One man received the life-changing news in a phone call from his dad while stocking shelves at a Hinky-Dinky grocery store. Another heard about it over the radio while he was driving a Coke delivery truck.
It was April 1968. Those two men — plus more than 120 of their buddies — learned they soon would be leaving home for an 8,000-mile trip to Vietnam.
The men served with the 172nd Transportation Company, a U.S. Army Reserve unit based in Omaha.
“It was just shock,'' said Jim McGrath, a unit member who now lives in Lincoln. “We never thought they would call us up.”
But that's exactly what President Lyndon Johnson ordered, activating Army Reserve units and sending them to Vietnam for the first time in the war.
Troops often returned home with snapshots of their Vietnam experience, and the men of 172nd brought back their own collection. But the unit now has more than just a mix of photos.
The 172nd produced a DVD that chronicles the unit's tour. The 65-minute DVD essentially is a documentary filled with 570 photos, plus 8 mm film footage that members of the company shot to trace the tour from start to finish: flying out from Eppley Airfield; training at Fort Lewis, Wash.; running convoys of trucks filled with 175 mm cannon shells and other supplies in South Vietnam; celebrating Christmas in their barracks; falling into formation for awards during their last week overseas.
Interviews with unit members punctuate the DVD, set against a high-energy soundtrack of 1960s music from the Rolling Stones, the Doors and other bands.
Members say the documentary is for their families. The men wanted to give wives, children and grandchildren a better understanding of their lives in Vietnam.
Tears welled up in Sharon Evon's eyes when she watched the documentary for the first time with other wives and family members. She and unit member Dan Evon had been married just two years when he shipped out.
“It opened my eyes,'' she said. “I'm surprised there weren't more accidents and they didn't lose guys.”
Pat McGrath, who became engaged to unit member Jim McGrath a few weeks before he deployed, said the DVD helped her better understand the roles her husband and the other men played in Vietnam, whether it was as a driver or mechanic.
“They were a team,'' she said.
Unit member Garry Knittel, who in 1968 was a 19-year-old college student and Hinky-Dinky employee, led the effort to produce the DVD. The idea originated during the unit's 40th reunion in Omaha in 2008.
Members brought their Vietnam snapshots to share.
“I started thinking we need to preserve this stuff,” said Knittel, 63.
His daughter, Stefani Lane, works for local video company Dynamic Productions and helped her dad, giving the DVD a professional look. The DVD was completed in 2010 and shown to family members last year.
Parts of the DVD look and sound like they could be an opening montage from a TV show or movie about Vietnam.
The documentary flashes iconic images of the war — Huey helicopters and shirtless soldiers gripping M-16 rifles — as 1960s hits like “Nowhere to Run” and “Satisfaction” provide background music.
The DVD starts with the unit flying from Omaha's Eppley Airfield in May 1968 for five months of training at Fort Lewis. The Fort Lewis photos show the men chowing at the mess hall, playing poker in the barracks, firing automatic rifles and driving Army trucks over dirt roads lined with pine trees.
The documentary highlights “The Crow,” a 7-foot-tall black and yellow fiberglass crow that unit members somehow acquired during their training in Washington state. “The Crow” became a company mascot that traveled with the men to Vietnam and now at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Va.
In October 1968, the men boarded a plane for Cam Ranh Bay, a military port and compound in South Vietnam. Within a couple weeks of their arrival, the men launched supply convoys, the unit's main assignment.
The men drove 5-ton cargo trucks, essentially military versions of a semi-trailer. The unit ferried barbed wire, cannon shells, canned food, lumber for building bridges and other supplies to U.S. artillery bases in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.
The DVD shows the trucks lumbering over rugged dirt roads covered with ruts and holes that could be a foot deep. Rain turned the roads into a muddy, slippery mess that left deep-treaded tires spinning.
The men navigated twisting mountain roads so narrow the back wheels of trucks crept over the edge during turns.
John Gass, a platoon sergeant with the unit who's now 70, explains in the DVD how the men rolled out of their bunks at 3 a.m. on convoy days. They ate breakfast, grabbed their M-16s and gathered for a briefing on the route. They hit the road at sunrise.
The unit typically ran 80 to 100 trucks in a convoy, rumbling along at 5 mph because of the rugged and snaking roads. It took a day and a half to reach an artillery base 180 miles away, says Gass, who in those days was a sturdy-looking 26-year-old former high school fullback.
Tom Bruner, unit commander for half the tour who later rose to brigadier general in the Reserves, notes in the DVD that the 172nd logged nearly 700,000 miles in 12 months overseas, hauling more than 80,000 tons of equipment. Those accomplishments and others earned the company a meritorious unit commendation.
Helicopters and “gun trucks” escorted every convoy. Viet Cong snipers occasionally fired on the convoys as trucks passed through thick groves of rubber trees.
McGrath, the unit member from Lincoln, drove a gun truck he called “The Mortician.” It was equipped with a .50-caliber machine gun and two M-60 machine guns, plus an M-79 grenade launcher.
“We were ready for bear,'' said McGrath, a graduate of Omaha Central High and a 21-year-old Coke delivery driver when he was called up.
The men of the 172nd are now in their 60s or 70s. They are grandfathers and great-grandfathers. Many are retired.
Even though more than four decades have passed since they landed in Vietnam, the men remain close. They still call each other by nicknames from the war — “Horse Head,” “Catfish” and “Milk Man.”
More than 80 of the men turned out from as far away as California and Texas for the unit's 40th reunion, and the 45th is already planned.
Many of them gather monthly at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2503 in Omaha for a couple beers and a few stories.
The documentary ends with words from Knittel, the member who pulled it together, who sums up what was best about the unit's Vietnam tour.
“Everybody worked hard,'' he says. “We all came home.”
Contact the writer: