His tour in Vietnam was costly

Published 1:34 pm Wednesday, November 11, 2015

By Diana McFarland

News editor

Gene Lowery received his draft notice three days after turning 19.

It was Oct. 19, 1966 and the Vietnam War was in full swing.

All he knew was that the war was about fighting communism and it was his duty to defend his country.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

If he hadn’t been drafted, Lowery said he would have enlisted.

“I felt like I should be there,” he said.{mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Two years later Lowery came home feeling lucky, although he had lost his entire left arm during a flight run turned disaster.

Lowery said he felt lucky because he didn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress or other emotional issues. Basically, the lost arm was an injury he promptly forgot about, he said.

As a draftee, Lowery said he went into the service as a “nobody.”

After nearly two years of training in North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia, Lowery was one of about 250 soldiers on a US Merchant Marine ship bound for Vietnam.

Lowery was trained as a petroleum specialist, which meant he was responsible for keeping the helicopters fueled up and ready to go.

By the time Lowery got to Vietnam, the Tet Offensive was underway, one of the largest campaigns of the war. Lowery boarded a C-130, which dropped him at the Can Tho airfield in the MeCong Delta. It was located about 100 miles southwest of Saigon, outside the city of Can Tho.

The post received mortar fire nearly every night, from about 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.

The shelling wasn’t intended to kill anyone, Lowery said. Instead, it was designed to keep the troops from getting any sleep, in the hopes that it would affect their performance and alertness during the day, he said.

The enemy was the Viet Cong, also known by nicknames such as “Gooks” and “Charlie,” Lowery said.

It was hard to tell the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong apart, as all wore loose-fitting black pants and tops that resembled pajamas.

“Everyone looked alike,” Lowery said.

Lowery and his crew got to work setting up a fueling station and most of his time was spent on the post. Occasionally they ventured into town, but that could be dangerous.

The Viet Cong was everywhere, Lowery said. The soldiers enlisted the help of one 13-year-old boy who provided information on the whereabouts of the Viet Cong in town in exchange for money or cigarettes.  

Lowery said days were fairly routine unless the enemy started shooting, and then “your day went to hell.”

Lowery said the Viet Cong didn’t have bombs, and only possessed a few Scud missiles. Their real threat was people, he said.

Hoards of seemingly identical people would cross the wire and try to get a shot in. They were often spooked by flares and other troop movements, and most retreated rather quickly, Lowery said.

One group was successful, however, by sneaking in by ambulance. The ambulance went to the flight line and tossed two grenades.

“We stopped them,” Lowery said, meaning they were killed.

Lowery said his tour of duty ended by making a “big mistake.” A chopper had landed and taxied over to his crew for fuel. The chopper was riddled with holes and the crew chief was so scared he was visibly shaking, Lowery said.

Lowery said the crew chief was afraid to go out again in fear of being killed. So Lowery decided to take his place. They were on a mission to go pick up people in the field.

While Lowery was in the chopper, one of the engines blew up. The blast caused the blades on the chopper to flop and they cut through the fuselage, he said.

Lowery’s arm was cut off at the shoulder and he suffered a bad blow to his head from flying debris.

The co-pilot was not so lucky. He was decapitated, Lowery said.

Fortunately, Lowery was wearing a borrowed flight helmet, which probably saved his life, he said. As for the accident, “I don’t remember any of it. That’s the best part,” he said.

When the accident happened, Lowery was down to his last 87 days of duty. He was even lined up for R&R, but “I missed my chance,” he said.

Lowery was flown to a hospital in Japan and eventually came back to the United States. He was unconscious for six days.

At first he didn’t believe it when the corpsman told him he had lost an arm. All bandaged up, Lowery believed he could still feel it.  But when the bandages were removed and he looked in the mirror, he saw it was true.

Mustering a brave front, Lowery told the corpsman, “It’s one less to look after,” but when he got back to his bunk “I cried like everyone else,” he said.

Despite the loss of his arm, Lowery feels lucky to come home from Vietnam alive. And despite stories of soldiers being ill-received back in the states, Lowery said he only encountered that attitude from one person. After talking about it, the man apologized, he said. Lowery went on to get a business degree from Christopher Newport College (now university), got married to Donna and they now have five children and seven grandchildren.

Today, Lowery said he’s lived longer without his arm than with it. Besides, it’s his left arm and he’s right-handed, he said.

“I feel very fortunate to go to Vietnam,” he said and believes the draft should be reinstated.

“Everyone owes this country a few years,” he said.

Lowery doesn’t know if the United States should have been involved in Vietnam. But too many men and women died for the U.S. not to have come out of there victorious, he said.{/mprestriction}