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George Banda: Honoring lost friends in vigil to Vietnam veterans at The Wall

Milwaukee’s George Banda joined veterans and volunteers from around the country who participated in the Reading of the Names of the 58,318 service members on The Wall.

Part of a week of events to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, names were read from 5:00 a.m. until midnight from November 8 to 10, spanning 65 hours over the four days leading up to Veterans Day. The vigil had mostly fair weather, with incidents of evening rain.

“I went to Vietnam to entertain the troops in 1966 and 1968. If you lived through the Vietnam War era, you know the impact that the war had,” said Ann-Margret. “But today we are in danger of history being lost. Current generations know very little about the war or the people who served there.”

Ann-Margret attended the commemoration events, and took a turn reading some special names to honor the fallen troops. She is still remembered fondly by many of those soldiers who served in Vietnam and who were lucky enough to be in the audience for one of her shows. In press interviews she often spoken about former G.I.s who stepped forward to thank her for taking the time to do her part back then. She has been committed to thanking those veterans in return.

Other events over the week included a reception honoring Maya Lin, the designer of The Wall, a breakfast with Lynn Novick, co-director of The Vietnam War documentary film, and a Veterans Day 35th Anniversary commemoration at The Wall.

George Banda served as a Combat Medic in the 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry, of the 101st Airborne Division. Banda’s list for Reading of the Names on November 10 included more than two dozen names, a quarter of which he knew personally. Larry Gene Kier, David Ellis Ogden, Dickie Walter Reagan, Gary Foster Snyder, Ronald Dale Van Beukering, Phillip Ray Warfield, Tommy Leon Whiddon, and Milwaukee native Edward Veser all died on May 5, 1970 at Firebase Henderson. Refugio Thomas Teran was also lost that day, but it would take another 32 years for his remains to be found and identified.

Not included on his list was childhood friend Joe Rocha. Corporal Jose Marie Rocha served with E Troop 17th Cavalry 173rd Airborne, and died in combat on February 07, 1971.

The Wall is located on National Mall in Washington DC, a short distance north of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

Vietnam pictures courtesy of Co E 2nd 501st Airmobile

Before leaving for the Veterans Day events in Washington DC, Banda gave the Milwaukee Independent a short tour of his neighborhood on the South Side. A four block area in Walker’s Point, from W. Bruce Street and W. National Avenue to S. 6th Street and S. 4th Street, was where he lived and went to school, and along with many of his friends went on to join the Army to fight in Vietnam.

Banda attended elementary classes at Holy Trinity, now Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish and the third oldest catholic church in Milwaukee. His high school was the original Milwaukee’s Boy’s Tech High School, located just across the street where the football field is now for the new Bradley Tech High School.

After graduation, Banda joined the Army. Following boot camp in January 1969 at Fort Campbell Kentucky, he was sent to Fort Sam Houston for medical corpsman training. In late October he received orders for Vietnam.

On May 5, 1970 he was ordered to Firebase Henderson, which was a temporary base and not setup with a proper defensive perimeter. The overgrown jungle came too near the position and allowed the enemy close access. The Viet Cong had developed the tactic over years of fighting American troops to attack at close range. It prevented artillery and air support, for fear of hitting American soldiers.

Banda immediately recognized the need for greater security, and it was decided to strip back the jungle and enhance fortification at first light the next morning. However, the enemy had plans to exploit the defensive weakness.

On the morning of May 6 at 0500, the firebase was besieged with a fierce attack and Banda was in a battle for his life. As a combat medic, he returned fire when he was not treating wounded soldiers. Explosions rained down all around him, everyone was screaming, and the position was in chaos after an ammo dump exploded.

At some point in the fight, Banda took a round to his head that severed an artery. Being a medic, he knew that at the rate blood squired from his head he would soon bleed to death. He stemmed the bleeding by containing the wound with a piece of cloth, and continued to take care of the wounded.

Surveying the battlefield, Banda located his friend and fellow Milwaukee native Ed Veser by a pile of debris, exposed without cover about 30 yards down the hill. Banda managed to drag his mortally wounded friend back to a safer position, and waited for medevacs which had been unable to land because the landing zone remained too hot.

After Veser was loaded on the helicopter, Banda made another survey of the area to make sure no one else needed medical care. But everyone was dead. In total 32 Americans died that morning including Veser. Banda jumped on the last helicopter out, but in the confusion was reported as missing in action. It took a couple weeks to correct the mistake, and to inform his parents that their son was still alive.

Banda retired as a Milwaukee County Fireman and, along with his wife Lorraine, call Milwaukee home. He continues to serve as Commander of the Milwaukee County Purple Heart Chapter #818, is a past State Commander of the American GI Forum, a National Latino Veterans organization, and serves on many Boards and Committees throughout the State.

“As we commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, volunteers will read each name aloud and we will keep our promise to never forget those who served and sacrificed all in Vietnam. The Reading of the Names is such a special event to the family and friends of the fallen and we are honored to host this event. Our commemorative events will end with our annual Veterans Day ceremony at The Wall where we will celebrate the legacy of service in this country and honor the sacrifices that our service members and their families have made. This is a chance for VVMF, and for all Americans, to honor these veterans and say ‘thank you for your service and welcome home.’” – Jim Knotts, president and CEO of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF)

About The Author

Lee Matz

Former Creative Director and Photojournalist for the Milwaukee Business Journal, Lee brings his years of international experience as an award-winning foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe. Lee proudly uses MCTS as the exclusive mode of transportation for covering all his news reports.