This past Saturday morning at around 4:30 a.m., there was a celebration and rally going on at Truax Field in Madison. That’s a bit early to do anything, but the reason hundreds had gathered was for a special send-off of 92 veterans from Wisconsin who were heading out on a Badger Honor Flight - a program emulated across the country that brings veterans to Washington D.C. to see the memorials recognizing them and others who served this country, sometimes making a varying degree of sacrifice.
Amongst the group of veterans were three from the Herald Independent coverage area - Phil Baus, Dave Peterson, and Jack Bausch - all veterans of Vietnam. After their trip, they spoke with us and shared the experience, as well as some history of their time in uniform.
Friends on the flight
Peterson and Baus have known each other since their earliest days in high school, becoming friends in 1964, and have stayed in contact, and did so many things together in the decades since.
Peterson said it was Baus that talked him, and some of their friends, into volunteering for the draft in March 1969, something Baus doesn’t recall that way, but what Peterson had memorialized in one of the bricks at the Lancaster Area Veterans Memorial in Memorial Park.
Paterson, Baus, along with Jim Pink, Terry Nix, and Gary Smoot went to the draft board that day and volunteered, moving them up to the top.
By next week, they had shipped off for physicals in Milwaukee, then Baus and Peterson were off to Ft. Campbell, Ky., for basic training.
“We were both wadering aimlessly with no idea what to do,” Dave quipped on why they may have signed up.
Two months after basic training, the pair received their orders - Peterson was off to California for training to handle supplies, while Baus was off to Ft. Polk.
“When I got Ft. Polk,” Phil remembered, “I knew exactly where I was going to end up.”
Ft. Polk was where you trained for infantry, and that meant he was going to Vietnam.
The pair saw each other one more time before both shipped out for Vietnam, Baus going six months before his friend, in August while they were both on leave. The two had been inseparable while growing up in Lancaster, and now they were heading off to a foreign land alone.
“It was hard you had your companionship with him,” Phil reflected.
Baus arrived in Vietnam just as the TET Offensive was winding down. TET was a holiday in Vietnam, and had been a time when hostilities had diminished in previous years, but the North Vietnamese took it as a time to surprise U.S and South Vietnamese forces.
After inflicting damage, the North Vietnamese had receded for a time. “Our job was to wander the bush and observe,” Baus said of his orders, which were infantry and reconnaissance.
“Everything was pretty good for nine months,” Baus said. “Then it was like TET started up again.”
Baus did not want to talk about his service time, where he was awarded four Bronze Stars and two Oak Leaf Clusters during his time in uniform.
“My memories will stay memories,” Baus said humbly.
Meanwhile Dave came to Vietnam and was stationed in Qui Nhon handling a weapons depot. “I was there to make sure they had bullets and clean weapons.”
After serving three days shy of a year in-country, Baus returned stateside, where he served in a platoon in Texas. He had reached the rank of sergeant at the time, but the group was a collection of sergeants.
“When you are in a platoon of sergeants, you did as much as when you were a PVC,” Baus quipped, noting they were cleaning tanks and other tasks.
After serving his time in Texas, he was discharged, and returned to Lancaster and went to technical school, where he studied mechanics.
Phil returned to working for Harvey Lemanski, and began his career in electrical wiring, then worked for Jim Vondrum, assisting on projects like the Skyline plant and Wisconsin Dairies.
“I didn’t know what I was doing at that time, but it was a beginning,” Baus quipped of his early years.
When Dave got back, he started out working for Funk Motors, with a position in the parts department.
Things changed when he began talking with Bernie Lechner, who helped get him get assistance from the G.I. Bill so he could attend vocational school.
From their, Peterson hitched a ride with a friend who wanted to apply at John Deere, and Dave thought why not. They both submitted resumes, but Dave was the one who got hired, spending seven years at the plant in Dubuque, then moved out of the area for 22 years to work at the plant in Horicon.
Despite being gone, Baus and Peterson never lost touch, and their core group of friends hung out regularly.
Peterson pointed out the pair’s bond - within a year of each other, they were both married, and were each other’s Best Man.Dave named his second son after Phil as well.
Fishing trips, vacations up north, their families had grown up around each other despite the fact the Petersons were gone for 22 years.
Which is why when Phil got the diagnosis that he had pancreatic and liver cancer this past January, his buddy Dave wanted to make sure he got him on an honor flight to D.C. to see the memorials. He approached Phil a month after the diagnosis, to see if they could put in an application.
I will if you will was the response, so once again they attempted to enter together.
Phil was selected right away due to his medical condition, but Dave was not a lock. Then word came in, Dave was in.
Flanked by Phil’s daughter and one of Dave’s sons - serving as ‘guardians that are there to assist the vets on the honor flight - they left very early Saturday morning for the capital.
Escorted by police that allowed the bus they were on to run every light, they saw the memorials and institutions in the capital.
For Peterson, the most moving was the Vietnam Memorial, its shiny granite allowing you to see your reflection while also looking at the 58,000 who gave their lives to so that reflection could be seen. They made an etching of a part of the memorial.
Baus also felt the Korean Memorial was quite moving as well, with its soldier statues on patrol. “Its like they are coming right up from that shrubbery and looking into your soul,” Baus reflected.
But it was more than just seeing these monuments to the service and the fallen, it was real connections to the past.
During the trip, there was a mail call for the vets on the trip. “Mail call was very special when you got care packages, letters from home,” Phil remembered.
“That was your only connection to home,” Peterson added, remembering a tin of cookies that his great grandmother had sent, which was reduced to crumbs when it reach him, but that connection to home was such that he and his fellow soldiers ate them with spoons and forks.
For Phil, the mail call on the honor flight was special - two of the letters were from guys he served with. His wife had reached out to them, and they were the first letters they had exchanged in years.
In one of the letters was a funny moment - one of his friends apologized profusely for something he said to him back in Vietnam, something he regretted for years.
Thing is, Phil cannot recall what that possibly could be.
The trip marked some good news for Phil - treatment had made him stable, meaning he outlived projections his doctor initially gave him, and he got some more memories with his friends.
“It gave me something to look forward to,” Phil said.