A Purple Heart: Vet recalls service in Vietnam

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

May 5, 1968, stands out in James Pierce’s memory of a 20-year Army career.

That day’s events earned the Faulkner County man a Purple Heart, the oldest known United States military decoration.

The award, then known as the Badge of Military Merit, was created by Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Whereas military honors in Europe were reserved for high-ranking officers for military wins, Washington sought to recognize how America was different and designated the honor open to common soldiers. 

Pierce’s Purple Heart came following an ambush by the Viet Cong on May 5, 1968.

"It was a big one," said Pierce, who now lives south of Conway. "We’d been in a bunch of them. There were no front lines; there was not a day I didn’t hear shooting."

He was a sergeant on a gun truck with the 64th Transportation Company when the convoy ran over a road mine.

"It blew the first truck up," he remembered. "The convoy stopped, and the VC were dug in shooting at us for an hour."

During the fight, unbeknownst to him, shrapnel and a bullet pierced his steel helmet — and its lining.

"Fourteen of my guys got killed," he said. "After the fight, we were all trying to regroup, and I saw one of my guys looking at me and staring at my head. I said, ‘What are you looking at?’ 

"He said, ‘You just got your damn head shot off.’"

Blood was everywhere, but he was still walking. The injured men were taken for medical treatment — and somehow Pierce’s name got mixed up with those in the morgue, and he was mistakenly placed on the Killed in Action list. The Army notified his family. Once the mistake was noticed, he received orders for a 30-day leave, so instead of calling his relatives, he arrived at his Lincoln County, Miss., home unannounced.

"Oh boy, they thought I was a ghost," he said.

His father, who was sitting on the front porch when his son pulled up, yelled, "I knew you weren’t dead!"

He still has the helmet and liner — as well as bits of shrapnel in his right arm and hearing aids in both ears. A June 12, 1969, certificate from First Lt. William J. Wilkins declared the helmet to be "Combat unserviceable and . . . no longer of use to the U.S. Army."

"As the Commanding Officer of SSG Pierce he has my permission to keep the steel helmet in his possession and (it) has been declared by me as a War Trophy," Wilkins wrote.

That incident, though, didn’t scare Pierce as much as another, when he was assigned to a convoy hauling napalm bombs. Napalm, with its gel-like consistency, sticks to its targets and is often used with gasoline to make a bomb that explodes and ignites upon impact. 

"When that thing goes off, there’s nothing left but ashes," Pierce remembered. "I didn’t even sleep the night before. I thought, ‘All I’ve got to do is get hit.’ So I got up early to get in one of the first couple of trucks because they usually let the first couple go by before they hit a convoy, but everybody else had the same idea. I was in the fourth truck back."

He recalled getting to the Kill Zone at Mang Yang Pass where the convoy was attacked.

"They lit in on us, and you could see those B-40 rockets coming at us," he remembered. "One hit the ground in front of me and dug a crater big enough I had to drive around it. They hit the gas trucks, but none of the ones carrying napalm.

"I aged 10 years that day. I got old that day."

Two other scares involved planes. In 1955, he was on a transport returning from Japan when two of the plane’s four motors quit. All the bags were dumped, which “would beat ditching into the water,” Pierce remembered. “That old big plane just barely made it to land.”

In 1968, the flight he was on with 214 other GIs had to make an emergency landing in Anchorage, Alaska.

Bill Zellner of Conway had been friends with Pierce for a long time before he had any inkling of his military career.

“I thoroughly admire anyone who has served our country, much less anyone who has gone through the things he has gone through,” said Zellner, whose own military service came during peacetime. “Your hair almost stands up on end when they tell some of the stories they’ve been through.

“I just think a story like his should be told.”

Pierce was born near Brookhaven, Miss., in May 1929. During his Army years, he celebrated two birthda
ys. Because he had no birth certificate when he entered the Army and only knew that he was born in May, he had to choose a date, so he settled on May 10. After his mother later got her children’s birth certificates, his showed May 31. He remembered that non-commissioned officers got a steak dinner to celebrate their birthdays, so he took his military ID on May 10 and his birth certificate on May 31 and got two steak dinners during the month.

He was drafted into the Army on July 29, 1952, and spent time at Camp Shelby, Miss.; Fort Jackson, S.C.; Camp Breckenridge, Ky. (for basic training); and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. (multiple times), before being shipped to Korea for about a year. He also served in Yokohama, Japan; Fort Riley, Kan. (which was segregated when he arrived; he was there when the units integrated); Fort Sheridan, Ill.; Camp Desert Rock, Nev. (where U.S. officials tested nuclear weapons, exposing the troops to radiation); and France before spending 26 months in Vietnam.

He got those orders in November 1967 and arrived in Vietnam in January 1968. Headquarters was Qui Nhon; the 64th Transportation Company was based in Pleiku.

He said Army officials told him he couldn’t stay in Vietnam past the 26 months because "you’re going to get killed after a while."

"I’ve seen people get shot the day before they were supposed to leave," he said.

So for his next post, he settled on Bangkok, Thailand. He was supposed to have a 30-day leave that would have allowed him to come home, but after his arrival in Bangkok, he was told the leave should have been authorized in Vietnam and couldn’t be authorized in Bangkok. In order to get the leave, he had to return to Vietnam. So he said he took “three or four good licks” of a fifth of Old Grand Dad whiskey and returned to the country so many were trying to escape — just to get his leave orders. 

“I was through with Vietnam, but I went back on my own,” he said. “Then I came home for 30 days and then went back to Bangkok.”

After eight months in Bangkok in 1970, he spent another eight months on Okinawa. From there he was stationed at Fort Dix, N.J., until his retirement with an honorable discharge with the rank of Staff Sergeant in March 1970. He had received the Army Commendation Medal in February for his last months in Vietnam. His discharge papers list a number of his many awards and commendations: National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal 2d Award, Vietnam Service Medal, Mech Badge w/Bar, RVNCM w/60 Device, ARCOM, DVR Badge w/Bar, 1-Year Safety Driver Badge, Mechanics Badge w/Bar, Purple Heart, 44 O/S Bars.

Upon his return stateside, he got divorced. Like so many Vietnam veterans, Pierce has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

"I can see why people come back stressed," he said. "They don’t want to talk about it. I figured it was either them or me. It ain’t my fault. I thought I was doing my duty. I still have to go to a PTSD doctor every six months to see if I’m going to jump off a bridge. The medicine has really helped. Since I’ve been taking it, I’m able to talk about it pretty good."

His siblings had moved to Faulkner County, so he settled there upon his return. Alcohol became a problem, but he was able to get some help from Conway businessman Bob Wilcox to buy a mobile home for a one-acre plot he’d bought, and he borrowed an ax to clear the land and place the home. Other friends and neighbors helped him set up a butane tank for heat and cooking.

"I used to be slick, and I’d get in a card game and win, but that always turns around on you," he said. "I got my head on straight and started doing things right. I started taking care of people and things started coming around.

“I appreciate what people helped me do, so I try to do the same now.”

He had met Francie, a Filipino woman, during his time on Okinawa, and he sent for her to join him after he had established his mobile home. He remembered she told him, “I’d live with you in a tent.” They married in 1974.

"I had plenty of girlfriends, but I couldn’t ask for anybody better than her," he said.

Their son, Jimmy, lives in Hollywood. He has two older sons — Bennie, who lives in Conway and works part-time for Zellner, and Henry Payne, a minister in Florida. Zellner’s wife, Judy, agreed that Pierce is “a fine person.”

“He brings some of his stuff in occasionally, and we just gradually would hear a little bit about his story,” she said. “We’ve enjoyed working with him.”

Pierce worked for Ward Bus Company for a few years. Along the way he quit drinking and bought a bigger home, and now he has a good-sized garden on his property along Highway 365 south of Conway, where he also repairs lawn mowers and televisions and buys and sells treasures ranging from dishes to trinkets to an old pump organ.

But he never forgets his war experiences. He hasn’t been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., but he doesn’t have to.

"I remember the 58,439 (Americans killed)," he said softly. "I’ve been through it all."   

Of the estimated 1.7 million Purple Hearts awarded since the honor’s inception 230 years ago by Gen. George Washington, Pierce’s was one of 200,676 awarded for service during the Vietnam War.