Individual Experiences

Almost 68,000 Minnesotans served during the Vietnam War. They all had different reasons for joining the fight and unique perspectives on the war. Not all wanted to talk about their experiences after the fact in great detail. As Vietnam veteran Jimmy Athmann said, "It's sometimes hard to talk about things over there." In several interviews available on the Minnesota Digital Library website, these veterans have shared vivid memories, deep reflections, and various attitudes about Vietnam and its effect on their lives.

Jimmy Athmann, 1969
Jimmy Athmann, 1969

Jimmy Athmann was drafted when he was 19 years old in 1969 and he served in Vietnam for two years. In a 2001 interview with the Melrose Girl Scouts, he talked about his experiences in the Vietnam War. He also explained how his service made him proud to be an American:

"Q: Once you were back home did you look at life differently?"

"A: I really appreciated the United States. We had a very wonderful, wonderful country. It made me very, very proud to be an American because we just we have the most wonderful country around, people just don't realize what how good the United States has it. And when you really are away from it and see how some of these other countries really live – the United Stated is just really a wonderful, wonderful country."

Kenneth Skalberg volunteered to join the armed forces during World War II when he was eighteen, primarily so he could get into an aviation cadet program instead of the infantry. He learned how to fly several types of planes but the war ended before he actually saw combat. When the Korean War started, they needed pilots and they recalled him from the reserves. He stayed in service during the Vietnam War, where he piloted a C133 cargo plane from the United States to Vietnam once a week for a total of 55 missions. In a 1991 interview, Skalberg described one particularly dangerous cargo flight, “…hauling the world’s heaviest load that was ever airlifted in an airplane.” Listen to his story below:

Interview with Kenneth Skalberg, World War II Veteran Collection, St. Cloud State University

Later, he described the harrowing landing:

"And when I touched down and still rolling on the runway, we started opening up our back ramp, and the Vietnamese drivers fired up the tanks while we were still taxiing. We taxied to a halt, and they had dropped the ramp immediately and the tanks went barreling on out the airplane and sailed right downtown. And as soon as the tanks reached downtown, why, the Vietcong turned around and went back across the border. So, we were pretty excited about that."

Kenneth Skalberg

In 1964, Gilbert de la O enlisted in the Army and served until December 1966. He was wounded while fighting in Vietnam. In a 2010 interview, he explained the changes in his mindset about the Vietnam War before and after his service:

"Again, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up with all these war movies. I wanted to do my part… It seemed like that was kind of a thing that might have been an equalizer, too. I’m going to go fight for America, so when I come home, they‘ve got to treat me right. The other thing, too, I think it was like an expectation that that‘s what you had to do. If you’re living in America, when you turn eighteen, you go to Selective Service. You sign up for the draft. If you go, you go. That’s what you had to do. Anyway, when the war came, I remember I got orders to go to Vietnam. I’m home on leave for thirty days. While I’m home during these thirty days, the war is on TV. We’re killing a lot of enemy and I’m thinking, oh, man, I hope we don’t kill enough where they’re not going to send me over there because I want to go over, right? I was a hawk. I was a real hawk, man. I wanted to do that. Anyway, the time comes and I go over there. One of the first battles I was in… It never even dawned on me that the enemy is going to shoot back. That’s how naive I was, I guess."

Gilbert de la O

After he got out, he watched a documentary called "Hearts and Minds" which took a more critical look at the war and included Vietnamese perspectives. He explained how that experience totally changed his opinion on war, especially when it comes with so much collateral damage:

Over in Laos, Xeng Sue Yang, a Hmong man, became a soldier for the C.I.A. after the North Vietnamese army invaded his country. From 1960 to 1975, he went back and forth to Thailand for training and continued to fight, rising in rank until the war was lost. He entered the United States as a refugee in 1979 and settled in Minneapolis. Afterwards, he explained:

"When the war came it's not that I want to fight but I have to fight for my country. I'm not fearful for my life at that time. It's better that I've lost my life for my country then that I lost this country to the enemy."

Xeng Sue Yang

Learn more about Vietnam War experiences using the page link below.