The Army commander in Vietnam took one look at the Hartley brothers — identical twins from Compton — and pulled them aside with a stern warning.
“If you screw up, you’ll both be in trouble,” the commander admonished him, “because we can’t tell you apart.”
Larry “Mick” Hartley, a longtime resident of Mendota, and brother Doug Hartley of Compton, born a mere five minutes apart, took the hint and stayed out of the stockade. They spent their time in Vietnam fixing Uncle Sam’s helicopters and returned home in one piece — well, two pieces.
The Hartley brothers did everything together — drafted, even, at the same time — and now they’re being recognized for their Army service (1969-72) in the Vietnam War. On Tuesday, they take an Honor Flight departing the Quad Cities for Washington, D.C.
Have identical twin service members ever taken an Honor Flight together? Not departing from Moline, they haven’t.
“We have had groups of up to four brothers — having brothers is not unusual — but I’m not sure we’ve had any twins,” said Steve Garrington, hub director for Honor Flight of the Quad Cities. “I think this might be a first.
“And we’re thrilled to have them.”
Doug and Mick are equally thrilled — “It’s an honor,” Doug said — and this will be the first time either has been to Washington and seen the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There had been a real chance their names would be on it.
“Any part of Vietnam was never safe,” Mick said, recalling how their base included a frequently-targeted tank fuel depot. “They still mortared us at night sometimes.”
That the brothers were drafted and stationed together was part luck and part choice. Both got the dreaded conscription letter in 1969 and were told to report to Chicago. Mick was processed first and inducted into the Marine Corps while Doug, soon ticketed for the Army, stood in the waiting line. Then fate intervened.
“I was sworn in, sitting in a waiting room and ready to go to California and Doug went through the line shortly after,” Mick said. “They thought somehow I got out and gotten back in the line, but I said, ‘No, that’s my brother.’ ”
The man on duty pondered a moment what to do with conscripted twins and told them they could join the same branch if they liked. That was fine with Mick — “I didn’t want to go into the Marines,” he admitted — so it was off the U.S. Army. After basic training in Missouri they took avionics training in Augusta, Georgia.
But when, after the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Army mobilized additional troops to Vietnam, the Hartleys were told they didn’t both have to go. Congress had decreed siblings should not be deployed into the same combat zone — the so-called “Sullivan law,” named for five brothers who perished aboard the same ship — giving one of them an out unless they waived their right to separate assignments.
“We weren’t going to be able to decide which of us was going and which of us wasn’t, so we signed the paperwork and we both went to Vietnam,” Mick said. “We were stationed at the same place, same barracks, same company.”
More than a few heads turned when identical twins arrived in country — the military press took note and twice profiled them in Stars and Stripes magazine — but the avionics specialists kept their heads down. For the most part.
“I did some things they didn’t appreciate,” Doug said mischievously, though he hastened to add, “Nothing you’d get kicked out of the Army for.”
The brothers were honorably discharged. Now 73, the Hartley brothers are both retired with children and grandchildren.
Getting them on the Honor Flight together took a bit of doing. The Hartley brothers had signed up three years ago, not knowing COVID-19 would indefinitely ground the flights, and a paperwork snafu nearly sent Doug to Washington with Mick waving goodbye on the tarmac.
Ginny Taylor, a longtime friend who’s accompanying the brothers as a guardian, helped make the calls needed to send Mick and Doug together, as was the case more than 50 years ago.
“All their lives they have done things together and this is such an honor that they can experience this at the same time,” Taylor said. “I find it so exciting for the guys.”