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Near-death encounters replaced wedding plans for Vietnam vet

Working at Curtiss Wright on the East Side making airplane parts in 1968, Harold L. Pope Jr. was engaged to be married to his high school sweetheart when another engagement got in the way.

“I was about to get married when I was drafted for Vietnam,” the 68-year-old Pope said, explaining that he and his fiancée decided to delay the marriage.

“When I got to Vietnam, she sent me a 'Dear John' letter calling off the engagement,” Pope said. “I was really devastated.”

But the rejection filled him with a belly full of fire to survive his time in Vietnam so that he could return home and hopefully win back her heart.

“I was determined to come back home and get married to her like we had planned. She was everything to me.”

The first part of the strategy succeeded – he survived the war – but wedding her was not to be.

As an infantry rifleman, he served with the 1st Cavalry Division, which relied on helicopters to transport its ground forces.

“They dropped us off in these fields way out in the boonies. A lot of the times, the landing zones would be hot with enemy fire. The helicopter door gunners would be shooting and we’d have to jump from six or seven feet in the air into elephant grass. If it was too hot, they’d pull right out and we’d go to another landing zone.”

Once on the ground in hostile situations, Pope said the first order of business was to take cover.

“We’d start digging little fox holes, something to get down into. We’d stay for a couple hours and if it wasn’t too hot with enemy fire, we’d pull up and start humping along on search-and-destroy missions.”

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Harold L. Pope Jr., 68
Hometown: Chattanooga, Tenn.
Residence: Buffalo
Branch: Army
Rank: E-4
War zone: Vietnam
Years of service:  June 1968 - June 1970
Most prominent honors: Combat Infantry Badge, 2 Bronze Stars, Vietnam Service Medal, Army Air Medal
Specialty: Infantry

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Yet it wasn’t always about engaging in firefights with the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong guerrillas.

“Sometimes we let them walk by us and we’d set up Claymore mines and when they came back, we ignited them. Those Claymores could rip you apart,” Pope said.

But of harming the enemy, he said he took no pleasure in it.

“It was just something we had to do. It was either that or not come back home.”

Over his 53-week deployment to Vietnam, he says there were many intense firefights but a couple stand out.

“I was behind a big log on the ground with another soldier about five feet away and we were getting fired on. When I looked over at him a second time, he had been shot in the head. I went blank. I didn’t really know him but it was like I knew him,” said Pope, who wept in recalling the memory.

“I could have been that guy. We were both behind the same log," he said. "The medics came over, but he was just gone. We formed a perimeter and a helicopter came in and took him away. Sometimes I don’t know why I made it home.”

In the other too-close-for-comfort encounter with the enemy, Pope said a bullet struck the butt of his rifle, putting a hole in it and knocking him down.

“The bullet hit my rifle and I felt like I’d been tackled to the ground. Everyone else with me got down, but the patrol leader tried to get up and run. I told him, ‘Man, you better get back down or I’m going to shoot you myself.’ He just panicked. He got back down and we crawled back to our unit.”

Times like this, he said, made the rest and relaxation breaks all the sweeter.

“When we would go back to the rear for a few days, we’d get the chance to clean up after being out in the bush for three or four weeks. The rear echelon staff hated to see us come back because we were wild. We were ready to come and have a good time and enjoy ourselves, eat some meals, have a couple drinks ...”

But when they returned to the front, it was all business.

Vietnam veteran Harold L. Pope Jr., left, and his friend Burnell Smith had to be diligent to survive enemy attacks in the late 1960s.

“You can’t carry on out there like you did in the rear. No way. You had to be alert and attentive out in the field.”

His diligence served him well. His only injuries were jungle rot and trench foot, ailments of the skin caused by crossing rivers and spending long periods in the bush where personal hygiene was a low priority.

But while he was not physically wounded, he says he returned home psychologically injured, though for years he could not exactly say what was wrong.

“I didn’t know I had PTSD until years later when I went to a VA program in Batavia. It helped a lot. I’m pretty much trying to cope these days. What we’d say a lot in Vietnam and back here is ‘You gotta get back to the world.’ Vietnam was not the world that we wanted to be in.”

As for the young lady he had hoped to win back when he returned to civilian life, Pope said he tried, going so far as to visit her at a local house of worship where she was a member.

“It was a joy to see her.”

But, he says, it was not meant to be. She had married and was expecting a child.

He says he continued to carry a torch for her that burned so painfully bright that he did not fall in love with anyone else for many years.

“I went with a bunch of girls but I couldn’t find anyone that I wanted to marry.”

At 42, though, he found love briefly and married. He and his wife had twin girls, but the couple separated after they were born.

What has remained a constant in Pope’s life has been the Vietnam War.

“I think about it every day, some of the people that I was over there with and haven’t seen. I think about the good times, not the bad times. There’s this one guy who was my friend. We’d sit in the fox holes together while we were on guard duty and listen to our radios with songs coming from a Saigon radio station.

“There’s this one song, ‘Crystal Blue Persuasion.’ We’d listen to it and cry. We wanted to go home so bad when we heard it.”

So, Jack Noonan, if you are out there somewhere reading this, your old battle buddy Harold Pope hopes you will get in touch with him.

He’d be thrilled to listen to Crystal Blue Persuasion with you one more time.

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