Appleton, Wis. (WFRV) – At 16 years old in 1962, Appleton’s Jim Thiel was losing his direction.
School wasn’t for him, and he thought he was ready to see the world. So he joined the Marines.
“At 16 (years old) I was all signed up to go. My mother didn’t want me to go but my dad said, ‘You should go and get it over with I guess.’ So, on my 17th birthday I left for boot camp in San Diego and unbeknownst to me, my drill instructor was waiting for me to get off the plane,” recalled Thiel.
That was the beginning of four-and-a-half years in the infantry with the U.S. Marine Corps for Thiel.
It wasn’t until 1966 that he got his orders to Chu Lai, Vietnam.
“When we hit the beach there, the first thing they said was, ‘Fix the bayonets.’ I knew it was getting serious then. After a while you’re just looking to survive day after day because every day somebody was shot or killed,”
Thiel owns a to-scale mannequin with part of his actual uniform underneath, that he would have worn while trekking through the jungle in Vietnam. He estimates it weighs close to 100 pounds and he keeps it all to serve as a reminder.
“You know, there are sad moments because you always wonder, ‘Why did I make it? And all of these other guys died?’ You’re protecting each other’s lives. Basically, if they’ve got your back, you’ve got their back and you train with them, it was just like part of a family,” Thiel said.
Thiel returned from Vietnam in 1966 with a Purple Heart after he was wounded by shrapnel and a lot of memories he won’t forget.
He went on to work with the Appleton Fire Department for 30 years.
Thiel still keeps in touch with those fellow Marines through several different veteran’s groups, those who will forever remain a part of his family.
“They can tell their stories and maybe I wasn’t there with them but I can relate to it. I can picture in my mind what they went through, even though it may have been a different war or a different time. And I enjoy it,” said Thiel.
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