Vets Day time to ask birth dad about Vietnam
Last updated 11/9/2022 at 5:16pm | View PDF
I never asked my dad, who's been gone 20 years, about the time he spent in the Army in Korea.
He served there between 1958 and 1960, a good five years after the war ended. I found a photo album after my mom passed away filled with pictures of his time in the service. I wish I could look at it with him.
I didn't want to make that same mistake with my birth father, Bob Short. He has shared some stories about his time in the Marines in Vietnam with me since we first got in contact with each other a little over two years ago. But I hadn't written anything down and I had not asked many questions. I decided this Veterans Day would be a good time to remedy that.
The first thing he told me is that while he was stationed in Vietnam, from June 1969 to June 1970, 18,000 military personnel were killed.
"You have to feel lucky you weren't one of those statistics," he said.
He enlisted in September 1968, the same year he graduated high school and about a month before his 19th birthday. After 13 weeks in boot camp in Paris Island, S.C., he was sent to communications school in San Diego until May 1969. Of his class of 30 some guys, all but one had orders for Vietnam.
He met a fellow enlistee named Carson Bartels in San Diego. The two haven't lived in the same state since they returned form the war, but they have remained best friends to this day.
Bob talks about the months preparing to go to war almost as if it were any other job.
"You were trained and you knew what you were doing and you were ready to go," he said. "The tough part with the Marines is you didn't actually know what unit you were going to be in in Vietnam until you actually set foot in Da Nang.
"The guy behind you could go to a combat unit and you could go to a behind-the-lines unit and it was kind of the luck of the draw what you were sent to," he said.
He was assigned to FLC, forced logistics command, which meant he handled radio communication for convoys taking supplies to bases in the northern part of South Vietnam.
"You'd call in check points and make sure if you got sniper fire or hit or something that you would call that in," he said.
One of the destinations he traveled to regularly was Chu Lai, only 19.3 miles away. But traveling there and back and unloading supplies would take a full day as drivers tried to navigate large holes left after the mine sweepers dug up enemy mines.
"You couldn't go very fast. A trip that would take a half hour might take you three hours," he said.
He personally was never under fire, but two truck drivers in his unit were killed by a mine.
"The closest I ever got was rockets on our base," he said. "Carson and I were watching a movie on a piece of plywood (the base's makeshift movie screen) and had one week left. It was kind of scary."
The rockets blew up a cooks tent 50 yards away. Fortunately no one was inside.
Like all so-called "short-timers," he spent his last month on base, trying to avoid becoming one of the people killed on his last day of duty. Then it was time to go home.
"That was probably the happiest moment of my life and everyone else's on board," he said. "There was a cheer you probably could have heard halfway back to the United States when that plane left Da Nang airfield.
Back in Ohio, he returned to the summer job he had after high school with a moving company. (He would remain in that line of work his entire career, retiring in 2015 as an owner/operator for Atlas.) He didn't make a point of sharing he had been in Vietnam after he got home.
"I can't say I was really treated badly because I didn't let anyone know I was there," he said. "That was the secret of getting away from it. Mostly you just didn't bring it up."
That meant all of the atrocities he and others witnessed stayed buried deep inside.
"A lot of guys, I think it took (until) probably the last 10, 20 years before they ever started talking about it. You see a lot of stuff people wouldn't realize," he said. "Even though I wasn't out shooting people every day, I went by stuff normal people wouldn't want to hear about."
Bob has a single tattoo, indicating he's a Marine. He told me once he never thought about whether he really wanted it.
"Because you didn't think you were going to make it home?" I asked.
"No," he said. "It was pretty dark days."
And yet today, most of what he feels is gratitude.
"If I had been put in an infantry unit, radio men were one of the first ones on patrol that the enemy wanted to kill," he said. "I was just lucky I got in the unit I got in."
So was I.
Thanks to Bob, to my dad (Thomas Lannom) and all the other veterans profiled on our special Veterans Day pages. We are grateful for your service. And your sacrifices.
- Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean. Readers can email her at [email protected]