“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. More than 8,000 Iowans were sent into the Korean War. More than 500 were killed. More than 860 were casualties of the Vietnam War.
Serving in Vietnam
Lee Evans had just transferred to a new college in 1968. He got notice to take his pre-induction physical, and the recruiter told him that within 30 days, 90 percent of them would be drafted. Evans
knew he didn’t want to make the military his career, and he wanted to finish his college term, so he visited a Marine recruiter that spring and explained his situation. The recruiter told him if he signed the papers now, he could finish the term and report on July 15. So Evans joined the Marines.
“I wanted to go in for as little time as I could, and I knew they wouldn’t spend a lot of time training me to do specialized jobs, so that would put me in infantry either way,” he says. “I felt that the quality of training and survival was better in the Marine Corps.”
Evans spent his first night at the air base assigned to a landing battalion team, so they didn’t have a land-based facility. He was choppered out to his ship where he met his platoon and was assigned a squad and issued his gear. A day later, he was choppered out to his first operation. He arrived in Vietnam in January, 1969.
His group didn’t have a set area of operations, so they went where they were needed. Evans says sometimes that meant they walked in platoon formation, other times in squad formation, and sometimes in fire team formation. A platoon would have three squads plus often a machine gun squad. A squad had 12-13 people, and a fire team had three or four people. They’d be in a stationed area for one to three weeks at a time.
“A lot of it was walking through the rice paddies and jungle and through the mountains,” he says. “We’d spend most of the day walking and searching through the jungle, and we’d get ambushed. Most of the time when we did an ambush it was after dark. You’d go out on a listening post at night, and we were there to warn if someone was approaching.”
When they called the end of a mission, the men would get choppered back to their ship. There were a few instances in which another unit that had a land base was being called out, and then they’d go to their position and cover it for them. Otherwise, they would go back to the ship to resupply.
For Evans, what he remembers most is the intense feeling of dependence upon his fellow comrades.
“When you’re in the bush, you depend on each other,” he says. “In the movies, you see a lot of this racial tension played up, and you don’t notice that there. Even when we went back to the ship, you didn’t notice that. I’m sure it did happen, but 75 percent of my unit was minorities. You depend on each other and cover each other’s backs. We tried not to form really deep friendships, but there’s a camaraderie because you’re doing it all together.”
He also remembers, and not fondly, seeing the bodies.
Evans spent about a year in Vietnam, returning home in January, 1970. He says he still has what they called a “short-timer stick.” It’s just a short black stick with a thumb pointing up at the top. They carried them to let others know they had less than 90 days left in country.
Though he didn’t experience any mistreatment when he got home, he says it’s “bull” that anyone did.
“It was an unpopular war, and a lot of people thought we shouldn’t be there, but the fact of the matter is, we were there,” he says. “Those of us who did serve, we did our job.
Revisiting the Korean War
Bill Magnani was drafted in 1951. He took basic training at Fort Breckenridge, Ken., with the 101st airborne. He was supposed to go on to Texas, and when he was there he ended up cutting his leg badly enough to require hospitalization from a resulting infection. He ended up having to do basic training all over again with an infantry outfit.
He got orders to go to Korea in February 1952. Before he went, though, he was sent to cook and baker school in Japan. But after he graduated out of that, the Army didn’t need any cooks. Magnani was given a Browning automatic rifle, and he carried it up and down the mountains of Korea for six months.
“We went out on patrols but were on the front lines all the time,” he says. “We stayed in the trenches and had them built right into the mountains. At that point, it was mostly sniping Chinese forces who would attack at night. They’d play music, and over the loudspeakers they’d talk about the GIs, saying, ‘Your wife is at home, and you’re here.’ It was propaganda, and it went on all night.”
In some places, the trenches were built so close together that only a ravine separated the two forces. They could see the enemy moving around, and the enemy could see them. Magnani remembers one particular mountain that they called Sandbag Mountain. It was all rock, and they couldn’t build a trench, so they built it up with sandbags.
“The weather was just like Iowa in the winter,” he says. “It was cold and snowy. All we had was a coffee can with some charcoal in it for heat in your bunker. You had the rainy season in the spring, which we don’t have here with monsoon rain. The weather was difficult to deal with.”
The Korean War was also the first integrated war that was fought. Soldiers had a bunker with two men, typically one black and one white, Magnani says. They’d take turns serving guard duty and sleeping, with one sleeping bag between the two of them. It was freezing cold, he says.
After Magnani spent six months serving as an infantryman, they rotated all the cooks home. He then became a head cook in his outfit. There were three hot meals served every day, and the cooks were moved from where they used to be, at the rear, back to the front lines. They wanted to lessen the exposure of the cooks to fire when they used the roads to bring the food from the rear to the front lines.
Magnani remembers one incident that sticks out in his mind. The day he left Japan for Korea, he was riding in a truck sitting across from another man.
“I saw this guy, and he looked at me and I looked at him, and he was from Carney,” he says. “We knew each other. I knew Ray, but not that well. There I was that far away from home, and you got to see someone you knew. He was coming back from R&R in Japan, and I was just getting started.”
Magnani came home in February 1953, and he still had three more months to serve in the Army. He ended up in Colorado with a ski troop outfit serving as a cook. In May 1953, he returned home to his wife.
“I had been married nine months when I went in,” he says. “When I was there, I’d get letters from my wife and mom and dad and my brothers and sisters, and that was the only way we had to communicate. I have a grandson in Afghanistan now, and he has a 1-year-old at home, and he can see her on the Skype thing, and it’s crazy to me. That was the highlight of the day, getting the mail.”