We remember: From the prairie to the jungle… Merle Hulm served his country in Vietnam
Merle Hulm had a good job working for a rancher near Isabel, South Dakota, in January of 1966, when he got the letter from the draft board: Uncle Sam was calling him to serve in the military. The young man had grown up attending rural schools in Ziebach County: the family farm was eight miles from Butte View school where he attended his first year, but only one mile from the Glad Valley school where he went through eighth grade. He and his siblings walked or rode horseback to school. Merle attended Lemmon High School but quit in his junior year because his father needed help on the farm. His oldest brother Maynard had served in the U.S. Army National Guard, and his brother Monte served with the Army as an MP in Seoul, Korea, at the time Merle served in Vietnam.
Merle’s employer, Blaine Drageset, offered to get him a deferment.
“’No,’ I told him, ‘I’ll just get it over with,’” Merle recalled.
Nineteen year old Merle headed to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to report for training.
“Ninety-six of us checked in that day,” he said. “We spent the day going to various meetings. Towards the end of the day they gathered us all in a room and told two of us that we were going to California to join the Marines. Ron Zacher, who graduated from Eagle Butte high school and I were the only two out of that group of ninety-six to see active combat. The others all ended up going to Germany, Korea, Japan or other locations as part of the peace keeping forces. I’ve always wanted to ask what the hell I did to get in the Marines, but I never found out why they picked us.”
Merle was sent to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) at San Diego for boot camp.
“They flew us out,” he said. “We got in late, but they ran us right through, gave us new clothes, haircuts, suited us in Marine outfits. We went through nine weeks of basic training, and after boot camp we had another six weeks of training at Camp Pendleton.”
Merle had a fifteen day leave and was able to go home briefly, and then it was back to California for more training. He shipped out with the 3rd Battalion of the 26th Marines on September 4, 1966.
“We stopped at Hawaii and Okinawa on our way to the Philippines,” he said. “It took us twenty-five or thirty days to get there because we went through a typhoon on the way. It was so fierce it tore all the boats off the ship but one. I got in some bad situations in Vietnam, but nothing scared me more than that storm did. I’m not a big fan of water if it’s above my knees.”
In the Philippines, they anchored in Subic Bay. They went through further training but also had time for R & R and some fun. Merle also completed his GED while he was stationed in the Philippines.
Over the next three months they would go back and forth between the Philippines and South Vietnam.
“We’d go float off the coast of South Vietnam and if the troops on land had trouble we would go in and help them,” Merle said. “We went ashore four times to help other units.”
Back in the Philippines on New Year’s Day, 1967, Merle was in the barracks when he was summoned for a flight to Vietnam.
“They came in about ten o’clock that morning,” he recalled. “I was flown to Vietnam to see where we would be stationed. When the rest of the troops came the next day they dropped anchor four or five miles off the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and they came ashore on boats. From then on it was up hills, down hills, digging foxholes and dodging bullets.”
United States General William T. Sherman, whose ruthless ‘March to the Sea’ helped to bring the Civil War to an end, said in an 1880 speech, “Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you, boys, it is all hell!”
Merle witnessed the reality of the hell of war for the next ten months.
“What a way to grow up,” he said. “To go from the farm in South Dakota to this was quite a shocker for a country boy. We worked hard as kids, but I didn’t know people could get treated like that. I did things that didn’t even seem possible, carrying a heavy load and going up and down those hills.”
Merle’s friend and fellow South Dakotan, Ron Zacher, was severely wounded in March of 1967.
“He tripped a chicom grenade and it severed his Achilles tendon in his left heel,” Merle said. “We got him out and he was flown to the ship, and then taken to the Naval hospital at Yokosuka, Japan. In May, I got R & R and went there to see him. They had him so he couldn’t move; they let his two legs grow together to help the left one heal. He was in the hospital until December.”
Ron was the only South Dakotan that Merle knew in his battalion, and the two remained friends until Ron passed away a few weeks ago.
“I met a lot of good buddies in the Marines,” Merle said. “Our sergeant told us that the men beside us would be closer than family, and he was right.”
While Merle was thankful that his life was spared, nearly sixty thousand U.S. Soldiers died before the war ended. Several thousand more were missing in action, and many remain unaccounted for to this day.
At one point during 1967 Merle said that it rained for thirty-eight days and nights without stopping.
“It rained and rained and rained; that was something!” he recalled. “We ran patrols anyway. I walked lots of miles carrying an M-60 machine gun and a full pack. The M-60 fired 550 rounds per minute, so you had to be careful or you’d run out of ammunition.”
Merle left Vietnam October 1, 1967.
“We were loaded on transport ships at Da Nang and arrived back in California on October 20,” he said.
It had been just a little more than a year since he left U. S. soil, but he had seen horrors that he couldn’t have imagined and endured more than seemed humanly possible in that short time. He returned to South Dakota, worked construction, and farmed and raised cattle east of Bison for many years. Merle and his wife Cheryl have six children and eleven grandchildren. Their daughter Tara followed her father’s example and served in the National Guard.
Merle received two purple hearts, both for shrapnel wounds, while serving his country in Vietnam.
“I’m proud to have served, very proud,” he said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
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