KEYSTONE HEIGHTS -- It was Nov. 24, 1968. Joe Ponder was 21
and had been in Vietnam four months, a gunner's mate aboard the
Navy's river and patrol boats in Vietnam.
The 50-foot aluminum boats were known as Swift Boats. The
sailors were called Swifties.
That Sunday there was a low cloud cover and an outgoing tide
that hampered support from the air and sea as Ponder's boat,
along with five others, headed down the Song Bo De River on the
southern tip of Vietnam in pursuit of the enemy. But the enemy
had been watching. The enemy was waiting. And when the final
boat slipped into the mouth of the river, enemy gunfire opened
up from both banks of the river.
Almost immediately Ponder was hit, his kneecap ripped open by a
.50-caliber slug. His friend and crew member, Jack Shamley, gave
Ponder a shot of morphine, placed a tourniquet above the wound
and held his lower leg to keep it from falling off. More sailors
were hit and the order to "abort mission" was heard over the
deafening sound of gunfire as radios on board the boats echoed
with cries for Medivacs.
The bullet-riddled boat with its wounded crew made it out of
the river and limped back to the open sea. Ponder was airlifted
to a hospital. The next day he was stunned when Adm. Elmo R.
Zumwalt Jr., commander of the U.S. Naval Forces in Vietnam,
stood at his bedside, presenting him with the Navy Commendation
Medal and Purple Heart.
Although he didn't lose his leg, it was so mangled from the
gunfire that it became nearly useless, and Ponder would be
confined to a life on crutches, using a leg brace and sometimes
even a wheelchair.
But for Ponder, the injury he received that day did not rip at
his heart as much as the fact he had lost contact with Shamley
and the other five crew members shortly after he was wounded.
The last time he saw them was when he was airlifted from a
They had become more than a crew, more than friends.
"Veterans always have a closeness, but nothing can compare to
the closeness you have with somebody you served with in combat.
You're like brothers," Ponder said from his home in Keystone
Last year when a friend introduced Ponder to the search
capabilities of the Internet, the first name Ponder entered was
"Bingo. Right there before my eyes were my shipmates and their
phone numbers and addresses. I went right home and called them,"
Shamley, who lives in East Helena, Mont., recalls the day he
got the phone call from Ponder.
"I knew right away who it was. I got the chills and was just
overwhelmed. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life. Joe
is probably the sole responsible party that got us all back
together," Shamley said.
Soon all the crew of that fateful mission was connected to one
another again by way of e-mail.
"Now everyone on our boat crew talks to each other using this
e-mail system," Shamley said.
Ponder said he finds Memorial Day an emotional time but also a
day of reflection. The family gathers and his children pass on
to their children the meaning of the special day for honoring