Jim Thorpe Vietnam veteran recalls jungle combat
Vern Arndt during his time in the service. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Vern Arndt holding a picture of himself as 1st Lieutenant in 1968. RICH STRACK/TIMES NEWS
He sits in his easy chair and talks about a time in his life that wasn’t easy at all. His mind becomes a movie reel spinning scenes of gone-by yesterdays re-created in vivid details. Now at age 78, Vern Arndt speaks of the war he fought in the jungles of Vietnam and the Marine Corps mindset that he still lives by today.
Carrying their genes
Born in the village of Vera Cruz, Pennsylvania, Arndt graduated from Emmaus High School where he lettered in track. His plan after graduation was to attend college.
“A funny thing happened,” he recalled. “I was accepted at Penn State as a female student because my first name is actually “Laverne” and they thought I was a girl.”
Arndt decided to attend Muhlenberg in Allentown instead, but he soon learned that college life wasn’t for him.
“My head just wasn’t in the game.”
He left college and did factory work until at age 22 in 1963, he received a draft notice and answered the call to serve his country with full knowledge that the military life was already in his family blood.
“My grandfather fought in World War I, my father and his four brothers served in World War II. It was time to add my name to our generations of soldiers.”
A Marine on the move
With strength in his mind and body, Arndt decided not to take the safer route to fulfill his military duty, choosing the Marines over the Army. He turned down a “boring” security assignment for advanced infantry training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Soon after, he took to the sea, a two-year voyage to Southeast Asia aboard the USS Independence.
“I wanted to travel and see a bigger part of the world. We visited ports in Hong Kong, Japan, Gibraltar and Barcelona, and probably 200 more.”
Duty at sea ended in July 1966 and then Arndt was off to Marine Officer Training School at their Quantico base in Virginia. There he learned leadership and teamwork and that “if you take care of your troops, they will take care of you.”
Brushes with death
Arndt wanted to become a fighter pilot, but his depth perception disqualified him. He settled for an aerial observer position. His crew flew recognizance missions over the jungles of Da Nang in 1967.
One particular flight nearly ended his life.
“We were airborne and the rear engine cut out on our Bird Dog Cessna. Soon after that the front engine quit, too. We were being fired at from below. Our pilot looked for an open area to land. I stayed cool and under control. I kept doing my duty.”
The plane landed safely and the unharmed men were soon airlifted to safety by Army choppers.
“Believe it or not, I think the plane hadn’t been checked for fuel, and we ran out of gas,” Arndt said with a wry smile.
At the time of the crash, he didn’t know that he was nearly shot.
“They found a bullet lodged inside the radio I had under my seat and they gave it to me to put with my dog tags. The crash landing and the bullet in the radio were times I was lucky to survive, and there would be more coming.”
He leaned back in his easy chair and his mind traveled to the jungle in ’Nam when he was in charge of 50 infantry soldiers.
“We lost eight men from my platoon. One was shot in the head by a sniper. Another was straightening the pins inside his grenades when apparently one pin came loose and the grenade blew up in his hands. Five men were pinned down in an ambush and killed by machine gun and mortar fire.”
A tragic incident involving a booby trap would leave a picture of a dying man’s face fixed permanently in Arndt’s brain.
“We were on patrol and I was in the middle of the line of our troops. We didn’t know that the first half of the line and I had stepped over an underground booby trap. Then came an explosion behind us. I looked back and one of our men was literally blown in half. I went to what was left of him and I will never forget his big blue eyes staring up at me. We radioed for a chopper, but of course, he couldn’t be saved.”
Arndt lowered his eyes and shifted uneasily in his easy chair.
“I can still see his big blue eyes.”
Discipline and determination
He came back in 1969 after serving two tours and 19 months in Vietnam. He remained in the Marine Corps for nearly six years until he retired as a captain in 1975.
After he returned home, Arndt wouldn’t talk about his combat experiences for quite some time, but he used what he learned about fear motivation to help raise a family with four “disciplined” children while he worked as a supervisor for Mack Trucks in Allentown.
“Like I was in boot camp, being afraid of failing motivated me after I got back home. I was still very competitive, focused and determined to do the right thing.”
He is humbly aware that since his life was spared, he’s able to share his war stories.
“The 58,240 who died in Vietnam never got the chance to come home and tell theirs.”
Lessons learned for life
Arndt has been diagnosed at 70% disabled with post-traumatic stress disorder. He regularly attends Vietnam veteran meetings in Allentown in what he describes as a “catharsis” to help him release repressed emotions about his experiences in the war.
Retiring at age 62, he worked as a handyman for several years in the Bear Creek Lakes community in Jim Thorpe where he’s lived with his wife, Mary Ann, since 1997.
Military memorabilia and distinguished service medals adorn the walls that surround Arndt’s easy chair, creating a personal museum of his life as a United States Marine. You look around and you know why the title of a slideshow he created is “Not Everyone in the ’60s Wore Beads.”
“The biggest fear for me was the loss of life for several of my platoon Marines. … I was a lucky man to have survived these close combat situations and even more fortunate not to have received even a slight wound.”
He took a breath and smiled. “I guess the man upstairs wasn’t ready to take me yet.”
Arndt now spends some of his leisure time bowling with friends at Cypress Lanes in Lehighton, and as one might expect, he’s competitively driven to be the best bowler in the bunch.
He regrets not finishing college, but the education he received as a platoon lieutenant included real life-or-death lessons that cannot be learned from a classroom book.
He continues to hold his military training close to his heart.
“Society has changed. You can’t put fear in anyone to motivate them to do what you want them to do. You hurt their feelings. In the Marines, you weren’t allowed to have feelings.”
Arndt shared his views on leadership. When asked if it’s better for a leader to be feared or loved, he offered an unexpected reply.
“It’s better to be loved. Good leaders earn respect for their ability to lead and are loved. That’s how you get the best out of your people, because they trust your leadership.”