By Jean Shanley
Special to the Tribune
Editor’s note: Phil Davis of Meadville, who is profiled in the article below, was selected by the Meadville Area Memorial Day Observance Committee as the one Crawford County Vietnam veteran to represent the committee’s salute to all Vietnam veterans.
Thousands of Crawford Countians served during the Vietnam War and 30 lost their lives and many others were wounded.
This year’s theme of the observance is “50 years after the beginning of Vietnam.”
Monday, the Tribune profiles another prominent Vietnam veteran living in Crawford County, Bob Eiler.
Phil Davis served in Vietnam 40 years ago but his service to his fellow veterans didn’t end with the war.
Davis was just 18 when he was drafted by the U.S. Army in August 1970.
He completed basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and then went to Fort Polk, La., for jungle school.
After jungle school, he was sent back to Fort Dix, which he found rather puzzling since he didn’t think Fort Dix had any jungles. At Fort Dix, he was responsible for making duty lists.
After two months at Fort Dix — two weeks before Christmas — a captain called Davis into his office. The captain offered Davis a cigarette, coffee or a seat, all of which he declined.
Then, the captain said, “I have your orders. You are going to Vietnam.”
First, Davis had leave at Christmas. Then he flew from Travis Air Force Base to Alaska, Guam, Japan and to Cameron Bay in Vietnam.
He was assigned to duty in Pleiku in the Central Highlands and attached to the 717th Air Calvary, Troop D.
Except for a brief leave to Sydney, Australia, he served in Vietnam until Jan. 13, 1972, when he returned to the states for discharge on Jan. 19, 1972.
Davis said one of the worst parts of his duties was going in by helicopter and recovering the remains of some of those killed in the war.
“I often wondered who that was I put in a body bag,” he recalls.
He also recognized that in Vietnam, the war was different in different areas, so even though two people served they may have had very different experiences.
One of the toughest parts was never knowing which Vietnamese people to trust because one never knew whose side they were on, whether a village was friendly or hostile.
He served with many of the Vietnamese who supported the Americans and fled to America when the war ended. Many of them live in Georgia and Florida now, Davis said.
The connection between the veterans is strong, he said, telling the story of seeing a man decades later at a veterans’ event with an embroidered hat indicating he had served at Pleiku. Davis approached him and found they had served at the same time and each had pictures of the other among their archives.
After his service in Vietnam, Davis came home to Meadville and remained on active service reserve, knowing he could have been called back to Vietnam at any time.
Unable to find a job at first, he wasn’t sure if it was because he was a Vietnam veteran or not, but he finally got a break and worked for Audley Stevens at Wirt’s Drug Store, stocking shelves and serving as a part-time cashier.
“It must have been God,” he said of the next opportunity he had.
He said a guy walked into Wirt’s one day and asked him, “Are you a Vietnam vet?” Davis replied, “Yes,” and the man asked, “Do you need a job?” Davis said, “I’ve got one.”
The man asked if Davis would consider a better-paying job and told him to report for work by going to a red pickup in the parking lot near the old Red Barn on Park Avenue. He did and went to work for Keystone Construction Co., helping build the arterial highway.
After that he worked through a series of jobs, always changing to make more money. He worked as a car salesman at Lew Davies Pontiac, as a grinder at McCrosky Tool, as a punch press operator for Coinco and then at Lord Corp., starting as a punch press operator. After a brief layoff from Lord, he returned to Coinco and then went back to Lord when he was called back.
Davis continued his education at the Crawford County Vocational-Technical School and then at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, and worked his way into other positions until he retired from Lord Corp. last year after 38 years with the company.
“All the stars just lined up and came together,” he said of his retirement.
Now that he’s retired, he helps his wife, Laurie, at her business, Laurie’s Embroidery, and enjoys spending more time with his family.
Their family includes two daughters, each by previous marriages, and nine grandchildren.
His other “family” is made up of the veterans he still serves through his volunteer work.
He and his wife started Project Support Our Troops 13 years ago and the group still sends care packages every months to active duty troops.
He has also been involved in the Vietnam Veterans Post 52, first serving as commander for many years and now as president of the Home Association of the post, which operates the facility.
But it’s not just material things the post and Davis offer veterans. They do counseling with veterans, including some from the Iraq War, Davis said.
“This is what I am called to do,” he said, sitting at the post home, looking around at the building, which was built with donations.
“The community did this,” he said acknowledging the work of volunteers and even professional contractors who donated time to building the post home, which also is the headquarters for Project Support Our Troops.
Funds for the post are raised by such efforts as Saturday night dinners, which he said have been very successful with even restaurant owners coming to support the post.
The post also has funds to help needy veterans with utility bills and other expenses, an Aid to Education program to help students and other community projects.
The post has about 250 members, with several dozen very active in post activities, including serving as an honor guard for funerals and other events.
Another big event the post heads each year is the Ride for Freedom and POW/MIA vigil the third Saturday of each September. Motorcyclists ride from Conneaut Lake Park to Diamond Park in memory of those still missing or prisoners of war. The vigil begins the Friday evening before and concludes with a service after the Ride for Freedom.
He acknowledges that it’s always a very emotional time.
But it’s also very meaningful, as are the other ways he and other veterans continue to serve.