Reflecting on Vietnam; 75-year-old Wren Place veteran earned Purple Heart

·9 min read

Aug. 4—There's mischief in Mike Mitchum's eyes, bit of sadness, hard-earned wisdom too. Engaging in the overall, he seems the kind of guy most would relish the opportunity to spend time drinking beer and shooting the bull with.

Through it all, he's done the work of getting up and doing his best to provide for his family and serve his country.

"Saw in the [Times-Review] the other day where the American Legion posts of Cleburne and Alvarado are going to be honoring Purple Heart recipients," Mitchum said. "I'm definitely going to that. I've never heard of other posts doing that. Maybe they do."

Mitchum, 75, served in the U.S. Army from 1968, when he was 21, until 1970. Mitchum spent about half that time in Vietnam, where he earned his Purple Heart.

Although proud of his father, also a veteran, Mitchum said he's unsure how much if any influence that had on his decision to serve.

"Dad was in the Marines 20 years so we spent time in Texas but kind of grew up everywhere," Mitchum said. "I was a World War II history buff since I was a kid, movies and that kind of stuff. But nah, never thought of making a career out of the military or anything like that when I was young that I can remember."

Someone else thought of it instead.

"Selective service," Mitchum said. "I was an involuntary recruit at the time. I was a draftee."

Best, Mitchum figured at the time, to make lemonade out of lemons.

"Didn't see any sense in making waves over it," Mitchum said. "So I decided from the start that I was going to be the best that I could be."

Mitchum excelled on his induction and other exams, promoted to staff sergeant E5 and, within three months of arriving in Vietnam, to E6.

"It's worse than Texas," Mitchum said of Vietnamese heat. "It's as hot as it is here, but then wet and rainy all the time on top of that."

Courtesy the training he received beforehand, Mitchum said he expected to hit the ground running once in Nam.

"I got off the plane at the airport outside Saigon and was envisioning getting a bunch of ammunition and a weapon and all," Mitchum said. "But no. Took a couple of days or orientation verifying shot records are up to date and things like that. We had to watch the black and white films on those old movie projectors of the worst cases of venereal diseases that men were affected by."

Little time was had for fun.

"We were in the jungle doing ambushes 10 days to two weeks out in the bush," Mitchum said. "Foliated areas so you'd listen, try to see if you could hear them coming. Then, back to base camp for a night or two. Might get fed a cookout. Course, beer and things like that. We'd just pig out on barbecue then back in the field we'd go."

Times to savor, Mitchum said, barbecue going down much better than the C-rations sustaining Mitchum and his fellow soldiers in the field.

"Wasn't very good," Mitchum said. "Had to cook them yourselves. Had these things called heat tabs, was very slow."

Through word of mouth, Claymore mines and a little ingenuity, Mitchum joked that he and his friends soon figured out how to heat the meals much more quickly.

Having been moved from the First Division to the 25th Infantry Division, Mitchum, on June 2, 1970, found himself in the rice paddies conducting night time ambushes.

"We were moving in an open area in the 25th Division, which was close to the Cambodian border," Mitchum said. "Although it was not known at the time a whole bunch of us moved over to Cambodia at the time before the president was able to announce it to anybody."

Mitchum and company saw heavy fighting in Cambodia before moving back into South Vietnam.

"We were helicoptered into an area," Mitchum said. "While we were disembarking from the helicopter, dropping our rucksacks one by one explosions started going off. We, the lieutenant and I, I was staff sergeant, spread the word Stop! Stop! Stop!"

All were told to freeze, stop and look for trip wires.

"Some were found but some people could not listen to instructions," Mitchum said. "We told them, 'Freeze. Don't move. Look real close before you squat down. Look at the ground, your boots, your shoelaces. Look for that green wire, that trip wire."

A close call for Mitchum.

"A soldier about 20 yards from me hit a trip wire as he was setting his rucksack down," Mitchum said. "Got his legs blown off, helicoptered out."

To no avail.

"As we loaded him I saw the breath out of his lungs," Mitchum said. "The blue was gone out of his face, it was ashen gray. He'd already bled out by then. Because there was so much blood on the ground. His clothes may have held some parts of his leg together but he bled out anyway."

The same fate befell the lieutenant in charge on scene though he lived.

"His legs were gone after surgery below the kneecap," Mitchum said. "He was a short dude after that but still a nice guy. I hated to see that but you just have to take it like it is.

"He was a fairly new lieutenant that we had just got trained up and gave him the reins and lo and behold, his first mission out in that area."

Which left Mitchum as the guy.

"No," Mitchum answered when asked if he was scared. "Didn't have time. I'm the one in charge now. They're all looking to me so I took charge. It was the only thing to do.

"I'm wounded but walking wounded so not a big deal. I had to get everyone else rounded up so I was the last one to leave that area. People that were hurt the worst needed to get to the hospital as fast as they could and that's what I was concentrating on."

That done, Mitchum had his own wounds to deal with.

"I had to go for surgery," Mitchum said. "I got hit in four places with shrapnel. Best guess is it was an artillery dud round that was discovered by Vietcong guerrillas who made a booby trap out of it. Whole lot of booby traps found in that area."

Conditions most would imagine would get into and mess with a soldier's head.

"No, I was the leader, the one in charge," Mitchum said. "Had to do what had to be done."

That including ferrying ammo to the men on the front lines at times, Mitchum said.

"A 6 foot, 3 inch person can't bend down that much," Mitchum joked. "But, I ran resupply to them and everything and it never bothered me because that was my job. I was trained to do it, and other people were trained to do their jobs too so we relied on each other."

A colonel arrived on June 3, 1970 to present Mitchum with his newly earned Purple Heart medal.

"They'd already stitched me up," Mitchum said. "Sitting on the bunk, no shirt on just pajama bottoms. I have a picture of that somewhere, being awarded the Purple Heart."

With that, Mitchum proudly displays his Purple Heart along with other awards from his service days.

Vietnam war movies while entertaining are mostly bunk, Mitchum said, especially the "Green Berets" with John Wayne.

"Man I can point out everything that's a tactical error in that movie," Mitchum said.

Mitchum, pulling out his best Robin Williams' impersonation, admitted, however, to enjoying "Good Morning Vietnam.""

"We had all the music playing like that," Mitchum said. "Armed Forces Radio, pirate stations and all. I liked the old original rock 'n' roll but, every since I've been about 19 or so it's been country mainly. Johnny Cash, we used to call him Johnny Trash, but then I got to like him. Then Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones, all that."

Army life had it's moments, Mitchum said.

"Helicopters yeah," Mitchum said. "I bought a camera and loved taking pictures from them, especially when I could sit on the floor with my feet dangling on the runners. We had smoke grenades we'd tie to our combat boots up there to trail smoke after us green, purple, red. We used military type jargon so grape was purple. Yellow was banana."

Such fun aside and despite effort on the part of his superiors, Mitchum said he decided not to reenlist.

"I'd been in country about 9 months at that point and would've had to spend another 12 months there," Mitchum said. "I mean, it's nice to be wanted and all, but I said no."

Returning home he went back to work for Texas Power & Light, worked in the fossil fuel industry and later at the nuclear plant in Glen Rose.

Vietnam War protestors back home hardly fazed him, Mitchum said.

"Didn't bother me at all," Mitchum said. "But I didn't want them around me. Do your thing, don't bother me, but if you get in my way I'm going to knock you down. That's just military in me."

Mentioning former Secretary of State John Kerry, Mitchum brandishes a hand gesture one often sees freeway drivers display when another driver cuts them off.

"It's gotten better somewhat I think," Mitchum said of America's treatment and recognition of Vietnam veterans in recent times.

More so, Mitchum said he feels for today's veterans.

"The medical profession has come by leaps and bounds since when I was in," Mitchum said. "So the survival rate compared to Vietnam days is much higher and they've saved many thousands more. Unfortunately, you also have a lot more dealing with traumatic brain injuries, maimed, walking wounded or just totally gone now."

Having lived almost two years at Cleburne's Wren Place, a senior living community, said he hopes soon to return to his home in Glen Rose.

"I was chosen by Uncle Sam," Mitchum said. "But the best decision I made was to make the best of it. My dad's advice, Marine Corps style advice, was to be the best you can be. Show everybody what you can learn and what you can do and I always tried to do that.

"Don't ever miss an opportunity to train somebody to be better or learn the things you're learning whatever that may be. I learned that from my dad and the military and always try to put that to use in whatever I do in my life."

Alvarado's American Legion Post 426 will host an appreciation event for Purple Heart veterans from 3-5 p.m. Sunday at the post, 8500 FM 3136. All are welcome.