Joe Boitnott initially joined the military in high school out of necessity.
It was 1939, and Boitnott was not yet 18 years old. But his parents were divorcing, he needed money, and he decided it might be best if he join the Iowa National Guard.
Two years later during World War II, Boitnott was mobilized and sent to Europe. He was stationed with the 1st Battalion of the 168th Infantry Regiment, all part of the 34th Infantry Division from Des Moines, known as the Red Bulls. Now, age 91, Boitnott is the only soldier from that outfit who is still living.
During his service in World War II, Boitnott made three amphibious landings and saw 511 combat days. He received a Purple Heart for being wounded in 1944 during the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. He was leading a mule with supplies to the front line when a shell exploded. The mule took the worst of it and was killed, but Boitnott suffered superficial wounds on his left arm and pieces of shrapnel lodged in his torso. He was only out of action for less than a month. He says pieces of shrapnel worked their way out of his body for years.
Boitnott transferred to the Army Air Corps (the predecessor to the Air Force), where he was a machine gunner in the back of B-17s. He flew two missions in Austria, and then World War II ended. He also received a Bronze Star and many other medals for his service during World War II.
Boitnott returned to the United States and was given 100 days to decide whether he wanted out or wanted to continue his service. He chose the latter and was stationed at March Air Force Reserve Base in California.
By 1950, the United States was involved in the Korean War. Boitnott was once again called into action. He was stationed in Hawaii and later sent to Korea in 1952. His job was to refuel jets and other aircraft.
Boitnott did not experience combat while stationed in Korea. However, he was responsible for something that changed the lives of many Korean children. He helped create an orphanage outside of the base where he was located in 1953.
“These little kids were running around with stuff coming out of their noses and running around naked, and it’s about 30 degrees below zero. It touches your heart,” Boitnott says.
He called his wife in the United States and asked her to send over any children’s clothing she could gather. From there it grew. Other soldiers’ wives also sent items. He traded a couple of cases of whiskey to the Army for a tent that was used as the orphanage shelter.
Boitnott later received a letter from the director of the orphanage, which also served as a school, thanking him for the difference he had made in the lives of Korean children.
Boitnott returned to the United States from Korea in 1954 and was stationed at March Air Force Reserve Base once again. He was sent to Germany from 1958 to 1962 for peacekeeping missions.
He retired from the Air Force in 1972, with 28 years of service for the U.S. military.
In 2004, Boitnott traveled to Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the World War II Memorial. He also received the Order of Saint Maurice Medal from the National Infantry Association.
Arlington “Lee” Evans knew lots of young men who were drafted into service for Vietnam and figured it was only a matter of time before he was.
His father had been in the U.S. Marine Corps, and he wanted to follow in his footsteps, so he enlisted Oct. 16, 1967, into the Marines. He traveled to San Diego for boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and trained to be a field radio operator.
Evans was stationed in Da Nang, Vietnam, with the 1st Marine Division. Da Nang was known as “Rocket City” because the Viet Cong would launch rockets toward the base and sometimes blew holes in the runway that would then need to be patched.
Evans’ job was to confer with officers and call in air support when it was needed, whether it be for artillery fire or napalm. He says that was one of the worst parts of the war because many innocent people were killed or severely harmed.
“It was sad because we decimated a lot of villages,” Evans says. “Napalm was very ugly.”
Evans was involved in many tough and deadly fights while stationed in Vietnam. In one battle, 2,000 men were killed. He says it was “by the grace of God” that he made it out alive.
He remembers how men would sometimes get combat fright and could not pick up their weapons. They looked to him for reassurance because as radio operator he was always with the officers.
Evans says even areas where he went for “R and R” time in Vietnam weren’t safe because one never knew who were Viet Cong and who were ordinary Vietnamese citizens. He once saw a 12-year-old girl throw a grenade at a group of officers. Another Viet Cong who cleaned their barracks was discovered to be a spy.
“Your life is threatened 24-7,” Evans says.
Evans says he was lucky and made it back to the United States without injury. It was dangerous in the jungle, where sometimes one couldn’t see more than two feet in front of himself in an area with landmines, booby traps and enemy snipers.
He saw lots of his fellow Marines injured and called in medical support for them.
“Everybody protects the radio man,” he says. “Without the radioman, you lose communications.”
Evans also was stationed for four months at the Long Bihn Jail, which was where members of the military were sent for crimes. He says mortars were fired at the area often, and the military men stationed there were charged with trying to keep the prisoners safe.
Evans says while he was in Vietnam, he spent a lot of time talking to the Vietnamese people. He says they didn’t want war and didn’t care about foreign countries; they just wanted to be able to work the land.
When Evans and other marines returned from Vietnam to the United States in 1970, he says they were met by protestors.
“They really tore into us in California,” he says, adding that people were throwing rocks at the vehicles they traveled in and cussing at them.
“It was really demeaning to us because we were doing this for our country, and when we got back the country was treating us this way,” Evans says. “I still have nightmares about that more than the VC (Viet Cong).”
He says he now receives praise for his service and is proud to have served his country. He understands why people were upset in the 1970s, and he thinks the United States went about the war in the wrong way. He, too, joined in to protest the war toward its end because too many young people were getting killed, he says.
“Every mother’s son was getting killed over there,” Evans says. “They had a reason to want to end the war.”
Evans retired from the Marine Corps as a lance corporal. He received a Bronze Star, along with a Vietnamese Service Medal and other honors for his service. He returned to Des Moines after the war and worked at the Ford manufacturing plant.