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Retelling Vietnam: Veterans recount war stories

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GINA R. HEINE
March 14, 2008
— Nightmares about Tom McCaslin’s Vietnam War experiences still creep through his mind.

It was 1970, and he’d been in the country just a month.


While on observation post, he saw a member of the Viet Cong “diddy-bopping” around a trail.


“He came right towards me, and I said, ‘S---, this is the first time I’ve ever seen the enemy,’” he said. “So I shot, and luckily I killed him.


“That’s always back in your mind somewhere. I usually don’t talk about it even,” he said.


That’s just one of the stories—many not often told—that came out as 17 Vietnam veterans from the Evansville area recounted their experiences.


As hard as it was to bring those memories flooding back, they are etched in history for all to hear. Evansville native John Ehle moderated a daylong event at the Evansville VFW to record the stories, which will be submitted to the Veterans History Project, a permanent archive run by the Library of Congress.


Ehle organized a similar project with Evansville area World War II veterans in May 2006.


“It was very successful and gratifying,” he said. “It gave all those vets … their due. An opportunity to talk about their experiences serving our country.”


The fact that two of those veterans who shared their stories have died since shows how important an opportunity the recordings are, Ehle said.


Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000 to collect and preserve firsthand accounts of U.S. veterans from 20th century wars.


The 17 veterans sat facing each other around tables inside the VFW, where laughter and tears of good and bad times surfaced.


Enlist or be drafted

Many of the young men realized it wasn’t a matter of if, but when, they would be drafted, so some of them enlisted so they could pick their service dates. Once in the military, others quickly learned the consequences of raising their hands to volunteer for anything. For some, it didn’t matter in what branch they wanted to serve, but for what area the military needed them.


Bill Maves wanted to join the Coast Guard, but the Janesville recruiting office told him they didn’t have such a recruiter, but they did have a Navy recruiter.


“I said, ‘That’s all right, I like boats,’” he said.


But the Navy recruiter was out to lunch with the Army guy.


“A staff sergeant … said, ‘Come here, you can sit in here and wait until they get back.’ And that’s how I got in the Marine Corps,” he said to laughter. “I didn’t want to join the Marine Corps.”


Enlisting in 1966, Maves served in Vietnam and left the service for about 10 years. Later, he joined the National Guard and, in 2006, retired as a platoon sergeant with more than 30 years of military service.


He was the only veteran among the group to have served in Vietnam and Iraq, having completed a one-year tour in Iraq starting Christmas Eve in 2004.


Surviving

McCaslin knew something was wrong when his comrades moved to a different landing zone in Vietnam.


“A lot of commotion was going on in that area,” he recalled.


He said a prayer the night before he was shot.


“Sure enough, the next morning we got ambushed,” he said. “That’s where I got a mortar wound.”


When he made it to a hospital, he looked over and saw his cousin, who was from Rockford.


“I said, ‘I’ll meet you in Vietnam somewhere,’ and, sure enough, he sat right across from me in the hospital,” McCaslin said.


The cousins suffered the same wounds, but “his was done better because he was an officer,” McCaslin joked. “Mine was a little bit jagged.”


Both went to Japan before returning home—his fondest memory, he said.


Survivors’ remorse

David Erpenbach, now the commander of the Evansville VFW post, never saw combat but had good friends that did, including a high school friend that died.


“I always felt guilty. Why was it him? Why was it someone else? Why did I get such a lucky break?” he said. “I came to the realization that it wasn’t anything I did, wasn’t anything anybody else did; it’s just the way the chips fell.”


He understood he went into the service to do the job for which he was trained, and he did it.


“For a long time I felt guilty not having done other things,” he said. “But I’ve been able to come to peace with myself for that.”


Snakes and rats

Snakes and rats “the size of dogs” were seen every day.


Erpenbach recalled a man holding up a dead 15-foot python that later was served in the mess hall.


“I always wondered who shot that,” he said. “It must have eaten a heck of a lot of rats.”


Should have just let it be, he said.


Agent Orange

Larry Elmer became an advocate for veterans fighting effects of Agent Orange after he was diagnosed with diabetes.


“(Doctors) said without a doubt it’s because of Agent Orange exposure,” he said.


The group recalled many area veterans who died from cancers they think are a result of Agent Orange.


Several cancers, birth defects and diabetes now are accepted as effects of Agent Orange and receive compensation, Elmer said. He urges affected veterans to file claims at their local veterans affairs offices.


No escaping the memories


Any time a helicopter flutters overhead, the smell of diesel fuel wafts in the air or the notes of Taps are played, veterans flash back to the jungles of Vietnam.


Glenn Clark did an “awful lot” of night combat assaults as a helicopter pilot, logging 2,000 hours of combat flight time.


“That is one of the things I still have nightmares about,” he said. “The flares, the bullets, the noise and everything else. It’s almost a sensory overload, but it was part of life. You felt like you were part of that aircraft. You’d get up in the morning, you’d strap that aircraft on your back, and that aircraft became an extension of you.”


A member of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, Clark still meets annually with service friends.


Heat, rain, smell.


“It just never got out of your system,” McCaslin said. “I tried not to think about it.”


Welcome home

Luck was involved throughout the veterans’ service, many of them said, but what greeted their return home wasn’t as full of good fortune.


On Oct. 23, 1969, Erpenbach flew back to Fort Lewis, Wash., to be discharged and given a uniform. Worried he’d fall asleep on the flight home and end up in New York, he stood on the plane from Seattle to Chicago.


“As soon as I got off the plane, the first bathroom I came to I took my uniform off,” he said. “It wasn’t a happy time to come home. We weren’t very welcome by anybody in the states at that time, so that was a sad experience.”


While other soldiers returning from Vietnam were spit on, yelled at and generally didn’t receive respect from citizens the way veterans do today, Gordon Ringhand told his comrades around the table they all should be proud they served.


Now it’s an honor to march in parades as a veteran, Dean Devlin said.


Ending a discussion about what it was like to be just a kid returning from war, John Petterson elicited a round of applause only the veterans could really understand.


“I’d like to say one thing to everyone,” he said. “Welcome home!”


Listen to the veterans
Click here to listen to each of the 17 Evansville-area Vietnam veterans talk about their war experiences. The special section also includes a photo gallery and video from the daylong recording and audio excerpts on more than a dozen topics the veterans discussed.

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