Vietnam vet pays tribute to lost friends

By Rebecca Burylo | Montgomery Advertiser, Ala. | Published: January 4, 2016

The dead return in bundles
Unresisting to the rain.

Those are the first two lines of an entitled poem written by retired Air Force Maj. Bruce Gearhart Jr. four years after witnessing combat and losing close friends in the Vietnam War. Now living in Prattville with his wife, Gearhart wrote those lines to reflect a period of his life that he finds difficult to tell, and one he wants others to get right.

Here's the rest of the poem:

Their metal cans are stacked
In pyramids on the loading ramp.
At night the air crews shuttle south
Confluencing this sacred flotsom of life
Into Saigon, Tan Son Nhut,
While the news 
returns their spirit to families, wives, 
Flashed transcending hysterics
In electrical speed of flight
Through the world's eternally stable starlight 

"I still choke up when I read this," Gearhart said. "All you bring home after war is the idea of that person."

Gearhart, 86, served in the Air Force 1st Mobile Combat Communications group, and while he was on the front lines, he was not a soldier. The loss of two friends and colleagues, Staff Sgt. David Fusnacht and Juan Maldonado is a daily reminder of the war they all fought.

"Fusnacht was not a warrior, he was just a nice guy, just getting a job done," Gearhart said.  "I still can't get over it."

Fusnacht was also a part of the Communications Group with Gearhart. They were critical members in setting up, repairing and protecting mobile homing beacons and radar systems like those at the famous top-secret Lima Site 85 and across Vietnam.

Fusnacht was sent on a message delivery mission when the plane he was in was assaulted by enemy fire, and he jumped out to his death, Gearhart said. Fusnacht was the first of Gearhart's group to die in action and Gearhart dedicated several of his poems to his friend.

Later, Gearhart found out Maldonado had flown to another site after helping him set up a Terminal VHF Omnidirectional Range beacon at Da Nang Air Base. Maldonado was sent to Lima Site 36 to check the equipment, when the base fell under attack. None of his brakes worked and he skidded off the runway and down a cliff, killing himself and everyone on board.


Years earlier in 1954, Gearhart was serving as a soldier in an engineering unit in France and war didn't seem that complicated. He had not heard much of Vietnam or, if he did, did not pay much attention.

He was focused on completing his time in the Army, continue working at Bell Telephone and complete college in Michigan. He never did graduate, but rather enrolled in the Air Force and would eventually spend 29 years in the force.

"I was interested in the technology aspects of it and spent years learning the technology which I would later install in the war zones," Gearhart said.

He was commissioned, completed Communications Electronic School and was stationed at Clark Air Base in Philippines before he was sent on several major deployments to the Vietnamese mainland.

"We had the capability at the 1st Mobile to put in any form of communications in the world," said Gearhart, who was the officer in charge of navigation. "We set up all the air bases in Vietnam and Thailand with basic navigation, telecommunication and air base board communications to support 20 combat bases."

Their job was to set up Tactical Air Navigation Systems or TACANS and automatic direction finders or ADF. Both were highly complicated radio beacons that allowed any aircraft to locate enemies and find ally camps day or night, rain or shine. They would later receive the Presidential Unit Citation for their extraordinary heroism.

"You couldn't fly without them ... or you could fly, but you would have no idea where you were in Southeast Asia," Gearhart said.

Khe Sahn

Gearhart and his team were first deployed in January 1966 to an Air Base at Khe Sahn in Vietnam, which would later become a Marine base.

"We served in Operation Tiger Hound, which was an air to ground attack against the Viet Cong troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail," Gearhart said.

The equipment they installed used high and ultra frequency electromagnetic radio waves. The higher frequency of the TACAN would send out a single beam that pilots would have to lock on to, in order to follow it into base.

The lower frequency of the ADFs, allowed a broader band to spread out over 100 miles and helped pin-point enemy aircraft.

After installation, in order to test the equipment, Gearhart and his team would make test flights, which "was the most dangerous part," he said.

Kham Duc

Gearhart's second mission was to Kham Duc in January 1967, where he and his team met a road block in setting up the TACAN.

"We couldn't get the range we needed and we had combat going on around there at the same time," Gearhart said. "We had in this team a HAM operator who said he would get it to power."

"I told him to experiment, because I had flights coming to check me," Gearhart added.

They strung two more wires to amplify the potential range between the upper wire and the ground wire, he said.

"It was dark, it was the last run and they were coming to check or they would have to come back and we'd have to redo this," Gearhart explained. "We were getting good signals, and BANG! There was a couple of grenades. Normally, we would jump and hide, but we had to get this working and finally it worked."

Gearhart wrote a book of poems, entitled Camouflage to express his grief and keep a memoir of his time in Vietnam. He continued to serve in active-duty and the Air Force reserves until his retirement.

©2016 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)
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