Calling Home From Vietnam
Ernie Hartong enlisted in the army during the Vietnam War. Today, he volunteers at Columbus’s National Veteran’s Memorial and Museum.
Ernie sat down with his daughter Erin Sogal to reflect on his service, how soldiers stayed in touch with loved ones at home, and how he works to communicate his experience to young people.
Erin wanted to know what he gets asked most by students while working as a tour guide. Ernie said he gets a wide range of questions.
"They always ask, 'Why did you serve? Were you scared when you went over seas? What was it like to come home?'" Ernies said. "But then we get some fun things like, 'What did you eat when you were in the army? Where did you go on spring break when you were in the army?'"
Of course, soldiers don't get a spring break, but they do get R&R, or rest and recuperation time. Ernie remembers meeting his wife, Erin's mom, in Hawaii on one such trip.
Another thing students are curious about is the communications equipment on display at the museum.
"They are always amazed to see a telelphone with wires connected to it. They don't quite undertsand that," Ernie said.
The museum exhibits the different ways soldiers communicated with family when serving overseas. Ernie and his wife mailed cassette tapes to each other. They also talked to each other through the Military Affiliate Radio System, also known as MARS.
"You would go into a little booth, not unlike what we're in today, and you would pick up the phone. It was connected to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton," Ernie said. "Someone in Dayton would then call your mother in Dresden, Ohio and we would talk."
The connection wasn't very good and the system wasn't always reliable. Ernie remembers one instance when he was discussing his future plans with his wife – whether to take an assignment in Germany or join the National Guard and head back to Ohio – and the phone suddenely went dead.
Ernie thought his wife hung up on him, while his wife thought he had hung up on her. He couldn't try to call back becasue each soldier had a limited amount of time, and there was a long line of men waiting for their turn.
"I got a problem," Ernie told his captain. "My wife just hung up on me halfway around the world."
As it turned out, it was just a lost connection.
Erin's last question for her father was about his five grandchildren and what he'd say to them if they signed up to serve in the military.
"I would say, 'great,'" Ernie said. "I think that everybody should spend some amount of time doing something for someone else, whether that's in the military or in the Peace Corps or in VISTA or whatever."
While volunteering at the museum, Ernie says people often tell him, "Thank you for your service."
"My answer is always, 'It was my honor to serve,'" Ernie said. "I certainly believe that today probably more than I did back in 1971."
Ernie Hartong and Erin Sogal were recorded at the StoryCorps booth when it visited Columbus this summer.
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Leticia Wiggins, Host: Welcome to StoryCorps Columbus. I'm Leticia Wiggins. StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that collects and preserves stories from across the country in a mobile recording studio. StoryCorps Columbus brings you interviews from central Ohioans who shared their stories during StoryCorps' recent visit to our city.
Today, a story about a veteran and his continued service. Ernie Hartong enlisted in the Army during the Vietnam War.
Now he volunteers at Columbus's National Veterans Memorial and Museum. Ernie sat down with his daughter, Erin Sogal, in the StoryCorps booth when it was in Columbus. He reflected on his service and the difficulty of staying in touch with loved ones at home. Now he communicates his experience to a new generation.
Erin Sogal: What are some of the most unique questions that you've gotten as a tour guide? Maybe from those students. What are they asking about or what are they curious about?
Ernie Hartong: They always ask, why did you serve? Were you scared when you went overseas? What was it like to come home? But then we get some fun things like what did you eat when you were in the army? Where did you go on spring break when you were in the army?
You know, I tell them there was no spring break. It was a thing called R and R. And I actually went to Hawaii and I met your mother in Hawaii for R and R when I was in Vietnam. They're very curious, you know.
We have a few artifacts there. Not many, because again it's a museum about people. It's a thousand stories. But we do have communications equipment from throughout the era and they're always amazed to see a telephone with wires connected to it. They don't quite understand that.
Erin Sogal: No?
Ernie Hartong: We have a section in the museum called Letters From Home, and it talks about how folks communicated with their loved ones who was deployed overseas and how that's changed over the years.
It was, obviously, from the Revolutionary War through World War 2 it was letters. Your mother and I communicated with cassette tapes when I were overseas.
And there was also unique thing when I was in Vietnam called the MARS System. You would go into a little booth, not unlike what we are in today, and you would pick up the phone. And it was radio connected to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. Someone in Dayton would then call your mother in Dresden, Ohio, and we would talk. And it was not a great connection. It was, you know, probably not nearly as good as a cell phone connection today.
But along about March and I was, you know, looking at, you know, where my next assignment would be. I had orders to go to Germany, which would've been great because I could have been there for the 72 Olympics. But in 71, the army came out with a new program. If you spent a year in the National Guard, you could get an early release. So we were debating whether we wanted to go to Germany or whether we should just get out and go back to Marietta.
Erin Sogal: Yeah.
Ernie Hartong: And during that conversation and again, this telephone system and radio system was not all that reliable. The phone went dead. And I assumed your mother hung up on me and she assumed that I hung up on her. And it's not like I could just call her back because you had a limited amount of time.
As you know, there were a line of G.I.'s out the door waiting for their turn on the MARS system. And I went back to Captain V and I said, Captain, I said, jeez, I got a problem. My wife just hung up on me halfway around the world. It turns out that if we simply lost the connection.
Erin Sogal: I just have one more question for you. You have five grandchildren. If one of them came to you and said that they were thinking about enlisting in the military, what would you tell them?
Ernie Hartong: I would say great. You know, I think that obviously there's a chance you're going to be in harm's way even in this day and age if you enlist in the military. But I sort of believe in UMT, universal military service.
I think that everybody should spend some amount of time doing something for someone else. And whether that's in the military or in the Peace Corps or in VISTA or whatever. You know, people come in and they know I'm a veteran. They say, thank you for your service. My answer is always it was my honor to serve.
I certainly believe that today as probably more than I did back in 1971. If one of my grandchildren came to me, I would certainly encourage it and do everything I could to assist them.
Leticia Wiggins: Ernie Hartong and Erin Sogal were recorded at the StoryCorps booth when it visited Columbus this summer. The National Veterans Memorial and Museum, where Ernie volunteers, is the only national museum dedicated to telling veterans' stories. It's been open now a little over a year.
For photos of Ernie during his Army service visit WOSU.org/StoryCorpsColumbus.
StoryCorps Columbus is a production of WOSU Public Media. This episode was produced by Brent Davis with audio editing by Leticia Wiggins and Mike Thompson additional podcast editing by Michael DeBonis. WOSU's digital content director is Nick Houser. Our chief content director of Arts, Life and Culture is Brent Davis.
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