Vietnam 30 years later: Switzerland County veterans share their memories of war

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Thirty years ago this past weekend, the Vietnam War officially came to an end with the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Thirty years ago the most controversial war in American history came to a close; and now, 30 years later, residents of Switzerland County who are veterans of that war still recall memories and images of war.

Looking into a rear view mirror that stretches across three decades, memories are mixed and varied, ranging from fear to fun; from grunts in the jungle to coming home. Some Switzerland County veterans agreed to share their memories and thoughts, recalling when as young men they traveled to the other side of the world.

HORRORS FADING OF WAR

Darrell Hansel sits behind his desk as the principal of Jefferson-Craig Elementary School, listening to children scurry up and down the hallways. It’s been 35 years since he headed to Vietnam, and today he still works to help fellow veterans and the general public learn more about the experience.

“I remember how I thought the country could be such a beautiful place,” Darrell Hansel said of seeing Vietnam for the first time. “The memories of the horror of war are fading. I like to remember some of the more interesting and fun times we had over there.”

Darrell Hansel was fresh out of college when he served in the 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment of the 1st Calvary Division of the U.S. Army. He went to Vietnam in April of 1970, and returned home in January of 1971.

He remembers flying into Camron Bay, Vietnam, an area filled with sandy white beaches — and plenty of military barracks. At night he and his fellow soldiers would hear the sounds of war off in the distance.

“Being inexperienced, we were pretty frightened,” Darrell Hansel said. “We learned to distinguish pretty quickly between incoming artillery fire and outgoing artillery fire.”

He would become a Sergeant and a light weapons infantry leader in Vietnam for more than four months before the Army took advantage of his college education and made him a company clerk. As a squad leader he served mainly in the central part of Vietnam.

“Much of where I experienced real combat was in Cambodia,” Darrell Hansel said.

Our division was one of the first divisions to invade Cambodia.”

After two months of serving as a company clerk, Darrell Hansel was transferred to the Army Education Center at the Bien Hoa Air Base, about 12 miles from Saigon.

“One of my favorite stories from my time there was when I got the job at headquarters,” Darrell Hansel recalls. “We had a monkey that lived in the trees and on the rooftops of where we were. The Red Cross would send packages that had toiletries and other things in them. Some of them contained these gumdrops of all different colors, and no one would eat the black ones. We would feed the gumdrops to the monkey, and we’d hand him one and he’d smell it and then pop it into his mouth. When we gave him a black one, he’d smell it and then throw it over his shoulder. He wouldn’t eat them, either.”

Darrell Hansel said that by being a college graduate when he went to Vietnam in 1970, he went to the service after being around a lot of the protests that were going on during the 1960s on college campuses.

“I remember having some discussions with fellow soldiers about the political climate back home,” He said.

He really got an indoctrination when he returned home following his tour of duty.

“I remember that when I came home I still had my uniform on because I could catch a flight quickly and I didn’t have time to go and buy civilian clothes,” Darrell Hansel said. “I remember walking through the airport and feeling strange about how people were looking at me. They made a path for me through the airport. It was very strange.”

Veterans of the Vietnam War came home to a very different America and a very different American public. Veterans of that war have not been held in the same high esteem as veterans of other wars, and Darrell Hansel feels that some of those perceptions are changing — slowly.

“I do think the perception of the war has changed,” he said. “When I was first asked in a social studies class at the high school to talk about my service in Vietnam, when the bell would ring and it was time for the students to leave, they didn’t want to. Now, that interest has waned. Today, most people’s perceptions of Vietnam and Vietnam veterans is what they see in the movies. There’s an organization called ‘Vietnam Veterans of America’ that is working hard to dispel the myth that all Vietnam veterans are a bunch of psychos.”

Darrell Hansel said that in the time immediately following the close of the Vietnam War, many veterans were not accepted in American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, but now those same veterans are becoming the stallwards of those organizations.

He also had an interesting perception on the difficulties that some veterans had on returning from Vietnam.

“When the veterans of World War II came home, they came home on transport ships,” he said. “They had 30 days to withdraw from the war before they got back home. When I left Vietnam on a Friday morning, I was in class at the University of Akron the following Saturday morning. There wasn’t much time to get readjusted to the world.”

‘WELCOME HOME’

Richard Adams of near Florence had been a member of the U.S. Air Force for about 11 years when he went to Vietnam in May of 1966. He would serve exactly one year as part of the security police force that was assigned to protect the Binh Thuy Air Base — a small base tucked away in the rice paddies, swamps, and rivers in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam.

Landing on the Vietnamese air strip, it didn’t take long for reality to find him.

“When we flew into Vietnam, I remember getting off of the plane and looking over and seeing a bunch of boxes stacked up and sitting off to the side,” Richard Adams said. “I asked some guy what all of those boxes were, and he told me that they were caskets of guys who had lost their lives over there. It was my first day in-country, and it was very frightening.”

Binh Thuy was a small base, measuring about five blocks wide and a mile long.

“There were 157 Americans on the base, mostly security police,” Richard Adams said. “It was a Vietnamese base. We built it and then gave it to Premier Key, who was in charge of Vietnam at the time.”

Although Richard Adams and his fellow Americans were in charge of providing security for the base; he said that the Vietnamese Air Force flew in and out of the Air Base, and they were in charge of the entrance to the base. Outside of the base, soldiers in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam had control of the perimeter of the base.

“The problem was, those two groups didn’t get along,” Richard Adams said. “We had men with duty as gate guards, and one night the two groups had enough and began firing at each other. Two of my guys got wounded because they were firing at each other — and they were on the same side.”

The base was near the city of Can Tho, the provincial capital, but Richard Adams said that there wasn’t much time to go into the city.

“The town of Can Tho was allegedly an ‘R and R’ center for the Viet Cong,” he said. “We were pretty well isolated, and we weren’t able to go into town or things like that for long periods of time. Our base was hit very often. The Viet Cong attacked us about two or three times a week. They’d come out there and lob two or three rounds into the base and then take off.”

Richard Adams said that because the Americans role on the base was defense, they didn’t go outside the base to hunt the enemy very often — so many times they were left to simply protect themselves from attack.

Because his hitch in Vietnam came after 11 years of military service, Richard Adams said that he’s not sure why the American public turned on the Vietnam soldiers.

“The whole thing seemed like a waste of time to me,” Richard Adams said. “When we came back we landed in San Francisco, and when the airport ground crew found out that the airplane was filled with soldiers coming back from Vietnam, they walked off the job. We had to unload our gear off of the plane ourselves.”

Richard Adams said that there are many stories about civilians spitting on returning soldiers. For him, it is more than a story — it actually happened.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in California,” he says with a smile. “I always figured that I was in California looking for that guy, but I never found him. Would have liked to, though.”

Why is it so different for Vietnam veterans? Richard Adams said that many of his fellow soldiers felt isolated because there was never any official “Welcome Home” for the returning veterans.

“These days, when you run into a fellow Vietnam veteran, it has become common to shake his hand and say, ‘Welcome Home’. We do that because no one else ever did.”

Richard Adams admits that the Vietnam veteran over the past years has been stereotyped as people hiding out in the woods because they can’t readapt to society, but that’s simply not true. The vast majority of the veterans returned home and have led wonderful lives, but attention is focused on a slight few.

“My fear is that we’ve got another situation going on now,” he says. “I thing we’re going to have some problems with the veterans who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan now. They will need time to readjust to being back home, and we need to make sure that if they have problems readapting, we get them the help that they need.”

But the overwhelming feeling that Richard Adams has about his year in Vietnam — now nearly 40 years removed — is one of fear.

“I was scared the whole time I was over there,” he says flatly. “And if anyone says they weren’t — they’re crazy. It was a scary place to be.”

‘GROUND POUNDER’

David Jan Rayles sits at his kitchen table near the top of Vevay hill and looks through a box of memories from his time in Vietnam. Some of the items are unknown, forgotten in the 35 years since he returned from a year in Vietnam.

Others bring memories flooding back, from the book of matches from the Holiday Hotel where he spent time on leave; to the large shrapnel fragment from a shell that destroyed the mess hall of the base he was stationed at. There are medals for his service to his country in the box; and there are photos of fellow soldiers he can’t locate and places he’d like to forget.

His first memories of war?

I remember getting off of the plane at midnight and it was so stinking hot,” he says. “I thought ‘how hot is it going to get in the middle of the day?’ It was almost unbearable.”

David Rayles began his journey to Vietnam at Fort Knox, Kentucky. From there he headed to Fort Polk, Louisiana; and then to San Diego. His flight then headed to Alaska for refueling, and then crossed the Pacific, landing again to refuel in Japan, and then to Saigon.

“I was a ‘ground pounder’ a ‘grunt’,” David Rayles says. “I was one of the guys out there in the field. I got there in January of 1969 and they had me driving a truck. I did that for about five months.”

In May of 1969, he contracted malaria, and would spend the next month in a hospital at Camron Bay.

“Jerry Smith from Vevay came to the hospital to see me, but missed me by a day,” David Rayles said. “I don’t know how he knew I was there, but I wish I would have gotten to see him. It would have been nice to see a familiar face.”

Leaving the hospital, David Rayles was assigned to the “Big Red One” Infantry Division for the next three months. Founded in 1917 during World War I when General John “Blackjack” Pershing led the first American forces into France, the “Big Red One” is the oldest continuously serving division in the U.S. Army. During World War II, the division was the first to land in England.

The division was fighting the North Vietnamese near the border, and David Rayles said that the city of La Key that they were stationed near was called “Rocket City” because of the large number of rockets and missiles targeted at the area.

“I was out in the field for about three months,” David Rayles recalls. “I remember the jungle and how it was so thick and so dark. I never saw anything like it. We were all in a big square moving through the jungle one day and somebody yelled ‘Gook’ and everything cut loose. The guy in front of me got shot in the leg, and I’d bet he got shot by one of our men, because it was so thick you couldn’t see what was going on.”

A developing lump on his back got David Rayles reassigned to duty in the rear for the remainder of his tour in Vietnam. He came home in January of 1970 — exactly one year after landing in Saigon.

I came home in civilian clothes, so no one called me ‘baby killer’ or some of those other names that guys got called,” David Rayles said. “Why don’t people treat us like other veterans? I don’t know. All these other guys got the big welcome home and the big parade, and we didn’t get any of that — not that I minded. i was just glad to be back where I wasn’t getting shot at.”