With a swift push from a comrade’s boots, a Mason City man’s introduction to ground combat in the Mekong Delta in 1968 began more abruptly than he anticipated.
Fellow soldiers told Larry Paul he’d receive training on transitioning from helicopter to battleground, but he only received brief instruction — jump off the chopper as quickly as possible.
The Globe Gazette will publish 50 stories — starting on Veterans Day — about North Iowa’s Vietnam Veterans. The stories will appear on Sundays…
The then-26-year-old wasn’t prepared for the commotion he would encounter.
“As the doors opened, shells were flying and the noise was like hell,” Paul recalled. “I froze because I thought I was dead.”
After being pushed off the aircraft, Paul tumbled into the reeds and water as he heard screaming all around him.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I have to do this for a year?’” he said. “I didn’t think I’d make it.”
Six months later, Paul survived a massive attack on his base camp that killed or severely wounded three-fourths of the Ninth Infantry’s Division Bravo Company and the majority of its cooks. The mess halls and officers’ club were annihilated.
As the mortars began to hit, Paul grabbed his clothes and ran barefoot to the perimeter, severely cutting his feet on a steel walkway in the process.
After slogging through water fertilized with buffalo manure, the cuts on Paul’s feet became infected, swelling to the point where his boots had to be cut off.
While on medical hold, he was assigned to an office job, where he wrote articles for the Alpha Company, detailing what was happening for the higher-ups.
The writing led him to work as a legal clerk, practical experience he was later able to transfer to a 33-year career with Iowa Workforce Development.
Upon arrival back in the U.S., Paul was part of a parade in downtown Seattle that was supposed to be a welcome home.
Parade-goers were divided, Paul said, with one side cussing and name-calling while the other side cheered and threw flowers.
Paul said Gen. William Westmoreland, who had led the parade with Seattle’s mayor, was livid. Westmoreland, who led U.S. forces during Vietnam, instructed soldiers to pack their uniforms away as they headed home.
“We didn’t realize how much hatred there was,” Paul said. “The country was divided almost like the Civil War — it was horrible.
“It didn’t take you long to learn that you didn’t mention anything about being a Vietnam vet.”
Paul, who had studied history and political science at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, planned to teach. The Army led him in a different direction — all over the world.
After seven years away from the military, he joined the Iowa National Guard’s 1133rd Transportation Company. Paul spent a total of 27 years in the National Guard, five months of which were spent during deployment in Desert Storm.
The climate there was much different than what he had witnessed in Vietnam — women asking him to hold their babies and villagers bringing them food.
“It was a huge, unbelievable celebration,” he said. “It really made everything worthwhile.”
"They Served With Honor" is proudly produced by the Globe Gazette with sponsorship support from Cerro Gordo County Veteran Affairs and POET Biorefining in Hanlontown.