Howells classmates reminisce about time in military service
HOWELLS — In the first half of the 1960s, the United States was intent on increasing its military forces in a highly controversial military conflict in South Vietnam.
No one knew that better, perhaps, than the 36 seniors in the 1963 graduating class of Howells. Of the class’s 20 young men, 18 signed up for the military.
Of those, a half dozen eventually packed their duffels bags for a 12-month tour of Vietnam. For some, a trip overseas may have seemed inevitable.
Take Dallan Schlautman for example. By August of 1965, his name was number one on Colfax County’s draft list.
Who was number two? His twin brother, Duane.
One month later they were in the Army. So was their classmate, the late Jim Vodvarka.
Seeing the writing on the wall, classmates Francis Baumert and Leroy Gall volunteered for the draft.
The group of five — Baumert, Gall, Vodvarka and the Schlautman brothers — always hung out together, as tight as a fist, Gall said. When Baumert and Gall realized their friends had been drafted, they decided they’d rather head for the military with guys they knew than wait.
“We wanted to get it over with,” Gall said.
The five friends got on the bus for their physicals on the same day: Sept. 29, 1965.
After Omaha, their next stop was Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., or as the five preferred to call it Fort Lost in the Woods or even Fort Leonard Wood, Misery.
From there, some of them peeled off the path.
The late Vodvarka served as a radio repairman at Xuan Loc, Vietnam.
Gall had put in for Germany, he said, and that’s where he was assigned. “I got lucky,” he said.
Gall spent his time at the U.S. military base at Schweinfurt, Germany, with the 2nd battalion, 39th artillery, 3rd division. He worked in survey, or range finding.
Baumert was sent to Fort Jackson, S.C., for infantry training, and from there the men in his company were sent “in 50 different ways,” he said.
Baumert’s ways were to Fort Polk, La., and the NCO Academy at Fort Hood, Texas. He was assigned to Germany, but by that time he had only 11 months left to serve.
He ended up in Fort Carson, Colo., in charge of U.S. prisoners who’d gone AWOL.
Following high school, the Schlautman brothers and Baumert had spent several years driving trucks in Omaha. Because of their experience, the Schlautman brothers skipped over further training and got a green light straight to Vietnam.
They served in the same company, but not in the same platoon.
Because Duane experienced a collapsed lung early on, he was assigned to run a field PX for an infantry battalion on South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. For six months, he dispensed beer, cigarettes and sundry items from the back of a trailer where he also lived. He slept in a recliner.
“The chair ended at my knees,” he said. “The Vietnamese are short people.”
Dallan trained in the rain forest of Hawaii. It was easy to get lost in the deep gorges there, he said, and he was actually more afraid there than in Vietnam. He transported troops and ammunition to various search and destroy missions while stationed at Long Bien, with as many as 40 trucks driving as fast as possible in one long convoy. On one trip, he discovered his truck was filled with baby scorpions.
As the Schlautmans completed their tours, Duane once again experienced a collapsed lung. The hospital was mortared that night, and all patients but Duane and another soldier were moved to the safety of a bunker.
One of the nurses risked her life as well to stay back with them as they couldn’t be moved. Consequently, Dallan left for the States without his brother.
“My mother was shocked when I came home without him,” Dallan said, as his mother feared the worst.
Duane was moved to Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Colorado. While there he was visited by another Howells classmate, Nurse Bonnie (Dostal) Hubern who also spent time in Vietnam.
Recently, the class of 1963 gathered for their 55th year reunion at the Howells ballroom.
They reminisced about their adventures in high school, and the years they’ve spent since — including time in the military. All of the veterans from the class arrived back from their military service safe and sound.
“We were blessed,” Gall said, crediting their mothers for the prayers they offered to bring their children back home.