I enlisted in the US Army On March 1, 1953 at age 17, and received my basic training with the 511th Airborne Infantry Regiment,11th Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Following jump school at Fort Benning I was assigned to I Corp (Uijongbu, Korea), serving in Korea from 1955 to 56. After a three-year stint as a general’s chauffer in Los Angeles, was promoted to Specialist (E5).
In 1959, I applied and was accepted for the US Army Language School,Monterey, California. I graduated with honors from the Turkish Language Course, and served three years in Izmir, Turkey as an interpreter/translator for the LTG Harry Stork, Commanding General, Allied Forces Southeastern Europe.
In 1962, I was selected by the US Army Intelligence Corps to attend the Intelligence Special Agent’s Course at Fort Holabird, Maryland. Upon graduation, I was assigned to the Eugene Oregon Field Office, and six months later returned to Korea, where I served as a Special Agent, 502nd Military Intelligence Battalion, on a special operations team, responsible for capturing infiltrating North Korean spies.
In 1963, I returned to the 115th MI Group, San Francisco. In 1965, I was assigned to the 650th MI Detachment, Naples, Italy as a Special Agent and Special Operations Officer.
I was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer in 1967 and reassigned from Naples to Stuttgart, Germany. I served there one year as a Case Officer in the Counterespionage Section of the 66th MI Group.
Following a one-year course in Vietnamese language at the Defense Language Institute (Ft. Bliss, Texas), I was sent to Can Tho (Delta) Vietnam, where I served from 1969-1970 as a Special Operations Case Officer.
I was awarded the Bronze Star. In 1970 I was returned to the States and was assigned as Special Agent in Charge, Portland Field Office, Oregon. I was on civilian clothes status for the last 18 years of my military service.
On March 1, 1975, I retired after 20 years service and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal
My Homecoming contrasts the public’s support of the troops with the opposite ends of the spectrum. My two homecomings could not possibly be more dissimilar; the first returning from Korea in 1955; the second from Vietnam in 1970.
Korea: June 1955. The USS Mitchell crossed under the Golden Gate Bridge on the morning of June 1, 1955. The Captain blew the ships horns, alerting the 350 soldiers returning from Korea that we were home. The roar from the troops overwhelmed the blaring horn. I joined my comrades at the railing to observe the preparations that had been put in place. A large welcome banner was suspended from the bridge and the saluting fountains of San Francisco Bay fireboats shot high into the air. Pleasure boats, coming and going through the gateway, blasted their horns in tribute. I stood on the starboard side of the troopship breathing the fresh, sweet scent of land, my homeland.
The twenty-one-day journey aboard the ship crammed below decks with hundreds of seasick soldiers was coming to a merciful end. Sixteen months in Korea, living in filthy squad tents, fighting off recurring bouts of hepatitis, was also concluding. We lined up on deck with our duffel bags slung over our shoulders, nervously wishing the ship closer to the dock. As we neared the military wharves at Fort Mason, we heard the patriotic strains of an honest-to-God brass band. The Sixth US Army Band had lined up in formation on the dock, and saluted us with Stars and Stripes Forever. Hoards of well-wishers, friends and families waved flags and signs. Hundreds of family members with their children jumping excitedly, anticipating their father, son, or brother’s arrival, yelled out the names of their loved ones.
There was no one to greet me. My wife and family were in Portland and I didn’t want them to spend the money to travel to San Francisco. We tramped down the ramp, keeping in step with the band’s beat, making the gangway sway precariously. A stranger came up to me, handed me a rose, and welcomed me home. I was 19 years old at the time, too old to cry, but somehow tears found their way down my cheeks, tears of joy and gratitude. The sixteen months of living in freezing, and then broiling conditions, had been worth it. San Francisco newspapers, bearing the banner, “Welcome Home Troops,” were handed to us. They contained a complete list of all of us by name. My chest filled with pride and I never loved my country more.
Vietnam: March 1970. Our KC-135 military transport plane descended from the ink black skies over McChord Air Force in Tacoma, Washington, arriving almost 30 hours since taking off from Cam Rahn Bay, Republic of South Vietnam. The lights of the runway prompted a boisterous roar from the 120 military personnel on board, a roar that had been repeated three times before; once (the loudest response) when the aircraft’s wheels lifted off the runway in ‘Nam and climbed northeast away from the rancid smoke of burning sanitation barrels, and the blood-soaked jungles. The second came when the pilot announced that we had just left the airspace of Vietnam; the third when the pilot announced that we had just entered US airspace off the coast of Anchorage, Alaska. We were bone tired, most having left our units and buddies behind, two or three days earlier, but somehow we found the energy to whoop and holler the military “Who-wah,” vocalizing our joy at returning home.
The plane taxied slowly, very slowly toward the gate at the arrival terminal. Men jumped from their seats in spite of the warnings of the flight crew, grabbing ditty bags and other carry-on items. When we finally shed ourselves of the airplane, we were herded into a large room and ordered to take our seats. An officer stood at a podium and began reciting a long list of admonitions and warnings. There was no, “Welcome Home, men,” just warnings. “If you have any drugs or other contraband in your possession, place it in the butt-cans under your chairs. If you don’t do so now, be advised that you will be subject to immediate arrest and face court-martial.” There was a rattle or two of cans in the room, but most of us sat, staring straight ahead, wondering when the “Welcome Home” would come. When the list of warnings had been read, another officer came to the podium and said, “You will leave this room and go into the baggage area, through that door and claim your duffel bags. You will then precede to the inspection tables and dump the contents of the bags onto the table. Once again, you will be arrested and court-martialed if you are in possession of any contraband. If you have war-trophy weapons with the proper authorization, make sure that you have your paperwork in hand. Your families will be on the other side of the glass partitions. Refrain from trying to communicate with them; you’ll just prolong the wait.”
We shuffled out of the room and stood in long lines waiting our turn to be searched. When I reached the inspector and handed him the papers on my war-trophy rifle, he waved me on to US Customs. I was asked if I had any liquor or other such taxable items. I told him I had a bottle of whisky that I had purchased at duty-free in Yokota Airbase, and had to pay a $10 tax to bring it in, “or throw it in that barrel.” While I was waiting for him to complete the paper work on the liquor, I saw my wife and two children waving at me through the glass partition. I waved back and I was eventually passed through a one-way gate to join them. We stood their crying and hugging. It was a strange welcome. I felt like I had just been released from jail.
On the way out of the air base’s main gate, I drove past a group of protestors, brandishing signs, yelling, “Baby Killer!” “How many did you kill?” The brief moment of joyful homecoming I had experienced fifteen minutes earlier, was erased and I felt terrible. I am still waiting for someone to say, “Thank you. Welcome home.” It’s become a custom over the years for Vietnam veterans to greet each other with the long awaited, “Welcome Home!”
|David F DeHart
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