By Pete Mecca
Evans Tool and Die has set a new standard for honoring veterans in Rockdale, Newton and surrounding counties. Going far beyond a brief but appreciated “Thank you for your service,” Evans chose to present its veterans with a gift that will honor them into the foreseeable future.
The company presented 11 employees who served in the military with personalized pavers at the Walk of Heroes Veterans War Memorial in northeast Rockdale County. Company President Dee Barnes stated at the ceremony, “Our freedom is not free. The freedom as a company to have free enterprise, whether we are a small or large business, is not free. The reason we are able to have a great business and economy is because of the heroes who fought for that. Consequently, we wanted to honor those veterans in our company who fought for our freedom. Knowing that we have the Walk of Heroes Veterans War Memorial right here in Rockdale County, what better place is there to honor our Evans veterans. I hope this will inspire other businesses to do the same. It is a great way to support our veteran employees and the Walk of Heroes, as well.”
The 11 veterans honored: Winfred Boyd, U.S. Air Force; Fredric Bryan, U.S. Air Force; Roger Cook, U.S. Army; Jerry Chum, U.S. Army; Charles Jenkins, U.S. Army; Thomas Lowe, U.S. Army; C.T. McCutcheon, U.S. Air Force; James Malcom, U.S. Navy; Arthur Neff, U.S. Marine Corps; Jimmie Smith, U.S. Army, and Patong Xiong, Laotian Army Special Forces.
I interviewed six of the veterans in a private group setting at Evans Tool and Die. Many thanks to Evans and to the men for sharing their stories with me and our readers.
Jimmie Smith – “I was born in Jacksonville, Fla., on a Navy base but lived in Orlando. We moved to Atlanta when I was about 10 years old. After graduating from Roosevelt High School in East Atlanta, I registered for the draft but didn’t wait to be drafted. I joined the Army in 1974. They sent me to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for basic training, or as we liked to call it, Fort ‘Lost in the Woods’, Mo.”
On basic training: “Well, we did a lot of running, I know that. Reveille at 0500, running 2 miles here, 2 miles there, and no talking in the mess hall. Basic was OK, I guess, but I did wonder on occasion as to why I joined up. After basic I was sent to AIT (Advanced Infantry Training) to train as a heavy equipment operator, then I ended up in Germany as a wheel mechanic with the 3rd Infantry Division, working on Jeeps and 2½ ton trucks, things like that.”
On Germany: “Well, the G.I.s got cold beer but the Germans drank hot beer. You’d see them digging on the side of the road and a case of beer would be sitting in the hot sun. And Germany women, sure wish they’d learn to shave their legs. Anyway, I served my enlistment and returned home. The military helped me a lot, I learned discipline and how to get along with people. I think all young people should serve in some way.”
Charles Jenkins – “I was born in Marietta but moved to Newton County to live with my mom about half way through high school. Been living in Newton County ever since. After I graduated from Newton County High School a friend talked me into joining the Army National Guard. Both of us ended up at Fort Benning for basic. It was tough. I remember laying in my bunk thinking I’d never make it home again. My friend tried to go Airborne. Shoot, there was a two year waiting list.”
On specialized training: “I trained with an anti-tank unit. We used the TOW missile, had a range of approximately 2 miles. I never fired a live round, we used simulators. I was in the reserves for four years, never got called up, never deployed. You know, I think young people should join something, to serve; my son went in, makes you grow up, grow into a better person.”
Fredric Bryant – “I was born in Jacksonville, Fla., just like Jimmie, but we moved to South Carolina when I was about 3 years old. Ended up in Atlanta living on Chandler Road and graduated from Southwest DeKalb. Received my draft notice in 1969 … on April Fools’ Day … so I decided to join the Air Force. The Vietnam War was still in full swing in 1969 and I really didn’t want to go, but I was just 19 years old and perhaps should have done things differently.”
“Anyway, after basic training in San Antonio I was sent to Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. I trained as a jet mechanic on F-111s and F-100s, then received orders for Hahn Air Force Base in Germany. Germany is a beautiful country, I liked it. I was there for 2½ years, mainly repairing and refurbishing F-4 Phantom Wild Weasels out of Vietnam. We had to pull off the big panels to do things like changing the chemical air dryers, ailerons, flaps, things like that. No power tools, we used tiny wrenches, but we checked everything thoroughly.”
How badly damaged were the Wild Weasels? “They were shot all to hell, pretty beat up. We fixed them, sent them back to the war.” The most damaged F-4 you ever worked on? “Well, put it this way, if the pilots knew how we worked on them I don’t think they would have flown them again.”
Final comments: “I came home on leave once then went back to finish my enlistment. So, let me say this … the military would be a good thing for everybody. It makes you a better person. I wish they would start the draft again. The way things are in this country now, so many killings and murders and people running around all over the place, you know, if you join the service it straightens your butt up, they break you down to build you back up. As much trouble as we have now, President Trump wants rebuild the military but they’re having trouble getting people to stay or get back in. They should reinstate the draft … wouldn’t hurt my feeling none.”
Final thoughts: “I’m glad I went in, did a lot of things I never thought I’d get a chance to do. One thing for sure, I wish I knew then what I know now. You know, back in 1969 people didn’t welcome us home or give us a pat on the back, none of that stuff. I was scowled at and people said bad things to me; it was a bad time in general. We all think differently about that time now, things have changed … I still wear my dog tags for the boys overseas.”
James Malcom – “I was born in Monroe, Ga., and graduated high school there. I registered for the draft but attended technical school for two years before it became obvious the draft was getting close, so I joined the Navy in 1967. Basic was at Great Lakes, Ill. Our entire recruitment class got there on Dec. 23 but everybody on the base had gone home for the Christmas holidays. We sat around doing nothing until Christmas was long gone.”
After basic? “I received orders to report to the USS De Soto County, LST 1171. Using my tech school training, I took and passed a test for an E-4 Machine Repairman 1st Class. I stayed on LST 1171 for about eight months then transferred to the LSD 32, USS Spiegel Grove. She’s off Key Largo now, sunk to be utilized as an artificial reef.”
Your ports-of-call? “Well, we were part of the Atlantic Fleet. One thing we did was carry Marines to training areas in the Caribbean, off-loading them for practice assaults then bringing them back, it was like hitting the beaches in WWII. To be honest, I got bored and volunteered for Vietnam. My executive officer had been there and told me, ‘you don’t want to go over there,’ then tore up my request.”
“Anyway, to answer your question, we took North Atlantic cruises to places like Denmark then to France and down to the Mediterranean. We visited ports in Italy, Turkey and Spain; we even cruised to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. I liked Rio de Janeiro and promised myself to return after I got out of the Navy. Never did, though.”
Final comments: “I got out in December of 1971. It’s hard to say what I think about the service now, I don’t know if we need a bunch of people in the military or just a few people with specialized training to stop all these cyber and Internet attacks. I’m 71 years old now, and the U.S. has been at war all my life, but I can’t see where it’s made a bit of difference in anything. Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, even this protracted war against terror, no change whatsoever.”
Roger Cook – “I’m from Odessa, Texas. After ‘Nam the only job I could find was driving a truck. On one over-the-road trip I drove through Georgia, I liked it, so I moved here. I was drafted in 1964 and sent to Ft. Lewis, Wash., with one other guy for so-called basic training, then to Ft. Bragg and Ft. Stewart. I guess you could say I trained as a spook, sneaking around, crawling in the woods to gather info …. shoot, I thought they were trying to kill me at Ft. Lewis, plus I had to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. I considered myself a glorified ground pounder.
“I went to France for two months, Germany for three, then was deployed to exotic and wonderful Southeast Asia. My home base was Bong Son, just north of An Khe, but I worked out of several fire support bases in both I Corps and II Corps. I was a sniper and ‘on loan’ most of the time, especially for the Phoenix Program, interrogate and assassinate.”
Why the Phoenix Program? “I got into it because one of our medics left base to deliver a baby. He never came back. I found him hanging from a tree. I kind of went haywire, well, super pissed is a better way to say it. I thought, ‘you guys wanna play dirty, I’ll turn into the dirtiest fighter there is’ … so I stayed in Nam for three and a half years.”
Asked for details, Cook responded, “I worked from Bong Son to a ‘little north of the DMZ, Laos and Cambodia. I guess I was what they wanted, no conscience. During late 1967, we knew something big was about to happen but the higher ups didn’t buy the magnitude of our intel. They were stunned by the Tet Offensive in ’68. I still have nightmares, guess I always will. Even with that, I still recommend the military for young people, it taught me discipline, respect for older people, it’s a great way to get your head out of … well, you know, it’s a great way to stop being so obstinate.”
Sgt. Patong Xiong, Laotian Army Special Forces – (Author’s note: Patong was a unique interview, the first Laotian soldier I’ve interviewed from a war few people knew about nor understand to this day the magnitude of a war fought in secrecy, the Secret War in Laos. I participated in this so-called clandestine operation for 18 months before spending another 12 months at Tan Son Nhat in Saigon. We lost a lot of good people fighting in secrecy, alongside Laotian soldiers and Air America (CIA clandestine operations). Patong’s English was difficult to understand, even for an old Nam veteran like me, so if mistakes in translation are made, Patong has my sincere apologies.)
“I was born in small village in Laos. I was in school, only 13 years old, when Laotian general and CIA come to school for new soldiers. I only 13, too young to go fight, they go, but come back and get me for Army when I was 14½ years old. I no want to go, but they say Army or jail, so no want jail, went to Army.”
Where did you train? “Sent to Thailand, near Bangkok for maybe six months, then go Vietnam War. We go to Ho Chi Minh Trail, fight day and night, fight all time. I was commando, 20 or 30 of us go one way, 20 or 30 more go another way, set up ambushes.”
Were you wounded? “Yes, wounded.” How many times? “Too many times.” How long did you fight? “Almost six years. War stop in 1975, lost war to Pathet Lao, Laotian Communists.”
Final thoughts: “After war move to Thailand, stay three years. CIA got me to sign papers then come to States, live in Newton County. I still think about war, 13 years old too young, 14½ old enough to leave school go fight. I lost my country, lot of people die, my father, four brothers, all die in war.”
Patong was one of the “good guys” and still is. As of this writing, 500 American warriors are still missing in Laos. The cost of freedom? You tell me.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration visit his website at aveteransstory.us and click on “contact us.”