GARNET VALLEY, PA. (WPVI) -- 86-year-old Lowell Gardenhour of Garnet Valley is not your typical computer science major.
"I'm in classes with those 18 and 20-year-olds," he said.
He is technically a junior, having taken a class at West Chester University each semester since 2008. "If you don't keep busy, your brain freezes," says Gardenhour.
Gardenhour is also a US Air Force Veteran, one of 186 American soldiers selected for a secret US mission in 1954. He's donated many of his own pictures and artifacts to the university. History Department Chair Robert Kodosky explains few realize US involvement in Vietnam at the time, which is crucial to understanding later involvement. Learning Gardenhour's story was paramount. Kodosky remembers, "There were less than 200 Americans there and now I've got one of them sitting in my office, and he's got photos."
Gardenhour is now being honored for his service, a certificate from the Chester County Veteran's Affairs Office and a certificate of distinction from WCU. Gardenhour grew up in Waynesboro, PA. After high school, he joined the Air Force and was stationed at Ashiyah Airbase in Japan in their air resupply squadron. Initially, he would make drops to American forces in Korea. Then in January 1954, Gardenhour was told to report to operations.
"We asked them, where are we going and what is our mission? And they said you'll find out," Gardenhour said.
Gardenhour and fellow servicemen landed in Manila, Philippines, parked in an area way off the base. He was told their mission was top secret, their plane's insignia replaced with French ones. Their mission was to drop supplies twice a day to the French army and legionnaires in Dien Bin Phu. "The French were on a plateau and the Vietcong were up on a mountainside looking down on the French", said Gardenhour, who described the small drop zone they had to hit.
"You had to fly over the drop zone at about 2,000 feet then circle around to 1,000 feet so your supplies would not drift away," added Gardenhour.
The mission was supposed to last 3 months. It ended up being six. Eventually Gardenhour returned to Pennsylvania, married, had kids, worked at GE, and later DuPont.
When Veterans Center Coordinator Lillian Morrison was approached about honoring Gardenhour, she didn't have the think twice. "There's a small number of people that serve in the military, even fewer who have done what he has done."
As for Mr. Gardenhour, he is grateful to be recognized.
"You sacrificed 4-5 years of your life," he says, "It's rewarding. It really is."
86-Year-old college student honored
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