July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:31 PM
"They were told not to make any friends in Vietnam, that they'd just end up losing them. But they did make friends and they lost them by the dozens. They accepted death as inevitable, then survived to be either vilified or ignored when they returned home to the country they served. They fought and died in jungles and rice paddies, directed by politicians who stayed home and watched the war on TV.The Vietnam War ended 25 years ago this week. During its course - between 1962 and 1975 - more than 58,000 Americans died in the fighting.Twenty five years later, the memories of Vietnam haven't faded for some Oak Harbor veterans, only some of their scars. Two veterans, three purple hearts Getting hit in combat isn't like some John Wayne movie, according to Marine Sargent Major Harry Williams.With a serious wound, you don't just tough it out, Williams said. It's like getting hit with a sledge hammer. And it's seldom a case where someone just gets grazed. Bones get broken.Now a reserve sargent major with Whidbey Island Naval Air Station's Marine Support Squadron 473, Williams was a platoon sargent and radio operator with 2nd battalion, 4th Marines operating out of Fire Base Neville in South Vietnam when he got hit in 1969. I got hit with a satchel charge - a block of TNT wrapped with bamboo strips, Williams said. A North Vietnamese threw it at me, it hit me in the chest, bounced off, hit the ground and blew up and tore up my knee.At the time, Williams, who was 19, remembered thinking it would have been nice to have made it to his 21st birthday, to legally be able to buy a beer.I knew I would never see the light of day again, but it wasn't like a sad feeling, he said. I do remember thinking my mom would be mad because she hadn't wanted me to go.By the time he got hit, Williams was a seasoned combat veteran having survived the Tet offensive in 1968, and now he was immersed in the Tet offensive of 1969.He recalled a night battle were the North Vietnamese charged his platoon, their limbs wrapped in tourniquets so they could sustain multiple gunshot wounds before bleeding to death.We realized the odds weren't in our favor, he said. We were outnumbered and out of ammo. That night you accepted the fact that you weren't going to make it. By the end of the night I had three rounds left and out of 90 Marines, half were dead or wounded.There came a point when retired Navy Master Chief Jesse Lowder of Oak Harbor also accepted that he wouldn't live through Vietnam. Lowder was wounded twice while serving as a corpsman with the 3rd battalion, 4th Marines in 1968 and 1969, operating out of Quang Tri and nearby landing zone LZ Stud. A mortar round went off in front of me and blew me in the air, Lowder said. It was like getting hit with a club. It didn't hurt at first but then it burned like hell. I got hit again with shrapnel about a month later. When I got hit the second time a corpsman jumped out of a trench to pull me to safety and he got his knee cap blown off. He pulled me in a hole and we laid there for six hours.Coming into the countryLowder was an eight-year Navy veteran when he volunteered to go to Vietnam with the Marines. His arrival there left him with few illusions.I landed in the middle of a rocket attack in DaNang, Lowder said. I remember thinking, 'What the hell did I get myself into?' I was sent to Quang Tri and from there to various combat bases.Both men operated around the fertile valley surrounding LZ Stud, which was a staging area into the demilitarized zone. Though considered a rear area, it was seldom felt safe, Lowder said.We would get rocketed nearly every day, between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. like clockwork, and mortared at night. You'd just walk around wondering where they'd come from next.New guys, fresh meat, cannon fodder New guys were called NFG's. Lowder said they'd look to guys who had been there a while to learn what to do and what not to do.I remember getting rocketed the day I arrived and laying down till it was over, he said. Then this gunnery sargent came over and said, 'Doc, that's a bunker over there. Get the hell in it.'Lowder quickly learned how to find a 'hole' during an attack. He also learned how to build a hootch, or hut, out of empty ammunition cases filled with sand; a tent, by snapping together two ponchos; to treat horrendous wounds; and, that he could absolutely rely upon Marines.If you'd get hit in the middle of the field or a fight, they would ... we would ... come and get you, he said. Out of my 32 years (in the Navy), my time serving with the Marines Corps was my proudest time. I had a Marine colonel do my retirement ceremony.You never leave anybody, Williams said. You're fighting for those guys around you.Williams learned how to live with discomfort.He once spent 63 days on a patrol without a shower, change of clothes or a hot meal. He also learned to sit on his helmet during helo rides into the bush; to carry as much ammunition and water as he could on patrols, or on the hump, and to sleep very lightly at night.You'd wake up at even the slightest noise, he said. It's like you get an extra sense of self preservation.Lowder learned to sleep lightly too.You learn not to sleep very well, he said. The softest sounds, like a pop, could make me jump awake.Both men said they slept soundly at night before Vietnam, but not after. The homefrontBoth Williams and Lowder stayed in the military after the war.Both said being around men who understood what they had been through helped with the transition. Civilians generally either disapproved of, or ignored their service. Something I didn't get when I first got back,' Williams said, Was nobody ever said, 'thank you.' There was no welcome home. When I came back it was really disheartening, Lowder said. I still have anger about people's attitudes toward us. We were over there risking our lives, serving our country and people hated us for it.As for the politics that started and prolonged the war -We were done a big injustice politically, Williams said. A lot of us lost our lives and our limbs and we got sold out.LegaciesLooking back, Williams said Vietnam left him with a deep sense of responsibility.You're a PFC (Private First Class) and through attrition, all of a sudden you're a squad leader and you carry that with you, he said. Even today, I still feel real conscious of keeping people safe.As for Lowder, he went on to serve 33 years in the Navy, retiring in 1992. He said he is grateful to have had such an exciting and rewarding career and that he doesn't care what the the current view is on Vietnam, especially if that view comes from someone who wasn't there.I was doing what I was trained to do, he said. I could care less about what the politics of it are. I did what I was sent to do and I'm proud of it.No observances of the end of the Vietnam War are planned in Oak Harbor. "