REUNION AT LINCOLN FARM REUNITES VIETNAM VETS
Ellsworth County/Independent Reporter Published: September 11, 2003
by: Linda Mowery-Denning
Editors note-Sharon and Larry Dohe are the parents of Ellsworth city Treasurer Angela Mueller. They live 9 miles north of the Interstate 70 Vesper exit.
For more than 30 years, the men of the 538th Landclearing Comapny kept the silence - many of them never letting on how a year or more spent in the thickest jungles of Vietnam changed their lives. Years ago, when Larry Dohe's daughter, Angela, wanted to write a school paper about her father's experiences, he refused. The memories were too fresh.
It wasn't until three years ago, after company veteran Roger Briggs of Kentucky brought them all together for their first reunion since the war, that the stories of the 538th poured out, bringing a sense of closure to those who told them. Another reunion followed a year later in Peoria, Ill., and this past Labor Day weekend, 19 company veterans navigated the muddy rural roads of Lincoln County for a third meeting at the farmhome of Larry and Sharon Dohe.
Parked near the house were cars from Maryland, Kentucky, Indiana and almost a dozen other states. "We've never laughed so much and cried so much." Sharon Dohe said
The mission of the landclearing company was to clear the jungles of South Vietnam so the enemy wouldn't have a place to hide and ambush U.S. troops as they moved along highways. Dan Bishop, who served during the summer of 1970, said the drivers and their support crews were up before sunrise six days a week, inspecting their machines and preparing for 12-hour days.
The plows were lined up single file to head for 'the cut', the area that needed to be cleared. This often was done with the help of a helicopter overhead because the jungle was too thick for the plow driver to see ahead. At the site, drivers cut a 'trace' to mark the boundaries of the cut. As the designated area was cleared, the plows moved farther into the jungle.
The company was highly mobile, moving its fire base or headquarters camp an average of every 10 days. "You just cleared and kept clearing," Larry Dohe said.
Typically, the crews cleared 150 meters - or more than the length of a football field - on both sides of a highway. Ken Read of Fort Worth, Texas said drivers could clear a square mile each day, - if all the bulldozers were operational, which wasn't always the case.
Two kinds of plows were used by the company. The Rome Plow was equipped with a stinger blade to split trees, thus weakening them enough to push over. The other plow featured a Bull Blade to cut a trench along the side of the tree, weakening its root base. After they fell, the trees were pushed into a burn pile.
It's almost impossible to imagine the dangers that threatened the company as it plowed through the jungle. There was the constant fear of landmines or boobytraps. Drivers were protected on front and beneath by thick metal. Yet there was no protection against flying shrapnel from a well-placed mine. And later the Viet Cong became smarter - placing the traps in the trees above the plows, hoping for more damage.
"Every day, you didn't know whether you were going to make it or not. That's war, I guess," Dohe said.
Beyond the enemy was the jungle itself. There were three levels of growth, each harboring critters that could bring almost instant death. Bishop said snakes up to 25 feet in length would fall from the trees, hitting the hot hood of the plow. The only place for them to go was inside the cab. "There were 100 varieties of snakes in Vietnam. Ninety-nine of them were deadly poisonous and the 100th would squeeze you and eat you whole. You'd see a snake coming over the top of the blade and you'd put it in reverse and pray you'd get out of there in time."
The terrain was another challenge for the dozers. Some of the slopes were so steep, a driver was forced to ride with his feet braced up against the instrument panel to keep from falling out of the cab. In places, the jungles was so dense that only black puffs of diesel smoke were visible as a plow inched through the growth.
Larry Dohe said the noise from the 30 bulldozers in the cut was deafening. Several of the veterans attribute their hearing loss to their time with the 538th.
And in the soil was toxic residue from Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used by the United States during the war.
At night, the men returned to their fire base, which contained maintenance and mess facilities and other so-called conveniences. An old tanker trailer with spigots coming out the bottom doubled as a shower. Of course, the water was sandy, but it removed the dirt and grime of a long hard day. Protection came from a berm around the camp.
Bishop said company engineers worked during the day and the infantry pulled security duty at night. Enemy rockets and an occasional mortar were part of camp life.
It's hard to forget.
"I had a friend from Independence, Kan., who was spit on when he came home. He's never forgotten it," Larry Dohe said. Larry McCain from Kentucky nodded his head in agreement. The same thing happened to him.
"We crawled back into society after the Vietnam War," Dan Bishop said.
It's Sunday night and the veterans are gathered in a tent at the Dohe farm, not unlike the ones they shared in Vietnam. For some, this is the first gathering they've attended. Bishop and Dohe, for instance, saw each other for the first time in 33 years.
Most of them were 19 - and 20 - year-olds when the served in Vietnam. They returned home much older in spirit to work as truck drivers, electricians, farmers and postal employees. Some extended their time in Vietnam by a few months so they wouldn't have to spend the final weeks of their active duty stateside. After Vietnam, the last thing they wanted was the 'spit and shine' of the domestic military.
Dan Bishop remembers watching the fall of Saigon, seeing the American flag come down from the embassy and wondering what it was all about. "Hopefully we learned that you have to treat the troops with dignity and respect," he said.
Ken Reed said most of the men at the reunion spent more than 30 years trying to forget. It was one of their own who brought them together again.
At the reunion was Pat Briggs, whose late husband, Roger, started searching in 2000 for his "brothers from the 538th". He located about 150 out of 500 before his death this past November. The search continues in his memory.
"This is the journey of Roger Briggs, a journey that each of you were a part of, a time in my life that I will always cherish," Pat Briggs wrote in a letter to the men of the 538th. "Thank you for the gift you gave him. Thank you for the gift you gave me. Thank you for the honor you pay to him each time you 'connect' with one of your 'brothers'. The journey that began with 12 names and a dream now has close to 500 names and a reason."
Reed said the first welcome home he received came a year ago at the Peoria reunion. The men of the 538th were invited there by the Caterpillar Company.
"It was not a popular war," Bishop said of Vietnam. "But we were just soldiers. We were only doing what was asked of us."
Larry McCain, Kentucky Fred Peterson, Missouri Gary Manley, Tennesee Dan Bishop, Pennsylvania Doug Ball, Iowa Larry Dohe, Kansas Gene Morris, South Dakota Gerald Green, Maryland Jerry Vile, New York Leonard James, Wyoming Tom Lawson, Pennsylvania Mike Ferrari, Missouri Joe Reimann, Indiana Kenneth Cook, Illinois Jim Forrester, Oklahoma James DeFrancisco, Wisconsin Dannie Johnson, Missouri Kenneth Read, Texas Elias Leon, Kansas
The veterans of the 538th Landclearing Company have been together three times since they served together in Viet-nam. Their most recent reunion was at the Lincoln County farm of Sharon and Larry Dohe. The company was active in Vietnam from 1968-1971