By Daniel Dunaief
The first day Kevin O’Hare arrived in Vietnam, a bullet flew over his head during reverie. Vietcong fighters regularly targeted the assembled morning crowd of soldiers who stood in formation to honor the flag.
“That was a shock,” recalled O’Hare, a resident of Kings Park who is a retired sales director for RJR Nabisco and who served in the army from 1966 to 1968. “I jumped in the bunker as fast as I could.”
O’Hare, who shared memories of his time in the military, wants to ensure that others have an opportunity to reflect and appreciate the soldiers who served during the war amid a time of civil discontent in the United States.
In 1966, the hamlet of Hauppauge created what O’Hare and others believe is one of the first tributes to those serving in Vietnam. The “Vietnam Era Hauppauge Honor Roll” memorial sits in Bill Richards Park near Suffolk County’s H. Lee Dennison Building off Veterans Memorial Highway and will soon add plaques with the names of O’Hare and navy veteran Wayne “Mickey” Johnson.
Officials have considered the possibility of moving the memorial, O’Hare said, although he would prefer that it remain in the park.
O’Hare’s near miss during reverie was one of several other times he could have been severely injured or worse, including two incidents when mortar landed without exploding outside his tent. “They were duds,” he said. “If they had gone off,” said the 78-year old father of two and the grandfather of four, “I wouldn’t be here.”
In April of 1967, O’Hare was in a bunker with five other men. A mortar round came in and killed three of his fellow soldiers.
At another point, a man approached O’Hare with a bag. As he got closer, the man tried to strap the satchel around O’Hare. Two infantry men assigned to protect O’Hare saw the exchange and shot the man before he could plant explosives that would have killed O’Hare.
So, what made this American soldier worth an attempted assassination?
Initially a mortar man, O’Hare’s experience with the Soupy Sales comedy show in New York prior to his tour of duty attracted the attention of army brass. Officials asked O’Hare to help run the shows for the United Service Organization, or USO.
Started in 1941, these shows entertained troops stationed overseas and gave them a taste of home half a world away. The entertainment “took them away from the war,” said O’Hare, “even for two hours. They looked forward to it.”
In some ways, the shows were the antidote to people like Hanoi Hannah, a radio broadcaster from North Korea who chided American troops, suggesting that their girlfriends back home were cheating on them or that they were fighting an unjust and unwelcome war.
The USO shows featured Hollywood stars, who were determined to bring their talents to members of the military who might otherwise feel disconnected from American life or who might be physically or emotionally wounded. Seats in the first 10 rows for these often crowded shows were reserved for the wounded.
O’Hare worked with celebrities including Bob Hope, an entertainer who hosted the Academy Awards 19 times.
Hope, who later became an honorary veteran for visiting the troops starting in World War II and ending with the Persian Gulf War, was eager to visit the wounded in the hospital after his show, O’Hare recalled.
Crazy hair and a helicopter ride
Comedienne Phyllis Diller, who was famous for her wild hair and self-deprecating stand up routines, also traveled to Vietnam. During Diller’s visit, O’Hare recalled, the army arranged to transport her in a Huey, a helicopter with a single blade. Nervous about flying in a small helicopter, Diller asked O’Hare if he could help her fly in the larger Chinook, which has two blades.
After receiving the approval of senior officers, O’Hare strapped a chair next to a pole in the Chinook. Sandwiched between the cue cars on one side of the helicopter and her clothing on the other, Diller rode in her preferred helicopter.
Before she returned to the United States, Diller drew a self-portrait, with spiky hair and a smile on her face and signed her name for O’Hare. “That’s the craziest autograph I ever had,” O’Hare recalled. It wasn’t, however, the last.
Legendary actor and future head of the National Rifle Association, Charlton Heston, who played Moses in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, also made the long trip to Vietnam to entertain the troops. On his last day before returning the states, Heston chatted with O’Hare. Heston, who autographed a program for O’Hare, asked him when he would return to the States. O’Hare recalled being nervous speaking with the intense and direct Heston.
“When you get back,” Heston urged, “you’re going to see my new movie.” When he returned to the States, O’Hare saw the film Heston mentioned: Planet of the Apes.
In addition to working with celebrities including five winners of the Miss America contest, O’Hare coordinated shows in between these high-profile visits. He kept a list of the people who could play instruments. When he found out about a drummer, a guitarist and others who could play instruments, he formed a band that provided live performances.
O’Hare also helped bring a show to the Black Virgin Mountain near Cambodia. For his work bringing that show to the troops, O’Hare won the Bronze Star.
Respect for others
While the Kings Park resident appreciates the recognition, he knows, despite escaping serious injury and death in Vietnam, that he had a considerably easier experience than many of other members of the military.
He recalled the terrible job of “tunnel rat” that the smallest and lightest men had to perform. Once the Americans found some of the tunnels built under their bases and scattered throughout the country, the tunnel rat had to try to flush out the enemy. The Vietcong left scorpions, tarantulas and snakes for the Americans. Seeing the disadvantage of fitting the profile for this job, some servicemen tried to gain weight quickly so they wouldn’t fit in small tunnels that often became death traps.
Since he left the army, O’Hare has continued to try to serve some of his fellow vets. He sits with vets and talks at a bagel store. He has also helped restore monuments like the one at Bill Richards Park, so people don’t forget the service and sacrifice of other Long Islanders. O’Hare is also the president of the Citizen’s Police Academy.
For his consistent and enduring contributions to the community, O’Hare has won several admirers. “Nothing is too much work for him,” said Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset). “He does more than 20 or 30-year-olds. He’s a rocket.”
Proud of his service
A navy veteran who served from 1968 to 1972 and a 1967 graduate of Hauppauge High School, Wayne “Mickey” Johnson is excited about the prospect of seeing his name alongside those of other members of the community who served during Vietnam.
Johnson would like his grown sons to see his name on the memorial along with those of some of his high school friends.
“I’m proud of my service,” said Johnson, who spent two years stationed in Puerto Rico and two years stationed on the amphibious ship USS Hermitage, which included a six month stint in the Mediterranean.
Johnson, who is a resident of Patchogue, said his father, Vandorn Johnson, served in the navy during World War II and the Korean conflict.
Johnson, whose brother shares a name with his father and is preparing the additional plaques, said he knows his father would be pleased with his service.
Johnson said he doesn’t mind if the memorial moves. “Wherever it is, I’ll find it,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier to be on it.”