Click here to see The World-Herald's Cold War special section “On the Brink.”
There was no parade for Jack Bisbee. No military band, no children waving tiny flags, no speeches from politicians in suits.
The day Bisbee got home from the Vietnam War, the Army infantryman found himself along the side of the Nebraska Interstate, sticking his right thumb in the air.
His plane had landed in Lincoln, and he needed to hitch a ride to his hometown of Onawa, Iowa.
And so, on a sticky day in August 1969, he stood sweating in his dress uniform and hoped for a ride.
An hour passed. Two hours. Three.
“One car after another,” says Bisbee, now a Omaha resident. “I couldn't believe it. Nobody will pick up a soldier?”
The World-Herald is sponsoring an event July 3 to thank and welcome home the veterans from the Cold War era. The Cold War Victory Salute includes a parade before the College Home Run Derby at TD Ameritrade Park and The World-Herald's fireworks show afterward.
“The Omaha World-Herald is proud to step forward and coordinate with our community partners a parade and program for the men and women who courageously served their county and never received a proper thank-you,” says World-Herald spokesman Joel Long. Hy-Vee and the City of Omaha also are sponsors of the event.
Long said the event would allow the veterans “to finally be recognized and the people of Nebraska and Iowa to turn out to cheer them on.”
The combat veterans of the Cold War era, most of them young men drafted to fight in Korea or Vietnam, say they watch today's military homecomings with mixed emotions.
They are happy to see members of the Nebraska National Guard mobbed by relatives and friends when they return from Iraq, and they're glad that Marines get festive homecomings at California's Camp Pendleton after brutal stays in Afghanistan's most dangerous spots.
But it also hurts a little, some Korea and Vietnam vets admit.
After all, they sacrificed years of their lives, too. Saw horrible things, too.
Wasn't that deserving of a warm welcome home?
“I think it's good they make a positive out of it now, because those guys have put their lives in harm's way, too,” says Rolland Thomas, a Korean War veteran. “But I admit my first thought (about today's homecomings) is not good, because I got treated so poorly when I came home. Not just me. Hundreds of thousands of others got treated poorly, too.” The low-key homecomings of the past can be partly blamed on logistics: Most servicemen and servicewomen who went to Korea or Vietnam flew into and out of the war zones by themselves. Units didn't come home en masse, as they often do now.
The cool receptions were also a consequence of the national mood, some veterans think.
The Korean War began just five years after the ticker tape parades signaling the end of World War II. By the early 1950s, the American public was simply tired of war, veterans say.
The Vietnam War was becoming unpopular at home by 1967 — when Gallup first reported that more than half the country disapproved of the war's handling — and turned wildly unpopular later. Vietnam vets often say they felt the sting of the country's disillusionment when they flew into commercial airports wearing full military dress. They say they felt they were being blamed for decisions made by presidents and generals.
“No one said anything, necessarily, but you could sort of just feel it,” when you returned home, Bisbee says. “There was a tension in the air.”
Glenn Krabbenhoft's 1953 trip home from Korea included 11 days on a rocking ship. When it pulled into port in San Francisco, a women's group served the soldiers coffee and doughnuts.
He took a flight to Denver, and then to Omaha, arriving at 4 a.m.
His brother was there to pick him up.
“That was it,” says Krabbenhoft, now an 81-year-old retiree in Omaha. “A lot of guys I've talked to, when they came back from Korea, people didn't even necessarily know they were gone.
“I'll tell you one thing, though: At least we got back home again. A lot of guys didn't.”
Thomas also came home from Korea on a ship, docking in Seattle. He remembers getting to Fort Lewis and heading straight for the PX to buy a malted milk.
The Korean War vet, now a 78-year-old farmer near Mondamin, Iowa, remembers acquaintances and even friends acting coolly toward him when he reached home.
“We weren't asking for anybody to lay their coat down in a mud puddle so we could walk over it,” he says. “I thought we would get acknowledged a little bit, though. ... It seemed like business as usual.”
But that doesn't mean the homecoming was bad, Thomas says.
After three days on a train, he pulled into what was then Union Station in Omaha, now the Durham Museum.
Only one person was waiting for him, but it was the right person: his wife, Carolyn, whom he hadn't seen in 15 months.
“Probably one of the happiest days of my life,” he says.
And Bisbee's homecoming story, which started bitter, has a sweet end, too.
After waiting four hours by the side of the road, a long-haul trucker from Tennessee finally picked him up.
Bisbee asked to go to Omaha. The trucker insisted on taking him to Onawa, an hour out of his way, and dropping him at his front door.
Bisbee didn't get that truck driver's name in August 1969 — he's kicked himself a million times for that, he says — but he always vowed to pay back his kindness.
Five years ago, Bisbee and his wife were passing through Tennessee and stopped at a diner.
Inside, eight police officers were eating breakfast.
Bisbee walked up to the cash register, quietly paid the officers' tab and walked out before they could thank him.
Bisbee still thinks of the Tennessee trucker's kindness, but he can't help thinking of something else whenever he sees a military homecoming from Iraq or Afghanistan.
“I'm really proud of those guys, some of them have seen some pretty hard stuff. But how do I feel about it? A little empty sometimes, honestly. It would've been kind of nice to have a little bit of that.”
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