Stephen Ernest Waage, Vietnam Vet
Updated: Apr 23
"When you ask a veteran when they were last "over there", know that in many cases, the answer is 'Every night'." - author unknown
He was born on Valentine's Day, 1947, to Ernest and Dorothy Waage in Red Oak, Iowa, a small town of rolling fertile hills, nestled on the banks of the Nishnabotna River, not far from the Nebraska border. He grew up in the "South Hill" area of Red Oak, south of the railroad tracks and a huge railroad bridge, in a neighborhood packed with baby boomers. They would walk together over the railroad bridge to school; after school and weekends they played endless games of baseball in backyard baseball fields. Little league baseball teams were formed by a group of dads, something that had not been done in Red Oak before. Steve signed up and was put on the Cardinals team. During elementary school, he was a Patrol Leader and acted as a school crossing guard.
Stephen Waage was 8 years old when his niece, Pam, was born in California. Pam doesn't remember her first trip to meet her Uncle Stephen and grandparents, but her mother always told her she had learned to walk on that train ride east. The earliest trip to Red Oak that she remembers was when she was 4 or 5; she got in trouble because of her Uncle Stephen and her brother, Gaylen (4 years older). Her grandmother was recuperating from surgery when the boys found a snake and talked her into scaring her grandmother with it. That's her first memory of Uncle Stephen. As time went on, she had many fond memories of him - he would patiently help her with math homework and he gave her advice about boys as she got older. She remembers once when he was about 15 and was with a group of high school friends standing on the bridge over the railroad tracks in Red Oak. His friends “dared“ him to jump off the bridge into a coal car down below. Not being one to pass on a dare, he jumped and broke his leg because of it. The main thing she remembers about her young uncle is that she thought the world of him; he made her feel like his very special little sister whom he adored.
When Stephen was 15, his father, a building contractor, who had built the house they lived in, and was on the city council, passed away at age 55 of lung cancer. After that, Pam (age 6 at this time) doesn't remember going to Red Oak anymore; instead her grandmother and Stephen would travel to California to visit.
Stephen graduated from Red Oak High School in 1965. He is remembered by fellow students as very popular, social, adventuresome, and athletic. He was on the basketball team his freshman and sophomore years, but was on the track and football teams throughout all four high school years and captain of both during his senior year. He was known to be a tough running back and a good blocker. He was on the champion mile medley relay track team that won them the Hawkeye Seven championship, which was an important championship that included future well-known athletes. During his senior year, he was a candidate for Homecoming King. One classmate said that all the girls had crushes on him. Another classmate said, "He was a sweetheart - I remember that!" His high school girlfriend was class valedictorian at their graduation.
After high school, Stephen moved to California to live with his older sister, Colleen Waage Little, her husband and their children, Gaylen and Pam. He attended El Camino Jr. College in Torrance, CA.
The exact time he was drafted is unclear, but he spent time in Vietnam from 1969 - 1970. Very little is known about his time in Vietnam. He wrote his niece, Pam, a letter from there dated Feb. 9th, 1970. He mentioned his friend, "Peach", who had left for home, writing this: "What a great feeling to leave Nam and the Army at the same time. We were good friends and usually did everything together. Now things will be a little quiet. It's already been noticed."
It's unclear what his job in Vietnam was, but he was a sergeant, working for Headquarters & Headquarters Company in the 25th Infantry Division, AUN Battalion. He sent Pam a newspaper clipping about a Russian cache of weapons that had been uncovered; Stephen wrote a note on the article saying that he was 15 miles northwest of this location, which was 50 miles northeast of Saigon. I believe this would put him fairly close to where my uncle, who was also in the 25th Infantry Division, was stationed in Dau Tieng.
I never knew Stephen, but 41 years after his death, I got to know his deceased nephew's (Gaylen's) widow while giving a presentation on the battle flag I received from a Viet Cong veteran. Her name is Ann Little and she approached me after the presentation to ask if I'd ever thought of going to Vietnam to find this man who gave me the flag. She said she would go with me if I wanted to go. First I said no, then called her a week later and said, "Let's go!"
While we visited Vietnam, Ann spoke a lot about "Uncle Stephen" and we kept wondering if we were close to where "Uncle Stephen" had been nearly 50 years before. It turns out that we were very close, and probably traversed the same territory where he had once been.
In 1975, Ann and Gaylen were planning their wedding. Gaylen chose Stephen to be his best man. Ann met "Uncle Stephen" a few times, but only after he had returned from Vietnam. Her impression was that he was a young man trying to forget the war, not unlike most young men who returned from Vietnam.
There was to be a surprise bachelor party for Gaylen in Las Vegas; friends were going to bring Gaylen and Stephen was planning to meet them there. He never made it. On May 23, 1975, on the way to Las Vegas, Stephen Ernest Waage, in his Porsche, lost control around a bend, and died in this single car accident, at 28 years old. A loss felt by all who knew him which trickled down to me, as we wandered around Vietnam 50 years later, wondering where he had been.
If anyone has more information on Stephen Waage, especially his tour of duty in Vietnam, his niece, Pam Little Colley, would like to know more of this young man whom she adored and thought the world of; this young man, a Vietnam veteran, who died much too soon.
Steve on high school football team; Steve is on the right as a patrol leader in elementary school.