(Story originally appeared November 7th, 2018)
By: Timothy Kays
If you have spent any time in Williams County, you probably know the name, and especially the voice of one J.B. Orendorff.
For over three decades, his voice was heard on every radio tuned to WBNO or WQCT, broadcasting his never resting sense of humor as ‘The Great Zucchini’ as far as 3,000 watts would carry him.
You more than likely know that J.B., but there is another side of the small town celebrity that many do not know. This Eastern Indiana import is a Vietnam War veteran, and a proud one at that.
His service to Williams County began shortly after he graduated from high school in 1964, and that service had a strong foundation in his service to America in Southeast Asia.
His is quite the story, and nobody could ever tell it better than him. “I made one abortive attempt at college,” J.B. began. “I learned a lot about people, but not much in class. I worked for a year and knew that the chances were better than even for my number to come up.”
“I decided that I’d rather be able to determine my future as opposed to letting the draft do it for me, so I enlisted.” He signed up for the United States Navy, and chose Great Lakes in Chicago for basic training in 1966.
“There were three in those days,” he said, “…Great Lakes, San Diego and Orlando, Florida. Now there’s only one… Great Lakes. I did boot camp, then went to what’s called Basic Electricity and Electronic School and Radarman A School, also at Great Lakes.”
“I was there almost a year before I went to the fleet, and you have the option toward the end of your schooling of where would you like to go. I think it was three choices, as I seem to recall.”
“I might as well go where the fun and games are happening, so I my first choice was an auxiliary on the West Coast, simply because the auxiliaries get back into port a lot more often than do the big combatant ships.”
“I ended up on an oiler, a floating filling station home ported out of San Francisco. I went aboard there in June of ‘67.” J.B. was assigned to the USS Kennebec, hull designation AO-36.
Originally launched as the Corsicana on April 19, 1941, the future floating home of J.B. Orendorff was renamed the USS Kennebec AO-36 on January 9, 1942. The Kennebec first carried out oil runs from ports along the Gulf of Mexico, to depots along the Eastern Seaboard.
With the war effort moving forward, the Kennebec began supplying the Atlantic Fleet from Brazil to Newfoundland. In October of 1942, the Kennebec began providing support to the American Invasion Fleet in the North African Campaign, plying Mediterranean waters that were thick with German U-boats.
The Kennebec received a battle star for its World War II service, and also saw service in the staging areas for the Korean War prior to serving the American fleet off the coast of Vietnam.
Fresh out of school, J.B. was ready to roll. His orders however, to quote the popular military acronym, were a series of snafus. J.B. recalled, “I was told to report to Treasure Island Transit Station in San Francisco, and they flew me from Travis Air Force Base to Pearl Harbor Hickam Air Force Base, where my sea bag got off the airplane, but I did not.”
“I flew on to the Philippines, and they said, ‘Your ship’s not here, and it’s not due here for some time.’ So they put me on another airplane and flew me to Japan.
They said, ‘Your ship’s on its way back to the States.’ I tried to tell them I knew better, because they’ve already told me its deployment was going to run several months more.
They said, ‘Your ship’s on its way back to the States,’ so they put me on another airplane, flew me back to Travis Air Force Base, and there were 25 or 30 caskets on that aircraft coming back to the States…a little disconcerting for a newbie about to show up in that part of the world.”
“We got back to Travis Air Force Base,” he continued, “…and I called home and said, ‘You’re not going to guess where I am,’ because I called them before I left. I said, ‘You’re not going to believe where I am…I’m back in California.”
“They were about as dumbfounded as I was. I wasn’t on the ground six hours and they put me back on another C-141 Starlifter, and flew me back to Japan because my ship was due for a port call at a place called Sasebo, Japan, and they said, your ship will be there in a few days.”
“Now these three crossings of the Pacific happened in four days. I crossed the Pacific three times, four days, and missed by 21st birthday thanks to the International Date Line. Talk about jet lag!”
Although the deployment travel finally came to an end in Sasebo, the adventure did not. “I was in dress blues,” J.B. said describing his military uniform; “… heavy wool dress blues. In the Philippines, that was a lot of fun where it was about 93 degrees and 400% humidity.”
“And so I get to Japan, went to the duty officer, showed him my orders and stuff and said, ‘I have one dollar American left out of my cash,’ and he said, ‘I can take care of that.”
“Get down to the Enlisted Men’s Club, get yourself a sandwich and something to drink, and we’ll get you all settled here and ready to go.’ In one of the oddest occurrences of my entire time in service, I walked into the Enlisted Men’s Club.”
“I’m getting a little gamey now; guys wouldn’t sit close to me. I ordered a hamburger or a cheeseburger, or whatever it was, and something to drink. I hear a voice to my right, and I know who belongs to that voice.”
“This was in June of 1967, three years after I graduated from high school, and that voice belongs to a guy that was in my class in the high school from my hometown.”
“His name is Chuck Crawford. He still lives in our hometown in Indiana, and he’s one of my friends on Facebook. I hadn’t seen him since he graduated. He had enlisted right after we graduated, and ended up doing 29 years in the Air Force, so it was kind of like a reunion of sorts.”
“I sat there and talked to him, and had a good time. That kind of helped take the edge off of what was a little intimidating…to be 9,000 miles from home, and you don’t know a soul. I ended up not having to pay for anything that night.”
“He was stationed there as part of the station compliment of ‘Zoomies’ as we called them…Air Force people. I spent about a day there, and then they put me on a bus down to Sasebo, Japan, and I waited there for my ship about three or four days.”
“The driver of the bus was my friend from high school. Military intelligence? Could be! I finally got there in June of ‘67, and stayed on it until I got out in June of ‘70.” J.B. went into detail describing his home upon the waves.
“It’s a floating filling station…510 feet long,” he said. “It carried about a half a million gallons of Navy standard fuel oil that we would transfer, what they call underway replenishment, to other ships so that they didn’t have to go back to port to refuel.”
“We also transferred jet fuel and some other lubricants, plus mail movies. Occasionally we would transfer people via the Manila highline. Anybody that was in the Navy is familiar with what the Manila highline is.”
“That’s a large piece of line, or rope in common English vernacular, stretched between two ships that are underway at about 10 or 12 miles an hour. The basket that you sit in gets pulled across that rope to the other ship, and you transfer the people.”
“When the seas were running, usually you got soaked to the skin. In the meantime, there were cables that went across from our ship to the other, and then there were big seven-inch hoses that slid across on that wire, locked into a fuel port on the receiving ship, and we would start pumping and fill them up with either Ethyl or the good stuff.”
“There was no 87 in those days…the low lead stuff. Depending upon the size of the ship, that could take a half hour to 45 minutes, or for an aircraft carrier it could take up to three or four hours.”
“We’re going exactly the same direction at exactly the same speed, and it was kind of a touchy thing because there’s only about 80 feet between the two ships.”
The USS Kennebec, with J.B. Orendorff aboard, served the American Fleet off the coast of Vietnam. “I want to say that we had around 17 officers, and about 210 or 220 enlisted,” he said of the ship’s compliment.
“Everybody had a job. If you didn’t do your job, somebody else would pay the price beside you as far as having to do something else they weren’t necessarily trained to do.”
“At some point prior to our making a pass along the entire length of the coast of Vietnam, there was published a message called a PIM, a position of intended movement.”
“All the ships would receive that message, so if they knew that they were going to need fuel, they would determine where they could best meet us, take on fuel and other things, and then go back to whatever their assigned duties were.”
“We’d run from the very south end of Vietnam…all the way up to the Gulf of Tonkin, where we did aircraft carriers and cruisers, and lots and lots of guided missile cruisers and destroyers.”
Just because he was off shore didn’t mean that J.B. and his shipmates were immune to North Vietnamese hostilities. “We were fired on twice;” he said, “…the loudest sound I’ve ever heard in my life.”
“We were not hit, but it scared me to death. I’ll forever remember that sound. Twice was fine. That was sufficient to make the impression to me, and I didn’t really need to know any more about that kind of thing.”
“A lot of other ships, especially the combatants, were a lot closer in than we were. We were eight to ten miles off the beach as a rule, but the other ships could be in wherever, as shallow as they could go without running aground.”
“It was called naval gunfire support, and the destroyers and cruisers and the occasional battleship fired on the shore, directing fire wherever they were called to shoot it.”
“And keep in mind the battleships; the New Jersey was over there and literally was a floating gun platform that could throw shells from here to Defiance…17 or 18 miles incoming. That would be about 5,000 pounds of explosives in a single shot…and they didn’t shoot just one.”
“It’s kind of like eating Fritos. You can’t eat just one, and they couldn’t fire just one. They’re really deafening. They had three gun mounts, three large guns in each gun mount, and they fired all three as a rule at same time.”
“Not necessarily always, but usually. Sometimes when they would fire a full broadside of all nine of those 16-inch guns to one side, it would move that ship horizontally about 40 feet. There was that much recoil, that much torque from the shells. If you go to some of the Navy pages, there are pictures of the New Jersey doing that.”
The Kennebec had ballistic capabilities of its own, but nothing on the level of the big boys. As J.B. recalled, “We had four three-inch 50 (caliber) slow fire guns that literally had to be loaded individually every time they fired.”
“We did gunnery practice before we left the States, and occasionally we’d do some gunnery practice over there, just to make sure the guns were still in operating condition and the way they’re supposed to be.”
“We were never close enough to the beach be able to do any help. I thought we were going to one time. There was always a Russian trawler somewhere near the Gulf of Tonkin. When we were refueling another ship, you can’t change course; you can’t alter course rapidly unless you do an emergency breakaway, and that gets really ugly.”
“On one occasion, in the view of our captain, the trawler got too close to us, so he ordered the refueling stations on the opposite side of the ship. We only had to shift to port; we had an aircraft carrier alongside.”
“So he ordered the guys on the starboard side refueling stations to lash two seven-inch hoses to the lifelines, the railings along the side…and when he got in range, commence pumping.”
“That Russian trawler which was allegedly grey in color, suddenly became very, very black from all the Navy standard fuel oil that got gushed on it, and he left…he went elsewhere.”
The Kennebec worked the coast of Vietnam, returning home to San Francisco in early November of 1967, thereby completing J.B.’s first cruise. “We were in port until March,” he recalled, “…and then we went back over and did that three times; three nine-month deployments.”
“I was discharged in March of 1970 after three years, eight months and five days of active duty. I still had an obligation up to six years. Of course, that’s what it says on the paperwork when you sign it and you raise your right hand.”
“That was in March. I started at Ball State in June.” He wasn’t there long before his life again changed forever…her name was Millie. “About the third day after I started Ball State, I saw her and I thought I should know who that is.”
“A friend of mine who was also over there at the same time I was, and was a postal clerk on another ship, said, ‘We can get you fixed up with her.’ Well, I beat them to the punch and I called her.”
From that time forward, J.B. and the soon-to-be Mrs. Millie Orendorff have been inseparable. “The rest is history, 47 or 48 years later,” he said. “She deserves several medals, perhaps a truckload.” They were married in August of 1971.
“She was just finishing at Ball State;” J.B. reminisced, “I was just starting at Ball State. Fortunately I passed the Navy enlisted college level test; I forget what they call it.”
“I managed to test out of all my freshman year and most of my sophomore year, so I was able to get into the Radio and TV courses right away, along with a fellow named Letterman. You may have heard of him. He ended up in New York City, and I ended up in Bryan, Ohio; you can draw your own conclusions.”
J.B. continued, “When I was going to Ball State, I worked at a small radio station in my hometown of Hartford City, Indiana, until after I graduated. I worked there about another six or seven months and then came here June 25, 1974.”
It was then that a long career began at WBNO, back in the day when it was ‘The Top Sound at the Top of Ohio, WBNO and WBNO-FM.’ “I was hired for the morning mouth spot, which was exactly what I wanted to do,” he said.
“I had no idea I’d be here on the radio for 32 years. The plan was, of course, at some point you are going to get a chance to move to a bigger station. Opportunities presented themselves, but they never seemed to timeout right.”
“Plus mother, Millie, had a job with first the North Central Schools, then the Bryan City Schools, and going someplace else where my job would take me would not necessarily guarantee that she would have a job…and we acquired children.”
“We ended up with three kids, and so it became pretty obvious we were going to be here for the duration. The oldest, Jeni, was born in July of 1975. April was born April 1, 1981, and Chris was born on April 6, 1983.”
Looking back on his days at WBNO, J.B. recalled, “The beauty of working in a small station like this, any small station, is you do everything. You don’t end up with just one job. We had multiple jobs, and that was fine.”
“That’s how you learn to do the different things in your particular chosen profession, in this case, the radio job. It sometimes involved 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week sometimes, and so you’re not home a lot. I worked a lot of hours and I thoroughly enjoyed it. That’s all I ever wanted to do.”
“I grew up listening to WOWO out of Fort Wayne, Bob Chase, Bob Sievers and Jay Gould and all those people. That’s where the seed was planted to be in the radio business.”
J.B. holds a special memory of the legendary early morning man from WOWO. “Bob Sievers was here in Bryan,” he said. “Red Siebenaler of Siebenaler Equipment paid for WOWO to come over and do a remote, and we were supposed to do a remote from WBNO.”
“So we’re doing two remotes at the same time, and I’m talking to him and he’s talking to me.” While working at WBNO, J.B. and Millie operated a bookstore in downtown Bryan from 1989 to 1993.
‘The Great Zucchini’ would continue on at WBNO for another twelve years. “I stayed here for 32 years,” he said, “…then went to work at another radio business…still telling people where to go.” That business was Williams County Central Communications.
“I was dumbstruck by how much there is to learn to do that job,” he reflected, “…and it grows exponentially just about every day with all the changes in communications, all the additional methods of communication…cell phones, text messages, that kind of thing, in addition to the land lines which are becoming scarcer. 9-1-1 rings, you pick up the phone, and you have no clue what’s on the other end. It can be really, really scary.”
“My first night to work a night shift, one of my trainers and I answered 9-1-1; I had just started taking 9-1-1 calls. She is listening to the call on a set of headphones as I’m answering.”
“It turned out that a church tour bus up on the turnpike got rear ended by an 18-wheeler my very first night. Fortunately, there was a nurse, an RN on the bus, and she was triaging people before all the wreckage even stopped moving.”
“She’s the one that called in and told us exactly what we had, what we needed, where they were and that kind of thing. That was always a complication…people frequently don’t have the faintest idea where they are, and that’s really scary, but she did.”
“We sent every ambulance we had except for the ambulance from Edgerton. We had it go to Ace Corners and just sit there in case there was another call. We had ambulances from Hillsdale County, from Fulton County and from Lenawee County, all responded to the scene.”
“Fortunately, it was a no fatal situation. There were some pretty serious injuries, but none critical.” J.B.’s military training and experience paid big dividends with Central Communications.
“You’re trying to be cool when things get tough,” he said. “You’ve got stuff you have to know; things you need to learn as far as where they are, what happened, who did what to whom, where are you, what do you need…that kind of thing.”
“You’ve got to have that information right up front, and if you don’t ask the right questions, you’re not going to get the right information. That was the same thing when I was off the coast of Vietnam and I was a radarman watching the coast.”
I’m watching for anybody, any little boats that may be coming out to disturb us, and letting people know where we were. So I was kind of on the other end of that same communications line.”
“I get the 9-1-1, and we were the first voice that people would here when something bad happened. You have to be able to keep your stuff together. And later on I when I would go home, one of two things would happen.”
“Either I was so wound up that I couldn’t sleep right away, or I’d be so blessed bone tired, that it was difficult staying awake to get home, but it kind of goes with the territory. That’s the way it works.”
On May 31, 2012, J.B. Orendorff retired from service at Williams County Central Communications. In his retirement, J.B. is remaining active in his service to the community, and especially to the youth of the area.
J.B. is the emcee and narrator of the Williams County Mock Crash, and because of his experience with Williams County Central Communications, he paints a very vivid and very accurate picture of the events that unfold during the emergency response to the scene of a fatal accident.
Just like Millie, the well being of the kids of Williams County are a major priority to J.B. He is also a staunch supporter of the idea that the military is a great way to go for high school graduates.
“I did more growing up, had more fun, made more lasting friends and saw more of the world than I would have ever, EVER had an opportunity to do had I not enlisted in the Navy,” he said.
“The military will help you pay for whatever education you want after you get out. I went to Ball State on the GI Bill. I was working two jobs while I was going to Ball State, but the GI Bill paid the biggest chunk of the freight for that process, and I thought sometimes that maybe I should have stayed in.”
“But then I would have never met Millie. I would have never gotten together with Millie, and ended up married to her. How it would have changed my life, I’m not sure.”
“There came a time after I got out that the military role in our world was rolled back a lot, and they cut way back on the number of people in various jobs. That’s one of the downsides of that life, however there are lots worse ways to exist in this world than to be in the service.”
“I’ve told any number of kids exactly that. The military will pay you a lot better now than they used to. When I made my three trips across the Pacific in four days back in 1967, I was getting $46 every two weeks.”
“They get paid a good deal more than that now, and if you stay in, you’re going to end up as an enlisted man at $60,000, $65,000, somewhere in that neighborhood. Not a bad income.”
“You could retire after whatever your choice in 27 to 30 years…you will get a good piece of that every month, and you can go out and get yourself another job.”
“If you go in at 18 and you retire at 48 after 30 years, you’ve still got almost 20 years to work and create another career possibly. I will always strongly encourage kids to at least give the thought of the military…always!”
While it seems commonplace to thank a veteran nowadays, that sentiment was practically nonexistent prior to September 11, 2001, something which has not been lost upon veterans like J.B.
“It was more than 30 years from the time that I got out and the time I was discharged, until somebody said, ‘Thank you,’ he said. “I hear it a lot now. The first time I ever heard it, I teared up.”
“Of course I cry at Burger King commercials so I tear up easily, but the first time it happened I was just dumbstruck and very, VERY appreciative. And now you hear it, and it’s really, really nice to hear.”
“Unfortunately there are some guys that were over there when I was, give or take that time period from 1959 to 1975, that still have a lot of anger and other issues about what happened…what they were doing, why they were doing it, whatever.”
“I’m not going to question why. I was told when I enlisted, you will follow these orders. And that’s what I did. As far as that good feeling about somebody saying thank you, I will always be appreciative of it.”
As difficult as it might be to get your mind around it, there are those who have no appreciation whatsoever for veterans, and no…it’s not relegated to the big cities and the east and west coasts.
While J.B. is proud of his service, and grateful for the recognition, “The other side of the coin happened a few years ago at Wal-Mart,” he said. “I had one of my Navy veteran hats on, and it happened to have my service ribbons on it.”
“A little boy, I’m going to guess 9 or 10 years old, saw my hat and asked me about it. I was explaining what the different ribbons are for, what they stand for and why I have them, and thought that was pretty cool.”
“His mother grabbed him by the hand and said, ‘Come on; only losers go into the service.’ I thought I was really having a great day when he started talking to me; I was really tickled…and mom needs an attitude adjustment.”
“If you were to do a survey of how people feel about people in service, it’s probably way past 80, 85, maybe 90 percent appreciation of people who serve, but there is still a few out there that need to understand what the process is.”
So then, what does a veteran want? “Acceptance and respect,” J.B. said. “There’s a very popular line that you see from time to time on veterans organization’s websites, ‘All gave some…Some gave all.’ I couldn’t be prouder of having served.”
The United States ended its presence in Vietnam 43 years ago in 1975. It may be only semantics to some of us, but for many who returned from Southeast Asia, the question remains. They may be here, but have they ever really come home? “A lot of them haven’t,” J.B. said.
“I have a tee shirt. On the back of it is screenprinted a portion of the Vietnam Wall in DC. The caption above it says, ‘I was there,’ and down underneath it, it says, ‘Sometimes I still am.’ I’ve not had particularly issues with flashbacks, PTSD, anything like that.”
“A lot of people have, and I’m glad I’ve not experienced that. But people have to understand that everybody reacts differently to a given situation. Those 58,479 names on that wall are all going to be my buddies…. always. There’s even one on there by the name of Orendorff.”
“I didn’t know him; he was from Pennsylvania… the same spelling even. But there are seven names on that wall of people that I knew that were on my ship at one time or another that got sent to other duty stations and didn’t come home.”
Reflecting back, J.B. said, “A lot of people from our area went to Ball State because it was right there. But there were gobs of us vets that were there when I started at Ball State, and when we started talking, we’d find out, ‘Hey…he’s been there, too.’
“So we had kind of a bond between all of us. We had one corner of the of the Student Union snack bar, and we’d sit there and tell stories some of which were actually true, and others not so much.”
“But there’s a connection, a bond between people who were in service at essentially the same time, give or take a little bit. That makes a huge difference, and that’s one of the things I really, really appreciate now…not so much then, but now I really do.”
Now you know the side of J.B. that never came out while he was exchanging on-air banter with Luke Thaman. He’s not looking for attention for himself, although he has most definitely earned it.
J.B. is more interested in seeing America grant the civility, acceptance and respect to those men and women who have worn the uniform of any of the branches of the American Armed Forces.
Having stepped away from their lives and their families in order to safeguard all of us, isn’t that the least that we can do for them?
We owe our veterans a debt that we cannot repay, but a simple ‘thank you’ sure makes for a nice little down payment, as opposed to being called a ‘loser’ in front of an impressionable child. We’re better than that…aren’t we?
Timothy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org