Jim Shingleton was among 28 Soldiers that left Fort Ord, California, on Dec. 23, 1966, and arrived the next day, Christmas Eve, in Vietnam. The newly graduated communications specialists landed in Pleiku and were then flown to base camp An Khe.
Shingleton, however, had gotten sick and missed the flight to An Khe. Within a week, he caught a helicopter there and learned that 26 of the original 28 were dead.
Such was the shortened life expectancy of radio telephone operators in Vietnam. Shingleton was among about five RTOs with Headquarters and Helicopters Company, 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division in in the central highlands of An Khe from December 1966 through December 1967.
“As an RTO, I was responsible for reporting conflicts or firefights to headquarters which would in turn provide support whether air or ground to units that were in conflict,” Shingteton said. “Where the commander went, I went. Where you see the commander, you see the RTO right behind him. The RTO’s life expectancy was like six seconds.”
The troops would go out into the field for 30 days and then return to headquarters before rotating out again. The battle rhythm was fluid with constant action. Soldiers, who dug holes so they could sleep underground, had to stay on the alert. It was hard to distinguish friend from foe.
Shingteton, now retired in Harvest, remembers when mortars struck the ammunition depot at An Khe in March or April 1967. The resulting explosions lasted for days.
But he especially remembers the fighting in November 1967 on Hill 875 in Dak To. “And that’s where I’d never seen so many wounded and dead Soldiers,” he said.
He left for the states the next month and returned home on Christmas Eve 1967. The reception was anything but welcome.
“They called us ‘baby killers’ and they would spit on you,” Shingleton said. “It wasn’t like I thought I was going to be received. It wasn’t like Soldiers today. They come back as heroes, thank you for your service. But we never got that. We got the opposite.”
Born in Magnolia, Arkansas, he joined the Army in 1966 in Los Angeles soon after graduating from Roosevelt High School. His mother wasn’t happy but “it was my duty to join – patriotism,” he said. That June 21, three days after finishing high school, he went to basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Shingleton served 30 years, retiring as a chief warrant officer 3 on April 30, 1997, at Redstone. He had arrived from the Republic of Panama in 1993 and worked in software engineering. After his military career, he worked for defense contractor SAIC until retiring after 17 years. “I currently own a little consulting company,” he said.
For his Vietnam service, he received the Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Army Meritorious Service Medal and Joint Meritorious Service Medal.
“I remember how warm the (Vietnamese) people were. They really had some warm people,” he said. “So I couldn’t understand why some of us would treat them badly.”
After Vietnam Shingleton was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, where he met his future wife, Larraine. Married 47 years they have three grown children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Michael, of Madison, is a network engineer for defense contractor Brockwell Technologies Inc. at Redstone; Tammie Brown, of Harvest, is a retired chief warrant officer 2 who served 20 years in the Army and had two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan; and Maurice, of Harvest, who also served five years as an aviation Soldier, is an assistant principal at Grissom High School pursuing his doctorate.
“The (Vietnam) story’s never been told from a Soldiers’ perspective,” Shingleton said. “I look around and I see our country has grown in many ways but it’s still the same. We’re fighting the same battle. People don’t start wars, governments do. If we don’t try to work with some kind of negotiations or talks or treaties this country will be fighting forever. Vietnam was just the start. Only thing I can say is remember those Soldiers in Vietnam that fought for what they believed in. They didn’t have to go, they did. But I’m glad I went. I grew up real fast.”
Editor’s note: This is the 40th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.