In the fourth and final episode of “A Vietnam Seabee’s Vow,” longtime American Legion officer David O. Warnken recollects his response to a national television reporter’s question when he didn’t want to be disturbed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and an eerie moment on his first visit to the grave of his fallen chief.
The chief was Donald J. Barnes of Philadelphia. Barnes and Warnken, his administrative aide, had become close friends in Vietnam. When orders came for their unit to ship out to Khe Sanh, Warnken expected to be alongside Barnes.
“What do you mean I’m not going?” asked the young man from Kansas.
“You didn’t tell me your wife was pregnant,” Barnes replied. “I’ve seen my five kids. I want you to see yours.”
Barnes drove off and less than two weeks later lost his life in a rocket attack. Warnken may well have been with him if Barnes had not held him back. “I’ve always thought, maybe he saved my life.”
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the war finally ended for Warnken, who vowed then to never forget Chief Barnes nor any of the others he knew and served with in the Vietnam War.
This special Memorial Day weekend video wraps up the series produced by American Legion Media & Communications Division visual arts specialist Hilary Ott. Each Friday through May, episodes trace Warnken’s journey from the family farm near Hutchinson, Kan., to the Vietnam War, back home again and, finally, the Wall and Arlington National Cemetery, where Barnes and other of his fellow Seabees are laid to rest.
The episodes may be viewed on The American Legion’s YouTube channel or at legion.org/legiontv. Visit the following links to see them on legion.org:
Growing up a Kansas farm boy, and married at the height of the war, he never expected to serve. Uncle Sam had other ideas.
“Vietnam,” he soon discovered, “… was bizarre.” For Warnken, that meant much more than building bases amid enemy fire; it meant going AWOL to save his own arm from amputation, followed by an unforgettable moment when he awakened all of I-Corps at the sound of a bugle in the distance.
The war had changed him, but he didn’t talk about it. Those at home nearly never asked. It was just back to work and staying busy enough to prevent combat memories from invading. Someone later asked, “Why don’t you join The American Legion?” He didn’t know why he should belong at that time. In the years ahead, he would discover what it meant to be among his fellow veterans, serving purposes once again that are bigger than oneself.