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A family recalls toll of two wars


HAVRE DE GRACE - The father survived three bloody amphibious landings in World War II and a year in Nazi prison camps. The son was an "invisible" warrior in Vietnam, part of a top-secret team of electronic eavesdroppers perched in a far-flung outpost called Ben Het.

Their wars, defining events in their lives, presented profound contrasts. The "Big War" from 1941 to 1945 was conventional and righteous, waged against three world tyrants. The other was an insidious, dirty counterinsurgency campaign that ripped this nation apart and claimed 58,000 lives.

Today, Arthur H. Way, 80, his son Vincent, 53, and Margaret Way, 79, the woman who endured both wars with a grinding worry as wife and then mother, will join others at Tydings Park near their home in Havre de Grace and observe Memorial Day.

While American flags splash the town's stately Union Avenue, the Way family will quietly remember their personal investments in war's pain and triumph.

Arthur Way can call up in his mind's eye the brutal beatings at the hands of German guards, an untreated infection that nearly left him blind and, 55 years later, meeting a fellow POW and joking that he had only two teeth remaining when he was liberated. Though a half-century in the past, the nightmares still steal into his sleep.

Vincent Way, who served two years in Southeast Asia, will recall in 1969 hunkering down in the Ben Het Special Forces camp, a member of the clandestine 509th Radio Research Group, and listening to North Vietnamese radios and Morse code keys crackle and click with potential intelligence bonanzas.

He will remember the constant barrage of artillery and mortar fire aimed at the camp near where South Vietnam bordered Laos and Cambodia. And he will be thankful he left Ben Het just days before North Vietnamese tanks attacked, beginning a siege on the tiny fortress that would last six months.

"World War II was different; we had to do it because our freedom was at stake," Margaret Way said, pausing. "Vietnam was stupid, awful. I almost died when Vincent called me and said he was going back for a second tour. I could have smacked him."

The two men also remember vastly different homecomings.

Hospitalized several months, the elder Way returned to a united nation "very grateful for peace and for what everybody had done, all the sacrifices. We had our freedom and everywhere you went people just appreciated you."

The son quickly discovered Vietnam veterans at home would be treated like lepers as the tumultuous 1960s slipped into a new decade.

"Like my second night home, my friend picked me up and we went to a club," Vincent Way said. "I asked a woman to slow dance, and we were talking, and she asked me what I did. I told her I was nearing the end of my Army enlistment and that I had just returned from Vietnam.

"She stopped dancing, pushed me away and walked off the dance floor," he said. It would be years before he would again talk about Vietnam.

Most veterans hold Memorial Day sacred. It is a time to share experiences and avoid the side of a national holiday that many say has become overly commercial.

"You say war and people today don't know what you are talking about," said state Del. Nancy Hubers, an Essex Democrat who will take part today in a Memorial Day ceremony at Holly Hill Memorial Gardens in eastern Baltimore County.

For Arthur Way, today's recollections are seared in his memory. At sunrise, he will unfurl an American flag and display it outside the family's deck, facing tranquil Concord Cove.

"Do not call me a hero," he said, tears welling in his eyes. "The only heroes are the ones who sacrificed their lives, the ones who didn't come home."

Arthur and Margaret Way grew up in East Baltimore and married 58 years ago, during World War II. As noted in a yellowed diary he maintained through combat and his 14 months in Nazi POW camps, Arthur enlisted in the Army in February 1942 and was assigned to the 45th Infantry Division.

He landed at Sicily in July 1943 and at Salerno two months later. After months of combat and terror, he was in a landing craft headed for Anzio. What he and his mates did not know was that seven German divisions were waiting.

Cpl. Way was captured within days of his first patrol. He served time in three camps and was beaten regularly by guards. He worked, mostly on farms and in forests. He was fed "air raid" soup, he said jokingly. "It was 'all clear.'"

He thought all the time of going home. "I knew the Allies would win the war. There was no doubt in my mind."

On the home front, Margaret Way tended to their young daughter, Peggy, and internalized her deep concerns for her husband and a nation at war. Several months after her husband was captured, "I received a telegram saying Arthur was a prisoner of the Germans. I didn't get his first letter until November of '44.

"I worried an awful lot, but all I could do was put us in the hands of the Lord," she said.

On May 1, 1945, Way and fellow prisoners were liberated from Camp 7B near the Austrian border.

"When I was a POW, a German farmer asked me why we were in Europe, fighting his country," Way recalled from his favorite living-room easy chair. "I just reminded him that that his leader, Hitler, said Germany would swallow up Europe today, tomorrow the world. That's why we were all there."

For the son, there would be no such lofty purpose of mission. At 18, Vincent Way was "flunking out of my second year in college, ill-prepared, immature, so I joined the Army. Yes, in school I was yielding to a lot of temptation."

He was trained as an intelligence analyst, but "the only thing I knew about Vietnam was that it was somewhere around China. Before we went, we were not told about any of the country's history, customs, nothing."

Way spent most of his 24 months at Green Beret camps in Vietnam's Highlands, a region with forbidding mountains populated by tribes of Montagnards, primitive warriors who fought bravely with the Special Forces.

"I always called them 'Sneaky Petes' with radios," said John Stovall, a former Army captain who received the Silver Star for heroism at Ben Het in March 1969. A tank company commander with 69th Armor who helped defend the remote camp, he recalled that "a lot of people didn't know them; they just had a lot of antennae up there at Ben Het."

Stovall, a letter carrier in Franklin, Ky., said Vincent Way "got out of Ben Het just in time. It got real spooky. There was this feeling the [the North Vietnamese] had tanks; then one night we heard them moving toward us. After I was evacuated, they had hundreds of rounds hitting the camp every day."

While at Ben Het and six other highland camps, Way and his team scanned the ether for enemy radio traffic and electronically tracked incoming enemy artillery and mortar fire. They also listened in on American radio transmissions for vulnerability studies. "Units were supposed to change their codes and frequencies every 21 days, and most did," Way said. "But there was a colonel with the 4th Division who absolutely refused to change his call sign, 'Bulldog.'"

"He thought he was John Wayne, I guess," Way said. "But his refusal to follow basic security was a symptom of our arrogance, most people's lack of understanding of the Vietnamese and their perseverance and sophistication."

Way, now an agent with the federal Defense Security Services, is the father of two grown children, and the grandfather of two little girls. He is on extended sick leave from his job as he takes on another baffling enemy, chronic leukemia, with chemotherapy.

And once again, as he did in Vietnam three decades ago, Vincent Way must confront his own mortality. "In Vietnam at age 19, sometimes I felt 90. Now I've stepped backward and met myself. I'm going to whip this; I'm going to attend my grandchildren's wedding.

"Yep, just like long ago, every day above ground is a good one."

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