With Arrival of Moving Vietnam Wall in Taylor Mill, Local Vets Remember their Time in the War
John Thomson always thought he would be in the service. As a child he would go with his dad, a World War II veteran, to the Bromley Vets Club, and he would see the names of all the people who had served printed up on the wall.
"I kind of assumed I would be in the service," Thomson said. "I wanted to see my name up on the wall someday."
He went to Marshall university, and enrolled in the ROTC, where in the second two years he had to commit to the Army. However they only took about 10 percent of the approximate 400 people applying, and Thomson had his doubts about whether he would make the cut, so he looked into other branches of the service. His mother cried when she thought he would be a jet jockey, because she had seen a show about the Hanoi Hilton, where they took pilots to be prisoners. His dad told him he wouldn't reenlist for lunch if this were breakfast.
In the end he made the cut for the Army, and he spent five months in Ft. Benning, Georgia for the first part of his active duty. Then he was sent to Ft. Lewis in Washington, and that was where he found out he was going to Vietnam. He and his fiance, Margaret, moved up their wedding to May of 1970 because they wanted to be married before he went to Vietnam. Thomson had to pick a a combat brand and he picked infantry because he believed that tanks were too big a target.
"I was able to train in Panama," he said. "Those were the worst living conditions I ever experienced. The food was terrible and it rained all the time. But it was good training for Vietnam, where it was kind of the same; the people were small and the bugs were big. In Vietnam, rat bites were more common than snake bites. Mosquitos were everywhere, and so were leeches, which you had to burn to get them off. And there were thousands of roaches. It was awful."
He flew in to Tan Son Nhut air base in September of 1970, and was sent to Duc Pho to be part of a rifle platoon. They went out on missions which would last an average of about 20 days. His group carried ruck sacks with canteens of water and their M-16 rifles.
"What we had to do is look for what didn't belong," Thomson explained. "My grandma always told me to look for an eye. That's what I told my men: ook for what didn't belong and look for an eye. This enemy was everywhere, hiding, and if you looked for an eye you could get them before they got you. It was either them or you. It was no big philosophical point. They sniped at you for the most part. If they mounted an attack you would take a pounding."
John Thomson (right) with commanding officer
He related how If they found trails they would set up camp off the trail, and have people awake on guard duty, but no one ever had a sound sleep.
"You took off your helmet and leaned up against a tree," he said. "You never rested. We would set up our own traps, with plastic spoons and clothespins and C-4 plastic explosive. We would set two of them at night on the cow path with a trip wire."
Thomson said they never walked on the trails. He told the men, listen for the birds. Birds will be quiet when people are around.
"I told everyone, you owe it to yourself to go home," he said. "We could call for support and get artillery fire if we gave them coordinates. The toughest thing for me was was that I couldn't make friends. I couldn't ask a friend to take a chance and fill up a canteen or anything. Someone had to be watching, all the time. Everybody was responsible for everybody else. I had to be alert all the time. I was a Lieutenant. There were no bathrooms: if someone had to go, someone else had to go to watch his back because you are the most vulnerable then. When you would eat you were not relaxed. You got two meals a day and they were either C-rations or LRRP, or long range recon patrol rations, which were something they were trying out, and they were better than the C-rations. We found out those were dated 1957."
He said most of the guys got packages and letters from home, and they would always ask for Heinz 57 sauce or A-1 sauce to make the food taste better. Socks were hard to get, too.
Thomson said the Viet Cong had sanctuary areas in Laos and Cambodia, and Americans were not allowed to attack, although they could return fire if they were fired upon. At one point, Thomson's unit was stationed at a runway that had been built down from a waterfall, near Khe Sanh. The runways were non-permanent, and made of metal sections, and the enemy bombed them all the time, so they kept replacing the bombed sections. Thomson and his men were assigned to guard the runway and the North Vietnamese Army were shooting the helicopters out of the sky so Thomson said they had trouble getting close enough to drop him and his guys.
"It was the only time that I thought we might not make it," said Thomson. "There were so many more of them than us."
His unit and more men, about 200, found themselves trapped in a creek bed, and he thought, "we have to get out of here." They eventually ran out of food, and redistributed the ammunition they had. There were 500 pound bombs dropping all around them. He instructed the men to climb to the top of the hill and dig foxholes, because then at least they could see who was approaching and stop them.
"One day we heard a noise and saw that it was tanks and armored personnel carriers," explained Thomson. "It took about a day to find a radio frequency that worked, and we told the tanks, don't shoot us! They were able to get us out of there."
At one point Thomson's unit was taking cover in a bunker, which is a large hole in the ground, surrounded by sand bags, and a metal covering over the top, with more sand bags. The bunker next to them had been hit, and after the air attack, his unit was ordered to go out and see if any of the 16 men had survived.
"I looked around, and I found a finger," he said. "It was terrible. All I could think about was going home."
Thomson did come home to McCord air base, in July of 1971, about six weeks early because President Nixon was trying to bring the troops home, and how they treated all the returning soldiers was to give them a steak dinner, and put them in a barracks for the night if it was late. Thomson said they had no pillows or blankets, just a cot to sleep on because everyone who worked there had gone home. The next day they asked the soldiers who wanted to go home. If they said they wanted to go home right away, the army produced medical forms that were rubber stamped with a doctor's signature, and they were on their way.
"I didn't like that because I know that they sprayed Agent Orange where we were," said Thomson. "I felt it spray on me. Now I have numbness in my hands. It is obviously in my system. I won't go to the VA. You go there to die."
He said before Khe Sanh, he believed that the military had a purpose to rescue the POW's and end the war. Afterwards, he felt that there was no goal to win the war.
When Thomson got home, he didn't tell anyone he had been in the service. He knew there was animosity towards those who served in Vietnam.
"The worst thing over there was the loneliness," he said. "When I got on the helicopter to go home, I felt like the weight of the world left my shoulders. I was 23 years old. It had been a tremendous amount of responsibility. Nothing in civilian life could rival the responsibility I had in Vietnam."
He said he had wanted to be in the service because he liked the camaraderie that his dad and the other World War II veterans had.
"They used to sit around and tell stories," he remembered. "If someone needed a job, someone else knew someone who could help. There was a strong common bond. I rarely encountered anyone who experienced the same thing as I did. It really changed me. I had learned to suppress my emotions. My wife still can't wake me up by shaking me. I subconsciously filed everything away. I learned how important it is to enjoy life, and how quickly it can be gone."
Both Meyers and Thomson looked forward to one special thing they really wanted when they got home. For Meyers it was a beer. For Thomson it was a milkshake.
Both know men whose names are on the Vietnam wall in Washington, DC. Meyers has visited the wall two times, but has never visited the moving wall.
The City of Taylor Mill will be hosting the moving Vietnam Wall from July 28 till August 1. There will be a procession to the city with the wall on Thursday, and on Friday there will be a Blackhawk helicopter that lands in Pride Park. On Saturday morning, servicemen will parachute in with American flags. The wall will be available for the public 24 hours each day. Fifteen years ago, the City of Florence hosted the wall, and in 2007 Kenton County brought the wall to Pioneer Park.
The Vietnam Moving Wall at Pioneer Park in 2007
"Hosting the wall was an honor," said Florence Mayor Diane Whalen. "The community embraced it and showed up in a steady stream. There was such respect, such reverence, and so much education available to people who wanted to know more about the Vietnam War and the sacrifices of our military men and women. Everyone should make the time to go and see it. The people who visit will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of names engraved in that black marble and the emotions that come with viewing it."
Meyers liked the army and believes in the VA, and Thomson got through the experience and didn't tell people he had been in Vietnam, and doesn't trust the VA, but both had their lives permanently changed by spending a year in the hell that was Vietnam. And they were two of the lucky ones that came home. Their names are not on the wall, but the memories of the war will be inside them for the rest of their lives.
Written by Patricia A. Scheyer