The numbers are staggering.
Some 5.7 million Americans served in the Korean War, and about 8.7 million U.S. service members were involved in the Vietnam War.
Amidst the politics and public opinion of both wars, those in the military, including Iowans, continued their service, sacrificing their safety and facing their fears of the unknown for their country. Some of these Iowa veterans share their stories.
Irvin Barron, Korean War veteran
Irvin Barron was living in Des Moines when he received his draft notice via telegram.
The United States was in the midst of the Korean War, and Barron was going into the Army.
“I grew up a lot,” says Barron, now 82, who served from 1951 to 1953. “I was 21 when I went into the service. My parents both died when I was in my teens. I was pretty wild. The Army straightened me out. It put me on a better track.”
Barron went to Fort Sheridan, Ill., to receive his assignment. He went on to Fort Hood, Texas, where he was supposed to do his basic training. But there was a problem.
“I’ve got real flat feet,” he says, “and if I marched on them, they would give me a lot of trouble.”
Knowing he was a good mechanic, they instead sent him to work in the motor pool, Barron says. Once there, he received wheeled-vehicle training and was also trained to be a tank mechanic.
One of Barron’s most memorable experiences came in 1952 when he witnessed, firsthand, the detonation of an atomic bomb. Barron was in a group of 1,000 men taken to Yucca Flat, Nev., he recalls, as part of the U.S. government’s Operation Tumbler-Snapper, a series of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests that took place from April 1, 1952, to June 5, 1952, at the Nevada Proving Ground.
“They lined us up in trenches, 4,000 yards from point zero, and we were allowed to watch the test,” he says. “They told us after the first flash to cover our faces with our hands to protect our eyes.”
He watched the mushroom cloud rise and the shades of different colors in the sky.
“You could see the ground trembling and the shockwave come toward you,” Barron says. “It knocked us all on our butt. We didn’t expect it.”
Afterward, they went to within 100 yards of where the bomb went off to a place where the military had set up buildings and tethered sheep to see the explosion’s impact, he says. “The thing that stuck out in my mind was that there were sheep still alive but charcoaled on one side and perfectly fine on the other side.”
Also in 1952, Barron traveled to Hokkaido, in northern Japan, where he worked as a tank mechanic. He had been there for some time when they were put on troop ships headed toward Korea’s coast as part of what they believed was an amphibious attack, he says. They climbed over the side of the ship and got into boats taking them to shore.
“We didn’t know until we were about 100 yards (away) that it was a fake landing to take some of the heat off the interior,” he says.
When he arrived back at the ship, 10 men were sent back to Hokkaido to do tank maintenance. Barron was one of them. The rest of his company went to Korea.
In Hokkaido, despite his rank of private, he was doing the work of higher-ranking officers, he says, and was in charge of the group of men. They were responsible for maintenance on 15 to 20 tanks, some weighing 46 tons.
In March 1953, he received his orders to return home. Soon thereafter he met his wife, June, and they have been married 59 years. They have five kids and five grandchildren.
Serving in the military gave him the opportunity to see countries and sights he didn’t dream he would, Barron says, but is quick to add: “But I wouldn’t do it again.”
One thing that had bothered him over the years since the war was the lack of recognition given to veterans. That “thank you” came in last July at a ceremony honoring Iowa’s Korean War-era veterans in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the war.
Finally getting that recognition, he says, “felt good.”
Craig Hawkins, Vietnam War veteran
Craig Hawkins was in his early 20s when he enlisted in the Navy in 1963. He didn’t want to serve in the Army or Marine Corps, and flying, he says, wasn’t for him.
Following boot camp in Chicago, he flew to San Diego, Calif., and was placed on the USS Columbus.
The first day on the ship, one of the chief petty officers asked him to find water line paint, he recalls. He searched all day before finding out there was no such thing. The task had been his initiation.
From San Diego, they traveled to Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines, arriving at their final destination, the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam.
“We just patrolled up and down the coast for a month to six weeks and left,” he says. Most of those days were uneventful. He was on lookout duty from midnight to 6 a.m. and was to report anything unusual he saw on the coast. Much of his time was spent reading in his bunk.
“That’s one reason I joined the Navy — so I didn’t have to go into combat and to be safer,” he says.
The most exciting part of his time in service came while on the USS Columbus. Hawkins recalls being on lookout duty and hearing someone say there was a plane down, and it was one of theirs. The ship was going as fast as it could to reach the downed pilot, which was about 30 knots or approximately 35 mph, Hawkins says.
“The whole ship was shaking,” he says.
Hawkins also recalls a disagreement on the main bridge at the time between the captain and a one-star admiral onboard about the rescue. In the end, the captain prevailed, and the rescue was a successful one.
After his time on the USS Columbus, Hawkins completed his service at a naval base in San Diego as a company clerk in the weapons office. He had served in the military from 1964 to 1966. He returned to his hometown of Ankeny in 1966.
“I got enjoyment out of seeing the world,” he says. “It was a nice, enjoyable experience, except for my first day when I got initiated.”
Ken Stuart, Vietnam War veteran
It was 1967. Ken Stuart was 22, recently graduated from Drake University and on a trip to New York City with his parents.
When they arrived home to Altoona, his draft notice was waiting in the mail.
“I didn’t really have any opinions at that time,” he says. “I just thought, ‘Oh no. I’m going to the Army.’ ”
On this Friday afternoon, Stuart is rifling through a manila folder labeled “Army,” reminiscing about his service. He pulls out his draft notice. A typewritten sheet of neatly organized columns displays a countdown of the days until he could leave Vietnam. Each day had a line drawn through it.
Being in the Army was a positive experience for Stuart, helping him become more confident and less shy, he says. Being in the service also made him have a greater appreciation for what he had in America.
Stuart’s stint at basic training in Fort Campbell, Ky., was a tough, but good one. He lost more than 50 pounds. He got along with his peers, and most of the men in his barracks were college graduates like himself. Their leaders — the drill sergeants and officers — were tough, but treated them fairly, he says.
After basic training, he was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, from 1967 – 68. His job there was to deliver mail, which was how he saw his orders for Vietnam.
He went home for about a month to visit his parents and friends. Trained to be a personnel specialist, he thought he wouldn’t be going into combat. But he also knew anything was possible.
Stuart was in Vietnam from September 1968 to August 1969. He was stationed at Di An and was with the 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry. His job was to help process “R&R” (rest and recuperation) requests and to handle the paperwork for awards and recognitions.
When he would have guard duty, he would see red tracers off in the distance in the sky, he remembers. But he never had to go into combat and never had to fire his weapon.
“I was there, but luckily I did not have to go in the field,” Stuart says. “I consider myself very lucky. It’s unfortunate — a lot of good men lost their lives out there, facing death every day.”
As a whole, Vietnam veterans have not been adequately recognized and thanked for their service, he says, even though there has been a greater effort to do so. He understands why some veterans are bitter, but he is not.
“I served my time; I was there,” he simply says. “I served my country, which I was totally happy I did. I’m very proud of my country. I’m not ashamed I served in Vietnam.”