After involved process, Lewiston Vietnam War veteran Paul Kornoely to be honoured posthumously by Australian military
A chance meeting aboard a Lake Tahoe cruise boat last year will bring a posthumous decoration to a Lewiston Vietnam War veteran.
David Benge of Newcastle, Australia, was at the scenic lake for the annual gathering of the Vietnam Helicopter Crew Members Association when fellow member Jerry Kriegel sat next to him during the cruise. When Benge found out that Kriegel lives in Lewiston, it unleashed a flood of memories about a long-deceased but much-admired Lewiston resident who served by Benge’s side during the war.
“Paul came in April or May of 1970,” Benge said of Paul Kornoely, who died at the age of 33 on Christmas Eve, 1982, in a Snake River boating accident. “It was like a breath of fresh air.”
Kornoely arrived in Dong Tam near the Mekong Delta as a helicopter maintenance man with the U.S. Army’s 135th Assault Helicopter Company, which worked tightly with Benge’s helicopter group from the Royal Australian Navy. Together, they formed the Experimental Military Unit, or EMU.
At the time, the unit was the only “completely integrated multinational helicopter company fighting in Vietnam,” according to the company’s 1970 yearbook. The EMU’s motto was “Get the Bloody Job Done,” and Benge said Kornoely excelled at just that.
“He could do anything, and we didn’t even have to ask him,” said Benge, a search-and-rescue diver who ran the unit’s helicopter maintenance. “I could leave him with a pile of work, and when I got back it would be done. He was an all-around terrific bloke.”
Benge finished his tour in Vietnam in October of 1970, and Kornoely faded from his memory. But years later, a perusal of pictures from his days in the Southeast Asian jungles reminded Benge of his able friend. The problem was, he’d completely forgotten the name of Kornoely’s little western hometown.
“It took me forever to remember where the hell he came from,” Benge said.
Benge is a history buff, however, and Lewiston popped back into his head while he was reading up on Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. The hunt to find Kornoely was on, but Benge eventually found out it was too late. His old friend was dead.
Kornoely came back into his life, however, on that fortuitous day on a Lake Tahoe paddle-wheeler. Benge asked Kriegel to find Kornoely’s grave so he could have some flowers placed, and Kriegel happily complied. Benge even wanted to pay for the bouquet, and Kriegel tried to decline.
“Darn Dave, he went ahead and sent me $50,” Kriegel, 72, said with a laugh.
The flowers were a nice gesture, but Benge decided to take his respect for Kornoely to a different level. Members of the EMU had recently been awarded Australia’s Unit Citation for Gallantry, the highest military honor that can be given to an entire unit. The award included all U.S. Army personnel who served in the 135th.
But the Australian military requires official discharge papers to prove that a service member was part of the unit. And those are only available to immediate relatives of deceased veterans, leaving Benge at a loss. He enlisted his new friend from Lewiston in an effort to find Kornoely’s next of kin.
“Jerry turned out to be my best mate on this particular project,” Benge said of Kriegel, a member of the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company. “Jerry changed my opinion of humanity.”
But with the passage of so many years since Kornoely’s death, Kriegel came up empty.
So they decided to ask the Lewiston Tribune for help finding a member of Kornoely’s family willing to request Kornoely’s discharge papers. The newspaper was able to track down Kornoely’s widow, Rhonda Rose, who still lives in Lewiston. Rose remarried after Kornoely’s death, however, and the military no longer considers her his next of kin.
But Rose knew how to contact Kornoely’s son from an earlier marriage, and reached out to him for help. Jeremy Kornoely was 5 when his father died, so the request took him by surprise. But he was more than willing to help.
“It’s impressive to me that somebody still has that kind of admiration for my father,” said Jeremy Kornoely, a 43-year-old medical lab scientist at a Boise hospital. “So it’s really, really neat. I don’t know how else to explain it, but I’m excited for it.”
Jeremy Kornoely promptly requested his father’s service records from the National Archives, but also learned the process could take up to 90 days. That meant the records might not arrive in time for an April 25 ceremony to commemorate Anzac Day — the equivalent of Memorial Day in Australia and New Zealand — at Fort Rucker in Alabama.
Other members of the 135th will gather to receive the Unit Citation for Gallantry at the ceremony. Jeremy Kornoely, Benge and Kriegel were keeping their fingers crossed that Paul Kornoely could be among those honored.
But Jeremy Kornoely was in for another pleasant surprise. Archives officials emailed him the required records in a matter of days, not months, and he forwarded them to Benge in Australia. Benge quickly passed them along to the proper authorities in the Royal Australian Navy.
Benge said he was notified Friday of one discrepancy on Kornoely’s discharge papers that may delay the award: the lack of the dates he served in-country with the EMUs and the 135th Assault Helicopter Company.
“But the fact is we know Paul was with the 135th AHC,” Benge said in an email Friday. “I’m hoping that this is good enough for the approval. Apparently there are a few (applications) with the same missing details. Apart from that, it’s all go.”
Whenever the award comes, Jeremy Kornoely said he will place it at his father’s marker at Lewis-Clark Memorial Gardens in the Lewiston Orchards.
“I think of my father all the time,” he said. “But it’s neat to know that people out there still think of him. I don’t know many people who knew my dad very well, and knowing him in that kind of situation is a whole other ballgame. It’s neat to hear, and definitely brings back the memories I do have.”
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