Juneau-Douglas High School graduates remember Vietnam

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2000

When Brad Gruening landed in Vietnam in August 1967, he took two steps off the plane and came to a dead stop.

``Contact with the heat and humidity was like walking into a brick wall,'' said Gruening, who graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1967.

Many of the soldiers from Juneau would soon be in contact with something far worse than heat. Gruening, an infantryman, was on his way to Vietnam's central highlands, where some of the war's fiercest battles were fought.

The United States first began committing large numbers of soldiers to Vietnam in 1965 in an effort to prevent the Vietnamese Communists from taking over the country. By the time the United States withdrew from the war in 1973, more than 50,000 American soldiers would be dead, including at least three JDHS graduates.

The bus ride from the airport to the processing center in Bien Hoa provided an instant immersion into a Third World country at war.

``It looked like a Hollywood set. It just couldn't be real,'' said Tom Stover, class of 1965.

Vietnamese lined the streets selling everything imaginable against a background of destroyed buildings and shacks.

``It seemed out of this world,'' said Stover, who is now a cost engineer for a construction firm in Anchorage.


When Stover, a combat engineer during the war, reached a headquarters encampment after traveling through rural South Vietnam, a sergeant asked the group of new soldiers if anyone could type.

``I was thinking, `I want to stop here,' so I raised my hand,'' he said.

It was soldiers' luck that he got the job.

Alaskans themselves were subjects of some curiosity for other American soldiers. Just about every Alaska Native was assumed to be an ``Eskimo.''

``They thought we all lived in igloos and didn't have any idea what a Tlingit was,'' said Tom Paddock, a Tlingit who graduated from JDHS in 1963.

``I told them I lived in a two-story igloo and it kind of broke the ice,'' he said with a laugh. Paddock is now a construction worker.

For some, cultural shock was followed by the trauma of combat. Jerry Gray, a UH-1 Huey helicopter pilot, was on one of his first missions when his aircraft was called in to pick up a wounded soldier.

``They brought him out of the jungle, carrying him by each limb, one soldier holding a leg, another an arm. His head dangled down and he was stripped to his waist,'' said Gray, who graduated in 1965.

They placed him on the floor of the Huey and as the helicopter pulled up, a crew member immediately started doing chest compressions, trying to keep him alive.

``Too late. He's dead,'' the crew member said after a few minutes.

``I couldn't believe it,'' said Gray. ``It wasn't supposed to happen this way,'' he said. As he recounted this story, Gray's voice became low and strained, as he paused to gain control of his emotions.

``I have always wondered about him. I never knew his name. I never knew his family. But I somehow feel connected to him. I wish I could know him. I wish I could know his family,'' said Gray, who now lives in Littleton, Colo., and works as a sales and marketing representative for a photo equipment business.


Jon Leigh-Kendall, who graduated from JDHS in 1965, worked as a combat medic in Vietnam.

He said head wounds were the toughest to deal with. Often, soldiers couldn't see their head wounds, so they didn't realize right away what was wrong with them.

``They'd freak,'' he said. ``And you can't give morphine to someone with a head wound. A guy with his guts hanging out can at least say `Doc put them back in.' Eyes would be hanging out and I'd pop them back in the socket.

``A piece of skull would be lying on the ground and I would put it in a bag and send it back to the aid station with the soldier,'' he said.

It was also Leigh-Kendall's job as a medic to care for the dead.

``A guy went outside of our perimeter to relieve himself and a sniper shot him,'' he said.

``I remember very clearly the sound of the zipper on the body bag, how the zipper closed over his face and the last `click.' Those kind of sounds, you have in your head the rest of your life,'' said Leigh-Kendall, who is now retired and lives in California.

Emotional healing from combat depends on soldiers being able to work through their grief by telling their stories to family and friends, said Jonathan Shay in his book ``Achilles in Vietnam.'' Shay, a psychiatrist who works with Vietnam combat veterans for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the most important thing a community can do is listen to what veterans have to say.

But the problem is people don't like hearing the stories, Leigh-Kendall said.

Ralph Sanford, class of 1967, also had a difficult time finding people who understood what he had been through.

``No one in Juneau seem to know what was really going on,'' Sanford said. ``It was like they didn't know a war was going on over there. That was hard.''

Gruening said people sometimes seemed only interested in whether he had killed someone.

``That's none of their business,'' he said with some emotion.

Sanford, a door gunner and crew chief on a helicopter, was wounded when his ship took 97 rounds during a rescue operation.

``It was our third trip in and we knew we were going to get it,'' he said.

Just before being sent to Japan and then Alaska to recover from his wounds, he learned that his best friend had been shot down and killed. He volunteered to come back to Vietnam. Seven months later he had second thoughts.

``I had time to think about how close I had come to getting killed and I didn't really want to go back, but I did,'' he said. ``I was all right once I was with my friends.''

That he didn't want to go back still deeply bothers Sanford.

Shay and other specialists who study stress say the bonds developed between people in combat are especially intense, and that these bonds produce incredible conflicts between the sense of loyalty and the desire to avoid death. These conflicts can last long after the fighting has ended.

Everyone in Vietnam faced a certain amount of risk. Walter Soboleff Jr., class of 1967, served on Navy destroyers that were part of a naval gun line that cruised up and down the coast of North Vietnam.

``You would see a little puff of smoke and a little while later hear the boom. They were shooting 8-inch shells that sounded like a freight train coming at you,'' Soboleff said. His ship was never hit, but others were.

The desire to experience danger and escape boredom was a factor influencing young men to volunteer. Gary Baxter volunteered for Vietnam after he became bored with stateside duty.

Baxter had an eagle's view of the war in more ways than one. He was the crew chief and door gunner for the helicopter used by the general officers of the 1st Cavalry Division. Among the luminaries who flew on his aircraft were President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of American forces in Vietnam.

Soldiers' return to Juneau, particularly for combat veterans, was often more abrupt than their entry into war. Sanford was refueling his helicopter after a firefight when he was told he was going home.

The next day he was in starched fatigues and on the ``Freedom Bird,'' the plane taking GIs back to the United States.

``One minute people are shooting at you and the adrenalin is flowing, and the next minute you're walking down the street,'' said Sanford, who is in charge of airfield maintenance for the city of Juneau.

In less than 24 hours Gruening was out of the jungle and back in his house in Juneau. The lack of transition was weird, he said.

``I slept for 10 days. My friends knew I was back in town and they were calling but I didn't want to see anybody. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I was physically exhausted,'' said Gruening, who works in airfield maintenance for the Juneau Airport.

How these Vietnam veterans view their service time in Vietnam is often paradoxical. Soboleff said that he hid his involvement in the war for a long time.

``I guess I was ashamed of it, kind of man's inhumanity to man,'' said Soboleff, who works for the state as an office manager in Juneau.

Now, however, he wears his military decorations on his Tlingit regalia when he dances at Native ceremonies.

``I am a real peacenik now, but there are those things that bring that Marine Corps patriotism to the surface,'' said Mike Fleischhauer, a retired computer programmer for the state.

There have been no presidential orations about the moral significance of the war, no Gettysburg addresses, no speeches like President Franklin Roosevelt's following Pearl Harbor. So for the most part veterans have been left on their own to decide the meaning of their war.

``I really don't know how I feel anymore,'' Sanford said about the war. ``We lost a lot of good guys who thought we were doing the right thing.''

At a recent ceremony for veterans, Gray started a conversation with a man who had served in Vietnam at the same time and place as Gray. After they established that Gray, a helicopter pilot, had probably extracted the veteran from the jungle at some time, the veteran turned to his 8-year-old son and said, ``I want you to shake this man's hand. I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for men like him.''

``It was a very gratifying moment,'' said Gray, pausing to control his emotions. ``You would save someone's life and it was very rare to talk to them after the fact. It sums up what I feel about war. I made a contribution and I am proud of it. No one can take that from me. No one can take that way from Vietnam veterans.''

Mac Metcalfe is a Juneau free-lance writer. He served as a U.S. Army teletype operator in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.

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