It struck Dave Adams that not one news channel mentioned the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. But he wasn’t surprised.
“Vietnam veterans are used to that,” he shrugged. “We never asked for this day in the first place.”
Adams was one of several veterans who spoke at a special VFW remembrance event March 29 commemorating the anniversary. Fifty years ago, on March 29, 1973, the last combat troops left South Vietnam after a decades-long conflict that took 58,275 lives. Seven of them were from White Bear Lake.
He had second thoughts about speaking at the event, Adams admitted. He’s only talked publicly once before about his Vietnam experiences since returning home 54 years ago and he didn’t think he could get through it.
The Vadnais Heights resident said his wife pointed out that his name was already on the program. “So here I am,” Adams said.
He was 19 when he arrived in Vietnam April 12, 1968, serving in the Big Red One infantry division. What he remembers most, Adams described, are the sights, sounds, smells and touch of Vietnam.
The sight of fear on the faces of men in combat. The fear on the faces of South Vietnamese civilians as soldiers entered their villages.
The sound of Russian AK-47 rifles. The sound of rockets and the explosions that followed. The sound of helicopters flying away, leaving them behind in the jungle hoping they’d return for extrication.
The smell of burning excrement, the military’s way of dealing with human waste. The smell of gunsmoke.
The touch of mosquito repellent, constantly applied, and worst of all, Adams added, the sticky feel of blood.
“I’m not a hero,” he said. “I did my best to complete my mission and return home. The heroes in my opinion are those who have their names on the Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.”
He knew many of the White Bear casualties, too. High school classmates and neighbor kids he hung around with. “Allen Meldahl was a quiet, intelligent guy,” Adams said. “Jerry Ellis was funny and definitely destined to be a Marine. I knew those guys since sixth grade.”
The former VFW Post 1782 commander asked those in attendance a favor: “If you know a Vietnam vet, call them and tell them ‘welcome home.’ And thank them for their service.”
Brave men showing courage under fire was what Darryl Lemire remembers most about Vietnam.
It was 1969 when Lemire, 22, went to southeast Asia. As part of the 101st Airborne, he worked on Huey helicopters, the workhorse of the war, which hauled troops to battle and out again and resupplied the infantry.
“The gunners and crew chiefs got up every single day knowing where they were going, in some really bad places, where they were shot at and shot down, and they went anyway, day after day,” Lemire said. “That is courage.”
Also like Adams, Lemire knew many of the local guys who didn’t come home. He believes the best way to honor them is “to be the best you can be.”
“They didn’t get to do the things we’ve done,” Lemire said. “They didn’t have children or grandchildren, homes. It is our obligation to think of them and let them be part of us and our families.”
The special day at the VFW coaxed other veterans to share stories who usually don’t want to talk about Vietnam. Bill Mample, former White Bear Town Board chair, spent his 21st birthday in Vietnam. His sister sent him a birthday cake that sat in an Army mail room for months. Mample left for “the field” in August, the month of his birthday, and didn’t return until January.
“When I got it, the cake was green and fuzzy. She had put a miniature bottle of Old Crow in the middle. Three of us took a drink and looked at each other and said, ‘it wasn’t worth waiting for.’” His aunt sent him two pounds of cashews, a favorite snack. By the time he got them, the nuts were soggy and limp. “They were horrible. I couldn’t eat cashews for five years.”
Mample traveled from one end of Vietnam to the other as a paratrooper with the 1st Cavalry Division. “We were air mobile and made good use of the helicopters. They would insert us into hot zones when they found North Vietnamese. Sometimes the jungle was so thick it took 40 of us all day to chop our way (the distance from VFW) to Hwy. 96.”
Mample, too, saw courage on a daily basis. “You could see the fear in their eyes when the guys got on the helicopters. Still, they got on.” He still gets emotional remembering those brave faces.
Seven times a priest administered last rites before they left for an insertion. “We’d wonder, does the priest know something we don’t?” he recalled.
Mample, 78, doesn’t talk much about Vietnam but he’s learned that talking is better than holding it inside.
He can forgive the Vietnamese for the war, the veteran added, but not the protesters who threw rocks at their buses and spit on them. “It takes a bigger man to forgive those people who did that to us when our only solace was looking in the mirror and saying, ‘You know what, they have the right to protest because of guys like us who are keeping this country free.’
“A day like today makes you remember stuff we’ve tried to forget for 50 years,” Mample said. “It seems like yesterday. You can’t forget.”
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