SOMERVILLE, NJ – His voice cracked with with emotion, yet he was quick to joke, pausing occasionally to wipe away a tear.
Jim Langenbach shared anecdotes and fond memories of his childhood. He spoke fondly of his best friend, Robert Scherdin, of growing up together as kids in the borough, playing Army and throwing “dirt bomb” grenades at an imaginary enemy.
Best friends, they graduated Somerville High School in 1965, just as the war in Vietnam was intensifying, a war that would drag on until 1973, a war that killed 58,220 Americans, with over 2,600 Missing in Action and unaccounted for.
Scherdin is one of those who did not return home, officially listed as missing in action in April, 1969.
“Good luck in the Navy,” Scherdin wrote to his friend in their 1965 yearbook. "You should have joined the Marines.”
Langenbach, along with other SHS grads who had served in the US military during the Vietnam conflict, and members of Rolling Thunder were invited to the school by history teacher Mike Skomba Friday to pay tribute to Scherdin and to relate first-hand stories to several hundred students during a special assembly .
Skomba is the reigning Somerset County Teacher of the Year and a self-described history geek, but for this history lesson, he turned to the experts, men who were there, who witnessed what would become a controversial chapter in America’s history, grateful veterans who made it back home, who can attest to the horrors of war.
It marked the fifth year for Skomba’s oral history lesson on the Vietnam War, but this year’s assembly was notably poignant because the students had assembled a Memorial Shadow Box containing Scherdin’s uniform, his high school Yearbook photo, photos with Army buddies, a blanket from The Citadel where he had gone to school briefly before joining the Army, and an album cover from the popular Vietnam-era recording “The Green Beret.”
The Shadow Box will be mounted on the wall outside the school’s Media Room alongside a plaque that honors other SHS grads who gave their lives in Vietnam.
Langenbach and Scherdin grew up as neighbors, went to school together and when they were in grade school played on what was then a vacant field where Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital now stands on Rehill Avenue.
Scherdin was the leader of the “East End Militia,” according to Langenbach, a rag-tag group of young adventurous boys who grew up in the 1950s with Daisy Red Ryder air rifles and vivid imaginations. They had battles and hurled “dirt bomb” grenades and splashed through “Blood Sucker Creek” as they pursued their imaginary enemy.
“There were no Communists in Somerville thanks to us,” he joked.
He said his friend was a natural-born leader, like the time he convinced his pack of friends from the east side of the “Ville to walk from Somerville to Long Branch, inspired by then-President John F. Kennedy’s campaign for physical fitness and 50-mile hikes.
“Rob thought it was a good idea, so we did it,” Langenback recalls. “No real game plan we just started walking east to Long Branch,” where an aunt of Langenbach’s lived.
They made it.
Then there was the time Rob and his crew lashed together some big blocks of Styrofoam and made a makeshift raft, the SS Sink or Swim. They set off down Peters Brook headed for the Raritan River, hoping to reach Raritan Bay in Perth Amboy and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean.
They got as far as Manville, where there was a company picnic up on the banks; they were invited to tie up and come ashore to eat. They did, and walked home afterwards, leaving the Styrofoam raft behind.
“He put these things together, next thing you know, we’re off to another crazy thing,” Langenbach said.
Later, he said his best friend was “the full package; academics, athletics – he was a leader.”
Langenbach graduated SHS in 1965 along with his best friend; he went into the Navy and served on a destroyer while Scherdin headed off to The Citadel, one of the finest military schools in the nation. He didn’t get the chance to graduate because he had to come home to tend to some family matters, Langenbach recalls; eventually Scherdin enlisted in the Army, opting to sign up for Special Forces, ultimately becoming a member of the elite Green Berets.
Scherdin was a member of a 10-man patrol inserted into Cambodia near the border with South Vietnam and Laos that came under heavy fire; he was wounded in the firefight in late December, 1968. There were at least two attempts afterwards to search for him, but he was not found and was declared Missing in Action in April 1969, according to this account from the website TaskForceOmegaInc.:
"The rear element with PFC Scherdin in command, moved forward toward the team leader's position, it came under heavy automatic weapons fire from a concealed enemy position. Nguang, one of the Montagnards with Robert Scherdin, saw him fall to the ground on his right side. Nguang tried to help PFC Scherdin stand up, but the assistant team leader only groaned and would not get up. As the firefight raged around them, Nguang was wounded. At that time, he realized the other three members of the rear element were moving away from the ambush site and he quickly joined them.
"The five members of the lead element continued a running gun battle with the NVA. They finally broke contact and the team leader established radio contact with the Forward Air Controller (FAC), call sign "Covey," who had been circling overhead, to request an immediate emergency extraction. The lead element was extracted a short time later followed by the four Montagnard members of the rear element. After the extraction was completed, the team leader was informed that PFC Scherdin had been wounded and because of the tactical situation, had to be left behind. Later US intelligence confirmed that the team had been hit by a large NVA pursuit force.
"The location of the firefight was less then 1 mile east of the Cambodian/Laos border, approximately 3 miles west of the Cambodian/South Vietnamese border and 17 miles west of Dak To, South Vietnam.”
The story of Scherdin’s status as an MIA is a familiar one to the members of Rolling Thunder invited to the Assembly.
It was yet another opportunity for them to continue their fight to keep alive the plight of the POW and MIA. According to some estimates, there are more than 82,000 members of the American military still unaccounted for in armed conflicts going back to the country’s early history.
The group’s Mission Statement reads:
“The major function of Rolling Thunder is to publicize the POW/MIA issue; to educate the public that many American Prisoners of War were left behind after all previous wars and to help correct the past and to protect future veterans from being left behind should they become Prisoners of War-Missing in Action. We are also committed to helping American veterans from all wars.”
Rolling Thunder's motto: "We Will Never Forget."
The program included a performance by the Van Derveer elementary school choir, directed by music teacher Pat Helwig, an SHS graduate, a neighbor of Scherdin growing up and close family friend.
Following their performance, the assembly moved outdoors for a flag raising and the playing of “Taps.”