The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

May/June 2004
FEATURE
   
 

Talkin' 'Bout Their Generation
VVA's Three-War Veterans

 
     

   

We called them "lifers," and many of us set them apart. They were the ones who had chosen to make the military their career: the hollow-eyed sergeant, the grey-bearded cook, the corps of senior NCOs and officers who cut their combat teeth on the beaches of Normandy, or along a string of islands in the South Pacific, or at Chosin, Inchon, or Pusan.

They were of a different generation. They were not children who came of age in the turbulent 1960s. Many had grown up in poverty during the Depression and fought the good fight in the Second World War. Others too young for that war went off to the frigid stalemate in Korea. They were old enough to be our fathers. Some, in fact, were.

Many chose to remain in uniform. According to the U. S. Census, of the eight million Vietnam-era veterans alive in 2000, more than 160,000 also had been in the armed forces in World War II and in Korea.

With the nation about to dedicate a national World War II Memorial, it seemed appropriate to seek out VVA members whose time in service spanned three decades and three wars.

Charlie Green

Charles Welby Green was drafted when he turned 18. It was 1944. The same week Green received his draft notice, he recalled, "My folks got a telegram from the War Department that my older brother, Marion, was missing in action. He'd been on a bombing mission over Hungary. A month later, they were notified that he was a prisoner of war."

The uncertain status of one son and the conscription of another was a "double shock to my parents,'' Charlie Green said. Years later, just before she died, his mother got another shock when she learned that Charlie had been badly wounded in Vietnam.

Charlie Green was in basic training when American casualties from the Battle of the Bulge led the Army to curtail training and ship raw recruits to twin fronts on two oceans. While in a repo depot in France, "fifty of us were pulled out and sent to a field artillery battalion,'' he said. "We became cannoneers. When our forces bottled up the Germans in a pocket between the Rhine and the Ruhr, we were firing 200-pound high-explosive shells into surrounding cities until they surrendered." It was the last gasp of Hitler's Germany.

With the fighting ended and victory secured, Charlie Green and his mates were sent to Cologne. Their assignment: round up displaced persons. His battery had responsibility for 5,000 Russians who had been in German slave-labor camps. "Most of them did not want to go back to Mother Russia,'' Green said.

Charlie Green, like most troops, wanted more than anything to go back home. A year later, he was demobilized and returned to Indianapolis, where his family had moved from Webster County in western Kentucky when he was 15. His war was over. The rest of his military career had yet to begin.

In 1949, he re-upped. He saw extensive action in Korea with the 27th Infantry Regiment. From the Pusan Perimeter, he recounted, the Wolfhounds pushed to a few miles from the Yalu River before the Chinese "came out and chased us down.''

After spending several years as an agent for the Criminal Investigation Division, Charlie Green was sent to Vietnam in October 1966. Linking up with his old Wolfhound outfit, he was acting first sergeant and then field first sergeant. He saw his share of combat.

"I made the mistake of coming back at the end of 1967,'' Green said. "This time, it damn near killed me.'' A day after his 43rd birthday, working a security detail with a company of ARVNs in a village west of Cu Chi, "Sergeant Rock,'' as Green was nicknamed, was sprayed by shrapnel from an old Chicom hand grenade during a night encounter with the VC.

"That grenade came within inches of my left foot,'' he said. "It only got me in the leg, the buttock, and the elbow, though.'' He nearly bled to death waiting for a dustoff.

It was only later that he learned a medic named John Taggart, a conscientious objector whose religious beliefs prohibited him from bearing arms, had saved lives--with a rifle. "The VC reconned, then hit my command post. Seven of the eight of us who crowded into that CP were wounded within minutes,'' Green said.

"As Doc Taggart was working on one of our wounded, two VC came around the side of the bunker. Doc saw them. He picked up a weapon and blasted away at both of them. I can only imagine how traumatic an experience that was for him, killing another human being. But he knew he had to do what he did. He's partly the reason I'm still here today.''

After he recuperated, Charlie Green talked himself into a desk job. He was assigned, he said, "to a spook outfit that monitored antiwar activity.'' He retired from the Army in 1972 and went to work as a field deputy for the Marion County coroner in Indianapolis.

Charlie Green is 77. "I feel lucky to still be around,'' he said: "I've lived through the most fantastic era in the history of the world.''

For too many years, Green said, he had put his experiences in Vietnam "in the closet and left them there. It's only in the last few years that I finally got around to joining.'' He has been a member of the Sammy Davis VVA Chapter 295 at Fort Harrison, Indiana, for five years.

Charlie Green first visited The Wall in 1999. He had avoided making the journey because he didn't know how he'd be affected. It was, he said, "emotionally overpowering.''

This Memorial Day, when he journeys again to Washington to be at The Wall, Charlie will also visit a belated memorial to his earlier war.

Despite the anticipated pomp and ceremony, he is sobered by the "superficial post-9/11 patriotism" of too many Americans. "You can't expect people to understand what they haven't experienced,'' Green said. "But you would hope they can appreciate what somebody else does for them.''

David Jordan

Illinois-born and Missouri-bred David Jordan entered the service when World War II was well under way, joining the Navy in 1943. "I just had it in my head to follow my brother, who had enlisted in 1940,'' he said. Jordan spent 25 months aboard the destroyer USS Stephen Potter (BD538). "We saw a lot," he said in an understatement. When all the bloodletting ended, the crew of the Stephen Potter received 12 battle stars for their exploits.

Plying the waters of the Pacific, encountering and engaging a determined enemy, "there was no such thing as easy,'' Jordan said. What was his hardest day? "Hell, there were so many of them,'' he said. "When the aircraft carrier USS Franklin was hit, we had to get people out of the water who were dead, who were mutilated. That was the worst of it."

David Jordan was on the gun crew. One time they shot down a Japanese Kamikaze. They were elated. "Only our commanding officer got the Silver Star,'' he said, "but everybody shared equal in the danger.''

After the war, he mustered out. Jordan's life as a civilian, though, was short-lived. He went to school and bummed around before reenlisting in 1949, switching from the Navy to the Army. As a sergeant E-6, spent most of his tour in Vietnam with an artillery battery operating near Cu Chi. Comparing this tour with his time in the Navy, he said, "the food was a little betternot good, just betterand the mail came a little quicker. But this time, we didn't win anything."

When he left the Army, Jordan found that there was little demand for an ex-military man. He worked ten years on a riverboat, plying the Mississippi. He put three children through college. He is a charter member of VVA Chapter 859 in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, not far from his home in Doniphan.

David Jordan won't be journeying to Washington this month. He may follow the ceremonies, he said, but he will be participating in his own waywith barbeque and a beer or two.

Carmelo LaSpada

Carmelo LaSpada, a son of Newark, New Jersey, enlisted in the Marine Corps on the first day of July 1942. He spent the next 30 years and nine months in uniform.

After boot camp, LaSpada was sent to the Marine base at Cherry Point. Although he was supposed to go to Florida for advanced training with an aviation unit, his superiors found out that he had been a baker in civilian life and asked if he would help set up a bakery on the base. They promised he would be sent for aviation training later on. That "later on'' turned out to be never. Because "the needs of the Corps come first,'' LaSpada said he was told, his training was cancelled and he "got stuck'' in Cherry Point through 1943. Eventually, though, he received orders to deploy overseas. He fought at Bougainville. He saw a lot of death. "We tossed the bodies of dead Japanese into trenches we had dug, sprinkled them with lime, and covered them with dirt.'' Sometimes, though, the bodies would be burned in a pyre.

"Once you get past the shock of seeing your first dead enemy, it doesn't bother you'' any more, he said.

Carmelo LaSpada learned to take one day at a time, because, he said, "every day was just a matter of survival.'' A lesson that he learned, one that he would preach to his men a quarter of a century later during two tours in Vietnam, was that "you can't worry about your girlfriend or what she's doing back in the States. Worry about what you're doing. And worry about your buddies.''

LaSpada was well past his 40th birthday when he first was sent to Southeast Asia; he was almost 50 the second time around. What disturbed him about this new war was the stark realization that he never knew who was a friendly and who was an enemy.

"We had this 12-year-old who did some cleaning up for us,'' he said from his room at the Durham, North Carolina, VAMC extended care facility. "One night we came under attack. The next morning, we found him, all tangled in the concertina, with a dozen hand grenades on him.''

LaSpada was also struck by the fact that in this war, although there was a rear, there were no front lines. "We fought over that bloomin' Khe Sanh five times, and then we abandoned it,'' he said. "But me being a professional Marine, it was not for me to question.''

In his 1968-69 tour, LaSpada's unit built a big orphanage in Quang Tri City. His daughter, Linda Routten, said that he "always talked to us about birds and monkeys and the children, all the displaced children.'' Her father also talked about all the body bags.

After he left the Corps, Carmelo LaSpada went to college, earned an associate degree in business administration, and worked as an instructor in Carteret County Community College. He retired at 65. Almost a quarter of a century later, despite the infirmities of age, he maintains his Marine trim. "I can still wear the uniform I retired in,'' he said. Now 83, he is a member of VVA Chapter 749 in Morehead City, North Carolina.

Of the new memorial he said: "It's about time. But to try to memorialize something that happened 60 years ago'' is not very timely.

P. Evangeline Jamison

Worry and care have always been part of P. Evangeline Jamison's job. Jamie, as she prefers to be called, trained as a nurse. Knowing that her newly acquired skills would be put to good use, Jamison, who lived in Seymour, Iowa, enlisted in the Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In January 1943, she shipped out. Her eventual duty station was "a very primitive hospital built by Army engineers in New Guinea. They had left it only half-done,'' she said. "We all had to hammer in nails to get it finished.''

The hospital, designated the 13th General, was hard duty. Although surrounded by the Japanese, "they didn't ever attack,'' Jamison said. The death of a chief nurse, who had wandered off into the jungle and committed suicide, spooked everyone. Jamison's hardest time, though, was monitoring newly released prisoners of war. "They were so starved, we had to watch that they didn't overeat,'' she said. "But it was hard to deny them food.''

After the war, Jamie Jamison left the service, only to return following a short stint nursing at the VA hospital in Topeka, Kansas. Fast-forward to Vietnam. By then a lieutenant colonel, Jamison was assigned to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh as chief nurse. "I was in the jungle in World War II and I was in the jungle again in Vietnam,'' she said. Before she went overseas, "people said to me when I got my orders, 'You're not going to accept them, are you?' '' she said.

"I told them, ' Of course I am. I'm an officer.' ''

Jamison experienced the near round-the-clock blood and gore that was the lot of many nurses in Vietnam. "It was so hard to see young people shot in so many places,'' she said. "One young boy was shot in the face, and I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, how is he going to look?' ''

Perhaps Jamie's most difficult day was when she had to tell one of her nurses that her boyfriend, a medevac pilot, had been shot down. "She wanted to go with him to Japan, but I had to tell her no. I didn't think he was going to make it.''

In 1968, shortly after her tour of duty ended, Jamison left the service. She embarked on a second career, inspecting nursing homes and hospitals for the state of California to check if they were in compliance with state and federal laws and regulations.

Jamison, who lives in Walnut Creek, California, joined VVA Chapter 400 in Oakland "just as soon as I heard it was being organized.'' She is "just so proud,'' she said, of a former Senator Bob Dole, who was severely wounded in World War II and whose name and political clout were instrumental in transforming the idea for the World War II memorial into reality.

Although her golden years "aren't so golden; sometimes they're kind of achy,'' Jamison is buoyed by her memories. "I never saw a puppy or a baby or a soldier I didn't love,'' she said.

Maynard Campbell

Maynard Campbell, the son of a traveling evangelist from Richmond, Texas, was already an old salt when the Second World War began. He had enlisted in the 69th Coastal Artillery, based in Galveston, in February 1937, right after he turned 18. Two years later, he transferred to the Army Air Corps.

He soldiered through the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. He was wounded one night when his unit came under attack and he ran into barbed wire in the pitch blackness.

Discharged in 1945 in Denver, his last duty station, Campbell spent eight years working as a carpenter. He then joined the Colorado Air National Guard, making rank over the next 18 years. He was a senior master sergeant when his unit, the 525th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, was activated during the Berlin Crisis. The 525th was one of the few National Guard units deployed to Vietnam.

Maynard's ammunition maintenance squadron was assigned to Phan Rang Air Base. He quickly became its leader after the chief master sergeant shipped home. The base was rocketed nearly every night. His scariest encounter, though, took place one night when he "met up with a big ol' black panther. He ran one way,'' Campbell said, "and I ran the other.''

It wasn't Vietnam that Maynard Campbell celebrated his 50th birthday. He and Clarinda, his wife of 63 years, make their home now in Lufkin, Texas.

Jack Potter

Jack Potter was already in the Army when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Drafted in March 1941, he was in Colorado on a three-day pass when "everyone was called back'' because the nation was now at war. Opting to become an officer, Jack had OCS at Fort Benning. As a newly minted second lieutenant, he was sent to Hawaii, where he joined the 198th Regimental Combat Team as a platoon leader.

Jack Potter would soon see places he'd never even heard of before: New Hebrides, Guadalcanal, Bougainville. He came down with malaria twice. "That wasn't fun,'' he said. One day, on one island, out of water, obsessed by thirst, he drank from a puddle where wild pigs had lolled. He ingested all sorts of bugs along with the water.

Although "the lot of the grunt'' had such difficulties, he said, the life of an officer in the Army had its rewards. While not inclined to a military life, Potter nevertheless decided to make the Army his career.

He was a full colonel in 1966 when he was "kidnapped by the exchange service'' and sent to Vietnamanother place he had never heard of beforefirst to investigate and then to take command of the troubled Vietnam Regional Exchange. Theft was rife in the PX system, feeding a voracious black market. Potter managed to cut losses by 50 percent and increase sales to $400 million a year. His was not a cushy job, however. "We had 220 different locations where we had people,'' he said. "I was in lots of places I shouldn't have been.''

Jack Potter still harbors resentment toward many senior officers who chose to stay in the relatively safe haven of the rear, living well rather than being with the troops out in the boonies.

In 1974, after 33 years of service, he retired from the Army. After working as an administrator for the San Francisco Unified School District, he joined the Executive Service Corps. A self-described joiner, he is a member of VVA Chapter 547. He also serves on the Marin County United Veterans Council and the Military Retirees Benefits Foundation.

Jack Potter, who has donated to the World War II Memorial fund, expects to travel to Washington to attend its unveiling.

Arthur Sebesta

Arthur Sebesta, who grew up on a farm north of Wilson, Kansas, graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. His war began in 1943. A specialist in communications, he was assigned to a signal information and monitoring company. "We had platoons that went out with corps and divisions and sent back information'' to Army commanders, he said.

The military, Sebesta always figured, would be his career. It was. He served in a variety of communications and counterintelligence assignments before retiring in 1964 "because they would not send me to Vietnam.'' A member of VVA Chapter 802, he lives with his wife, Mary, in Haworth, New Jersey.

Sebesta doesn't expect to visit the World War II memorial for its dedication. He points out that veterans of his generation are dying at a rate of more than a thousand every day. How many will be able to view the memorial, he wonders.
 

   

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