GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — At 19, Wolfgang Geckeler came to America for what he hoped would be a two-year adventure, traveling the country and working as a chef, a skill he’d spent the previous three years training for in his native Germany.
“I always wanted to see cowboys and Indians,” said Geckeler, 73, his accent still noticeable more than 50 years later.
It was 1965, and the Vietnam War was going on. In order to visit the United States, Geckeler had to register for the draft. To this day, non-citizens have to register for Selective Service.
When he stepped off the plane in Boston, it was 103 degrees; he thought he’d made a mistake.
He watched someone drinking water from a fixture and went over and tried to do the same, but it wouldn’t work for him. He stepped back and waited until the next person, a child, approached it and drank from it. He watched and learned and when the child walked away, he took a drink from his first water fountain.
Geckeler went to work in a German restaurant in Philadelphia, but it wasn’t long before a notice informing him he’d been drafted caught up with him.
He reported to the induction center on North Broad Street, where he was given paperwork he couldn’t understand. He stopped a sergeant and told him in German, “I don’t know what this means.” The sergeant answered him, in German, that it didn’t matter. He was sent to a room with other young men, told to raise his hand and repeat an oath to protect the United States of America and the U.S. Constitution.
Assigned to 2nd Squadron/1st Cavalry Regiment, or the “2/1,” he trained for eight weeks in the heat of Fort Hood, Texas, before taking a ship to Vietnam.
On his first night, a rocket attack killed his friend.
“It scared the crap out of us, but that was it. What were you going to do?” Geckeler said. It was a question he’d ask him himself over and over again, and the answers he’d arrived at were: You obeyed orders, dug your holes fast and deep, and if someone shot at you, you shot back.
The Army taught Geckeler many things, and he was a good student. He learned about discipline and sacrifice and about looking out for each other.
“We were family, and we weren’t going to leave anyone behind,” he said.
The Army also taught him English, although he’d later learn it wasn’t the kind of English he could use in the civilian world.
“They called it Army English,” Geckeler said, laughing at the looks he’d get when he returned home and spoke to people the way he did in the service.
Geckeler was a driver for battalion command, so he was popular when beer runs were called for. He was also popular when card games broke out, until everyone figured out the German played poker better than most of them.
Playing cards may have saved his life on one of his last nights in Vietnam. He was across the street, away from where he was supposed to bunk one night when a mortar round killed another soldier.
“I had angels looking out for me,” Geckeler said.
The army had promised him U.S. citizenship for his service, but when he got back to the United States, it turned out he’d have to re-enlist if he wanted that.
He opted instead to work. He cooked meals at a posh Philly establishment — Grace Kelly ate there! — and saved up money to buy his own restaurant. He met his future wife, Maria, on a blind date in a bowling alley. They had three children together: Heidi, 42, Jason, 35, and Nicole, 39, who died in June.
It would be more than a decade after leaving the army that Geckeler would finally become a U.S. citizen. A Pennsylvania state senator heard his story and helped him achieve that in 1979.
Geckeler has kept close ties with the military and the men and women who served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Retired now, he still cooks, and through a chefs association, still helps veterans whenever he can.
That’s where you’ll find him this Veterans Day, helping to cook meals for several hundred veterans in Vineland.