These Vietnam Veterans made a commitment that they would never let comrades be unaccounted for or forgotten, thus the black flags they carry. Back Row L-R: Ron Boeckman, Alan Dockendorf, Dan “Bones” Erpleding, Gary Caauwe, and Ervin Becker. Center Row: Mike Yanish, Dave Thielan, Steve LaVine, Al Brutger, Daryl Becker and Chuck Unterberger. Front Row: Tim Inselman and Paul Heibel. Photo contributed.

There is a group of Vietnam war veterans called Wat-Kim-Valley POW MIA Flag Barriers who have been marching in town parades for more than 33 years to pay tribute to war-time POWs and MIAs. “We’ve been marching since 1986,” said Dan ‘Bones’ Erpleding of Watkins, Minn. “We were all VFW members and decided we had to start marching for the POWs.” There are usually 10 veterans doing the march and they do about 10 parades a year including Watkins, Kimball, Eden Valley, Litchfield, Richmond, Maple Lake, St. Joseph, Little Falls, and Dassel.

“At first we just marched around with the parade. Now we will stop three different times and honor the POWs by playing the military Taps,” said Bones. “At Cokato, one time, there was a POW at the parade and we had 20 some guys there that day and it was very emotional for the POW and us as the Taps played. It brought tears to our eyes.”

“The people we meet is unreal,” said Mike Yanish, who is the unit’s coordinator from Annandale.  “We march right behind the color guard. One thing that I watch for is a veteran with a cap on and I give him a salute.”

“At another parade we saluted a veteran who raised the American flag at Iwo Jima in 1945,” said Bones. “His name was Charles Lindberg.”

Yanish received letters from State Senator Betty A. Adkins, State Representatives Jeff Bertram and Tony Onnen, U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger and many others.

Sen. Durenberger said, “I believe a good amount of this emotion is being felt for our Vietnam Veterans — to attempt to correct the inadequate recognition they received at the time. Americans are finally acknowledging the sacrifices made and the injustices suffered. We must continue this acknowledgment and never forget the courage and dedication that our Vietnam veterans have displayed both during and since the war.”

At the front of his house in Watkins, Dan Erpleding displays military emblems on this stone and is holding his purple heart medals. Photo by Tom Hauer.

“That was at a time when we were not very popular,” said Yanish. “The first years we marched we got the name calling, were spit at, had things thrown at us . . . all of that stuff. After the first two years we weren’t sure we were going to march again because we weren’t going to put up with that.”

But they continued because they felt their cause was worth taking the abuse.

“We weren’t going to let the Vietnam War and the people left behind be forgotten. The whole idea was for us to be constant reminders that there were people there who never made it back,” Yanish said.

When they marched in the Annandale parade on the Fourth of July, they were the third or fourth entry in the parade. Yanish glanced back and looked at the guys, trying to see what was going on, and saw nothing but tears. “That was probably one of the most emotional times,” he said.

In the days of the Vietnam War there was a lot of protesting being done in the United States. Bones recalled when he came back from Vietnam to California, he was wearing his Marine uniform and people were spitting on him and calling him a baby killer. Something similar happened at one of their first parades. As the group was marching, Bones said, “We heard from someone in the crowd say ‘What kind of drug are you guys on today?’ We stopped, looked around and nobody from our group said anything. There was no more stuff being said. We just stopped and looked. Then took off again. There were about 12 of us marching that day. Since that time we have gotten good response all the time. Just that one time. Our leader said forward march and we kept on marching.”

Dan “Bones” Erpleding, on the right, with a Marine teammate, Ted Zarneke who is a Chicago native. Photo contributed

Bones, along with three of his friends, enlisted in the Marines on Sept. 21, 1965 but didn’t join until Jan. of 1966. He was 18 years old. When he entered basic training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California, he weighed 160 pounds. Eight weeks later when he finished basic training he weighed 190 pounds. When he got back from Vietnam he weighed only 142 pounds.

It took a month to get to Vietnam via ship. He entered the DMZ on July 29, 1966. He was involved in 19 operations while in Vietnam and was with the 26th Marines for six months. He was wounded on Operation Hickory and King Fisher. His battalion was ambushed by 1,000 Communist troops near Thon Cam Son. There were 37 US soldiers killed and another 251 were wounded, including Bones. He got struck by shrapnel and was flown out by helicopter.

State Representative Tony Onnen, in his letter to Yanish in 1991, said: “It would be my hope that you could feel proud to have fought in the Vietnam War, that you were fighting for freedom of others, no matter how popular or unpopular it was. That you could know that the battle continues, that you were willing to risk your life and that you can hold your head up and say, I am part of this country, I am a veteran.”