LaRue: Retired soldier uses guitar to share memories of another soldier — his dad

larry.larue@thenewstribune.comMay 26, 2014 

Hank Cramer, who lives in Winthrop, tours the nation as a musician.

COURTESY OF HANK CRAMER

The 1st Special Forces Group at Joint Base Lewis-McChord has lost 22 men in Afghanistan in the past several years, and Col. Max Carpenter remembers each of them.

“We’re a small unit, but we’re always the first to go in,” said Carpenter, the unit’s deputy commander. “The first U.S. casualty in the war in Afghanistan was one of ours, Nate Chapman.

“The first casualty in Vietnam was one of ours, too — Harry Cramer Jr. His son went on to become a Green Beret.”

That was Harry Cramer III, and the last time he saw his father, he was 3 years old. When word came that Cramer had been killed, on Oct. 21, 1957, the boy his father called “Hank” was 4.

Twenty-five years later, Hank Cramer was an Army captain when his mother and two sisters attended the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. The family was in for a shock.

“My father’s name wasn’t on it,” Cramer recalled in an interview last week. “The names were there, year by year, but his name wasn’t on the wall. I couldn’t believe it.”

Harry Cramer Jr. was born to be a soldier, as his father and grandfather had been and his son would be, and he became a much decorated captain in the Army.

Twice wounded in Korea, Harry Cramer Jr. joined the 1st Special Forces Group in 1956. A year later, he was placed in command of a mobile training team and was sent to train South Vietnamese soldiers in guerrilla warfare.

Cramer was killed in an explosion initially reported as an accident. When a medic who was present said the explosion had been a Viet Cong mortar strike, however, that finding was left in question.

“My mom was teaching school in Okinawa when my father’s commander called and told her not to go school that day,” Hank Cramer said. “He came over with a chaplain later that day. I was playing on the playground and one kid told me he’d heard my dad was dead.

“I ran home and there was my mom, and they were with her talking to her. That’s how I found out.”

As Hank Cramer grew up, he learned to play the guitar and carried it with him everywhere — even after joining the Army.

“One of the things I remember about my father was his singing voice,” he said. “He loved cowboy songs, and I remember him singing ‘Yippee Ki Yay,’ the old cowhand song.

“He loved the ‘Banana Boat Song,’ too, and when he played it, I’d dance around with a banana over my shoulder, like I’d seen Harry Belafonte do on TV.”

When he discovered his father’s name wasn’t on the Vietnam memorial, Hank Cramer — by then a captain — took on the Pentagon. He got help from the media, from his father’s former fellow soldiers and from commanders.

“They said his mission had been classified in 1957,” Cramer said, “but there was no need for it to be classified in 1983.”

On Veterans Day 1983, the name Harry Cramer Jr. was added to the wall.

A year later, Hank Cramer was sent to Fort Lewis and joined his father’s old unit.

“I was in Special Forces from ’84 through ’88,” he said. “I was proud to be in my dad’s unit, and humbled.”

Cramer retired in 1990 from active duty, then served 14 years at the base south of Tacoma in the Army Reserve as a battalion commander.

Eventually he decided to make his living with that guitar. He’s recorded nine CDs, made his home in Winthrop, and tours the country. His father is part of his concerts.

“If I sing ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets’ — and I always do on Memorial Day or Veterans Day — I think of my father,” Cramer said. “And I do a song a friend wrote, ‘Touch A Name,’ which is about the Vietnam War Memorial.

“And if I sing ‘Yippee Ki Yay,’ I always say the same thing: This is a song my father taught me.”

The Cramers’ story is like many of those 1st Special Forces Group families who have lost a loved one. Col. Max Carpenter has seen many of them, and noticed a recent sea change.

“For families, I think they’re a little bit hurt now that the public seems to have turned away from those killed in the war,” Carpenter said. “The unit rallies around its folks, and no one feels abandoned.

“It’s national fatigue over the longest war we’ve ever had. People don’t want to forget, but they do.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@thenewstribune.com

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