Earl Trachsel of Pulaski was finishing up his first year of teaching at Mediapolis High School in 1969 when he was drafted into the Army on May 27 and inducted on May 28.
The winter had been a brutal one, and the school district had 11 snow days to make up. “They wouldn’t even let me finish up the last 10 days of the school year,” Trachsel said, recounting how he and Chris, his bride of six months, were suddenly separated.
Trachsel was inducted in Des Moines and sent to Ft. Polk, La. An outbreak of meningitis at Ft. Polk sent 11 or 12 busloads of the young soldiers to Ft. Benning, Ga., where they finished their eight weeks of basic training.
He recalls a special privilege granted to the troops during his time at Ft. Benning — the troops were allowed to go off post to watch the moon landing.
Following basic, Trachsel was off to Ft. Monmouth, N.J., for technical training for the 13th Signal Battalion.
“At the time, this was considered the ‘country club’ assignment in the military and Chris was able to join me there,” he said. “We were able to make three trips to New York.
“She worked at 3M and Dunkin Donuts — where she gained weight,” he laughed.
Trachsel was also able to work other jobs about four hours per day while stationed in New Jersey. One of those jobs was cleaning government offices, including cleaning toilets and sweeping floors, for $2.50 per hour — considered good pay at the time. “It was a good deal,” he commented.
Trachsel’s final training segment was night training to develop night vision. During that time, he was able to get a day job stocking shelves in County Fair Drug Stores from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In January of 1970, Trachsel was shipped to Vietnam where he was stationed with the First Cavalry Division of the 13th Signal Battalion Technical Radio Communications Division. His home base was Phuoc Vinh, about 60 miles north of Saigon, later known as Ho Chi Minh City.
He lived in barracks, which he described as similar to a cattle barn with ammo boxes outside each building. The one nice building on the post was a brick, non-denominational church funded by the U.S. Government, which he attended as often as he could.
During his orientation on the base, Trachsel sometimes pulled guard duty at the outlook point guard station. He was frequently reminded that the base not in a safe zone. Helicopters landed near his workplace, and one day on his way to work a building was blown up and one person was killed.
As attacks intensified, a 72-hour drive into Cambodia was scheduled, and Trachsel’s battalion served as the technical radio support team for the troops being sent into the rice paddies to dig weapons out of hollows and mounds.
“Talk about being comparably safe, we had it good compared to the ‘grunts’ who had to go through the rice paddies doing the hard work,” he said.
“After that, we didn’t experience incoming attacks for almost three months,” Trachsel said. “We brought in our captured material and laid it out on the grounds — we were ready to show off, and we didn’t have any problems for a long time. Finally about July or August, we let our guard down and a supply center building was blown up and one man was killed.”
During his time in Phuoc Vinh, Trachsel worked in the division tactical operations center using communications equipment similar to ham radios.
“All officers had different call signs,” Trachsel said, “for example Blackjack Nelly was the nickname for the colonel in charge of operations. Each person had three different call signs, so if one was confiscated, a new call sign could be used.”
At times, he had to make calls to others letting them know a call sign had been confiscated and they would have to use a different sign.
Trachsel said there was a personal benefit to being in the communications division. “I could call Chris once a week if lines were open, but there was a five-minute limitation on the time we could talk, and of course I couldn’t say anything sensitive or tell her how things were going.”
Those in the communications battalion developed relationships with the officers they communicated with, Trachsel commented. He recalls poignantly the tragedy that occurred when he lost four of his officers in a helicopter accident when the copter ran into the side of a hill during the monsoon season. Another officer that was “kind of like a brother” was also “taken out,” he said.
Protecting information was quite a challenge at times, Trachsel said. “Each of the main officers would have backpacks equipped with scramblers, so if someone tried to intercept a message with a different frequency, the message would be scrambled in the airwaves. When the scrambled message hit the backpacks of those for whom the message was intended, the scrambler unscrambled the message.”
Trachsel said he felt most in danger during his first three weeks in Vietnam. “Twice we went to the bunkers,” he said. “The bunkers were constructed of block walls with three layers of sand bags on top. We were able to get everyone in the battalion in there,” he said.
In addition to his communication tasks, Trachsel was also transported by helicopter to go out and pick up communications gear and bring it back to the base for repair.
He recalls flying over some areas that were still smoking after Agent Orange had been applied.
Looking back on his experiences in Vietnam, he said, “My duty was very mild compared to some on the ground. It does a lot to you when you’re in those kinds of battles. Unless there is some real purpose to be there, we have to remember we can’t protect everybody.”
After serving nearly a year, Trachsel was given the choice of flying home on Christmas Day or staying until Dec. 28 to see Bob Hope perform in Saigon.
He chose to come home on Christmas Day.
Trachsel rose quickly through the ranks while in the service to a PFC following basic training to a P4 (like a corporal) after three months and to Specialist 5 (comparable to a sergeant or E5) after three additional months.
He was awarded a Bronze Star for valor/service; an Army Commendation Medal, and the Army Service Bar.