Platoon Sgt. Mike Vinich leans against the bar in the El Toro Supper Club in Hudson.

He's wearing a Marine Corps veteran hat and a shirt with pearl snaps, surrounded by pictures of President John F. Kennedy, autographed images of sports heroes and a Purple Heart.

He danced here when he was 6 years old. Then, the bar had more tap beer from kegs. There were lanterns and a pioneer feel.

Now, at 86, Vinich has hired a full-time bartender to come in to ease the work-load. But Vinich still places orders, takes care of the books and makes drinks.

Most importantly, Vinich does what every good bartender should: He tells stories.

Some are about the war, like when Kennedy saved his life. Others are more philosophic.

He'd met Kennedy once on a patrol boat station in the South Pacific. Kennedy told Vinich that he'd visited Yellowstone National Park and it was one of the most beautiful places he'd ever seen.

A year and a half later, on an island called Choiseul, Vinich and his men were outgunned 20,000 Japanese troops to 600 U.S. Marines. For seven days the Marines hit and ran, working the defensive until water spread behind them. Navy PT boats arrived and the American troops jumped on. Vinich scrambled on PT 109, Kennedy's boat.

Many years later Kennedy called Vinich at his grocery store in Hudson to ask him a favor. Wyoming was a conservative state, and Kennedy wanted Vinich's vote. Vinich was glad to oblige.

At the National Convention, it was Wyoming, under Vinich's leadership, that gave the last necessary votes in favor of Kennedy.

It's only one story from a life filled with them -- like fighting the Black Water Fire, one of the deadliest wildfires in Wyoming history, and leading Marines in five major battles in the South Pacific.

If you stay at the bar long enough, he'll pour you another drink.

More stories will flow.

Sometime after Vinich's chance meeting with Kennedy, Vinich was sent to lead Marines onto Iwo Jima.

The U.S. military had bombed the island for 70 days. No one expected a fight. All the Japanese should have been blown up or ran away.

Vinich charged with 37 men. They ran up a jungle hill as Japanese soldiers rushed down. Those first Marines didn't have a chance.

Machine gun fire from behind shattered both of Vinich's legs.

He fell. Broke his femur on coral rock.

Momentarily unconscious, Vinich woke to bursts of gunfire blasting around his hands and head. A Japanese sniper zeroed in on him. Vinich knew if he didn't move, he would die.

He rolled himself into a shell hole.

Two young medics loaded the bleeding Marine onto a piece of canvas and charged for the beach. Every time a bomb screamed in, the sailors dropped Vinich to take cover. First he pleaded for them not to drop him. Then he ordered. Finally he threatened: If you drop me again, he told the soldiers, pistol in hand, I will shoot you. He couldn't handle the pain.

Seven of Vinich's men were wounded in the battle. Thirty died.

"I never contended to be a hero," he says, repeating the familiar mantra.

"Only those that never came back were heroes."

Lying on the beach on Iwo Jima, Vinich bled from holes in his legs.

Next to him lay a black Amtrak tank pilot, bleeding from a wound in his side. Vinich looked at the man and down at the ground. Their blood trickled through the sand, mixing as it flowed.

He told himself he would never be prejudice again.

"I looked at him as a true comrade, giving his all to the cause. No matter what our color was, we both had red blood."

For days, Vinich allowed more severely wounded men to see the surgeon first. He finally conceded to an operation when a doctor told him gangrene would soon take his limbs, possibly his life.

He then lay, legs in casts, on the U.S.S. Sibley. On the third day of battle, he watched as U.S. troops raised the American flag. Then he watched them raise it a second time because the first flag pole wasn't long enough for everyone to see.

"It inspired everyone to see our flag up."

The battle of Iwo Jima waged on for another 28 days, killing or wounding many of the men who held the flag pole.

Before they left, on Feb. 29, Vinich turned 21. He wasn't sure he'd make it there when he enlisted at 17.

Vinich moves around his Hudson bar when he talks. Sometimes he sits on stools or at a table, other times he plays the jukebox.

Depending on his mood, instead of battle stories he may weave you hard-knock tales from his father or other old miners. Or he'll tell funny ones of brothels and drinking.

Vinich talks about the war, the good and the ugly. He can tell stories of the horrors, but some of the screams, pain and nightmares he doesn't share over his wooden bar.

He bought the El Toro more than 30 years ago with his son, former state senator John Vinich. John died five years ago.

In the '90s, the supper club was included in Eating Your Way Across the U.S.A. But, Vinich stopped serving meals after his daughter, Michelle, also died. She ran the restaurant, he the bar. Now he's a little worn out, and trying to sell it.

If you wander in and aren't sure what to ask, some of the memorabilia in the bar -- the five battle stars, the family pictures and a letter from President Barack Obama -- could give you a place to start.

Or ask him what a man wants to do after a life like his.

He'll say he wants to sit by the Popo Agie River, tell stories and dance at the El Toro on the weekends.

Platoon Sgt. Michael Vinich

Age: 86

Unit: Marine Paratrooper in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th divisions

War fronts: South Pacific

Family: Married with six children and four grandchildren

His words: "A corporal laid next to me, shot through the chest. And when he died on the stretcher he said, 'Oh, God. Oh, Mom.' Those kinds of things live in your memory so long. More than the roar of the machine guns."


Load comments