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The Vietnam War – Joe Louwagie – A dirty war

Joseph Louwagie was the third of six children born to Marie and Gerard Louwagie, who farmed south of Green Valley.

Joe married Jo Schmitz, in June 1968 after graduating college. The newlyweds’ plans changed when the local Draft Board refused Joe an educational deferment for law school. Facing an August draft, Joe enlisted in the Army for three years and Officer Candidate School (OCS) training.

Joe finished 22 weeks of officer training before an old back injury precluded his becoming an officer, so he dropped OCS. The Army reduced him to Private First Class and deployed him to Vietnam after a short leave.

Joe arrived in Vietnam in late June of 1969 and the Army assigned him to the 1st Infantry Division. He was patrolling with his infantry company within a week.

Combat patrolling was a grueling experience even without combat. The summer is Vietnam’s wet monsoon. Joe explained what that meant for troops in the field.

“When we were in the field during the monsoon, we tried to set up our night perimeter before the rain hit. You could almost guarantee that at five o’clock it was going to come. I don’t remember how long it lasted, but it poured. Early on when you are green, everybody tells you to dig a foxhole so if you get in contact, you can drop down. I dug a foxhole about two feet deep and three feet wide. It started raining and 30 minutes later that foxhole was level full of water. (Joe chuckled) I never dug another foxhole in Vietnam.”

Staying dry was impossible during the wet monsoon, so Joe described his strategy to care for important items.

“I would write letters and put the letters inside my helmet and every time we got back to base camp, I’d have them sent home. You had nowhere else. Anything in your pack would get wet. Usually, my wife would send letters every day and I’d pick up six-seven letters when I was back. I’d take them and read them when I was in the field.”

Trying to manage personal hygiene in the field was another challenge.

“To answer the call of nature you just snuck under the bushes (Joe chuckled) and did your job. You carried a toothbrush and toothpaste in your pack. Sometimes you could use it; sometimes you couldn’t. You didn’t wash your face many times because you didn’t have anything other than what was in your canteens and you weren’t going to use that because you needed to drink it. You didn’t have the luxury of being able to bathe. If we were in the field and there was a (water-filled) bomb crater, it didn’t stop us from jumping in there; cooling off; and cleaning off. I never saw anyone shave in the field. Everyone looked scraggly. In fact, I had one guy who didn’t recognize me after I shaved.”

Even returning to base camp meant limited living conditions.

“You had 20-man canvas tents there. But when we’d come in from the field for stand-down, they’d usually assign us to the bunkers around Di An (1st Division base camp) and pull guard duty. You would shave when you got in a rear area, but you shaved with cold water. If we wanted to shower when we got into Di An, you filled a five gallon pail with cold water. They lowered a bucket; you poured in the five gallon pail; lifted it back up; got underneath; and took a cold shower.”

Joe became close friends with another soldier in his company.

I had my best friend, a Black kid named Dan McGill, from Chicago. We got along real well. I could talk to Dan about anything, probably because of my background — I grew up playing cards. I could pretty well play any game and the Blacks played a game called “Bid Whist.” We’d go into tents and I’d play with four-five African-Americans. I was likely one of the few white guys who would play with them.”

Dan taught Joe an important lesson about the burdens some Black troops carried in Vietnam.

“We had two gentlemen, one from Alabama and one from Georgia. When we’d go out at night to put out our claymores, they’d start shaking. I said, ‘Dan, I don’t understand. I watch you put your claymore out and it doesn’t bother you. But they’re afraid to do it.’ He said, ‘Joe, think of where we’re from. I’m from Chicago. They’re from Georgia and Alabama. They still have lynchings down there. Black men are afraid to go out at night because of their background.’ We forget how recently they were having Jim Crow and all that down there. That was one of the things I learned.”

Joe laughed as he shared another, almost inexplicable, field experience.

“We had a mechanical ambush that went off one night when a bear ran through. He panicked and took off; jumped over the guy alongside of me; and landed on my chest. So, I can honestly say I got hit by a bear on the chest in the bush at night. All I saw (Joe chuckled) was a black butt — the back end — running away.”

Joe did not complete his Vietnam tour with the 1st Infantry Division and he ran into new and dangerous challenges with his final unit of assignment.

The Lyon County Museum’s next Veterans Coffee will be Tuesday, Dec. 5 at 1:30 p.m. for veterans of any armed service and any period. Please join us for coffee, conversation, and camaraderie.

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