Recognition long overdue


National Vietnam War Veterans Day is recognized annually on March 29 and observes the veterans who served and sacrificed their lives during the longest conflict in United States history. While many Americans may not realize that this national day exists, it’s observed in perpetuity as March 29, 1973, was the day the United States Military Assistance Command in Vietnam was disestablished and also the day the last U.S. combat troops departed Vietnam.

Although this time in our history is chronicled in documentaries and the lyrics of CCR’s Fortunate Son, the true depth of ‘NAM’ lies in the haunting memories of the men and women who experienced it first-hand. It was their boots that touched foreign ground often without choice, and their bodies that soaked up the muddy waters of rice fields and monsoons in the vast, dark jungle. Every veteran has a story to tell, and as Swainsboro resident and Vietnam Veteran, Johnny Tapley explained, “The memories of a veteran are like the old Clint Eastwood Western, ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,’ and you can bet, they’ve seen it all and they remember it all.”

So, to commemorate this important day in American History, I sat down with Tapley as well as many other local Vietnam Vets and Vietnam Era Vets at Franklin Memorial Library, who shared their stories which gave me a glimpse of their reality as teenagers and young adults. The conversation began by asking them what they felt the day they received word that their name had been pulled from the lottery and they were to be drafted. “I was 16 years old, running around having a good time,” explained Tapley as he reminisced, “I went home that afternoon, and Mother said, ‘You got a letter from the President.’ I said, ‘I don’t know no President!’ I opened the letter and it said ‘Greetings, you’ve been selected to be drafted.’ I left Swainsboro on the twelfth.”

Albert Smith, who was drafted at the age of 20, had a simple but poignant answer that probably was felt by all, “I wanted my momma.” Smith was a crew chief and gunner on a Huey in the 1st Aviation Brigade in 1971. This was an assault helicopter that carried various combinations of externally mounted machine guns, rockets, and automatic grenade launchers. “I bet I shot a million rounds of ammunition during the time I was there.” He said before smiling and pulling up his right shirt sleeve to display a Knights of the Air tattoo that he got to honor his time in combat.

Jimmy Leonard, who was seated next to Smith, also explained that he spent much of his time during the war up in the air, as he was assigned to the Tactical Air Support Squadron in Bien Hoa South Vietnam, where he flew the 01-E Bird Dog and the 02 Skymaster. His responsibility was to direct air strikes from fast movers and fighter bombers in support of friendly forces in enemy contact as well as locating the enemy often at tree top level. “In early 1971, I was transferred to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon where the squadron was flying the 02 Skymaster.” explained Leonard, “We were flying night clandestine missions into Cambodia, mostly directing AC 130 Gunships and fighter bombers. This was at a time when we were forbidden to enter Cambodia. One memorable mission is when I had to make an emergency landing at Phnom Penh and spend the night.” Leonard had a lot of radio conversation with troops on the ground when they got into hot situations with the enemy, but one mission involved a very special request. A combat unit on the ground asked Leonard if he could deliver a case of Budweiser beer on his next trip over their location. Sure enough, on the next slow, tree-top flight, Leonard dropped the requested package over the guys on the ground. “OK guys, here’s your beer.”

Albert Hall served in the U.S Army, 1970 through 1972. Hall spent a year in Northern Thailand where he ran communication for C130 gunships based in Thailand. These heavily armed planes were nicknamed the “angel of death” and provided close air support for missions in Vietnam. John David Bailey spent 33 years on active duty and reserves. Bailey was a C130 pilot and operations Group Commander flying missions in and out of Southeast Asia. Bailey retired from the United States Air Force as Colonel.

Willie A. Robinson joined the US Army in March of 1968 and served until February, 1971. Robinson went to Vietnam in July 1968 and trained in diesel mechanics and ordinance operation in combat. Willie said he learned how to do his job under fire. He came home from Vietnam in July, 1969 then shipped out in a few days to Germany and learned how to prepare missiles for war in an artillery unit. Robinson sums up his military experience in four words, “Proud to have served”.

Jerry Johnson enlisted in the US Navy in 1965. He served on active duty through 1969 in the 2nd Fleet and 7th Fleet. Johnson sailed on the USS Voge, DE-1047 a brand-new Destroyer Escort in 1966 which spent most of 1968 on station near South Vietnam. Jerry also sailed on the USS William R. Rush, DD-714, a Gearing class Destroyer that also saw duty in the Gulf of Tonkin. Also serving in the US Navy during the Vietnam era was J.W. Gross. Gross arrived in Vietnam with the Navy Seabees in 1966 in the early stages of operations there.

Ed Schwabe arrived in Vietnam as an Infantry Captain in 1971 after a tour in Germany. Following graduation from the United States Military Academy, Schwabe served in the US Army from 1969 to 1996. In Vietnam, Schwabe served as a Company Commander and Advisor to Vietnamese Regional Force and Popular Force Units. In 1972, Schwabe was awarded the Silver Star Medal for Gallantry in Action and the Purple Heart. He retired from active duty as a Full Colonel in 1996.

John Torpy served with the 44th Infantry as a Platoon Scout Dog Handler. Torpy commented that he had some highly trained co-workers helping him as he searched for threats throughout the jungles of Vietnam. “If you were alerted, you were in trouble”, said Torpy, as he talked about his job during his time in the war, “I worked with shepherds to hunt the bad guys in North Vietnam. The dogs could see and hear things a lot quicker than the average human could.” Torpy added.

Richard Claxton served in the Army National Guard before transferring to the US Army. During Vietnam, Claxton was posted in the Panama Canal Zone, Fort Carson, Colorado and 2 overseas tours in Germany. Claxton’s last duty station was Fort Gordon, Georgia.

In November 1969, Lt. Wilder Smith, Jr. joined the 27th Surgical Hospital (Mash Unit) in Chu Lai, Vietnam. This base served Army, Marine and ARVN units and was some of the most hotly contested area in central Vietnam. Smith served with the surgical unit during 1969 and 1970 as a Medical Supply Officer.

We also would like to thank the following Veterans who served at different times and places during the era of the Vietnam and Korean conflict:

Bill Breedlove served with the US Army Special Security Group, MACV Headquarters from 1969 to 1971.

Rick Gruber served with the US Air Force, Guam 1971, Thailand, 1974-75, Retired Master Sgt 1960-1980.

Willie Lee Harden, Jr. served his country from 1976 to 1982. He later re-enlisted serving in Iraq and Afghanistan from 1995-2010.

Bob Lee Alphin served in the US Navy from 1966 to 1970.

Pete Boatwright served in the US Air Force in Arlington, Texas and Warner Robins, Georgia.

Watson Mosley served in the US Army Reserves from 1962-1968 as a Supply Sgt.

Before the meeting concluded, Tapley held up a photo of 17 familiar names carved into a marble stone. The names belong to 17 Emanuel County men who received their ticket to Vietnam but never returned home. As Tapley read off each of their names, he asked if they were remembered, to which many men bowed and nodded or briefly shared a memory they had with one of their friends. The memorial monument displaying these Veteran’s names is located in Pinebrook Park.

As he reached the end, Tapley himself recalled the moment he was told his friend, Joe Wadley, wouldn’t be returning home with them. “Habersham walked up to me and said, ‘Johnny, I guess you know Wadley won’t be coming home with us?’ I said, ‘What happened?’, and he responded, ‘He got shot five days ago.’ Five days before he got to go home, he got shot. Five days…”

Years after learning of the loss of his friend, Tapley traveled to Washington, DC to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

On April 30, 1975, the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army, effectively ending the Vietnam War. There were 58,220 U.S. Military fatalities of the Vietnam War, with the youngest casualty being only 15 years old. Seventeen of the 58,220 men and women who never made it back, were born and raised right here, and today we remember them: Anthony B. Brown, Benton Brown, Tex Campbell, Erwin Cowart, Jimmy D. Cumbee, James T. Daniel, Albert R. Dismuke, George Faircloth, Eugene Green, Prince A. Gunn Jr., Elmore Hall, Joseph Hodges, George Johnson, Ronald B. Price, Albert L. Rickerson, Onnie Thompson Jr., and Joe A. Wadley.


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