North Lake Tahoe Bonanza: The Vietnam War is often thought of as a quagmire, a lost American conflict that many would just as soon forget as reminisce. The long, black wall in Washington D.C. memorializing the lives lost during that war counts upwards of 58,000.
But Capt. Charles "Chuck" Merdinger, an Incline Village resident since 1974 and a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam gave a different take on the war during the first installment of Andrew Whyman’s Fireside Chats.
Merdinger discussed his role in the war with Whyman as interviewer and host Thursday night at the Prim Library on the campus of Sierra Nevada College, where Merdinger served as the first chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees.
"I look on returning from Vietnam as a high point in my life," Merdinger said.
The former engineer, Rhodes scholar and university president ran the public works department in Da Nang for the U.S. Navy. He and his corps of engineers trained Vietnamese citizens in construction, plumbing and installing electricity.
"I think I have a different perception of Vietnam because I left there with a great satisfaction. We left a legacy by teaching people," Merdinger said.
In addition to handing American knowledge over to their Vietnamese counterparts, Merdinger’s engineers brought running water to a hospital and infrastructure to villages that previously had none.
Vietnam was just a stop on his life’s journey, though.
Born in Chicago in 1918, Whyman mentioned an old Merdinger family story.
"Chuck would march around the house at five years old," Whyman said, drawing a laugh from the 62-person crowd.
"I guess I just liked the thought of being in uniform," Merdinger said.
He donned uniforms as an Eagle Scout, All-American Lacrosse athlete at Marquette University in Wisconsin, a college-ROTC and eventually in his duties with the U.S. Navy.
One of his most harrowing experiences came on Dec. 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor. Merdinger was an officer aboard the USS Nevada as the "Day of Infamy," took shape.
He was waking up on that fateful Sunday to make it to an 8:30 a.m. mass when sirens went off.
"I thought, darn, it’s just another man overboard drill. We were always drilling for one thing and another," Merdinger said. A fellow sailor ran into his room, letting him know this was the real thing.
Merdinger left his room just before a Japanese torpedo struck it. His room and his belongings were destroyed, but Merdinger made it out with his life.
"I just prayed and asked God to keep me safe," Merdinger said.
He kept the audience’s attention for nearly an hour, recounting everything from his time in the service to the formation of Sierra Nevada College.
Whyman was pleased with the way the first Fireside Chat went and hopes for many more to come.
"These gatherings are meant to be a celebration of lives well lived. I’m happy that we were able to bring members of the community onto campus," Whyman said. "There was a much greater turnout than I expected."
The next Fireside Chat will be Thursday, Sept. 27, at 7 p.m., once again in the Prim Library on the SNC campus. It will feature Manny Sylvester, an original investor in Incline and a man knowledgeable about area history.
Bonanza Staff Writer