Town Veterans remember their time in service
DARIEN — Robert S. Mitchell, who has lived in town since 1970, still remembers when he signed up for the Navy in 1943 when he was only 17.
“All the kids in my neighborhood enlisted before we even had to register for the draft,” Mitchell said. “My father was in the Army in World War I and he said that trench warfare was terrible and that I’d be better off in the Navy.”
Mitchell served in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters from 1943 to 1946. At first, he was stationed 10 miles from New York where Navy ships and merchant ships would group together to form convoys before sailing off to Europe.
“We had to sweep the area to make sure it was clear and that no German submarines snuck in during the night,” Mitchell, 92, said.
Following Germany’s surrender in 1945, Mitchell was sent to the Pacific theater in the summer leading up to the decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“We were sweeping for mines off of Pearl Harbor,” Mitchell recalled. “The bomb was then dropped on Hiroshima — we had plans to go to Okinawa, a staging area for the assault on Japan, but our orders were canceled.”
Mitchell was 21 by the time the war ended. More than 70 years later, Mitchell will now be the Grand Marshal at the town’s Memorial Day Parade. He’s been a registered member of The American Legion, the nation’s largest wartime service organization for veterans, for 20 years and a volunteer at Norwalk Hospital.
Allan Bixler, who recently joined the town’s Monuments and Ceremonies Commission this past year, is a Vietnam veteran. He vividly recalls reading the draft letter he received in March 1966.
“I was in Westchester Community College at the time and I got the notice in the mail,” Bixler said. “I remember reading ‘Greetings from Uncle Sam, you are hereby to report to your draft center.’”
When asked about the iconic 1969 “Fortunate Son” song by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bixler said that the song was “100 percent true” regarding the draft process and the way people with connections evaded it.
A survivor of the Tet Offensive, a major offensive campaign launched by North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front in 1968 and a turning point in the conflict, Bixler was only 21 at the time and stationed at the city of An Khe.
“Most of the people there were 18 or 19 years old. I was an old man compared to them,” Bixler said. “During the Tet Offensive, we started getting artillery and mortar down on us and it kept going and going for a week.”
Unlike veterans from World War II, Bixler returned to John F. Kennedy Airport to a cold and unwelcome reception after his year’s tour in Vietnam.
“No one wanted to talk to me. When I got in the vehicle to go back to Connecticut from the airport nobody sat near me as I was wearing the Army uniform,” Bixler said.
Asked if the attitude towards Vietnam veterans has changed, Bixler, who is also a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Darien, believes it has.
“Things have changed dramatically thanks to operations like Desert Storm (in 1990). People even thank us now but it took 40 years for people to recognize us and thank us for our services,” Bixler said.