Although he received two purple hearts plus various citations while serving in Vietnam, it was only a few years ago that John Shemanski decided to accept them.
“It’s because of my wife,” he explained.
The problem, Shemanski said, is it often bothers him that he was able to return home, while so many others never made it back.
Shemanski, 71, of Bardwell, served as a U.S. Marine corpsman in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967.
In August 1966, Shemanski arrived at the Da Nang Air Force Base.
“I joined up with the First battalion, First Marines, Alpha Company. Where I became a squadron medic,” he said. “We did missions all around the that area. I couldn’t even name all the villages that I was in.”
The scene was so idyllic while flying into Da Nang, Shemanski could not believe the country was at war. But three days later, Shemanski and the rest of his squad were ambushed by unseen forces.
“There were 15 of us, and out of 15, four were wounded in a matter of minutes,” he recalled. “I had to take care of those guys and worked to save their lives. That was the first time I was really scared. I felt like if any of those guys died, I wasn’t doing my job. But I learned real quick that no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t save everybody.”
In January 1967, Shemanski participated in Operation Union, a joint mission involving the Army and the Marines. Command had received word that North Vietnam forces in the area, orders were given to take care of the situation.
“Somehow, they were ready for us,” Shemanski explained. “I would say there were two regiments of North Vietnam army regulars. They riddled us. I would up with four guys in my unit dead and two wounded that needed taken care of.”
While treating the wounded, Shemanski himself became a casualty when he caught a 30 caliber machine gun round in the back. He was sent to the U.S.S. Repose, a hospital ship, where it took him one-and-a-half months to recover.
Shemanski eventually returned to his unit, to the surprise of his top sergeant.
“He was sitting with his back to me,” Shemanski recalled. “I said ‘Hey Top, how soon can I get back in the field.’ And he said ‘I hear the voice, but it’s impossible!’”
It turns out Shemanski had reported to have died on the way to the hospital ship. Because his position had already been filled, he was transferred Charlie Company.
“Charlie Company was a raider company,” Shemanski explained. “The would tell us things like ‘OK, go 40 klicks (kilometers) north and take out the problem. It could be North Vietnam Army regulars. Or Viet Cong.”
Eventually. Charlie Company was ordered out on a search and destroy mission.
“If we found anything that was Viet Cong or North Vietnamese, we had to destroy it.”
Finding one deserted village, the company searched it extensively, but found nothing.
“We were getting ready to leave the village, but then from behind us, someone opened fire. We went back, and unfortunately, we destroyed the whole village.”
No villagers were killed, but when they returned they found their homes were gone.
Charlie Company decided to make up for what had been done by helping rebuild the village.
“We called in the Seabees,” he said, “We called in a whole company of Marines. Within days, the whole village had been rebuilt.”
Later, Shemanski was again injured by enemy fire – this time by a piece of mortar shrapnel in his right hip.
Sent back to the Repose, a young doctor was able to save Shemanski’s leg. Following the operation, Shemanski was ordered home to recover.
“He told me it would take six to eight months before I would able to walk again. But I didn’t mind because I still had my leg,” he said.
Shemanski’s philosophy on his experiences in Vietnam can be summed up in an incident that occurred while he was speaking in uniform to a high school class about his experiences in Vietnam.
“While talking on the stage, one of the kids stood up and said ‘Sir, what can you do if you don’t to go to Vietnam.’ And I said, ‘Honestly? Take the first plane, train, automobile, or bus to Canada and stay there.”
Unknown to Shemanski, a Marine colonel was listening in the audience. After the talk, the man strove down the aisle and informed Shemanski “Sailor, I’ll have your stripes for that. That’s treason.”
“I tore the stripes off and said ‘Here you are colonel. I served nine-and-a-half months in Vietnam and was wounded twice. Serving in a war that nobody knows why we’re here. If you think I’m going to lie to these kids, you got another thing coming.”
“I hate the thought of being over there,” Shemanski continued. “But I live for the thought of being able to fight to preserve our freedom. This whole shebang about these guys taking a knee during playing of the National Anthem. In my opinion, that’s one of the rights that I fought for. I spilled blood to give the American People the right to demonstrate in anyway that they wish as long as it’s peaceful.”
“I’m 71 years old,” he said. “If my country needs me today, I would gladly put on a uniform and go back. I would go back because our country needs to see that there are still people here that would go and protect them.”