Frank Cybulski, right, holds the knife. Bill Deskins helped track down Cybulski. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)
Roseville— Former Army platoon Sgt. Loyd Cates of Smithville, Texas, kept a hunting knife clean and sharpened for more than 40 years after it was left behind in Vietnam by an injured Hamtramck soldier.
“I don’t know why, but I felt that someday I would see him again,” Cates said of Sgt. Frank Cybulski. “I was going to hold onto it.”
The knife this week finally was returned to Cybulski, who now lives in Roseville. The delivery brought to a close an effort that opened long-buried memories for both men, who are still coming to grips with their roles in an 11-year war that saw 58,220 U.S. fatalities and left thousands of veterans apprehensive about discussing their experiences.
“I just stared at the box for like 10 minutes,” Cybulski, 64, said of the delivery. “I opened it up and pulled the knife out. That’s when I started crying.”
The knife was a gift from Cybulski’s parents, who had sent it to him after he left for war and asked them to send him a hunting knife.
Cybulski, who was 20, had it with him when he and Cates, then 21, were on patrol in southern Vietnam with around 30 other members of the 199th Infantry Brigade the morning of Jan. 14, 1970.
Suddenly, North Vietnamese soldiers detonated a mine, “and then there was (another) explosion,” Cates, 65, said.
Cates was unharmed, but five yards to his left, Cybulski lay badly burned and in shock.
“I remember telling him he was OK and he was fine,” Cates said. “But, of course, that’s what you always say. He wasn’t OK and he wasn’t fine.”
Cybulski said he does not remember Cates’ assuring words. “The only thing I remember is a gigantic orange ball in my face,” he said. “It’s like looking at the sun and then you look away, and you can still see it.”
Cybulski was evacuated to an American hospital in Long Binh, Vietnam, and then sent home. He was one of 303,644 U.S. soldiers injured in the war from 1964-75, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“That was one of the most difficult things about being in Vietnam,” Cates said. “You got close to people and when you put them on that helicopter, you never heard from them again.”
Hope kept alive
Cates retrieved Cybulski’s knife, hoping one day to give it back.
Cates returned home from the war in July 1970. Then, like many Vietnam veterans, he blended in and moved on. “You just try to put (the war) out of your mind,” he said.
After more than four decades, Cates this summer felt he was ready to look for Cybulski. He contacted Bill Deskins of Warren, creator of the “I grew up in Hamtramck before 1985” Facebook group.
“I knew Ski was from Hamtramck,” said Cates, using Cybulski’s old nickname. “Of course there are a lot of ‘-skis’ in Hamtramck.”
Deskins, himself a Vietnam vet, tracked down a phone number for Cybulski’s ex-wife, who passed along the message. But Cybulski said he was hesitant to revisit the painful memories, and initially did not respond.
As weeks passed with no word from Cybulski, Cates said he began to feel discouraged. “I thought ... so close but no cigar,” he said.
Determined to find Cybulski, Deskins reached out to The Detroit News, which also called Cybulski’s ex-wife.
After hearing from his ex-wife again, Cybulski said he was prompted to get in touch out of respect for Cates.
“I’d follow that guy any place,” he said. “I really would.”
The number 754
When the two finally spoke over the phone early this month, it was as if no time had passed.
“Anytime you run into an old Vietnam buddy ... you just take up where you left it,” Cates said. “It’s kind of weird, but that’s the way it is.”
Cybulski and Cates said they hope to reunite in May at the 199th’s reunion in New Orleans.
As for the knife, Cybulski said he wants to carve the number 754 into its handle — the number of men from the brigade who died in the war.
“I can’t forget those guys,” he said. “Never.”
Then, he plans to visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“My grandson just turned 2-years-old, and it’s very important to me to walk that wall and touch it with him,” Cybulski said.
“I want to place that knife at the wall in Washington and leave it there.”