Radio Repair: John Bartell Remembers Vietnam |

Radio Repair: John Bartell Remembers Vietnam

By Ruth Wiechmann for Tri-State Livestock News

When Uncle Sam called, they answered. Over two million Americans served our country during the Vietnam war era. During this time nearly sixty thousand American servicemen gave the ultimate sacrifice in their fight for freedom. Although many did not receive the recognition and respect due them when they came home, we thank them for their service and their sacrifices and we honor their willingness to put their lives on the line.

John Bartell grew up on his family’s ranch in Perkins County, South Dakota, attending the Shadehill school and graduating from Lemmon High School in 1966. After high school, he went to Denver to become an electronic technician. In 1969, the draft letter came: his country needed him to go to Vietnam.

“I was sent to Ft. Smith in Washington for my basics,” John recalled. “They lined us up and gave us each a half a dozen shots and then gave everyone a military regulation haircut. There were some long haired boys from California who cried when they lost their hair, and there were some guys crying and bleeding after their shots. They had an air powered vaccine gun and they warned us not to flinch; if you moved when the needle hit you it would tear your skin.”

After basics, John was taken aside with three other men, and they were told that the four of them tested the best out of four hundred men for becoming pilots. John asked more questions, and learned that they wanted helicopter pilots, but he would have to sign on for a three year term of service.

“What’s the life expectancy of helicopter pilots?” he asked.

“Five missions,” he was told.

He opted not to pursue pilot training.

“They were building those Apache helicopters at the time and they wanted short guys to fly them,” John said. “All four of us that ‘tested’ well were pretty short!”

Following basic training, John went to Fort Benning, Georgia, for non-commissioned officer school and earned his Sergeant’s stripes. He was commissioned at Fort Polk, Louisiana, before shipping to Vietnam where he was assigned to the 196th Infantry.

Another man from John’s hometown of Lemmon, Chaplain Colonel David Peterson, was also in Vietnam at the time.

John Bartell helped repair radios during the Vietnam War. Bartell family
Courtesy photos
A young John Bartell, raised on a Perkins County, South Dakota ranch, was drafted into the military to fight during the Veitnam War.

“When I got to the Combat Center, I went to church,” John said. “He ran me down and asked where I was going to be assigned. ‘I’m with the 196th,’ I told him. ‘No, you can’t go there,’ he said. He knew that I had training for electronics and knew that the army needed radio repairmen so he got me transferred to the 523rd Signal Battalion on a base in the north demilitarized zone (DMZ) near Chu Lai.”

Chaplain Peterson’s influence kept John out of most of the serious fighting. Where most soldiers had one purpose: to fight, members of the Signal Corps had two responsibilities. They were there to fight a war but they were also tasked with providing any and all manner of communication to assist their sister branches in the service to accomplish their objectives. John used his radio repair skills throughout his time of service and assisted many different units. While at battalion headquarters near Chu Lai, he worked in the maintenance shop, but he was also sent out to different areas to fix radios.

“I repaired radios and then acted as a courier, taking them out to different command posts,” John said. “There was one highway—one—in that country that ran north to south. One time I was taking a bunch of radios down to Dak To. It was just me and the driver in the truck. There was no middle line on that road, just people everywhere, some on bicycles, some walking, sometimes a motorcycle with ten people all hanging on it. We were only going maybe 30 miles per hour. At one point as we were going along the driver asked me, ‘What’s that ‘ting, ting ting’ sound?’ ‘I think we’re getting shot at,’ I told him. So we took off, people were scattering everywhere.”

John spent some time at Dak To doing telephone repair work. Dak To and the surrounding area had been the scene of a major series of engagements in 1967.

“I was kind of on my own down there for a while,” John said. “I got to know the local chief and one day he invited me to come to his home for lunch. Of course they had prepared Vietnamese food. I sat down and they came with a big fish and chopped the head off and put it on my plate! ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ I asked him. ‘Eat it.’ He told me. ‘You are our honored guest.’”

John managed to talk him into trading the head, which the Vietnamese people considered a great delicacy, for a different piece of the fish!

“My driver left me there to do that repair work so I didn’t have a way to get back to my base,” John said. “I called my boss when I got it done and asked him how I was supposed to get home. ‘Just wait for a helicopter,’ he told me. So I hung around the airport, waiting. After a while a helicopter landed.

“’Are you in the infantry?’ the pilot asked me. ‘Do you know how to run an M-60?’ They had lost their gunner and needed someone to take his place. I ended up going on several missions with them before I returned to my base.”

John Bartell was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1969. He returned to the family ranch in Perkins County shortly after being honorably discharged, and he remains on the ranch today. Courtesy photo

Back at his base, John was appointed Sergeant of the Guard for a battalion air corp. He was in charge of eight bunkers and four towers.

“After dark, everything was supposed to be silent,” he said. “One night one of the bunkers called me to report lots of noise outside. I checked it out and there were several San Pan boats out there, full of North Vietnamese soldiers. I called in the artillery and asked them to make a sweep through. After that it was quiet. The next morning we found their sunk boats. Later the captain called me in for questioning. They weren’t happy that I didn’t ask first before calling in the artillery. ‘How did you know where to send that fire?’ he asked me. ‘I came from a ranch in South Dakota,’ I told him. ‘I knew from the sound how far out it was.’ After that they seemed ok with it.”

John encountered quite a few boa constrictors while in Vietnam.

“We always had a lot of green ones climbing around in the barracks,” he said. “They never bothered us; I suppose they were there after rats and mice. One day I was headed out to do some work and walking down the ‘road’ which was just tracks through the grass, I saw something wiggling in the other track. It was a big boa, all silver and gray, probably four inches across and sixteen or twenty feet long. I thought if I could get him and send his hide home that would be quite a trophy. I found some softball sized rocks and started throwing them at him but they didn’t make any impact. I got a really big rock and got up close and dropped it right on him. When it nicked his head, he shot away, a good forty feet off the trail into the brush in an instant and was gone. When I told someone back at the base he said, ‘You should have asked the ladies who work in the mess hall to get him for you; they would have gotten him in no time!’”

John said there were experiences that he probably tried to forget after serving in Vietnam, but that overall his experience was not as bad as it could have been, thanks to Chaplain Peterson getting him in the signal corps.

“I can’t complain,” he said. “I survived and didn’t have to do a lot of bad stuff. I did a number of different things and it kept me out of trouble. I didn’t get into any fire fights or get into the really bad stuff. It always looked worse on the clips they show on television, yet I know that for some the actual experience was much worse than that.”

He did see many fellow soldiers turn to drugs and was disappointed to see some of the young guys in his squad getting hooked on marijuana.

“One day we had some incoming mortars,” he said. “Several of them were sitting outside and they were too out of it to listen when I told them to get into the bunkers. One nice Nebraska farm kid thought he was tougher than the mortars and he didn’t make it.”

On a happier note, a little black spaniel cross dog often hung around the company and started following John around. He got permission to take her into the NCO club with him as she was unofficially considered the ‘company dog.’ The men shared their beer with her, pouring it into an ashtray for her to lap up.

As part of the Signal Corps, John served his country in a unique way.

“I was involved but not in the thick of the action,” John said. “Sometimes it seemed like I was just one lost soldier running around the country.”

Yet, without the work of men seemingly behind the scenes who maintained communications, other military personnel would have had no information about the enemy or means of supporting their own brothers in the field.

John came home to South Dakota after he was honorably discharged in 1971.

“My parents picked me up at the airport in Rapid City and took me to buy a pair of jeans and boots,” he said. “I took my uniform off and I don’t think I ever put it back on. I worked for Northwest Telephone ‘Ma Bell’ as we called it, for a couple of years. Then dad called wanting help to calve heifers in the spring so I came back to the ranch.”

John and his wife Barb raised their family on their ranch near Shadehill. Their son Tyler and his family and their daughter Lacy work on the ranch with them. We are grateful to John and his fellow Vietnam veterans for their service to our country in support of the freedom that we hold dear.

Front row, left to right is Lacy Bartell, Beckett Wetzell, Judson Bartell, Jayla Bartell, Macy Bartell and Jordyn Wetzell. Second row is Tyler and Courtney Bartell, Josh and Amber Chalupsky, John and Barb and Stephanie (Stephie) and Chris Wetzell. Courtesy photo


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User


Loading comments...