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Old friends and a wartime surgeon’s story

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Dear Friends,

Good morning. Quakertown attorney Rodney Henry and I have been pals for 80-plus years. We first met in Gertrude Frank’s Sunday School Primary class at the old Reformed Church at Fifth and West Broad in Quakertown, a few years before kindergarten.

We might have been 3 or 4 years old at the time. As classmates beginning in first grade, we’ve been together ever since … the only exception during our college days (he to Wesleyan and me to Penn) and the military (he to Judge Advocate General Corps in the U.S. Air Force and me as an officer in the Pennsylvania Army National

Guard). We did our Boy Scouting together; also became Eagle Scouts together. We sang in the same choruses and smaller groups too … still do.

I even remember our kindergarten classmates: Mary Augsburger, Allen Frank, John Moyer, Jimmy Ort, Norma Smith, Joanne Stoneback, and Hope Weishauer. After all these years, Rodney and I still live only

five blocks from each other. So, there we were, Rodney, Janenne, his better half, plus Mighty Betsy and me, together at lunch at Karina and David Rilling’s lovely home near Sellersville.

Karina was one of Mighty Betsy’s tennis partners. She is also a Latvian American who helped organize a book about Latvian Americans emigrating to America after World War II.

Rodney Henry is the treasurer of the Richland Library in Quakertown, one of Pennsylvania’s oldest (1788). He has been encouraging groups to write their histories. A few years ago, he successfully gathered 81 stories from people who lived on, or are still living on Juniper Street … me included.

Rodney knew about Karina Rilling’s background and asked her to organize the project. She convinced more than 30 Latvian Americans to write their memories about fleeing from both the Nazis and the Soviets before and after World War II, finally making their way to America.

Published by the Richland Library, “Dangerous Journeys to Freedom” is the name of the book. You can buy a copy at the Friendly Book Store

in Quakertown. Anyone interested in the Quakertown area’s history should have the book.

Karina’s husband, David, is a surgeon with a fascinating background. He is also a collector. David gave me a copy of his 24-page book,

"Hooked.” He told me that as a child, he was “hooked” by his father’s collections of artifacts from around the world. David’s book is full of

photos and maps about fossils, minerals and tribal art from Africa. His barn displays special items that he’s collected over the years. In 2009, the couple created the David and Karina Rilling African and Oceanic

Art Collection at Central High School in Philadelphia. That’s where David went to school.

The other book David gave me was “My Military Story,” his 37-page recollection of his two years as a U.S. Army surgeon in the Vietnam War. He served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. After David’s first year of a four-year surgical residency at Abington Memorial Hospital, the U.S.

Army called. After Officer Candidate School (OCS), off to the front lines of Vietnam he went.

My service in the National Guard pales in comparison to his. When he began his tour of duty on the dangerous border between Laos,

Cambodia and Vietnam, he began as a lieutenant.

Two years later, he retired as a lieutenant colonel. That’s an amazing accomplishment.

In my case, after several years as an enlisted man, I went to OCS, became a second lieutenant and finally reached the rank of captain, two ranks below David’s … and no medals. In my 13 years in the National Guard (1957 to 1970), Pennsylvania’s 28th Infantry Division was not “federalized” and put in harm’s way. We were unusually lucky.

In more recent times during the 1990s and beyond, my unit has been called up on three separate occasions and sent to hazardous duty in Bosnia, Egypt and Iraq.

In David’s memoir, he remembers how it was in 1968 … walking in uniform to the plane taking him to Vietnam. “We had to walk

through a long gauntlet of hippies and draft dodgers who cursed

us and spat at us,” he wrote. David recounted an unusual surgical story years after his service in Vietnam. “One day while working in the clinic at Valley Forge Hospital, one of my patients was a young man who had

been in Vietnam and had been injured and sent back home,” David began. “After talking to him for awhile, I realized that he had been in Tay Ninh and had been operated on at our hospital.

“When I reviewed his records and examined his long surgical scar running from his abdomen and across onto the right side of his chest, I realized that I was the surgeon that day who had performed this very complicated surgery (seven hours) to repair injuries to his right lung and diaphragm and repairing his liver through a big hole in his diaphragm. We also repaired multiple intestinal injuries as were common on these patients. It was a happy reunion and tremendously satisfying to me.”

David’s book concludes with this sobering thought: “The U.S. withdrew from Vietnam in 1974 after the loss of 50,000 U.S. military lives and 500,000 injuries not counting the hundreds of thousands of civilian

and North Vietnamese deaths and casualties. Today, Vietnam

is a communist country and doing very well economically. It has become a popular tourist destination.”

Holy Smokes … what a story!

Sincerely, Charles Meredith


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