some wear and tear. Camp Holloway was located in Vietnam's central highlands, Kafferlin said, and helicopters arrived and departed regularly, "all night, all day." The region's red dirt blew all the time during the dry season, then turned to mud when monsoons brought rain.

Despite some stains, Kafferlin brought the idea of using the flag to Post 52. Davis, who coincidentally served at Camp Holloway just after the period Kafferlin was there, and others were excited by the prospect.

"It's a pretty awesome story," Davis said.

It won't be the only bit of history that audience members experience and perhaps marvel at, according to Joe Galbo, who chairs the event's organizing committee.

"It's a privilege, more than anything else," he said, "to pay tribute to those that made our way of life possible."

The solemn nature of the traditional observance will be sounded with an element introduced last year — a recorded reading of the names of Crawford County residents killed in action. This year, the names of 31 county residents killed in the Vietnam War will be read during the observance.

Other traditional elements will be present, including music from the Meadville Area Senior High (MASH) marching band' the reading of the Gettysburg Address by the MASH governor, Elizabeth Kellick; and the reading of "In Flanders Fields" by the MASH lieutenant governor, Cooper Breckenridge.

The guest speaker will be Navy veteran Charlie Castelluccio of Titusville. Castelluccio, who has written the Veterans Corner column for The Meadville Tribune for nearly 20 years, served from 1969 to 1973, including a year in Vietnam, where he celebrated his 21st birthday on the Mekong River.

Kafferlin said that memories of Vietnam have not always drawn the receptive audience likely to be present Monday. Whether they were clerks or combat veterans, their experience at home after the war left many veterans with a "kind of a scar" when it came to talking about their experiences.

"Coming home was not a fun thing. You just went back to work," Kafferlin said. "Nobody said where were you or how are you doing or anything like that, it was just back to work — and that was it. You really didn't talk about it."

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.