Vietnam Lighters and the Thrill of the Chase

Often times I will throw a bid out on ebay and just see if it “sticks”. I will do this especially if I am not sure about the lighters authenticity or something. That was the case with a recent pick-up. I threw a bid on a lighter listed as “vietnam zippo tuy hoa 69 – 70”. I could tell the Zippo was genuine but it’s the engravings that will get you as many times they are NOT authentic for various reasons. In the end, the only bidders were myself and another ebay member which I thought was very odd. The auction went for a dollar more than my highest bid and without thinking too much about it, I moved on.

Auction Images

Fast forward 5 days and I receive a 2nd chance offer from the seller on the Vietnam lighter. I was torn as to what to do but I knew who to enlist for assistance. I contacted my friend Rolf Gerster, renown Vietnam Zippo expert. Based on the photos I sent him he replied that it looked ok and I promptly pulled the trigger! I knew it was an amazing deal, especially if I could prove it authentic with provenance.

Once the lighter arrived safe and sound, I sent a message to the seller through ebay and asked if he happened to know the background on the lighter and if he minded telling me what happened to the winner of the initial auction. He replied back to me stating that:

“… it was in a box of lighters I won at a local auction. The winning bidder never paid and wouldn’t respond to any emails. So I opted to make the second chance offer to you.”

My guess is due to the nature of Vietnam Zippo’s, maybe everyone was scared away from this one including the original winner. Either way, their loss, my gain LOL.

I immediately began researching for the owner of the lighter. Rolf had told me a while back when inquiring about another one of my Vietnam Zippo finds, that a Vietnam lighter “could bring a lot, if it would be definitely identified”. My research took me down many rabbit holes. I had a fair amount of info on the lighter… “Larry” and the initials LDB, the branch of service (USAF) and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) which is connected with Tuy Hoa AFB and the individuals years of service there, 69-70. I also had the name Patricia which I figured was a wife or girlfriend. The biggest thing I lacked was a full last name. Any idea how many Larry’s and Lawrence’s there are that served in the USAF in Vietnam? A lot…. Not to mention the fact I had no idea if this person was alive, dead, MIA, KIA etc. Many of the websites you can do research on are specific to those who were KIA or MIA.

At one point I was confident I had found the owner. From my research he had spent time in Tuy Hoa about the right time frame. He was part of the Red Horse Squadron which had a presence in Tuy Hoa. The initials matched perfectly. The only things I did not have (yet) were connections to Patricia and the SAC but I figured that one might have gone without saying. I emailed the gentleman and got a fairly quick reply stating:

“I’m sorry but I will not be able to help you with this. I was in Vietnam from January 1969 till January 1970 but most of my time was at Pleiku in the central highlands. I only spent a few weeks at the end of my tour at Tuy Hoa. Our Red Horse squadron was deployed there to complete construction of harden shelters for F-4’s. To my knowledge I did not know a Patricia. Girls were scarce there and I believe I would remember her if we had met. When I was state side I was in ATC not SAC.”

I was devastated that I had not made the proper connection, but I picked up and pushed forward with my research. I knew I could come up with something if I searched hard enough.

Fast forward 16 days and my research took me to a website, http://www.vietvet.org. On this site they have a very simple “Lost and Found Engine” where you can search for any term and narrow it by date and branch of service. I went through every listing that was from or for a Larry with the correct last initial “B”. This is one of the ones I stumbled on.

vietvet research screenshot

I emailed the person, Armando L. Pineda from the site but it was rejected as undeliverable. It was posted 20 years ago in December 1998 after all. A quick Google search led me to a Twitter account for a person of the same name and of the same Texas location. I took that info and went to none other than Facebook. I found the same man, with the same photo. His other photos showed him to be a Vietnam Veteran with a connection to firefighting. I sent him the same message I had sent others a few times before…

“I am doing some research looking for a Vietnam Veteran, first name Larry, middle initial “D”, last initial “B” who would have served in in the Air Force in Tuy Hoa from about 69-70. The only other clues I have about the serviceman is the name Patricia and the Strategic Air Command. Are these details perhaps familiar to you?”

I went all day and heard nothing. However this morning I woke to a few messages from Armando.

“Yes Larry and l served in Tuy Hoa 69/70 he was my best friend while stationed there and yes Patricia is his ex-wife now. The last time l spoke to Larry was several years ago, he was living in Apple Valley California then l lost contact with him, in fact Patricia found me the same way you did and gave me his phone number. I know she was living somewhere in Virginia. I hope that help you.”

He also went on to say:

“Larry was a Sargent (E-4) served with the 31st Tactical fighter wing civil engineering squadron. We both served as Crash and rescue firefighters in Vietnam.”

Bingo! I was floored!! He said Patricia was last known to be living somewhere in Virginia. Virginia is where the lighter was purchased at auction and where the seller of the lighter on ebay is from. Every piece of the puzzle was finally in place. Armando even included a few pictures of Larry for me in his reply.

Photo of Larry
Armando (Left) & Larry (Right)
Photo of USAF Firefighters
Top picture is Larry and Armando Bottom picture is Larry, “Rodriguez” and Armando, all USAF Firefighters in Tuy Hoa from 69-70.
Larry circa 2011
Larry circa 2011 Image taken from Facebook

I quickly jumped on Google with the additional info he provided. I was immediately met with an obituary for Lawrence “Larry” Dawson Bell Sr. In the obituary it states that “During Larry’s life, he was a Fireman in the United States Air Force”. Sadly Larry died at age 70 after a battle with pancreatic cancer on Nov. 5, 2017.

Other questions remain like did Patricia also pass and the lighter sold as part of her estate or perhaps she is alive and well and just decided to let go of it now that Larry has passed. Either way it was a lot of fun chasing down the man who carried this lighter “in-country” and to even have a picture of him. I hope to find out more from Armando, for whom I am very grateful to have corresponded with so far.

Now to go back and research my original Vietnam Zippo ebay find, also verified by Rolf, now that I have this experience under my belt. Perhaps I will post that story here as well if I am successful.

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