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Vietnam War veteran pays tribute to three from Falls who never returned

Wayne H. Bridgeman, 71

Hometown and residence: Niagara Falls

Branch: Navy

Rank: Aviation maintenance administrationman petty officer second class

War zone: Vietnam, two tours of duty

Years of service: 1962-66

Most prominent honors: Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon

Specialty: Maintenance control for F-4B Phantom fighter jets

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Before Wayne H. Bridgeman talks about his own military service in the Vietnam War, he talks about three other Niagara Falls residents who never made it home alive.

And though they are long dead, he says his connection to them has strengthened over the years.

Memorial Day will find Bridgeman making trips to each of their graves, a ritual of respect he also fulfills on the anniversaries of their deaths.

He will start out at Lewiston’s Gate of Heaven Cemetery, where Army Pvt. 1st Class Gilbert M. Nicklas is buried. Nicklas was 20 when he was killed during a battle in the Ia Drang Valley on Nov. 14, 1965.

In the same cemetery, Bridgeman will visit the grave of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas W. Sitek, a 32-year-old pilot who died Aug. 23, 1967, when his F-4B Phantom fighter jet was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over North Vietnam. Sitek’s remains weren’t found until nearly 36 years later, and he was laid to rest Aug. 28, 2003.

Bridgeman will conclude his rounds with a drive to another Lewiston cemetery, Niagara Falls Memorial Park, and pay his respects to Marine Cpl. Gary L. Henderson, who was killed in action March 9, 1966. He was 23.

“Gary Henderson and I went to Trott Vocational High School together. He left behind a wife and a young daughter. He was killed before he ever saw that baby,” Bridgeman says. “He had three months to serve, and he would have been out of Vietnam.”

Sitek, too, was only weeks away from completing his tour of duty and returning home to his wife and three young children.

As for Nicklas, he was one of 234 Americans killed in the first pitched firefight of the war, which was the basis of the 2002 movie “We Were Soldiers.” Bridgeman says he can still recall Sitek as a young high school student heading from one class to the next.

“He was a nice kid, and I’d see him in the hallways when I transferred to LaSalle Senior High School,” Bridgeman says.

Bridgeman keeps alive memories of these three men from his hometown who were among the many from Western New York who were killed in Vietnam.

“I was lucky to come out of the war zone alive and rejoin my family and friends. Mike, Gary and Tom weren’t as lucky,” Bridgeman says. “I think about them every Memorial Day.”

And he is not alone in his reflections. Millions of Americans on this Memorial Day weekend are attending parades or visiting cemeteries and war memorials to pay their respects to those who fought and died. Such sacrifice, Bridgeman says, should never be forgotten.

That said, he shares his own story of how he came to continue a family tradition of military service that includes his father, an older brother and several uncles. Some of them served in war, others in peacetime.

At age 17, Bridgeman and his father, Wilbur, an Army veteran, drove over to the Welland Canal in Canada to get a close look at a light U.S. Navy destroyer passing through the waterway from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie on a tour of the Great Lakes.

Father and son both noted that the sailors standing on the deck were all holding coffee cups.

“My dad said to me, ‘In the Navy, you always have a clean rack to sleep on and a cup of coffee in your hand,’ ” Bridgeman recalls, and he was immediately sold on enlisting in the Navy.

But this idyllic image of cruising the world and sipping Joe proved too good to be true.

“After I was in the Navy, I wrote my dad, ‘You didn’t tell me how rotgut this coffee was.’ ”

And unlike being on a destroyer in the sheltered waters of the Great Lakes, Bridgeman soon found himself patrolling the waters off Vietnam.

He and other crew members aboard the USS Constellation, affectionately known as “the Connie,” were part of one of the most controversial and disputed events of the war in August 1964 – the Tonkin Gulf incident. Phantom jets roared off the Connie’s flight deck and bombed North Vietnam torpedo boat bases in retaliation for reported enemy torpedoes allegedly fired at the USS Maddox.

To this day, questions remain as to whether an attack on the U.S. ship had actually occurred, or whether it had been fabricated to allow for the ramping up of U.S. military actions.

“I was working in the laundry room at that time, not a great job, and below deck,” Bridgeman says. “You could hear the jets taking off and landing. I thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’ They never told us too much about the action.”

But hours later, he and other sailors were permitted to step onto the flight deck where they could the see Vietnam in the distance.

“Seeing the shores of Vietnam and from what the pilots told us, we pieced together what was going on,” Bridgeman says. “We stayed there for 30 days until we were relieved by another aircraft carrier.”

His second tour of duty in the Vietnam War followed in 1965, again serving with Fighter Squadron 142, this time aboard the USS Ranger, maintaining aircraft logbooks.

“Any time a pilot had a gripe about the mechanics of the plane, he’d write it up and I would type up a work order, and the plane would be repaired at one of the different shops on the aircraft carrier,” Bridgeman recalls. “It was hectic, but you just dealt with it. The planes were going night and day.”

But by 1966, when so many other young Americans were arriving in Vietnam, Bridgeman’s enlistment was coming to an end. Back in California, where he had been stationed at the end of his duty, he lived in San Diego for several years, before returning home to Niagara Falls, where he found a job at the Goodyear plant. He worked there as a chemical operator for 31 years and retired in 2001.

Bridgeman, a bachelor, says he often reflects on the war, though not so much on his service, but rather the sacrifices made by Nicklas, Sitek and Henderson.

It provides him with more than enough incentive to visit their graves.

“I go to their individual graves,” he says, “and say a prayer for their eternal peace, and then I salute them.”