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Oklahoma man's 'bucket list' included delivery of tribute to Thomas Pappenheim, a fallen Vietnam Vet

The North Weld Herald of Eaton, Colorado

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Marine Corporal pulled rank, sacrificed his life so another soldier could live his

"The Bucket List" is a 2007 movie starring Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, and Sean Hayes. In the movie, Nicholson and Freeman portray two terminally ill men who escape from a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with a wish list of to-dos before they die.

After watching the movie, an Oklahoma man was so inspired that he made his own list of things he wanted to accomplish before his own demise. One of those "to-dos" was to make a trek to Eaton, Colorado.

Unannounced, John C. Cole, 66, from Woodward, Oklahoma, walked into the Eaton School District office for a short visit and then stopped in at the high school where he visited with history buff and teacher Tom Trotter. Cole brought with him a beautiful memorial tribute honoring the Late Thomas Henry Pappenheim, and a story about the integrity of the Eaton native. Cole referred to him as "Pappy".

Pappenheim was born Dec. 5, 1947. Following his graduation from Eaton High School in 1965, he enlisted with the United States Marine Corps where he advanced to the rank of Corporal E4. This was during the Vietnam War era.

Drafted and enlisted with the Marines two years after Pappenheim's enlistment was Mr. Cole, who, in 1967, graduated from Moorland High School in Moorland, Oklahoma. Cole married his high school sweetheart, Beverly, that same year.

According to Cole, the purpose of his trip was to pay tribute to Pappy, to memorialize him in the Eaton community, and to let everyone know what Pappy had done for him — "He sacrificed his life so I could live mine." Cole explained, "Thomas had less than a year to go. We were both stationed in Santa Ana, California. Like any Marine, even Marines today, he was looking out for me. He pulled rank and took my orders saying he was single, had no wife or kids, or commitments." He added, "Pappy was the kind of guy who would throw himself on a grenade to save someone else's life."

Pappenheim's tour overseas began May 20, 1970, and on Aug. 11, 1970, he celebrated his third anniversary with the Marines. He was killed in action at the age of 22, during hostile fire on Aug. 18, 1970 in the Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam. The helicopter he and three others were aboard was flying gunship support for RCK Marines on Barrier Island. They were hit by enemy weapons fire, had gone down hard and burned. All four were killed.

Reminiscing, Cole recalled, "Pappy had really long fingers. He was one heck of a piano player and relayed to me that he wanted to be a concert pianist. He gave that up for me." Cole has dealt with Pappy's death with a sense of guilt his entire adult life. His visit to Eaton was one way he could pay homage to Pappenheim for the sacrifice he gave so that Cole could live; part of his healing process.

With the rank of sergeant, Cole was honorably discharged in 1972. He and his wife built a life together. They have two sons, their wives, and a granddaughter. They own a carpet business. "There isn't a day I don't reflect on what Pappy did for me," said Cole. "I remember the last time I saw him. Pappy said, 'See you when I get back.'" He continued, "It took a while before I learned that Pappy was killed in action. When I learned he had been killed I dropped like a ton of bricks."

Cole's bucket list also includes visiting other communities where other fallen Marines he had served with once lived. "I am doing anything I can to bring recognition of these heroes to the towns where these fine men lived."

One of Cole's wishes was to obtain a photo of Pappy that he could have as a momento. Through The Herald-Voice, members of the Pappenheim family were contacted and two photos were provided of Pappy while he was serving overseas. The family was honored to share the photos from their archives and appreciate the act of kindness shown by Mr. Cole.

Cole's visit was an emotional one that he didn't take lightly and he will never forget. He said if he were ever to consider moving from his Oklahoma town, "Eaton would be the only place I'd move to. The people I met were so welcoming and helpful. I am so thankful to everyone. And I'm so thankful Pappy was raised in such a fine community."

This month, Mr. Cole will celebrate his 67th birthday — thanks to the Late Corporal Thomas Henry Pappenheim.

The Vietnam War era began Nov. 1, 1955 and ended Apr. 30, 1975, although there are some who say these dates are conflicted.

Pappenheim is honored on Panel 8W, Row 122 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He was buried Aug. 28, 1970 at the Eaton Cemetery, Sec-17 Lot-F Grv-278 22. He was posthumously awarded the National Defense Service Medal, Purple Heart, and Vietnam Campaign Medal.

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Original Publication Date: November 5, 2015

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