Fallon veteran traded the fields for Vietnam
LVN Editor Emeritus
Rural Nevada in the 1950s and ’60s presented a harsh portrayal of people who tilled the land and with their everyday life paralleling the harshness of the distant fields located miles from the nearest town. Escape for many of these young men and women included paths from the valleys to the city for them to find work or attend college, join the military or just stay.
Stanley Hooper Sr., can relate to these choices. He spent his childhood working on a ranch in the Smokey Valley (aka Big Smoky Valley), a long, narrow stretch of land extending almost 100 miles across three counties and nestled between the Toiyabe and Toquima mountain ranges. When not helping on his family ranch, Hooper and his siblings attended school in Austin where he played sports and earned his high school diploma in 1963.
“It was tough growing up,” Hooper said of working in the fields from dawn to dusk. “In August, we’d work the hay field, out there at the break of dawn and go in when the sun went down. There was no air conditioning, no electricity.”
As with so many young men his age, they became subject to the military draft when they turned 19 years old and then waited to see if they received a letter calling them to duty. Surprisingly, Hooper, who has lived in Fallon for 42 years, said he wasn’t disappointed when the draft letter from Uncle Sam arrived.
“It was like a vacation for me,” Hooper said when he attended his basic training at Fort Polk, a sprawling Army base in west-central Louisiana that kept German prisoners of war in the 1940s and trained soldiers during the Vietnam War. “The first I thing I noticed were the barracks were on stilts because of snakes.”
The post’s location in a forest of pine and oak trees and vegetation and the hot, humid summers lent themselves well to train the young men for duty in Vietnam.
Hooper’s hero when growing up was both a father figure and his uncle, Frank Rogers, a medic who served during World War I. According to Hooper, his uncle was so strong he would carry a wounded soldier on his back. Sometimes, if the situation warranted it, Rogers would muster the strength to carry two wounded soldiers.
As a basic recruit, Hooper earned $87 a month but added to his meager paycheck when he attended his advanced individual training at Fort Gordon, Ga., a major training center from 1966-68 for the Military Police Corps. As Hooper wrapped up almost three months of advanced training, he received orders to report to the 109th Air Delivery at Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the 101st Airborne Division.
“An old first sergeant asked me (there) if I wanted to join his unit as a mechanic,” Hooper said. “I had high scores in my math testing at Fort Campbell, but I found out MPs were targets in Vietnam. I became a motor pool mechanic where I worked my way up to the big trucks.”
The company received orders for South Vietnam in the spring 1966. The advance party flew out on an Northwest Orient Airlines 707 flight via Hawaii to Cam Ranh Bay about 180 miles northeast of Saigon (Ho Chi Ming City) along the South China Sea. A troop ship, the USNS General John Pope, sailed from its port of Tacoma, Wash., in the Puget Sound with the remainder of the company and other units’ soldiers for a three-week voyage across the Pacific Ocean. They arrived first at Okinawa and then five days later in South Vietnam, exhausted after a 7,200-mile voyage across the open sea.
“After we got there, we were like an elite team,” Hooper recalled. “The whole company didn’t have to do anything like cleaning or KP (kitchen patrol).”
Once the entire company was together, the soldiers bedded down at Cam Ranh Bay.
“We fell asleep in our tents in the middle of nowhere. We were kind of scared,” Hooper added.
Because the company began its operations away from the mainland with a pontoon bridge connecting the base to the coast, Hooper said the soldiers felt protected. One of their missions was loading C-130 military transport planes and CH-47s, a twin-engine, tandem rotor, heavy-lift helicopter, with equipment to air drop to the troops fighting further inland. Hooper, who was a mechanic, also helped load the aircraft.
Hooper said their base operated in a more ideal location in South Vietnam, close enough to see artillery fire but far away not to take the brunt of any shelling. He said the Viet Cong, however, overran a convalescent center that was near the beach less than two years after he rotated out of Vietnam.
“Across the bay was like the Fourth of July every night,” he described, shaking his head. “Sometimes, when we had fighting, we had to wait on our deliveries until the firefight was over. None of our boys got hurt from hostile action.”
Cam Ranh Bay also attracted noted USO entertainers including Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller.
The company’s 13-month tour extended into 1967. When it was time to depart Vietnam for home, Hooper endured a 17-hour flight to Fort Lewis, Wash., sitting with his Army buddies and playing cards. He said they all stayed awake during the flight. At one point, the Army specialist had thought about serving at least six years in the military, but when he returned to the United States, he had two weeks remaining in his enlistment and he decided to leave, feeling he had fulfilled his promise to his country.
“That ended my military career,” he said. “I was 21 years old. Happy to be alive. Nothing bothered me. Nothing you could do to change my mind.”
Once out of the Army, Hooper relied on work ethic and on his military bearing to learn the trades. From the time he began to work, Hooper also said he had a continual desire to keep learning. He took a bookkeeping class and became a certified welder. In the 1980s, for example, he became a project manager when Naval Air Station Fallon began its expansion, and he took pride in the way he supervised his employees.
“If you treat the boys right, that’s the best crew you’ll have,” he said.
Hooper is also a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and he held various leadership positions with VFW Post 1002 in Fallon.
Almost 40 years after Hooper returned from Southeast Asia, he boarded an Honor Flight Nevada three years ago with 45 Vietnam veterans, all tribal members from Nevada and from California to spend the Veterans Day weekend in Washington, D.C. The four-day trip impressed Hooper, beginning with the welcome at the Baltimore Washington International Airport.
“There were so many tribes there performing for us on the native flight,” Hooper recollected.
In addition to the tribes at BWI, the Honor Flight Nevada travelers shook hands with active-duty military personnel from the area including Fort Meade, Md., and then for the next three days, they visited the nation’s military memorials and the National Museum of the American Indian, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution promoting knowledge and understanding. Likewise, the welcome home with hundreds of people jammed into the Reno-Tahoe International Airport put a finishing touch on a trip of a lifetime for Hooper and the other veterans.
“It was so crowded. Gov. (Brian) Sandoval was there and big speeches,” Hooper said of the homecoming.
Yet, for this member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians, a finishing touch resonated with Hooper as he heard singers and the beat of drums.
“There was the Indian national anthem. It was a great surprise.”