The men flattened themselves on the ground after a loud explosion. After multiple attempts, the North Vietnamese Army had finally landed a shot on the ammunition dump located on the base.
James Kadas, a truck driver and mechanic for the Marines, doesn’t recall what he was doing before the explosion on June 20, 1968. He looked up in confusion, wondering how he ended up on the ground.
From the ground, Kadas and the other men watched as 6,800 tons of ammunition streamed into the sky.
The officers told them to stay down in the bunkers, but the Marines refused because they wanted to capture photos of the moment.
“That was one hell of a firework display,” Kadas said. “We couldn’t believe how big those explosions were.”
Kadas, now 65, served in Vietnam for two years and two months, a longer term than normal. Through all of his experiences – including the occasional explosion – he constantly reminded himself that he made the choice to serve.
“Only reason why I’m here is because I signed on the dotted line,” Kadas would tell himself.
Kadas graduated from Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore., at 17 years old. On the day he turned 18, he got a job as an ironworker for triple the minimum wage. But he knew he would probably soon be drafted, so he decided to enlist before being forced to join up. Two of Kadas’ brothers were already in the war when he joined.
Kadas did not fight the draft, unlike others. Many men joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) to avoid the draft. “We used to say it stands for ‘run off to Canada,’” Kadas said.
When men who did evade the draft by going to Canada were pardoned after the war, Kadas was frustrated because he believed those men ran away from their duties and were let off easy.
Kadas himself had at first planned to join the Air Force, but he wanted to make sure he had a ticket to Vietnam. So he joined the Marines.
Because of a burn injury, Kadas was forced to delay his entry. He had to continue his commitment as soon as he healed because he was “owned” by the government, he said.
“It’s like you are damaging government property,” Kadas said.
When he heard he was going to be sent to Vietnam, Kadas was excited to have adventures in a foreign land. “I thought it would be neat,” Kadas said.
But the hot climate and harsh weather conditions made the experience difficult. It took mental toughness to push through. Kadas reminded himself of his commitment.
“I was the one who signed on the dotted line,” Kadas repeated.
In spite of the challenges, Kadas cherished the bond between the members of his unit. While at war, the Marines bonded and became closer than siblings. “You become tighter to those men than you do with your own family,” he said.
Some bonds were cut short due to casualties. “You would be talking to him one moment, then the next minute he is lying there,” Kadas said.
Downtime on the bases consisted of drinking when they had the money. The Marines shielded their true emotions with alcohol. While on assignments, they found other ways to pass the time.
Kadas was part of the explosive ordnance disposal team in the week following the firework-show explosion. They had to clean up all of the leftover material to prepare for new shipments. The men set off bombs while cleaning to pass the time.
“The game was, how short can we light this fuse before we can get out of here – without getting blown up,” Kadas said.
He wanted to make the most of his time overseas and wasn’t ready to go home, no matter the conditions in Vietnam. He felt more safe there than in his own home country. When new platoons came onto the base, they were quizzed about what was happening back in the States and around the world.
“Over [in Vietnam], it wasn’t the real world,” Kadas said.
The new troops told of harsh treatment of veterans upon their return to the U.S. Kadas wanted to delay that experience as long as possible, so he applied to extend his tour.
“People thought I was crazy,” Kadas said. “I was seeing the way we were treated at home, so I thought, ‘Hell, I will just stay with my fellow marines.’”
Kadas constantly reminded himself that he was the one that signed the dotted line to keep pushing himself through.
One day, he was given an order that he would go home in five days, with no explanation.
He went back to being an ironworker for 10 years and then switched to steel. But being a Vietnam veteran sometimes meant he was looked down upon, called names, and even spit on. While at work, Kadas revealed to one of his coworkers that he had fought in the war, and the coworker physically turned his back to him. Treatment like that made Kadas reluctant to share his experiences.
“For 18 years, I never talked about [Vietnam],” Kadas said.
Today, Kadas is a volunteer at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore. He has worked there for nine years as a greeter, driver and membership representative.
Kadas continues to travel to his old training camp to see platoons graduate. He is also planning to attend a reunion in Milwaukee. Each year, the veterans gather to reflect on their service and the memories they share.
Even after living through combat and mistreatment, Kadas still would repeat his experience.
“If somebody could flash me back to 1967 and make me 20 years old, I would do it all over again,” Kadas said. He is proud of his choices and his service.
“I always told myself, I was the one who signed on the dotted line,” Kadas said.
Writing: Ivanna Tucker
Photograph: Kelly Carmody