My brother, Warren (Gene) Wills, and I were the only children of Mr. and Mrs. Cecil Warren Wills. Gene is four years older than I. Dad was from the Leon area. Mom, who was Lela June Miller, was from around Osceola. My grandpa Pearl Miller farmed around here at that time.

Dad attended Osceola Junior College. He enlisted in the Air Force in the days when it was the Army Air Force. He started as a pilot and told us when he graduated from that school, he and a friend celebrated a little too much. They borrowed a plane and thought it would be really funny to buzz their instructor's house. When they came back, the air police were waiting at the airport, and he was a pilot no longer. That career ended and he became a bombardier navigator.

We traveled all over as we were growing up. Right after I was born, we were living in Newfoundland, which is northeast of Canada. We lived there three or four years, then flew back to the States when Dad was transferred to Sacramento, California. That is where I started school. I had a very hard time because I learned English in Newfoundland, where they spoke a lot of French Portugese English slang. When we moved to Sacramento, the teachers couldn't understand me and I was having trouble understanding them. They held me back in first or second grade because I wasn't communicating like they thought I should. It didn't make any sense to me. I understood but I wasn't able to talk the language they wanted me to talk.

We were in Sacramento three or four years then moved to Oxnard, California, which we really loved. Dad rented a a big Spanish type stucco house that had a little courtyard, right on the beach. After a few years, we moved to Waco, Texas. I was probably 8 to 10 years old and we lived there six or seven years. Waco is where we were when I got into my teens, experienced my first love, and also at 14, I could get driver's license. We had a maid, Birdie, and taking Birdie home was part of my evening duties. I think my parents must have been crazy to let a 14-year old kid drive the car through the city to the other side where she lived. One time, when my girl­friend was with me, while we were sitting at a stop light, somebody ran into us. The police came and when they realized I was a military brat, we had to sit and wait until the military police came. They came, talked to the city police, told me it was okay just go on home. I didn't have to give a statement of how the accident happened or anything.

When I was 15, Dad retired and we moved back to Osceola. My schooling continued to be a bad experience. In Oxnard they held me back again. When we went to Texas, I had a tutor trying to help me, but probably from 13 on, I gave up on school. There was no sense in keeping on. I failed 7th grade and when we came back to Osceola, I was 15 in the 7th grade. I smoked, and I remember having a pack of cigarettes in Mrs. Woods' class. She called me up front to read a paragraph. She saw my cigarettes. Those cigarettes were out of my pocket, destroyed in front of me and "that will never happen again in my class!" She was absolutely right. It never did.

I passed that year. I turned 16 and was going into 8th grade but I told Dad, "It's not going to work. I'm too far behind and I'm not going to let them put me in a special education class." They did that when I was younger, in the late 50s, when special education classes were the "hard core" kids, the ones who were really retarded. It devastated me to be put me in that class.

We started looking at other things and chose a body and fender school. I enrolled in that school when I was 16. I loved it, and realized I really enjoyed anything I could do working with my hands. I went to work for Wilson's Pontiac north of town. He had a body shop at the underpass on Fillmore Street. I worked there as an apprentice, until I went into the Army.

I joined the Army when I was 18. I was miming around with Lanny Jones, Craig Mateer and all those guys. We didn't want to be drafted and Lanny came up with the idea that we should go to Des Moines and join the Air Force. I was 17 at the time and I think Lanny was 19. When we went to sign up for the Air Force, they laughed at us saying, "Do you know how many 18 and 19 people are trying to get in the Air Force?" When we realized that dream was gone, we talked to the Army Recruiter who told us we could join the Army and wouldn't have to go active until a few months later. We wouldn't have to worry about getting into the Infantry, we could pick any field we wanted. That seemed pretty good. We could all join together and go in on the buddy plan. We'd be able to go all these different places together. It sounded great.

We got it all set up and expected our first day would be April 1st. We thought that would be really funny to go in on April Fool's Day, and found out later we were the fools. I remember going home and telling Mom and Dad I was joining the Army. Mom came right up out her chair and said, "No, you're not! Not without my signature and I'm not signing!" Dad said, "Let's hear him out before we make any decision." He turned to me and said, "Where are you going and why are you doing this?" I told him we had talked it over, we'd become heavy equipment operators, When it was over, we'd all get good paying jobs. Mom and Dad went into the other room and when they came back Mom said, "I don't want to do this, but your dad says if this is what you want to do, we shouldn't hold you back." I was 17, my birthday is April 4th so I still had to have their signature if I wanted to be part of the April Fools day idea.

Mom signed even though she wasn't happy about it, and she was real upset when I finished basic training and got my orders for "water purification." They considered that heavy equipment, instead of my thinking I'd thought it was driving bulldozers and stuff like that. I went into the Sergeant's office in my new company, and told him there was some mistake. I joined with the understanding I would be learning to run "cats" and bulldozers and stuff like that.

I didn't want water purification and had no education in that. He looked up and said, "Son, don't worry about it. We're gonna train you how to be a water purification specialist, and you will have to drive the equipment, which is a big semi-truck. You will get to drive heavy equipment."

Mom and Dad had figured if it was water purification, I would be going to Vietnam. We asked, when the last class graduated, how many went to Vietnam. All of them. How many out from this do you think will go? All but one. One won't be old enough. We all graduated. We all got orders for Vietnam and every one of us went to Jersey to be processed for overseas. This included Lanny and Craig. They were heavy equipment. One guy in our class, who wasn't to go to Vietnam was there, too. "We thought you were too young, and you wouldn't to have to go," and he said, "Yeh, but when I was home on leave, I turned 19 and they reissued my orders."

My basic training was at Fort Bliss, Texas and from there we went to AIT at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. This was training for our specialty. Then we were off for Vietnam. We flew a commercial airliner full of soldiers. I was really, really scared but everybody was joking and laughing and cutting up. You'd have thought we were coming home, not going.

When we landed and they opened the door, the heat came into the plane and hit us. I thought, "Oh, my, what have I gotten myself into?" I will never forget walking off that plane. It was so hot! I had never experienced that kind of heat and humidity! We were immediately soaking wet! We landed in Cam Ranh Bay, and started getting processed in-country. Cam Ranh Bay was pretty much like it was state-side. The barracks were regular structures. From where we were, we didn't see any jungles. There were mountains 3/4 way around Cam Ranh Bay and that was all we could see. They were so far away we didn't think anything of it. This wasn't so bad.

We went through being processed in-country, and then they gave me orders for Da Nang, which was the southern part of Vietnam. I thought, "O.k. This is good." Again everything was a conventional base-type place, nothing scarey about it. They started processing us to our unit. Mine was with the 27th Engineers in Phu Bai. Where is Phu Bai? That's farther north. Ok. So we loaded into another plane and went to Phu Bai. There I started getting nervous. Everybody was running around with rifles, flight jackets, and helmets. This was more like war.

We got processed there. It was still pretty good. Then they gave me my final orders. "You are going out to Jollet.(jolay)." "Where is that?" "Farther north," and I'm thinking "How much farther north can we go?" Joliet was a fire base that had one or two major helicopter bases, two or three major artillery bases, and several headquarter bases — all one big conglomerate. The guys who came to get us all had their rifles and now reality began to sink in. This is what we've read about. We went out on an old dirt road, and driving along, way up ahead we could see a lot of military tents, then we saw a gate. We went through it on to this weird looking base. Joliet. They took us to our headquarters and when we began getting processed in, I remember asking what is "Joliet?" It turned out to be a civilian cemetery, much like our cemeteries, with different size stones. The more affluent or important people had a larger marker. Sometimes there would be a structure like a wooden temple, but there were all different kinds.

Being processed-in included being issued our flight jacket and weapons, ammunition, being told the do's and don'ts, what we could do and what we couldn't. They showed us our living quarters. All the barracks were plywood houses called hootches. The one I was in might have had 20 living spaces in one hootch. Instead of windows, they had plywood which were the screens. Everybody fixed up their own living quarters. One guy actually enclosed his area with mosquito nets. He had pictures of his family on the walls. Everybody did their own area.

Water purification was in what was called Headquarters Company, which was with the Supply Unit, which I found later was very handy. We issued all the pop, beer, coffee, uniforms, and you-name-it. I started learning some of the military politics. If we were going to have a get-together, maybe for somebody's birthday, we would get a case of beer and take it to the guys in the kitchen area and say, "We've got a case of beer, we need a couple steaks." "Well, that is going to take two cases this time." O.k. We learned how to trade to get what we wanted.

After we got situated, we began learning what we had to go through. The biggest eye-opener for me was the first night in my own section, we had "in-coming" — that is, we were attacked. I was so amazed. Everybody had to run out and jump into bunkers that were set up behind the hootches. We got in them and looked out to watch for anything we could see. The enemy lobbed in mortars and there was nothing we could do but stay there and let them lob them in on us. After maybe 15 to 20 minutes they quit. There was a check-up to make sure everyone was there and nobody was hurt. Then we went throughout the area to see what damage was done. The only time we had to shoot was when it was our turn to go on perimeter guard duty. The enemy would actually try to sneak in and then we had gunfire.

After we were processed in, we started to find out what the water purification unit was all about. They had four such units, two different sizes. The largest, I think, was a 35,000-gallon unit. We kept that at the base and to supply our company. The 1500 gallon units were the ones we took to the fire bases. They were usually small artillery bases, where the Infantry came in and stayed as a safe haven, then go out on missions from there. We were part of the support units.

That was kind of neat. We got to realize how important water was. Unbelievable. Our duty was to go out to these bases. One time I had TDY (temporary duty) clear up by the DMZ (demilitarized zone). We got up there and the farther we were from our home base, the more we realized how rough it was farther away. We got to the DMZ and asked why we were there. Our leader pointed to another water unit which was blown to pieces. He said, "That's why. We need somebody to replace those guys." Oh-h-h! This is not a good thing! We set up units and it was amazing how scared we were but at no time do I ever remember thinking, "I want to get out of here. I've got to go!" It was always just "O.K." We went out, they brought us some help and we dragged off the old water unit to another area, got the area cleaned up, brought our unit in and began setting up. Even if it was scary, I knew this was what we had to do, and we did it.

We stayed there three or four weeks before a new unit came up and relieved us. We went back and for about three months I got to be a heavy equipment operator of a 10-ton forklift. It was an all-terrain vehicle with the real big tires but this unit could be tilted so that if we were on a hillside, we could tilt it so the load would always stay level. I thought that would be really neat so I volunteered for that. They trained me and away we went to unload trucks. Then I discovered why everybody wasn't volunteering for it. A convoy of supplies would convoy in — could be at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Whatever time it was, day or night, we had to get up and get it unloaded. It was an amazing experience. There would be so many semis pulling up that we couldn't even see the last one. The Sergeant would come up and tell us where he wanted this and where he wanted that. We waved the truck up and started unloading as fast as we could, another truck and another truck until they are all unloaded. I enjoyed it because when it was done, we were amazed at how much we did in that short a time. We had accomplished something.

They came out with a program in which, if we extended our time, we could get out of the Army early, and get a 30-day leave. That meant we could go to the States or to Hawaii or several other places. I chose to come back home. At the time it seemed to be such a good idea. Now, I keep wondering why I did that. But several of us signed up to extend our time and we went back.

On our second tour, they asked for volunteers to go with another outfit that was building a road to A Shau Valley. We had heard that this valley was one of the main paths the North Vietnamese took through the jungle to transport their supplies. Our military wanted to build a main road and cut them off We thought it sounded pretty exciting and that is where we got into a lot of the fire bases. Imagine, if you can, 20 different trucks loaded with men and supplies, maybe three or four artillery tanks, three or four conventional tanks, behind a whole series of bulldozers that would start working their way through the jungle. They started pushing the main way back, then more caterpillars would come along and push it farther back, then road graders would come along and start building the road. They just inched along.

Every night the bulldozers would build a big circle, with a parameter of dirt up and around the circle. We put all the equipment inside there and that is where we stayed the night. The next morning, off we would go to the next one. That was my worst experience because that is when we started being attacked. We were shooting at somebody and they were shooting at us. Luckily we never had any major wave but every night we were under fire. That was routine. All the Infantry guys were in base at night but everybody else was on the perimeters. That is where we saw the real war — what was really going on out in the jungle.

When we got over half-way out there, the monsoon season began. We just got through building a helicopter base, a pretty good-sized place, when we got orders that the project had been dropped. "Bury everything and go back." We were thinking, "what are we doing?!" We would dig a hole, drive in the big equipment, the bulldozers — if it couldn't be carried out, it had to be buried — then we'd cover them up. Helicopters had some engine problems, no time for repair, bury them. We buried everything we weren't taking out. We had some kind of a problem with our water unit and they debated whether or not to leave and bury it, but somehow we got the right parts and were able to get our unit going. I remember taking off and it rained and rained all the way back. We were on the road for days! It continued to rain, rain, rain. Unbelievable!

When I learned we were going to be doing this project, I wrote my dad and told him we were going to be building this road in A Shau Valley. Two weeks later my company Commander called me in. He was going by the rules. "Stand at attention when you are here!" He had never made me stand at attention and now he started yelling at me and telling me that I am going to have extra duty, I would have KP, and finally I said, "Sir, what did I do?" He said, "You sent home top secret information to your father." What? He said, "You told him we were going to build this road through A Shau Valley." I said, "I guess I didn't know it was considered top secret!" He said, "In your briefing you were told not to mention any of this in letters,"

Well, when he read this letter, my dad, being a military man, immediately got hold of a General he knew, who knew another General, who knew a General in Vietnam. I got into a lot of trouble and wrote my dad to tell him I wouldn't be sending as much information home as I had in the past. And yes, sir, I had learned my lesson.

I never saw my dad again. Right after we got back to the main base, I got a notice my dad had passed away. The Company Commander called me up on pay day, so it must have been the end of February, and I'd already gotten paid. The CQ letter came out saying the Company Commander wanted to see me, so we went running back up there, went in and he said, "Sony to inform you, the Red Cross has notified us that your father passed away. We are cutting orders to get you home right now." I started cussing him out, telling him he didn't know what he was talking about. I was just reading a letter from my dad and he was in good health, there was nothing wrong with my dad! The Commander was trying to stop me and tell me, "Sorry. Here is the paper. Read it for yourself." I remember I read it, ran back to my hootch, and went to my little area. I was all ripped up. I just couldn't believe what happened.

One of the other guys in our section came up and said, "Get your stuff together. You are leaving now." He said, "I got a bunch of volunteers, we got a jeep and we're going to take you to Phu Bai and get you on your way home." I grabbed a couple fatigues and my duffle bag, threw some things in it and ran outside. Here were four of my real good buddies on a little jeep with an M-60. They were saying, "Load up, we're headin' out!" We jumped in that jeep and took off. I don't think he let up on the gas until we got to the Phu Bai airport. I remember there were some people shooting at us but nothing steady — just kind of a ping- ping- ping. For whatever reason, maybe because we were moving so fast, they didn't bother us much.

We got to the airbase, hugged everybody, went in and handed them my orders. The guy there said, "Go out the door, go down two hangars, and go in the office. That is an Air Force hangar. Show them your orders." I did that and the fellow said, "I've got a plane going to Saigon in about twenty minutes. Do you want to go?" You bet! I got on that plane and took off, went down to Saigon, back to the regular process of trying to get out of the country and it was, "Well, it will be three or four days before we can get you out of here. You will just have to wait in line. There are a lot of other people leaving too." Okay. I was standing at a snack bar alongside an Airman. He asked where I was going and I told him my dad had died and I was trying to get back to the States. He said, "Did you try the airport base? Go down there." I hesitated and he said, "I'll take you. I'll show you where to go."

We went out and jumped in his jeep. It seemed like we drove forever. We got to the base, he took me in and started talking to the Air Force guy, who turned around to me and said, "I've got a jet going to Okinawa in about two hours. You have any problem riding with the dead?" No. I never have. He grabbed the paper and said, "I've got room for 10 alive and 10 dead. You want to be #10?" Sure! We got on and sure enough, there were 10 caskets and 10 guys in the jump seats on the side so we strapped in and away we went.

When we got to Okinawa, the pilot came back and said, "You guys can't go any farther with us. You will have to go in and see if you can hassle another flight." Okay, thanks a lot, we appreciate what you did. We went in and they said "There is nothing going out tonight. Make yourselves comfortable on the floor and we'll see what goes out in the morning." Okay. Late the next morning, the guy called us over and said, "The same flight you were on — they routed them to Washington State. Want to go?" You bet. We all piled back on the same plane and took off.

We got processed there by a little buck Sergeant who gave us uniforms and stuff like that. He was really starting to show his authority, ordering the other Sergeant around. That Sergeant grabbed him, threw him up against the wall, saying, "Buddy, a week ago today I was killing people. Today I don't need this out of you. You process us and get us out of here." He put the guy down and he never said another nasty word to us. It was all "yes, sir," "no, sir." We got processed quickly and out to the civilian airport we went, and we were off!

From Washington to here, it was terrible. We got to Denver and I had to change flights. There was a big snow storm and we couldn't land in Des Moines, so we went on to somewhere in Illinois and I completely lost it. There was a little stewardess who was feeling so sorry for me, trying to comfort and assure me we would get on the plane again and "We will get you home in time." The next morning we got on the plane, made it back to Des Moines and I was home in time for the funeral. That was amazing! When I was leaving Vietnam, people were telling me I wouldn't get back to the states for four or five days. There was no way. It had been one thing after another. "I'll get you on this flight." Away I'd go. A guy would say, "Go check out the airport." They would get me on a plane and away I'd go again. It was remarkable!

At home we went through all the funeral arrangements. Morn was basically out of it. She was not handling it well at all. My dad's routine was to lie down after supper, watch the evening news, read the TV Guide until he fell asleep, and it would fall on his chest. Mom said that night he did the same thing, had a good supper, read the TV Guide, and when it fell she figured he was asleep. At 10:00 she went to wake him up to go to bed and he was cold. He'd had a massive heart attack. She called the brothers and sister and they all came down.

After the funeral was over, I needed to think about my situation. It so happened that my girl friend's mom worked at Camp Dodge as the secretary to the base Commander, who was a General. She told the General about my situation, that I was needed in the States to stay close to Mom, because she was getting worse and worse... that I had extended my time to get out early, but because of the emergency leave, my time was cut short. The result was I only had 10 or 15 days before I had to go back to Vietnam. She wanted to know if there was any way to get that changed. Could I get my early-out without going back? The General kept saying, "No, no, can't get out. That wouldn't be allowed." There was one alternative. I would have to stay in, but I wouldn't have to go back to Vietnam. He'd found an opening at the arsenal in Rock Island, Illinois. Did I want it? You bet! I would be home every weekend. He said, "Well, here are your orders to Rock Island Arsenal." I was there until I was discharged on March 31, 1971.

In 1970, Colleen Smith and I were married and drove from Rock Island to Osceola every weekend to help my mom. I think it helped her a lot. When Mom was doing better, we took all the military savings I got when I was discharged, and went to California. That was going to be the place where I'm make it rich. I wanted to get into custom body and fender work and make millions and millions of dollars. However, as soon as we got out there, I realized real quick it would be years before I'd get into that, but I did get into body work. Then I got a job in a factory.

In 1976, my job was terminated, my marriage wasn't going well, and I had a phone call from Margaret Miller, Russ' wife, saying my mom had cancer which was getting really bad. I was needed there. I came back to Osceola. I told my wife. "I'm moving back to Iowa and you can come with me or stay in California." No way was she coming back to Iowa, so I came back and a year later Diane (Potts) Page and I began dating. As of December 5, 2008, we will have been married 30 years. I had two daughters with Colleen, Shawana Renee, and Shelly Lee. Each of them are married and each have one child — Bayley and Lutien. I adopted Diane's two boys, Tom and Todd. Todd and his wife Sonja have two boys — Devin Michael and Colton Allen. So I have four children and four grandchildren. The two boys, Tom and Todd, are here in Osceola. In the years we've lived in Osceola, we've had our own business and I've done appliance repair.

This past summer (2008) I made airline reservations for California, because I wanted to see my daughters and grandchildren, and about the middle of July I started spitting up blood. I didn't tell Diane, because I didn't want anything to cancel my trip. The last day of July I went to California, got to see my kids and grandkids, had a fantastic time, loved every minute of it, then I came back home and my stomach started hurting. I checked it out at the VA Hospital in Des Moines and to summarize a long procedure of every kind of test, the conclusion was, "You've got lung cancer." They had looked up the military and medical records. There was a 99.9% that I got lung cancer from Agent Orange when I was in Vietnam. As soon as he said that my mind started to click. Yeh, I remember somebody talking about Agent Orange that they sprayed on the foliage to kill everything. When we were at the DMZ, all the foliage was dead on both sides of the river we had the water point set up on. I remembered asking the Sergeant why and he said, "That's what they are doing now. They are killing off all the foliage so there can't be an enemy on the other side hiding in the grass." Sounded like a good idea.

After that, when I went to the A Shau Valley, up in front of the caterpillars that were pushing the jungle back, all the foliage was brown and dead. They sprayed first and then we came along and started pushing the rest of it back. We never thought a thing of it when all this was going on but when he told me this, I remembered two times when I was exposed to Agent Orange. The only benefit is, everything related to my medical needs will be covered because it was an in-service disability. That was a big relief. Now we are to the point where I am in the worst condition of my life but in spite of that, I've had so many blessings it is just totally moving Our friends have come together, prayer groups support us, they had a benefit to help us — all I can say is thank you, God!




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Last Revised June 14, 2015