Vietnam buddies reunite after 47 years
SPRINGVILLE - The Civil War, or the War Between the States, perpetuated and reinforced many tensions between the North and the South, some of which survive to this day.
For John “Jack” Caines, a Meshoppen native and current resident of Springville, however, it took a different war between north and south, the Vietnam War, to forge a friendship that has withstood the test of an almost 50-year separation.
In the fall of 1966 Caines met Calvin Collins, a native of Georgia, while the two were serving in the Vietnam War.
Both were drafted in September of 1966, and Caines and Collins bonded over a mutual love of country music while stationed at the U.S. Army base at Long Binh, located roughly 20 miles from the city of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).
Despite coming from vastly different backgrounds, the two young soldiers became fast friends while working together at the base’s ammunition depot. For six months, Caines and Collins would talk while loading pallets with shells and cartridges. The job was arduous, but the two found that they had much in common and, before long, their friendship developed into a relationship that both men now describe as being like family.
It is in the nature of war, however, to separate friends, and Collins, following new orders, was reassigned to the city of Da Nang in late 1967. That was almost 47 years ago, and until very recently neither Caines nor Collins had any idea of what became of the other.
That all changed earlier this year when, with the help of his brother Al and the internet, Caines was able to find Collins, who now lives in Villa Rica, Georgia.
In March, Caines travelled to Georgia to reunite with his friend for the first time in nearly half a century. This week, Collins visited Caines in our area, marking only the second time that the two veterans have been together since the late 60s.
The friendship began in Vietnam on one fall morning in 1966, when a weary Calvin Collins woke to a familiar sound. With sleep still in his eyes, Collins could faintly hear country music coming from a neighboring building. “For a second,” he said last week, almost 47 years later, “I thought the whole war was just a bad dream and that I was back home in Georgia.”
It took only a few moments for Collins to gather his bearings though, and he went to see where the music was coming from. Outside, Collins found Jack Caines, who was trying to recapture something of home through the radio.
The rest, Collins said, is history.
Caines and Collins were assigned to the same ammo depot, where they worked together for 12 hours a day. When the two weren’t moving ammo, they ate in the same chow line and frequented the same mess hall.
“Most of the time,” Caines said, “we enjoyed just talking to each other.”
Collins remembered that he and Caines would often reminisce about home and family. “He had a big family and so did I,” Collins said. “We talked everyday about home and work and family, and we realized that even though we were from different places, we weren’t that different.”
Collins recalled that, when he first reported for duty, some of the boys from the north gave him a hard time because of his southern accent, using derogatory nicknames like “Joe Hick” to describe Southerners. “Once I had a guy come up to me trying to start trouble and say, ‘We won the War Between the States’,” remembered Collins.
“I just looked him in the eyes and said, “do you want to fight it again?” Those remnants of Civil War hostility, however, never got between Collins and Caines.
“Friendships formed during wartime are different than regular friendships,” Caines said. “They are a lot stronger, because you can lose friends over there so easily.”
Neither Caines nor Collins were exempt from witnessing the horrors of war, a fact that contributed to their closeness. “Those relationships are unique,” Collins said, “because they went beyond simple friendship. You were looking out for someone’s life,” he continued, “and they were looking out for yours.”
Those of us who are lucky enough to have not seen combat or the tragic reality of war can hardly grasp what Caines and Collins experienced at the ages of 19 and 20, but it is those very experiences, Collins said, that forced him to become a man.
Both men recall nightmarish scenes from their service, many of which continue to trouble them to this day. “Especially out on night patrol,” Collins recalled, “you would see things that no one should ever see, but you had no choice. You have to deal with that, and there were guys over there younger than me and him (Caines), and they have to carry that with them, too.”
“You can be a man at 14 and a child at 40,” he continued, “and in war you have to be a man before you are ready.”
Caines agreed. “You do your best to forget about it and move on,” he said. “You do your best to get a full night’s sleep, but it is hard. Thank the Lord we made it home, but we made it home with plenty of nightmares.”
The Vietnam War came during a very complicated period in American history, as hundreds of thousands of young men were cast into a conflict for which many other Americans still disagree.
“It wasn’t like it is today,” Caines says. “There was no one waiting at the airport with a flag when we got home, nobody was looking into the effects of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) all you had were your friends, and you didn’t know if they were going to make it out or not.”
Unfortunately, for almost 50 years, neither Caines nor Collins knew if the other had survived Vietnam.
Late in 1967, Collins was reassigned to the city of De Nang, near Hill 63.
Caines spent his whole tour at Long Binh, where he worked as a prison guard until his father suffered a massive heart attack.
Caines returned home after the emergency, and spent the remainder of his service time at the Tobyhanna Army Depot, unloading the bodies of deceased American servicemen. Due to the nature of his job, Caines was reminded often of the fatal consequences of war.
In 1969, Collins wrote two letters to Caines, hoping to hear that his buddy had made it back home safely.
Collins didn’t have an address, however, and the letters were never delivered.
Caines’ efforts to track down Calvin were equally unfruitful, and, still unsure of whether the other had survived the war, both men settled into their civilian lives, neither forgetting the other.
In the last few years, Caines, taking advantage of the advances in technology and the internet, and assisted by his brother Al, took up the charge of tracking down his old friend.
Al began searching for anyone he could find named Calvin Collins, and made contact with person after person who proved not to be the right man. Earlier this year, however, the intended Calvin Collins found a letter in his mailbox from a name he recognized: Caines.
“My heart started to race when I saw the name,” Collins recalls, “and there was Al’s phone number.”
Collins called Al and asked, “Do you have a brother named John who goes by Jack?” When he heard “yes,” Collins started to cry. “I’m your man,” he said.
Collins then called Jack. When a voice picked up on the other line, Collins asked, “If you had to go back to Vietnam to work in an ammunition depot, who would you want to work with?”
Jack said “Calvin Collins,” and that was that.
The two had finally gotten what they had waited for more than 46 years: the comfort of knowing that their best friend had survived the war that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 American serviceman.
Caines visited Collins at his home in Villa Rica, Georgia, last March, and said that it was an amazing and joyful experience. “I was welcomed with open arms, and I got to meet his whole family and enjoy their hospitality,” Caines said. “I wanted to make sure I returned the favor.”
Last Sunday (July 27), Collins made the trip north to spend a week in northeast Pennsylvania reconnecting with Caines.
“When I first saw him,” Collins said of their meeting in March, “I was overjoyed. I don’t really even remember what we talked about. We didn’t really talk so much about the war, but just about the fact that we somehow got together. It is like seeing a brother who you haven’t seen in a long time.”
This week, Collins was thrilled to see his brother again.
Caines and Collins spent much of their time in Pennsylvania visiting Jack’s family and seeing the area. Two of the days, Collins said, were spent just sitting on Jack’s porch in Springville talking.
“It is amazing that someone you haven’t seen in so long can be so much like family to you,” Collins said in a warm Southern accent. “You never know when you will see someone for the last time, but you have to take advantage of the time you have.”
After looking once more at his war buddy of nearly 50 years ago, Caines just smiled, “I don’t think we have changed much at all.”