“No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now.”
— Richard Nixon, New York Times, Mar. 28, 1985
Last year we visited with World War II veterans and asked them to share their stories of serving through the largest war the world has ever seen. As we celebrate Veterans’ Day, we ask those of the Korean and Vietnam Wars to do the same.
As the quote above suggests, the Vietnam War may still be one of the most debated conflicts of the 20th century, but it still has many veterans who went to fight for their country and who did so bravely. They, with their Korean War counterparts, were among many Iowans who served during these two conflicts. Eight thousand Iowans were sent into the Korean War. More than 500 were killed. Eight hundred and sixty-nine were casualties of the Vietnam War.
Serving in Vietnam
When John MacDonald was 21 years old, he was commissioned through ROTC as a second lieutenant, and his first assignment was with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. He went to officers’ training, and he shipped out to Vietnam in 1966.
When MacDonald left to go overseas, he did so on his first wedding anniversary. His infant daughter was only 7 days old.
“It was a long time ago, but it was a very emotional time,” he says. “It was still nothing compared to what some of our soldiers, sailors and marines are facing today. It was a different situation.”
MacDonald spent his time as an artillery forward observer and an aerial observer. He was part of a five-member team that he oversaw. Their job was to support the infantry so that if artillery was needed, they could adjust the fire. As an aerial observer, he did his job from the air, flying in a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft.
When asked about the day-to-day routine, MacDonald says it was surreal. Soldiers were each in their own world, their minds on completing their missions, not so much on the big picture of serving during a war.
“The only time it really brought you back to what was happening in the rest of the world was during mail call or when you read the Stars and Stripes newspaper,” he says. “It was probably a positive thing because it took your mind off it. The worst time was when you had down time and too much time to think, because then you weren’t focused on your day-to-day, and you started to think about home and what was really happening.”
He says though soldiers were aware of the anti-war sentiment and the demonstrations back home, they weren’t a part of a soldier’s life in Vietnam. They didn’t have the immediate access to communications and media that we do today, so news was slower in getting to them. Because of their focus on the mission at hand, dwelling on whether the war was a good idea or not wasn’t a concern.
MacDonald likens his involvement with his crew to an athletic team. As a new lieutenant, he knew little of the Army’s ways, but top non-comissioned officers took him under their wings and treated him well and helped him become the best he could be.
“You want everyone in your organization to be the best because everyone else depends on that,” he says. “You didn’t have any selfishness. You worked hard to make everyone else better as they worked hard to make you better. Of course it’s not quite the same. If you lost a game, that’s one thing, but it’s a little different because people lose their lives. It’s much more serious, but it’s still a team approach.”
MacDonald is humble about his time serving, saying others are much more worthy of recognition than he is. He spent nearly a year in Vietnam, returning back to his life with his wife and baby girl. He says the fact that he already had a family to come home to and a new life beginning was a real blessing for him after he returned.
“Even right now I get together with friends from the military, and they talk about stories that happened, and they ask if I remember,” he says. “I can’t. It’s like it shut off totally. When I got back, I had to keep working and act as a husband and father. I was 21, but the other people were younger than I was, and most of them were not married. When they returned it was a whole different story, and they had to start over.”
Because of the sentiment in the country, not everyone got the warm sensitive feeling that they should have or were entitled to, and they faced a whole other challenge, MacDonald says.
MacDonald went through some of that processing as well. After he returned home, he faithfully watched the news each night to see how things were progressing overseas. But as time went on, life intervened.
“You lose the interest or passion because you get busy with your own life,” he says. “It was a long time. The war didn’t wind down until the early ‘70s. I was so intent initially, and then it waned, and I feel embarrassed about that.”
MacDonald’s group has yearly reunions, and he attended his first on the 25th anniversary of his arrival. He has since attended a couple more. He says that’s been a healing process, or a way to deal with his feelings about his time spent there. But he’s quick to add that many others have needed much more healing than he has.
“I have a lot of empathy for them,” he says. “Everyone comes home with similar situations where they have to process what they went through.”
Revisiting the Korean War
The Korean War started in June, 1950. By December, Don Moon was sure that he would be drafted. Rather than do so, he decided to join the Navy. He went to boot camp in San Diego and left aboard the USS Rochester in 1951. He made three cruises to Korea during the war.
The primary duties of those on the USS Rochester were bombardment. The job of those on the ship was to bombard targets on the coast and to assist in the rescue of pilots who had crashed. The targets were often 20-30 miles away on the shore.
The crew of nearly 1,500 was broken down into divisions. Moon served on the engineering department of the ship as an interior communications electrician. His duty was to take care of all the communications systems aboard the ship. At times when there was a lot of action taking place, sound powered telephone drove the communication on the ship. Like two tin cans with a string between them, there was no electricity required. But any time salt water got in an electrical cable, it damaged the circuits. Part of the crew spent its time repairing the system.
“People wanted to know how fast the wind was and what direction it was coming from, and we maintained equipment that provided that info from the mast down to the control areas where those people were maintaining the ship’s movement so they’d have that information,” he says.
The ship was like living in a city. There were people involved in every aspect of the day-to-day tasks that involved taking care of 1,500 living in the same space for six months or more. Jobs had to be done all the time, some 24 hours a day. Machinists worked in the boiler division, making sure the boilers worked to put out steam for the ship. There were people who cooked and did laundry and maintained the ship’s deck.
“When I first saw the USS Rochester, she was in dry dock,” Moon says. “For the first time, you walk up and you see how big it really is, with no part of it in the water.”
Moon says he wasn’t directly involved in combat, like many of those serving in the Army. Though he hesitates to use the word “routine” to describe his time spent overseas, it does start to have a certain repetition to it. In 1953, the ship went on a goodwill cruise through the South Pacific to Hong Kong and Bangkok and Singapore. The cruises were designed to build relationships with the people living in those areas and to allow ship commanders to meet with local government officials. It also allowed many young people serving in the Navy to see parts of the world they never would otherwise.
“We went to Saigon; the place was full of French Legionnaires,” he says. “We had some really neat experiences in that goodwill cruise. In Saigon, we met with American public heath officials, and they invited us up to their home for cocktails and for dinner. People brought back exotic French perfumes. It was the ‘Paris of the Orient,’ and a lot of French people lived there, and it was a close relationship between the French and the people who lived in French Indochina at that time.”
Moon says his time serving during the Korean War brought some positives to his life. It has had an immediate effect on his career since his time in the Navy. It’s also created lifelong relationships.
“It was a great experience in the sense that I met so many men who I became very close to, and I never would have had that experience if it hadn’t been for the war,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time looking for people I served with, and some people have already died and some have since I found them. We recently had a reunion of our shipmates, and it was very special to see them again.”