Gene Fulton represented the thought process of the average small-town southeastern teenager in 1966. In his world, you did your time in high school, fiddled with hot rods and when your country called – you answered, and did so with pride.
The Vietnam War draft was in high swing and for Fulton, he didn’t wait for Uncle Sam to ask, he answered ahead of time by enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.
“Back when I went in, it appeared to be the patriotic thing to do,” said Fulton. “We felt patriotic and serving our country was the right thing to do. Really, there was a draft, so you didn’t have a choice.”
Fulton was assigned to the Air Force’s 346 Tactical Squadron and during his time in Vietnam flew missions in and out of Vietnam and at times through Thailand. He also spent time in Abilene, Tex., Hawaii and the Philippine Islands.
Fulton was a loadmaster on a C-130 and his primary duties included loading cargo, figuring weight and balance as well as various in-flight duties. One of the toughest challenges was the soldier transportation.
“The worst memories I would say was transporting the Medi-Vac [patients] and those who had come from the M.A.S.H. units,” said Fulton. “They were patched up and stable, and were on their way to the big hospitals or either on their way home.”
Fulton recalled there were instances where the entire C-130 was rigged with stretchers bearing wounded soldiers.
“There were times we had 50 soldiers headed out of there,” Fulton admitted. “It was completely full of shot-up boys. Almost every one of them had a limb missing. There were others with multiple limbs missing and it would just make you sick.”
Fulton never stepped foot on a battlefield but experienced a few tense moments of combat from his spot in the air.
“You could see the shooting down below,” Fulton explained. “We would run in and out of the major bases, Saigon, Da Nang and Cameron Bay, and haul cargo to the outposts. There were times we’d set down on little dirt strips. We hauled supplies where they couldn’t drive the trucks bringing in supplies. We crashed once on landing when the engines flamed out. We went into a few banks and had to fly out on the next small plane out.
“They [Vietcong] ended up mortaring the C-130 the next day.”
Fulton was honorably discharged in August 1970, where he left Abilene driving the 1964 Chevy II wagon he’d eventually win three IHRA Modified championships with.
He made the long trek full of pride with having served his country to the best of his ability.
“When I came home to the little old town of Blacksburg, SC., I was as proud as I could be,” Fulton recalled. “I went downtown and one of the old men sitting around at the gas stations hanging out, when they found I was coming back from Vietnam, blamed me for the war. I said to myself, ‘I’ll never let anyone know from that point on, I went in. It was just a political war just like all wars now. There are no more wars, just political statements.”
Political wars or not, Fulton proudly waves his flag of freedom these days and is far removed from the misguided statements of those gentlemen. He will pause today to honor those he befriended in the service and those he never met.
The United States government lists 58,138 deaths suffered in the Vietnam War. There were over 303,000 soldiers wounded. Government statistics list over 2,300 still missing in action and unaccounted for.
Fulton understands he was fortunate to come home and considers his time in the military as a life’s lesson.
“I will always look at my time in the military as a source of pride until I die,” said Fulton. “When I think of Memorial Day, it just brings back memories of those who paid the ultimate price.
“I will say, the next generation has done a really good job of coming to us and letting us know they appreciate what we did,” said Fulton. “Our country called and we answered. We just wanted to serve and do our duty like those braves one did before us. We felt at the time we had a purpose and that was to serve our country. We did the best job we could. I am proud now, to have served my country regardless if it was political or not.”