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Lebanon draws Korean War veterans

Bonnie Bucy • Dec 15, 2015 at 11:16 AM

The 76th Engineering Construction Battalion that served in the Korean War from 1950-1953 met in Lebanon last week for their 19th reunion anniversary.

That was only part of the tribute the group paid to Lebanon, as it was the fourth straight year they have met here and the only town they’ve ever congregated in more than once.

“We didn’t have reunions until 20 years ago,” exclaimed John Roberts of Baxter, Tenn,, who was in attendance with his wife, Betty, with the group at the Comfort Suites here in town.

“The first one we had, we met in Richmond, Ky. From there, we met all over the country in places like St. Louis, Mo., Valdosta, Ga., Pasagoola, Miss., San Antonio, Texas, Branson, Mo. and others.

“Then, in our 16th year, we voted to meet in Nashville. I called Jack Cato, who lives in Lebanon. We served together on my second tour in Korea with the 151st Engineering Combat Battalion. I asked him to price hotels, attractions and such in Nashville. He came back with prices that were more than we wanted to pay.

“So, I asked him to see what a surrounding area would cost. He and his wife, Ruth, live in Lebanon, so he came up with the Comfort Suites here in Lebanon, where we first came four years ago. We were treated so well, the group has unanimously voted to come back here each year since and we voted to come back again next year,” Roberts added.

“They are such a great group of people and they seem to enjoy themselves so much when they come here,” said Sue Vanatta, CEO of the Lebanon/Wilson County Chamber of Commerce who has worked with the folks each of the four years. “This year we used the chamber trolley on Thursday and took part of the group to visit John Baugh’s hangar at the Lebanon Airport, and then went on to Watertown where the passengers hit all the shops there.

“On Friday, Dusty Davis of our office took another group to Watertown on the trolley and then visited Fiddler’s Grove.”

Vanatta also borrowed the bingo set from the Lebanon Senior Citizens’ Center and took it to the motel so those who stayed back at the facility had something to keep them occupied. In addition, the chamber furnished goody bags for all.

On Saturday morning, the veterans held their annual “business meeting” where Lebanon Mayor Phillip Craighead, Vanatta and Cato all spoke and welcomed them back to Lebanon. But, the highlight on Saturday was the address by their keynote speaker, Woody McMillin, a former Lebanon newspaper and radio person and author of “In the Presence of Soldiers.”

“McMillin explained to us how the Lebanon area was used as a training area in World War II and really kept all of us interested,” said Roberts. “He also brought in a lot of memorabilia from that time frame. We were all stationed on Okinawa when the Korean War broke out and were shipped from there to Korea. So, we were together from the beginning and were familiar with a lot of the stuff McMillin brought like helmets, the M1 rifle and carbine, etc.”

A banquet at the motel rounded out the festivities for the veterans, their friends and family members.

Roberts, who serves as vice president of the Korean Veterans’ group, stayed in active service for eight-and-a-half-years until 1953, and then remained in the National Guard until retirement, in addition to working for the State Of Tennessee for years.

“When the 76th was formed back in the beginning days of the Korean War, it was designed to be run by the enlisted men, not by the upper officers,” Roberts said. “It allowed for special relationships like one of our attendees this year, whom I hadn’t seen in 50 years.

“His name is Herbert Davenport from Oxford, Ga., and he originally came in as my driver in Korea. He was literally a lifesaver there and he went from driver into construction. I promoted him every chance I could. It was so good to see him again this year.

“Also, our battalion was never all together all the time, so when we come to these reunions, I just sit back and spend my time reminiscing and learning new things about people I’d never heard of before or we just fight the war all over again.”

Ezekial Gandara is currently president of the group and the third to serve since the reunion started in 1993. Zeke and his wife, Nellie, hail from Lincoln, Neb., and took two weeks this year to come to the reunion and then left to visit Gatlinburg for a week before returning home.

“I send invitations each year to approximately 400 members of the 76th, and we usually get 55 to 60 participants including wives,” said the 78-year-old Gandara. “We’re so thankful we have so many relatives and friends that will bring their dads to these reunions that have become so important to us.

“Fortunately, we are getting some younger members now from the outfit that serves here in the states.”

He explained that most come in from the eastern half of the United States, although they do have some from western states like Washington and New Mexico represented. “Some from farther out fly in, but most take two weeks and drive,” Gandara said.

Bruce Fonnest, 62, is the one who calls New Mexico home. He served one Korean and two Vietnam hitches and claims he is the baby of this group. He and his wife, Elizabeth, drove the 1,400 miles each way to attend.

A camera buff, Fonnest serves as photographer for the group. Since arriving back home, he’s in the process of putting together a CD of the reunion and will be sending one to each member of the 76th Battalion. He also furnished the pictures shown in this story.

Other attendees included James Alexander and his son Jonathon from Morgantown, Ky.;  Daniel Foulk and Helen Bezuary from Genesco, Ill.; Ray Baker and his son, Ray Jr. from Beallsville, Ohio; Ed Kenny and Dorothy Sadowski from Fairview Park, Ohio and friends David and Dottie Allen from Lebanon at the banquet; Bob Kugel from Norwalk, Conn.; David and Pauline Dodson from Jacksonville, Fla.; James Peterson and his brother Donald from Decatur, Ill.; Uless Ray and his cousin John Parsons from East Stone Gap, Va., plus Parson’s son, John, who is in the Navy, came in for the banquet; Arnold Bischoff and friend Connie from Archbold, Ohio; Jerry and Gisela Baker from Selmer, Tenn.. and Bill and Sue Connour from Elmwood, Neb.

Additional attendees included Ron and Marian Kenkoph from Cleveland, Ohio; Tom and Yvonne Kucera from Shady Side, Ohio; Tom and June McNutt from Williamsport, Penn.; Harry Rockhill from Speedway, Ind.; Kermit and Phyllis Schauer from La Cruses, N.M.; Joe Struckhoff and his two sons, Joe Jr. and John from St. Louis, Mo.; Edward Williams and his two daughters, Joanne Halter and Violet Emery, from Valdosta, Ga.; Bob and Helen Willem from Conroe, Texas; Ralph Thompson and his friend/driver Jerry Clark from Ft. Gibson, Okla., and Jan Collins, widow of the groups’ first president, Gene Collins, and her friend Julie Adams from Richmond, Ky..

So, good thoughts from another year of memories go with the members of the 76th Engineer Construction Battalion reunion back to their homes throughout the country.

“We’ll be back next year to resume our conversations where we left off,” summed up Betty Roberts, “and looking forward to every minute of it. We love Lebanon.”

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