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The Vietnam War — Everett Wallin – A Willmar boy becomes an airman

The Vietnam War impacted many whose military service never required them to serve in Vietnam, such as Air Force personnel serving at bases in Thailand that supported wartime operations in Vietnam. Marshall’s Everett Wallin was one of these airmen.

Everett was born and raised in Willmar. He described how his military service began when he was 17 years old.

“I was still in high school and I decided to join the National Guard in Willmar. It was a bunch of good guys and we were trying to build bridges as an Engineer battalion — 682nd Engineer Battalion. I enjoyed wearing the uniform and I enjoyed being with the people – the other GIs.”

Everett enjoyed his National Guard service with people from all walks of life, from area businessmen to guys like Everett who worked part-time jobs at service stations during school. When he graduated from Willmar High School in 1954, he elected to continue his military service. He explained, “I didn’t have any direction to go to college and the Air Force sounded good to me.”

Everett visited the Air Force recruiter in Willmar; notified his National Guard unit that he had enlisted in the Air Force; and in March 1955 the Air Force flew him to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas for Air Force Basic Training. Everett chuckled as he remembered how life changed at Basic Training.

“The tight control was a lot different. First, you got your head pretty-well shaved off and got what they called the Flying 31. Every one of those $31 went to the Base Exchange for the supplies that we needed as a recruit. Once you got all set up as a recruit and got your uniform on [we were] watching the people from New York or someplace else come in with all their different-colored clothes. They were called the Rainbow Flights. When they would come off the bus, they would all be wearing their civilian clothes. They looked really kind of odd.”

Everett outlined his experience as a Basic Trainee

“It was kind of like you were told what to do from then on. Some marching, some schooling, lots of barracks inspections, some KP (Kitchen Police), and some PT (Physical Training). We had thirteen different TI’s (Training Instructors) and some of those TI’s were right out of Basic themselves, probably the worst ones you could get. One day we had KP. We didn’t know they were changing our instructors. We came back to the barracks all sweated up. The barracks were turned inside out. The bunks and mattresses were turned over and [we had] a stand-by inspection. One little TI I must have given a dirty look because he asked me if I wanted to go to the back room (Everett chuckled) and have it out. I said, ‘No.’ I was glad to graduate,” Everett concluded, laughing.

Then Everett’s young Air Force career took an unexpected turn to the world of international espionage.

“I was supposed to go to Wire Maintenance School in Cheyenne, Wyoming — A.C. Warren (Air Force Base). I think they had us pegged already for something else because when we got to Cheyenne, they put me and forty-four other people into an isolated part of the base. Then they interviewed us for what I learned was a Top Secret project. We had training areas on an isolated part of the base and ended up learning how to produce hydrogen for reconnaissance balloons. We did that for about three months. Then we went to Denver, Colorado to Lowry Air Force Base to give us practice with reconnaissance balloons. We couldn’t use hydrogen in the United States, so we used helium. These balloons were more like polyethylene-type plastic. They were 120 feet tall with 2,000 pound payloads on them and we practiced launching them. A couple of them hit houses in Denver. They didn’t get all the way up.” (Everett chuckled)

It was the fall of 1955 and the Cold War between the Soviet Union and its allied nations of the Warsaw Pact, signed in May that year, and the members of the NATO alliance was well underway. Everett and his fellow airmen were about to become Cold Warriors. Once the airmen mastered the process of assembling and launching these massive balloons, the Air Force sent them overseas.

“We went by train from Lowry Air Force Base to New York; got off the train and onto a ship; got to Bremerhaven, Germany; and got off the ship onto a train right to our base. It was an old, WWII German base where they had an aircraft factory. We set up our trailer-mounted hydrogen plant and we produced hydrogen for reconnaissance balloons.”

The Air Force assigned Everett’s detachment to Oberpfaffenhoffen Flugplatz (Airfield) in Bavaria, Germany. He knew the mission was Top Secret, but the airmen never learned the mission’s details. Everett summarized what he concluded at the time.

“I wasn’t positive, but I was kind of sure what was going on. Out in front of our little base was a sign that said “Meteorological Survey Station,” which was not all that true.”

Their balloons were designed to spy on the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.

The Lyon County Museum is organizing an exhibit about the impact of the Vietnam War on Lyon County. If you would like to share Vietnam experiences or help with the exhibit, please contact me at prairieviewpressllc@gmail.com or call the museum at 537-6580.

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