From a Red Lodge Sash to a Red Bandana
By Pati Egan
A True Hero and Lodge Member – 1st Lt. Larry A. Garner
There is today, in the United States Army, a group of soldiers who can claim their company’s designation to a heroic Company Commander during the Vietnam War who was a former staff member and Lodge Member at Camp Ondessonk: First Lieutenant Larry Garner. Some of you may be thinking, “Wasn’t that cool bridge across Lake Echon called the Larry Garner Bridge?”
“CAMP HOVEY, South Korea – For the Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment’s Company C, maintaining the legacy of the company’s first Bandido commander is serious business; one that each Bandido Soldier lives each and every day.
Company C, or as it’s officially named, Bandido Charlie, first got its namesake in 1967 during the Vietnam War when 1st Lt. Larry A. Garner assumed command of the unit. While in command and leading his troops in battle, Garner would routinely wear a red bandana around his neck, and it didn’t take long for his men to follow suit.
After seeing the Soldiers in their red bandanas and in clear violation of uniform regulations, the battalion commander told Garner that he and his men ‘looked like a bunch of bandidos.’ Liking the name, Garner immediately began referring to the company as Bandido Charlie.”
Larry Garner was a member of the first staff at Camp Ondessonk in 1959. Bill Clark was also a member of this staff. Bill wrote a wonderful memoir of his early days at Camp. He mentions Larry Garner in his memoir and recalls that Larry was very competitive and would encourage his campers in tug of war by running up and down the line wearing a white English helmet and proudly carrying the orange flag of Lalemant.
Bill was speaking to a friend who visited the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC. His friend mentioned how magnificent the wall was to visit. Bill started thinking, “I wonder who I know whose name would be on that wall?” Then he remembered his good Camp buddy, Larry Garner. In the 1970s, Bill brought his own children to Camp and saw the Larry Garner Bridge. It reminded him of Larry and his campers building a little footbridge across the creek that would eventually become Lake Echon.
What did 1st Lt. Larry Garner do that was so heroic?
It would be best to let these soldiers tell the story.
Prior to Larry’s service in the Army, he was a Non-Commissioned Officer in the Marine Corps. After fulfilling his duty to the Marines, Larry went to SIUC and earned his Master’s Degree in History. “That done, he felt he still needed to serve his country. He enlisted in the Army, went through OCS, trained, and shipped over to Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division from Ft. Riley, Kan. He served first as a platoon leader and then as CO of C/5/60th Inf (Mech)… This highly decorated officer was fearless in battle and in life. His men adored him.
LTC Edwin W. Chamberlain, who was the Commander of the 3d Bn at the time, complained one day that Charlie Co. (with their red bandanas) looked like a bunch of Bandidos, and the name stuck. James D. Johnson, author of Combat Chaplain: A Thirty-Year Vietnam Battle, wrote in his book that he had talked to LT Garner one day, and “he sees himself as immortal,” and “will make general… or he’ll get kicked out because of his unorthodox way in which he conducts his military business.”
“LT Larry Garner never got the chance to make General. On his last operation, after already turning over his command to CPT Dick Botello, 1st LT Larry Arthur Garner led a volunteer contingent of his Bandidos to save a downed helicopter crew. These Bandidos charged the VC (Viet Cong), drove them away from the downed helicopter, and rescued the crew. During the night, Garner and his men formed a small perimeter around the helicopter. The VC mounted a vicious counterattack, and LT Garner took a VC bullet in the heart. He was killed along with two other brave men.”
Courage! What an outstanding quality for Lodge members to look up to today! Larry did not have to go on this mission, but he knew that the helicopter crew was in desperate need of help. Larry inspired his men by the way he led his life. He was a Seminary Student, and Bill Clark recalls, “Larry was a seminary student two years ahead of me all through high school and college into Theology. We shared not only our schooling but also several of our summers as unit leaders at Camp. Larry was from Mulkeytown, Ill., which is a few miles from DuQuoin. I know that God made us all unique. In the Camp Ondessonk experience, Larry Garner had a very special uniqueness.” Larry had the ability to lead others in a positive way. His campers volunteered to build a bridge and give up a few activities – his soldiers volunteered to go on an extremely dangerous mission deep into enemy territory. Perhaps Larry’s faith helped him through the tough times. His qualities of selflessness, courage, and confidence are all qualities we hope we have in our lives.
Think of Larry the next time you have a tough decision to make; think of Larry when you lead by example. Think of Larry the next time you are at a Lodge Ceremony, and remember the impact he had on his fellow soldiers’ lives.