Top row, from left: Jerry Howell and Stephen Cottrell. Bottom row, from left: Richard Thornton and Richard E. "Gene" Smith, Jr.
September 16, 2017 9:58:45 PM
No two stories are the same.
In 1964, Stephen Cottrell was working in a steel mill in Pennsylvania far from his home in Bayou Le Batre, Alabama, thinking to himself "anything has to be better than this." So he went down to the Navy recruiting office, and finding it closed for lunch, went next door and signed up with the Marines.
Jerry Howell was out in the middle of the South China Sea in 1968. Back home, he had been a meat cutter in a grocery store.
On an October afternoon in 1968, Gene Smith floated down from the wreckage of his F-105 Thunderchief, watching what seemed like the half the population of Hanoi gathering below and thinking to himself, "This is a helluva place for a chemical engineer from Mississippi State."
In 1969, Richard Thornton was an aimless 20-year-old with no plan, no prospects. Like Howell, he signed up with the Air Force before his draft number came up.
Cottrell and Howell live in Starkville. Smith lives in West Point, Thornton in Columbus. It's been about 50 years since these four men were among the 3.4 million Americans who served in the Southeast Asia Theater during the Vietnam War.
Tonight at 7, PBS begins its 10-episode, 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War from famed documentarian Ken Burns and co-producer Lynn Novick.
The documentary will tell many stories from America's least understood, least popular war.
But it won't -- it can't -- tell all the stories.
As Cottrell, Howell, Smith and Thornton will attest, there are 3.4 million stories -- and no two are the same.
Name: Jerry Howell
Wartime service: 1968-1969
Vietnam experience: Gunner's Mate, USS Canberra (heavy cruiser), U.S. Navy, Seventh Fleet.
Today: Age 70. Lives in Oktibbeha County. Retired U.S. Postal Service.
'A small town kid in a big boat'
Until 1968, Jerry Howell had never floated in anything bigger than a bass boat back in his hometown of Starkville.
So here he was, one of 1,400 men on the USS Canberra, a heavy cruiser operation in the North China Sea, shelling bridges, transport routes and shore installations north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
"I didn't know what to think, really," Howell said. "Everything was a new experience."
Howell joined the Navy after his older brother, Johnny, had enlisted in the Army.
The brothers' experiences were dramatically different.
"Johnny won't talk about it," Howell said.
For Howell, much of the war was spent in the mundane tasks that go with life on a ship. Even when called into action it wasn't the up-close personal combat those on the ground were exposed to.
"Those eight-inch guns had a range of six or eight miles," Howell said. "You never saw your target. About as close as we would get was about a quarter-mile in. From there, you could see the Agent Orange clouds and at night, the tracer fire."
There were times, however, when the carnage of the war came close.
"Sometimes, we'd come up on boats that had just got blown all to pieces," Howell said. "We'd have to go out on a little boat and pick up what was left, just parts of people. That was pretty bad. Hard to take."
Howell said he was happy to get home, especially after the reception he got when he arrived in San Francisco.
"I had to buy civilian clothes when I got to San Francisco, because those idiots out there would spit on you, cuss at you, if they saw a man in military. ... But I still had a military haircut, so I still got cussed and spit on. It's a wonder the redneck in me didn't come out, but I got out of there. When I got home, nobody bothered me. It was alright.
Name: Stephen Cottrell
Wartime service: 1966-67
Vietnam experience: Lance Corporal, Zulu Company, Sixth Marine Division; fought in Khe Sanh region of South Vietnam.
Today: Age 72. Lives in Starkville. Retired college administrator
'A box or a seat?'
It was the fall of 1964 and 18-year-old Stephen Cottrell, a kid from the Gulf Coast town of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, was working in a Pittsburgh steel mill.
He hated it.
So he went down to enlist in the Navy, but when he discovered the recruiter was on lunch break, he signed up with the Marine Corps under theory that "anything is better than this," he said.
Cottrell was wrong.
In 1966, Cottrell was finishing a six-month Mediterranean cruise when a voice came over the loudspeaker.
"Gentlemen, when we get back you have three choices: Vietnam, Vietnam or Vietnam."
Weeks later, Cottrell found himself in the Khe Sanh region south of Danang with Zulu Company of the Sixth Marine Division fighting against seasoned North Vietnam Army regulars.
In his blog, Cottrell portrays a vivid image from Valentine's Day, 1967:
"It was only minutes since we had shared deep drags from the last Lucky Strike while comparing Tennessee and Gulf Coast girls. Randal had left me the stub to pocket for our next break and was walking point when it happened. I froze as a skull shaking thud shoved his body hard into the red dirt... one leg literally taking off on its own in several splattering directions."
Minutes later, a Medivac helicopter arrived "and a blood-dripping, morphine-tripping Randal is slung aboard. Short seconds later the total quiet is deafening. I decide there's just enough time to relight the stub, piss on a column of enemy ants heading toward my boots and stow Randal's memory. With growing disgust about the whole mess, I take my turn walking point and wishing I was home gigging flounders and drinking Jax (beer)."
Cottrell said he remembers the kid who arrived in Vietnam 51 years ago.
"He was a poster boy for motherhood, cherry pie, baseball, Hop-Along Cassidy, John Wayne, the American Way," Cottrell said. "Just a kid of the 50s hoping to get through the 60s. That's who he was.
"That changed in the span of about three weeks when we had our first border attack outside Danang and I saw the results," he added.
Cottrell's Vietnam experience ended 11 months into his 13-month tour after he tore a ligament in his leg, suffered "jungle rot," Agent Orange exposure and what it known today as Post traumatic Stress Disorder.
The carnage of war did not instill in him a hatred of the Vietnamese people.
"I think we were all more upset about what are we doing here than worrying about the other guy," he said. "The thought that was with you every minute was 'Am I going to get on that plane home in a box or a seat?'"
Cottrell left Vietnam with a deep desire to learn, to understand. He earned four degrees, including two at Mississippi State, where he worked for 21 years as instructor and administrator with a focus on international students.
He has made three extended trips to Southeast Asia to teach as part of the Fulbright Program. His wife, Kim Heang, is survivor of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Fifty-plus years after fighting the Vietnamese, he's come to appreciate the people, their culture and, most of all their strength.
"I certainly salute their tenacity, that they got rid of the Chinese after a thousand years, the French after 90 years, us after 15 years and then what they call 'The Fat Russians,' after that," he said.
Cottrell said he is interested in watching the PBS documentary but suspects there are some who may not like it.
"Another veil is going to drop for those who are truly interested," he said. "But you have to be interested. There are some people with a particular political view who aren't going to care for it if the story is accurately told, which I believe it will be."
Name: Richard Thornton
Wartime Service: 1972-73
Vietnam Experience: U.S. Air Force technician, air rescue and support services, Thailand
Today: Age 68. Retired aircraft mechanic. Officer in local Vietnam Veterans, VFW and American Legion organizations
'I'd rather fly than walk'
Richard Thornton's mom was a bowler, which probably doesn't seem important.
But for Thornton, that fact may have kept him out of the jungles of Vietnam.
"My mother bowled two nights a week and one of her bowling friends was on the selective service committee. One night, she tells my mom, 'You better tell him to sign up for something because they're fixing to come get him.'"
Upon hearing that news, the 20-year-old Thornton quickly joined the Air Force.
"The way I saw it, I could either fly over Vietnam or walk through Vietnam," he said. "I decided I'd rather fly over it."
Thornton was sent to tech school in early 1969, where he was trained to be an aircraft environment system technician.
"That's basically someone who takes care of the oxygen -- the air-conditioning, pressurization, oxygen," he said.
After assignment in Libya and England, Thornton arrived in Thailand in 1972 just as President Richard Nixon's bombing campaign in the expanded Southeast Asia theater was ramping up.
Like many veterans of the era, Thornton's role was not a combat assignment, but still a critical one.
"We had our moments," Thornton said. "We weren't in the bad stuff, of course, but it was still a lot of stress. Just getting planes off the ground was a 24-hour-a-day job. Sometimes we'd go to work on Monday and work until Thursday."
Now, looking back on that time so long ago, Thornton said Vietnam veterans carry a special weight of memory.
"For all of us, especially those in combat, it was a heckuva thing to go through," he said. "They're 19 years old and put in a situation where it's kill or be killed."
Even from the relative safety of Thailand, Thornton said he still wakes with nightmares.
"That's why I really got involved in the VFW and American Legion," he said. "Veterans will talk to each other. They won't talk to you but they'll talk to another veteran. It may not be the same dirt, but it's familiar dirt."
Thornton is the adjutant of the local VFW chapter, executive vice president of the local Vietnam Veterans group and on the board on the local American Legion post.
It is important work, he believes.
"It's a place where veterans go and talk about things they don't talk about to anybody else," Thornton said. "You have to know how far to go. Once they start shutting down, don't push. You have to listen and really pay attention to their body language and know when to pull back."
Name: Richard E. "Gene" Smith, Jr.
Wartime service: 1967-73
Major, USAF fighter/bomber pilot. 333rd Tactical Fighter Squadron/355th Tactical Fighter Wing. Prisoner of War for 1,967 days.
Today: Age 82. Lives in West Point. Retired Lt. Col. USAF; retired airport director
'Hey, that SOB just shot me!'
In his last few minutes of freedom for what would be a very, very long while, Gene Smith took a quick inventory.
There was a gaping hole in his lower right leg, an injury sustained when he was ejected from his F-105 Thunderchief, but no other injuries.
As he floated toward earth, he disabled his two radios and tossed them away.
Below him, what looked like half the population of Hanoi was gathering to greet him.
"I had a .38 with six bullets," Smith recalled. "I said, 'Well, I'm not going to win this fight.' So I threw it away. Then I lit a cigarette and waited to hit the ground."
It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course.
Smith grew up in Tunica and went to Mississippi State, where he graduated with a degree in chemical engineering in 1956. After working for Magnolia Oil in Beaumont, Texas, for a few months, Smith decided to join the Air Force where he was training as a navigator. By 1961, Smith was thinking of leaving the service to put his degree to use.
"At the time, the field for navigators to go to pilot school, which had been froze, got unfroze, I guess you could say," Smith said. "So I thought I'd try it."
Smith entered pilot school in the fall of 1961, graduating at the top of his class in 1962.
"I was pretty good," he said. "If you're a fighter pilot and you don't think you're better than the next guy, you're not a very good fighter pilot."
By 1967, Smith was wrapping up a three-year assignment in Germany and he had a pretty good idea of where he was headed next.
"Vietnam was churning, churning, churning by then," he said.
Smith, then 33, began flying missions that August, completing 33 total.
On the afternoon of Oct. 25, 1967, Smith, an Air Force major, was making a bombing run at Doumer Bridge in Hanoi. After dropping his two 3,000-pound bombs on the target and pulling out of his dive, he heard and felt his plane absorb the unmistakable blow of a surface-to-air missile, which sent his plane into a tumble.
"It's like sticking your head in a washtub and taking something and banging the hell out of it," he said.
After a frantic struggle to reach the ejection handle, Smith flew out of the plane at about 4,000 feet.
In those last few minutes, he wondered what awaited him when he reached the ground.
"It seemed like 5,000 people running at me," he said. "One of them had an AK-47 and he ripped a burst through me. I could see the dust kicking up. Two bullets came through my left thigh and came out the other side. It didn't hit the femoral artery, didn't hit the bone, didn't come up through my groin. I guess I was lucky, but my first reaction was, 'Hey, that SOB just shot me!'"
Smith was quickly stripped to his boxers, bound with wire around his hands and led off to the infamous Hoa Lo prison, better known by Americans as "The Hanoi Hilton."
"I was in prison before dark," "Smith said.
For Smith, it was the beginning of 1,967 days as a prisoner of war, 5 1/2 years of torture, deprivation and lack of medical care for his two badly wounded legs.
"I got a shot of penicillin in my right leg," Smith said. "That was it.
"It was every bit as bad as the stories you have heard," he continued. "Hung from the ceiling, somebody beating the hell out of you. Making you sit on a low stool for days and days trying to get you to make a confession or something. All that stuff."
Seventy-two U.S. military personnel died as prisoners of war, but Smith said he never entertained even a thought he wouldn't survive -- not when his plane was ripped out of the sky by a missile, not when he was shot after landing, not when his untreated wounds festered and grew swollen, not even through the torture inflicted on him by prison guards.
"It's faith, hope and life," Smith said. "That's what I hung onto. If you have faith -- faith in God, faith in your country, faith in your family and faith in your fellow POWs. Then you have hope. And if you have hope, you have life. No, I never did think I wouldn't get out of there."
After Vietnam, Smith returned to Mississippi to train pilots at Columbus Air Force Base, then spent almost 20 years as the director at the Golden Triangle Regional Airport.
For all his feelings about Vietnam, Smith said he never gave a moment's thought to the whether the U.S. should have ever been involved.
"Some people say that," he said. "I don't look at it that way. I was an officer in the United States Air Force. It was my duty to serve. It's that simple."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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