Last year 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 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, 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 its 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. 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 ordeals as a result.
Two local veterans — Roy Mann and Danny Mabe — shared their recollections of the wars.
Mann, born and raised on a farm in South Dakota, has been a resident of Urbandale for more than 50 years. The 80-year-old U.S. Army veteran served during the Korean War; was married to his wife, Bernice, for 41 years before she died in 1998; retired after a lengthy career with Iowa Paint; and is an active member of the local VFW Post 9668.
Mabe, a Kentucky native, moved to Urbandale in 2000. The 63-year-old U.S. Army veteran who served as an E5-Sergeant during the Vietnam War now works as a commissioner for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service after having worked with organized labor groups and the Ford Motor Co. He is a husband, a father and received two Purple Hearts after being wounded twice in Vietnam.
The following excerpts are taken from interviews with Mann and Mabe.
How did you begin your military service?
Mann: I enlisted in the Army in 1951 when I was 20 years old. I talked to my dad about it; he was in the Navy during World War I. They sent me to Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, California and Washington for basic training. After that, I got on a boat to Korea on Jan. 25, 1952. We stopped in Japan and then Inchon where they put us on a train with no lights and holes in the sides of the cars. Before we got off the train, we got hit with shells, and all hell broke loose. The guy next to me got hit in the leg; they called it a “wonder wound” because he got to go back to the United States. I went on with the 7th Infantry Division, 15th Company to be with the AAA (anti-aircraft artillery).
Where did you serve in Korea?
Mann: We were part of the support to the infantry at Liberty Bridge and the Battle of Old Baldy (west-central Korea). We were near the Yangtze River on the main line of the center of resistance.
Describe your combat experience.
Mann: We were shooting from trenches we dug. The enemy dug trenches, too, that went back into the mountain so that our shells and napalm couldn’t get back in there. When old Tokyo Rose would get on the music box and say to us, “We’ll see you boys at 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock,” you better believe they were there. They filled up their soldiers with dope during the day so they would be ready to come out at night. One guy would get shot, and the next guy would pick up his gun and they’d keep coming at you. The day before I left, there were 913 soldiers that went into Old Baldy, and 900 came back in bags.
What was your highest rank?
Mann: I became an E7 Sergeant First Class. I had a small company of men with four M16 Half Track Quad 50 trucks that each had four 50mm guns. I started out as a gunner and ended up being chief of one plus three others.
Why was the Korean War overlooked by so many Americans then?
Mann: I don’t know. The World War II boys were welcomed back when they got off the ships, and they had a big parade in New York City. When we came home, it was no big deal. The Korean War was considered then to be a small police action. But none of us said anything about it or belly ached. You just did what you had to do. Looking back at it, though, I wonder what did we gain? It’s a forgotten era now.
What do you want future generations to know about the war?
Mann: We gave South Korea their freedom; that’s it. Another way of looking at it is we did it to keep our economy up and our people going.
How did your military service begin?
Mabe: I got a scholarship to play football at the University of Kentucky, which was a big deal for my family, but I was a duck out of water. I came from a blue collar family and was playing with rich kids. Then I dinged up my knee and knew I was done and saw my friends being drafted. So one day in the fall of 1968, I got on a Greyhound bus to Cincinnati, walked into the military office and enlisted in the Army. My dad was heartbroken at the time, and my mom went into a tizzy.
I went to boot camp and had a shot to be a helicopter pilot, but I volunteered for the infantry. Then I spent two weeks training as a sniper with the 75th Rangers. Right before I went to Vietnam in December 1968, I was stationed in Oakland for four days. We would take a cab to San Francisco, and there were hippies all over, so you couldn’t go in there with your uniforms on. There were hundreds of hippies protesting the war. For a young kid from Kentucky, it was unbelievable. I remember when they finally put us on a bus to go to the airport, the windows were blacked out so the protestors couldn’t see us.
Where were you stationed in Vietnam?
Mabe: We landed in Bien Hoa Air Base, about 22 miles from Saigon, close to the Cambodia border. I’ll never forget when they opened the doors to the plane — the stench, the heat and the humidity. It almost took my breath away. There were about 50 caskets lined up and several old guys leaving for home. They were haggard, and it scared the hell out of you. I started thinking, “Maybe I should have stayed in Kentucky.”
They put us on a bus with screens instead of windows so the enemy couldn’t throw grenades in the windows to kill you. We were assigned to the 199th Infantry Brigade (Light). I was with the Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry. My first night in Vietnam, I went on an ambush. My C.O. (commanding officer) told me not to fire until the guy next to me fired, to stay calm. I was 19 years old; I had been up for 24 hours and heard thumping noises all night that kept me up. Turns out the sounds I heard were large rats running in and out of area we set up outside a graveyard.
After the TET Offensive, we kept rolling and stayed within 15 miles of Cambodia, which was a safe house for the Viet Cong. We’d set up ambushes to eliminate as many as we could. It was nasty. All of us had trench foot and ring worms from being wet all the time in the rice paddies. There were booby traps everywhere and sporadic fire fights.
Then we got assigned to amphibian assault in the Delta, where we acted as targets sitting in LCMs. Our helicopters would swoop in where the fire was coming from and bring a rain of fire on them. I got shot, for the first time, in the Delta walking point into a small village.
Then we were moved out to northeast Saigon, out of the Delta to Xuan Loc (pronounced Swan Loc) where we were part of Recon and would go out for 25 to 40 days at a time. You could throw a rock to the Cambodian border from there, near the Ho Chi Minh Trail which was like a freeway for the Viet Cong and NVA.
On Sept. 6, 1969, about 12 miles southeast of Xuan Loc, I got shot again when we were ambushed by NVA soldiers. We were in contact with the NVA for about seven hours that day. I got out of the Army on May 7, 1970.
What was it like when you returned to the U.S.?
Mabe: There were protestors at the base. They opened the gates for us, and we ran like hell to taxis waiting for us outside while all these hippies were spitting on us, grabbing at our clothes and calling us “baby killer.” I remember the taxi crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and seeing smoke. The Kent State shootings had happened a few days earlier, and protestors were burning stuff. A lot of us Vietnam vets are thankful that the country has embraced the young men and women today when they come home. Back then, they figured we were all drug addicts or baby killers.
What do you want future generations to know about the Vietnam War?
Mabe: History will prove that the U.S. didn’t lose one battle on the field, but we lost it politically because the people in charge didn’t have the desire to finish the thing.