Purple Heart Recipient Jim Thrane Shares Vietnam War Experiences
Jim Thrane didn’t want to join the U.S. Army.
It was 1968 and Thrane, a student at the University of South Dakota at the time, intended to join the Air Force following graduation. He wanted to fly jets.
The Army had other plans.
“I had taken all these tests for flight school and passed all those,” he recalls. “They asked me when I wanted to go in (the Air Force). I said August and the draft board said, ‘We want you in June. We don’t care what the Air Force wants.’”
On Good Friday 1968, Thrane and his father drove all over Council Bluffs looking for an Army recruiting office to enlist. By the following summer, 23-year-old Private First Class James Thrane was with the U.S. Army First Cavalry Division in Vietnam.
More than five decades, a near-death wounding along the Cambodian border, a Purple Heart and a lifetime of experiences later, Thrane has no regrets about enlisting in the Army nor choosing the combat infantry over perhaps the more cushy officer training school.
“It was a great experience,” Thrane said. “The guys I was with, you couldn’t ask for better ones. You could depend on them. We could depend on each other.”
Thrane, now 77, was selected to be the grand marshal in last weekend’s Council Bluffs Veterans Day Parade.
“I was really honored,” the 1963 Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln graduate said. “I’m from Council Bluffs and I’ve been to the parade several times so it means a lot to me.”
Veterans Day is bittersweet moment for Thrane and those who served and saw the price of war. He still keeps in touch with many of those he served with via Facebook and Christmas cards. His Purple Heart and medals are kept in a framed box. His photos, many taken on his own camera, show a young man in muddy fatigues and sweating, often smiling, posing with fellow soldiers in fox holes and fire bases.
Thrane still isn’t sure what made him choose the infantry back in ‘68, then the bloodiest year of fighting in the war – “I was a college graduate and really smart so I figured, ‘Yeah, why not go in the infantry? We’re going to war,’” he quipped – but admits he was young and looking for life experience. His father was a World War II veteran who spent most of his enlistment stateside.
“He was an instructor and I decided if I ever had a son I wanted to be able to tell more exciting war stories than that,” he said.
After basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey, Thrane was sent for nine grueling weeks of advanced infantry training at Fort Polk, La., the famous “Tiger Land” and the last stop for soldiers headed to Vietnam.
“When you get there, you get off the bus and you walk in the main building and they have a picture wall of all the snakes that are in the area,” said Thrane, who has a strong dislike for snakes. “I knew right then I was going to die.”
Tiger Land was known as the “birth place of combat infantrymen” headed to Vietnam. The base was a large area of thousands of acres of hot, humid land in west central Louisiana that featured simulated villages and hamlets, just as these soldiers would see in southeast Asia. The training was grueling and exhausting.
Thrane, who was one of the rare recruits with a college degree, left Fort Polk on track for officer training school but later resigned his commission. His orders came in 10 days later: he was on his way to Vietnam.
Pfc. Thrane set down in Vietnam on June 10, 1969.
“The whole country had a special smell to it,” he said. “The second you get off the plane it hits you. It’s very hot and humid. But then you get so used to it.”
Just days before his deployment, the First Calvary Division spent five days in an extended fire fight with an entire North Vietnamese Army regiment. The causality rate was high. Thrane was given his choice of open jobs: machine gunner or point man.
“A machine gun is an extra 30 pounds and I didn’t want to carry that,” he said, and chose point man. His job was to lead his platoon on patrol through enemy territory. The jungle vegetation was so thick he had to literally carve a path by hacking away with his machete.
He recalls one such “hump” – or march – took 10 hours to cover just 1,000 meters (or about a half mile).
Thrane’s first night walking point in the field was “a little scary,” he said.
“We went out in helicopters, of course,” he said. “You could see the artillery had prepped the area and you could see a lot of trees down and the door gunners open up and they don’t tell you in training they shoot for no reason. There was no one there when we landed.”
Three months into his tour, his lieutenant asked him if he was a good shot and Thrane answered, “No, I’m a great shot.”
He was enrolled in sniper school soon after, training on an M-14 shooting at targets from 300- to 400-meters without a scope.
Back with his company, Thrane was a sniper for just four days.
Sept. 24, 1969.
“It was a strange day,” Thrane recalls of the fateful day that would end his tour in Vietnam.
The company was being moved south, closer to the Cambodian border. As they were being loaded into a C-130 Hercules (transport plane), the solders had to sign a release as they boarded. A strange piece of perfunctory detail that still has Thrane scratching his head.
“They flew me out to the boonies in a helicopter and I didn’t have to sign anything,” he said.
Later, the C-130 had to land in Saigon for maintenance. He and he fellow infantrymen enjoyed burgers and Cokes on the tarmac from the Air Force PX as they waited.
The company was eventually put on helicopters to the Tay Ninh province but when they arrived, their landing zone was still occupied so they were dropped off 1,000 meters away in the jungle. They set up camp for the night.
Around 10 p.m., a barrage of mortar fire erupted in their bivouac.
“They call it a ‘bad minute,’” he said.
A mortar exploded on the edge of the fox hole Thrane was sharing with two others. And then another. And another.
“It was white phosphorus. The guy next took me’s shirt was on fire and I turned to try and brush it off him and I realized, ‘Why I am I not using my right arm?’”
It was then that Thrane realized his right arm was dangling limp and lifeless at his side.
“It was so dark I couldn’t see and I just thought my shirt was wet,” he said.
He doesn’t recall the injuries happenin,g but the prognosis was bad: the explosion had severed the brachial artery in his right arm, his carotid artery was nicked and he was peppered with shrapnel from his right wrist to his scalp.
Five soldiers, including Thrane, were injured. One soldier was killed.
It was friendly fire. The mortar barrage had come from the landing zone 1,000 meters away.
“They had the wrong sites on their mortar rounds,” he said. “When I was in the hospital, the colonel came in and apologized. They wouldn’t let our company back on the landing zone until they removed the mortar team for their safety.”
Surgeons saved Thrane’s arm, but the war was over for him. He received a Purple Heart in the hospital but was asleep when his commanding officer brought it to him.
In all, Thrane spent four months in the country. He spent the next month recovering in hospitals in Tokyo, California and Denver.
When he was initially wounded, Thrane’s parents received a telegram from the Army that still makes him shake his head.
“It said, ‘Your son was severely wounded but he’s not going to die,” Thrane recalls.
Fifty-two years ago last month, Thrane arrived home on a 30-day leave.
His first stop after his parents picked him up at the airport was the former Rasmussen Buick Dealership in Council Bluffs. He bought his first new car: a Buick Opal.
“It was $69-a-month payment,” he said.
Thrane spent his last year of service as a company clerk in Fort Hood, Texas. His military service ended July 2, 1970.
Soon after, he and his college girlfriend were married. After living in St. Louis for a few years, Thrane moved back to Council Bluffs, got divorced, went back to school - not once, but twice - and would go on to work for more than three decades in special education at the Glenwood Resource Center and later the Glenwood Community School District.
Thrane retired in 2011. He and wife Ann, whom he married in 1990, enjoy attending Glenwood school events and following his beloved University of South Dakota sports teams.
Thrane’s return to civilian after Vietnam life was a smooth one. For some he knew, it wasn’t always so smooth. He never personally experienced any animosity from anti-war protestors when he returned, but he could sense it on occasion when he was in uniform.
“People would see the uniform and walk to the other side,” he said.
A moment at a Des Moines gas station years ago has always stuck with him.
“I was wearing my Calvary badge on my jacket and a guy asked ‘What unit were you with?” And I told him and he said, ‘Well, welcome home.’ No one had ever said that to me.
“The problem was we went over as individuals and came back as individuals, we never came back as a unit. So we were by ourselves.”
Thrane doesn’t talk about his war experience much, usually only when asked, but he’s always been proud of his service.
“I enjoyed my time in the Army,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets.”
Well, maybe one small regret.
“I wish I would have flown some jets,” he said.
But at age 59, Thrane earned his pilot’s license.
“So it all worked out.”