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Vietnam: 50 years later
S.D. veterans reflect on war a half-century after last combat troops pulled
Fifty years ago this year, the United States withdrew combat troops from Vietnam. At the time, it was America’s longest lasting war, with combat steadily increasing from the early 1960s. The war proved to be a fault line in American culture, resulting in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision not to run for a second term in 1968. Meanwhile, protests tore the nation apart, and the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago turned violent.
For this Memorial Weekend, The Dakota Scout presents reflections from veterans who served during the costly war.
From high school to airborne
By Gary Thimsen
I graduated from high school in May 1966 and within a month was at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I went through infantry and parachute training and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
I was in Vietnam from October 1967 to October 1968. Our unit operated primarily in the Central Highlands II Corps. In late January, early February, of 1968, we were hit by the first Tet Offensive. During that time of April-May 1968, there were more U.S. service members killed in those two months than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined over a period of 11 years. The average age of a first-term enlisted U.S. service member in Vietnam was 19.
Military statistics show that during World War II, the average infantryman saw 40 days of combat per year. During the Vietnam War, the average was 240 days in combat per year.
Many lifelong friendships are forged in combat and, sadly, many friends did not come home. Their names, 58,000 of them, are on a wall in Washington D.C.
Vietnam veterans are a singular group. No one stood at airports applauding when we returned home, no one was buying our meals in restaurants, and there were no “Support Our Troops” car signs. We were unwelcomed by traditional Veterans groups who told us that “Vietnam was not a real war,” and that they had won their war. Subsequently, the history of the Vietnam War was scarcely taught at our schools and younger veterans knew little or nothing about it.
Left to our own, Vietnam veterans stick together. Whenever one sees another with a Vietnam cap or t-shirt in a parking lot or on the street, the universal greeting is “Welcome Home Brother,” as no one else welcomed us home.
Gary Thimsen served with the 101st Airborne Division from October 1967 to October 1968. His tour of duty included the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Reluctant combat soldier
By Dan Jensen
I was going to USD. I went for a year and immediately when I didn’t go back in September, I got a draft number and my number was six.
When I first got to Vietnam, I was in the 25th Infantry Division. I was there about a month and then they said, “Hey, the 25th is going home.” And I'm like, “woo-hoo.” But they said, “Not you.” So they shipped me up north to the 101st. By then I had already been in a couple of firefights, which was the scariest thing ever.
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In the 25th, it was starting to get warm and you could sleep in a hammock. But up north, when it’s that cold, you have to sleep in a hooch. We didn’t get to come in too often, so we’d be out in the jungle for a month. It’s weird, but I had this sense of pride jumping out of a chopper into a fire base.
I didn’t understand the war or why we were there. Those 60,000 people died for what? I just thought it was political and economic, and I didn’t understand it. It was senseless.
When I was in the hospital, they held a ceremony and presented me with a Purple Heart. I didn’t care. When I got home, I threw my uniform and Purple Heart in the garbage. My dad found all of it in the garbage and took it back. Fifteen years later, he gave me the Purple Heart. It was very emotional. My dad was not like that, and I was teary eyed. So then it meant something.
It’s another life to me. It’s still hard to believe I was carrying an M203 through the jungle and looking for the enemy. Sometimes, when I’m at an event, I have a sense of pride that I actually did it. I thought about going to Canada, but I didn’t want to be looking over my shoulder my whole life. So personally, it was good for my growth as a human being.
Dan Jensen served in Vietnam from September 1970 to Feb. 17, 1971 when he stepped on a landmine and lost his leg.
A walking, talking miracle
By Ronald James Lewis
The draft letter I received in the mail read, “Your friends and neighbors have selected you for the armed forces of the United States of America.” With friends and neighbors like that, who needs enemies? In the back of my mind, I knew all along I was going to end up in Vietnam. I didn’t like it but I had an obligation to answer the call.
It was midnight when our plane descended into Vietnam. To avoid becoming a flying target, all the lights were turned off as we approached the landing field. Once we arrived at the base, things happened quickly. Within the first month I was promoted to replace a fallen squad leader.
In war life has little value. Each day we were assigned a “seek and destroy” mission. We were instructed to never take prisoners. Our orders were to kill and keep a body count. It was kill or be killed. I was paid $97 a month or about $3 a day to shoot the enemy.
We were sleep deprived, soaking wet, and miserable in the sweltering jungle. I thought it was strange I never heard or saw a bird. Maybe they were smarter than us and got the hell out of there.
At times combat engagements were within five yards of each other. Visibility was poor and it was difficult to know who the enemy was. No one wore rank or dog tags because silence was critical. Without identification, it was hard to identify bodies. I lost 34 men in my squad. I learned to cry without shedding a tear.
My last couple of months in Vietnam were during the Tet Offensive which was the beginning of the end of the war. The 1st Cavalry Division was over-run at the Saigon airfield. We came in on choppers to support them. There was no darkness during the first 48 hours on the airfield because of the constant firepower. We were pinned on the airfield with no place to hide other than next to or behind dead bodies. I earned my second Bronze Star on that airfield. I don’t know how I survived. If there is such a thing as a walking, talking miracle, I am surely it.
Ron Lewis served with the 25th Infantry Division Wolfhounds from February 1967 to March 1968.
25 classmates killed in action
By Ron Williamson
My hometown is De Smet, I graduated from West Point in 1964 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Field Artillery. Following graduation I completed Airborne and Ranger training at Fort Benning, Georgia; completed Army Aviation Fixed Wing and Helicopter training in 1966 and was assigned to an Artillery Battalion Aviation Unit located at Phuoc Vinh, Vietnam in central South Vietnam.
We had four single engine observation airplanes and two helicopters. Because the Viet Cong did most of their movements at night and their rocket attacks we flew night missions in support of the Infantry, the Fire Bases and Special Forces. (The night landings were always a challenge since we had a gravel/dirt runway with smug pots for runway lights!) Also, as air forward observers, we called in artillery targets and assessed target success to include air strikes. During my “time in country” I had 900 hours flight time.
It was during this time period (1965-1966), under the Johnson administration, that the buildup of American forces increased in Vietnam, topping out at 543,000 in 1969.
It was also during this time period that the war became “personal” for America. (Nightly TV coverage, daily reported casualty count, college demonstrations, draft dodgers to Canada). For myself, I had already lost two close West Point classmates: a Huey pilot and a Special Forces advisor.
Total casualties: 58,220 died; West Point graduates - 333 died; West Point Class of 1964 - 25 died. While serving in Vietnam the challenge was, “It’s hard to tell who’s on what side”
When the Vietnam veteran arrived home, in many cases, alone, just a few hours from a war zone, to angry crowds; they didn’t expect a parade but they sure could feel: “It’s hard to tell who’s on what side”
The Vietnam War was a central experience for many veterans and America. Hopefully the lessons and experiences will not be forgotten.
Ron Williamson served in Vietnam from December, 1966 to December 1967. He was the adjutant general of the South Dakota National Guard from 1983 to 1987.
Fighter pilots did their jobs
By Wade Hubbard
Until my senior year at USD, I really hadn’t thought too much about the Vietnam War from a personal perspective. Oh, I followed the news reports, of course. From an academic standpoint, I had a secondary minor in political science and had studied a fair amount of international politics. That led to a conclusion that the war wasn’t a good idea.
However, in my senior year, the war – or at least the military – was looming. My student deferment from the draft would end at graduation. In 1967 there was no lottery yet, so the Selective Service system was chaotic. There were one or two avenues I could have used to perhaps avoid the draft altogether, but I discarded those because my widowed mother and I believed that when Uncle Sam calls, you go; my personal thoughts on the war made no difference. I avoided being drafted into the Army (or, possibly, the Marines) by joining the Air Force.
My officer’s training classmates and I had various brushes with the draft, but I don’t remember us talking much about the war itself. It was just out there. The same was true for flight training. We had no idea what lay ahead, but we didn’t dwell on it. We weren’t carrying rifles, and we were officers that would have wings, so Air Force life would be bearable, whatever we wound up doing and wherever it was.
Upon graduation from navigator’s training, my little group of friends and I all got assigned to F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers when the Air Force started taking copilots out of the rear cockpit and replaced them with young navigators. It became clear that Phantom training virtually guaranteed a combat assignment. I don’t recall that it really bothered us. In fact, we all volunteered for combat assignments because it looked good on our record and we were going anyway. We were more concerned with learning our new skills in an airplane that was a hoot to fly! As I remember it, if the war cane up, the conversation centered on how to fly the plane in certain combat situations.
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There were five Phantom bases in Southeast Asia. I was assigned to Phu Cat Air Base, South Vietnam. It was a small, quiet, two-squadron base with paved streets and lawns. However, it was located in very hostile territory. On occasion (usually very early in the morning), the local Viet Cong would fire three or four unguided rockets at the base. The drill was to wake up to the air raid sirens, roll out of bed and then under it, and then put on the helmet you kept under the bed if you felt like it. The shrapnel pattern from a rocket went up in a cone, so the objective was to be low and as protected as possible, understanding that a rocket that went off right next to you was a problem. We always said that if you heard a rocket go off, you were OK; if you didn’t hear it, you were dead. An airman was killed in an attack a few days before I arrived at Phu Cat, but there were no injuries or fatalities from rockets while I was there. Like everything else, occasional rocket attacks became an accepted part of life.
My first combat mission was a one-aircraft flight with my squadron commander in the front seat. I was nervous and fairly heavy rain made it worse. By the time we lowered our canopies on the way to take off, I was damp and the paper on the clipboard fastened to my leg to record flight data was soggy and useless. F-4 training in Tucson had not taught me how to deal with rain. The mission objective was to be directed by radar technicians on the ground to a point where we would release twelve five-hundred pound bombs. I was having a bad day until we suddenly popped up out of the clouds into bright sunlight. That changed everything! We continued on under very tightly-controlled direction, airspeed and altitude until directed to drop the bombs. After they were released, we rolled over to count them to make sure they were all gone. I watched all twelve bombs fall into the clouds and suddenly I realized that I had just joined a war. It didn’t feel bad, nor did it feel good; it was just a matter of fact.
A week or so later was my first night mission. As I recall, it was a four-ship. We flew up over Laos and then east toward the North Vietnamese border where the Ho Chi Mihn Trail entered Laos with its traffic of trucks hauling supplies to the Communists in the South. Our bombs were dropped by aircraft radar as all four back-seaters in our flight coordinated with each other. The objective was to hopefully hit trucks crossing the border. As we were cruising back to Phu Cat after the drop, I was looking down into the night when I saw what appeared to be fireworks. I mentioned it to my pilot. He laughed and said it was antiaircraft fire and they were shooting at us by our sound. Then he added that we were way too high for the fire to reach us. However, I didn’t care about the lack of danger; for the first time ever, someone had shot at me! Of course, that also eventually became an accepted part of life in the war.
Among my fellow fighter jocks at Phu Cat, I vaguely remember occasional philosophical discussions about the war. Mostly, we were in it, our job was to fly well, and that was that. Life was dangerous but exciting and simple. However, I do recall that the older guys (majors and colonels) tended to be pro-war, while us younger folks tended to wonder whether it was worthwhile for the United States.
My tour at Phu Cat was for twelve months that ended in November 1971, but I extended it for eight months, which included one free month of leave and travel at Air Force expense. I came home for Christmas. I bought a long-hair wig so I could blend in with my old friends. Some of them were antiwar protesters, but they were mostly fascinated about my adventures flying fighter planes. My best friend was against the war for various reasons, but his biggest concern by far was that I could be killed.
One point should be clarified: I did not extend my combat tour due to a strong change of heart in favor of the war. I enjoyed flying over there because the military atmosphere was very relaxed compared to being in the States. In that same vein, there was even stronger comradery among the guys in the squadron. Finally, Phu Cat was a dangerous area, so we never went off base. Consequently, there wasn’t anywhere to spend money except at the base exchange or the officers’ club. With relative ease I paid off my college loan while I was there. Also, I was promoted to captain there, which meant a solid increase in pay. For the first time in my life, I had plenty of money. Say what you will about a war, it can pay well!
Part of the deal if you extended your combat tour and you were at a base in Vietnam was that you would transfer to a Phantom base in Thailand. Those locations were much better duty. I was sent to Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base. Korat was a beautiful base and we could go into town. The most notable change, however, was that we started flying more often into North Vietnam, sometimes deep into the North, even Hanoi. Hanoi was the most heavily-defended air target in the history of warfare. Most flights had become another day at the office for me, but those missions "downtown" or to the surrounding area were scary! Notably, during my time at Korat, I began to sense that the war was starting to wear thin even with the majors and colonels that I knew.
I returned to the States and Homestead Air Force Base, Florida, in July 1972. Homestead had three Phantom squadrons, two training and one operational. I became an instructor, both in the air and teaching on the ground in classrooms and flight simulators. However, the air war in Southeast Asia was building up, so the operational squadron was sent on temporary duty to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand in December, 1972. The squadron was short on back-seaters, had only a couple of instructor-qualified back-seaters, and had no combat-qualified back-seaters, so I was loaned to the squadron. I remember being both unhappy and happy to go back. I don’t remember very many of us of any rank who thought much of the war anymore.
In early 1973, peace broke out. We all threw quite the party at the officers’ club to celebrate. The war was done, and from lieutenants to colonels, no one missed it!
However, the squadron didn’t get to go home, and a month later we were flying combat missions over Cambodia in support of that government. Six days before the squadron finally did get to return, a pilot and I were shot down over Cambodia. Each of us was injured, but we were rescued. Our war finally was over.
The enemy had a four-barreled antiaircraft gun in the area where our F-4 was hit and everyone assumed that gun was what knocked us down. Some of my buddies said they wanted to find it and blow it and its crew up as a matter of revenge. I told them not to on my account. The gun crew was doing just what they were trained to do, just as I was. In a war, everybody takes their chances. That day I came up short.
Back at Homestead Air Force Base, I met an Air Force psychiatrist who was fascinated by air crewmen, especially those who flew fighter planes. He was really excited to talk to one who had been shot down. We visited, and he discovered that I was calm about the whole episode. He believed, of course, that a normal person wouldn’t be. Ultimately, he concluded that I was unhinged because I should have been crazy, but I wasn’t. I believe that combat activity will eventually give you a different perspective on what’s worth worrying about and what’s not.
My active duty commitment was up in October 1973. I left the active Air Force and returned home with a goal of going back to school. The GI Bill helped a great deal with the finances of course, but more importantly I believe that it was my military record that really helped me get into law school, and my fighter jock’s attitude that helped me get through it.
I am a very, very lucky guy! I believe that every day of my life is impacted positively by my time flying F-4 Phantoms. Unfortunately, it is rare for an individual who served in the Vietnam War to have come out ahead from the whole experience.
My Ultimate Belief: The Vietnam War may have been good for me, but I have never wavered in my conclusion that the war was not a good idea for the United States. Or a large number of its sons.
Wade Hubbard flew 428 combat missions and was awarded five Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Purple Heart.