“I have been lucky. No Agent Orange issues”

Specialist 5th Class John Leone
151st Transportation Detachment, 71st Assault Helicopter Co.

The ’50s were days of apprehension, atomic bombs, and the Red scare. At school, we practiced air raid drills. Newspapers carried the latest casualty count from Korea. We saw short newsreels on what to do in case of a nuclear attack from Russia (“when you see the flash, hide under your desks. If you’re outdoors, hide under a piece of cardboard or any doors that may be on the ground”). We were afraid and, not to mention, curious as to where the newscasters thought we would find doors laying around on the ground.

We watched television shows like I Led Three Lives with Herb Carlson playing Herb Philbrick, citizen, counter-spy, and Communist. We watched live television with the McCarthy Communist hearings. In the ’60s, we had the Cuban missile crisis, 13 days of biting our nails, waiting for war with Russia to break out. We watched the Kennedy assassination and burial.

On August 3rd, 1964, my friends and I were working on our very important summer tans down by the pool. Louie Ciano came by to tell us we wouldn’t be around next summer. The Vietnamese had attacked one of our ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam. We were all going to war. None of us had ever heard of Vietnam.

In short order, we registered for the draft, graduated high school, were drafted and had sergeants screaming in our faces. In basic training, we crawled in the mud under barbed wire while some idiot fired live machine guns over our heads.

After basic, I was sent to AIT at Fort Rucker, Alabama. I was trained as a UH-1 Helicopter Repairer, MOS 67N20. Many soldiers with this MOS became crew chiefs or door gunners. After completion of this school, I received orders to go to Vietnam.

I was part of the 187th Assault Helicopter Company and received orders to report to Sharpe Army Depot, Lathrop, California on 22 February 1967. We accompanied the helicopters and equipment onboard an ancient wooden deck aircraft carrier named the Kula Gulf. We left California on March 4th and arrived at Vung Tau on the 23rd. After a short stay at Bien Hoa, I was reassigned to the 501st Aviation Battalion, 71st Assault Helicopter Company as a crew chief. I proceeded up north to Chu Lai to join my unit. When I arrived the commanding officer told me he had more crew chiefs than he knew what to do with and assigned me to the 151st Transportation Detachment, the maintenance arm of the 71st.

When I was only a couple weeks away from my DEROS (Date Eligible for Return from Over Seas, one of the military’s thousands of acronyms), I was standing on the hood of a deuce and a half replacing a tail rotor late at night. A Huey landed not too far down the flight line, and apparently, the gunner dropped his M-60 or another gun, and it went off accidentally. It was a tracer round, and I saw the red trail near my line of vision. I hurried to get off the truck thinking it was hostile fire. My foot caught the barrier around the blinkers and made me fall headfirst to the macadam. I cut a vein over my eye and fractured my wrist. No real glory here, just my clumsiness.

The doctors gave me one day to settle my affairs and pack up my gear to be sent home. My thumb had to be immobilized to let the wrist heal. This was a three-to-four month process. So I was going home a little early. I objected at the time. I wanted to go to Hong Kong on R&R and be there for the Chinese New Year which started on January 30th, the same day as the Vietnamese New Year, called Tet. Not to mention the fact that a few GI’s in my company owed me money.

On January 24th, 1968 I was sent to another base to await orders to go home. I can’t remember exactly which one. On January 30th, my orders came through, and I was hustled onto a UH1D Huey helicopter for a quick trip to Tan Son Nhut Airport. I no sooner had gotten off the Huey than I immediately boarded a Hercules C-130 for a trip to the Philippines. I managed to get a seat under a light and started reading one of the two Ian Fleming books I brought with me. The C-130 was called the meat wagon because all the passengers were wounded. The first aboard were the stretcher cases. They resided more toward the nose of the plane. The rear section consisted of us, the ambulatory, the walking wounded.

We landed at Clark around 7:30 in the evening ate at the mess hall and retired for the night. The next morning, on the way to breakfast, I picked up the military paper, Stars and Stripes. The headline glared at me: “TET OFFENSIVE HITS CITIES IN VIETNAM.” The news about the Tet Offensive was relatively sparse as it was still early on. I found out later there were some casualties back at Chu Lai. Also, Cu Chi was hit quite hard as was Saigon, home of Tan Son Nhut Airport. I’d apparently missed the action by minutes. My stomach churned, and I worried about the friends I’d left behind. Accompanying these images was a thought that maybe, just maybe, if I hadn’t gotten injured, possibly I could have prevented one of them from getting hurt or killed. All part of the subconscious guilt that we tend to carry with us through life, justified or not.

After breakfast we were back on another Hercules, heading to Japan this time. For two weeks I was in a hospital ward facing a wall of windows looking out at Mount Fujiyama in the distance. I was in the company of many poor GIs who lost a limb or multiple limbs. They all seemed to bear up over these losses much better than I ever could. So many of them were in good spirits, doing different exercises, learning how to cope, how to do the menial things we take for granted, keeping a positive attitude. I moped around feeling guilty that all I had was a crack in one of my bones.

To this day, many decades later, I still get uncomfortable and have terrible recurring memories whenever I see an amputee. To me, that was the real hell of war. That’s part of the nightmares I still have.

Then, on February 15th we were going to be allowed to go off base, came the news that we were to be sent home. Due to the Tet Offensive in Nam, the beds were needed, and all passes were canceled.

We boarded the plane for the flight home. A Sergeant paced back and forth as we took our seats. In a voice louder than necessary, he reeled off safety measures and instructed us to stay seated. He explained that the seats facing the rear were for our protection in case of a crash. Then the Sergeant went on to say the flight would be to Maguire Air Force Base with a brief stop in Juneau and Dover, an 18-hour flight.

Mixed feelings filled my brain. Years later there would be television shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, shows talking about how great and fun those years of the ’50s and ’60s were. But that wasn’t necessarily how it was, at least not the way I remembered.

As miles sped by, I recalled reading in letters from home that many were against the war. Nothing to that effect was mentioned in our newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. That paper usually told us how we were winning against the Vietnamese and how the participants at the peace treaty in Paris continued to argue for months on end over the shape of the meeting table.

What would homecoming be like? Would people greet our plane at Maguire? A 40-piece marching band? Television newsmen shoving microphones in our faces?

Probably not. America didn’t look upon Vietnam as a war. It was similar to the previous conflict in Korea in the ’50s. No homecoming parades or kisses at Times Square, but it sure would be nice to finally get home. The entire time in Vietnam, there was a constant ache in my heart. It never went away. It was homesickness. No remedy, no amount of Ba Mi Ba 33 beer could make it go away, no pills, no girls downtown, nothing. But now, after a year of being away and the thought of being home in less than 24 hours, it started to finally subside.

The flight was long, monotonous and smooth sailing. We stopped in Alaska for refueling. Some girls came aboard in parkas bearing hot cocoa for us, even though we were relatively warm in the plane. We stared at these cocoa-carrying angels, their faces outlined by the parka fur, snowflakes melting quickly on their coats. Most of us had scarcely seen an American girl in almost a year. We all fell in love for a few brief moments. Then they were gone, and we were airborne once again. The hours passed slowly between cat naps as we all lost track of time.

There was a quick stop in Dover, then onto Maguire. We were greeted not by a marching band, but a thick, blinding snowstorm.

We were hustled onto a deuce and a half truck to go over to Walson Army Hospital at nearby Fort Dix. As most of us were still in jungle fatigues, the driver gave us a few blankets so we wouldn’t freeze en route. As snowflakes swirled in our faces on the ride, I shivered and shook and wished I was back in a country with the 100-degree plus days. The heat was uncomfortable but the cold hurts.

Coming Home
It was two days before my parents could get through the snowstorm to visit. I was allowed home the following day on a three-day pass. My sister was ten; my little brother was four. It was great to see them even though my sister complained that our little brother had a habit of peeing in her shoes in the closet. Once again, I questioned that maybe I should have stayed overseas. No one had ever peed in my boots in Nam, but we did check every day for scorpions before putting them on.

Then I was off to visit my girlfriend. I hadn’t called her purposely, planning to show up and surprise her. It certainly was a surprise, to say the least. Between calls from her boyfriend (whom I was unaware of), I was the victim of loud rants on why she hadn’t heard from me in over a month. Apparently, the mail from Japan was not as efficient as from Vietnam. I left her house confused, wondering what happened to my girlfriend of three years who had written to me regularly of her undying love and promises of waiting forever.

I then went down to the different hangouts of my youth to get re-associated with any friends who weren’t yet drafted, away at college or had run off to Canada. The few who were around greeted me friendly enough and asked me where I’d been hiding. Invariably, when I told them, they’d get that “caught in the headlights” look. Typically, they started stammering and checked their watches. Time to go!

The media and our politicians had done a fine job of turning everyone against the Vietnamese conflict. No one wanted us over there. My response, eventually, was not to even mention my involvement. When asked where I’d been my response was “Well, been around. How about you?”

The bias hung around for quite a while. Years later, in the mid-70’s, I took a course at Mercer County College. I raised my hand when the Dean asked if any Vietnam veterans were in the class. Quite noticeably, the preppy older man on my left, decked out in a black beret and matching elbow patches on his sport coat, moved his chair away from me. Not to be outdone, the lady to the right of me did the same. We vets were pariahs, social outcasts.

Years later, I talked with one of my old GI buddies. He told me he did three tours in Nam. In explanation, he said, “I came home and didn’t like what I saw. America was not the same.” I knew exactly what he meant.

When being discharged from the service, I was offered a healthy bonus to re-enlist. If done within 90 days, I’d receive $8,000 and a promotion to Specialist 6th Class. I don’t believe I slept for the next 89 nights. But I did not re-enlist. To this day, I ‘m unsure if I made the right decision.

Afterward
We suffered through the fall of Vietnam when Congress pulled the plug on the war funds, the Watergate scandal and the fall of our Embassy in Iran. These were long, sad, dreary years for America. I remember feeling very sad when I watched Saigon fall in 1975. I wondered what it was all about.

I have been lucky. No Agent Orange issues. I have some dreams off and on over the years, primarily about amputees, still get them, probably more now with all the Afghan and Iraq war veterans sporting their artificial arms and legs. Reminders everywhere. But I am going to the VA about that.

I have been to the World War II Memorial but refuse to go over that mound to the Wall.

When Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1981, America seemed to bounce back. We all became Patriots again! I and millions of others became proud once more that I’d served my country. American flag sales went through the roof and the negativity of past years melted away. It just felt good.

In spite of that depressing homecoming, I am glad to have had the privilege of serving this great country. God Bless America. I did miss out on some adventure after they transferred me into maintenance from helicopter crew chief. The flip side of the coin is that possibly I would not have come back or have come back with a limb missing. I’m proud to have served but was never certain that Vietnam was a war we should have had. We certainly messed that country up and caused the deaths of untold numbers of Vietnamese.

No coffee, no doughnuts and no Susie Q!

L/Cpl, Ret’d Dave Miller
USMC Grunt
Lima 3/7 ‘68

My Homecoming story started the second I was hit, my first wound was my ticket home. However, we were just ambushed and everyone with me is dead.

Many other stories so let’s get to my funny part.

Four or five stories later, I find myself on a C-130 strapped unto a stretcher suspended by web belts from the ceiling and attached to the floor. This device holds 4 or 5 wounded, ambulatory wounded took up the lower stretchers or were seated in flight chairs. I was at the very top of one of these jungle gyms.

We landed in Alaska to refuel, Just then, a cute little blonde, round eye, sprints up the back hatch and she immediately had everyone’s attention. About 5’5”, maybe 16 or 17, wearing white Hot pants and a stretchy shirt. I think she said she was the Base Commanders Daughter. She implored, every ambulatory patient follow me to the terminal for coffee and doughnuts.

Not exactly ambulatory shot 3x, I sustained some damage. I had my ribs spread twice due to a hemorrhage, lung resection, diaphragm repaired, emergency heart bypass, splenectomy, belly wound, intestine resection and damaged kidney and missing some ulnar nerve left elbow and damaged left kidney. So I start climbing down the 15 or 20 feet from my perch. I hear a Corpsman yelling at me but I could only climb down at this point. Halfway down I fell. Five days after being hit I weighed in at a husky 116lbs, the Corpsman caught me.

He said Where Do You Think You Are Going? I said I’m Following Suzie Q, he said, Go Ahead, just don’t miss the flight. I was in Navy PJ’s and hurting from my fall, blinding light greeted me as I descend the ramp. Snow piled up around the tarmac but I wasn’t cold. I couldn’t stand up straight so I couldn’t see where I was walking. All I could do is shuffle along and every 5 or 6 steps I would stop, turn sideways so I could check my direction and then continue. I was short of breath and aching from the fall. I was about halfway to the terminal and Suzie Q when another patient grabbed my good arm and said: “Move it, we’re going to miss our flight.” I turned and looked and everyone was coming back from the terminal. So I headed back to the plane, no coffee, no doughnuts, and no Susie Q!

 

Here’s my story about my recurring nightmare…..

Sgt. John Folk
1st Marine Radio Battalion
USMC

My unit was 1st Marine Radio Battalion. We were the electronic intelligence arm of MAF III. I was in country from July 1969 to August 1970. I served at many different sites, as we had platoons all over the place; all in I Corps; we operated anywhere between Danang and Dong Ha We were COMINT/SIGNIT units supporting 3rd Marine Division as well as 1st Marine Division; my role was Radio Intercept (Morse and voice), RDF (Radio Direction Finding) and cryptology.

Towards the end of my 13-month tour, things got interesting with a story that still haunts me to this day. The way I was initially treated at home, and some reminders pop up this memory that is embedded in my life; reluctantly, there are triggers that make me relive this story time and time again. I can’t shake it, and it has scarred me for life.

In a war, you meet all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations. But some of the meetings you have, you’re never really prepared to handle the emotion of the situation. It is in these heart touching moments that sometimes we cry, and hopefully, sometimes we’re able to answer – why. But, this one can’t be reconciled. I’ve spent 50 years trying, and I give up. The event I’m writing about here indeed hurt. In the end, I cried; and I still ask WHY, even to this day…. why this did happen….

It was a hot, humid day just after the monsoon season in Vietnam. My squad was returning from an intelligence patrol near Quang Tri-City. We were still in the bush, but it was a peaceful, uneventful mission. The area was very quiet, and all was tranquil. We were sitting and waiting to hear the familiar sound of the helicopters rotors as they would approach to take us home.

We were tired, sweaty and thirsty, but were enjoying the peace and quiet. Suddenly, there was a quiet explosion, a painful scream and the wretched smell of burning flesh just yards away from me. I threw the safety off my rifle and spun towards the noise ready to shoot and ready to kill. I held the rifle in my shoulder aiming at the screaming figure as it slowly came towards me.

I lowered my rifle when I saw the dirty, blood-stained, pale brown skin of a child, covered only by a pair of shredded blue shorts, and heard his whimpering as he collapsed. His long jet-black hair was uncut, filthy, and his teeth were blackened with rot. His hands and his only remaining foot showed signed of hard labor and work, as he was plagued with calluses and blisters. His other foot, the cause of his pain, was completely severed at the ankle. The ground around the stump of his leg had already become blood-soaked, I went running to his side, I used a bandoleer as a tourniquet and twisted it tightly just inches above the stump. I covered the wound and hoped it would stop spilling his blood.

In the distance, I finally heard the thump, thump, thump of the choppers as they approached. Seconds later, it landed, and we were away. It only took minutes to fly to a hospital for the small child who was no older than seven years old.

Corpsmen rushed to the chopper and took him away, and in a matter of minutes, the doctors were in surgery with him. In the next few hours, I had filled out the reports, debriefed the patrol, relaxed, ate and took a bath in a polluted river. A few days later, I returned to the hospital to see how the child was doing. The doctors had finished with him, and he was talking, but obviously in Vietnamese.

I found a translator, a Dancer, we used in field ops, to visit with the child and I. We talked for quite a while, and I learned that he was an orphan, having never really known his parents. He did know that his dad was taken away, and his mom was dead. He knew only his first name, Nguyen. He couldn’t remember his age, or whether he had any brothers or sisters, or anyone in his life. His life had always been the same, stealing food off dead soldiers, whether they be American, South, or North Vietnamese, it didn’t matter – if they had food, he’d take it.

In his short life, he’s had Malaria, snake bites, and mountains of other challenges, and he faced them alone. Never getting help from anyone. He remembered stepping on the cartridge trap where he lost his foot. He didn’t really know that the war around was about and knew it had nothing to do with him, but it was the only life he knew, and it had little consequence for him – just another saga in how he had to adjust and live. But, while he was here, in the hospital, he was smiling, and he was happy. For the time being, he knew he could be happy because he was being cared for, and knew he’d be fed while he was here.

I told him that if he’s lucky, we’ll get him into an orphanage where he may have a better chance, but that was too far in the future he said, and so, who knows…. Anyway, I left him, and, even though he was in such pain, he was smiling – what a welcome vision that was.

Later that night, we got the usual rockets and mortars which seemed to plague us from time to time. The bombs exploded everywhere, spreading their torn twisted bits of metal at everything and everyone. At half-past two in the morning, it stopped, and it was over. The damage was everywhere. I saw the burned and broken bodies of several people – Marines mostly. But then when I went by the hospital tent where Nguyen was, I saw it too had been hit. I went in, and I carried Nguyen ‘s lifeless body to the street, and I cried.

A few days later, and my tour ended. I flew home. But Nguyen’s story didn’t end there, at least for me. It’s not even his fate and death that plagues me; it’s what happened when I got home that still haunts me, and hurts.

There is yet another story, part two if you will, I feel I must share…. if only to sensitize you to where my mind was at the time. By now, you should have learned that during the 60’s, the Vietnam war was extremely unpopular. This wasn’t just a political thing; it was also a “60’s” thing – where “peace, freedom, and free love” were all part of the culture and lifestyle. Dodging the draft, refusing to go off to war, running off to Canada (to avoid the draft) were pretty common things going on in society. To “enlist” into the service (which is what I did) was not a cool thing to do – according to ‘society’, but I did.

To further appreciate this story, you also need to know that as a child (basically from age 7 to 16), I was actually very much into the church, and going to Sunday school. My brothers and I did this every Sunday. Our parents seldom went, but they did pack us off to church. We went to a Baptist church in Birmingham, Michigan, and walked across the park to get there. The minister was Reverend Whitfield, and he guided us through the church for all those years. He baptized us (Baptists dunk the whole body!) and I (because of Reverend Whitfield) held the church in pretty high “awe”. I enjoyed it and participated in quite a few things (I even sang a solo at church one evening!). I felt pretty close to the minister and the church, and I even hung out with his daughter.

So, it didn’t seem unusual, at least to me, that when I came back from Vietnam, to put on my dress blue uniform (all Marines are proud of this uniform!), all my ribbons and awards, and go to church. At the time, I was home only 3 days, and the incident I mentioned above, with Nguyen was less than 2 weeks in the past. I even had it in the back of my mind to corner the reverend and tell him the story to seek his solace. I will tell you that that going that day was the worst mistake I made in my life. Reverend Whitfield, saw me in the audience, with the Marine Corps dress blue’s, and with obvious reference to my recent Vietnam service, launched and shifted his sermon into one of slamming people who served in the immoral and unjust war, stared me in the face, and actually called me a baby killer in front of his congregation.

I kept my mouth shut. My wife, was with me with a shocked look, and showing concern that I’d blow a gasket. At the end of the sermon, I quickly left; and I left the church in such utter disgust, and shame. I never returned to that church again. I never talked with him again, and in fact, have been rather leery of any church since then. I used to treat the church with importance and key to life, but I haven’t taken church serious since this man I held in such high regard, Reverend Whitfield, destroyed, in such simple words, what faith I had.

I know, now in hindsight, he was unfair in his judgment, but the embarrassment he put on through tainted my view of not only him, but the church overall. Sorry, but that event in the church is one where I lost my pride and my soul. I sacrificed the church I once appreciated; and it’s a long road back, I still haven’t found it – and even if I do, at best, it’ll only be at a distance – I cannot commit to more; not again. To this day, I can’t go into a church without that dreadful comment haunting me. It caused a wound so deep; it still bleeds on my mind today.

I cannot remember one Vietnam War protest going on in San Diego.

OS2 Arthur Ellingson
USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG-7), U.S. Navy

I served in the Navy Reserve from 1969 to 1975. I was on active duty from September 1’st of 1970 until June 15th of 1972. I joined a Navy Reserve program at Great Lakes which was called the 2×6 program. The 2 stands for two years of full-time active duty, six years total Reserve commitment.

I failed several times to get into an ROTC unit in college. They bounced me out because of my vision. They were not taking people who were as blind as I was without glasses. I was always 20 / 20 correctible but, when he showed me the chart and said: “Read the top line of the chart” I said, “What chart?”—I couldn’t even find the chart half of the time.

I figured that I would do the service first and let the military pay for my college education, which is basically what happened. I graduated from high school in June of ’68, joined in October of ’69. I had one year of college. I went to Reserves meetings one night a week and did all the paperwork associated with boot camp. In the summer between 4 and ten months after I joined, they sent me to boot camp at Great Lakes for two weeks. I reported on June 28th of ’70. After two weeks at boot camp, they sent me to Norfolk for two weeks of workship. During those two weeks of workship, I was on the USS Henley DD 762. Which is a destroyer, and we made a cruise during the middle weekend up from Norfolk to Baltimore. I spent the weekend having Liberty in Baltimore, then Monday morning we came back to Norfolk.

I spent four weeks in the summer of ’70 on active duty then I was back to Reserves for maybe a month give or take. They gave me orders on a Tuesday night to report to Great Lakes on Friday, September 1st. So I had three days’ notice that I would be on active duty. This was Labor Day Weekend.” I reported in at 11 o’clock- 11:15 and they said: “You’re on liberty till 08:00 Tuesday morning.” So I didn’t even unpack, I just turned around and drove back home and came back Monday evening.

My orders were to go to Radar A School at Great Lakes. I was there about four months attending that school. Then on January 22nd, 1971 I graduated. I graduated 2nd in my class, the guy that beat me had a Master’s Degree in Physics from Purdue. He only beat me by a tenth of a point.

I had orders to my 2’nd choice of assignment which was a destroyer out of San Diego. I was assigned to the USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG-7). They were in intensive training to go overseas so they would go out to sea from 7 o’clock on Monday morning until 7 o’clock on Friday. They would tie up to a buoy and then take boats ashore. That would save them 2 hours of going completely into the harbor. It also got the crew used to living on the ship.

I had heard about Vietnam when I was in grade school. My parents were saying “I’m glad that the Vietnam War is going on now because it will be over before our kids are out of high school.” Wrong. Okay. I was aware of what was going on in the news. I remember watching Johnson on the news during the first year I was in college, I didn’t have a TV, but I typically would knock off studying at 5 to 10 and go upstairs to the TV lounge and, at least, watch the news to know what was going on in the world.

When I graduated from Radar School, I anticipated that I would be on a ship that would take a West Pack Cruise and the ultimate destination was Vietnam. But I also knew that from my Reserve time that the Navy’s side of the war was relatively friendly at that time. Now guys who were in the Army and Marines do not like to hear this, but we knew the shore batteries had the range of about 3 miles, so we stayed 3 ½ miles off the coast. Our guns had a 13-mile range so we could shoot anything within 10 miles of the beach and still not be in danger.

From the time I left San Diego until I returned to San Diego was six months, one week and one day. We were off North Korea and off Russian waters during July and August. On September 12th, we left Yokosuka and went down to Vietnam. Then we spent about five weeks off the coast of Vietnam, went to Hong Kong for a week of R&R, spent another five weeks off the coast of Vietnam and spent another week of R&R in Singapore. At that point, we had a vote to see whether we were going to go home, which was the original schedule, or whether we were going to go back to the gun line for a month. Well, if we went back to the gun line for a month, then the deal was we could spend two weeks in Sydney for Christmas. And the single guys all said, “Yeah, let’s go to Sydney for Christmas,” and the married guys said, “Let’s all go home.” So we ended up going home. I voted to go to Sydney. I would love to have seen it.

We left Subic Bay the evening of December 1st, and we were running a typhoon coming back, so very few people ate much during that first 13 days. We pulled into Hawaii on December 13th for Customs, food and mail call. We left at five o’ clock in the evening and were off the coast of San Diego at seven o’ clock Friday night. We could have easily been at the pier by eight thirty, but no, we had a band waiting for us at ten o’ clock in the morning. So we had to sit off the coast and wait. We putzed up the coast at five knots, but we were close enough we could turn the TV on and point our TV antennae at San Diego.

When I came back I had 30 days of leave coming so I went home. I came back after about two weeks. I came back early because I knew the ship wasn’t going to be doing much for the next six months. You have a very relaxed day for the first three months you’re back from overseas. You didn’t do much of anything. One of my jobs was to update a couple of technical manuals. So I would get classified mail every day, and I’d have to update these manuals which would take typically 15 minutes a day. And when that was done, I was on liberty at ten o’clock in the morning.

We began to do a little bit of training, but they also knew that I was going to get out. My discharge date was September 1st. We weren’t scheduled to go back overseas ‘til September 15th. So there was no reason for me to train with them. So they sent me to temporary duty on shore often.

I cannot remember one Vietnam War protest going on in San Diego. I spent a bit of time at San Diego, but I never saw any protest when I was there.

Getting out was a two-step process for me. First, there was a weeklong process of checking off the ship, and that went maybe the week before Memorial Day Weekend. I had liberty Memorial Day Weekend, and then Tuesday morning they handed me my orders to transfer me to the 32nd Street Naval Station to be mustered out. I spent about a week there, where they would go through all their process including physical exams and so forth.

They told me, “Tomorrow you’re going to get your papers,” and they said there’s nothing special about it. I got my package of papers, which they said, “Take this package of papers, this is your stuff to keep. Once you check in at a Reserve Center, bring this package with you, but then we’ll send your records, our set of your records to the Reserve Center, but you’ll get to keep these forever.” I called a friend of mine who had a car. He came and picked me up. I was packed and ready to go. I had five bags, which of course two bags were free in those days, with five bags, you had to pay for three. But when I got to the airport, they’re like, “Five bags!” “Well, I just got out of the Navy today.” As soon as I said that, they said, “Okay, we’ll fly those home for free.” They never charged me extra.

Coming Home
I boarded a United flight. Now at this point, I’m in my dress blues. The night before they gave us all of our ribbons. So I had ribbons on for the first time. I’ve been wearing one what was called the GeeDuck Ribbon, which was officially the National Defense Ribbon. Now I’ve got three or four ribbons on my chest. And so, I get to the airport, and I got five bags with me, and they fly all this stuff home for free. But United Airlines is where I bought the ticket, and it was standby. They had me board one plane, and then they bounced me, and then they boarded me on the second plane, and they bounced me. Then they put me across the hall at American. American put me in the back row, in the middle with the seats that don’t recline, and I thought, “Well, this is better than not getting home at all.”

But then they called out my seat number, I don’t think they called out me by name, they just called me by seat number, this is passenger and seat number, I didn’t know what the row number was, I was in the very back row of the plane – “Would you step up to the front of the plane please.” And I get up to the front of the plane, and there was this college hippie girl who’s sneering at me, “Haha, I’m getting your seat.” She was paying one-third off, I was paying half off, and so she, “Haha, I get your seat.” And she went back, and I thought, “Okay well, I’ll be singing when you find out where that seat’s located.” And I was getting ready to get off the plane, and they said: “Just hold on a minute.” They waited for her to get down the way, and then they were like closing the door. “We have one seat left, first class, all yours.” So I flew home on American, first class.

All my bags were on the first United plane, so I had to walk across the terminal back over to the United section to get them. I did not know what was going on at home. I didn’t know if my parents were home or not. I don’t recall if I even tried calling home. I don’t think I tried calling home. I know I had written them a letter which was mailed from Pearl Harbor that said that if all goes well, I’ll be in San Diego by noon on Saturday. I don’t know if they got that or not. So when I finally got home to Chicago about seven o’clock, I called from a payphone. First I got my bags because we lived very close to the airport. My cousin answered the phone at my dad’s house, and I’m saying, “Rich, what are you?” He says, “Oh, we’re having a big party because your brother just came home from the Marines.” He was actually in Quantico, Virginia. Going to a Marine Corps school. He finished college in March and got commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, so he went to Basic Infantry School in Quantico, Virginia. He finished that school in mid-December. So they’re having a big party to welcome him home. So I came home in the middle of that.

I told my cousin that I was at the airport. I don’t remember who picked me up, I think it was my Dad, but I don’t remember. I remember when we got to the front door, I could see that nobody had taken in the mail. So I open up the mailbox, pulled out the mail, and there was the letter I mailed them from Pearl Harbor. It was in the mailbox. They hadn’t even looked at it.

My mother was putting dinner on the table when I got there. And the whole focus of the party shifts from my brother, who is the wimpy jarhead who has just graduated from school to the hero that just came back from the war. My brother was, you know, very miffed that I stole his thunder. But our whole lives he was always miffed at something.

During my Christmas leave in ’71 or 72, I remember walking into the local VFW hall wondering what was going on. The only thing that I knew was what that the VFW hall was famous for sponsoring the Park Ridge Drum and Bugle Corps. So I remember going to the VFW hall, and asking, “What do you guys do here?” and so forth, and even before I could get those words out of my mouth somebody said, “You don’t belong here. This is for veterans of foreign wars.” And I said, “What do you call Vietnam?” And I don’t remember what they said, but I was not regarded as one of their peers. I’ve been in Vietnam, I’ve been in Korea, and I was made to feel totally unwelcome. I did not go into a VFW building again until around two years ago when I heard that there was a Vietnam veterans group, and they met at the Park Ridge VFW.

Afterward
I went to Illinois State. Whenever you saw somebody who was older than the typical college student, you sort of figure they were a veteran. My winter jacket was my Navy pea coat, but at that time everybody was wearing blue Navy pea coats, so I blended in.

In April ’75, I was in college, did not own a TV, I probably did not know Saigon fell until a couple of weeks after that. There was very little reported about the war in the Daily Gazette at Illinois State, the only newspaper I typically read in those days. By 1975, I was a part-time college student at Illinois State and a full-time pastor in Streator, Illinois. I’m preaching on Sundays; I’m not reading the newspapers. And I was at a church that had a Sunday morning service, and a Sunday evening service. Well, I’m preaching two different sermons every Sunday, so I didn’t have a lot of time to read the paper or watch TV. And I didn’t own a TV at that period.

The war was awful. The people who bore the brunt of the battle got shafted in more ways than one. But every time there was a dogfight when I was not on the radio with the pilot, I was, at least, listening to the conversation. Any time there was a dogfight between three Mig’s and one Phantom jet, the Phantom always won. If there were four, sometimes the Phantom won, sometimes the Phantom didn’t. But if there were three, two or one, the Phantoms always won. And what it did was told the Soviets, “Don’t you dare start a bigger scale war because we’re going to clean your clocks.” Because our technology was so much better and our pilots were so much better than theirs. It prevented other, larger scale wars from happening. So regarding holding back the spread of communism, regarding stopping other wars, I think it ultimately saved lives in the long run, just like the nuclear bombs in Japan. Yeah, 40,000 people died in a flash, in the long run, those bombs saved lives.

National Vietnam Veterans Day

March 29th, Welcome Home to all Vietnam Veterans

On March 28, 2017, President Donald J. Trump, signed into law The Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017, designating every March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

National Vietnam War Veterans Day joins six other military-centric national observances codified in Title 4 of the United States Code (i.e., Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day, Navy Day, Veterans Day).
March 29 was chosen to be celebrated in perpetuity as March 29, 1973 was the day Military Assistance Command Vietnam was deactivated.

The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration honors all United States veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces from November 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975, regardless of location.

November 1, 1955 was selected to coincide with the official designation of Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam (MAAG-V); May 15, 1975 marks the end of the battle precipitated by the seizure of the SS Mayaguez.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that today there are 6.4 million living Vietnam veterans and 9 million families of those who served during this time frame. We make no distinction between veterans who served in-country, in-theater, or who were stationed elsewhere during the Vietnam War period. All were called to serve and none could self-determine where they would serve.

Additional Background: U.S. involvement in Vietnam started slowly with an initial deployment of advisors in the early 1950s, grew incrementally through the early 1960s and expanded with the deployment of full combat units in July 1965. The last U.S. personnel were evacuated from Vietnam in April 1975.

This national commemoration was authorized by Congress, established under the Secretary of Defense, and launched by the President to thank and honor our Nation’s Vietnam veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice. In 2007, the 110th Congress incorporated language in House of Representatives (H.R.) 4986 authorizing the Secretary of Defense to conduct a program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

H.R. 4986 was signed into law as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2008 by President George W. Bush on January 28, 2008.

44th U.S. President Barack Obama officially inaugurated this Commemoration at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day, May 28, 2012.

Section 598 (Public Law 110-181) of the 2008 NDAA specifically addresses Commemoration activities.

Congress outlined a total of five objectives for this U.S.A. Vietnam War Commemoration, with the primary objective being to thank and honor Vietnam veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the Nation, with distinct recognition of former prisoners of war and families of those still listed as missing in action. The four remaining objectives highlight the service of our Armed Forces and support organizations during the war; pay tribute to wartime contributions at home by American citizens; highlight technology, science and medical advances made during the war; and recognize contributions by our Allies.

By Presidential Proclamation, The U.S.A Vietnam War Commemoration will continue through Veterans Day, November 11, 2025.

 

I had two homecoming experiences, and they were as different as night and day.

LTC Roger D. Shiley
18th Signal Detachment (TI), U.S. Army
AVEL Central, 520th Transportation Bn.

I joined the Florida National Guard in 1956 while I was a junior in high school. I had taken JROTC the year before, and the new high school did not offer the program. The main reason I joined was that I needed spending money and the Guard paid about $90 per quarter, which paid my car insurance. (And I kind of liked wearing a uniform !!!!)

In 1960, my company commander convinced me to attend OCS at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I graduated and returned to the National Guard as a 2nd Lieutenant. In March 1965, I applied for active duty. I received a form letter stating that the “Army had all the company grade officers they needed.” In October of 1965, I received a letter from the Army stating that if I wanted to come on active duty my application, which was “on file” would be used and I would receive orders in 30 days.

I reported to Ft Gordon Georgia to attend the Signal Corps Officer Basic Course and from there I was on my way to “Southeast Asia,” better known as “The Republic of Vietnam.” I understood that when I volunteered for active duty that I was going to Vietnam and I looked forward to it as an adventure. My second tour came in 1970, and I had mixed emotions about it because I had just graduated from flight school. My family now included five children, and I realized that the life insurance would be a “drop in the bucket” compared to the real needs would be.

I had just been promoted to Captain when I went to Vietnam, and I was assigned to the 18th Signal Detachment (TI). The TI stood for Technical Intelligence, and my detachment processed all captured communication equipment. We wrote several studies and backed up our work by translations of captured documents and interrogation of over 40 NVA/VC POWs.

I was stationed in Saigon in 1966, and I lived a sheltered life. The 18th was the largest intelligence HQ in Vietnam and had a pretty easy life until I started going out to interrogate POWs. I learned real early that if you were a Captain, you were expected to look out for yourself and any soldiers around you. I was demonstrating how to use a CHICOM radio, to some fellow officers, one day and we started receiving fire from a sniper. Some of the officers were not even armed, and my driver, and I returned fire while the twelve officers attending the demonstration headed for cover.

During this tour, I went to the First CAV headquarters to interrogate two prisoners. When I reported to the Colonel, in charge of the POW camp, he informed me that there was only one POW for me to interview. I was told that he would answer any questions I had. This POW (LT Van Ty) was captured with his radio operator, and he had decided not to answer any questions. On the flight from the point of capture to the POW camp, someone decided that Lt Van Ty would be more willing to talk to us if he didn’t have his radio operator with him so he “jumped” out of the helicopter at 3,000 ft. AGL. Lt Van Ty provided me with over forty pages of ORDER OF BATTLE information. For his help, I gave him two cans of SPAM.

I interrogated a POW at the 4th ID HQ, and he was terrified. I told him that he was alive because I needed some answers about a special radio that he was using and would he “help” me. He stated that he would answer questions if I would give him a canteen cup so he could drink water in the camp. I gave him a canteen cup, and a package of Lucky Strike cigarettes after he responded to 30 questions I had prepared for him. I never heard what happened to him, but I mentioned him in a special report that was sent to the Vietnamese Army POW commander.

When I received orders for my second tour in Vietnam, I asked my Signal Assignment Officer if I could go to a specialty school before returning and stated that the only school that he had allocations for was helicopter school. He also stated that he had six slots for the school, and he was required to turn the slots over to the Infantry branch if he couldn’t fill them in eight days. I was the class leader at the Signal Advanced Officers Class and I ask the class if anyone wanted to go to flight school…..Five days later I hand carried six applications for flight school to Signal Branch in Washington. All six of us graduated from flight school, and we all came back from Vietnam and retired after 20 – 30 years service.

At the time I went to Vietnam everyone was going and the ones that didn’t go were draft dodgers …
While serving my second tour in Vietnam, I had a company that had one soldier with a master’s degree, six that had a bachelor’s degree, and seven that had, at least, one year of college. Can you imagine what it was like being the commanding officer of a unit with these soldiers and you only had about two years of college credit?????

Coming Home
I had two homecoming experiences, and they were as different as night and day. In 1967, I arrived at Travis Air Force Base, and there were people waving “Welcome Home” signs. There was a two-night stay in the processing center and three other Captains, and I went into San Francisco to see the big city. We all wore our uniforms and people would come up to us and shake hands and talk “happy talk.” We had a big meal in a night club, and the head waiter came over and informed us that our tab was being paid by the owner.

My second homecoming was a lot different. After landing at Travis AFB we were bussed over to the processing center and about two miles out of the airport, our bus picked up an “escort” of about twenty bikers. The long-haired riders “escorted” the bus and we were subjected to catcalls and hand signals.
I had been appointed as the “bus commander” and several of us decided that we ought to stop the bus and meet these nice hippies. When I ask the bus driver to pull over for a few minutes, he refused and informed me that he had worked for the bus company for 24 years and if he stopped the bus he would be fired.

When we arrived at Travis AFB, we were processed in. As before we would be spending two nights before flying home. We were told, by the commanding officer of the center, that we could have a two-hour pass to go into town IF WE HAD CIVILIAN CLOTHES. No one would be allowed off base in uniform. Since none of us had civilian clothes we were stuck on base. One Major had civilian clothing, but he tried to get out wearing Army issue low quarter shoes, and he was not permitted to go.

I was comfortable to be home after both tours. After the first tour, I was assigned to Ft Gordon and my family lived “on post”. We did not feel the tension that was building up.

After the second tour I was assigned to a college to finish my college degree, and I wore civilian clothes for two years. I did have some high school friends that I would meet from time to time and sometimes I would feel that they were avoiding me but no one ever “got in my face” about my service in Vietnam.

In 1975, when Saigon fell, I was in Germany and watched the event on TV in the Stuttgart BOQ. I feel that I wasted two years of my life on a war that was a big political experiment, led by people that had no idea what they were doing.

Afterward
Many years later I found out that I had prostate cancer and several other health issues related to the exposure to Agent Orange, I found out the details of Agent Orange and after a lot of hospital time, I have “recovered” from cancer. I have so many of the illnesses associated with Agent Orange that I have a 125% disability. I now spend a great deal of time working with our soldiers that have Agent Orange problems. I visit the Asheville VA hospital and encourage servicemen to file for VA benefits.

My children ask me, every once in a while, about my time in Vietnam. I once told one of them that I was sorry that I spent two years away from them just to further my career. To this, I was surprised that one of the boys said: “Dad, you did what you thought was right, and we are better off because you did serve.” Now, where is the logic of that??????

Did my service in Vietnam change my faith in God? Not so much at the time. Now that I have allowed time to take effect, I know that HE was watching over me all the time. He helped me through the tough times and prepared me for my next assignment.

I have been to the wall, and it is something that must be seen to believe. I found the names of soldiers that I had known, and it seemed that for just a few minutes they were alive again…….

In summary, I served in the Army for a total of 31 years. I served two years in Vietnam and eight years in Germany. I commanded units from the size of a 14 man detachment to a battalion that had over 1,400 soldiers. I held a top secret security clearance with special intelligence (SI) suffix. I was honored to have served with soldiers that were dedicated to their work and always made me look good.

We were young. We knew nothing.

BU3 Terry Molinari
MCB 4, Delta Co., Chu Lai

It was a strange war we fought in Vietnam. We were young. We knew nothing. Vietnam is tropical, mostly jungle with temperatures averaging ninety-five degrees in summer with high humidity. The mosquitoes were little-bitty things that could get through a pinhole.

Our battalion, U.S. Navy Seabees, MCB #4 was home based in Davisville, Rhode Island. We had just made it back from deployment in Spain. Word was out we were being transferred to the west coast Seabee Base at Port Hueneme, California. We would relieve MCB #10 in Chu Lai, Vietnam. It was November 1965. I had just turned twenty-one. It was legal to drink in California. I celebrated. It wasn’t pretty. A William Shakespeare quote comes to mind. “My Salad Days, when I was green in judgment.” As it turned out those “salad days” were more like salad years for me.

Our next stop was the U.S. Marine Base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for six weeks. There we were hosted by the Second Marine Division where additional training in combat demolitions, field communications, field medical, flamethrowers, and the M-60 machine gun. I remember Jack Lemon and I marching along a dirt road with packs, M-14’s and carrying the base plate of a .81 mm mortar. Some dropped out before we got to our “camping” destination. One such guy was a 2nd Class Builder named Sorenson. I never forgot the smirk on his face as he rode by us in the back of a deuce and a half kicking up dust in our faces. I never cared much for him after that. It was the early stages of the Vietnam War. LBJ extended all active duty enlistments for six months. Money and men where rapidly funneled into Vietnam.

The trip over was in a C-130. A rough ride with lots of stops in Hawaii, Guam, and Japan. When we landed in Chu Lai, I remember the back of the plane opening and we were greeted by a wall of heat. As I deplaned I saw one of those wagons that reminded me of the ones farmers used to load hay bales on. It was stacked with rubber body bags. “They’re going home”, an old timer informed us newcomers. “Welcome to Vietnam.”

Our camp, a tent city, was named “Camp Shields.” It was named after Navy Seabee Marvin Shields who was attached to the 5th Special Forces Group. He was mortally wounded during an ambush at Dong Xoai and died June 10, 1965. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

LBJ was President. All members of the Armed Forces had their active duty enlistments involuntarily extended for six months. I was due to get off active duty in November 1965. I got to spend my extra six months in Chu Lai, Vietnam about fifty-five miles south of Da Nang. Our main job was laying metal matting for an airfield, Butler buildings, hospitals and more.. Packing and repacking sand under runway matting. We worked 12-hour shifts and often had four-hour guard duty at night. Our C-ration meals were delivered to us. The weather was always hot or wet. Exhaustion came and went.

All villages looked the same. People, pigs, chickens and villagers squatting along the road chewing beetlenut. The one near our camp called An Tan was no different. The Vietnam Cong offered a reward for every American vehicle blown up. Every now and then a woman would pull out a grenade and toss it. Little children came up to us smiling; they could blow us and everything within two-hundred feet to hell. Little children wired by their own people, wired to explode. How could we Americans understand this culture? Their determination was beyond our comprehension.

Morale occasionally suffered from news of anti-war protests back in the states. People always supported our soldiers. It was hard to comprehend the country was against it. Our mind played tricks on us. I remember fearing I was gonna miss the freedom bird out of Chu Lai when it was time for me to leave.

The clock ticked. Those who were lucky enough to escape in one piece returned to their hometowns and civilian life. I remember landing at the Marine Base in El Toro, California. I got off the plane and kissed the ground. I transferred to Long Beach Naval Station for mustering out. It was 1966, Teresa Brewer was playing on the Jukebox “Till I Waltz Again With You.” I flew TWA from LA back to La Guardia Airport in New York. The stewardess gave me a pack of playing cards. I still have them. William Mozingo was in my Battalion in Nam. He was from Oceanside, Long Island. He had a cousin, Juanita Odom. She wanted to write to someone in Vietnam. I volunteered. My home was four hours from La Guardia in upstate New York. No one from my family came to meet me at La Guardia. Strangers did; Juanita, along with her mother and father. They took me to their home on Long Island and drove me upstate the next day. Her father was a baker and her mother was a school crossing guard. Juanita was going to college at the State University in New Paltz, New York. I never forgot their kindness. I often wonder what became of them.

Protests about the war were rampant in the states. It wasn’t popular to be a Vietnam Veteran. We thought we were doing the right thing and risking our lives for our country. When we got home we learned the country believed otherwise. It was the end of innocence.

The guys I served with were quality men. Some of us kept in touch, other lost touch and went on to live their lives. Years later I have reconnected with some. They were well on their way into geezerhood but their personalities were intact. There were a lot of guys from my hometown, Oneonta, N.Y., who served in Vietnam. Some didn’t make it back. I was one of the lucky ones.