While stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, with the 101st Airborne Division, then Maj. James Heyward volunteered for Vietnam.
“I needed to get some combat experience – war experience, I’ll put it that way – if I was going to compete in the Army,” he recalled.
Heyward served a year’s tour in Vietnam from May 1967 through June 1968 in Cu Chi as a field artillery officer with the Army Wound Data Munitions Effectiveness Team attached to the 25th Infantry Division. He served on the munitions team, collecting data in the battlefield. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in March 1968.
“It was hell,” he said of the year. “In fact we were there when Tet (Offensive) started. Tet started in January of ’68. And we had 120 mm rocket rounds coming in every night. Each time we had to duck and run to our bunkers. We had a few casualties on the base camp as a result of the rockets.”
The incoming rounds occurred “almost every night for a while,” he said. “Like three weeks to a month until we could push them back.”
Heyward remembers riding a jeep with an associate during the ’67 Christmas holidays on a 25-mile trip from Cu Chi to Saigon. The Viet Cong had already set up their positions but were awaiting the Tet Offensive beginning date. “We could’ve been knocked off at their pleasure (during the jeep ride),” Heyward said. “I realize that now.”
He has a vivid memory from Vietnam. In 1968 while going to a firefight with one of the units of the 25th Infantry, he remembers walking through the medical area northeast of Cu Chi. He stepped over more than 12 body bags containing dead American Soldiers which would be evacuated to the U.S. morgue in Saigon.
“As I thought about it, I thought there lies some mother’s son or some wife’s husband at the end of the line,” Heyward said. “Kind of a sad event to think of that end of the line. But you couldn’t dwell on that.”
For his Vietnam service, Heyward received the Bronze Star, Vietnam service medals and the Army Commendation Medal. He returned to the United States and went on to complete 30 years in the Army. He served as the professor of military science at Alabama A&M University from 1979-83 and retired as a colonel in 1983. One of his former ROTC cadets, Patrick Burden, became a brigadier general last November and is stationed at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey. Heyward went on to serve as the director of admissions at Alabama A&M before retiring in 1997.
Heyward did not personally experience the abuse many veterans received when they returned from the Vietnam War. “I had no really negative treatment that I’ve read about,” he said. “Most of the time if I was in an audience, they would respect me and sometime acknowledge my presence. I didn’t get the negative treatment that prevailed which many of my comrades experienced.”
The Sumter, South Carolina, native graduated from South Carolina State University in 1953 where he was commissioned from ROTC as a second lieutenant and received a bachelor’s in education with concentration in mathematics. He would subsequently receive a master’s in counseling from Shippensburg State University in 1972.
His military career took him throughout the world, including Fort Benning, Georgia, Fort Campbell, Japan, Germany, Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Fort Bliss, Texas, Korea, Hampton, Virginia, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.
He and his wife, Willie Mae, a retired teacher, have two sons – James Jr. of Atlanta and Julian Edward of Huntsville – and four grandsons. He also has a daughter, Gabriele Kummerle Pittrich of Augsburg, Germany.
Heyward serves on the executive board of the Greater Alabama Council for Boy Scouts of America and also on the board of the Urban Emphasis Scout Leaders Council of Huntsville, which he helped form. Until two years ago, he served as Cubmaster of Cub Pack 906. Heyward is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. He is also a member of the steward board of St. John AME Church in Huntsville.
On behalf of himself and his fellow Vietnam veterans, he appreciates this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the war.
“This nation should welcome them with open arms because most service personnel didn’t volunteer to go to Vietnam. They were sent by the government,” he said. “However, I didn’t receive the negativity I read about and heard about that many of my comrades received. That activity wasn’t in keeping with the American tradition.”
Editor’s note: This is the 26th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.