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Veteran Spotlight

Melvin L. Quakenbush September 14, 1950 Vietnam U.S. Army – 233rd Transportation Unit, Spec 4

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For most people, being number one is a good thing, but not for Melvin Quakenbush. On New Year’s Eve, Melvin was driving around, celebrating and drinking a little beer when a friend pulled him over and asked if he had heard about President Nixon’s new draft plan – eligible men would be drafted by birthday. Melvin was now number one in his county in Kansas.  

Melvin got his draft notice a week later, giving him 27 days from January 1 to report. The draft board said, “Come in and volunteer – you’ll get a choice of duty.” Melvin’s big brother who was already in Viet Nam advised, “Don’t ever volunteer for nothin’,” so he didn’t. He was soon on his way to Denver, Colorado and then Fort Lewis, Washington near Tacoma for basic training.

Since Melvin was drafted out of high school, he didn’t have a diploma. Fort Lewis offered him a General Equivalency Diploma if he’d go to classes for about one and a half months.  “Sure, I’ll get a diploma,” Melvin thought.  He spent all of February plus two weeks in classes and also got two weeks knocked off his basic training time. That sounded all right.  After graduation he was behind the original guys he went in with, so he was switched to company A22. Melvin already knew how to shoot, but throwing grenades was different than throwing rocks. He was a lonely draftee. The other 62 men were National Guard or enlistees.  

Melvin went home for two weeks after basic training and then reported to Fort Ord, California, for Advanced Individual Training for truck driving school for two to three months. Melvin remembers Fort Ord as an area surrounded by rolling sandy hills. Each day in 64B20 was like a job: reveille, classes, meals and practice driving five-ton and deuce-and-a-half trucks. Some of the guys had never driven a truck at all, but Melvin had driven farm trucks. These did have an extra gear shift to get used to. Melvin got a military driver's license and went through a little graduation ceremony. Then everyone had to find his name on the big bulletin board to see where he was going.  Melvin was the only one of this company to be assigned to Viet Nam.

After Melvin got his orders, he went home for another two weeks. He was required to have army green socks, underwear and t-shirts. Since all of his were white, his Mom did a dye job for him. Army clothing was not issued until he was actually in Viet Nam.

Melvin spent about one and a half weeks at Travis Air Force Base in Oakland, California while waiting to ship out. He flew on an American Airlines plane from the Coliseum to Seattle, Washington then to Fairbanks, Alaska and then to Tokyo, Japan and finally to Bien Hoa, Viet Nam. Melvin remembers looking out and seeing Mt. Fuji as they flew out of Japan.  After a week he got orders for the transportation company at Long Binh, only 10 miles away, and that’s where he spent the remainder of his 365 Viet Nam days. This was the largest Army post in Viet Nam. The whole area was fenced to protect the ammunition and food stores from outsiders sneaking in. Trucks distributed supplies all around the conflict area. Another job was taking tanker trucks out to spray the bunker line with chemicals to keep the ground bare. Melvin suspects this was when he came in contact with Agent Orange.

When it was found out that Melvin had a military driver's license, he often piled security guards into a deuce-and-a-half and drove them to their guard duty stations. He also filled in as a guard if needed, sometimes at the “LBJ” (Long Binh Jail), which was for US soldiers who went AWOL, etc.

Melvin got no R&R leave (Rest and Relaxation) but he did get frequent passes to Saigon, which was only 32 miles away.  Sometimes he took a 10-ton truck to haul other trucks to be loaded on ships. Of course, there were also clubs and women. He also got passes to Vung Tau about 40 miles away on the South China Sea coast where he could see the Navy ships.

Long Binh was a hot zone in Viet Nam. There were helicopters flying all the time, and Melvin was scared every day. Every night on guard duty, they would see “Freedom Birds,” planes taking GIs home. He had a “short-timer’s calendar” with one square for each of the 365 days of his assignment. He kept his eye on the last square. Number one was Kansas.

But Melvin says he always had a good place to sleep, a roof over his head and square meals.  He didn’t have to eat rations like the guys who were away overnight. Each “hootch” (hut) had a “Mama San” who cleaned and did laundry. Clothes were important because security guards had to look sharp.

When Melvin’s 365 days were up, he flew back to Oakland through the Philippines and Honolulu, Hawaii, making a sort of big circle. In 1971, people didn’t like GIs. There was no motorcade to welcome him home. For safety and to avoid being booed, the men changed into civilian clothes on the plane before they landed. Because he had less than three months left of his two-year obligation, he could get out right away. He flew on to Denver, but then, somehow lost his plane ticket from Denver to Goodland, Kansas so he hitchhiked. He was very glad he was already in civilian clothes.  

Melvin’s mom didn’t have a phone so he didn’t know how he was going to make the final leg home to Menlo, Kansas. He went to the Goodland city hall and a highway patrolman there said, “You look like you just got out of the military.” When Melvin said “yes,” the patrolman asked, “Where do you want to go?” Melvin paused here to control his emotions.  That question meant so much to him. “To a little town called Menlo, Kansas,” Melvin answered. “The patrolman said, “Well get in and we’ll get you there.”

Melvin says he doesn’t think much about Viet Nam. “It’s water under the bridge … been there, done that.” But he says he’d do it again. It’s free education, and if he hadn’t been in the service, he might well have been one of those boys always in trouble. He thinks everybody should do two years, but no combat duty for women. Melvin took advantage of the GI Bill and went to Vo-Tech school to be a welder.

Melvin is proud to be the youngest Viet Nam veteran in the Ronan Post. Thank you for your service, Melvin.

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