Readers of this publication might recall that one year ago we interviewed local World War II veterans to get their perspectives on the deadliest conflict in human history and the defining event of the 20th century. This year we wanted to collect memories from local veterans who served in the United States military during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
While veterans of World War II, members of what has become known as “The Greatest Generation,” received a hero’s welcome home following the end of World War II, and many of their stories have been told in countless newspaper and magazine articles, books and films, veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars have not received the same recognition for their efforts over the years.
The Korean War, also known as “The Forgotten War” because of the lack of public attention it received both during and after the war, for many years was never labeled as a “war.” Instead it was called a “conflict.” Yet ask those who served during the war, which lasted from June 1950 to July 1953, and they will tell you that the 33,686 battle deaths and 2,830 non-battle deaths that the U.S. military suffered in Korea suggest that it was more than a “conflict.”
The Vietnam War, which occurred in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from November 1955 to the fall of Saigon in April 1975, received far more attention from the media and this country’s citizens compared to the Korean War. The U.S. government viewed involvement in the war as a way to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam, but opinions about our military’s participation varied widely and created deep divisions among Americans at home, the likes of which linger today whenever the topic of the war is raised in conversation. In the end, 58,220 U.S. service members died in the war, and many of those who returned home were protested by anti-war civilians and faced other life-changing battles as a result.
Recently, two local veterans — John Erickson and Mike Glover — shared their recollections of the wars and their military service.
Erickson is a Minnesota native who served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and has been a resident of Windsor Heights since 1960. He and his wife, Gertrude, have been married for 57 years. Erickson, 83, is retired from decades of work with Supervalu and Taylor Industries, having worked as an engineer.
Glover retired in May after working for the Associated Press as a political reporter for 32 years, having interviewed nearly every presidential candidate to campaign in Iowa during his tenure with the AP. He was also a regular contributor on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” and prior to working for the AP and newspapers in Fort Dodge and Bloomington, Ill., served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. The 64-year-old Illinois native, who moved to Windsor Heights 15 years ago, taught English to South Vietnamese military officers while stationed at a U.S. base outside of Saigon in 1969.
The following excerpts are taken from interviews with Erickson and Glover.
In what capacity did you serve in the military during the Korean War?
Erickson: I was in the Navy from 1948 to 1952. When I enlisted, I was a Seaman Recruit. I went to boot camp in Illinois and was transferred to Maryland where I became a Naval Airman. You either go on a boat or to an airport or some place. You didn’t have a lot of say about it. I was with a photography unit for five months, then they sent me to a small aircraft carrier, a CVL, in Rhode Island. That was kind of fun; you could go up to New York or Boston when you had liberty.
After a few months, I got transferred to Memphis for Navy mechanics training where I became a machinist. I went to aviation machinist school for about four months and attained my highest rank of AM, an Aviation Machinist’s Mate. From there I was aboard the USS Boxer CV, a full-sized carrier that was the first aircraft carrier — and ours was the first squadron — to have jets on a carrier.
Tell me more about your time on the USS Boxer.
Erickson: It carried F4U Corsairs and F-9 jets. This was in 1950 or probably 1951. They all had wingtip gas tanks. I was a plane captain, and part of my duties was to fill that damn thing up with gas. They’d park mine at the end of the deck, and I had to climb a ladder to fill it up. They would start to turn the ship, and I’d look over the side and see nothing but water. I got a banged-up ear out of it from running around the back of those damn planes; they were noisier than hell.
How long and where were you stationed overseas?
Erickson: I was in the Sea of Japan for about seven months after they extended my enlistment. When we were at sea, we were busy all the time, preparing planes to fly bombing missions in North Korea. We had planes flying out three times a day, each for about an hour-and-a-half at a time. You weren’t just sitting out there; you had work to do.
How close were you to Korea?
Erickson: We were probably in the middle of the Sea of Japan. Once in a while, we’d have a plane go around and make an approach and it would dump into the sea and a helicopter would pick them up right away. But we weren’t close to the enemy.
When the boat would hit dock, we were in the bars and we had fun. You had work to do every morning at 8 a.m. but for 10 days we would be docked and had fun, then it was back out to sea for a month on missions.
How did the war change you?
Erickson: It made me grow up. I didn’t have any regrets of being in the service, but I’d be damned to go back in. I had some fun, and the Navy grew me up.
What was the public’s feeling about the Korean War at the time?
Erickson: They didn’t even know we were gone. When we got home, they didn’t say anything to us. At the time, the country was in such growth, they didn’t even call it a war. They called it the Korean Conflict. We didn’t expect parades or pats on the back, but I think the public really didn’t give a damn about the war. But that didn’t bother us; we didn’t give a damn about it either.
I don’t mean to put it down because we lost a lot of people, but the war itself didn’t seem to affect us as a country.
In what capacity did you serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War?
Glover: Like many people in that era, I enlisted when my draft number came up in 1968. I was 19 years old and had an unsuccessful attempt at college. So I enlisted in the Air Force and was sent to St. Louis where I was inducted into the military. Then they sent me to Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas for basic training and then AIP and language training school.
What happened next?
Glover: They sent me overseas where I taught English and training to Vietnamese officers. I was in several places, including an air base outside of Saigon. I was a staff sergeant, and I taught for a little over a year in 1969.
What was it like training them?
Glover: It was fine. In that country, at that time, people who were to become military officers generally were on a path to having a successful life. They were motivated and pretty easy to work with.
Did you find any common ground with the men you trained?
Glover: They were motivated to speak, and I was motivated to get through the year.
Did you experience any combat?
Glover: No, but Vietnam was a funny war. Everybody saw combat because combat was everywhere. I didn’t have it as bad as a lot of people, but I had what I had.
Can you elaborate? Were you in eminent danger while stationed on the base?
Glover: It was dangerous because the Viet Cong were waging urban war. Saigon was an armed city with an enormous military presence, and the Viet Cong held much of the ground around the city. This was right after the TET Offensive in 1968 where they attacked major cities around the country. Their tactic was to convince the U.S. not to continue with the war, and one way to do that was to attack in places they weren’t expected to be attacked.
What effect did that have on you?
Glover: It was an experience where people just wanted to survive. There was very little talk of winning or accomplishing a goal. They just wanted to do their thing and survive.
How did the war change you?
Glover: It made me more focused to pursue something. I had been kind of drifting along, not knowing what I wanted to do.
Did your experience in Vietnam spark your interest in journalism?
Glover: It did. I started thinking of ways to contribute, and journalism seemed like a good way to go. When I came back, I was at an air base in Illinois doing a variety of administrative jobs before I got discharged. After that I went back to college and got a degree in journalism and political science from Western Illinois University.
What do you remember the most about your service in Vietnam?
Glover: Probably the senselessness of it. There was not a good reason for us to be there, and that was painfully apparent to everybody. We didn’t have a goal in mind, and it was frustrating. It was a bad experience while I was there, and a bad experience when I came home. But it gave me the motivation to make something of myself.
What do you want future generations to know about the war?
Glover: That we did the best we could in a bad situation, and the people who did it can’t be blamed for the mistakes of what happened.