Fellow Veteran's Honor Dan Harmon
by Mike Rostad, Special to the Kodiak Mirror, June 6, 2003
"Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" [John 15:13].
Woody Island Native Dan Harmon laid down his life for his friends and country 36 years ago in a fiery confrontation with ambushing Viet Cong on the Cambodian border. Ironically, Harmon had only one week [to serve in Vietnam] before his discharge.
Danny and fellow soldiers - SP4 Ron Coon, SP4 Jim Sommers and SGT Ron Bonert - of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, a detachment of the 4th Infantry Division, were being evacuated by tanks from a danger zone when enemy fire disabled two of the vehicles and wounded Coon and Bonert.
|"For most people, Memorial Day comes once a year. For me, it's every day." - Ron Coon|
Harmon pulled Coon off the tank and dragged him to a ditch where the injured man passed out. As if oblivious to the danger around him, Harmon climbed on top of the tank and tried to get Bonert over the edge. Suddenly he was struck at close range through the heart with two AK-47 rounds. He was knocked off the tank and died. Twelve days later Bonert, a native of Chicago, succumbed in a [military] hospital.
Dan Harmon was buried with high military honors on Woody Island in a spot he loved and longed to return to. Today, the heroic Vietnam veteran will be commemorated in a way that would have brought a bright smile to his often quiet face. His friends and family members - including nieces and nephews who weren't even born in 1967 - will gather around his grave as one, united in their love and admiration for this brave man whose heroism and sacrifice have never been forgotten.
The memorial service by Father Benjamin Peterson, Dean of St. Herman's Seminary, is one of the highlights of a four-day retreat sponsored by the Woody Island Tribal Council.
Ron Coon and fellow LRRP teammates Jim Umberger and Bob Crawford came to Kodiak for the special occasion, along with Mike Lapolla, the lieutenant who put the LRRP teams together.
These veterans saw a lot of death and squalor in Vietnam, but their exposure to the harsh, at times unbearable realities of war, has not hardened their hearts. The mere mention of Danny's name brings tears to their eyes.
"He was like a brother to me," says Umberger - any further comments temporarily blocked off by a surge of emotion.
Coon doesn't say much at first but when he tells you what Danny's sacrifice means to him, you know that what he's finally able to blurt out is not conversation filler, but words from the heart that is still grieving the loss of close comrades, and the loss of precious blessings denied them because of their sacrifices.
"Danny gave me his tomorrows," Ron said, and no matter how gloomy those tomorrows can get, Ron's final assessment is that "life is good."
Before they left Kodak for Woody Island, the men of the LRRP reminisced about Danny and their time in Vietnam. For Umbrella and Coon, who knew Dan on a personal level, sharing memories about Harmon didn't come easy.
Lapolla didn't know Harmon like those two, but he knew enough about him to realize that he was one you could count on to function in an outfit like the LRRP Their work took them deep inside enemy territory bomb damage assessments [BDAs], searches for enemy positions, and other dangerous work. Often the men went on four-day missions in teams of four. Many in the Army called them crazy and wouldn't want their work for all the gold in the world.
When Lapolla put together his LRRP teams, he had no manual that told him how to select and organize the right people for the job.
"You had to figure it out for yourself. When you are in that kind of circumstance, it makes all the difference in the world who you recruit. You have to find people you can trust. You can trust a lot of people most of the time. But there's not many you can trust ALL of the time, no matter what. And that's the kind of people you're looking for.
"When you are a lieutenant running an operation, you've got two kinds of troopers; the guys you can count on ALL the time, and the others." Danny was one you could count on every situation, Lapolla said.
There's a lot of people who go through life and you can't say that about them. If you are 21 and were killed [in the service of others] and that' your legacy, it's a good one to have.
"Danny Harmon volunteered for the Army in 1966. After that he volunteered for this unit [LRRP]. And he volunteered for his last mission." Harmon didn't have to volunteer for any of those things, Lapolla said.
"If I was there [when he volunteered to go on his last mission], he wouldn't have gone. Neither him or Ron [Bonert] would have been on that mission. You don't have to send guys with one week to go."
Harmon's "chomping at the bit" zeal to get into the action does not come as a surprise to those who were close to him. He was driven by a desire to serve. Long before he ended up in the ambush that took his life, Dan went AWOL in Washington State - not because he wanted to get out of the Army or because he was afraid of potential danger. He was upset that the Army wasn't going to send him to Vietnam.
Dan finally got his wish and boarded the Nelson M. Walker, a troop ship. The carrier left the Port of Tacoma and 17 days later the men got off in Qui Nhon, Vietnam.
Umberger was on that boat.
"They put us over the side in WWII style ... onto the beach," Umberger recalls. "They put us on two and a half ton trucks and brought us to the airfield and loaded us into aircraft. They put us in like cattle. You couldn't sit down. They took us to Pleiku in the Central Highlands."
That was the beginning. Eventfully he got to know the guy from Woody Island pretty well, even tough Danny was pretty quiet. Where I really got to know Danny was out on missions in the jungle. You get pretty close when it's just four of you."
Jim still remembers that ever present smile of Danny's. "He had a way of smiling at you. He told us he was from Kodiak Island, and talked about how he wanted to come back here to live here., settle down and fish. He told me I could come and see him."
Danny and Jim were some of the first to volunteer when the LRRP teams were organized. "We were the ones that learned together, what to do, how to survive. Danny was one of the best I've ever known in the woods. He didn't miss nothing. If it was there, Danny found it."
Dan's wilderness savvy didn't go unnoticed by Lapolla or Coon either.
Coon had been on several missions with Harmon, but on the final one near the Cambodian border, he got to know the man better, and appreciate his ability to se what was hidden. Harmon was training Coon to be a point man, which Umberger describes as "the man up front that everyone else is following. If the point man messes up, he's the first to die."
Coon was just coming up the trail and was considering crossing when he suddenly froze.
"I knew something wasn't right," he said, "I just couldn't see anything, but just froze and signaled the others to stop. Danny came up and put his hand on my shoulder. He pushed me down, and as I went to the ground I could see under the brush ... these guys set up along this trail to ambush us. But their backs were toward us. They didn't even know we were there."
Coon came to Vietnam about a year after Harmon, so he had a lot of catching up to do. Danny helped him.
"He's was the one to greet you. He's the one who took you over to the side and started talking about what to do, what not to do, how to act out there. He was interested in the new guys."
One day as the two were sitting on sandbags and Danny was throwing his knife at a target, he told Ron how to handle himself in enemy territory. "You never look the enemy in the eye, don't look at his face, but watch his hands," he told the newcomer.
"Danny said his hands will tell you what they see and what they are going to do. If you look them in the face, they'll turn and look at you. I remember him sitting on the sand bags and telling me that."
Coon and Umberger went on many missions as LRRP members, and those missions run together like crayons in the sun. Coon said, "In my memory I was on one long mission."
But the last one he went on with Dan Harmon was painfully unique. It's tough for Coon to talk about it. The skirmish has been recounted in many articles and books including "Phantom Warriors" by Gary Linderer.
The four-man LRRP team had been dropped off by helicopter in the middle of nowhere for a BDA. Coming upon a trail, they noticed fresh foot tracks from the enemy and had to constantly watch their backs. After spending a restless night at a campsite, they continued on their way. They ran into more evidence of impending ambush, like the one Coon mentioned earlier, and finally took shelter in the remnant of an old French outpost. They called for a helicopter to pick them up, but no helo was available.
Sergeant Bonert called for a fire mission and soon got a 155mm battery to fire a few rounds in the vicinity.
Much to their relief, the four men were informed that the battalion commander had just authorized three tanks and an infantry platoon to pick them up. While they waited, they saw the enemy troops moving closer.
In early afternoon, the tanks came barreling down the main road, called Highway 19, with the infantry far behind. One of the tanks picked up the four men and as the convoy tried to leave the area of danger, they ran into heavy attacks.
The Viet Cong exploded a command-detonated mine under the track of the lead tank which carried the four LRRPs. The tread wad blown off,and the same fate awaited another tank that hit a mine. The center tank was caught between the two disabled ones.
"RPG rounds whooshed out of cover along the road and hit the lead tank on the turret," wrote Linderer about the attack. One of the rounds exploded at Coon's feet, blowing off a combat boot and peppering him with shrapnel.
He heard Bonert screaming for help from the tank. When he asked where Harmon was, Sommers pointed to his body on the road, explaining how Harmon had fallen while attempting to rescue Bonert. Coon was devastated.
Coon tried to help Bonert, but he kept blacking out. The North Vietnamese left Bonert alone, possibly using him as bait to entice Americans to go to his aid and become open targets. The only person who came to assist the tankers and LRRPs, writes Linderer, was a South Vietnamese interpreter by the name of Tam.
At about 4:00 pm, a cease fire was called. Bonert, a wounded tanker lieutenant and Harmon's body went out on the first medivac and Coon and Sommers caught a lift on the second helo.
Coon was treated at hospitals in Pleiku, Qui Nhon, Subic Bay (Philippines) and Okinawa. He returned to his platoon in July.
No matter how hard they tried, the men of the LRRP could not forget the ugly battles of Vietnam. Neither could they forget their dear friends, Dan Harmon and Ron Bonert.
Through the years the members of the LRRP and Harmon's family started making contact with each other. How everyone was brought together is a story for at least another article. What need to be said on this special day of Dan Harmon's commemoration, and what most likely will be shared at his gravesite, is that Dan Harmon was a hero, an each year that he lives on this planet, Coon realizes, on a deeper level. what that heroism encompasses.
"They throw the word 'hero' around a lot." Coon said. "I've even been called a hero. I've know heroes. That's good enough for me. If there's such a thing as a hero, Danny is the one."
"As the years roll by, I understand more and more of what he gave up on that day in June in 1967. It wasn't so biting in 1970. It was there, I thought about it [with the attitude of] 'Okay, that's just how it is. We're expected to do that for each other.' But as I've gotten older an held my own babies, graduated them from high school, helped them get through college, watched my boy go through Desert Storm, the older I got, the more I realized what Danny gave up that day. I've had all this stuff, Danny got none of it. I stand in awe of what that man did that day."
Coon can barely get the words out, but they come, each syllable filled with gratitude and charged with emotion.
"I pay my debts, I take care of my people. I do what I am supposed to do. When someone does me a favor, I try to do them a favor back. With Danny, there's no way for me to pay him back. How can you pay back something like that? When I hold my four-year-old grandson in my arms, how do I tell Dan 'thank you,' knowing Danny will never get to hold his four-year-old grandson?
"I've watched people drink themselves to death, I've watched people drug themselves to death, do all kinds of stupid stuff. And I probably could have done the same thing. The one thing that kept me on the straight an narrow was that I would never do anything to dishonor what Danny did for me that day.
"For most people, Memorial Day comes once a year. For me, it's every day."