“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, Waukee Living 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 prepare to celebrate Veterans’ Day once again this year, we sat down with the Korean and Vietnam war veterans this time, hearing their stories.
As the quote above suggests, the Vietnam War may still be one of the most debated conflicts of the 20th century, but it still featured many veterans who fought 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 participated in the Korean War, and more than 500 were killed. A total of 869 Iowans lost their lives in the Vietnam War.
Serving during Korea
Those facts and figures don’t tell the story of what it was like to serve, however. Dick Felt served during the Korean War. The draft continued after World War II right into the Korean War. Felt’s brother joined the Air Force, but Felt decided to let the Army draft him in 1953 because the enlistment period was only two years instead of four. He left for basic training in Arkansas, where he spent 16 weeks. After 10 days’ leave, he reported back, and he and 300 others waited to hear their fates.
“They came to my name and never said a word, just skipped me, and when they got done there were eight guys standing there out of 300,” he says. “I thought, ‘Good Lord, what are they going to do with me?’ They sent me to Germany in the army of occupation that ran from August 1945 until 1955.”
Felt traveled to New Jersey, then to England, and then to Germany. He joined an Indiana-based artillery outfit of World War II veterans whose job it was to patrol the Czech border to ensure that Russia was not trying to get troops into the area.
“Here’s a snot-nosed little kid, 20 years old, and all those guys were in the war and were pushing 30,” he says. “They kept us little guys in line. There was no monkey business.”
Once the men got to the border area, they’d dig in. The only thing visible from above was the end of the massive, 40.5 ton-gun positioned there, which could shoot 22 miles.
Felt says the thing he remembers most is the devastation from WWII. They’d visit Munich, Germany, or Frankfort, Germany, and see block after block leveled.
“The Dachau prison, I was very close to that,” he says. “People say that didn’t happen, and I got news for you — that did happen. As you looked around Germany, you see lots of cemeteries with crosses and huge churches, and it hits you: How could a people so religious cause such a catastrophe to the world?”
Felt and his fellow troops kept their eyes on the former SS soldiers, and they spoke with them often. They told the Americans how Hitler rose to power after the great worldwide depression in the 1920s, and life in Germany under his rule in the beginning was very good.
“Everything was going well, and people didn’t pay attention to what their government was pulling on them,” Felt says. “By the time people realized what was happening, they were prisoners.”
Felt was overseas for about 19 months. He spent two years serving in the Army and was on call for five years after that. But he was never called back into active service from that point on. He says he still feels some guilt over his assignment. Most of the men he went through basic training with, and was closest to, were sent overseas to Korea.
“I always felt guilty because I took basic training with those guys, and they all went to Korea,” he says. “I always wondered how many of them got killed over there, whether they came back or they didn’t.”
Despite the hard times serving, Felt has fond memories of certain events. On his way back home, he flew in a propeller plane from New Jersey back to Chicago. The pilot asked the soldiers if they’d like to see the University of Notre Dame.
“He asked if we wanted to see it, and he rolled that big plane on its side, and we went right across the whole length of that football field,” he says. “He buzzed that place like you wouldn’t believe. That’s a highlight.”
A Vietnam Veteran shares
Dan White enlisted in the Army in 1969. He went to basic training and jump school with the 82nd airborne in Fort Bragg, N.C., and soon after requested transfer for duty in Vietnam.
“I was engaged, and my fiance was in nurses’ training,” he says. “I figured I’d go get my tour out of the way, and then we’d get married.”
He was first assigned to a transportation unit that ran convoys. White then was assigned to a security officer and worked under a captain, then a compound security force, before being transferred to Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd airborne brigade where White was once again back with the paratroopers.
The 173rd airborne was a very unique organization. The unit saw service in World War I but is best known for its actions during the Vietnam War. The brigade was the first major United States Army ground formation deployed in Vietnam, serving there from May 1965 – 1971 and losing almost 1,800 soldiers. Noted for its roles in Operation Hump and Operation Junction City, the 173rd is best known for the Battle of Dak To, where it suffered heavy casualties in close combat with North Vietnamese forces.
Brigade members received more than 7,700 decorations, including more than 6,000 Purple Hearts.
The only combat parachute jump in Vietnam took place during Operation Junction City two years before White got to Vietnam. After the war, it was deactivated, then reactivated and based in Vicenza, Italy.
Since its reactivation in 2000, the brigade served four tours in the Middle East. The 173rd participated in the initial invasion of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and had three tours in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2005 – 2006, 2007 – 2008 and 2009 – 2010. The brigade returned from its most recent deployment in eastern Afghanistan in December 2010.
While White was with the 173rd, he was assigned to LZ English. Landing Zone (LZ) English was located close to a town called Bong Son.
“What I did was help support the flying units, which were the infantry up in the field making contact,” White says. “The LZ that I was at was a pretty big compound with two battalions and a flying unit and medical unit. My immediate crew was probably eight, and I worked specifically with a young sergeant who was wounded and was working on the LZ until his time was up and he could come back to the States.”
White says his group did a little bit of everything, from patrol, guard duty and working in and out of the office. The work days were very long — oftentimes 20 hours. But the troops still had a little bit of downtime. They used it to watch movies on a 12×12 plywood screen painted white. The projector was housed inside a metal box so it wouldn’t get rained on when the monsoons started.
They did have some celebrities come visit to boost troop morale, but White says they weren’t the a-listers where he was. After 11 months, he was scheduled to go to Sydney, Australia, when his trip was canceled, and he arrived back home on Veteran’s Day 1970. He extended his enlistment and spent nearly 10 more years in the Army.
Almost two years after he returned from Vietnam, White and his wife had a son who was born with a congenital heart defect, which White believes was caused from exposure to Agent Orange. His son needed two operations.
When asked what he remembers the most, White says the beauty of the country is striking, with jungle-covered mountains and swamps. He remembers water buffalo and children riding them like ponies in the rice paddies. He remembers the poverty and how the women would wear slacks with a long dress and ride motorcycles side-saddle.
“I remember going up the road and seeing villages that were secured by the Americans,” he says. “I remember the cities and villages, and we had an orphanage that we supported while I was there. I remember Australian troops, and they were an interesting group to be around. They just had a really interesting outlook on life.”
When he came home, White says he experienced just a little of the anti-war sentiment. For him, the decision whether or not to serve his country wasn’t a difficult one.
“People didn’t understand or really didn’t care about the war,” he says. “They had no concept of what was going on over there. I volunteered to go to Vietnam, and that sentiment made me feel foolish that I really didn’t have to do that, but I thought I did. When I was in college, I was going to get a degree and teach history, but I decided to participate in it and not to teach it.”