Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Tom Westcott

Age 70
Born 1945 in Fairmont, MN
Currently lives in Fairmont, MN
U.S Army Vietnam Veteran

Tom Westcott joined the U.S. Army in September 1963, heading to Missouri for basic training. He finished basic and remembers the day well. “It was November 22, 1963. It was the day John F. Kennedy was shot.” As the nation was in mourning, Westcott entered 12 weeks of aviation (maintenance) school in Virginia before shipping out to Korea. “I worked on a variety of aircraft over there, including the single engine, fixed wing L19 “Bird Dog,” and the ten-rotor CH-21 Shawnee “Flying Banana” helicopter, among others,” he remembered.

By March of 1964, Westcott was back stateside at Fort Benning, Georgia's Larson Field to begin his work with one of the Army's true workhorses of the Vietnam-era, the C-7A Caribou twin prop engine cargo aircraft. “There were 35 Caribous stationed at Ft. Benning, and all flew to Vietnam in December of 1965.” Westcott headed over with the aircraft as part of the 135th Army Aviation Company, (258th Transportation Detachment), known as 'F-Troop,' named after the popular 1960s TV show. “We kept them in the air,” he said proudly.

Westcott was stationed in Vietnam at Qui Nhon in Central Vietnam for a while, then the large air base along the coast at Cam Ranh Bay. He spent a total of nine months in the Southeast Asia during the war and “flew nearly the entire length of Vietnam, but I didn't fly south of Saigon,” he recalled. “Our aircraft hauled everything from live animals, ammo, Agent Orange, furniture and even bodies.”

During a supply mission, one of their Caribou aircraft crashed in the jungle near Dak Pek. Wescott and a group of fellow Army aviation maintenance soldiers were sent in to try and repair the damaged plane. “We were in there for four days at an underground Special Forces camp,” he explained. Except for a couple of buildings up top, everything was housed underground in an elaborate complex of concrete bunkers, offices, and sleeping quarters, dug and built with the help of South Vietnamese.

“We got that aircraft repaired,” he remembered. “It wasn't pretty, but the Caribou flew back to base.” That mission earned Westcott an Army Commendation Medal.

When his tour in Vietnam was over, the Fairmont native headed back home and found a job doing sheet metal work for Johnny's Plumbing. In 1968 the U.S. Air Force came courting Westcott hoping to prompt a move to Youngstown, Ohio to work on various aircraft projects. “I had quit at Johnny's and was ready to move, but I needed to be in the reserves to take that job,” he said. “I turned down the job when I found out there might be a good possibility of being sent back to Vietnam.” Sure enough, Westcott mused, eight months later, that Air Force Reserve unit shipped out to Vietnam.

Westcott remained in the Martin County area and became a master plumber, working for 35 years with his Fairmont Plumbing company. Recently, Westcott has been busy in semi-retirement with his specialized valve testing firm. But he says he will “fully retire” as of December of 2016.

Image and Story © 2016 Joseph Kreiss Photography

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sigfred “Morris” Johnson

92 years old
Born in 1923 on the family farm north of Swea City, Iowa
Currently living in Swea City, Iowa
U.S. Army World War II Veteran

It was 1943 when Sigfred “Morris” Johnson was drafted into the U.S. Army. He first headed to Camp Dodge, Iowa (now Fort Dodge) then to North Carolina for training. His next stopover was the East Coast and New York, loading onto a troop carrier ship destined for the battlefields in Europe. That was in October of 1944. Johnson joined up with the 78th Infantry Division, 309th Field Artillery, Battery A and headed into combat.

“I served in three areas,” Morris recalled. “I was in the American, European and African theaters during my time in the Army.” When in the European Theater, the Iowa soldier saw action against the Nazis during the Ardennes Offensive (the Battle of the Bulge), as well as in the Rhineland Campaign and fighting in Central Europe which also included deployment to the North Africa / Middle Eastern theater of war.

Johnson was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for heroic service with military operation against the enemy on December 15, 1944 during a fierce battle at Simmerath, Germany. The official Army commendation told the story how Corporal Johnson, as a forward observer, worked to set up Army telephone communications for the 2nd Battalion, 309th Infantry Regimen. “Under enemy artillery and mortar fire, Corporal Johnson repaired breaks in the telephone lines caused by enemy fire,” keeping the channels of communications open with the American forces during the battle.

With his service to the war effort, John also received two Overseas Service Bars, and American Campaign Medal, European and African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbons, three Bronze Battle Stars, a Good Conduct Medal and a WWII Victory Medal. Johnson was honorably discharged in January 1946, saying goodbye to the Army at Camp Grant, Ill.

Returning home to Swea City, Johnson found work with a local “bottled gas” company, staying with that job for seven years. Love blossomed during his first year back home after the war and he got married in 1947. Johnson said he decided to take a civil service exam, and passed with flying colors. He was “appointed by President Eisenhower” as Swea City's new Post Master. Johnson served as the town's Post Master for 30 years, finally retiring in 1983.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Another Contributor!

A huge thank you to U.S. Bank for their recent cash donation to Portrait of a Veteran Photo Project! 

Donations to the project are helping get us another step closer to publishing a book of the veteran's images and stories, plus, the funding helps us continue to build the number of photographs included in the traveling POV gallery exhibit.

If you, your business, or community group would like to become a financial contributor to the POV Photo Project, or host the POV photo exhibit, please contact me at: 507-848-0287, email at: or PM me at the Portrait of a Veteran Photo Project Facebook page.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Norbert E. Hines

Age 90
Born near Guckeen, MN in 1926 on the family farm
Currently lives in Fairmont, MN
U.S. Navy World War II Veteran

Like many farm boys during the war years of the 1940s, Norbert Hines joined the military to help in the war effort. Hines enlisted in the U.S. Navy in May of 1944, just before graduation from Fairmont High School. He was sent to Great Lakes, Illinois for basic training then out west to Treasure Island Naval Base in the San Francisco Bay to attend Navy cook and bakers school. 

Following that stint, Hines was sent to San Diego's Coronado Island in February of 1945 for training and assignment on the attack transport ship USS Fillmore APA-83. An interesting side note, the ship, a Gilliam-class attack transport, was named after Fillmore counties in Minnesota and Nebraska.

Hines admitted he had never been to sea before joining the navy. “I decided to enlist in the Navy instead of getting drafted,” Hines said. “I had heard stories from the Army guys of having to deal with snakes and having to dig your own bed every night to sleep.”

Hines eventually earned a deck division boatswain's mate rating and was put “in charge of everything on the top side of his ship,” Hines said. “That was quite a jump in pay,” he added. “As a boatswain's mate 3rd class I was making $100 per month. When I first went in as a seaman, I was only making around $25 per month.”

The ship hauled everything from gun boats to troops and various military cargo. Loaded to capacity with cargo and passengers, Fillmore sailed from San Francisco April 25,1945, bound for Lady Bay in the Philippines. Hines remembers the ship being tracked by a Japanese submarine. “We had to zig-zag to avoid them,” he recalled. “We were loaded up for the invasion of Japan, and hadn't yet heard word of the Japanese surrender. Boy, there were a lot of fireworks that lit up the sky to celebrate Japan's surrender,” Hines said. 

Hines and his shipmates made numerous voyages across the Pacific Ocean between the South Pacific, Pearl Harbor and Seattle, Washington carrying returning veteran troops and supplies.

One of Hines most interesting post war memories was being part of the 'Operation Crossroads' atomic bomb testing in the Marshall Islands during 1946. “It was right at the end of the war, and most of us had never heard of the atomic bomb,” he remembered. “The USS Fillmore was one of two ships on the site of the bomb testing. We were stationed about ten miles out from ground zero and were part of two different tests of the bomb.” 

The Navy anchored numerous ships at the test site, and some ships even had live animals on board. The veteran seaman still remembers the eerie sight of the tall mushroom cloud that rose from the horizon. He still has a faded and dog-eared photo of the bomb cloud right after detonation. What they witness once on-board the surviving test ships at ground zero was also something not soon forgotten, he admitted.

“We had to wait about ten-to-twelve days before we could go on board those ships to see what had happened,” he said. "The animals that were on board had died and were frozen in place from the bomb's massive radiation blast.” Hines said medics were always checking the men to see how much radiation was in our blood streams. The 90 year-old jokes that the radiation must of help him, since he's still feels healthy and is alive and kicking after his experience with the atomic bomb.

Hines was 21 years old when discharged from active duty in 1947. He joined the Navy Reserves and returned to the Fairmont, MN area after that. The Korean War was just starting but Hines never was called up. He got married in 1950 and remained in the reserves until April of 1952. 

Hines summed up his military experience serving his country. “I never did anything big. No honors, and I never got into combat. So, I guess I lucked out that way.”