Robert G. Franz stood at attention last week in his American Legion honor guard uniform, a perfect match for his surroundings – the ornate, high-ceilinged ceremonial courtroom tucked within the first floor of Erie County Hall.
The 69-year-old Vietnam War veteran was a long way from the tough childhood he endured at a “welfare home” in Eden after his parents’ marriage fell apart and he and three of his siblings were, well, farmed out.
The welfare home was a 47-acre farm that a couple ran with a total of 13 children, who performed chores before and after school.
“We got up before the chickens got up. The rooster hadn’t even crowed,” Franz recalls. “I was 4 when we went there and left when I was 16, when I couldn’t take it anymore.”
In the years that followed, he carved out a life of his own, landing a job at a tire dealership and finding true love, after having set eyes on JoAnne Gawron.
Franz, 21, and his fiancée set a date to marry: July 31, 1965. He was on his way, it seemed, to starting a family and providing a stable home for children – something he had been denied. But three months before the wedding bells were to ring, he got his draft notice.
“Uncle Sam says, ‘I want you,’ and I was off to Army basic training,” Franz says. “I got out of basic training just in time for the wedding.”
Then it was back to the service for more training. Still, the newlyweds were looking forward to his leave at Christmas. But it wasn’t to be.
“He called me on Christmas Eve and said he was leaving for Vietnam the next day,” JoAnne Franz remembers. “Back in those days, I didn’t dare open my mouth that my husband was in Vietnam, not with everyone protesting the war and burning their draft cards. I couldn’t talk to anyone.”
And so as Franz stood at attention inside the ceremonial courtroom Tuesday, with other members of the Newell-Faulkner Post 880, American Legion, in Eden, his early life was distant. But his memories of the Vietnam War were right there in the room.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Erie County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs had taken the steps needed to obtain a second Purple Heart that the Army had, in the haste of war, forgotten to award Franz, who was twice wounded. At last, Franz would get that second medal.
A member of the 1st Infantry Division, Troop A, 4th Cavalry, he suffered his first wound March 24, 1966, when his unit was called in to assist another unit under heavy fire in Phu Loi.
“I was on top of a personnel carrier manning a machine gun and literally saw the bullet coming at me. It had ricocheted off the hatch of a tank. It was this black speck. I didn’t know what it was at that split second, but it went through my flak jacket and got wedged in my breastbone. It knocked me on my ass. It had quite a wallop,” Franz says with a grin.
After Franz was flown by helicopter to a field hospital, the bullet was removed without anything to ease the pain. The medical supplies lacked morphine. Two weeks later, Franz was back in action. But the enemy wasn’t finished with him. On April 24, a month after his first wound, he was wounded a second time.
Franz was part of a small force of two armored personnel carriers and a tank that was sent on a search-and-destroy mission near the Cambodian border. As they sought the enemy, the U.S. soldiers came upon a destroyed bridge and could go no farther.
“ ‘Charlie’ knew there was no bridge,” Franz says, referring to the Viet Cong. “He blew it up and set up an ambush for us. He knew we’d be coming back out the same way we went in.”
The attack was so fierce that Franz’s unit was pinned down and had to radio for help. During the firefight, a mortar round exploded a few feet away from him, and shrapnel struck his right elbow.
“It blew out part of the bone in my elbow,” he says. “That steel is hot when it blows.”
Again, he was airlifted to a field hospital, this time near Saigon.
“They told me I had a million-dollar wound and I was going back to the States,” Franz recalls. “Somebody lied. Two weeks later, I was back on the battlefield.”
He was right-handed, but the wound had forced him to learn how to be left-handed. He also had learned how to stay alive. Duck and let “Charlie” shoot. Then when he’s done, shoot back.
“You can’t be shooting all the time,” Franz says.
It was a good strategy. He survived.
The papers were filed for his second Purple Heart, but it never arrived. No worry about that. He was eager to return home to his wife.
“When we come home, you wanted to get a job, get married, get a house and have a family. I was already ahead on the married part,” says Franz, who with his wife raised three children.
But there was one more hurdle he would have to face upon arriving home.
“When we landed in Buffalo, they spit on us,” he remembers. “I was with two Marines. We got into a fight with the war protesters. One thing you don’t do is tangle with a guy who has just been in the jungle for a year. You’re mean and nasty.”
Decades after letting the dust of war settle, Franz attended an Erie County Clerk’s Office outreach event in January to enroll those who have served in military in the Veterans Discount Card Program that provides bargains at about 400 local businesses. While there, he asked Martina Rehorik, a member of Jacobs’ staff, if she would help him get the second Purple Heart the Army had forgotten to give him.
She said she would speak with her boss.
Tuesday, with his wife, JoAnne, and many other family members surrounding him, Franz was awarded the medal, complete with an oak leaf cluster to indicate his second Purple Heart.
“This one was just a little late, 47 years, but better late than never,” Higgins said in presenting the Purple Heart as Franz stood at attention.
After the ceremony, the soldier who had gotten such a tough start in life on a work farm, then headed to Vietnam, where he shed his blood for his country, returned back to the American Legion Post in Eden for a feast of fried chicken.
Robert G. Franz, 69
• Hometown: Springville
• Residence: North Boston
• Branch: Army
• Rank: Specialist 5
• War zone: Vietnam
• Years of service:
• Most prominent
honors: Purple Heart,
tank cannon operator