On Veterans Day last month, Gwinnett County held its annual ceremony at the Gwinnett Fallen Heroes Memorial in Lawrenceville. While service men and women, past and present, were honored, the event featured a special “welcome home” for Vietnam veterans.
The Vietnam War ended in 1975 but, for retired Sergeant Major Lester Erving, the war ended two years earlier. That’s when he wrapped up a two year tour, much of it spent stateside at Fort Gordon, Georgia, near Augusta, as he recovered from a gunshot wound that, as he said, “nearly blew my left arm off.” Earlier in his Army career, which began in 1947, Lester spent three years in Korea.
Lester grew up in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He was a member of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, known as the Big Red One. Lester said the motto was, “If you’re going to be one, be a Big Red One!” In Vietnam, Lester spent about as much time underground as he did above it.
In the 1940’s, when the Viet Cong were battling French colonial forces, the Viet Cong built an elaborate underground system of tunnels. By the 1960’s, the tunnels had expanded to include headquarters and hospitals. To ferret out the enemy, the U.S. troops employed “tunnel rats” to explore the extensive labyrinth that lie underground. Lester Erving was a tunnel rat.
“The scariest part of Vietnam was getting in those tunnels,” Lester said.
Armed with just a pistol and a flashlight, Lester and the rest of the “rats” would drop underground where any number of hazards could confront them. Aside from possible enemy troops lying in wait, there were bobby traps, both explosive and natural. The Viet Cong often placed poisonous snakes in the tunnels to take care of intruders.
During his stint, Lester was part of a team of spelunkers that hit the mother lode - a massive underground hospital just north of Saigon. “That was a big deal,” Lester said. “It brought in all the top brass.”
On his final flight home, Lester said the troops were warned to expect hostilities at the airport in California. “There were people, mostly hippies, calling us everything in the world and throwing rotten tomatoes at us. It shocked all of us.”
Lester said most of the hostilities ended at the airport. “When we left California it wasn’t that bad,” he said.
After the war Lester moved to South Carolina. He made his way to Georgia in 1988 and he now calls Snellville home. As another Veterans Day passes, Lester takes a moment to reflect.
Pictured is Lester (standing) helping a fellow "tunnel rat" out of a tunnel hole
“It’s really amazing when you see another country and how the government controls the people,” Lester said. “It makes me feel proud that I was one of the guys that kept this country free. You know it was worth it.” Welcome home and, thank you.Earl Gray is a freelance writer. Send comments/suggestions to email@example.com.