Editor’s note: Leon Joy has told his story about serving in Vietnam, some in first person, and some in an interview with the Tribune.
“The remembering is easy and the hard part is still trying to forget,” Joy said. Excerpts of Joy’s writings are in italics.
At Altoona High School in the mid-1960s, Leon Joy from Benedict was enjoying his senior year, a world away from the Southeast Asia country of Vietnam.
“I was a hot rod in high school sports,” the 72-year-old veteran said. “I was at the top of my game, fast cars with the radio cranked up, and king of the castle. I cherished it so much.”
Joy was devastated when his father passed during that senior year, then came graduation for the Class of 1965 and the real world.
He took a job in Fredonia and his boss, a World War II veteran who wore a brace from his injuries, asked, “Boy, do you ever think about joining the Navy or Air Force? You get to sleep in your own bed at night.”
Joy admitted he had not fretted about receiving a draft notice, but believed it was inevitable.
He made a decision to go to Independence to enlist in the Navy, but the day before he went, the envelope came.
He was married to Beverly, his wife of 50 years, on June 20 and left for Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. the next day for basic training.
“Some fled our country, some enlisted, as others awaited the dreaded brown envelope announcing, ‘CONGRATULATIONS! Your friends and neighbors have selected you!’ And we turn our life over to those who would train us for what lies ahead. With our bodies hardened and our minds converted, we left family and friends behind and embarked into the unknown and step foot onto the soil of a god forsaken place that would be embedded in our memory for eternity.”
Joy noted he weighed 145 pounds when he was drafted and 189 pounds when he graduated from boot camp. He was assigned to 225 Company, light weapons infantry.
The next step was Fort Polk, La., for very rigorous training,
Joy said his tough sergeant wore Big Red One Field Infantry and Combat Infantry patches.
“I never got a chance to thank him for being so rough on us,” he said.
On Dec. 5, 1965, after a military flight from Fort Ord, Calif., Joy and his new Army mates landed in the hot and humid location of Guam.
“We had no orders and I had no idea where I was going,” he said.
Upon arrival in Vietnam, his new job was assistant machine gunner in 1st Air CAV, 1st Platoon. The new helmet for his protection already had three bullet holes, setting in the reality of war.
“We were ordered, ‘do not fire unless fired upon!’ and thinking, could it be that bad? But only too soon our young eyes must witness the true horrors of combat as we responded to those in need and find their bloated, swollen bodies covered with swarming flies. The awful reeking odor of dried blood and decaying body parts gagged us and we put towels over our nose and mouth. We became all to familiar with hearing the screams of agony and the terror in a hail of gunfire as the jungle foliage fell around us and ‘Medic! Medic!’ echoes and we went on.
“It seemed every round fired was coming right at that machine gun.
“Day after day we endured the hot humid climate as the straps of our backpacks sank deep into our shoulders causing colored flashes to appear before our eyes. Our fatigues were soaked with sweat that dried into a canvas material that chafed us and made sitting down into a mud puddle a luxury. In the black of night, our trip flares lit up the silent darkness. In a rage of explosions, rifle and machine gun fire, we repelled the advancing enemy. Our bodies shook and trembled in fear and we stayed on full alert till first light and enemy bodies lay only feet away and we went on.
“Those on point fear the next step would be their last as fresh ‘BF Goodrich’ prints filled the trail and knowing the enemy is nearby and waiting. The jungle exploded in gunfire and our heart swells and pounds between our ears in terror. A friend gasps for one last breath of life and we fell to our knees and cradled his head in our arms, feeling helpless. We can only wipe away the debris from his wounds and his body goes limp and lifeless. Our medic would earn the Congressional of Honor and we went on.”
Joy said it was impossible to know what happened to the soldiers if they were taken away injured.
“The only way we knew was if they came back,” Joy said.
With the help of his daughter, he was able to locate “Doc,” the medic and recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He dialed a number and at the other end was Charles Hagemiester. “Is this Doc?” Joy asked, and it was. He said they only spoke of humorous events from their time together.
“Securing an artillery base, we rested, heated our rations and got mail and shared news from back home as one showed a picture of his newborn son he had never seen. New replacements arrived and we crammed them with details needed and we laughed and joked and bonded like brothers and became family, with each depending on the other to survive. Our body got even harder and our mind sharpened to the occasion as we seasoned in combat.
“Our time drew near with the end in sight, we pleaded, ‘Please don’t let anything happen to me now!’ The guys called us ‘short timers,’ our tensions grew with anxiety as days seemed like weeks. Then one day, twelve months to the very day we arrived on Dec. 5, it’s all over and we said goodbye and good luck to those we thought so much of and left them behind, never knowing if they survived. We traded our worn combat boots for a pair of polished low quarter slippers and started home. We caught ourselves wondering, ‘Was it all a dream?’ but knowing it was real and will always believe someone was watching over us and we went on.”
“It was hard to leave those guys,” Joy said, “leaving them behind. But you paid your dues and have to get out of there.”
But home wasn’t what they expected.
The soldiers weren’t aware of the turmoil over the war, the protests.
“Arriving back in the land of the free and the home of the brave, some kneeled and kissed the ground. There were no parades, bands playing, or welcoming, just people outside the fence carrying signs. Once home we saw the media airing riots, draft card and flag burning, and hearing, ‘baby killers!’, ‘hippie dopers!’ and how the war could never be won with soldiers like us. Some grew irate with anger as others chose to swallow their pride in disgust. Such dishonor to our friends who gave their life and lack of respect for those families in mourning. Saddened with dishonor, we chose not to speak of our ordeals and tried to put our life back in order and rejoin society and we went on.”
“Oh my God, that hurt so bad,” Joy said of the disrespect. “Doing that to friends who lost their lives was quite devastating.”
Once home in southeast Kansas, he put his uniform away and barely spoke about his experience.
Years later, the traveling Vietnam Wall was brought to Chanute.
It was calming, healing and moving.
“It’s known as the Healing Wall and it does that,” Joy said. He searched for men from the company they had served and found some.
“It was a big part of my life. It changed me,” he said of his tour of duty.
“We stepped forward with our arms extended and with our fingertips, gently touched and ever so softly felt and we saw their smiling faces as we once knew them back then. Tears filled our eyes and our chin quivered in sorrow and a family member took us by the hand and eased our pain and once more, we went on.
“In closing, I can only pray this writing brings honor and respect to those who served in combat in such an awful place, where we arrived as just boys and we went on and ‘We Became Men.’”