ORANGEBURG, S.C. (AP) - It was the middle to late 1960s in rural Orangeburg County.
Franklin Williams was living the life of a normal teenager attending North High School.
For much of his life, Williams had known only rural Orangeburg County.
That would all change for the 18-year-old one day after school.
“You know on that day I went home from school and I never did stop by the mailbox,” Williams recalled. “But I stopped by that day and Uncle Sam had that picture in there pointing his finger at me: ‘I want you!‘”
The young Williams knew right there and then that his relatively quiet country existence was about to change.
“The only thing I could think of is that I was fixin’ to go to the Army,” he said. “I got drafted out of high school.”
It was not long before Williams found himself on the highway heading toward Fort Gordon near Augusta, Georgia, for basic training in the U.S. Army.
He was in basic training for about six weeks before he was sent to Fort Lee, Virginia, where he took advanced individual training.
“I went to school,” Williams said, noting he received instruction eight hours a day for the next six weeks in equipment storage for Army logistics.
Upon completion, Williams received orders that he was heading to San Francisco for plans to deploy to Saigon, South Vietnam.
On Dec. 9, 1968, the 20-year old Williams found himself on a plane heading to war.
“It was bad being that young,” Williams recalled. “You did not know what you were getting into when you got over there.”
“It was pretty hard,” he said. “It got pretty rough. I was over there during Tet season. That was when everything broke loose.”
The Tet Offensive of 1968 was a major escalation and one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War.
It was a campaign of surprise attacks against U.S. and South Vietnamese military and civilian command and control centers throughout South Vietnam.
When Williams first arrived in Vietnam, he was generally spared from combat.
One of his first duties as a young soldier was rather simple.
“I had to unload tractor-trailer trucks carrying beer and soda,” Williams said.
But Williams said war and the effects of war were all around him.
“When we first got there in Long Binh, along the road I saw people’s arms and legs shot off and everything. That was the worst I seen. It got pretty rough at times.”
Such was life for Williams for about the first year while he was stationed in Long Binh.
But the small town boy from North would again see his horizons change and his life take another turn.
From transportation and logistics, Williams was reassigned to bunker patrol duty. This is where he remained for about the last six months of his stay in Vietnam.
“When I went on bunker guard duty, we went about 10 miles out into the woods,” Williams said. “We seen the helicopters flying around and we were shooting in the bunkers.”
“Every morning about 4:30 a.m., you could hear them rockets coming,” Williams said. “We had to jump up and run to the bunker. As long you hear them rockets whistling, you were okay.”
“The ones that you could not hear whistling (were the ones you had to worry about),” Williams said. “We never did get hit right. We got hit pretty close from where we were sleeping, but we did not have any direct hits where we were at.”
“I never got injured,” he said. “That was one good thing.”
Williams said he does not know whether he ever shot another person or killed anyone.
He does know that without his faith in God and letters from back home from his parents and sister, life would have been much more difficult.
“They wrote me practically every week,” he said.
The messages and letters would continue to come, but then came July 17, 1970, and Williams found out that he was being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army as an E5 sergeant.
As Williams was heading back home to South Carolina and his North home, his younger brother, Richard, was heading to Vietnam as a U.S. Army soldier.
“Back then they wouldn’t let you have two brothers over there at the same time,” Williams said.
When Williams returned home, he got a hero’s welcome from his family and many others.
“Most everybody that I met up with when I got back treated me real nice,” Williams said. “A lot of the younger people, if you see them now, they will come up to you and tell you they appreciate your service.”
Williams said his time in Vietnam changed him for the better.
“I reckon it made a better man out of me,” he said. “I learned a lot.”
He said he learned to have greater respect for people and things.
“The Army done me real good,” he said.
The 72-year old Williams also brought back with him awards for his service: the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal and the Vietnam Campaign Medal.
He also brought back with him painful memories, and he still sometimes feels the effects of war.
“When I got back home, and it thundered real loud, I would jump up,” he said. “Over there, you hear all those bombs and things going off; that is the only bad thing I had.”
While for the most part having overcome his PTSD, Williams says he has been told by doctors that his diabetes today was caused by the defoliant Agent Orange. It is something he has to continue to monitor.
His younger brother, Richard, died three years ago from diabetes and the effects of the chemical agent, Williams said.
Upon returning to the states, Williams needed to find a job.
“I did not have no high school education,” he said. “I never had trouble getting a job.”
Williams firsted worked with his father in carpentry, then at a tractor supply company and at BellSouth Telephone Co.
But his favorite job had to be at Cox Wood Preserving.
“I worked down there 20 years,” he said. “They were good people. They treated me real good.”
Life after Vietnam has continued to be filled with challenges.
Williams lost his beloved wife of 48 years, Mary Martha, in August 2018 from cancer.
“She was a good woman,” Williams said.
Williams said while he misses his wife, his children, Megan and Ashley, as well as his five grandsons, help make life easier.
Williams works part-time at Bill Mack Supply in North.
He continues to go to Sunny Vista Church of God in North, where he has attended for the past 46 years.
For Williams said he continues to live the best he can.
“I ain’t no hero,” he said. “I did what I was told to do.”
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