Earlier this week I sat down with three members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. We talked about some of their wartime experiences, why they are members of the VFW, and the work of the VFW on the homefront in the current War on Terror. All three men belong to VFW Post NNN in Lake Villa. As a former US Marine who served during the first Persian Gulf War although never in combat, I felt it was at once a welcome, enlightening, and moving conversation. What follows is what they had to say.
Ward H. Blessing, 86, Bristol, Wis. US Army Air Corps, 1941-1945, former post commander, VFW Memorial Post, Lake Villa, Ill. Blessing enlisted in the Army Air Corps after the attack on Pearl Harbor with three other friends.
“I went overseas on the Queen Mary, with 33,000 other guys, as a mechanic. I more or less promised my mother I wasn’t going to be a pilot. ‘Oh, no, don’t fly,’ she said. I got overseas and I was there about 6 or 8 months, and they had an opening in the only gunnery school the Air Corps had outside of the United States, it was in Scotland.” Blessing completed the training and began his new job as a waist gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress, flying missions over Germany from airbases in Great Britain. He also flew missions over France in support of the Normandy invasion.
“The white cliffs of Dover, I’ll never forget ‘em. Saw ‘em many times. I stupidly, I say stupidly, had a buddy that I loved. I mean he was a good kid. He was from Tulsa, Oklahoma. And he fell in love with an English girl; he wanted to marry her. So another guy, his name was Don, but everybody called him Tex because he was from Texas. Tex and I volunteered to do missions for him so he could get married. I did two missions for him and the other guy did two missions for him. The second mission that I flew on is when I almost didn’t come back.
“This pilot they had all…I ever knew of him was Waters was his name, and for some ungodly reason his nickname was Whiskey, Whiskey Waters. He was the pilot. He was a colonel. We were coming back from the mission, two engines out. All shot up. We were losing altitude. The radioman said, ‘Let’s jump out and land in the Channel. They’ll pick us up.’ Waters got on the line and said, ‘Shut up. I’ll tell you when to jump, and you ain’t getting ready to jump.’
“Well the white cliffs of Dover are about 200 hundred feet high. We’re coming down and we’re losing altitude, and you could see ‘em ahead of us. We got over that, he banked and turned and went in. We had no landing gear, two engines out. We crash-landed. And the guy that was the head of the ground crew came over and said, ‘I want to talk to the pilot.’ We said, ‘That’s him over there.’ He went over and shook his hand and said, ‘Sir, I never thought you were going to be able to land that plane the way you did. That’s the best landing we ever had of a crippled plane.’ One of the ground crew told me, ‘I’ll bet there are at least a thousand bullet holes in your plane.’
“I told my buddy, ‘Don’t you ever ask me to take one of your missions again!’ He just passed away a couple of years ago. They stayed married.
“The funny part of it was, you know I wasn’t afraid? I’d go on a mission and I was so mad at the Germans and Hitler and everything. And finally, when we had this experience of damn near crashing, it started waking me up. ‘This was dangerous business!’ I had about 16 missions when I volunteered for his. I did 22 altogether. Then I got sense. ‘What the hell am I so proud of? Damn, it’s scary up there!’ It was. But it’s just like anything else; you’re a young kid, you’re just out of school and you don’t know.
“And when we all came home we had the attitude, ‘There won’t be anymore wars. We finished it. They’ll never try it again.’ Now look at us. Korea. Vietnam. It’s one after the other. Can’t believe it. Can’t believe that they do it. And our young people still volunteer just like I did. I never thought that you guys would have to go off to war,” Blessing said to Simons and Lamperth, the two other men in our conversation.
George Simons, 52, of Round Lake Park, was a US Marine from 1971-1978. He was wounded in action and served in Operations Eagle Pull and Frequent Wind.
“When I enlisted Vietnam was still going on, but I figured it was pretty close to being over and I’d never get there. And I did get there.
“I was stationed aboard ship. I was on a Pacific cruise, on a troop ship, the USS Juno. We just basically did communications and whatever jobs they assigned us to do. There were probably 40 Marines on the ship. We were on our way to Okinawa. I was actually going to get off the ship; my cruise was actually finished. And we got word that the North Vietnamese were starting to overrun South Vietnam. And we needed to evacuate civilians, military, everybody. So they were asking for volunteers. I said, ‘Okay.’
“Before that I was a door gunner on a Huey helicopter. Before we did the evacuation [in Operations Eagle Pull and Frequent Wind in April 1975], we flew in and evacuated the P.O.W.s that we could find. The second mission my helicopter crashed. We had to be rescued. Like Ward was saying, you know, you’re all young guys just gung ho, “Kill ‘em all!” but something like that happens and it’s ‘Wow! This is some pretty dangerous stuff here.’
“We weren’t rescued until three days later. The pilot was killed in the crash. The co-pilot was burned but not real bad. He could still walk. We [four of them] went to a village not knowing what to expect. We found an old man in a hut in village who kept us there and he actually had a radio that belonged to the US military. We communicated through that. Three days later they came in and got us. We hid in the hut the whole time, hoping the North Vietnamese, Khmer Rouge, anybody wouldn’t find us. Three days later I was back out flying.
Simons said the P.O.W. rescues were classified operations inside Cambodia, based on intelligence reports, and only de-classified in the years after the war. Unfortunately, the rescue attempts were not always successful.
“A lot of times we’d go in and the place would be completely empty. There would be nobody there. They kept moving them all over the place.
“After we were rescued I flew three more missions and was wounded, grazed in the side. Eagle Pull and Frequent Wind, in April 1975. Evacuated over 6,000 people “a lot of civilians, civilian government workers.”
“A lot of the Vietnam veterans didn’t get a very friendly welcome home. I took my share of knocks from people. When I came home, I landed at LA International Airport. I was in uniform. I can’t remember if it was two ladies and a guy or two guys and a lady…I walked by them and they just said, “Baby-killer!” They had no idea what I’d done or where I’d been. They just saw I had the uniform on and knew I’d just come back. I ignored them and went on about my business. But it hurts. In my opinion, it was the reason a lot of those guys had the trouble they had adjusting back to society.
“I went on from there and went to drill instructor school and became a drill instructor,” Simons said.
After his tour as a drill instructor, Simons left the service.
Chief Petty Officer Jon Lamperth, USN, 25, Round Lake, 1999 to present. Lamperth is a recruit division commander, or drill instructor, at Great Lakes Naval Training Station.
“I joined the Navy in ’99. Chief Petty Officer, After 9/11 happened, I was on the USS Vicksburg, a guided missile cruiser, out of Mayport, Florida. We got underway that day on 9/11 and went off the coast of [Washington] DC for 30 days just protecting our coast. And that was the first point for me and the crew that we felt like we were doing something, other than training missions. We felt, ‘Hey, we’re actually doing something to protect the country.’ That was gratifying.’
“And then in February ’02 during Operation Enduring Freedom we went over and supported air operations with the USS John F. Kennedy, which is a carrier. We’d cruise around while they conducted air operations in Afghanistan. We were doing a lot of surveillance on ships that could be carrying terrorists out of the country. There were a couple times we found some people that were on the wanted list and we would detain them. That’s gratifying. It’s a small part in the big picture.
“And that’s the funny part, that’s why I wanted to join the VFW because this is living history that I get to partake in. I could read about this stuff in books but you don’t hear Ward’s stories. You could read about them in books but there’s not a face there. I don’t have any stories. It’s not about so much of what I’ve done. It’s about getting the history from all these other people.
“There are a lot of Vietnam veterans that really don’t talk about the war; they don’t speak about what happened because it was such a negative time. But here it seems more of the guys are willing to speak about their small experiences. Coming here, I get these stories from the generations before me. I don’t have much to say. I just sit back and listen, and take the stories to work.
Lamperth said the Navy has no trouble meeting its recruiting goals, which has been a problem for the US Army. He said that the majority of the young men and women he trains all want to be there.
“They want to succeed, they want to do something successful. For the most part it’s easy to train the people who are enlisting now. The sailors we’re sending out to serve in the fleet are motivated.”
–danjerjohn (c)2006 by Daniel J. Johnson. This story first appeared in the Daily Herald, November 2006