ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – Shubuta, Mississippi sits near the southern border of Clark County, just west of the Chickasawhay River. Jesse L. Shanks Sr. grew up in this tiny town – which numbered just 441 people in the 2010 Census – during what he calls the nation’s “pre-Civil Rights Era.”
A well-known member of the APG community, Shanks said the rustic upbringing he received in the Deep South of the 1930s and 40s helped prepare him for ‘Nam.
“We walked a mile to the schoolhouse where we had one teacher who taught kindergarten to 8th grade,” Shanks recalled, adding that during winter, children took turns gathering wood for the potbelly stove that warmed the room. In high school, Shanks walked one mile to a bus stop for a six-mile ride to school.
There was never much time for play, Shanks said. The oldest of 12 siblings, two of whom never reached adulthood, Shanks and his brothers and sisters worked the family farm when they weren’t in school. Milking cows was a daily morning routine before school, and afternoons meant shucking corn, baling cotton, chopping wood or tending to other chores around the farm.
“We worked six days a week and went to school five days if there wasn’t too much work to do,” he said.
Due to family responsibilities Shanks was unable to finish high school but he later obtained his GED and went on to gain an associate degree in automotive mechanics and a bachelor’s degree in business management courtesy of the GI Bill.
“Education is good to have, but it will wear you out,” he said.
Shanks was 22-years-old when he was called up in the 1952 draft during the Korean War. He took basic training as a wheeled vehicle mechanic in the Ordnance Corps at Aberdeen Proving Ground and was headed to Korea when his orders were changed to Japan.
After his initial tour overseas he decided to stick with the Army and he warmed to the leadership role of the non-commissioned officer ranks. Eventually, he decided to reach higher.
Shanks applied for and was promoted to chief warrant officer. He attended the Ordnance Officer Basic Course at APG in 1958 and he would go on to serve three tours at APG during his career, as a mechanic, a motor sergeant and an instructor.
“I saw a lot of people go through here,” he said.
Shanks served two tours in ‘Nam from 1968-69 and from 1971-72. His first tour was as a Maintenance Shop Officer with the 610th Engineer Battalion and his second was with the 62nd Engineer Battalion.
“We built our own hooches out of wood and lumber,” he recalled. “I remember it rained a lot and it was cold and we used potbelly stoves.”
During his first tour, he led a maintenance shop that worked on wheeled vehicles weighing up to 5 tons. His unit supported the I Corps Tactical Zone supporting elements in the northernmost province of South Vietnam. Divisions such as the 1st Cavalry, 23rd Infantry, 101st Airborne, 5th Infantry and 82nd Airborne served in this area, along with smaller Army brigades and elements of the III Marine Expeditionary Force.
Shanks said he arrived just after the Tet Offensive, the eight-month long wave of attacks by the Viet Cong against South Vietnam and Allied forces. He said the consensus among fellow Soldiers was that they could win the war if military leaders were calling the shots instead of politicians.
“We didn’t fight the war the way we should have fought to win,” he said. “There was too much politics involved.”
From ‘Nam, Shanks went to Germany. A husband and father by then, two of his children were born in his first duty station at Nellingen Barracks near Stuttgart. He soon returned to ‘Nam in 1971, but said he found things less intense than his first tour.
“Things were winding down; we didn’t even carry weapons,” he said. “When I would fly helicopters north to check on our troops the policy was don’t fire on the enemy unless they fire first. So, you see what I mean by we didn’t fight the war to win.”
Shanks returned to APG after his final tour in ‘Nam and retired at the rank of chief warrant officer two in 1972.
He said working his way back into society was not problem.
“I know some guys had problems but I focused on my goals,” he said. “I knew what I wanted to do.”
He joined the U.S. Postal Service and worked in Joppa and Bel Camp where he became the postmaster, as well as Port Deposit. He retired from the USPS in 2003.
Always active in the community, Shanks is a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6054 in Perryman, where he’s held several offices, and with the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. He said he also served 20 years on the APG ethics commission.
A member of the APG chapel for 35 years, Shanks said he’s witnessed an amazing transformation of the installation – namely from a population once heavy with Soldiers to one in which government civilians outnumber all others.
“Change has been constant,” he said. “When I first came here in 1952, there were five active chapels on post and there were four buses you could catch to take you back and forth. But the world is a lot more dangerous now. Things are shifting, especially since 9/11, and you have to change with the times.”
Shanks said he will always remember ‘Nam as “a war we should have won.”
“We had tanks, B52s, trucks, helicopters, M16s, and machine guns. All the North [Vietnamese] had was AK-47s and 22s [rifles] and they ran us out of ‘Nam,” he said. “We had all the fire power we needed. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Shanks was the first African-American postmaster in Harford County as well as the first male African-American postmaster in Cecil County. He’s held leadership positions with the National League of Postmasters, and local chapters of the United Negro College Fund and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
At 83-years-old, he continues to stay busy. He and other Vietnam veterans were honored during the 41st Annual Spring Gala of the Washington D.C. Chapter of The Rocks, Inc. held in Springfield, Virginia April 18, 2015. The organization is one of hundreds across the nation that have signed on as commemorative partners of the Vietnam War 50th Commemoration.
Shanks said he enjoys staying busy. A widower for 10 years, he said family and his many interests keep him going.
“If I had to pinpoint anything I’d just have to say I enjoy life. “I tell young people you can live a good life and not get in trouble and still have fun. It’s hard to get through to them sometimes because the world has gone crazy.”
“I’ve been truly blessed,” he added. “I thank God for the parents who taught me to trust in the Lord. He saw me through Korea and two tours in Vietnam. He gave me a wonderful wife, a wonderful family, two careers and great friends. And I can still get around on my own.”
He added that his personal philosophy is his favorite scripture, Romans 8:28, which has guided his life. It reads: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
“I can do all things, through Him,” Shanks said.
Like any other war, Vietnam produced an array of veterans. When the conflict ended, some veterans opted to continue service in the military while others returned to civilian life. Some returned with life altering wounds – physical and psychological – while too many others, who never came home at all, remain among the Missing in Action.
On the surface, the veterans of the Vietnam War faced the same challenges as veterans of other wars, except for one glaring difference: they were vilified by American society like no other generation before or since.
Today, nearly 50 years after the war’s end, the veterans of Vietnam are in their 60s and 70s. The passage of time has cooled the tempest of indignation that shrouded their homecoming and an ambiance of repentant thanks thrives in its wake. Many still do what they can to serve this nation.
This article originally appeared in the “APG News” as part of an ongoing, multi-year series hailing the service members and civilians who served the nation during the war in Vietnam. Giving a voice to local Vietnam veterans, it is through their stories that we honor their service and sacrifice, and offer a long-overdue “Welcome Home.”
For more information about the series or the veterans featured, contact “APG News” Editor Amanda Rominiecki at email@example.com.