War memory

ND Vietnam veteran recalls meeting McCain

Austin Gillette, seen here in 2010, a Vietnam veteran from White Shield, recalls meeting Sen. John McCain. McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

WHITE SHIELD – A Vietnam veteran from White Shield recalls when he and the late Sen. John McCain met and talked about Vietnam.

McCain died Saturday at age 81.

Austin Gillette served with the U.S. Marine Corps’ Amtrac Platoon in Vietnam, a unit that existed in 1967-1969, then was reassigned and sent to other units in the Marine Corps. They were first attached to the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines and later assigned to the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines and the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines.

The unit may have been one of the most decorated noninfantry units in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, although it was in existence for only three years. In Vietnam, Amtrac Platoon members hauled supplies or just about anything. They also transported the wounded.

In 1995, Gillette, then White Shield representative to the Three Affiliated Tribes’ business council, and Russell “Bud” Mason Sr., tribal chairman, attended a Senate Select Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., followed by a reception. McCain was chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Committee from 1995-1997 and again from 2005-2007.

Gillette said he was wearing his American Legion cap and McCain came up to him, shook his hand and said, “Thank you for your service.”

Gillette responded by also thanking the senator for his service.

McCain started to walk away but Gillette called the senator back, saying he had a story to tell him.

Gillette told McCain that in September 1968, he was in Da Nang (on the coast of Central Vietnam, after coming back from the Philippines on the USS Denver, an LST (Landing Ship Tank) and 13 North Vietnamese Army prisoners of war were brought on board.

Nearly a year earlier in October 1967, McCain was shot down in his A-4E Skyhawk attack aircraft over North Vietnam and was taken prisoner. He was held prisoner for five and a half years at what was known by the American POWs as “Hanoi Hilton.”

The next day, Gillette said they went north to Vinh and were offshore about 20 miles. Vinh is the largest city in central Vietnam.

Later, Gillette heard his name to report to the bridge area and for the next eight hours was the sergeant of the guard for the prisoners.

The following day, the 13 North Vietnamese Army prisoners were released back to North Vietnam in an exchange. “We got five pilots but they went to a different ship,” Gillette said.

McCain told Gillette when they met in 1995, “You know, you should have come after me.”

“I told him, ‘Senator, we wanted to do that same thing but you know how those people are in Washington,’ “ Gillette said.

McCain laughed and told Gillette, “I know exactly what you mean.”

About a year later at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Washington, D.C., Gillette and McCain met again and McCain recognized the North Dakota Vietnam veteran. “I didn’t have my American Legion cap on but he said, ‘Austin, how are you doing?’ “ They visited and Gillette told him again, “Thank you for your service.” Then both men went on their way.

Gillette and other members of the Amtrac Platoon have held a number of reunions since 1991. Their most recent reunion was held Aug. 17-18 in Michigan.

Gillette is a lifetime member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans. He and other members of the White Shield and Mandaree American Legion Posts and Auxiliaries and Little Shell Unit 300 just returned from Minneapolis where they attended the American Legion 100th National Convention.