Oxford resident Frank Aiken said he volunteered for the Army to fight in Korea but left after one tour of duty spent as an artillery trainer in Germany. He returned years later to serve two tours of duty in Vietnam.
Aiken traveled across the world in and out of the armed services with stops in Holland, Greenland, Germany, Korea and eventually Vietnam. The exotic locales were truly a world away from his native Porterdale and the 40-acre farm in eastern Rockdale County where he grew up.
"We had one mule, one cow, hogs and chickens, on 40 acres. This was during the Depression, so we were pretty lucky," Aiken said.
The Valley of the Morning Calm
by Frank Aiken
In this Asian valley, a river flows,
and a statue of Buddha sits on a hill;
Over these fields a rice harvest grows,
near a small village, peaceful and still.
In the morning calm as villagers trod,
I see them meet with humble bows;
and plant rice seedlings in the sod,
with oxen and wooden plows.
By a dusty road near this village town,
I see Buddhist Monks in robes of red;
And I hear them sing a mournful sound,
as they chant a requiem for the dead.
In this faraway valley, a war began,
where soldiers died with valor and glory;
I was their First Sergeant in this land,
and I remember their courageous story.
To honor my fellow soldiers fallen here,
I've come back to this countryside;
And in memoriam, my heart cries a tear,
for my friends who fought and died.
We were combat soldiers ordered to go,
into this valley between mountains high;
Where now colorful wild flowers grow,
on unmarked graves, where heroes lie.
As I walk these fields of death today,
on this lonely forgotten battlefield;
I feel God's presence along the way,
in this calm valley, so peaceful and still.
As I kneel to pray a silent prayer,
a monsoon rain begins to fall;
And I remember that time of despair,
when the enemy came to kill us all.
The enemy came from every side,
and attacked in countless number;
In the battle many brave men died;
now they rest in eternal slumber.
Kill or be killed by a merciless foe,
kill to survive, was our goal;
So much killing was a horrible woe,
many a soldier lost part of their soul.
No peace, no mercy, and no forgiving,
only fighting and killing instead;
By a miracle, some were still living,
but their spirits were broken and dead.
It was here I found that hell is real,
and it was here that wounded souls cried;
Yet my heart never left this battlefield,
where my fellow soldiers died.
Many died for America in this land,
they made a most noble endeavor;
Now they rest in God's mighty hand,
and live in my memory forever.
But my broken soul, time cannot heal,
and my final days are fast passing by;
So I've come back to this battlefield,
to honor my brothers before I die.
Heroes face death and conquer fear,
and these men were American's best;
So when I die, please bring me here,
and grant to me this last request.
Pay honor to these soldiers brave,
read aloud the Twenty-Third Psalm,
Then bury me in an unmarked grave,
in The Valley Of The Morning Calm.
Frank plowed crops until he graduated from Conyers High School in 1950.
"Back then we only had 11 grades and a six-man football team, just like the other schools," Aiken said. "We had two backs, two linemen, a center and the quarterback."
He worked at Sears and Roebuck on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta after high school and signed up with the U.S. Army in 1952 with intentions of joining the fight in Korea. After basic training, Aiken was sent to artillery school in Fort Sill, Okla.
"I was pretty good at what I did," Aiken said. "But instead of going to Korea like I had volunteered to do, the Army trained me as an instructor, then sent me to the south of Germany. It was the pits! I joined to fight in Korea but they wouldn't send me, so when my enlistment was up I left the Army."
Aiken said he was always looking for something better when he returned home. A trip to Europe for college "sorta fell through." Aiken cycled across the continent and worked a lot of small jobs and ended up as a cook in Holland before returning home.
"So then I traveled to Greenland for a construction job. I helped construct the DEW (Defense Early Warning) line radar sites against Soviet bombers," he said. "It was miserable."
With few employment options, Aiken rejoined the Army in 1959 and was back in artillery. In 1960, he was sent to Korea as an artillery adviser to the South Korean Army. Two years later he was back in Germany. A family emergency cause his transfer to Fort Benning and additional training on Honest John Rockets, the first nuclear-capable surface-to-surface rockets in the U.S. arsenal.
Then, back to Korea. With a promotion to E-8 pay grade, 1st Sgt. Aiken was en route to his first war. He landed "in-country" in August 1968 and was assigned to an artillery battery at LZ Pony near Bong Son, Vietnam.
"I directed fire for Long Tom 175 mm guns and the 8-inch howitzers that lobbed 200-pound shells in direct support for the Green Berets and their Montagnard mercenaries," Aiken remembers. "The Montagnards were fierce native fighters, brutal beyond description. I ate with them several times, but I never asked what the heck I was eating. I knew what some of the food was, but I don't think your readers need to know."
For a year, Aiken repelled ground attacks, fired point-blank artillery rounds if in danger of being overrun, kept the night sky illuminated with flares from an 81 mm mortar, dodged enemy rockets and mortars, and frequently had to dodge Montagnard mortar fire from nearby hills.
"They were on our side," he explained. "But pretty darn lousy with artillery."
At Phu My, Vietnam, Frank had the honor of pulling the lanyard on an 8-inch howitzer that delivered the 200,000th round fired at the enemy by his unit.
Aiken returned to Fort Sill for a short stint following one year in combat, then returned to Vietnam for a second tour in 1971.
"I was near DaNang at a higher echelon called Headquarters Battery," he said. "We didn't have artillery, only personal weapons, but we controlled all the fire-support bases in the area. Of course DaNang was always a tempting target. We dodged a lot of mortars and rockets."
Frank returned home in January 1972 to serve as artillery instructor to the South Carolina National Guard, yet retired from active duty in 1979 and began work in the public relations field.
For seven years he worked at Stone Mountain Park as the park's senior assistant general manager and 11 more as a manager with the Gwinnett County Public Utilities. He retired in May of 1997 to be caretaker for his paralyzed brother until his passing this year.
Today, Aiken clearly remembers his time in Vietnam and the soldiers he served with.
"I can still picture the men I lost in Vietnam," Frank recalled. "We were a close-knit unit, just like brothers. Some of the bravest soldiers in my book were the pilots of the medical evacuation choppers. They'd even disobey standing orders to fly into a hot-zone to rescue the wounded. And the F.O. (forward observer) earned my deep respect, too. They'd be in the boondocks on hilltops so close to enemy activity that they had to whisper into their radios to give enemy positions for artillery and air strikes."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.