MASON CITY — Chuck Thome of Mason City helped build airstrips and mess halls while serving in the Army in Vietnam.

He and other members of the engineering battalion he was with once loaded their earth-moving equipment onto a ship and went up the South China Sea so they could build an airstrip near Bong Son.

They arrived to find the beach was being shelled.

“That was quite an experience,” he said.

Fortunately, they didn’t meet any further resistance.

“We were lucky,” Thome said.

Thome, 70, grew up in Stacville. He’s a 1963 graduate of Visitation High School.

He was 20 years old in 1965. He didn’t have a job and his draft number was up. He decided to volunteer for the Army so he wouldn’t have to wait another month.

Thome was assigned to the 84th Engineering Battalion. He was sent to Vietnam as a radio operator, but was assigned as a driver for a sergeant because radio operators weren’t needed.

He also operated earth-moving equipment.

When Thome and other members of his company were working on a construction project, they had to have an armed guard with them.

As the sergeant’s driver, Thome did the courier run several times a week. The trip was 70 miles one way.

“You didn’t dare do it at night,” he said.

In February 1966 his company was sent to An Khe. They set up camp next to an artillery unit.

“They would shoot off the big guns all night long,” Thome said.

Thome finally got his orders to go home but he had to go to Germany for six months first.

When he got back to the U.S., he was sent to Fort Sheridan near Chicago for the final five months of his service. He was part of the honor guard that traveled all over Illinois for military funerals.

After he came back to North Iowa, he went to work at Blue Ribbon Beef in Mason City for a few years before going to work for Pepsi for 30 years. He now drives a truck for a farmer.

He and his wife, Diane, have five children and 13 grandchildren. Their son, Bruce, spent 20 years in the Navy.

Thome said he still has dreams about the war, but the dreams aren’t as bad as they used to be.

He had a triple bypass two or three years ago. He said the doctors attributed his heart disease to exposure to Agent Orange.

For the past decade Thome has been in the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America.

“What a wonderful bunch of guys,” he said. “They are all like brothers.”

Thome attended Operation LZ, a five-day thank-you event for Vietnam veterans held in Forest City in August.

“It healed a lot of broken hearts,” he said.

Thome said his attitude toward his time in Vietnam is, “I would go again if I got called up.”