War … and Peace

Veteran Looks Back at the Lessons of Vietnam and Life

By Guy Fletcher | Photography by Photos courtesy James B. Hubbard Jr. and Deborah Nylec | Posted on 11.07.21 – Feature, History

It was a characteristically hot, humid and cloudless day in South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta on March 30, 1968. Monsoon season wouldn’t douse the region until late spring, so a dry rice paddy served the U.S. Army well as the temporary home of fire support base Fels, about 50 miles southwest of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon.

The dusty encampment provided command, personnel, first-aid, reconnaissance and other support to forward infantry troops. It also included a battery of five 105-millimeter howitzer cannons capable of raining artillery shells on Viet Cong troops miles away. But the base’s ability to support the front also made it a target for enemy mortar attacks, like the one that started just before dusk at about 5:30 p.m. that day.

The impact from the first round sent soldiers scrambling for the sandbag-walled bunkers and claimed no casualties. But the second and third rounds exploded among several combat troops, as well as cooks serving the evening meal.

Lt. James B. Hubbard, a transportation officer at the base, ran into his bunker but he couldn’t stay there long because the field phone was ringing in the unprotected office tent just a few feet away. He hurried to the tent and took a call from the battalion surgeon, who reported the attack wounded six soldiers, two requiring immediate attention.

Hubbard needed to radio in a “Dustoff,” an evacuation helicopter, and direct it to a safe landing so the wounded could be loaded and flown to a field hospital. It was a tricky enterprise; now dark, with a moonless sky, the helicopter had to navigate among radio antennas, howitzers, bunkers and other obstacles, not the least of which being the threat of continued mortar fire.

The events of that evening are detailed in Hubbard’s book, From Michigan to Mekong: Letters on Life, Learning, Love and War, which follows his journey from his hometown of Ludington, Mich., on the shores of Lake Michigan, to Vietnam, and to Frederick—with many stops between. The book is organized in the form of letters—mostly breezy but periodically serious—Hubbard wrote to his family throughout the 1960s. The letters are supplemented with notes and other context provided by Hubbard and the book’s two other contributors, his daughter, Deborah Nylec, and John M. Faust. The result illustrates Middle American life, Hubbard’s briefly harrowing but distinctly non-Hollywood experience in Southeast Asia, and his life after the war.

But, to be fair, March 30, 1968, doesn’t appear until page 180 of the 234-page book. It is a testament to the authors’ vision and Hubbard’s own humility that an event so significant—for which he earned the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest military decoration for valor in combat—is afforded far less space than his freshman year at college.

“I think it should be a book”

The book is rooted in the discovery years ago of stacks of family letters, carefully organized by Hubbard’s since-deceased mother. It was left to Hubbard’s sister, Sally Gunberg, to distribute the letters to the appropriate family members. One stack went to Nylec, who would often head to the basement of her Adamstown home to enjoy reading about her father’s college years and his struggles and successes with grades, money and romance.

But when Nylec read an October 1962 note Hubbard wrote his father about the Cuban Missile Crisis, threatening to leave college and join the Army if war breaks out, she thought the letters could be more than a family keepsake. “I thought, ‘This could be a very interesting read, actually, because it does cover this divisive era in America’s history.’ I kept telling [my husband] Mark, ‘I think it should be a book.’”

Nylec found a self-publishing company and enlisted the help of Faust, a family friend, to work on the framework of turning letters into a book—a two-year project that continued without Hubbard’s knowledge until he was shown a manuscript. “I had no idea this was underway,” he says.

He wasn’t even sure if his letters survived all these years. But he remembers writing them; they were an important part of his college life and later his military experience. Being away from home, he felt it was important to keep his family informed on his activities, important and otherwise. “I thought, ‘I’m here. I really need to keep them up to date with what I am doing and how I’m doing,’” he says now. “It was a sense of duty, I guess, and so I kept it up.”

The book includes dozens of letters Hubbard wrote to his parents and more written to other family members. Most of the early letters center on ordinary happenings at college but also touched on politics and other newsworthy topics.

After just a couple years of American participation in the Vietnam War, Hubbard was already forming a strong opinion of the war—a prescient view that countered the prevailing political and military thinking of the day. In a letter published in the Chicago Tribune’s editorial page on a May 2, 1966, Hubbard posited that escalating the war would be futile. “The whole objective in this struggle is the control and support of the population. One does not win a man’s support by bombing his home,” he wrote. 

Nonetheless, he had made a commitment to the military through his participation in ROTC in college and was determined to serve in Vietnam, if the Army needed him there after graduation. In an undated 1966 letter to Sally, 10 years his junior, he attempted to allay his sister’s fears about the war, while also explaining his conflicting obligations.

“I can’t say that I want to go because I also have a duty to my family,” he wrote to Sally. “But in a sense, I am protecting my family by fighting the enemies of our country. If I am ordered there, I will go without question and when I get there I will do the best I can do.”

Hubbard married Judy Davis in August 1966, the same month he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army. Weighing the quirks of the military’s bureaucracy, Hubbard volunteered for a one-year tour in Vietnam to ensure him a position as a transportation officer, avoiding a potentially riskier post as an artillery observer.

“This decision is not [just] my own. I talked to as many people as I could to find out what to expect and what alternatives I had. This seems to be the best way to do it. Judy and I did some real soul searching to make the decision but it is our decision,” he wrote in a Jan. 11, 1967, letter to his parents.

“We have problems”

He spent most of 1967 at stateside bases before jungle training in Panama and then arriving in Vietnam in December 1967. There, in the relative safety of a large headquarters base near Saigon, he was responsible for maintenance and repair of motorized equipment that supported infantry troops—a very different kind of Vietnam War experience than typically depicted in heart-pounding movies full of firefights, exploding shells and napalm.

“It’s a very strange place here,” he wrote Judy just after he arrived. “The only thing that reminds you there is a war going on is the sandbags around the barracks and the armed guards at the gate. Other than that, it’s just Fort Hood.”

That casual description would be broken on Jan. 31, 1968, when North Vietnamese troops initiated the Tet Offensive throughout South Vietnam. Though the attacks were ultimately considered to be military failures, they played a significant political role in eroding the American public’s confidence in the war.

“This is going to have to be a short note for now,’ Hubbard wrote Judy in a letter dated Feb. 12, 1968. “We have problems. Our supply line is long and things are difficult. So far, the big action hasn’t affected me too much. At least I haven’t been shot at yet.”

That changed as Tet led to increased hostilities for many weeks and Hubbard was moved to the fire support base. Then came the night of March 30.

To help the evac helicopter land safely in the dark, Hubbard had flashlights placed into tin cans planted on the helipad, positioned in the shape of a large T. He instructed the helicopter pilot to follow the path of the Mekong River until the base and the landing lights could be seen.

But the helicopter’s own flashing red lights, visible from thousands of yards away on a dark night, attracted the attention of the Viet Cong mortar crew, who began firing again. Shells were blasting as medics loaded wounded men on the helicopter. Fortunately, the aim of the mortar crew was off and the early impacts were more than 40 yards from the helipad.

Hubbard ran back to his tent and told the pilot over the radio that the helicopter was loaded and should take off now. The shells were getting closer, moving across camp with each impact. As the helicopter lifted off, the last mortar round hit outside Hubbard’s tent, shredding the canvas over his head and punching three holes in a radio battery box he was clutching across his chest. He suffered a bad bruise on his shin, but remarkably avoided serious wounds.

Careful not to worry his wife or parents, he never wrote home about the episode and today remains humble about his contributions. Sitting in the Wormans Mill home he shares with Judy, he re-tells the story more than a half-century later with the same matter-of-fact description he put into the book. His car’s license plate features a Silver Star insignia, as does a pin he wears to veterans’ events, “but other than that, I don’t go crowing about it,” he says.

Not even to his family. Sally, now 68 and visiting her brother from her home in Michigan, sits nearby. Her eyes well, hearing about the ordeal from her brother’s mouth for the first time. “I never heard, until today, the full story,” she says.

“You made me what I am today”

The remainder of Hubbard’s tour in Vietnam included a brief stint as a general’s aide and then back to transportation. Before returning home in November 1968, he wrote his wife: “I have learned one thing though. I have more confidence in myself than I ever had before. I don’t mean to be egotistical but I know that if I really put my mind to it, I can do damn near anything. (I’ll eventually get over the salty language!)”

He returned to the states with a goal of making a career in the military, but in 1969 he started suffering from what would ultimately be diagnosed as ulcerative colitis, resulting in spending two years in and out of hospitals and eventually his medical discharge from the Army.

He tried several civilian positions before finally finding a long-term career in the Washington, D.C., office of the American Legion, advocating  on Capitol Hill for the organization and veterans. One of the highlights of his work was lobbying Congress for the approval of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was completed in 1982. He worked for the American Legion for 23 years until retiring in 1999.

Today, Hubbard keeps himself busy, while still facing some health struggles. He continues to have a connection to the military by volunteering one day a week at Monocacy National Battlefield. He and Judy have been married for 55 years. They have two daughters and four grandchildren.

The book closes, fittingly, with another letter Hubbard wrote, this one in spring 2020. It included an explanation of the information he didn’t include in all the letters to his family.

“I saw more [action in Vietnam] and was, at times, more in harm’s way than I ever admitted in my letters home to my wife and my parents,” he wrote. “My intent was to avoid giving them any cause to worry about my safety as I went about my work in a combat zone.”

Finally, he included words of thanks to his younger self for lessons that continue to serve him well at age 78.

“Those of us who came of age during the Vietnam era think differently than those who served in WW II. But the bottom line of these chronicles from a very formative decade, saved by my wife and my mother and transcribed into this volume by my daughter, prove one thing: You made me what I am today.”