September 11, 2017, my wife, Patti, and several family members attended the 2017 Veterans’ Voices Award ceremony at University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota Humanities Center started the program in 2013 to recognize Minnesota Veterans who quietly work with the underserved members of our state. I was deeply honored to be selected.
The evening had an air of celebration yet the sixteenth anniversary of 9-11-2001 hung like a pall over the ceremonies. After the White Earth Veterans Association Honor Guard posted colors, Bemidji’s own, Joe Vene, sang the National Anthem. After the Anthem, a moment of silence was observed for those lost on 9/11.
During that moment, as the White Earth Honor Guard marched slowly away, their dance bells rang mournfully, like chimes in the night calling the lost. As I accepted my award, I thought about what one of my old riverboat crewmates wrote to me a few weeks earlier when I questioned why we are still here after so many others of our Vietnam Brothers had been lost.
Brian wrote, “You and I are still here because it’s not our time yet. Someone watches over us, just the way they did when Tango 7 and Tango 11 got switched on the Cua Viet at Dong Ha. The 18th has become a day for me to remember and reflect. The Travelling Wall was in my area over the July 4 weekend, I made a point of going there to honor the men we lost those days.”
I too, remember the Marine Corps and Navy Memorial Services held on the sandy banks of the Cua Viet River and the Army/Navy Memorial Services held on a pontoon barge in the Mekong River. Fifty years later the faces blur but like chimes in the night, they echo in my memory.
In helping others, I honor the memory of those who never had a chance to grow old. Perhaps Brian is right. Our work isn’t finished yet.
This past week I traveled 1,593 miles and 51 years back in time.
Professor Tom Murphy, Indiana University, South Bend, initiated my trip when he asked if I would like to speak to students in his history classes that use Muddy Jungle Rivers—my visit included an evening public reading. I’m often surprised at the wide-ranging discussions during reading conversations—from the antiwar protestors to troops in the field to the political scene. One young lady, questioning the morality of the Vietnam War, attempted to equate perceived police brutality to troop behavior in Vietnam—there really is not a reasonable answer for such a question. Our national collective Vietnam Experience continues to haunt us—including our grandchildren.
As we drift into the autumn of our years it’s common to reminisce about the past. The past week while in Indiana I had the opportunity to reconnect with two men I served with during our 1966 deployment to Vietnam. We’re old men now, but sitting near the bonfire, I closed my eyes and listened, and once again I saw three seventeen-year-old sailors joking on the deck of the USS Rogers. We had a wonderful few days together.
As much as I treasure my visit with them, it feels good to be home.
I will be visiting Indiana University, South Bend, on April 18, 2017. During the day, I will discuss my Vietnam memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers with two history classes who are using the book. There will be an evening event, open to the public, on campus, at Franklin D. Schurz Library.
A little extra event I’m excited about–two old shipmates from my first Vietnam deployment will be there–the first time we’ve seen each other in more than fifty years.
A few days ago, Rhonda Culbertson, from the Library interviewed me.
A Conversation with Wendell Affield, Author of Muddy Jungle Rivers
Posted on March 20, 2017 by jmfelli
By Rhonda Culbertson
I had the privilege of speaking with Wendell Affield, who will be coming to campus Tuesday April 18 to discuss his book, Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat Cox’n’s Memory Journey of His War in Vietnam and Return Home. The event will take place in the 3rd floor Bridge area of Wiekamp Hall starting at 5:00 p.m. The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend.
Mr. Affield is soft-spoken and articulate. His voice has the distinctive cadence and faint accent that reminds me of his generation of the Minnesotans I grew up with. He and his wife live near Bemidji, Minnesota, in a log cabin overlooking a small lake that flows into the nearby Mississippi River. A pair of swans are summer residents, and great entertainment.
He had a difficult childhood on a small farm in Northern Minnesota. Both his mother and stepfather struggled with mental illness. At 17 he enlisted in the Navy, and while still a teenager he was deployed to Vietnam during the Tet offensive, as a member of the Mobile Riverine Force. He piloted an armor troop carrier through the delta of the Mekong river and then on the Cua Viet River, just south of the DMZ. He was seriously wounded in an ambush and was medevaced off the river. Later he was brought back to the United States for rehabilitation and therapy for his injuries. The emotional and psychological wounds took longer to heal. Not until retirement did he begin the process of writing his memoirs. He started attending classes at Bemidji State University to learn the craft of writing. Over a period of ten years he honed a collection of memories and stories into his book.
We spoke at some length about his writing process. Surprisingly, considering the vividness and detail of his writing, he did not keep a diary during his time in Vietnam. He relied on a writing technique taught by Donald M. Murray in his book, Write to Learn, for creating a memory tree. The trunk of the tree is an event. As you delve into the specifics branching out from the main trunk, old memories start to reawaken. These ‘trigger memories’ are where other memories attach. Mr. Affield also made extensive use of military resources available on the web including ‘After Action Reports’ to supply missing pieces and additional detail. Those who shared his experiences confirm his accuracy.
The original essays were discrete stories based on vivid but disjointed memories, told from a retrospective viewpoint. After working with the material and consulting with classmates and mentors, he realized that it needed to be a larger chronological work told from the viewpoint of a young soldier.
I was not surprised to learn that stylistically, one of his main influences is Hemingway. His writing has the immediacy and carefully crafted sentences of that author. He is also an admirer of other WWI poets and writers, who evoked the loss and waste of war so powerfully.
Mr. Affield and I also talked about some of the moral and ethical challenges faced by soldiers in combat situations. Although he entered the navy with a fairly limited picture of the larger world, he felt that his childhood on a small farm and growing up near Red Lake Nation, an Ojibwe reservation north of Bemidji, gave him insight into the agrarian existence of the Vietnamese peasants. He was able to empathize with their plight, and imagine how people in his own community might react to the violent intrusions of war.
He feels fortunate that he did not have to fight in a context where he had to be the first to fire, or where the difference between soldier and civilian was blurred. He has a great deal of empathy for current soldiers who are fighting terrorists in an arena where the distinction is not always clear.
One of the most gratifying aspects of sharing his story has been the contacts he has made with other veterans. Social media has given him the chance to reconnect with many from his past. His website and blog have provided opportunities to interact with veterans and family members who have found insight into their own experiences through his story. Veterans struggling with posttraumatic stress are particularly drawn to his talks and workshops. He makes sure to have information about local veteran resources at all of his appearances.
Mr. Affield feels that writing can be a powerful healing tool for anyone dealing with trauma; not just veterans. Several times he mentioned that the act of writing the trauma down ‘puts boundaries’ around an event, and allows the writer to start making sense of the traumatic injuries and to approach them more dispassionately. He recommends the book, Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story, by Ron Capps as an aid for those who would like to record their own experiences.
Although Mr. Affield has taken careful pains to not glorify war in any of his writings, a history class with Tom Murphy made him realize that the anti-war movement perspective was missing from early drafts of his book. Embodied by one of his military comrades, nick-named “Professor”, the anti-war position was explored using remembered conversations. Upon returning home, Mr. Affield had an encounter with anti-war protesters. Thirty years later he returned to the scene in an attempt to learn why the protestors had assaulted a hospital bus loaded with wounded troops enroute to Great Lakes Naval Hospital. What he discovered was quite astonishing.
He hopes that accounts like his can help us, as a country, learn from the past. While reading H.R. McMasters’ Dereliction of Duty, Affield was outraged at the hubris and lies made by national leaders in the early 1960s—deception that dragged this country into the Vietnam War. He hopes that Mr. McMasters remembers what he wrote while serving as National Security Advisor for the current administration. Affield also talked about the experiences of his mother and grandmother who were in Europe during Hitler’s ascendancy. His grandmother, a student of history, foresaw the problems that might arise from the 1938 Munich Agreement. Mr. Affield sees parallels with the current situations in the Middle East and North Korea.
Mr. Affield closed our conversation with an anecdote. He wanted to place copies of his book in his former business place. He felt he needed to warn the owner, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, that there was profanity in the book. The owner took a long look at the author and said, “Wendell, war is profane.”
Please plan to join us for a fascinating conversation. Copies of the book are available for check-out in the library, and by contacting Vicki Bloom, email@example.com. For more information or to rsvp, please contact Rhonda Culbertson, firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the author and his books visit his blog at: http://www.wendellaffield.com or https://www.facebook.com/wendell.affield/.
These recent protests against the Trump rally and the media’s obsession comparing it to the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests have triggered memories of my 1968 confrontation with the anti-war protestors. While serving with the Brown Water Navy in Vietnam I was wounded in an ambush and medevac’d home.
On August 29, 1968, our C-141 Starlifter landed at Glenview Naval Air Station. We were transferred from the Starlifter to hospital buses for transport to Great Lakes Naval Hospital. When the buses pulled off the base we were surrounded and attacked by the protestors. For several decades I was troubled by why protestors would attack bus loads of wounded troops traveling.
(This Starlifter picture is from Beverly Dawson’s book, Images of America, Glenview Naval Air Station. (Page 108).)
This Vietnam magazine article I wrote several years ago details the event. http://www.wendellaffield.com/uncategorized/22-august-2007-revisiting-the-past
Sergeant First Class Patrick Thomas Jr
Two years ago I reconnected with a group of men I served with in Vietnam. I mentioned a soldier I’ve thought about each day since August 18, 1968, when he performed an act of heroism during an ambush and was severely wounded. At that 2013 reunion I learned his name and began searching for him. To learn more, read a few of my earlier blog posts.
I’ve been invited to participate in a 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War in Rockford, IL, this Veteran’s Day weekend. One of the men who invited me suggested we honor SSgt Thomas.
This November Midway Village Museum is partnering with local Vietnam veterans and the Department of Defense to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War and the role of local soldiers and families in that conflict.
Friday is going to be open to the Rockford Public schools for students and teachers to come and meet veterans, visit display as well as talk to veterans about the war.
On Saturday November 14 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. local veterans will share displays of photographs and artifacts and be available to talk with visitors about their experiences. Displays will include all branches of the military, Medical MASH units, POWS, the use of helicopters in combat, scrapbooks from a Gold Star Mother, and the Purple Heart Society. Cost is $7 adults, $5 ages 3-17. Members are FREE.
Other features of the day include:
A presentation at 12:30 by students of the Harlem High School’s Harlem Vet Project. Students have interviewed Vietnam veterans and will present several minutes each of documentaries based on the experiences of those veterans. Longer documentaries are under development. At 2 p.m. author and Vietnam Veteran Wendell Affield will present a talk on his memoir Muddy Jungle Rivers. Affield was part of the Army’s Mobile Riverine Force in 1968.
On Sunday November 15 join the Museum for a Public Forum on the Vietnam War from 2-4 p.m. Dr. John Votaw, Emeritus Director of the First Division Museum in Wheaton, Illinois will act as Moderator. Panelists include Bronze Star recipient Mary Nichols, American Legion Post Commander and 26 year Army Veteran Dave Davis, Veteran turned Peace Activist Stanley Campbell, and former Marine and Purple Heart recipient Don Allen. Panelists will address how Veterans were treated when they returned home, what the community feelings about the war were, and the way their own feelings about the war have changed over the years. There will be an opportunity for audience questions as well.
I believe most of us carry ghosts we hold close. I received the phone call about Sgt Thomas while shopping for my wife’s valentine gift. It was déjà vu—the same sense of disconnect I felt when I learned my brother had been killed. Sergeant Thomas has been in my thoughts each day for more than forty years. And each day I’ve thought about what I would say if I met him.
I never mentioned Sgt Thomas to anyone because for many years I rarely mentioned my Vietnam experience and besides, I didn’t know his name. In retrospect, I think it was his quiet sense of confidence that impressed me. I’m sure he never noticed me.
I first saw him the summer of 1968. He was an army noncommissioned officer (NCO) and I was navy—cox’n of our armor troop carrier river boat. He and his platoon rode our boat several times when we went out on operations.
During an ambush on August 18, 1968, Sgt Thomas came topside and manned a machine gun that had been abandoned. Moments later his chest took the full brunt of a rocket propelled grenade blast when it burned through the armor of the gun turret he was in. I remember how his flak jacket—protective vest—was shredded. For many years I thought he had been killed. At a Mobile Riverine Force Reunion in 2013 I learned the sergeant’s last name—Thomas.
In 2013, after I learned his name, I wrote in my blog, “I wonder if Sergeant Thomas was the senior man on board ATC 112-11 on August 18. I believe in the chaos of the day his act of heroism went unnoticed and unrecorded. I would very much like to identify the sergeant. If he did not survive his wounds, his family deserves to know of his actions. If he did survive, and is still alive, I would very much like to meet him.”
Within a few weeks of posting that message I began receiving clues to his identity. One man sent me a photo of Sergeant Thomas.
About six months ago Sgt Thomas’ company commander, Captain Pease, called me. He had read about my search for Thomas. On Feb 11, 2015, the captain called again. He had discovered orders awarding Combat Infantryman Badges (CIB) with Thomas’ name listed on it. I got the full name, rank, service number, social security number. I forwarded that information to friends who have been active in the search and less than twenty-four hours later I received my answer. Sergeant First Class Patrick Thomas Jr is buried in Durham, North Carolina.
I’ve always known that if I learned the sergeant’s identity I would initiate the process of having an award such as the Silver Star awarded to him if he hadn’t received one. The ambush is well documented: An excerpt from our River Assault Division officer’s Navy Cross citation for that ambush reads,
“James Rad Nelson (570611), Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, for extraordinary heroism on 18 August 1968 while engaged in riverine assault operations against communist aggressor forces in the Republic of Vietnam. As Commander River Assault Division 112, Task Force 117 (TF-117), consisting of twelve river assault craft, Lieutenant Nelson conducted operations along the Hai Muoi Tarn Canal in Dinh Tuong Province. Shortly after noon, the assault boat column was attacked by what was later estimated to be a Viet Cong battalion.”
So now the award must be posthumous. His family deserves to know of his heroism.
I recently reconnected with Beverly Dawson, the lady I met at Glenview History Center in 2007. This Starlifter picture is from her book, Images of America, Glenview Naval Air Station. (Page 108).
Note the bus with the red cross backed up to the back of the medevac aircraft; that’s what we were loaded on to, to be transported to Great Lakes Naval Hospital on Aug 29,1968.
Beverly presented my Muddy Jungle Rivers memoir to a Navy League group in Glenview. Here is a message she sent me.
I think it’s fair to say everyone at last night’s meeting was mesmerized by your story — to a person, all asked how they might purchase a copy — I think your publisher will be hearing from Glenview!
I’m not quite sure where to begin to tell you about my reaction to the book — maybe best to just plunge in…
Your writing is terrific! I felt as if I was right there — you’ve a gift for making the story come alive.
Did I mention previously that I was in Vietnam about 15 years ago? Your descriptions of the river currents and jungle were so vivid — I was right back there as I read. Although my visit was limited to the area surrounding Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon] (and its harbor) and the Mekong Delta (and under completely different circumstances from yours), I recall thinking the environment was totally inhospitable — and what it must have been like for those in combat during the war. I realize full well my concept pales by comparison to the real thing.
Your description of those horrific wounds captured me — both as a nurse and as a fellow human being. And your accounts of the delivery of medical care were beyond anything I’d previously read.
The mob action as your bus left NASG has haunted me all these years since our meeting at the History Center — and more so now that I’ve read the details.
We lived in Chicago in 1968 and saw firsthand the disaster that was the Democratic Convention. As I look back on that time, it’s hard to comprehend that Americans are even capable of the kind of actions we saw back then.
The issues you raise regarding our treatment of veterans resonates even now. While our veterans today by and large have the support of the people, our government still is not doing right by those who’ve put their lives on the line for our country.
As an “old” psychiatric nurse, I’m particularly captivated by the success of your journey with PTSD. There’s so much I’d like to discuss with you — but that’s probably best saved for another day. The fact that you’ve come to terms with so many demons is huge!
My wife and I plan to visit Beverly at Glenview History Center either on the way down or upon our return from the Mobile Riverine Force Reunion in Indianapolis late this summer.
Have you ever been troubled by an event in your past? Troubled enough to revisit it? I did. I needed to make sense of why antiwar protestors would attack a hospital bus carrying wounded troops. The discoveries I made have had far-reaching effects. Here is the story, published in Vietnam magazine about my 2007 visit. Tomorrow I will post a recent development as a result of that 2007 visit.
(double click on page to enlarge)
The Mobile Riverine Force Museum visited Beltrami County Fair recently. 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. escalation in the Vietnam War, with the Tonkin Gulf incident on August 2, 1964.
Over the course of five days, while signing books and helping at the Museum, I listened to hundreds of stories as men and women reminisced about that era. I’ve come to realize that as we move into the autumn of our lives we want to make sense with our past.
I watched veterans reconnect. Perhaps the most poignant, two men studying the lists of killed in action (KIA) etched on the sides of the museum trailer. Studying the same column, they’d begin to visit, gesture animatedly, and hugged. They had served together—same unit, same time, and had friends listed on the Wall. I watched this drama unfold several times.
A man drove down from the Canadian border, walked through the museum, searched the names until he found his lost friends, then came over and introduced himself. He sat in the shade and began talking about his time on the riverboats in Vietnam. He didn’t stop for several hours; I was left with the distinct impression that this was the first time in more than four decades he had shared those memories.
A three-tour Native American brownwater sailor, confined to a wheel chair, spent the afternoon visiting and reminiscing. His body is ravaged by Agent Orange poisoning, yet his warrior spirit remains strong. His friend told me that the sailor used to ride motorcycle with the Legion Riders.
On Sunday afternoon, just as we were leaving, a man started talking to me. He had read my memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers. “You know that concrete ramp you talk about in chapter nine? I built that three months before you got there.” My words had touched his life, reconnecting him with an event from his youth.
Another riverboat veteran traveled from Minneapolis and spent two days with us. After reading the sign on my book table that I donate $5 from each sale he handed me $100. “Life has been good to me,” he said. “Use this for your Food Shelf program.”
I think he personifies the best in all of us.
Legion Escort Riders
Wendell Affield and Legion Rider organizer, Ken Kephart
Over the course of five days, while signing books and helping at the Museum, I listened to hundreds of stories as men and women reminisced about the Vietnam War and that era. I’ve come to realize that as we move into the autumn of our lives we want to make sense with our past. Universal themes emerged as I listened.
First, and most important, veterans reconnected. I watched this drama unfold several times: two men studying the lists of killed in action (KIA) etched on the sides of the museum trailer. Studying the same column, they’d begin to visit, gesture animatedly, and hug. They had served together—same unit, same time, and had friends listed on the Wall.
A man drove down from Baudette, walked through the museum, searched the names until he found his lost friends, then came over and introduced himself. He sat in the shade and began talking about his time on the riverboats in Vietnam. He didn’t stop for several hours; I was left with the distinct impression that this was the first time in more than four decades he had shared those memories.
A three-tour riverboat sailor from the village of Ball Club, confined to a wheel chair, spent the afternoon visiting and reminiscing. His body is ravaged by Agent Orange poisoning, yet his warrior spirit remains strong. His friend told me that the sailor used to ride motorcycle with the Legion Riders.
Another riverboat veteran came up from Minneapolis and spent two days with us. I like to think he personifies the good in most of us. He saw the sign at my book booth stating that I donate $5 from each local book sale to Bemidji Community Food Shelf. He read about the Community Meat Program I helped start at our local Food Shelf and handed me a $100 bill. “Life has been good to me,” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, just as we were leaving, a local resident who had served with the Seabees (Construction Battalion) started talking to me. He had read my memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers. “You know that concrete ramp you talk about in chapter nine? I built that three months before you got there.” My words had touched his life, reconnecting him with an event from his youth.
These are but a few stories.
Another universal theme that emerged was from those who did not serve in Vietnam—era veterans and men who did not go into the military. It seems a common mindset for era veterans to feel guilt that they did not go to Vietnam. I say to them, we all did what we were ordered to do.
I listened to many stories about lottery numbers and near misses. These men often shared stories of friends and schoolmates they had lost in Vietnam. Many, many nonveterans visited the museum. They were fascinated by the pictures inside. More than once I heard someone say, “they’re just kids,” as they studied the young men poised on turrets and boat gunnels.
2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. escalation in the Vietnam War, with the Tonkin Gulf incident on August 2, 1964. Looking back five decades, we were just kids.
The Mobile Riverine Force Museum opened a door to a side of the Vietnam War few people in our community were aware of. For me, personally, it was a very rewarding experience to visit with so many.
I encourage other communities to plan ahead and book the Museum for a viewing. Contact info at: email@example.com
For our community, making the visit possible was a collective effort. Beltrami County Fair Board was great to work with. Our Bemidji American Legion Post sponsored the Museum visit. Funds were raised through private donations and a generous grant from George W. Neilson Foundation. Our friends in Shevlin donated use of their lake lodge for the museum guides who travel with the display to stay at.
Thank you, everyone.