Fate brought Dave Johnson and Bruce Grable together not once, but twice. And thanks to the PBS documentary series We’ll Meet Again, which features reunions between people who first crossed paths at critical moments in their lives, the second time gave Johnson his long-awaited opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to Grable for the first.
In July 1972, Johnson — then a Captain and Rifle Company Commander on his third tour of duty with the Army in Vietnam — was one of a group of six servicemen forced to make an emergency landing when their helicopter took enemy fire over Cambodia. Sending out a Mayday call, they were stunned to see a CH-47 Chinook helicopter (which is the size of a bus), piloted by Grable, heading toward them.
“His mission was to haul ammunition, not to rescue people,” said Johnson of Grable and the massive aircraft he was operating. “He wasn’t a medivac guy, he was in an unlikely vehicle and what he did was totally of his own initiative.”
Without that initiative, Johnson is convinced he and his fellow soldiers would have been captured and killed.
“I think about that almost every day,” said Johnson, who is now retired from the Army after a 26-year career and living with his wife Judy in Florida. “I had always wanted to tell him that he and his crew did a remarkable thing. I wanted to thank him for saving my life.”
And on the second season premiere of We’ll Meet Again entitled “Saved in Vietnam” (check local listings for details) Johnson was finally able to do that when he and Grable were reunited. It was an experience Johnson called “very emotional for both of us.”
The Power of Social Media for Good
In its inaugural season, We’ll Meet Again, hosted by journalist and former NBC anchor Ann Curry, reached 15.5 million unique viewers. The six-part series, produced by Blink Films with Curry as an executive producer, was the first that PBS shared in its entirety on Facebook Watch.
In another nod to the prevalence of social media use, viewers were asked to use the hashtag #MeetAgainStoriesPBS to share their own stories. Of the large number of reader submissions, two stories were selected for the second season, including the premiere episode.
According to Curry, while there is much negativity on the internet, the tech tool is also a vehicle to show “the brightest light in us.”
“The reaction to our stories on social media, with people sharing these stories of loyalty, courage, resilience and even love is overwhelmingly reflective of the light,” she said. “It shows that people care about, and want to share, what can lift us.”
In this season, the stories of reunion are told against the backdrop of historical periods including the Vietnam War, the Korean War and the Holocaust, which Curry believes help inform the stories and the experiences.
“There is something about these transformative events in history that can cause people to rise against them, like a kite against the wind, to greatness. I am not sure why, but it may be that we humans have something in us that refuses to be beaten,” said Curry. “We seem to want to help others survive. We want to be heroes.”
‘I Didn’t Realize How Miraculous It Was’
The other story profiled in “Saved in Vietnam” is about Roger Wagner, a former postal worker who lives in Henderson, Nev.; like Johnson, he wanted to be reunited with his own hero.
In 1967, shortly after turning 21, Wagner, serving in the Army, was struck by a bullet above the kneecap from enemy fire, which unexpectedly occurred during a training session. The artery was torn and Wagner was sent to surgery, told he would likely lose his left leg.
However, a 31-year old surgeon, Dr. Mayer Katz, performed a procedure using a vein from Wagner’s right leg and saved the young soldier’s left one.
“I always thought how lucky I was that someone saved my leg. At the time, I didn’t realize how miraculous it was,” said Wagner. Though he only saw the surgeon twice in the hospital, Wagner never forgot the impact of Katz’s skill on his life.
“As I got older, I thought that Dr. Katz was someone I would like to hug and tell that I was so appreciative of what he did for me,” said Wagner.
Trying to Find Their Heroes
Over the years, Wagner attempted to track down Katz. “I didn’t know his first name, and sometimes I even questioned whether I had his last name right,” said Wagner, who kept trying to look for the doctor whenever he was traveling around the country.
Similarly, Johnson had used pre-Internet methods to search for Grable. “In the late 1970s, early ’80s, I tried to find him by phone and letter, but was never able to connect,” said Johnson.
For Johnson and Wagner (who had never previously met), responding to the call for stories by We’ll Meet Again seemed like a worthwhile attempt to track down their heroes.
“My wife and I had been working on a book for our grandchildren, and I’d just written a section about the rescue, so it was very much on my mind when we saw the show,” said Johnson. “My wife said, ‘Why don’t you send them an email?’” Two days later, Johnson received a response from Blink Films.
Wagner’s experience was similar, although even after he knew his story had been selected by the producers, he was uncertain about whether the reunion would materialize.
“I still never thought they’d be able to find this guy because I’d spent a lot of time online trying to track him down with no luck,” he said.
The Impact of the Reunions
“Saved in Vietnam” tells the compelling stories of these reunions, and what each man has been doing in the years since Vietnam. Katz went on to become a vascular surgeon, eventually establishing a program for Beebe Healthcare in Lewes, Del. He retired in May at 81. Grable spent a career in the Army; in 1990, he retired as the Executive Officer for the 10th Aviation Brigade.
The experiences which connected the men in the show, though brief, were emotionally remembered by all. And for Curry, the reunions powerfully represented the strength of those emotions.
“I am observing a kind of joy in these reunions that seems to be unbound, as if no time had passed at all since the last time they saw each other,” she said. “The searchers in particular seem younger in their expression and in their step.”
The Stories Continue
Now that the men profiled in the episode have reunited, their connections remain strong.
“I just talked to Dr. Katz last week — he still lives in Delaware. We tell each other how much we love each other,” said Wagner. “He’s as sharp and passionate as he ever was.”
Johnson and Grable have also established a strong bond.
“Bruce and his wife Diana live in South Carolina; they are coming for the weekend before the episode airs. We’re going to introduce them around to some of our friends,” said Johnson. “Then he and I are going to participate in the Adopt a Vet/Adopt a Kid program at a local elementary school. We’re going to go and tell our story to a fourth-grade class.”
And a fateful encounter in Vietnam may well lead to a more permanent reunion.
“When Bruce and Diana are here, we’re going to give them a grand tour of the retirement community where we are. Hopefully, they’ll find a house here that they can’t live without,” said Johnson.
Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:
- How It Feels to Track Down a Loved One
- A Tale of Two Vietnam War Correspondents
- ‘From Combat to Comrades’ Captures Iwo Jima Reunion
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