Two local veterans are donating their Vietnam War memorabilia to the Wyandot County Museum’s Military Room as the Wyandot County Historical Society prepares for its Veterans Day program from 2-4 p.m. Nov. 11.
The following includes excerpts from Lew Gottfried’s “Protecting Our Liberty,” which tells James Geary’s and Ken McMillan’s military stories in their own words.
Ken McMillan, a son of James and Berneda McMillan, grew up on a farm in Salem Township, Wyandot County. When he was 10 years old, his father died in an automobile accident and within two weeks, his brother, Richard “Rick,” was born.
“The burden of raising three rambunctious boys fell on my mother,” McMillan said.
He distinctively remembers his father’s funeral services, which included members of a veterans’ color guard from Findlay honoring his father’s military service in World War II.
“I am certain that event influenced all three McMillan brothers to later enter the service when they were able to do so,” McMillan said.
Jim and Ken McMillan both enlisted around the spring of 1961 and Jim served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rick McMillan joined the Army in the early 1970s during the Vietnam War era.
Out of 13 students from McMillan’s Salem High School class of 1961, three joined the Marines following graduation. McMillan said he and John “Peace” Shaffer “were so anxious to see what might lie outside of Wyandot County in the rest of the world that we decided to join the (U.S. Marine Corps) Reserves during our senior year in high school.”
The two left for boot camp on May 31, 1961, shortly after graduation. A few weeks later, classmate Charles Thomas “Tom” Williams joined them at Paris Island, S.C., although he was in a different training platoon. The men completed basic training and returned to Wyandot County on a leave after advanced infantry training.
Next, McMillan traveled to aviation schools at Memphis, Tenn., where he began to train as a helicopter mechanic and crew member. He left there and reported to helicopter squadron HMM-361, based in Santa Ana, Calif.
“Before long, 361 was assigned to U.S.S. Iwo Jima and sent to the Caribbean as part of the Fifth Marine Expeditionary Brigade during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962,” McMillan said. “… The Fifth would be used in the possible invasion of Cuba. One of the things I remember the most is that the Iwo Jima had to travel through the Panama Canal in reaching its new assignment from the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic Fleet.”
By September 1963, the men, equipment and aircraft of HMM-61 had arrived at Da Nang, South Vietnam, to participate in “Shu Fly.” The main purpose of the operation was to provide combat support in the form of supplying troops in the field, participating in rescue missions and flying numerous strikes at enemy targets.
McMillan participated in more than 30 missions during his time with “Shu Fly.”
“According to a recent article, ‘American’s Advisory War in Vietnam: 1962-64: A G.I.’s Combat Chronology,’ which was published in VFW Magazine (in August 2011), … Oct. 8, 1963 marked the single deadliest U.S. hostile loss of the three-year period,” McMillan said.
Eleven G.I.s were killed in action, including nine marines and two corpsmen of helicopter squadron 361, when their helicopters were shot down on a bombing run over Quang Nam province.
“We Marines … successfully recovered the remains of all but two of our comrades and what was left of their (helicopters),” McMillan said. “The other two servicemen were not located and recovered until more than 40 years later on Jan. 26, 2004 and Aug. 4, 2008. The first, Marine Lance Cpl. Lutheran E. Ritchey, hailed from Mansfield … and was (20) years old at the time of his death.
“I remember (it) as a sobering experience for all involved, especially us younger Marines who had been confronted with the specter of our own mortality,” McMillan added.
McMillan’s group left Vietnam in February 1964 for Okinawa and he was reassigned until his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps on May 28, 1965.
“As a Vietnam vet, there is one issue that continues to trouble me concerning the beginning date of the Vietnam War,” McMillan said. “Understandably, I take umbrage with the public perception that the conflict didn’t really begin until the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on Aug. 5, 1964, and that the war didn’t officially end until May 29, 1973. (In fact,) 267 men were killed in action and 1,531 were wounded in action (during the three-year period from Jan. 1, 1962 to Dec. 31, 1964).”
McMillan said even if a person only considers Jan. 1, 1962 to Aug. 4, 1964, the day before the Tonkin Resolution, 224 servicemen and women were killed in action and 1,452 were wounded in action.
“Without belaboring the point, the Americans who died or shed their blood in the pre-Tonkin days of this conflict did so in a forgotten and overlooked phase in a very unpopular and divisive war,” McMillan said. “… There is no excuse for communities to overlook the more inclusive dates when considering a monument to Vietnam War veterans. To do otherwise is profoundly disrespectful to those who gave their lives and shed their blood in Vietnam during those early years of the conflict.”
James W. Geary
James Geary graduated from South Park High School in Buffalo, N.Y., in June 1962.
“Like many of the other 400-plus students in my graduating class, I wondered what to do next,” Geary said. “College was out of reach for most of the guys because of the lack of financial resources and the demands of family commitments.”
Geary said he considered himself lucky at the time to land a part-time job as a grill cook and cashier at Henry’s Hamburgers, a fast food restaurant.
“But changes were looming on the horizon,” he continued. “Within six months after graduating and given the continuing dismal prospects for full-time and steady employment, many of us fellows decided to enlist before our ‘friends and neighbors’ decided to send us a draft notice.”
Geary said he chose the Army Airborne “partly because it consisted of a three-year rather than a four-year commitment.”
There was another incentive of an extra $55 per month for hazardous duty pay, in addition to the standard $78 a month pay for a new recruit.
“As an unworldly teenager, and without further reflection or research, I enlisted for ‘airborne unassigned,’” Geary said. “Two days after my (18th) birthday, I found myself on a train bound for Fort Dix, (N.J.). The decision to enlist marked the beginning of an odyssey that would take many of my fellow male classmates and me to the far reaches of the globe and, in the process, leave a lasting impact on the future direction that would occur in many of our lives.”
Geary said the decision to enlist was “one of the more momentous” in his life. After three years of active duty, Geary said he came away with many new lessons, including “an appreciation of the importance in evaluating all available information before making major decisions.”
After basic training, Geary qualified as a heavy-weapons infantryman, primarily dealing with mortars and the recoilless rifle.
“While in (Fort Dix for advanced infantry training), I took the basic physical test for jump school and passed four of the five required physical tasks without difficulty,” Geary continued. “However, I fell short on doing the requisite number of pull-ups — not chin-ups — and the test required the completion of all five segments. Consequently, I was assigned to Korea.”
In early June 1963, Geary sailed from Sam Francisco on the U.S.S. General William Mitchell, the first of two troop ships he would be taking across the Pacific Ocean.
“My responsibilities aboard ship included guarding a portion of an upper quarterdeck from midnight to 4 a.m.,” Geary said. “This 19-day trip proved largely uneventful until the Mitchell arrived at Inchon Harbor. It was at that moment, in gazing at the shoreline, that this huge mountain came into view.”
After arriving in Korea, Geary was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, one of the two infantry divisions that were positioned between Seoul and the demilitarized zone on the 38th parallel.
“Our mission was to serve as the main deterrent to a North Korean invasion,” Geary said. “I had been in Korea about a month before the marking of the (10th) anniversary of the truce that had brought the Korean War to a close on July 27, 1953. There were numerous taunts that came from the North Koreans leading up to July 27, especially, ‘In July you die, G.I.’ The anniversary came and went without incident, but a few days later infiltrators crossed the DMZ and ambushed American soldiers in various locations. Two of the dead soldiers were from the 1st Cavalry.
“Needless to say, this episode understandably heightened tensions, but the rest of my year-long tour was generally quiet,” Geary continued.
He said he will always remember the night of Nov. 22, 1963, when Geary heard President Kennedy had been assassinated.
“This fellow had a reputation as a vicious rumor-monger and trouble-maker,” Geary said. “I told him to leave the orderly room immediately and to stop spreading false stories. In this instance, I had acted too hastily. Soon thereafter, sirens went off and phone calls came in to company headquarters that the entire 1st Cavalry Division had been placed on alert. The next few days are all a blur as we prepared for a possible invasion from North Korea.”
With about 18 months remaining in service, Geary requested reassignment to Europe.
“Upon being told that I would need to reenlist or extend my service by at least six months, I respectfully declined and the Army ordered me to Fort Campbell, (Ky.), the home of the 101st Airborne Division.”
In mid-June 1964, Geary boarded a plane headed for California.
“I was a 19-year-old soldier who returned to a very different land,” Geary said. “President Kennedy had been assassinated, which was very unsettling in and of itself, and the general culture was undergoing dramatic change. In looking back, it seemed that American society was coming apart. The Beatles had arrived, long hair was in vogue and there were the simmering signs of social unrest with the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, along with serious questions being raised about our involvement in Vietnam.”
After arriving at Fort Campbell, Geary was temporarily assigned to the Third Army, where he began a regimen of physical conditioning in preparation for attending jump school. He was assigned to the 101st as a “leg,” or a non-paratroop qualified soldier. He went on to jump school at Fort Benning, Ga., earned his paratrooper wings, returned to Fort Campbell and was assigned permanently to the 101st.
“Sometime in the spring of 1965, orders came down from Washington to form a separate paratrooper brigade drawn from the entire division for imminent deployment to the Republic of South Vietnam,” Geary said. “Its initial mission involved serving as an elite mobile reaction force. Volunteers were recruited for this unit before men, and designated companies and battalions, were pulled from existing 101st units to fill out the needs of this special 4,000-member all-paratroop brigade.
“I was finding stateside duty tedious and boring and volunteered to go,” Geary added.
But before he could leave, Geary had to sign a waiver because he already had served in Korea and Army policy in the 1960s dictated that a soldier would have 18 months stateside between difficult tours of duty.
“In retrospect, this was a very sensible policy in view of the excessive strains on our servicemen and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last decade, and who had to endure repeated deployments with little opportunity to readjust between dangerous overseas assignments,” Geary said.
Geary left San Fransisco in July 1965 aboard the U.S.N.S. General Leroy Eltinge. When he received word from his family in the states that they needed him to return to help with family matters, Geary had a big decision to make.
“In the end, I decided against extending my tour,” he said. “Within a day after leaving Vietnam, I arrived at Oakland Army Terminal where I, along with other Vietnam veterans, received cursory physicals and were hurriedly mustered out of the service.”
Five days before his 21st birthday, Geary had fulfilled three years of military duty, but could neither vote nor purchase an alcoholic beverage in most states.
After returning to Buffalo, Geary applied to area colleges to become either a high school history teacher or to later qualify for a direct commission in the Army. He started college in September 1966 at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
“There have been many turning points in my life,” Geary said, “but there are only three major defining moments. The most important is having met and married my devoted and lovely wife, Linda, who makes all days worth living. The second stems from being able to retire in good order after a successful professional career at Kent State (University). … The third defining point comes from my service in our nation’s armed forces, particularly in my last assignment with the 101st. Beyond any doubt, it was a life-altering and formative experience.
“My military service left me with a deep appreciation for attributes such as perseverance, the capacity to follow through, maintaining physical stamina, resiliency in facing adversity and the belief that life is larger than one’s self,” Geary added.
Copies of “Protecting Our Liberty” are available at the Corner Store, 100 S. Sandusky Ave., and the gift shop at Fairhaven Community, 850 S. Marseilles Ave., both in Upper Sandusky. Proceeds go to Fairhaven.
By ALISSA PAOLELLA