Vietnam: Specialist John Barnes, of Bismarck

Vietnam: Specialist John Barnes, of Bismarck


John Barnes was in Vietnam for "double of everything:" two Christmases, two Thanksgivings, two birthdays. 

And, oddly, though he'd grown up in Bismarck, the journey started and ended in Seattle.

As he was building airplanes for Boeing in 1967, his parents mailed him his draft notice. He knew it was coming. All of his buddies had been drafted. Having nothing but a motorcycle to drive, he rode 1,200 miles home to enlist.

"I thought I was going to die," he said recently of the road trip.

Discharged from the Army in 1969, he put on his greens and leapfrogged his way back, this time by plane — Spokane, Billings, Minneapolis, Fargo, Bismarck. 

Minneapolis was -24 degrees, and, coming from 90-degree Vietnam, "I just about froze up," he said.

In the intervening months, Barnes was a Specialist 5 in Vietnam. He started by loading 200-pound shells into artillery, but was soon offered a job as an administrator for his battery. He was glad to leave the field. The guns were only accurate for a certain number of rounds, and his battery would fire the extras overnight so they could recalibrate in the morning, dousing him in dirt while he slept. In the new job, there would be a roof over his head and intermittent running water. 

He was stationed at Artillery Hill in Pleiku, an anomalous bump in a place as "flat as Fargo." He kept track of daily counts and sick men, people going home and people coming to replace them. Carrying wads of cash, Barnes traveled to meet the battery once a month, wherever they were stationed at the time, often hitching a ride on the back of a truck or, if he was lucky, in a helicopter. He handed men their pay and sent money to their parents.

The Vietnamese countryside was beautiful, he remembered, until the U.S. Army started to use Agent Orange. He once photographed a gated church and found it had been destroyed just a week later.

In the dry season, the dirt was so powdery that Barnes likened it to "walking on flour." In the monsoon season, it rapidly turned to mud.

One of Barnes' jobs was to write commendation letters for men about to be discharged. Bored with the boilerplate, he and a friend, an English teacher, started dropping in big words just to see what corrections they would get back.

"We used a dictionary to see if we could really smoke 'em," he said. "We finally got chewed out for it."

Though Barnes was eager to go home at the end of his tour, he stayed an extra three months.  That way, when he got back to the U.S., he could go straight back to Bismarck.

His replacement showed up as his expected tour ended, and he soon had little to do. 

Artillery Hill was frequently hit with rockets, and the bunker in place was full of rats and flooded every time it rained. It would have hardly withstood a shell, Barnes said.

He and a friend decided to build a new one. They mixed concrete by hand and poured foot-thick walls with five-gallon buckets, their skin burning in the sun. Scrounging materials from whomever would lend them, they made a roof of tank tracks and scored steel beams. The bunker was featured in an Army newspaper.

"We were pretty proud of ourselves," Barnes remembered. 

In January 1969, the Army flew Barnes from Japan back to Seattle. Once officially discharged at the base, he was off.

"We're done with ya," he felt like the U.S. Army was saying.

He taxied to the airport with five guys and flew the convoluted route back to Bismarck.  He counts himself lucky for having arrived at night. He wore his uniform to get a discounted a ticket, but he felt "sheepish" in it, knowing how people perceived Vietnam veterans.

He started working with cars right away, first at a gas station then in the parts department at a Chevy dealership. 

He recently bought a new home with his wife. For a long time, being a veteran had hindered his chances at a home loan, he said. But a man at a local bank helped him get the right papers and another man took his home off the market for him, so that Barnes, a veteran, could be the one to buy it.

Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at

"We used a dictionary to see if we could really smoke 'em. We finally got chewed out for it."

-- John Barnes, on writing commendation letters that veered from the "boilerplate" versions

John Barnes

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