After leaving Vietnam, they severed ties when they returned stateside.
But on Saturday, the three friends finally reunited, rekindling their relationship after almost 44 years without seeing each other.
The three, along with friends and family, convened for dinner at 1812 Food & Spirits in downtown Port Clinton. Over dinner, drinks and dessert, they recalled the terrifying and terrific times during the two tours of duty they all served during the Vietnam War.
In late 1967, Jim Buehler, Noel Crawford and Gary Ontko shipped out to war as Seabees, a U.S. Navy Construction Battalion unit charged with building, constructing and developing American military resources.
Other than staying alive, their biggest military achievements consisted of:
• Expanding the city of Da Nang’s first airport terminal. “It was a war zone,” Ontko said. “Airships had to come in and deliver troops and equipment.”
• Improving Da Nang’s hospital, including adding an intensive care unit in Da Nang.
• Paving the first road, spanning about 40 miles, in a portion of northern Vietnam. “There were no paved roads in that country before we paved that road,” Ontko said. “If you didn’t have a road, it’s really easy for people to booby trap where you drive over the grass or jungle. But if you have a nice blacktop road, it’s hard for them to dig holes underneath it and for you not to notice it.”
• Repairing churches and schools so local Vietnamese citizens could attend these venues.
• Building computer centers for military strategy purposes.
• Doling out supplies, including sewing machines, to locals. “We had guys on Sunday take some supplies and hot dogs to the Catholic orphanage,” Ontko said.
But as they enhanced infrastructure and developed technology, they also prepared for an enemy strike. Training alongside Marines, Seabees knew how to attack and defend themselves just as much as they could enhance infrastructure or develop technology. Each Seabee carried a M16.
Nothing, however, prepared them for the first night they spent together.
“We got our baptism of fire,” said Ontko, recalling a nearby attack of Vietnamese personnel blowing up an American ammunition base. Fortunately the attack didn’t hurt anyone they lived with.
“We were bombarded with rockets and mortars. It’s terrifying, and your adrenaline is super high,” Ontko said.
But the attack brought them closer.
“When you get thrown into a war zone, and you don’t know anybody around you, you form a family bond right there the first time you get hit,” Ontko said. “These guys are your brothers. They may be the last people you see before you die. That bond never goes away.”
The bond persisted 44 years, despite the three never seeing each other.
“It’s like I’m getting into a time machine, and boom, here I am 44 years later,” Crawford said. “In some ways, it’s like nothing changed. We’re the same old buddies.”
Buehler lives in Reynoldsburg, just east of Columbus, while Crawford lives in Circleville, just south of Columbus.
Ontko lives in Sandusky and is a State Farm insurance agent with an office on West Monroe Street, near Cameo Pizza. His wife, Bev Ontko, organized the event as a surprise.