Tribute to the sacrifice of deceased Vietnamese veterans
Whenever George Bartunek watches the classic 1973 comedy “American Graffiti,” he remembers his good friend Lowell Wayne Meyer. The film, set in 1962, before the United States became involved in Vietnam, tells the story of a group of teenagers going on an adventure after graduating from high school.
The character of Steve Bolander, played by Ron Howard, drives a 1958 Chevrolet Impala, an image that sends Mr. Bartunek flashbacks of his friend Wayne driving a 1958 Chevrolet convertible through Riverhead.
âEvery time I see this movie or even think about the movie, it’s kind of like Wayne,â Mr. Bartunek said. âThis is how Wayne was. He was kind of a carefree high school student. “
The two graduated from Riverhead High School in 1963 and each ended up on a path in the US Navy and eventually in Vietnam. Mr Bartunek was stationed in Key West, Florida in 1969 for training when he received a letter from his parents informing him that his friend, a Navy Seal, had been killed. He was 24 years old.
âWayne was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,â Mr. Bartunek said, noting that he still remembered where he was when he opened this letter.
For the members of the Riverhead Class of 1963, Mr. Meyer’s memory, service and sacrifice never wavered. In 2018, the class celebrated its 55th anniversary, continuing the tradition of meeting every five years.
“He’s gone but not forgotten,” said Lanny Tuthill, a former classmate who served more than two decades in the US Air Force. “His loss had a pretty hard impact on our class of 63.”
Mr Tuthill recalled once again Mr Meyer’s sacrifice earlier this year when Riverhead Town unveiled the Hometown Hero banners to honor local veterans. He was hoping his class of 63 could come together to buy a banner for Mr. Meyer.
At a ceremony downtown in April, city officials officially unveiled the first two banners dedicated to U.S. Army Private First Class Garfield Langhorn and Air Force Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs, two soldiers killed abroad 39 years apart. The history of Pfc. Langhorn and his heroism in January 1969 to throw his body at a grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers have been well documented. He was the only Suffolk County resident to be awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. A downtown street is named after him, as is the Riverhead Post Office. A new Veterans Wall of Honor at Riverhead High School has been dedicated to Pfc. Langhorn earlier this year. An annual Pulaski Street School essay contest continues in her honor.
The history and heroism of Mr. Meyer, who in the Navy achieved the rank of Petty Officer Second Class, may have faded over time, but those who knew him as Mr. Bartunek have Worked to preserve its heritage.
Last year Mr Bartunek – who had previously served as a City Councilor for Riverhead in the early 2000s – mulled over a way to honor Mr Meyer. He contacted Butch Langhorn, another member of the ’63 Class who served in Vietnam in the US Army. He asked if he would be interested in joining him in purchasing a sign that could be dedicated to the Riverhead veterans who died in Vietnam. Mr Bartunek said that while the idea started with Mr Meyer in mind, it evolved as a way to honor every Riverhead native killed in the war.
In January, they purchased a sign that has since been installed near the exit to the Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton. The sign is âdedicated to those who served and sacrificed themselvesâ.
It lists five names:
â¢ Richard Thomas Pinta, Marine
â¢ Franklin Denis Tinsley, Army
â¢ James Reese Walters, Army
â¢ Garfield M. Langhorn, Army
â¢ Lowell Wayne Meyer, Marine
Their deaths extend over the years 1967-1969. Mr. Walters and Mr. Meyer died four days apart in May 1969. Mr. Walters, who had specialist rank 4 in the military, died in a helicopter crash in Thua Thien province in South Vietnam. He was 20 years old. Mr. Meyer was the last native of Riverhead killed in the war.
âI’ve always been the type to think people should be recognized,â said Langhorn, who has no ties to Garfield Langhorn. “There were a lot of people who I thought should have been a little more recognized than I thought they had.”
Mr. Langhorn jumped at the opportunity to place the sign honoring fallen Vietnamese veterans.
âOnce someone started it, everyone jumped,â he said.
In 2018 Matthew Hanson, an Eagle Scout with the Wading River 94 Boy Scout Troop, built a kiosk that was set up at the exit of Calverton Park near the bike path. A plaque states that the Eagle Scout Project was “dedicated to the town of Riverhead for the benefit of the Veterans Memorial Park.”
Mr Bartunek said he called Mr Hanson to ask him to place the new sign in the kiosk on the park side and that he was “thrilled” with the idea.
Mr. Langhorn grew up with Mr. Meyer and the two played football together at Riverhead. He remembered Mr. Meyer as a lineman who was a good athlete, student and friend. Their paths parted after high school, and Mr. Langhorn first joined the military, which eventually led to a career in the Air Force after initially serving in the military. He recalled being at home when he learned that Mr. Meyer had been killed.
At the time, those who knew him did not discuss the details of what happened.
âAs far as I’m concerned, I didn’t need to know more,â Langhorn said, adding that he rarely spoke of his own time in Vietnam. âI lost a dear friend. And it was for a good cause as far as I was concerned.
An article published in Newsday on May 23, 1969 described how Mr. Meyer had made two ship tours in Vietnamese waters and that he had been the leader of a 31-man Seal team on his third tour of six. month. The story tells how Mr. Meyer wrote to his parents that he was about to end the tour, but that he was called to act “on a special mission”. A later story, in August 1969, recounted that he died on dry land “while defusing a Viet Cong mortar shell that landed in a wounded military compound”.
Mr. Meyer’s name is inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. A profile posted online for the memorial’s virtual wall lists the reason for his injury as a “victim on the ground” and details of the victim as a “mishap”.
Mr Bartunek said he was still not sure, all these years later, of the details of what happened on that fateful day.
Mr. Meyer was not married and had no children before he died. His nephew Wayne Meyer, who bears his uncle’s name, still lives in the area. He wasn’t old enough to have met his uncle before he died, but he said he “seems like everyone in this town knew and loved him”. People still ask questions about his uncle when they hear his name, he said.
He was not aware of the new sign that honors his uncle at EPCAL, but said he was delighted to see it. He said his uncle’s death was “devastating” for his father and grandparents.
“They rarely spoke about him unless the Navy Seals showed up,” he said in a Facebook post, noting that his uncle was a member of Seal Team 2.
Mr. Meyer’s sister, Carolynn Herting, lives in Bayport.
When asked why it was important for Mr. Bartunek to honor veterans, he simply replied, âI’ve had 50 good years of life that these guys didn’t. It is essential. I had a great life and I have no complaints and these guys never had the chance.