CADILLAC - Members of the Amvets Post 110 in Cadillac are about to fulfill one their member's longheld dreams.
Joe Thompson is a disabled Vietnam War veteran who survived a deadly machine gun assault 50 years ago while serving in Vietnam.
"Joe always said that if he lived 50 more years, he wanted a party in the park," said organizer Bill 'Willy' Rzepka, an Amvets officer and Vietnam era veteran. "He has said this for the last 10 years. If you look back at what he went through for our country, how could you do anything else. We are having a party! He bascially gave his life for us and he wants to have a party. And I hope the whole town comes!"
The party in the park and pig roast will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 21 in The Market next to the Amvets. There will be no charge for Vietnam veterans.
"We are only charging $5 for anybody else to enjoy the pig roast," said Rzepka. "But even if people don't want to eat, we want them to come and shake Joe's hand and he will be happy. My goal is to make Joe happy."
Joe Thompson's sacrifice
Thompson can't believe he's still alive. On Feb. 11, 1969, he was shot in the head and back at close range by machine gun fire on a search and rescue mission in Vietnam.
Thompson volunteered for that mission. In fact, the college graduate was teaching middle school when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in March of 1968, knowing full well that Vietnam could be his next travel destination.
Second Lt. Thompson's wounds resulted in the loss of the use of most of his right side, leaving him disabled for life. When he was airlifted out under heavy enemy fire, most witnesses believed he was dying.
Every year, Thompson celebrates the day he was shot and and that he is still alive.
"Isn't it unbelievable?" Thompson said two years ago on the 48th anniversary. Even then, he was hoping to make it to the 50th.
"I remember everything, at least until five minutes before I got shot," Thompson said, but was unable to verbalize those memories. Instead, he sent them in an email.
"Right before being shot, Lt. Joe walked right past four or five NVA (North Vietnamese Army) that were dug in and covered. Lt. Joe got about 10 yards past the NVA that were waiting for the ambush. They jumped up, one shooting Lt. Joe in the back, one shooting him in the head."
Admiration for his spirit
"Joe is an easy guy to love and care for," said Rzepka. "Yes we watch out for him at the Amvets, but look back to what he went through for our country, how could you do anything else? And he just happens to have a wonderful personality."
He also has a sense of humor about his disability and never complains.
About two years into his recovery, Thompson sent Navy Corpsman Doug Stone, the man credited with saving his life, T-shirts that read, "Southeast Asian War Games, 2nd Place."
"It's a miracle that he survived and he has just been an icon of this city," said Matt Mageira of the Amvets. "The post wouldn't be the same without him."
"Joe has been paying for his service since 1969 and it has been costly to him," said his friend and U.S. Navy veteran Gary Becker.
"On his anniversary days, he wears a helmet with a target on it," said his son Charlie Thompson. "He's always talked about having a big party for the 50th. He always understood that the likelihood of surviving that injury was very thin."
The 50th anniversary was scheduled for this summer instead of the actual February date so that extended family members could attend. His daughter and son are traveling to be here for the event.