Fifty years ago last month, Professor John Cullhane took a step in a series of many on a journey of service throughout his career. He joined the United States Army.
The decision for him was easy, Culhane said.
“It was the mid-sixties and I had taken a break from delivering newspapers,” Culhane said. “I read an article about the Vietcong. Afterwards, I went home and told my mom I wanted to join the Army and go to Vietnam”.
It was a calling rooted in his family history. His father served in the illustrious 82nd Airborne Division that parachuted behind enemy lines as the beaches of Normandy were being stormed, Culhane said.
America was ensnared in a “cold war” against communism. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said that the spread of communism was like a row of dominoes: when one falls, they all fall, only the “dominoes” were real countries. During his inaugural speech, President John Kennedy pledged American support to any country that wanted help in fighting communism. It also meant that millions of young Americans would be faced with the likelihood of military service either voluntary or involuntary.
The mid-sixties was a time when public support for the fight against communism in Vietnam was at its highest. In 1968, that support dwindled as Americans began to question what progress was being made all while daily television news footage showed disturbing images of U.S. and Vietnamese casualties. Footage of casualties in subsequent conflicts after Vietnam were mostly censored.
In late 1969, President Nixon announced combat troops would begin withdrawing from Vietnam and that the South Vietnamese would assume a larger role in fighting the communists. Despite the reduction in troop levels, the war effort still needed helicopter pilots.
“I had a nagging desire to fly,” Culhane said.
After nearly one year of flight training, Cullhane earned his army wings and deployed to Vietnam.
Cullhane explained that when he arrived in Vietnam, he was assigned to the First Air Cavalry “Air Cav” Division and flew on utility helicopters nicknamed Hueys. The life of a helicopter pilot in Vietnam was dangerous and the pilots who flew them simply ran on adrenaline. Cullhane spent his days flying troops and supplies.
Off duty, his evenings were filled with poker games and warm beer amongst his fellow flyers- all happy that they were one day closer to going home. When flying, his lunch usually consisted of canned ham slices and bread. Occasionally, a surprise in the form of a larger can would await him: a coffee tin packed full of cookies from home. Since the beginning of time, soldiers have always cherished mail and care packages from home.
“A lot of soldiers…me included, would get “Dear John” letters,” Culhane said.
They were break up letters from their girlfriends.
“Dating someone in the military was very unpopular at the time,” he said. “We didn’t have the support that we have now”.
Humor was one coping mechanism the flyers used which is why those letters were often posted in a common area for others to read, Culhane added.
The high point during his combat experience occurred when Cullhane’s unit was tasked with flying South Vietnamese troops into Cambodia, he said.
Kept secret from the public, American strategists knew the enemy had been stockpiling weapons and supplies in the neighboring country but were not allowed to pursue them. When South Vietnamese soldiers were given the order to advance into the neighboring country, they needed a ride.
Cullhane described the first landing as “intense” and that “gunfire erupted from all over the bamboo covered jungle…so intense that one helicopter next to us turned onto its side and crashed.”
He and his unit would spend the next two months flying troops and supplies into Cambodia, Culhane said.
A few days after the missions into Cambodia started, the Kent State shooting took place in which Ohio National Guard soldiers shot into a group of protesters on campus. Four protesters were killed. College campuses across the country experienced intense anti-war demonstrations.
Cullhane said it was the best and worst year of his life. Memories of Vietnam continue to this day, yet his most important lesson was learning to overcome the fear of death. It is a deep and personal experience which many veterans and others in dangerous professions have had to accept in order to carry out their duties, he said.
Professor Cullhane returned home to a country that distanced itself from these heroes yet he stayed on course to complete law school, become a Monroe County Assistant District Attorney, work high profile cases as an FBI agent, and finally to Hibbert.