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Army helped two men form nearly 40 year friendship

Published: Friday, Nov. 1, 2013 11:05 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Nov. 1, 2013 11:15 a.m. CDT

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John Wenniham and David Elliot have been best friends for almost 40 years. Yet, oddly enough, the two Newton natives had never even met until they were both in the U.S. Army and had a chance meeting at Fort Sill, Okla.

When they started developing their friendship, it was during David’s second stint in the Army. He first saw John while serving in Vietnam.

“I knew the draft was coming up, so I said, ‘To heck with this,’ and I enlisted on the 180-day delay program,” David said.

During this initial stint, David was doing clerical work when he was moved to Fort Lewis, Wash., which is where he received his orders to go to Vietnam.

“Man, I was scared. Scared stiff,” David said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect and I got into the country and was supposed to be assigned to the 43rd APU, which was the Army’s postal service. They didn’t even have anything there for the 43rd APU.”

Without a job for him to do, David said he was temporarily assigned to work for the U.S. Air Force during his first three months in Vietnam. 

“Finally, we got an area for (where) the 43rd APU was supposed to be,” David said. “We had to go build our own hooches and post office, which was interesting. I almost got an Article 15 over that ‘cause I got sun burnt (from) working on a tin roof.”

In total, he spent 18 months in Vietnam, and David said after the first six months, he felt he was “pretty well seasoned,” which was a good and a bad thing.

“Things were going on, that I got to the point where I wasn’t very sure I was going to make it back home,” David said. “I’d go out and take chances that I really shouldn’t have been doing, but I did.”

Despite his internal conflicts and at times reckless behavior, David made a very brave choice once it was time for him leave Vietnam.

“I went ahead and extended for six months, to stay there,” David said. “I felt I was already there and knew what was going on. Why send some other poor green troop over here that might get his head blowed away?”

Once David finally left the service, he tried his hand at living a civilian life. He got married and started a family, but was having trouble finding work. So after a couple of unfortunate years, he and his brother, who was eight years younger, signed up for the Army on the “Buddy Plan” and wound up in Fort Sill.

“That’s where we ran into John,” David said before he let out a chuckle.

“40 years ago this summer,” John said.  “We had never met. I went to school with his brother, and I ran into him (David’s brother) first.”

John had wound up at Fort Still after first starting his military career in the National Guard. He said after going to a summer camp, he tried a position he didn’t like and asked to be switched to active duty. When his request was met, John went to Fort Sill to be a cook.

“I ran into (David) standing in the chow line,” John said. “I was out there to bust up a skirmish in the chow line. Somebody had cut in line. I saw his name taped on his jacket and asked him, ‘Where are you from?’ He said, ‘Iowa.’ And I said, ‘Well, I know an Elliot in Newton, Iowa.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s my brother.’”

“That was kind of coincidence, the three of us from Newton and in the same battalion,” he continued.

It didn’t take long for the two to start hitting it off and John soon became a frequent guest at David’s home.

“For some reason, we just became good friends and have been good friends ever since,” John said. “I never had any kids, so his kids were the closest things I had to kids. Growing up, I would cook for them and that kind of stuff for them. It was kind of fun watching his kids grow up and now his kids got kids.”

“My kids loved him for sure,” David said.

The fraternity of sorts they built in Oklahoma didn’t last forever as eventually both men’s careers splintered off. However, after the service, both men wound up back in Newton and the friendship was just as tight as ever.

In fact, both men traveled together on the 2013 Jasper County Freedom Flight and got to pay tribute to all who served by visiting the different memorial sites.

“Freedom Flight meant a lot to me,” David said. “In a manner of speaking, seeing the Vietnam Wall was like going back in time. Some of the names on that wall were friends I lost and it was a way of saying good-bye.”

Staff writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 426, or at trushing@newtondailynews.com.

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