VIDEO: Don SingletonVideo and editing by Lawrence Dorsey
EDITOR'S NOTE: This profile of an area veteran is part of a series of articles titled "Those Who Served," appearing monthly in the Courier.
Donald Singleton remembers when there were only two paved roads in Richmond Hill. There were no subdivisions. No drug stores or doctor’s offices. “We had to go to Savannah for everything,” he said, and “had to catch the Greyhound bus on Highway 17” to get there.
As an African-American male growing up in the early 1960s, Singleton sought escape from a small town with few job opportunities, for a promising, exciting life in the military.
“Growing up as a kid, I always thought about the military,” Singleton said. At age 17, he would hear tales from friends who served. “They talked about the tanks and the trucks and the Jeeps,” he said. “Man, this is what I want to do.”
He said all of his brothers, except one, were in the military. So too was his father. Singleton came from a family of 10 – five boys and five girls.
Turning 73 in December, Singleton reflects on a life in which he was able to live out that dream of military experience, albeit one that resulted in injury, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart.
Over the years, Singleton has witnessed racial injustice, and the Army was no different. But, he says, in combat, “We were all brothers.”
Witnessing the horrors of war that so many other combat veterans have seen, and living today with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said the Vietnam War was “good” to him, because it taught him so much. He formed life-long relationships and to this day, he credits a fellow soldier for saving his life, while sacrificing his own.
He also wants to see more recognition, especially for African-American soldiers who sacrificed their lives in war.
Sitting down at the site of the Veterans Monument at J.F. Gregory Park, Singleton shared his story.
Wanting to serve his country
Born and raised in Richmond Hill, Singleton finished high school and went looking for a job. “There really weren’t too many jobs here, so I went to the recruiter’s office in Savannah and told them I wanted to sign up for the Army, and they said OK,” Singleton said. “During that time the Vietnam War was going on, this was in 1966, and I guess they were taking anybody, I guess.
“I knew people were being killed (in Vietnam), but I wanted to serve my country because my daddy did,” he added. “We used to see it on the 6 o’clock news of guys walking through the jungle getting shot and killed … but I still wanted to go.”
Just six months after enlisting, Singleton found himself in those same jungles as part of the 101st Airborne Division. “It was mountains, valleys, serious terrain,” he said. “Bamboo -- It was so thick you couldn’t see. You had to cut your way through.”
The romanticized images of tanks, trucks and Jeeps that his friends had described, were replaced by the harsh reality of war.
“I associated war like going out in the woods to hunt deer and the deer got a gun,” Singleton said. “You got a gun. The deer got a gun. The deer -- that’s his territory. He lives there. He knows what’s going on. You are new to that territory. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”
Complicating matters, “The people we were fighting looked just like the people who were supposed to be our friends,” he said, referring to physical similarities between the North and South Vietnamese.
And, Singleton says, you sometimes didn’t know who to trust.
He said several of the South Vietnamese were working on the compound, and the Americans didn’t know it at the time, but “our friendly Vietnamese that were working were stealing ammo.”
The ammunition, Singleton described, was being hidden in a 55-pound drum that was being used for trash.
It was a situation that turned deadly.
One night the soldiers were disposing of their mail by placing it in the drum in order to burn it. “Everyone was standing around during mail call,” Singleton remembers. “We didn’t know there was ammo in the drum.”
Two people in the unit were killed when the drum exploded, Singleton said, and two or three others were wounded.
Singleton was not hurt … this time.
Singleton’s unit ambushed
“It was May 18, 1967 -- That’s when I got wounded,” Singleton said. “The night I got wounded, a lot of guys got killed that night.”
It began during a search of a fellow soldier “who we lost earlier that day,” he said. “We couldn’t get his body because they kept shooting at us. But we didn’t leave nobody. We simply did not leave anyone,” Singleton emphasized.
“So we went back that night to try to find him, and we ran into an ambush. I was a machine gunner so I was probably five or six guys back in the column and when the enemy threw the grenade, a guy in front of me jumped on it,” Singleton said.
The soldier was killed, and Singleton was wounded in the leg by a fragment from the grenade.
The next morning Singleton was airlifted from the site. “I was on the helicopter where they had guys laying across me dead and I was the only alive guy, except the crew.”
After recuperating from his injuries, Singleton returned stateside and was stationed at Fort Bragg until he left the military in January 1969.
On returning home as a Vietnam veteran
Like others who served in Vietnam, Singleton did not, at the time, receive the appreciation and respect due for serving in a war that many did not support. Race relations, as they were, especially in the Deep South, further added insult to injury.
“Back in the ‘60s there was plenty of racial tension in this country. We don’t talk about it now, but we should talk about it. We should not forget about the stuff done to us,” Singleton said.
“It was on the job. It was in the Army. It was everywhere. White people got the top job and we got the low jobs.”
“You know, race relations were pretty bad, but the unit I was in was a good unit. We stuck together. We looked out for each other,” Singleton said. “In my platoon, it was probably half and half (white and black soldiers). We got along together.”
He said “In a war zone, it’s a whole different ballgame. I served with guys from Alabama, from Mississippi, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Florida, everywhere. When it came down to combat situations, we were like brothers because we had to look out for each other.”
A new life begins, but war memories don’t fade
“War is hell. I don’t wish that on my worst enemy, especially like Vietnam. I’ve seen some stuff,” Singleton reflected.
After leaving the military with an E4 rank, Singleton moved back home and was hired as a railroad switch man. Later, he transferred to locomotive engineer and retired from CSX in Savannah after 25 years.
He has been married 50 years to his wife Letha, who he describes as “a great lady. I love her.” The couple has four daughters – Dephline, Phonda, Barbara, and Leveteris, as well as four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
When asked about his health today and any lingering effects of the war, Singleton candidly acknowledges, “Yes sir. I suffer from post-traumatic stress. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I retired early from the railroad because I just couldn’t take the job stress anymore.”
As to PTSD, Singleton says “I don’t know how to explain it, but it just dogs you out. And you try to forget about that stuff that happened in the war, but it never goes away.
“When I first came back from Vietnam I took all of my fatigues and the military stuff and threw it away and thought that it would go away by doing that. But for some reason, it’s still stuck in the back of my head.”
Finding peace thanks to the mother of a fallen soldier
“Vietnam War was a bad situation,” Singleton said. “But I tell people that Vietnam was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’ve learned a lot from the war. I learned that war is no good. There shouldn’t be wars. Vietnam was just a bad place but I say it was good to me because it taught me a lot.”
Singleton is proud of his service and the service of others. He is commander of the Purple Heart Association, Chapter 596, in Savannah, and is a life member of the Disabled American Veterans, 101st and 82nd Associations, and other veteran organizations.
He has attended reunions of the 101st Airborne. In the last 10 years he located more than 20 members of his platoon. “I went out looking for these guys. I used to put ads in all of the veterans magazines looking for anyone who served in the 101st Airborne Division.”
He has never forgotten the soldier in his unit, Dale Eugene Wayrynen, 20, of McGregor, Minnesota, who sacrificed his life by throwing himself on the grenade that resulted only in a leg wound for Singleton.
One day he was looking in a magazine and saw an ad inquiring if anyone served with soldiers from Minnesota, and if so, to call a phone number.
“I thought … yeah, the guy who saved my life, by jumping on that grenade … he was from Minnesota.”
Singleton called that number and asked if they could help him find the family of that soldier. He was successful. A month later, he was able to reach Dale Wayrynen’s mother, Laverne.
“You know, he saved my life,” Singleton told the woman when they spoke. She then asked if she could visit. “We talked for four hours at my house about how he (her son) got killed … and we became friends,” Singleton smiled.
Since then, Laverne Wayrynen, who Singleton believes is about 92 or 93 today, has visited him frequently. “She’s now part of my family.” He said she began going to their 101st Airborne Division reunions and has even become an auxiliary member.
To this day, Singleton calls her on every May 18th, marking the anniversary date of her son’s death.
Doing more to remember veterans
The Veterans Monument at J.F. Gregory Park includes the names of dozens of area veterans inscribed on bricks and a brief description of American wars since World War I. More and more communities continue to erect similar monuments honoring those who have served.
For Singleton, “Every city in America should have some type of monument, memorial, or tree or street or whatever for these guys who didn’t make it back.” He added, “These guys gave the ultimate sacrifice to die for this country and we’re forgetting about them.”
Singleton says he has never forgotten about two of his best friends, Harry L. Boles, and Lowry Cuthbert, who also were born and raised in Richmond Hill, and were killed in the Vietnam War, but neither have been memorialized.
“You don’t want to just name a street after a doctor or a lawyer or a county commissioner -- someone who didn’t give their life for this country,” Singleton said.
“Let me know what I can do in Richmond Hill to help me get something for those two guys who lost their life in Vietnam.”