FOREST CITY — Jim Cleveland was working as a carpenter in Boulder, Colorado, when he received an Army draft notice from Winnebago County. It was April 1965.
“I was kind of expecting it,” he said, reflecting 51 years later. “You just gotta take it for what it is. It is your responsibility. You just have to do it.”
At 21, he found himself headed to Vietnam within the year.
As a helicopter flight engineer assigned to the 147th Aviation Company, he was responsible for its maintenance and flight operations as his Chinook transport helicopter hauled troops, artillery, ammunition, fuel and American troops and Vietnamese evacuees around the country.
When he arrived in Saigon, then Vung Tau base in Easter 1966, “the war was really escalating,” he said. “In fact, that was what we were doing, help move new units into the country.”
Every time they flew they were vulnerable to enemy fire, he said.
“Sometimes in the morning you get on the aircraft and you wonder if it’s going to be the last time,” he said.
He was back at the base about halfway through his one-year tour when another Chinook helicopter landed with a hole blown out of its side.
“We were coming off the flight line one day and one Chinook got damaged so we went to see what had happened,” he said.
“These guys on the gun crew thought they would copy the Vietnamese troops and pull the pins out of their grenades and put rubber bands on them,” he said somberly. “They got up in the air and one of the guys got the handle of his grenade caught on the webbing on the seat.”
The grenade exploded mid-air not far from the Vung Tau base. Two were killed and others grievously wounded.
“That was all over foolishness,” Cleveland said.
The crew managed to fly the helicopter back to the base despite its damaged condition, saving several lives.
“They could have just set down where they were and had someone rescue them. But, there would have been more died,” Cleveland said. “How some people think there’s football heroes and baseball heroes — that’s the real heroes.”
Cleveland and some of the crew members cleaned the helicopter out after it returned.
“Quite a mess,” he said tearfully.
Now 71, Cleveland married and later divorced after his return from Vietnam. He has two children and four grandchildren.
Reflecting on his service, Vietnam “probably made me a little harder to get along with people,” he said. “There was just things that you didn’t talk about to anyone.
“There was no homecoming. People would shun you, ignore you. Look down their nose at you like you were some kind of a creep or something,” he said.
“A lot of people say the war was a waste, but I can’t totally agree with that,” he said. “My idea was that we were there fighting communism, but there hasn’t been any spread of communism since then.”
“It was a lot of work in Vietnam. We were busy all the time,” he said. “Us draftees just sort of took it as it came and did our jobs.”