Larry Larkin

When U.S. Army serviceman Johnny Messimore boarded a plane to leave Vietnam five decades ago he had no thoughts about returning. Fate and time would prove different.

Despite being married and having a recently born son, the then 21-year-old Messimore was drafted in February 1969. He was promptly sent to Vietnam following basic training where he would serve with B Company 4/23 25th Infantry.

While there he was assigned to an armored personnel carrier. His unit would spend 90 days at a time in the field while going into Chuchi, Cambodia, and Tainan. In June of 1970 his unit was the first to enter Cambodia.

Mount Nui Ba Den in Mekong Delta, known as Black Virgin Mountain, was also a key location for Messimore and his fellow soldiers.

This is just the background for today’s story. Flash forward to August 2019. During the same month, almost to the same date, Emily Messimore and her grandfather Johnny arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. Then known as Saigon, it was the same location the then young serviceman arrived 50 years before.

Miss Messimore is a senior at Baylor University. She is nearing the end of project that started her sophomore year. Her grandfather has held an unofficial key role in her task.

When finished the graduate will have written a book telling the personal stories of the young men who served with her grandfather in B Company.

TWO YEAR PROJECT

For the past two years the Messimore pair has been traveling around the United States interviewing those now septuagenarians Johnny serviced with. It’s been a journey of gathering stories that need to be shared and that’s Emily’s devoted mission.

Growing up she knew her grandfather served in Vietnam. By the time she reached the eighth grade she developed a passion to learn more. At Baylor she had a professor who also had a deep history interest. He encouraged her to seek a moritary grant in order to write her book.

The finished thesis and the project’s recorded interviews for the book will be housed in the Baylor University library.

Locating the former servicemen has not been a major problem. Most have kept in contact over the years through email and other correspondence by efforts of Messimore and Don Jenks, a Houston resident. Reunions have been held with future ones scheduled. Family members are included.

One was held three years ago when a group met in Washington, D.C. Together they went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and located Danny Peterson’s name. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions while serving with them.

The next reunion is scheduled next April in Houston. This is where Dennis Vauser is buried. He was killed in Cambodia 30 days before scheduled to return home.

Four other members of the platoon have died from natural causes over the past few months.

Emily has found mixed emotions from the men she has interviewed. Some are free and open with their service time memories; others don’t want to talk about it.

Grandfather Messimore says some of the latter ones may attend a reunion and change their minds. Some will not.

The Messimore’s August trip took 11 hours to fly to Seoul, Korea and then five more to Ho Chi Minh City, a city of 9 million-plus people. They were met by former platoon member Jenks. They spent 11 days in county.

Today Vietnam is nothing like it was when Messimore and Jenks were there before.

This is especially true at the before mentioned Nui Ba Den. The mountain is 60 miles from the Vietnam major city. Back when Messimore’s unit would approach the base and draw enemy fire, only a small village was nearby. Now Tay Ninh is a major tourist attraction due to the Holy See Buddhist temple, complete with a gondola lift, two-thirds of the way of the 3,268-foot tall extinct volcano. REMAINS THE SAME

Asked about the changes the elder Messimore said, “Each morning I would wake up in the hotel and be a little confused. I would need to locate Nui Ba Den and then remember where we were. It brought back the one thing that hasn’t changed.”

Seeing the some of the locations she has only heard about, Emily came away with the title of her book. In her notes she wrote:

“Today I made it halfway up Nui Ba Den. I have read about, heard stories of, and looked at 50-year-old pictures for at least a third of my life. It was surreal to see it in person, to really put my boots in the dirt here.

“It has changed immensely since the guys of the 25th Infantry were here 50 years ago but it still holds its eerie stare over the flat landscape, a shadow that cannot be escaped.”

When Emily’ finished book will be finished after the first of next year it will be entitled “In the Shadow of the Mountain.”

“I am so grateful for all the stories that have been entrusted to me!” Emily adds.

Her book tells the story of young men, just a few years older than she 50 years ago, who served their country with distinction and honor. The book honors the “guys” of B Company 4/23 25th Infantry who would have rather been back home with family and friends…yet answered with self-sacrificing integrity when called.

Larry Larkin is a long-time columnist for the Claremore Daily Progress.

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