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Finding Colonel Crumpler: the Name on My POW Memorial Bracelet
My Vietnam POW~MIA Bracelet
In 1970s Los Angeles suburbia, the Vietnam war was not the topic of discussion that I recall. At least, not so much in my circle of friends. In fact, I am not sure any of my friends or I gave it any thought. We most certainly could not point out Vietnam on a map or tell you it was in Southeast Asia. I am fairly certain, this held equally true for our parents most of whom were, blue collar, working class, concerned about working over time to earn extra money for the new roof than learning the geography of far off places of war.
We lived a splendid life in our little town below the foothills. On some days, the hills seemed so close it felt like you could reach out and touch them, that is, if Los Angeles smog had not covered them up. In which case, visitors would not know hills were there. When the smog cleared, you would hear the newbies say "I didn't know there were mountains there!" Mountains, what Kansas City transplants call L.A. foothills.
We had a freedom children these days do not have. A life in which we could run and play outside without fear of much except to watch for the occasional car coming down the street momentarily breaking up our game of "keep away." The only rules were to be in before dark and don't talk to strangers-of course no one was a stranger and everyone knew each other.
No, Vietnam was not something anyone in my neighborhood thought of much even with imagines of black and white horrific war scenes shown on the nightly news. Even now when I think back to what I knew then of the war, I see it in my head as black and white scenes on the news reported by Walter Cronkite.
Vietnam Touches our Lives
It was not until I was in the 9th grade in 1970 that Vietnam hit our home. The draft was still enforce but getting called up was a lottery system. My brother and his friends, who were four years older than me, had to register for the draft. Registering did not actually mean getting drafted, that only happened if you had an "unlucky" number. In my case, my parents' religion taught complete objection to the military (or any government body).In order to have the "faith" a believer was a pacifist. So my brother did register, but registered as conscientious objector. He never had to prove his conscientious objector beliefs as his number never reached the draft point. Ironically, years after my parents left their religion, my brother enlisted in the Army and served after Vietnam was long over.
Children only know what they live. My parents were so very unpatriotic. I knew nothing about the military, it was a big unknown for me. I often contrasted my family's anti-war position to that of my English teacher whose son was serving "somewhere" in Southeast Asia.
Mrs. Cole was a kind woman with a true joy of reading which she tried to instill in us. We knew she was remarried and had, from her prior marriage, an older son serving somewhere in Vietnam and a daughter, a year older than me, who attended my same high school. We knew Mrs. Cole was remarried because her last name was different than her children's, a sure give away to us. This was a rare thing back in those days. Divorce was almost non-existent and single mothers with children of different last names--a zero occurrence.
Mrs. Cole's daughter, Katie was a beautiful girl with long, shiny blond hair. Katie embraced being a "hippie" and often when we came into our class, Katie had left her mother a note on the blackboard. It was the popular saying during the anti-war days of the late 60's "War is not healthy for Children or other living things"with a frame of peace symbols and flowers drawn around her writing. I often wondered how Mrs. Cole felt having one child fighting a war so far away and another so radically opposed to it. How did she not side with one and object to the other's beliefs?I suppose maternal love, allowed each child their own opinion, unconditionally.
One day as Mrs. Cole was explaining to us how the Holden Caufield character in "Catcher in the Rye" relates to us, she stopped mid-sentence. We all looked at her, questioning. The instant look of terror on her face was a moment's curiosity to us. We followed her stare to outside the classroom window where we saw a black military car with the Army logo on the passenger side door. Two uniformed men exited the car. Mrs. Cole started saying, "no, no, it cannot be!" She told us to start reading. She paced about the classroom her eyes starting to tear up. The intercom from the school office buzzed at the very moment the school Principal arrived at our classroom door telling Mrs. Cole she was needed at once in the office.
Mrs. Cole was gone the rest of the year. I think she came back the following year for a few months and then was gone forever from our school. Her son, 2LT Wayne "Michael" Cole was dead. We never learned the details. We only knew one of our most favorite teachers was gone forever and forever changed. Her brief return to school revealed a woman who had aged and the sparkle in her eyes, her love of literature and joy in her life seemed to have vanished.
It was not until years later when I visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall did I find Mrs. Cole's son. I learned he had been an Army reservist. His length of service was only one year. He arrived in South Vietnam in September, 1969 just about the time Mrs. Cole became my Freshman English teacher. Within a few months, her son would be dead. From the archives for the Wall, I found Michael's information:
" WAYNE MICHAEL COLE 2LT - O1 - Army - Reserve Special Forces Length of service 1 years His tour began on Sep 16, 1969 Casualty was on Jan 8, 1970 In KIEN PHONG, SOUTH VIETNAM HOSTILE, HELICOPTER - NONCREW AIR LOSS, CRASH ON LAND Body was recovered Panel 14W - Line 12 "
Mrs. Cole's son dying in Vietnam had a huge impact on me. I do not know if I was any different than others my age, but my teen years were all about death, gloom, wondering when the bomb was going to drop. It seems all the songs of that time were dismal being all about war, destruction so I am fairly certain most of those my age were feeling the same. It was not something we spoke about. Inside, I wanted to do something to support our troops even though many of my friends were confirmed anti-war followers.
Trying to Help
I became a pen pal to several military men. I wrote letters, sent small gifts. I found out about the POW/MIA bracelets and quickly ordered one. It came within a week. The name on the bracelet was "Col. Carl Crumpler" with the date he disappeared "7-5-68". I wore the bracelet everyday, even when friends criticized me and said wearing it was "supporting" war. A war, in their minds that was killing innocent people. Never mind the Viet cong did plenty of that along with imprisoning civilians they "thought" were American supporters and sympathizers. I have since had many friends who escaped Vietnam as children. I have heard stories of parents being imprisoned merely for rumors not fact. Property being confiscated and treacherous boat trips to the freedom Europe and America offered--but that is a story for another hub!
By 1973 I was no longer wearing my POW/MIA bracelet it was replaced with "peace" jewelry but that does not mean I forgot. I have carried my POW/MIA bracelet with me, moving it from place to place for the last 40 odd years. I have lost a lot of things from my youth, like yearbooks, trophies, class rings, but the one constant that I keep is my POW bracelet.
The POWs Return to the States
When the POW's were being released, I remember watching on TV, late into the night and early into the next morning as planes carrying the freed prisoners landed and the prisoners were lead off. I watched and waited as each name was called and to my amazement, one of the last to leave the plane was "Colonel Carl Crumpler" a man I did not know and probably would never meet but whose name is etched in my memory as well as my bracelet. CHEERS and a bit of tears!
Shortly after the return of the Vietnam prisoners of war, I received in the mail a small sticker with a white star and blue background. The enclosed note said to place the star on the bracelet to indicate "my" POW had returned. I proudly put the star on the bracelet where it still sits affixed today.
Whatever Happened to Col. Carl Crumpler?
I have not taken the bracelet out of the box for years but yesterday I did. It is still shiny and amazingly untarnished. I do not know what caused me to think of the bracelet maybe it was because it was Memorial Day or that my late father, a WWII veteran passed away three years ago today; or that so many of my friends have children serving in the military these days, for whatever reason, I pulled the bracelet out from its resting place. As I ran my fingers over the name etched so clearly still on the bracelet, I wondered: what ever became of Col. Crumpler?
It occurred to me the wonders of the internet help us find people from long lost times. Why not see if I can find anything about the former Col Crumpler? I love technology. For all the negatives about the "computer age" making us a society of anti-social beings it conversely helps us to connect and reconnect making us more social than we would be without it.
A Happy Ending
Googling Colonel Crumpler I was pleasantly shocked to find a youtube video made by Col. Crumpler's grandson about the Colonel's time as a POW. With clarity and absent any bitterness, the Colonel relived for his grandson (and the rest of us) what lead up to his capture, how he survived, his release to freedom and coming home. Unlike so many returning Vietnam vets, the Colonel did not find a land of animosity and hatred. Contrary to what most Vets endured, the Colonel said he was treated most kindly and like a "hero". In a time when reality so often is tragic, it is good to know some stories can have a happy ending. I have my closure to the name on my bracelet, thanks to the wonders of the internet and a loving grandson who cared enough to make a video of his hero grandpa.
Rest in peace Michael Cole, your passing was not unnoticed. Thank you Col. Crumpler for your service. Love to your grandson who made a wonderful video that honors you and so many others.