The nightmares were vivid and frightening for Dan Gatton after serving two tours of duty in Vietnam.
“I would see four cadavers at the end of my bed. I don’t know why I dreamed that. I never killed anybody to the best of my knowledge,” said Gatton, 66, who grew up in Algona and now lives in Mason City.
“In another dream I was caught in an ambush. I could feel the bullets hitting my chest and blood coming out of my nose. It was the feeling of blood coming out of my nose that woke me up,” he said.
The nightmares are gone now, but the memories of war remain.
“Anytime anyone says they can imagine what we went through, I tell them that unless you were there, unless you saw the blood, heard the explosions, smelled the stench, you have no idea what it was like.”
Asked how he got rid of the nightmares, he laughed and said, “Maybe it was because I quit drinking.”
Gatton, who is retired after 37 years with Mason City Rent-All (now United Rent-All) said his military experience started because of an argument he had with his father when he was in high school.
“He wouldn’t let me have a car,” said Gatton. “We argued about it. I got mad and decided to join the Army. And the next thing you know, I’m in Vietnam. When I look back on it now, I think, all of that over a ’55 Ford.”
He was assigned to the Army Seaborne on the USSN Corpus Christi Bay ship, whose job it was to supply parts to repair helicopters.
“We were referred to as the floating machine shop,” said Gatton.
The Corpus Christi Bay was a built-up superstructure topped by a helicopter landing pad measuring 50 by 150 feet.
With the advent of ships like the Corpus Christi Bay, damaged helicopters could be barged out to the ship and lifted on board by two 20-ton capacity cranes to be repaired, rather than being shipped back to the U.S. for repairs.
Gatton and others were there to supply the parts needed for the repairs.
But when he thinks about his days in Vietnam, his thoughts quickly turn to people rather than ships or helicopters. “What I remember about Vietnam is there was a lot of dying going on. You knew every day could be your last day.”
Gatton was never in combat, but like all service personnel, he was always in danger.
“One day when I was on leave in downtown Saigon a jeep in front of me blew up. Here I was, a 19-year-old kid in the middle of all of this.
“On my second tour, I came out of a building one day and someone flung a grenade at me. But it didn’t go off. That was my lucky day.”
Gatton said when he came home from Vietnam, arriving at the airport in Oakland, he heard people shouting “baby killer” and other insults at him and other soldiers as they got off the plane.
It was disappointing and discouraging, he said, but he was able to put it in perspective. “At least I never had feces thrown at me like some of the guys did,” said Gatton.
Another thing he remembers about coming home: “I wasn’t old enough to buy a beer. I guess I wasn’t responsible enough.”
Public reaction to his service in Vietnam has changed in the past 50 years. He now proudly wears a cap and jacket (in Iowa Hawkeye colors) that proclaim his status as a Vietnam veteran.
People notice it and treat him with respect, he said. “It’s cool to be a veteran now.”