By Kim Brooks, Express Editor
The Nov. 13, 1969, issue of the Monticello Express featured special coverage of the town’s Veterans Day celebration and ceremony that took place on Nov. 11 that year.
The Veterans Day celebration included many traditions like most small towns in Iowa at that time: a parade, a featured speaker and a flag presentation. The parade also included the Monticello Drill Team, a unit of Vietnam veterans and the Monticello High School Marching Band.
But what made the holiday even more memorable for a handful of local families were calls home from the war in Vietnam! Yes, several local young men were able to make a mass phone call home to Monticello. The town gathered in the MHS gym; some 1,700 people were in attendance for this special event.
The Express stated, “The highlight of the Veterans Day ceremony on Tuesday in Monticello was telephone conversations with six Vietnam servicemen.” The two-way phone conversations were able to be broadcast to everyone in the gym, bringing the town together for this special occasion.
“Families of the servicemen were on hand to talk to their sons, husbands and brothers.”
Those who called home included Sp. 4 Steve Hoffman, son of Hans Hoffman; Lance Cpl. Howard Grom, son of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Grom; Pfc. Larry Soper, son of Mrs. Jean Soper; Sgt. Dick Behrends, son of Mr. and Mrs. LaVern Behrends; Sp. 4 John Williams, son of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Williams; Pfc. Jerome Linder, son of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Linder. The calls from Hoffman and Grom came in from the battlefield via a radio-telephone. The other four men called in from Saigon.
The article in the Express explained just how the people of Monticello helped to make this special occasion possible. The calls were made possible through the cooperation of the Northwestern Bell Telephone Company and the U.S. Department of the Army. But, it was the city officials who first made contact for this plan to transpire.
The mayor at this time, Gus Norlin, wanted to do something special for these local families who had sons overseas, fighting for this country. Norlin, along with Frank Faust, VFW commander at this time, wrote letters to each of the young men in Vietnam, explaining the idea of the phone calls home. The letters also asked that the men go to their superiors to inform them of the planned calls home.
Norlin also wrote a letter to then-Congressman John Culver, who in turn contacted the Department of the Army, requesting company commanders be notified of the City of Monticello’s plans to connect young men with their families on Veterans Day.
With these six men calling home, a seventh local Vietnam solider, Mike Lambert, had intentions of calling in that day, but was relocated with his unit. Lambert was able to phone home to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lavern Lambert, the night before Veterans Day.
Lambert also wrote a letter to Mayor Gus Norlin and the City of Monticello, which was reprinted in the Express on Nov. 13, 1969, commending the city on their Veterans Day efforts. “It’s a wonderful thing that’s planned and will truly make a bigger day for us over here. At times here, after reading of the disruptive things going on back home, it can be depressing. I personally feel I should be here. I’ll be proud to say I fought in Vietnam. After reading what you have planned, I’m even prouder to belong to the City of Monticello. It answers any questions in my mind concerning DO the people back home in the U.S. really care?”
John Williams of Monticello shared similar sentiments. He was one of those servicemen serving in Vietnam who made the call home that Veterans Day in 1969.
“We had lots of local support,” Williams recalled.
He served in the Army Infantry for 19 months from October 1968 through May 1970, 14 of those months spent in Vietnam.
“I was drafted right out of high school,” Williams said. He was not enrolled in college at the time.
“We were an Army of teenagers over there,” Williams said. He saw and experienced so much all before the age of 21.
“I saw a lot,” he said. “We were in combat on a regular basis. There was heavy fighting.”
Williams also had an older brother in the Army who was drafted as well, but did not serve in Vietnam. Williams explained since he was already there, there was no need for his brother to risk it.
The Williams family has a proud history of veterans in the family, a tradition John Williams is happy to carry on. He’s had men in his family serve in WWII, WWI, the Spanish-American War, the Civil War and the Revolutionary War.
“I’m proud of all these men on my dad’s side of the family,” Williams said.
At the time he was drafted, his father, Frank Williams, was the president of the local draft board. So there was no favoritism when Williams’ call came up.
After just eight weeks of training (basics and AIT), Williams left for Vietnam on Easter Sunday in 1969.
”It was a time of excitement,” he said. “We were looking forward to going, but at the same time, not. We didn’t know what to expect. Others had been there (Vietnam) and back, with good and bad experiences.”
Williams said the men from Monticello were leaving everything they knew of a small town and heading to the unknown.
“The U.S. had never fought in this type of situation,” he said of the combat in Vietnam.
Williams had a first-hand account of the protests many U.S. soldiers faced after returning home from Vietnam. Many in the U.S. were against the war.
“It was the politics of the war,” Williams explained.
He said coming home and getting off the plane, people in the airports were holding protests. Once, when Williams came home on leave, he said he was bumped seven times from various flights for other customers. Flying stand-by, he just had to wait until a seat opened up.
“Things have certainly changed,” said Williams. Now, people readily give up their seats for a veteran trying to get home.
Williams was engaged at the time he was enlisted. He said he had great local support from family and friends and the City of Monticello.
He was able to communicate some while in Vietnam, via letters. He said the news the men received was through military newspapers reporting on various battles, body count and motivational information.
“I think we were naive to the public reaction back home,” Williams said, seeing it firsthand when he was able to return home.
Through it all, though, Williams is one proud veteran!
“I’m glad I stood up for this country and I would do it again,” he maintained. Williams said he served his time and was not looking to make the military a career.
When he returned home to Monticello, he started working at Julin Printing in the summer to earn money for college in August. He started sweeping floors and today is now the proud owner of the company.
“I blended into civilian life quickly,” he said. “I was surrounded by positive influences and got back to normal life. I was fortunate.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t remember my time in the service,” said Williams. “I don’t dwell on it, but it’s there. I try to remember the positive experiences, the great guys I served with and the courage of us all.”
PHOTOS: Top: John Williams, owner of Julin Printing in Monticello, is a local Vietnam veteran. Williams is one of many veterans in his family, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War. (Photo by Kim Brooks) Bottom: This photo of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Williams appeared in the Monticello Express on Nov. 13, 1969. On Veterans Day that year, locals came to MHS to receive calls from their sons, husbands and brothers serving in Vietnam. John Williams, son of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Williams, was one of those serving overseas. (Express file photo)