Edge of Duty: Vietnam veteran has knife returned after 46 years
MondayJul 16, 2018 at 9:10 AM Jul 16, 2018 at 9:10 AM
LAKELAND â" The walls of Harry and Judy Tindell's comfortable Lakeland home are filled with pictures of family and patriotic memorabilia. Among the photos is one of a young Harry Tindell in an army uniform sitting outside a foxhole.
Nothing suggests the danger and desperation he felt on that day, while serving with the 5th Mechanized Division as part of ill-fated Operation Dewey Canyon II in February 1971.
Tindell's unit was assigned to set up a makeshift fire base on a hilltop to support South Vietnamese troops that were about to go into Laos to try and cut North Vietnamese supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
"That was taken on one of the least secure days I was in Vietnam. We were in a valley waiting to go to the hilltop, and we started taking i ncoming â" mortars, RPGs. We were returning fire with heavy artillery, just shredding a hillside to try to take out their spotters," he said. "I was afraid to death every day I was there."
Tindell served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam for 365 days, from October 1970 to October 1971, and like many Vietnam vets, there are parts of it he'd rather not talk about. But he remembers Glenn Conn, a fellow soldier with whom he bonded. And now he has back in his possession something else that tied the two men together â" a Bowie knife. It is a memento of the hardship Tindell and Conn experienced as young men compelled to fight in a faraway land.
On June 2, Conn's granddaughter, Justine Strong, a 27-year-old mother of two, traveled by car with her kids from Midland, Texas, to return Tindell's knife. When he left Vietnam, Tindell gave the knife to Conn, who promised to bring it home. Conn died almost four years ago, and the knife, with Tindell's dog tags wrapped around its worn leather scabbard, was found by his family in a box along with letters and photos taken in Vietnam. Conn never talked about his military service, so his family had no idea who Tindell was or why Conn had the knife.
Strong took on the task of tracking down the owner. It would take years of on-and-off work, dead ends and frustration before Facebook finally connected her to Tindell. Now, after almost 47 years, thanks to Stong's persistence, Tindell has the knife again. The blade is no longer shiny, but it still looks fearsome â" about 9Â½ inches long and almost as wide as a man's hand.
"When Justine sent a photo (of the knife), I thought 'Oh my God.' All of it came rushing back, slapping me in the face," Tindell said. "I was kind of excited when she said she was going to bring it, but in this life you have memories of the past. It was an object I had in my hand every day, just like my M-16."
The Viet nam years
A native of Waco, Texas, he was drafted into the Army in early 1970. He was married with an infant son and just missed a deferment, but he avoided front-line patrol duty at first as he was assigned to a mortar unit with the 5th Mechanized Division's 111th Infantry. His company, ensconced in fire bases, backed up infantry patrols with light artillery, including the M30 mortar, known as a "four-deuce" because it fired 4.2-inch shells.
When he arrived at the barracks at Quang Tri, he found the knife in an empty mortar shell box. Troops used the boxes as furniture. It was not a standard-issue weapon and there were rules against bringing home such objects. Tindell theorizes the owner had no way to smuggle it home and left it. For Tindell it became a tool, useful in opening the paper and wax wrappings around the mortar shells.
According to identifying marks, it is a W49 Bowie knife manufactured by the now-defunct Western Knife Company of Boulder, Colorado, a company known for making fine knives. Tindell recalls that he was so inseparable from the knife, it became a joke among his fellow soldiers.
"Years later I reconnected with a guy from the 5th. He always asked me about the knife," Tindell said.
In July 1971, Tindell was reassigned to the 101st Airborne Division, and during his remaining three months in Vietnam, he spent a lot of time in the field on patrol. Another member of his squad was Glenn Conn, and in the heat of combat, the two bonded.
"I walked point, I walked slack, did recon, was in firefights. It was not pretty. It was difficult," he said.
He used the knife as a weapon only once, on his first patrol. A fellow squad member made the mistake of stepping over the sleeping Tindell to wake his replacement for guard duty, and startled, Tindell took a swipe at him with the knife. Fortunately, he missed, and Tindell said ruefully that the squad made him sleep 20 yards away fr om everyone else after that. Conn would wake him for guard duty by throwing pebbles at him rather than risk getting too close.
"He's the only person I remember from the 101st," he said.
Before Tindell left for home, he told Conn he had no way to take the knife with him.
"He said, 'I'll find a way to get it home.' So I left it with him," he said.
Tindell returned to Waco and got a job in the shoe department of a Sears store. He saw Conn a few months later, as Conn was on his way to report to nearby Fort Hood. The two spent several days together, water skiing and driving around in Conn's car. Conn's belongings had already been sent to the base, so he didn't have the knife with him. It's not clear why, but he never sent the knife to Tindell. After being discharged, Conn returned to his home in Lakewood, California, and the two men eventually lost touch.
Like many Vietnam veterans, Tindell quickly found that he wanted to erase all connections to his time in the war.
"When I came home, I wasn't welcome. Even in my hometown, I was spit on twice and I was slapped. I quit identifying with anything that connected me to the military," he said.
Tindell moved to Polk County in 1974 with his wife at the time and found work as a commercial electrician. Divorced, he married Judy Tindell in 1984. They have four children by previous marriages, 11 grandchildren and three friendly dogs. Now semi-retired, Tindell forgot what had happened to the knife. Then in May, Judy Tindell received a Facebook message from Strong, who said she was trying to get in touch with a Vietnam veteran named Harry Tindell Jr.
Glenn Conn had died of complications from a motorcycle accident in October 2014. Strong said she was close to her grandfather and knew he was in Vietnam but he never talked about it, so it was a surprise when the family found his mementos from the war, including the knife. With only Tindell's dog tags to go on, she began searching for him.
It was a frustrating four years, she said, using various search engines and websites, including Together We Served, which helps reconnect military veterans. She had only outdated or partial information, so Strong turned to Facebook and sent messages to likely candidates. Judy Tindell responded that her husband had served in Vietnam, and Strong's search was over.
Asked why she persisted, Strong said by phone from her home in Midland, "My gramps kept the knife that long. It must have meant a lot to him. If someone had something that belonged to my relatives, I'd want to have it back."
She didn't want to mail it, she said, because she was afraid something would happen to it.
"It's something special, and I just felt it had to be delivered in person. I'm very glad they let me do that. They're very special people," she said. "How many chances do you get to return something like that?"
Joining Strong and her children â" Clayton, 5, and Dustyne, 3 â" in their visit to the Tindells were Strong's mother, Toni Conn of St. Augustine, and Strong's brother, Casey St. Pierre, who by coincidence lives in Lakeland. They spent a day with the Tindells, and Strong said it was an emotional visit.
"Harry told us how he got the knife and how he and my gramps became friends. (The Tindells) were strangers, but they felt like family as soon as we met. My daughter didn't want to leave," she said.
Since then, Strong and the Tindells have stayed in close touch, talking by phone every week. The bond between Conn and Tindell seems to have been revived, giving Strong a connection, however distant, to her grandfather. Tindell said he is grateful that she fulfilled the promise made by his friend. But in thinking of the war that brought them together, he is matter-of -fact.
"Mostly it was boredom," he said of his year in Vietnam. "But there were moments that were unbearable."Source: Google News Vietnam | Netizen 24 Vietnam