Time In The Tank
Dayton’s American Legion Veteran Of The Month Recalls Time In Service
The big, faded green tank in front of the Dayton American Legion caught the eye of James W. Sullivan as he was driving one day.
It was a familiar sight for the 68-year-old U.S. Army veteran, instantly bringing back memories of his brief time in the service more than 40 years ago when he was in the driver’s seat of an M-60 tank rolling around Europe from 1966-68.
“I enjoyed it,” he said. “It was cold and miserable. It gave me a real appreciation of the soldiers during the Second World War that fought there. … We were out in the field for three weeks without coming in for heat. And you think, ‘I am not going to survive this,’ and during the war they had to survive that forever. There was no going in. And we didn’t have people shooting at us.”
After his first year in Swineford, Germany, he learned his lesson. Sullivan started stockpiling heater parts.
“When we turned in old tanks, the main thing we were interested in was scavenging all the parts we could out of the heater. The only people doing it were the ones that had gone through the winter before. The other people were like, ‘it doesn’t matter; we’ll be alright.’ ‘OK,’ I said.”
Sullivan said the tank was the initial reason why he chose to become a member of the American Legion in Dayton six years ago instead of one closer to his home in Augusta County. After a visit one day, he decided to join.
“The people were real nice,” he said. “So, I decided to stay on here with it and I’ve enjoyed it.”
Sullivan was named April’s Veteran of the Month by the American Legion in Dayton.
Post Commander Kenneth W. Hilbert said Sullivan was chosen for his commitment and dedication.
“He is outstanding,” he said. “He drives from Waynesboro for every meeting. Every other Saturday morning, he is here at 1 o’clock [a.m.] to help do chicken. He is always willing to do whatever I ask, no mouth, no nothing and I am mighty proud to nominate him Veteran of the Month.”
Time In Service
Sullivan didn’t have to join the military. He was in college at the time and was offered a teaching job that would have prevented him from being drafted into Vietnam.
But he felt an obligation to serve his country. It’s something he said his parents taught him since he was born on D-Day; June 6, 1944.
In February 1966, he attended basic training at Fort Stewart, Ga. Sullivan said it was the first and last time since the 40s that the Army held basic training at the base. After completing his tank school in September, he was sent to Germany where he was attached to the 3rd Infantry Division.
He said he was fortunate not to be sent to Vietnam.
“I had a lot of friends that went there, and some didn’t come back,” he said. “And like in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of them didn’t come back very whole.
“They suffered traumatic injuries whether they were injured or not. It took them a long time to get over it.”
One such guy was a high school pal he ran into a few months ago.
“He didn’t think he was ever going to get over [the war],” Sullivan said. “He told me, ‘They are going to try one more time to straighten me out, and if that don’t work, I think I am lost to humanity.’ That is just a terrible way to think about yourself. He was laughing at the same time he was saying it, but he wasn’t really joking about it. He was serious.”
Sullivan said Vietnam veterans had it rough.
“The thing that got me, and I didn’t understand, when we came out, they told us ‘don’t wear your uniforms home, you will be harassed at the airport.’ I thought it was they would harass you wanting you to buy stuff. I didn’t have any idea. I didn’t run across any [war protestors], but I talked to other people and they were cursed at and spit on and everything coming home.
“It’s bad enough being there, but then coming home and facing that. That would have had to be totally demoralizing.
Time After Time
After being discharged in 1968, Sullivan found himself back in the Valley doing construction. Then he decided to use his GI bill to attend James Madison University after a long hiatus from college.
“The worst problem I found being out 10 years, was math majors coming out of high school had more [knowledge] than I did with three years of college,” he said. “So, a math major was out of the question. So, I switched to geology with a minor in mathematics.”
Sullivan graduated in 1977 and a short while later took a building trade teaching position in Nelson County. After two years there, he taught carpentry at Valley Vocational-Technical School in Fishersville.
Sullivan retired in 2006 and now spends his time between baby-sitting his grandkids in Harrisonburg, his home in Augusta County and the American Legion.