Vietnam veteran William Oberhaus recalled a Memorial Day when, as a Cubmaster, he lined up young scouts to walk in a local parade. One asked if he had ever been in a war and, if so, why he didn’t die.
He told the boy, “Some of us had to come back and tell that story.”
During an emotional speech that he sometimes halted to gather his composure, Oberhaus addressed the students and staff of Wauseon High School on Monday during a Veterans Day assembly. The Delta resident relayed stories of several U.S. soldiers across decades of battle, and assured his Gen Z audience members that war is nothing like their entertaining video games suggest.
“Wars are so very real. The enemy uses real guns, real bullets, real bombs, and booby traps. Real people get wounded, and real people die,” he said.
An Army veteran who served 342 days in Vietnam, including during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Oberhaus was promoted to a Sergeant EF designation after only seven months in the military. During his tour of duty he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Army Commendation medal, the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, and the Vietnam Defense Medal.
Oberhaus was also one of a hand-selected group of men to train at the Army’s first-ever artillery combat leadership school – 19 hours per day, seven days per week, for 13 weeks. They learned weapons and artillery, hand-to-hand combat, chemical warfare, demolition, and leadership skills.
He recalled a classroom visit from a lieutenant colonel, who told the trainees, “You guys are going to Vietnam, you will be in the heat of battle from day one, and there will be no additional time for training.”
Oberhaus added, “Little did we know at that time how bad it would really be.” Within the first month of their deployment to Vietnam, 1,500 men of the 45,000 in his division were killed.
“Some never got a chance to come home,” Oberhaus told his audience. “They paid an extreme sacrifice. Some suffered and died years later from Agent Orange and other war-related injuries. And some still today lie in our VA hospitals, missing arm and legs and (suffering) brain injuries. And yet, these same veterans, if they could do it again, (would) do so with no objections.”
To emphasize the soldiers’ sacrifices, he told the story of a Vietnam prisoner of war who gathered pieces of colored cloth to fashion and sew a crude American flag on the inside of his prison shirt. Every night he would hang the flag upon the wall, and he and his fellow prisoners would recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
“This was the most important ritual of the day,” Oberhaus said.
The ceremony was unexpectedly interrupted one night by two of their captors, who destroyed the flag and dragged the soldier outside to administer a severe beating. That same night, the bloodied and swollen soldier began collecting cloth for a replacement flag.
Oberhaus also told of two members of the military police in Iraq whose patrol vehicle was destroyed Jan. 22, 2006, by an improvised explosive device, or IED. He said the men’s bodies were so intermingled and unidentifiable following the blast that they were buried together in the same casket and share the same headstone.
Veterans of war have suffered such lasting effects from their experiences “that people today have no idea what we went through,” Oberhaus said.
And despite what some people may believe, veterans don’t love war, he said. But they’re willing to participate to avoid the greater evil of becoming slaves to a foreign power.
Waving an American flag at his podium, Oberhaus, whose son is an Afghanistan war veteran, asked the audience to honor the emblem of freedom.
“Our flag is the greatest symbol that ever flew from a flag staff,” he said. “Therefore, we say don’t burn it, hold it high; don’t insult it, praise it; don’t destroy it, defend it; don’t ignore it, display it proudly; don’t trample it underfoot, salute it, honor it, and love it. We need to remember what our flag really stands for.”
The assembly also featured narrations of the origin of Veterans Day and its importance by WHS students Andrew Eberle and Eva Mennetti; a rendition of the National Anthem by the Vocal Choir Ensemble; a “Patriotic Spectacular” by the WHS Band; and recognition of attending veterans.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.