The Role Iowans' Played in the Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War years (1964-1975), 115,000 Iowans served in all branches of the military. Like the majority of the men and women sent to war in Vietnam, most of the Iowans came from working class families. They were the sons and daughters of farmers, factory workers, construction workers, truck drivers, office workers and other blue-collar workers around the state. The service members who left Iowa, and all other states, were young. Their average age was 19. They were still teenagers, barely out of high school and not old enough to vote for the presidents who were sending them to defend their country.

A one-year tour of duty in Vietnam became a day-to-day struggle to survive. The Vietnam War claimed the lives of 869 and five Iowans earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery. One recipient, Lt. Robert J. Hibbs, received the Congressional Medal of Honor after he died.

National Guard Called to Serve

During the Vietnam War era service in the National Guard was not looked upon with the same respect and appreciation it currently receives. Some considered National Guard service an alternative to the draft and a way to avoid going to Vietnam. But the services of National Guard units from the Sioux City area were called upon in the 1960s, and some members were sent to Vietnam. Other Iowa National Guard troops were sent to college campuses around the state to help keep things peaceful during times of campus unrest.

In January 1968, the 185th Tactical Fighter Group was mobilized. Approximately 860 men were in the group. Three hundred of the group left Sioux City in 23 planes headed for Vietnam. 1st Lt. Warren K. Brown became the group’s first casualty of the war when his F-100 fighter jet was hit by hostile ground fire. Brown was the only Iowa Air National Guardsman killed in action.

In May 1968 the 2nd Battalion, 133rd Infantry was mobilized. Men from Sioux City, LeMars, Sheldon, Mapleton and Ida Grove made up the 863 guardsmen infantry. The group was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado. Over 500 were deployed to Vietnam with regular Army units. Twelve members of this unit were killed in action with over 60 wounded in action. The battalion received over 2600 awards and decoration for their Vietnam service. They returned to Iowa in December 1969.

Keeping Iowans Informed

The Des Moines Register covered the Iowa angle on the war by sending veteran reporter Gordon Gammack to get a firsthand look. He had previously covered both World War II and the Korean War for the paper. His stories provided news to Iowa families and friends about Iowans in Vietnam. In his columns he covered the highs and lows of Iowans who served in Southeast Asia.

During this era several photo-based magazines filled with images and stories about the war could be found in Iowa homes. Des Moines based Look magazine and Life magazine were two popular publications of the time. During the last week of May 1969 Life ran a photo essay that showed a photo or listed the name of every American who had died the previous week in Vietnam—242 deaths.

Iowa Industry Produces for the War

Industries around the state played a role in and were affected by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The economy around the state was good. Iowa farmland value kept increasing. In 1966 Iowa’s unemployment rate was at a low 1.6 percent. Iowa farmers developed a special variety of corn that was used successfully in the Southeast Asia foreign aid program. At the Iowa Ordnance Plant in the Burlington area, buildings and facilities were reactivated for use beginning in 1966. This allowed the southeast Iowa defense plant to assemble missiles that were used to supply and support the Vietnam War.

In the 1960s Collins Radio in Cedar Rapids was one of Iowa’s largest companies. It developed a line of aircraft products for the military and commercial aircraft industry.

In the Sioux City area the activation of the National Guard in 1968 tightened the labor market. Some employers with defense contracts lost their employees for a year to service with the National Guard. While the employment picture was bleak for employers it was good for people looking for jobs.

Two Iowa Leaders Involved As the War Ends

The Vietnam War era brought about changes to Iowa in business, education, politics and social issues of the time period. Two men–Harold Hughes and Robert D. Ray–led the state as governor in the 1960s and the 1970s. Both were very popular with Iowans. Harold Hughes was important in bringing about the end of the war and Robert D. Ray assumed a leader’s role worldwide in the aftermath of the war.

Harold Hughes was the prominent state leader from 1962 to 1968. Hughes was an early vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. In 1965 he was part of a group of ten governors that went to Vietnam. A veteran of World War II, Hughes was amazed at the wartime capabilities and use of the new technology. Helicopters brought service members into military units, delivered supplies and mail and took the wounded out of battle areas. Everywhere he went he asked to see Iowa service members. He talked with them and had photos taken with them. He promised on his return to Iowa to send the photos to their families. It was on this trip while visiting Japan that Harold Hughes first began to question involvement in the Vietnam War, the death and destruction of the war and his own beliefs about the need for a more peaceful world. In 1966 Hughes became the first Democratic governor elected to serve a third term in the history of Iowa.

Elected as U.S Senator from Iowa, he left the governorship in 1969 before his term of office ended. As a senator he became a national figure in efforts to end the Vietnam War. In 1974 he helped bring the war to an end by winning congressional approval of reductions in the amount of military aid going to South Vietnam.

Robert D. Ray followed Hughes into office as governor. He served in that position for 14 years, from 1969 to 1983. During his term of office the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. He was the state’s leader during the campus unrest at the state’s major universities in the early 1970s. In the late 1970s Ray became a worldwide leader in the resettlement of refugees fleeing Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

The war left thousands of people without homes. They lived in camps filled with hunger and disease. Ray took a courageous stand in doing what he knew was right and helped people relocate, find jobs and start new lives in Iowa. In 1979, 3,500 refugees, mostly Tai Dam, called Iowa home. Over $500,000 was raised for SHARES (Send Help to Aid Refugees and End Starvation). Ray urged Iowa church groups and others to assist homeless families in finding places to live, learning English and finding jobs. The refugees relocated and found new homes in many Iowa cities and communities.

Last Casualty of Vietnam

One of the last two casualties of the Vietnam War was an Iowan. Nineteen-year-old LCpl. Darwin Judge of Marshalltown died on April 29, 1975. He was killed on the last day of the war by a rocket attack. His death happened just prior to the final evacuation of Saigon. Judge was one the last Marines to die in combat in Vietnam. His body was not found right away. It was returned home one year later. A park and a scholarship have been named after him in Marshalltown.

Honoring the Iowa Vietnam Veterans

The Iowa Vietnam Veteran War Monument was dedicated on Memorial Day 1984. It is located on the lawn of the state capitol. Similar in design to the national monument, it is dedicated to all Iowans who served during the Vietnam War. Inscribed on the memorial are the names of the 869 Iowans who lost their lives.

On April 19, 2005, thirty years after the end of the Vietnam War, the Iowa House and Senate approved a resolution that thanked the veterans for their service. It was the first time the Iowa Legislature had officially recognized Iowa Vietnam War veterans. Around ninety veterans came to the Iowa Statehouse and were recognized.

Other museums around the state remember and honor the Vietnam veterans through exhibits or memorabilia from the war period. These include the Iowa Aviation Museum in Greenfield and the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum in Johnston. The State Historical Society of Iowa has an exhibit in the State Capitol, which recognizes the “Iowa Medal of Honor Heroes."