Whenever George Bartunek watches the classic 1973 comedy “American Graffiti,” he’s reminded of his good friend Lowell Wayne Meyer. The movie, set in 1962, prior to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, tells the story of a group teenagers on an adventure after their high school graduation.
The character Steve Bolander, who’s played by Ron Howard, drives a 1958 Chevrolet Impala, an image that sends flashbacks for Mr. Bartunek of his friend Wayne driving a 1958 Chevrolet convertible across Riverhead.
“Every time I see that movie or even think of the movie, it’s kind of like Wayne,” Mr. Bartunek said. “That’s the way Wayne was. He was kind of a happy-go-lucky high school kid.”
The two graduated from Riverhead High School in 1963 and each wound up on a path into the U.S. Navy and eventually to Vietnam. Mr. Bartunek was stationed in Key West, Fla. in 1969 for training when he received a letter from his parents informing him that his friend, a Navy Seal, had been killed. He was 24.
“Wayne was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Mr. Bartunek said, noting he can still remember where he was when he opened that letter.
For members of the Riverhead Class of 1963, the memory of Mr. Meyer and his service and sacrifice have never wavered. In 2018, the class celebrated 55 years, continuing a tradition of meeting every five years.
“He is gone but not forgotten,” said Lanny Tuthill, a former classmate who served more than two decades in the U.S. Air Force. “His loss impacted our Class of ’63 quite hard.”
Mr. Tuthill was reminded once more of Mr. Meyer’s sacrifice earlier this year when Riverhead Town unveiled the Hometown Hero banners to honor local veterans. He hoped his Class of ‘63 could come together to purchase a banner for Mr. Meyer.
At a downtown ceremony in April, town officials formally unveiled the first two banners dedicated to U.S. Army Private First Class Garfield Langhorn and Air Force Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs, two service members who were killed abroad 39 years apart. The story of Pfc. Langhorn and his heroism in January 1969 to throw his body onto a grenade to save the lives of fellow soldiers has been well documented. He was the only Suffolk County resident to earn the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. A downtown street bears his name, as does the Riverhead Post Office. A new Veterans Wall of Honor at Riverhead High School was dedicated to Pfc. Langhorn earlier this year. An annual essay contest at Pulaski Street School continues in his honor.
The story and heroism of Mr. Meyer, who in the Navy earned the rank of petty officer second class, may have faded some over time, but those who knew him like Mr. Bartunek have worked to preserve his legacy.
Last year, Mr. Bartunek — who previously served as a Riverhead councilman in the early 2000s — thought about a way he could honor Mr. Meyer. He reached out to Butch Langhorn, another member of the Class of ‘63 who served in Vietnam in the U.S. Army. He asked if he would be interested in joining him to purchase a sign that could be dedicated to Riverhead’s veterans who died during Vietnam. Mr. Bartunek said while the idea started with Mr. Meyer in mind, it evolved as a way to honor each Riverhead native killed during the war.
In January, they purchased a sign that has since been installed near the exit to Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton. The sign is “dedicated to those who served & sacrificed.”
It lists five names:
• Richard Thomas Pinta, Navy
• Franklin Denis Tinsley, Army
• James Reese Walters, Army
• Garfield M. Langhorn, Army
• Lowell Wayne Meyer, Navy
Their deaths spanned the years from 1967-1969. Mr. Walters and Mr. Meyer died four days apart in May 1969. Mr. Walters, who was the rank of specialist 4 in the Army, died in a helicopter crash in the Thua Thien Province in South Vietnam. He was 20. Mr. Meyer was the last Riverhead native killed in the war.
“I was always the type of person that thought people should be recognized” said Mr. Langhorn, who has no relation to Garfield Langhorn. “There were a lot of folks that I felt should have gotten a little bit more recognition than what I thought they had.”
Mr. Langhorn jumped at the opportunity to place the sign honoring fallen Vietnam veterans.
“Once somebody started it, everybody jumped in,” he said.
In 2018, Matthew Hanson, an Eagle Scout with Wading River Boy Scout Troop 94, built a kiosk that was installed at the exit to the Calverton park near the bike trail. A plaque notes that the Eagle Scout project was “dedicated to the Town of Riverhead for the benefit of Veteran’s Memorial Park.”
Mr. Bartunek said he called Mr. Hanson about placing the new sign in the kiosk on the side facing the park and he was “delighted” by the idea.
Mr. Langhorn grew up with Mr. Meyer and the two played football together at Riverhead. He remembered Mr. Meyer as a lineman who was a good athlete, student and friend. Their paths separated after high school and Mr. Langhorn joined the military first, which ultimately lead to a career in the Air Force after initially serving in the Army. He recalled being home at the time when he received word that Mr. Meyer had been killed.
At the time, those who knew him didn’t discuss the specifics of what happened.
“As far as I was concerned, I didn’t need to know any more,” Mr. Langhorn said, adding that he rarely discusses his own time in Vietnam. “I lost a dear friend. And it was for a good cause as far as I was concerned.”
A story published in Newsday on May 23, 1969, described how Mr. Meyer had served two tours aboard a ship in Vietnam waters and he had been the leader of a 31-man Seal team for his third, six-month tour. The story notes how Mr. Meyer had written to his parents that he was about to finish the tour, but was called into action “on a special assignment.” A later story in August 1969 said he died on dry land “while defusing a Viet Cong mortar shell that had landed in a compound of wounded servicemen.”
Mr. Meyer’s name is inscribed in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. A profile posted online for the memorial’s virtual wall lists his casualty reason as “ground casualty” and the casualty detail as just “misadventure.”
Mr. Bartunek said he was still unsure all these years later of specifics of what happened on that fateful day.
Mr. Meyer was not married and did not have any children before he died. His nephew Wayne Meyer, who’s named after his uncle, still lives locally. He wasn’t old enough to have met his uncle before he died but said it “seems like everyone in this town knew and loved him.” People still ask about his uncle when they hear his name, he said.
He was unaware of the new sign that honors his uncle at EPCAL, but said he was excited to see it. He said his uncle’s death was “devastating” to his father and grandparents.
“They rarely talked about him unless the Navy Seals came up,” he said in a Facebook message, noting his uncle was a member of Seal Team 2.
Mr. Meyer’s sister, Carolynn Herting, lives in Bayport.
When asked why it was important to Mr. Bartunek to honor the veterans, he simply replied: “I had 50 good years of living that those guys didn’t. That’s the bottom line. I’ve had a great life and have nothing to complain about and those guys never had a chance.”