Splash: Veterans reminiscence while onboard military boat

SMILING OUTSIDE THE 1967 patrol gunboat are, from left,Vietnam War Veterans Mark Kramer, Jim Nelson, Gary Balthazor, Rich Groeschel and Ralph Warner. Joe Schulz photo

by Joe Schulz

If you’ve ever driven down South Lawson Drive in the summer, you’ve likely seen a Vietnam War-era military boat anchored in Dartford Bay.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wondered, what’s a boat like that doing in Green Lake?

The vessel was in the Vietnam war and was bought on auction several years ago by a local resident, and each summer it hosts a group of Vietnam War veterans as they commemorate leaving for basic training on June 28, 1968.

On that day this year, I joined Mark Kramer, Ralph Warner, Gary Balthazor, Jim Nelson and Rich Groeschel when they hopped aboard the 1967 patrol gunboat.

As we departed from Deacon Mills Wharf, Kramer began telling me the story of the group’s enlistment.

He said all of the men became good friends when they attended Horace Mann High School in North Fond du Lac.

Kramer attended a year of college, while the others joined the workforce. In those days, the threat of getting drafted was always looming. 

Rather than get drafted, the men decided to enlist. Groeschel was a few years ahead of the others in school, so he enlisted about a year before the others.

Kramer, Warner, Balthazor and Nelson all left for basic training together.

Before deployment, they were allowed to come home, where they had a bit of fun before leaving the states. (This reporter was sworn to secrecy in regards to the shenanigans the men got into).

After basic training, however, they went their separate ways in the military. They were all overseas for different periods of time. 

Warner was in Vietnam from November 1968 to August 1969, Balthazor from March 1969 to March 1970, Kramer from January 1969 to January 1970 and Groeschel from September 1966 to September 1967.

In January 1969, Warner was on patrol when his troop was overrun by the Viet Cong. Two of the 12 men in Warner’s unit made it out of the ambush alive. 

Warner described standing in water up to his neck, pretending to be dead, before help came. He had lost radio contact with the soldiers on base, and when help finally came he had to be medivaced to Japan. 

For his service, Warner received a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and his name in the Hall of Heroes in Madison County, Wis.

All of the veterans agreed that their time in the service helped teach them how to appreciate what they left behind in the United States. 

After about an hour of telling stories, the boat stopped. Kramer stood up and gave a brief speech. He thanked everyone for coming along. 

Kramer then read a passage from the book “The Things We Carried,” a collection of linked short stories about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. After the passage, Kramer led a toast to those who died overseas. 

“Here’s to the ones who can’t be here,” he said as he raised a glass. 

After the toast, we headed back to shore, and I was allowed to drive the boat but not create a wake, which was probably for the best because it was my first time behind the wheel of a boat. 

Reporter Joe Schulz pilots the 1967 patrol gunboat back to Deacon Mills Wharf. submitted photo

As we began to approach Deacon Mills, the vessel’s owner took over and guided us to shore. 

When the boat docked, I said my goodbyes and thanked each of the men for their service, before the group on the boat went to Big John’s Shark Shack for a bite. 

Talking to the veterans gave me a new perspective. It made me appreciate all that we have in the United States, even though times are tough right now. 

It also reinforced the idea that no matter the war or conflict, as Americans we must always support the hard working American men and women overseas. 

Though we may not agree with every conflict, our soldiers and veterans deserve our respect and support, as they are literally putting their lives on the line for those of us back home.

To all of the veterans out there, thank you for your service.