Legionnaire of the Month
We are nearing the last of our American Legion Post 23 Vietnam Vet’s stories. If anyone is aware of others please let me know as we would like the opportunity to include them.
As always, we will start at the beginning of Neal’s story with an introduction. Neal Albers was born in Lennox SD in 1947. He was a middle child with 5 older sisters and 3 younger brothers. Neal grew up in town and started working part time at the local grocery store at the early age of 10. Neal continued working part time until he graduated from Lennox HS in 1965. Life was good and Neal advanced to doing what he enjoyed and what he was good at—as now he was working full time managing the grocery store he had been working at for years.
Like many of us, the events in our life do not always play out the way we intend them to. Anyone who has been in the military has experienced getting just the opposite of what you ask for. It seemed that luck was on Neal’s side and he was getting some good breaks—at least it seemed that way at the start. But let’s let Neal tell his story.
“In May of 1966 I got a draft notice and went to Sioux Falls to take my physical. There were a bunch of us there at the same time and upon completing our physical they announced that they had 2 openings for the Marines, 4 openings for the Air Force and the rest of the openings were for the Army. Even though the Air Force was longer--for 4 years active duty + 2 years reserve, I thought it was the best choice. This was one time that it paid to have my name start with the letter “A”. I was one of the 1st to pick what branch I wanted so I went with the Air Force. (Editor note--anyone who knows Neal, knows he is not a ‘combative person’ and would do what it takes to avoid hurting anyone—especially anyone who has done no harm to him).
All seemed to go well and they sent me for 11 weeks of basic training at Lackland AF Base in Texas. After that they sent me to Glasgow MT. This was a new base and we had new barracks. We had our own bedrooms and bathroom. I received ‘On the Job Training’ as a base policeman in the Air Police Squadron. Although I was assigned there from 1966 to July of 1968, I had a 6 month TD assignment in Okinawa. I was temporarily stationed at 1st Camp Kadina in Okinawa. My duties there were assembling 1,000 lb and 500 lb bombs. It seems that after WWII the US had agreed not to put B-52’s or KC-135 refueling planes on the base. Because we were making bombs for B-52’s that were going to Vietnam, the locals wanted us out of there. About 300 or more stormed the base. Thusly, we were moved to Guam (The Rock) for the remaining 5 months. Missions were flown out of there to Nam.
Somehow I managed to get in a little “rift” by volunteering to help out on one job. The person who normally operated the Big Bonie fork lift was on sick call. Our Sgt. asks if anyone could operate that equipment. I said I could and did so for about 2-3 hours. Another troop must have snitched on me and told the Sgt. I was not licensed for fork lift on my military driver’s license. Needless to say the Sgt. was not too happy with me. I had to go before the Company Commander. But because he’d ask if anyone could operate, not if they had qualifications on their license--I did not lie. They made a big deal of it and eventually called in someone else to take over.
After 5 months in Guam I was back to Glasgow. My 3rd TD assignment was to Mather AF Base outside Sacramento, CA. They were short security personnel and my duties were on the flight line. After that I went back to MT and found out that the base was going to close. Two weeks later I was given orders to go to Dyess AF Base by Abilene, TX. From there I went to England AF Base Alexandria, LA. Here my Air Force Career was about to change. I and 89 other troops were sent to a Army base at Ft. Campbell, KY for 5 months. They needed ground troops in Vietnam. We were one of only 3- 90 man units like this in the entire US Air Force. Of course the AF didn’t have any personnel to train us in “ground combat” so our units 821st, 822nd (I was in) and 823rd were trained by the Army.
We had a Christmas leave in 1968 and regrouped at England AF Base. We were dispatched to Vietnam for the year of 1969 under the name ‘Operation Safeside’. What the significance of that was I don’t really know. Before leaving England they needed one more Fire Team Leader. But you had to be a Buck Sgt. for the job. I, being an Airman 1st Class, with the most time and grade was promoted and became a Fire Team Leader.
We had our base camp outside Phan Rang Air Base. We were a team of 1 leader, 1 asst. leader, 1 radio person, 2 on M-60 or M-50 machine guns (depending on what duty we were assigned to). As a team we worked together on perimeter tower security. Our shift was from 11PM to 7AM. As a Fire Team we worked 3 days on and then a 24 hour break.
We were hit with mortars and rockets the very 1st night on duty. It was a whole lot scarier than I can say--more than just a little scary. Our ambush sites were only 6 to 8 miles from the base perimeter. Their intelligence was evidently pretty good because one time they were waiting for us at our ambush site. It was easy to get separated. One time a team member got separated and it was almost daylight before we were able to get him off the site and back with us.
The Army and Marine troops had it a lot tougher than we did. I was very impressed with the Army’s Flame Throwers mounted on tanks. Those babies could clear a path of brush and undercover with a huge flame that shot way out. Some of the fire teams spent a couple months along the DMZ of Plieku AF Base to help with security. We were lucky and when we finished our duty there were 89 of our original 90 still together. In some area or units there were problems with drugs but we did not see any of that in our unit. My life and that of my team depended on being alert 100% of the time. The one missing team member was not killed. He was in the ‘brig’ for falling asleep while on guard duty.’ (Interestingly, he was in the LBJ Brig—Long Ben Jail).
We did not have a lot of entertainment over there. But to end on a positive note, one of the more pleasant memories is related to the popular radio program ‘Good Morning Vietnam’. An Air Force DJ on our Armed Forces Radio Service was on the air each morning. I can still imagine hearing the sound of a rooster crowing in the background. We were not allowed to have individual radios in camp as they could interfere with the official military communication. But some guys had them anyway and if they were brave enough would switch the PA Mic on and broadcast it—everyone really got a kick out of it and enjoyed for a moment. This was risky as you would get in trouble if the right people caught you doing it. Some will remember when in 1987 it was made into a hit move with Robin Williams playing the part of the DJ. The real DJ would have been court-martialed if he did what Robin Williams did.
After being in a combat zone I am truly thankful and glad that wars have been off our shores and have not been on US soil. There are a lot of innocent casualties, damage and destruction that go with war. One of the hardest parts of being there was figuring out how you tell a North Vietnamese from a South Vietnamese. I saw a lot but do not wish to get into that here. There are a lot of things that I’d rather not talk about. When faced with death, it is important to know where you are going and my Christian faith helped me get through all of this. It took me a while but with some devine help, I’m doing well. I had some problems after what I had seen and I had to work at getting resituated and back to a normal life--but this I got done too. I do not regret serving and in fact, the military discipline was good for me and helped me in life. For that and other reasons I would encourage young people considering the military as an option to seriously consider it.
When I returned back to the states another hard thing was when those who had fled to Canada were allowed back in as US Citizens. It took me a while but again with devine help, I got over that too. Vietnam was not a popular war but I am proud to have served in it and hopefully we helped accomplish some good things over there. Martin Luther King was killed while I was in Nam. There was a bit of a problem, but it was resolved very quickly by the Commander.”
So in the end, Neal completed his final 1 year tour of duty in Nam just like he may have had to if he had opted for only 2 years of Army military service. He was discharged in 1970 and returned to Lennox. He again became the manager the same store that he’d started working in 13 years earlier. On June 5, 1970 he married Pauline Sletten. In 1981 they moved to Garretson as he became the manager of our local grocery store. Neal successfully managed that for 14 ½ years. In 1995 he worked for the Garretson School as head custodian and then worked as the head custodian for Palisade Manor. Neal is now enjoying ‘the good life’ of retirement. They raised a son Craig and a daughter Stacy who are both married. They enjoy spending as much time as they can with their 7 grandchildren.
Neal has been an active member of the Garretson community since 1981 and held a variety of positions on boards and organizations, including President of the Commercial Club. He has received various honors and awards, including Outstanding Young Man of America in 1981. Neal joined the American Legion in Worthing and transferred membership to Post 23 when he moved to Garretson. Neal is a strong supporter of the American Legion and always willing to help out.
Neal, on behalf of Post 23, our Community, State and Nation, we thank you for your loyalty and dedicated service.
American Legion Post 23