Rochester veteran reflects on military service

By: Alex Szwarc | Rochester Post | Published August 25, 2020

 Art Simmons, left, is pictured in Vietnam in 1966. Simmons, of Rochester, served in the Army’s 765th security platoon, a unit responsible for securing an  airfield where aircraft and  weaponry would arrive.

Art Simmons, left, is pictured in Vietnam in 1966. Simmons, of Rochester, served in the Army’s 765th security platoon, a unit responsible for securing an airfield where aircraft and weaponry would arrive.

Photo provided by Art Simmons

 A wartime photo of Art Simmons, of Rochester. Fifty-five years ago this month, droves of American troops were called upon to fight in the Vietnam War.

A wartime photo of Art Simmons, of Rochester. Fifty-five years ago this month, droves of American troops were called upon to fight in the Vietnam War.

Photo provided by Art Simmons

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ROCHESTER — A couple months prior to Art Simmons arriving in South Vietnam, droves of American troops were called upon to fight in the Vietnam War.

By the time U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided in July 1965 to send U.S. troops in large numbers to fight a ground war in Vietnam, the U.S. had already been engaged for five months in a steadily escalating air war against North Vietnam.

Johnson requested 50,000 more ground troops to be sent to Vietnam, increasing the draft to 35,000 each month.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in Michigan, C&G Newspapers spoke with the 73-year-old Simmons, of Rochester, to highlight his service in the armed forces.

Simmons was deployed in Vietnam from December 1965 to January 1967 as part of the Army’s 765th security platoon. For the majority of his time in-country, Simmons’ platoon secured an airfield in Vung Tau. He described the airfield, where a lot of aircraft and weaponry would arrive, as being about the size of Pontiac.

“We were a special platoon who did perimeter security for an airfield because the clerks and mechanics had a regular job and they didn’t want them on the perimeter for 12 hours at night,” he recalled. “We had a lot of enemy activity.”

“There’s a lot of strange things we uncovered after the war about the platoon,” he said.  

Simmons described the platoon as a “ghost unit” in that, typically, if a unit was involved in a firefight, paperwork had to be filed, reporting enemy contact.

“We could never find any day reports,” he said.

Simmons said when CIA members would show up, the airfield would shut down when a white plane with blue stripes would land.

“We would be told no one could get near that plane,” he recalled. “People would come off that plane dressed in suits carrying briefcases, take them to headquarters, and they would come back without it. We’d reopen the runway, and they would leave. We were doing our job. You don’t ask.”

To this day, Simmons asks himself what the platoon did that was so important that the government couldn’t share certain information.

Like many other Vietnam War veterans, Simmons said he never talked about the war after he was discharged. It wasn’t until he connected with the Department of Veterans Affairs system about a decade ago that he began to open up about his experiences.

Since then, Simmons has been in post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, counseling.

“You grow up with core beliefs, and the military changes that,” he said. “One of the things you’re taught young is you shouldn’t kill. I was trained the other way. The enemy wasn’t a person, so it was very easy to kill.”

In Simmons’ 30 years working in the automotive industry, he said others didn’t know he was a veteran.

“There was no direction in the Vietnam War,” he said. “You would get guys out there and do what they thought was best to do.”

Simmons has visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., once, calling it a very disturbing experience.

“I went with a couple guys, and we rode motorcycles from here,” he said. “There were 100,000 motorcycles. I suggested to other Vietnam vets that it’s a very healing part of our lives. It still hurts.”  

After his time in the military, Simmons spent three decades at General Motors, beginning on the assembly line and retiring as an engineer.

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