URBANA — John Yearsley was drafted Oct. 24, 1967, just in time to be in country for the bloody Tet Offensive.
The sergeant earned the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, but would rather talk about the highlights of his stock car racing, which included competing in the World 100 in Ohio.
The 74-year-old farmed north of Urbana and continued farming after his service.
“If you were 98.6 (degrees), you were in,” he said of the certainty of passing the medical test for the military.
Yearsley did his eight weeks of basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
Then it was on to advanced infantry training at Fort Ord in California (now Fort Ord National Monument) — “ground-pounding infantry” being most in need at the time, he said.
The Tet Offensive began on Jan. 31, 1968, the first day of the Lunar New Year and planned to be before Ho Chi Minh’s death — giving the national hero a win was one small goal of the surprise attacks. (Instead, he hung on for nearly two years.)
What does Yearsley remember most about that time?
“It rained a lot,” he said — and he was surprised that the monsoon raids were cold.
He said there was a great deal of fighting that he’d rather not remember.
His medals? “There is the history of the killer, but I’m not that.”
Guns were “business tools” in the heavy fighting.
He had become good with a rifle. In rifle training, he’d goofed off. “I didn’t even try. There were no holes in my target.”
You’d think that might save him from being shipped overseas. A sergeant disabused him of that notion.
Yearsley might end up going to Vietnam, “but a soldier like that won’t come back,” the sergeant said.
His unit had moved into Cambodia during the offensive, and there was one firefight of short bursts after another, he said.
After Tet, “it was just regular patrols,” he said.
His unit inspected some smuggled bags and found grain, not weapons.
“The villagers didn’t really like us,” Yearsley said. “You couldn’t trust anyone, and that makes it hard to live.”
It was a war of incidents, not major battles.
“The Viet Cong were the terrorists of their day,” he said. “The war could change overnight.”
Once, a man near him was hit by enemy fire.
“I dragged him out of the water,” he recalled. “I knew he got tagged.”
He pushed soldiers onto a helicopter when the hill they were on was hit by mortar fire.
He had his own medical problems for two Purple Hearts. Wearing the same boots for 57 days, when he took them off, some skin went off with them. He took shrapnel that still pushes out of his side. Yearsley extended his time in the service, for an additional $65 a month.
In 1969, he returned to the United States.
“I had my medals on my uniform at the airport, and I was treated very well,” Yearsley said.
Back on the farm, he had to start from scratch because he’d had a problem with a bank while in the service. But it all worked out, and he still farms.
He’s retired from auto races, but proudly shows off a model of a favorite from 1986 at The World 100 at Eldora Speedway.
He’s married to Cheryl DeLap, who publishes a magazine called The Prairie Gold Rush.
And he’s proud to be an American.
“This is still the best damn place in the world to live, if you’re willing to work,” Yearsley said.