Don Wilson joined the Army in 1961 after graduating from high school in Storm Lake, Iowa.
After basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and basic electronics at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, he spent the rest of his three years in uniform at Redstone Arsenal.
“Basically it was pretty good,” he said of serving at the Ordnance Guided Missile School from 1962-64. “It was good duty as opposed to getting shot at or anything else.”
Wilson arrived in January 1962 for 26 weeks of training in internal guidance and propulsion on the Corporal guided missile. His specialty was Corporal internal guidance. Corporal, fielded in the early 1950s, had a vacuum tube-based guidance system.
The Iowa native landed at the Continental Trailways bus station in Huntsville.
“The first thing I noticed is that the bus station had separate water fountains for whites and blacks. The good news is they were gone when I took my first leave six months later,” he said. “Not sure how I got to the Arsenal but I believe there was a shuttle bus.”
After finishing his training in August 1962, Wilson was reassigned to the training units to provide maintenance support. He maintained the Corporal missiles that the students were training on.
But he was considered surplus when the Corporal was replaced in 1963 by the Sergeant ballistic missile which had solid state guidance. Wilson volunteered to teach electronics and he taught basic radios and electronics from November 1963 until August 1964 at Redstone’s old “Tin City.” He taught the Soldier students at night in those World War II-era Quonset huts made of corrugated aluminum.
“Basically I like teaching a lot so that was fun for me,” Wilson said. “And I worked the night shift so there was not a lot of suits around to bug me.”
The electronics class he taught represented weeks 10 and 11 of the Soldiers’ preliminary instruction before they started training on a specific missile system. Wilson taught until Aug. 3, 1964, when he left the Army as a specialist 5.
“They wanted me to reenlist to get more training on a different missile system (after Corporal was phased out),” he said. “I said no. I know a lot of people that did for whatever reason. But that wasn’t me.”
He had joined the Army because he couldn’t afford college and he didn’t have a defined career goal. Wilson remembers sitting in his training company’s day room and watching in stunned silence when the television networks reported President Kennedy’s assassination Nov. 22, 1963. He watched on television when Jack Ruby fatally shot Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assailant, two days later.
When Wilson was deemed surplus at Redstone, he went to the personnel office and they asked him his qualifications. He was told that only Soldiers with combat experience were being assigned as advisers to Vietnam. Most of the Corporal deployments were in Germany with support in several spots in Europe. U.S. combat involvement in the Vietnam War was ignited in early August 1964 when two U.S. destroyers stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam radioed that they had been fired upon by North Vietnamese forces.
Wilson worked for more than 40 years as an electronics engineer. He retired from Motorola in Chicago after 30 years.
He received a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Northern Illinois University in 1979 and a master of business administration from Keller Graduate School of Management in 1992.
He and his wife of 49 years, Lynn, reside in Palatine, Illinois, which is a northwest suburb of Chicago. They have two daughters – Amy, of Bear, Delaware, and Erin Finlay, of Rolling Meadows, Illinois – and two grandchildren.
At 77 Wilson enjoys collecting knives and watching sports. He no longer goes sailing. He belongs to the American Legion, Mundelein, Illinois, Chapter, and the Illinois Society of Professional Engineers.
Wilson shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“I don’t think it’s had enough emphasis,” he said. “But that’s understandable considering how poorly we treated them.”
Editor’s note: This is the 253rd in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.