ELKHART — In 1970, the last thing 21-year-old Dick Ransel wanted was to go to war. He was drafted, just after he completed his first year of law school at the University of Notre Dame, and his wife was pregnant with their first child.
“I was worried,” Ransel, now 66 and a resident of Bristol, said during an interview at his Elkhart office Wednesday, Oct. 2.
He continued, “I had no desire whatsoever to join the military or participate in the war in Vietnam. I thought the war was a mistake.”
Nevertheless, Ransel reported to basic training. His first assignment was in New Jersey for signal training. He spent 12 weeks there, learning to repair microwave dishes used for communication overseas.
“I knew I was going to Vietnam,” Ransel said.
He found out that he would be heading to Phu Bai, along with four friends he made in training. This was an area, Ransel said, that was known for being under constant mortar fire. The usual length of an assignment, he added, was 12 months.
Luckily, Ransel never made it to Phu Bai. His group was passing through China Beach, a rest-and-relaxation area for soldiers, when they learned of a staffing shortage at the beach.
“They needed people who could be lifeguards on the beach, and people who could type,” Ransel remembered. “Well, I had a lifeguard certification card in my wallet, and I had experience from working during the summer. I exaggerated my typing skills.”
Ransel’s bid to get the job worked, and from then on he spent half the day typing letters and answering phone calls for a colonel and the other half of the day lifeguarding on the beach. The job wasn’t easy, however. Ransel was shot at by a Vietnamese fisherman one day when he got too close to the man’s nets. Ransel also rescued a soldier who was pulled into a rip tide.
“There were eight-foot waves, and the guy next to me got pulled under,” Ransel said. “I swam over and let the rip tide take me. It took me about 75 yards away, and then I popped up next to the soldier. He was in bad shape — he couldn’t swim, and he had swallowed water.”
Ransel continued, “It took about 45 minutes, but I got him in (to the shore).”
Ransel was nominated for a medal for valor for the rescue. He also remembers sirens going off often inside the compound where he lived. When that happened, everyone had to grab a weapon and take a place on the wall in case of attack. Sometimes, the sirens went off in the middle of the night.
During the time he was in Vietnam, Ransel received notice via telegram that his child had been born.
He was eventually able to leave Vietnam after about 10 months — two months short of the usual assignment.
“Nixon had announced they were going to start bringing the troops home in phases,” Ransel said.
He and his four friends, who had been working as clerks, were going to be transferred to South Korea. Ransel said he told the colonel that they didn’t want to go — and they would stay in Vietnam longer to avoid going to South Korea.
When he did get home, Ransel said his family kept him from having some of the psychological issues that other Vietnam soldiers experienced.
“It wasn’t perfect for me, but I was family-oriented and goal-oriented and I knew what I had to do next,” Ransel said. “A lot of the guys felt lost.”
He continued, “You feel like you experienced something that a lot of other people will never experience.”
Once back at Notre Dame, Ransel said he spent most of his time with two other students who had also been in Vietnam.
“We felt like we had a lot more in common than the other guys running around carrying attache cases,” Ransel said.
He did come away from the war with some positives, he added.
“I learned to be a patient, and it probably enhanced my problem-solving skills and ... getting along with people with different cultural backgrounds,” Ransel said.
He wrote a book about his war experiences called “The Light at the End of the Tunnel: Baseball and Bullets in Vietnam.” The book is available locally at b on the River and the Midwest Museum of American Art in Elkhart, and the Raber Golf Course in Bristol.
“It made me feel a little better to tell my story,” Ransel said.