Your Local News | Allentown, Bethlehem & Easton
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Bethlehem News

At Veterans Day event, Hall of Fame rocker Artimus Pyle banged the drum for military service

  • A Veterans Day panel discussion was held at ArtsQuest Center on Friday night
  • Among the four panelists was Artimus Pyle, former drummer for the southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd who served with the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War
  • The event was sponsored by Phoebe Ministries

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — There Artimus Pyle stood on Veterans Day — holding drumsticks and holding court.

Pyle was chatting casually with a Marine Corps colonel, Navy captain and Navy master sergeant prior to a panel discussion about the Vietnam War at the ArtsQuest Center on Friday night.

Forget that Pyle is music royalty, having made his mark as a drummer with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Forget the 28 million albums sold. Forget the gold and platinum records and Top 40 hits such as “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Simple Man,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “What’s Your Name?” and the epic “Free Bird.”

“I’m proud to have been a Marine."
Artimus Pyle, former drummer for Lynyrd Skynyrd.

These were simply four retired veterans sharing stories of how their lives were shaped by putting on a uniform and serving America.

And Pyle was nothing more than retired Marine Corps Sgt. Thomas Pyle.

“I’m proud to have been a Marine,” said Pyle, 75, who enlisted in 1968 and was honorably discharged in 1971.

“I was able to make my father proud of me. My father was a Marine and his father was a Marine. The Marines made me a serious, honorable man.”

Pyle panel.jpg
Phil Gianficaro
A Veterans Day panel discussion on the Vietnam War was held at ArtsQuest Center on Friday night. From left, retired veterans Navy Master Sgt. Eugene Derenick, Marine Corps Sgt. Artimus Pyle, Navy Capt. George Campbell and Marine Corps Col. Frank Gunter.

The hour-long panel discussion was sponsored by Phoebe Ministries, a continuing care retirement facility in the Lehigh Valley.

Its host was Frank Gunter, a retired Marine Corps Colonel and professor of economics at Lehigh University. Other panelists were Navy Capt. George Campbell and Navy Master Sgt. Eugene Derenick, both of Center Valley.

Each of the veterans served during the Vietnam War.

Pyle wore a vented cream-colored cowboy hat with a Marine Corps emblem pin on the front, a leather jacket, a blue oxford shirt, brown pants and worn brown boots.

But he also wore something much more important — his devotion and respect for what his service in the Marine Corps provided him.

“The Marine Corps instilled a discipline in me that has served me all my life,” he said.

As Pyle looked at his fellow veterans on the stage, he saluted them without lifting a finger.

“I’m sitting here with a Marine Corps colonel, Navy captain and" Navy sergeant, he said. “And I can’t talk to any of you without saying ‘Sir.’ I admire each of you gentlemen.”

Pyle shared stories of his life: How his father implored him not to join the Marines. The day his father was killed in a midair collision that he calls the worst day of his life. How he was given the name Gomer in boot camp — a reference to the 1960s TV comedy “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” — and was asked to repeat classic lines from the show’s star.

“They used to tell me to say things like 'Shuh-zam,' and 'Surprise, surprise' and 'Gahhhhly,'” he said. “And if there’s a Marine who had to go to Vietnam after that, and he had a belly laugh at my expense, I’m OK with that.”

As Pyle spoke that last sentence, each of the veterans smiled and nodded in a symbolic thanks.

Derenick explained that he enlisted in the Navy at age 17 because, in part, of the lack of employment in and around the tiny town of Throop in Lackawanna Couty.

“I spoke with veterans in my neighborhood about what branch I should go in,” said Derenick, a former State Pennsylvania trooper. “My uncle said the Navy because they always have hot food. I just wanted to do a job with a purpose.”

Campbell enlisted in the Navy Officer Candidate School after graduating from Penn State University in 1960.

He served on the USS Providence in Yokosuka, Japan. He resigned from active duty in 1964 with the rank of captain.

Campbell then enlisted in the Navy Reserves, working in finance and accounting with Bethlehem Steel Corp. He spent more than 10 years working with the Navy SEALS, including the last four years of his reserve tour as captain in Special Warfare.

After the panel discussion, Pyle’s band — Artimus Pyle Band — was scheduled to perform at Musikfest Cafe.

But that Pyle was anywhere after his multiple brushes with death is a minor miracle. He survived three plane crashes, a car crash, a motorcycle crash, a shooting and a stabbing.

He shared details of a well-documented story of the 1977 plane crash from 9,000 feet in a Mississippi forest that took the lives of Lynyrd Skynyrd founder and lead singer, Ronnie Van Zant, and three other band members and staff.

Pyle survived and credited his Marine Corps training for helping save the lives of 19 other people on board.

“I was never knocked unconscious, so I knew the only thing I had to do was help people,” he said. “And I was injured. I had chest injuries; I thought I was dying."

“I did triage, made tourniquets, helped people out of the plane because I thought it might blow up. One friend was pinned in his seat when a tree came through the fuselage, but I got him out.”

Injured and in shock, Pyle walked for help. He rolled over a barbed wire fence and got to a farmhouse.

“The farmer pulled out a gun,” he said. “I heard a round go off and felt something sting me on my arm. I yelled, ‘Plane crash! He said, ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry.’ He was just protecting his family.

“But it’s my Marine Corps training that got me to that point. I credit it all to the United States Marine Corps.”

Col. Gunter told the panel that the all-volunteer military has reached a crisis level of low recruitment. Some branches are falling short of their yearly recruiting goals by the thousands. For example, the Army is set to fall 15,000 recruits short this year.

“I would explain to young people they should join the military,” Pyle said. “You get to meet people from every state in the union. You learn discipline and respect. You’re doing something to help your country. I’d tell them to just join up.”