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Men bound by military service discover hometown connection

The two soldiers, one 26, the other 86, stood together in a crowded hotel ballroom where the price of admission far exceeded mere money.

You had to fight to get invited to this formal affair. The annual 1st Infantry Division Officer's Dinner has been an exclusive get-together for combat leaders since 1919. The latest edition in April brought soldiers from around the country to Alexandria, Va.

The young man, Capt. Erik Anthes, knew all about retired Col. Ken Cassels — or so he thought. He knew the colonel had once led the same regiment in which Anthes is now a company commander at Fort Riley, Kan. He had read about Cassels' gallantry in Vietnam, his two Silver Stars, his Purple Heart and a chest full of other medals.

As the two men chatted, Cassels quizzed Anthes about his time in Iraq and they realized they had something other than military service in common.

They both went to high school in New Port Richey.

Anthes, a 2004 graduate of River Ridge High and son of a longtime Pasco sheriff's deputy, knows this area as modern and bustling, home to more than 200,000 people squeezed against the coast. But 60 years earlier, Gulf was the area's lone high school and Cassels one of only six boys in the senior class. Because he only stayed around a few years and rarely returned, few people in the area know much about him, despite his legendary status in some military circles.

Cassels' father, a railroad conductor from Plant City, died in 1942 after an illness, and Ken moved in with his older sister, Marguerite, in a house on Orange Lake in New Port Richey. Her husband, Gulf High math teacher Fred Marchman, was at war, like almost every other man in western Pasco County. The dearth of labor meant Cassels found plenty of part-time jobs. He drove a truck to market in Tampa for grocers Henry and Frank Potter, loaded citrus fruit on boxcars in Elfers, delivered the Tampa Tribune. Up every morning by 4:30, he had plenty of time to take in the headlines.

He couldn't wait to join the war effort. He watched with his buddies as pilots from MacDill Air Force Base strafed the stilt houses off the coast in their P-40 fighters. "That's what I wanted to do,'' he said this week from his home in Salt Springs, where he lives comfortably with Peggy, his wife of 57 years. "I wanted to fly.''

But by the time he could join the Army, the war was winding down. "They had all the pilots they needed,'' he said. His sister, also a teacher at Gulf High, had taught him to type 30 words a minute, a skill that landed him at cryptography school.

When the war ended, Cassels left the service and enrolled at the University of Florida. He ran short of money and learned he could earn $27 a month as an ROTC student in infantry training. "That's how I became a soldier,'' he said. "I needed the money to get through college.''

He exceled at everything military, including the toughest tests for any soldier. He proudly wore the Airborne Ranger insignia and served as an instructor at the Ranger school at Fort Benning, Ga., teaching offensive and defensive tactics. As he moved through the ranks, Peggy raised their two sons.

In August 1969, Cassels, by then a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, commanded a 300-man task force in a major battle near An Loc. An official account of the action describes Cassels' heroism and decisions that obtained victory despite his troops being outnumbered 2-to-1. Cassels was awarded the Silver Star and another a month later after a similar firefight.

He downplays the Purple Heart that came with the nation's third most prestigious medal.

"It was some tall, blond, blue-eyed Russian assigned to the NVA (North Vietnamese Army),'' he recalled. "He was lucky enough to get an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) off and it went right over my head and hit a tree to my left. I got some shrapnel in my left elbow. They patched me up pretty good and a doctor put a nice looking bandage on it. That's it. I was lucky and privileged to command such brave men.''

Cassels rounded out his distinguished career in a highly classified intelligence position at the Pentagon. He retired in 1978, returned to Plant City and spent several years as general manager for the famous Strawberry Festival.

The Cassels made occasional trips to New Port Richey to visit friends and family. His brother-in-law, Fred Marchman, became a local legend himself as a respected educator who served as Pasco County school superintendent. He died in February 2005 at age 93. Marguerite, who retired as a school teacher, died eight months later at 88.

Cassels travels as honorary colonel of the 16th Infantry Regiment and helps select distinguished members. But he has spent most of his time this year at home near the Ocala National Forest. He's been working on his book.

He's doesn't expect to sell many copies. He mainly wants to honor those who served with him.

Back at Fort Riley, a young captain is eager to read it.

Men bound by military service discover hometown connection 06/25/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 25, 2013 6:45pm]
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