Published July 03 2012
Readers share their memories of Vietnam War as nation commemorates 50th anniversary
“Every night, she would sit while we ate dinner in silence, looking at the news clips for her brother or watching to see if his name was being scrawled across the screen,” said Ludwig, who was 8 and living in St. Paul Park, Minn., at the time. “I had little or no understanding of what happened to her every night at 6 p.m. watching that little black and white television.”
As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, we asked readers to write in with memories of that time period.
The Vietnam War didn’t and doesn’t get the same kind of public recognition as World War II and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neighbors’ brothers came home with no fanfare and no flags, said Ludwig, now of Larimore, N.D.
But those who lived through it know the toll the war took, and the country is now looking to pay tribute to Vietnam veterans and contributions made on the home front during the war.
The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act authorized the secretary of defense to conduct a program to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. President Barack Obama recently proclaimed May 28, 2012, through Nov. 11, 2025, as the time frame.
The program is to honor and give thanks to a generation of Americans “who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced.
“While no words will ever be fully worthy of their service, nor any honor truly befitting their sacrifice, let us remember that it is never too late to pay tribute to the men and women who answered the call of duty with courage and valor,” Obama said in the proclamation.
During this Fourth of July week, here are memories of that war.
A column piece that I wrote during my undergraduate days at Concordia College in Moorhead: Just Rapping. Sept. 5, 1969.
Just the other day, I sat down on the hard, bare steps of one of Concordia’s buildings to rap with an old man who worked there. As it turned out, he had an interesting story to tell.
Not long ago, a couple of men paid him and his wife a visit at their home. One wore a sergeant’s uniform, the other a clerical collar. “You know,” the man said as he turned his head toward me, “they didn’t have to say a word. The minute I saw those two coming up the walk together, I knew.”
His son had been killed in Vietnam.
“It was a hard blow,” his voice so soft I could barely understand, “but at least he didn’t have to suffer like some of the others.” That was his consolation.
I was silent. The man asked the question for me: “What the hell are we doing over there anyway?” I told him I didn’t know.
But that was not the end of the story. It seems that a short while after the burial, a letter came addressed to his dead son. It was an induction notice from the local draft board! Obviously a slip-up, but you can imagine how it must have affected him.
“Can they draft a boy who’s already 6 feet under the ground?” In the same bewildered voice, the man repeated the question.
Meanwhile, college students walked by talking, laughing and seeming to not have a care in the world.
We formed a new brigade, the 198th Infantry Brigade, in Fort Hood, Texas, the summer of 1967 and boarded a Navy ship for Vietnam in September. We joined two other brigades to form the Americal Division based out of Chu Lai.
May 25, 1968, was one of my worst days. Our company was walking through enemy territory when we were hit with enemy fire. My good friend, Duane Pesek from Devils Lake, N.D., was seriously wounded. The guys who put him on a Medevac chopper didn’t think he would survive.
Some guys didn’t know he had survived until our first company reunion in 2003 in Branson, Mo.
After six months in the Army hospital in Denver, Duane recovered from his wounds and went home to Lawton, N.D. He moved to Devils Lake, where he lived with his wife, Louise. He died in April from a brain tumor. He was a really great guy, and his Vietnam comrades really miss him.
There were some humorous moments. One night when I was sleeping on the ground, I woke up with something tickling my leg. I jumped up and shook a lizard out of my pant leg. After that, I made sure my pants were fastened tight around my ankles.
I want to tell you a story about a man I never met, but yet a man whose life and death have come to have a place in my heart: James Richard Hanson. Everyone knew him as Jimmy as he grew up in Barnesville, Minn., during the ’50s and ’60s.
He was an uncle to my wife, Sue, and her entire family is extremely proud of this brave young man who sacrificed his life in service to his country during the Vietnam War. Jimmy was drafted into the Marine Corps on Nov. 15, 1965, and received training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., prior to being assigned as a rifleman in Kilo Co. of the 3rd Battalion, a part of the 3rd Marine Division.
He was deployed to the Quang Tri Province of Vietnam on May 14, 1966. He received the Purple Heart after receiving a gunshot wound to his left hand during a firefight a few months later. After he recovered, he rejoined his unit in time for Operation Hastings, an 11-day battle in which the Marines captured a spiny mountain in the heart of the militarized zone.
On the morning of Sept. 28, 1966, the Marines began their offensive with Pvt. Hanson as a fire team leader of the First Squad, which was in the point position, leading Kilo Co. up the mountain. The enemy opened fire from point blank range, inflicting devastating damage on all of Kilo Co. and killing Pvt. Hanson.
Jimmy’s mother, Calma, received the news of her son’s death via a telegram delivered by a Clay County sheriff’s deputy on Sept. 30, 1966. His remains arrived back in Barnesville on Oct. 11, which would have been his 21st birthday.
Jimmy’s funeral was Oct. 15, 1966, and the mayor issued a proclamation stating that all businesses would be closed during the service in honor of Pvt. Hanson, the city’s first Vietnam causality.
My Vietnam journey began with orders to join an artillery unit at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Unknown to me or my family when I left North Dakota, the unit had been deployed to I Corps, near a village called Duc Pho, Vietnam.
I finally caught up to them the day before the Tet Offensive of 1968 began. Our hilltop artillery base was attacked by sappers (special operations VietCong) with satchel charges, and several fighters on both sides died during the first night of Tet.
I learned how to pray in earnest and gave thanks when the sun finally came up.
Some images and sensory perceptions remain etched in my mind from my time in Vietnam. The unique sound of a helicopter still causes goosebumps. The face of an enemy soldier killed during Tet. A visit to an orphanage where a young child who had died was simply left on the concrete floor next to a drain.
The smell of dense, rotting vegetation and smoke from cooking fires in the villages. And the wonder and peacefulness of morning fogs clinging to a lush mountain valley as the sun arose and I was alive.
I believe that my time in the service, and my Vietnam experience particularly, has influenced how I have lived my life. I am proud to have served my country. I am grateful for the kinship of fellow veterans from all areas, and I am blessed to have a devoted and understanding wife and family. No one ever comes back quite the same person.
Col. Randy Wimmer
N.D. Air National Guard (retired)
Instead of mailing my taxes on April 15, 1972, I was flying to Vietnam. I passed my check ride as a B-52 navigator on April 1. Now hundreds of B-52 crews were on their way to war. The next nine months would be historic: To me and my crew because we were now participants; to the war because it would end.
Within this time span, we dropped tons and tons and tons of bombs on the enemy. On July 8, a crew from Ellsworth AFB – our home base – bailed out of a trouble-ridden B-52 into the Pacific during a typhoon. Five of the six crew members survived and were rescued by a submarine.
A few weeks earlier, a navigator classmate was shot down and became a prisoner of war.
The North Vietnamese would not surrender. President Nixon was disappointed. In December, Nixon escalated our effort with Linebacker II putting the crosshairs on Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor. For 11 days, we wrought havoc on the “heart” of North Vietnam. We lost 15 B-52s.
Another Ellsworth crew went down the night of Dec. 27; a surface-to-air missile claimed its target.
On Dec. 29, the bombing stopped. The war was over. On Jan. 27, 1973 the Paris Peace Accords were signed. On Feb. 12, Operation Homecoming delivered 591 prisoners of war to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
I salute our servicemen and women, and our veterans in all branches of the military.
Staff Sgt. Tom Domack
U.S. Air Force
I was stationed at Bien Hoa, Vietnam, from July 16, 1968, to July 16, 1969. It was a year filled with emotion of every kind. One of the most emotional moments occurred on that July 16 day of 1969 when I left Vietnam.
About 200 tired soldiers — Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force — boarded the commercial jet aircraft in near total silence. It remained totally quiet during seating, engine run-up, taxi and finally take-off. When we heard and felt the bump-bump of wheels up, the plane was filled with cheering and every other emotion. We had served our time in country, and we knew we were going home.
A couple of days later when I arrived home, I learned that on that same July 16 day, three of our astronauts had lifted off in Apollo 11, destined for our first moon landing. I was transfixed as was the entire world watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. Needless to say, it was a very unique homecoming celebration.
I was in Vietnam twice, the last time in 1970-71. I was a roving court reporter.
My story/information concerns an incident that occurred at U-Tapao Air Force Base in Thailand.
It occurred in February 1971. Not all stories are upbeat.
The base was hit by “sappers,” individuals who carried bagged bombs. They were able to encroach the base and throw “sapper” bombs into B-52 engines and damaged a total of six B-52s.
As a result of the invasion at 2 a.m., the base called out all troops. While the military judge and I were armed with .45 caliber pistols, the greatest number of Air Force personnel were not armed. Their weapons were stored in the local armory under lock and key, which was maintained by the security police battalion on base.
All of the Air Force personnel had to report to the armory to pick up their weapons. The problem? All of the M-16s and carbines were rusted throughout and none of them was useable. Quite an embarrassment for the local security police commander (who was later relieved of his position).
As a result, for two days the base was completely shut down while security police did a door-to-door search for the sappers. The good part of the incident was that everyone on base at the time received two months’ pay totally tax free, a benefit for troops in Vietnam.
My first assignment to South Vietnam, 1964-65, was to command a 10 Huey helicopter gunship squadron, plus one heavily armed killing machine nicknamed the “Hog.” Our gunships were actively involved 24-7 and were frequently called upon to fly missions requiring protection of troop-carrying choppers.
One such mission, starting with a 4:30 a.m. briefing, called for my unit to provide gun support for 12 Marine Corps “Slicks,” H-34 helicopters carrying 130 South Vietnamese troops. Following the briefing, we airlifted our support team of four gunships and the Hog commanded by me, Fang-6.
The first two Slicks landed and discharged without incident. The third and fourth H-34s landed with a barrage of enemy fire … Both choppers were damaged and non-flyable with numerous casualties.
I immediately directed the Hog in position 3,000 feet directly above the 72mm Chinese gun. My correct assumption was that this weapon could not traverse in a 180-degree upward position to fire its weapon at our helicopter.
I traversed the Hog into a nosedive position to 1,200 feet above the target and proceeded to dislodge all 48 rockets, delivering a massive barrage of destructive firepower.
After the smoke cleared, it was determined the enemy gun position was a complete wipeout, clearing the way for the remaining H-34s to finish their mission without fear of heavy enemy fire.
(LeClerc is a 1957 graduate of the University of North Dakota. LeClerc, Fang-6, and his crew were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their mission.)
At 19, I volunteered for the most dangerous and challenging experience of my life. At that stage of my life, I was in a fighting mood. I was looking for a gunfight and, in Vietnam, I found one.
As we flew into Vietnam, I was looking out the window of the plane searching for signs of action. Instead of action, I saw a lot of lush green country, water and rice patties. I didn’t know Vietnam was so pretty.
Once the plane landed, things changed. The air that met me was so hot and thick I could hardly breathe. The ground was covered by rows of body bags and soldiers standing guard.
From there, we were placed on a bus and assigned to our divisions. I was assigned to RECON. I received more training followed by a new assignment: search and destroy. When you are in training, you don’t encounter the reality of being fired upon, having a live grenade thrown at you, enduring an airstrike or watching a friend fall.
Then, all hell broke loose. The gunfights were on, along with night missions, “Eagle flights,” mortar rounds, constant gunfire, bombs, the rumble of B-52s’ incoming artillery, Napalm and darkness, fighting and more fighting, listening for the enemy and trying to quiet the sound of your own heart beating so loudly you are sure the enemy can hear it, running out of food and running out of ammunition and leeches … always leeches.
The first time I was seriously wounded was from incoming mortar in February 1969. The second time I was wounded was during a firefight, March 1969. I was shot by an AK-47 in my leg. The medic patched me up, and I was back out. The third time I was wounded was four hours later, the same night. I tripped a grenade booby trap. I remember hearing part of the bang. It threw me 20 feet through the air.
I don’t remember landing, but I remember not being able to breathe. I remember splashing my hands around me into what I believed was water when in fact it was my own blood. I remember being so thirsty from the loss of blood. The Medevac picked me up after 40 minutes and took me to a field hospital where they discovered my punctured lung.
I spent the next week in the field hospital and then two weeks in Japan. An Army hospital plane returned me to Fitzsimons Army hospital, where I spent four months, followed by five months at Fort Carson until I was discharged.
I was 8 years old when my uncle, Gordon Kadrmas of Dickinson, N.D., went to Vietnam. Our entire family went to Bismarck to say goodbye as he flew off to begin his tour. My uncle was a mechanic, and he worked on the helicopters. I remember sitting at the kitchen table to write him letters and crying as I wrote them.
During that time, every night on the news, you saw pictures of the death and destruction. We watched as they carried casket after casket off the planes of the soldiers that didn’t survive. Every night, they gave the body count.
I remember the letters we got from him, telling us about the monsoons and how the large snakes would end up under their trucks in camp.
I remember the late night call my parents received from my uncle telling us he was safely back in the United States.
Ottmar grew up near Lefor, N.D.
Maj. Roger Anderson
U.S. Air Force (retired)
I have a very special letter in my stuff from Vietnam. Just a couple sentences on plain ruled paper. It doesn’t contain any earth-shattering pronouncements. Just, “Hi, Andy. We’re here. Norris.”
The postmark says it all: Hanoi, North Vietnam. Jan. 27, 1973. My roommate, his C-130E crew and the air traffic control specialist on board had stepped forward to fly into the enemy stronghold to facilitate prisoner exchange should the Paris Peace Accord be signed.
Unsung heroes, they knew their fate had it not been.
My father was stationed on Guam from 1968 to 1970, and we lived on the Naval hospital base. I was in the fifth grade and was excited to be living somewhere where we could swim in the ocean on Christmas. While I have some wonderful memories of that gorgeous island, there also was a stark reminder of what was going on.
You see, the movie theater was in the hospital, and the theater would be filled with families from the base and the patients from the hospital. I saw the reality of the conflict: young men minus arms and/or legs, heads swathed in bandages, in wheelchairs. You name it, I saw it, and I will never forget!
We were lined up on a runway all night. Ubon, Thailand. 1972. No reason given until the next day. VC (Viet Cong) were thought to have crossed Laos and might attack our base. We were out there to draw their fire. Generals wanted to test the situation. No shots fired.
Smithwick grew up in Baker, Minn.
Charlotte Nichol Bagwell
I graduated from North Dakota State University in 1965 and entered the Air Force. Following an internship, my career assignment was that of dietitian at the Lockbourne Air Force Base hospital in Ohio. In 1967, I met a fighter pilot who, as a single parent with three little girls, was also assigned there. During our whirlwind courtship, he received orders for Vietnam. We married in February 1968, and he prepared to leave for overseas combat. Since the Air Force didn’t allow females officers to have children, I resigned my commission.
I became pregnant shortly after we wed. The girls and I would spend the year in Bottineau, N.D., after he left in July. In October, I was hospitalized with a kidney infection; about the same time, he was shot down and declared missing in action. He was rescued the next day, but communications were delayed. Injured and unable to fly for a while, he was sent home on convalescent leave, arriving the day before our daughter was born prematurely.
My husband returned to duty, and our daughter left the hospital when she reached 5 pounds. We continued to enjoy the kindness and support of family and community, all the while anticipating the end of my husband’s Vietnam assignment. On his next-to-last mission, he was shot down and rescued again. Air Force policy in those days required that, after being shot down twice in combat, people were reassigned stateside. Shortly after, he called me to say he was all right. He returned home.
Bagwell grew up near Bottineau.
I’m from Amidon, N.D., and attended 12 years of school at St Mary’s in New England. I then graduated from the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota with degrees in music and education. With that, I was hired by the American Red Cross as a hospital recreation therapist, and I began my first assignment at an Army hospital at Fort Sill, Okla., in 1970.
Many of the hospital patients were Army wounded who had been evacuated out of the war in Vietnam. I was part of a small staff, and I cross-trained to provide social work services to ill and wounded patients, which changed my life path.
In November 1971, I touched down in Saigon, then 40 miles by jeep to Long Binh to begin a year assignment at the 24th Evacuation Hospital. Government policies about drug treatment changed while I was there, so I spent half of my time working in a heroin treatment center known as LBJ (Long Binh Jail.) My job focus also changed to hospital social work in what was then the largest remaining evac hospital in the country.
It was the most important year of my life and put me on a course to get a master’s and doctorate in social work. It has led me to come full circle in my career as I now provide counseling for combat vets of all eras at the Portland Vet Center. I was one of the lucky ones who came home but, like many, I’m still working on coming all of the way home. To others who served there, I say, “Thank You and Welcome Home.”
Growing up in northeastern North Dakota near Drayton, I had no idea I’d ever find myself on an aircrew flying bombing missions over Southeast Asia. Following high school graduation in 1964, I attended the University of North Dakota, majoring in math, but also enrolling in Air Force ROTC since the U.S. still had the military draft.
After graduation in 1968, I attended AF Navigator School near Sacramento, Calif., Electronic Warfare School and B-52 School. I arrived at Minot Air Force Base in July 1970 and was quickly assigned to a B-52 crew.
About one year later, our crew was sent first to California and then to Thailand on a four-month temporary duty assignment.
In Thailand, we flew combat missions on six of our first seven days. After that, we generally flew three days out of every four. Our missions were not particularly long – generally no more than four hours from takeoff to landing. The crew I was on flew 58 missions, but on one mission, an aircraft malfunction required us to return to our base in Thailand without reaching our target.
Periodically, we’d be told in pre-mission briefings that we could not mention our targets. Why? It was because our targets were either in Laos or Cambodia, and the official line from the Nixon White House was that we were not engaged in hostilities in those countries.
Drayton wasn’t immune to losses from the war, however. About 58,000 American troops died in the Vietnam War. Two of those were ground soldiers and graduates of Drayton with whom I’d played high school football.
Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.