• newfield
  • Gloucester
  • January 17, 1951
  • January 24, 1975
  • Air Force
  • RANK:
  • SGT
  • KIA
  • Thailand


Garry W. Hermanson was born on January 17, 1951.  His home of record is Newfield, NJ.

He enlisted in the US Air Force and attained the rank of Sergeant (SGT).

Hermanson was killed in action on January 24, 1975.

January 17, 1951-January 24, 1975
SGT, Air Force           Newfield, NJ

The war in Vietnam, at least our country's role in it, ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January of 1973.  The last American troops left in March and what prisoners were released came home in April.  The cost had been staggering, and the phrase "peace with honor" became as insidious as the war itself.  We witnessed the tragic, and final, result on television two years later when North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon in April of 1975.

Garry Hermanson became one of the last Americans, and the very last from Gloucester County and New Jersey, to die in our country's efforts in southeast Asia.  He was not stationed in Vietnam; he never even served there. Garry was killed in a reported accidental helicopter crash in Thailand on January 24, 1975.

Garry was born in Vineland, NJ in January of 1951.  His family lived there until his parents divorced.  He graduated from Vineland High School in 1969 and was living in Newfield, NJ, with his sister when he entered the Air Force in February of 1970.

Terry Willison, of Melbourne, Florida, remembers her brother as a tall, slender blonde with blue eyes.  She then adds, "He was good looking and a sharp dresser.  He was an average student who loved sports.  He played Little League baseball and then basketball at Vineland High.  He loved golf and played every chance he had between caddy assignments at Pinecrest Country Club in Buena.  And he especially enjoyed keeping his car cleaned and polished."

Werner Hermanson, of Washington Township, NJ, agrees and then says of his son, "He was just a likable guy.  He would do anyone a favor.  He loved having fun and drinking his favorite beer."

Garry enlisted into the Air Force because he loved to fly.  After basic training at Lakeland Air Force Base in Texas, he was trained as an Automatic Flight Control Repairman at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois.

When Garry was training in Illinois, his fiancée broke their engagement.  "The only trouble I ever remember him getting into was when he came home on leave," says Werner.  "He got drunk and was going to jump off the water tower in Newfield."

Because of Werner's divorce from Garry's mother, he lost contact with Garry for almost two years.  But they were able to renew their relationship when Garry sought his father out.  The two became closer than ever and wrote to each other often.

"The split up was really ugly," Werner remembers.  "I didn't think I'd ever see him again.  I am so glad he looked me up."

In October of 1971, Garry received his first duty assignment in Thailand.  While there, he met and fell in love with Sontaya Ampunchai, a Thai national.

"When I first saw him, I didn't pay much attention," she now says.  "We met at a restaurant; he said, 'Hi', and we talked a little.  I was meeting a girlfriend there.  And then three weeks later, I saw him again at the same place.  He thought we had a date, but I didn't remember making one.  But we went out dancing and had a good time.  Nothing happened until months later when we bumped into each other again.  We started dating, and, the next thing I knew, he asked me to marry him."

Following Thai tradition, Sontaya asked her parents for permission to get married.  Her father was opposed to the idea of her wedding an American serviceman.

"I was only seventeen," she recalls.  "I really loved Garry, and my mother told my father that I was going to just run away and do it anyway, so he signed the papers."

The couple spent their wedding day sitting by a stream and talking about their future together.  "I don't know how he had the patience to deal with me," she says.  "I could not speak English very well, but he was calm, intelligent, and mature for his age."

After they were married, Garry adopted Sontaya's infant daughter, Jackie.  While in Thailand, he lived in a small village with Sontaya and their baby.  He was welcomed into the family and neighborhood.  He grew to love the Thai people; they certainly loved him.  Sontaya's family had a deep respect for Garry.  He was fascinated with the culture and several photos show him in traditional Thai clothing, usually with a bowl of noodle soup in front of him.  He built a house for the family that still stands.

In November of 1972, Garry was transferred to Shaw AFB in South Carolina.  When he brought his wife and daughter to South Carolina after his Thailand assignment, their lives were quite different.  They lived in an off-base trailer park where they were very uncomfortable.  Sontaya missed her family and felt she was treated as an outcast.  Garry felt the same way, and so, within a few months, he requested a second tour of duty in Thailand.  He was assigned to the Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in February of 1974.

Garry was a member of the 56th Special Operations Wing and flew often.  He commuted between his off-post home and the air base.  His family was growing; Sontaya became pregnant in August.  Often, she would take three-year old Jackie to the base where they would wait for Garry to get off work.

When Jackie looks at certain photographs, her memories, however vague, come alive.  "Sometimes," she says, "it's like I remember experiencing the time or place where they were taken."

Garry decided to leave the Air Force when his enlistment was completed but extended his commitment for another six months so that the government would cover the hospital expenses from the birth of the baby.

One January day, after Garry came home, he played with Jackie for hours on end.  He then did something he had never done before.  He made it a point to tell Sontaya where all the important papers and money were.  He told her, specifically, not to lose Jackie's military identification card.

"He told me that if something ever happened to him, not to let anyone take advantage of me or take anything away from me," she says.  "He loved us so much, but I feel he knew something I didn't."

The next morning, Garry was exceptionally quiet and left for work without saying a word.  When Sontaya and Jackie arrived at the base later that day, Garry was nowhere to be found.  There had been a helicopter crash and all four crewmen had perished; Garry was one of them.

The base commander sent Werner Hermanson and Sontaya a letter dated January 27.  In part it read:

The tragic loss...on 24 January 1975 as a result of an aircraft accident saddened all of the members of this organization.  Please accept my deepest sympathy.

Garry was aboard a CH-53 helicopter on a local check flight when the crash occurred.  The aircraft was a few miles south of the base.  There was no radio contact with the aircraft to indicate any type of trouble.  As I stated, a full investigation is being conducted and as additional facts are known you will be informed.

A second letter, a month later, stated: The facts surrounding the accident remain unchanged.

"I have suspicions that the helicopter was shot down over Laos or Cambodia," says Werner Hermanson.  "It doesn't really matter now, but I don't think they were on a check flight.  Why else would they put his name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial?"  Chronologically, Garry is listed as number 58,162 of the 58,220 names on the Wall in Washington, DC.

Sontaya was only twenty-one when Garry died.  She reluctantly accepted the fact that Garry had to be buried in the US.  She did not want to leave her side of the family in Thailand, but Werner stayed with her and shielded Jackie and her from the animosity of others.

"There were people there who blamed me," she remembers.  "They thought it was my fault that Garry died.  It hurt more than I can say.  Werner was different.  He's a wonderful man."

On February 4, 1975, Garry was laid to rest at Siloam Cemetery in Vineland.  His family, no matter how fragmented, grieved the loss.  Sontaya placed a bag of Fritos, Garry's favorite snack, in the casket.  It was a wrenching time for all.

"Mom had it the worst," says Jackie.  "But Grandpop took great care of us.  I was too young to really know what was going on, and Mom was pregnant with Sonya."

Sontaya had difficulty in deciding her future.  Werner played an important part in her decisions.

"He guided me through all the red tape involving the Veterans Administration and Social Security benefits," she says.  "And then he convinced me that life in this country would be better for me and the children.  He was right."

When Sonya was born in May of 1975, Werner was in the labor room with Sontaya.  Sonya can only relate to the stories she has heard about her father but on another level, she has a deep connection.

"I know he was poised with a good sense of direction," she says.  "He always did things for others, and I think he passed that on to us.  But there have been a few times when I have had these visions.  It's an electrical feeling that comes over me.  I know that it's him.  He's kind of a ghost or an angel.  He's always been there for me spiritually.  I feel like there's a continuation of his life through us."

"I never felt any of that until I was twenty-three or twenty-four," Jackie recalls.  "I moved to California, and after about two weeks, I had a dream.  Only when I woke up, I felt this presence.  I saw black boots and a gold uniformed figure on the edge of the bed.  At first, I said, 'Who are you?'  But yet, I knew who it was.  It was very real, and, when I really did wake up, I was sitting in a position where I was reaching out to touch him.  I can't describe the feeling, but I was going through a rough time in my life.  I know that's why he was there.  It was very comforting to know he was still around for me."

Terry Willison reflects on the changes in her life.  "My brother's death has always been hard for me to handle," she says.  "I still have a vision that one day he will just come walking home.  I have always felt a great loss.  He was a caring, generous, fun-loving guy who lived life as full as he could.  He believed in what he was doing and just wanted to return home with his family."

Garry's father, so thankful that the two of them were able to re-establish their relationship, recalls Garry's love of his family.  "They meant everything to him," he states.  "He just wanted them to be accepted as his, and not some foreigners he brought home.  I think, in the end, they were finally recognized as real people going through an incredible loss."

Sontaya went back to Thailand for about a year after the funeral.  Jackie remembers returning to the US.  "My mother came back here simply to give us a better life," she says.  "We are much better off because of that."

After first settling in Columbia, MD, Sontaya and the girls have moved on to successful careers.  Sontaya opened a Thai restaurant there and worked as a beautician before relocating to California, where she is now a hair-dresser.  Jackie, also living in California, and Sonya, now in Joppa, MD, have worked in the medical care industry.  Sonya is pursuing a degree in Sociology.  All three feel productive, secure, and able to carry on the lives that Garry had intended for them.

After twenty-one years, Sontaya finally was able to love again, and, when she remarried in 1996, Werner, her father-in-law, played the role of father and gave her away at the wedding.

"He was crying," she says.  "I think it was happiness for me but also sadness for Garry.  I love my husband but I will never forget Garry and the very short time we had together.  I am very content with my life and the girls' lives.  I just wish Garry were a part of it."

Jackie Hermanson adds, "My father's mission in life was to give us a future.  I don't think he realized that until he met my mother.  He saw it as what he was supposed to do."

There can be no happy endings in a war that cost so many lives and destroyed so many dreams, especially in a losing effort.  A whole generation of Americans and Asians were scarred, but the legacy of one young man's love and dedication to family now serves as a triumph of the human spirit.

"For me, it's like a double-edged sword," Sonya Hermanson now says.  "I feel like it's such a tragedy that he had a family and died.  But if he hadn't come along, we would not have the good life that we have.  It's like, even though he died, he took care of us our whole lives.  He was still our provider.  With all three of us, our lives have been the way they are because of him."

Sonya captures the essence of courage and devotion when she concludes, "Although I never knew him personally, I have an impression and understanding of his priorities during his short life.  I also believe his mission in life was to serve his country and family.  He would have given his own life for either cause.  He set up his future for happiness and died before enjoying it.  Or did he set up others for happiness and died for them to enjoy it?"

"I have always felt my father was there for me.  He is always present in my thoughts and spirit.  Sometimes, I think I do the right thing because I know he would want me to.  Maybe his influence is more effective than if he were here telling me.  I probably wouldn't appreciate him as much as I do now.  He deserves the deepest love and respect from me."

Garry Hermanson, along with the other forty-two men from Gloucester County and the over fifty-eight thousand men and women from our country who lost their lives in southeast Asia, not only deserve our love and respect, they demand it.  Not one would ever consider their sacrifice as a waste.  They were serving their country, their own families and their friends. In that, there can be no higher a calling and no greater a mission.

Excerpt from They Were Ours: Gloucester County's Loss in Vietnam
by John Campbell
Used with permission of author

Sources: John Campbell and NJVVMF.


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