Having graduated from high school in the mid-1960s and just starting lives in small-town Gainesville, 22 young men, mostly in their late teens, didn’t know much about a place called Vietnam.
“We never listened to the news, we didn’t keep up with the draft,” recalled Larry Martin. “I didn’t know about all that.”
But they were about to get a big education about the Southeast Asia country after boarding a Greyhound bus in front of the U.S. Courthouse on Spring Street in downtown Gainesville and heading to Fort Benning in Columbus.
Last week, seven men from the group marked the 50th anniversary of their May 15, 1966, departure from Gainesville by visiting the bus stop.
The federal courthouse is still there, but much of the surrounding landscape has changed. The men pointed out former landmarks as they stood on the sidewalk across from the Hall County Courthouse.
Johnny Hulsey remembered the weather that Sunday morning when the men left their families for an unknown future.
“It was a nice spring day,” he said. “It was about like this (day).”
All but one of the 22 survived Vietnam and six others have died since the war. Most of the remaining 15 settled in the Gainesville area.
The veterans, along with others who joined at different times, have formed Rock Creek Vietnam Veterans, a group that’s been active in recent years with placing monuments and commemorative, engraved bricks at Rock Creek Veterans Park in Gainesville.
Most recently, they succeeded in getting signs honoring veterans from World War II through the Vietnam War placed along Thurmon Tanner Parkway in Oakwood.
Before 2006, “we stayed silent — we didn’t do anything — for 40-some years,” Martin said.
“We saw each other, but we had jobs, businesses and families,” Hulsey said. “If somebody got sick or something, we visited (each other) and stuck together.”
Even though Gainesville was much smaller back in 1966, the men didn’t know each other very well before joining the Army.
That changed pretty quickly on the bus ride to Fort Benning in Columbus, where they were inducted, and in following days.
“We were together three days when they cut our hair and ... nobody knew each other, again,” quipped James Gilmer in a nod to the soldiers’ close-cropped haircuts.
The soldiers got their basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas, where their first lieutenant, Mike Harrison, was from Gainesville.
“It was like this one big family,” Hulsey said.
After basic training, the group took a train to San Francisco — a trip the men remembered well.
“We were treated like royalty,” Hulsey said. “The food was delicious.”
Martin recalled telling other soldiers, “This is our last meal, fellows. They’re being good to us.”
The soldiers, part of the Army’s 9th Infantry Division that was created in World War I, were shipped to Vietnam on Nov. 25, 1966. They saw plenty of combat. One of those injured was Ralph Souther, who recalled how his armored personnel carrier was rocked by a land mine.
“All of the sudden, the lights went out,” Souther said. “I don’t know how long me and (another soldier) were unconscious.”
He was hurt again later when he jumped from a helicopter into a swamp “and almost broke my back completely in two.”
Otherwise, Hulsey said, “we were fortunate the good Lord took care of us, because we didn’t have enough good sense to take care of ourselves.”
Over the years, long after they left the war, the war never left them.
There were physical and mental tolls, including struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and physical ailments believed to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant the U.S. military used to kill vegetation.
Even though he’s not a big participant in group activities, Edwin Dale said “it makes me feel good all the guys are staying in touch,” and that he’s proud about his service.
“I wouldn’t want to go through it again,” he said, with a slight smile, “but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world.”