We get annoyed when we lose the signal on our cell phones. We take instant communication for granted, but in the long history of American combat forces, communication was far from easy.
Carl Niswonger of Riverton knows that firsthand after a lifetime of work in the communication field.
In his later career, he worked for Mountain Bell as a contractor wiring phone lines, installing phone systems, and maintaining a complex network of pay phones in Yellowstone National Park.
None of those jobs involved getting shot at as he set up equipment, those days came as a young man in the United States Army in the jungles of South Vietnam.
Niswonger grew up in a little town five miles from Las Animas, Colorado. His life took a dark turn when he was 13 and suffered a gunshot wound to the chest.
“My dad gave me two dollars to buy a Christmas tree,” Niswonger said. “When I got there a kid said you have to see my new gun. He pulled the magazine out then pointed it at me and pulled the trigger. There was a long rifle shell in the chamber.”
The bullet hit Niswonger in the sternum and exited through his back, missing his heart by just an inch.
His father rushed him to the hospital in Las Animas and they were pulled over by a Colorado Highway Patrol officer on the way.
“The cop saw what was happening and told my dad to follow him to the hospital,” Niswonger said. “We were doing 120.”
He was 117 pounds when he was wounded and a few days later his weight had dropped to 85. He recovered from the wound but had permanent trembling hands from nerve damage.
Trembling hands isn’t a great condition for a man who spent his career connecting tiny, twisted pair phone lines and diagnosing short circuits.
The shot he took from another boy in rural Colorado was the only one he suffered, though there were ample opportunities to take larger caliber rounds from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers a few years later.
Niswonger dropped out of high school to join the Army in 1963. He served a couple of years and in 1965, his life changed dramatically again.
“I met the most beautiful red-haired girl,” Niswonger said.
He asked his company commander for permission to get married and was concerned he might be sent to Vietnam.
“The captain said go ahead and get married, you’ve got less than a year left on your enlistment, they won’t send you over,” Niswonger said.
A short 30 days later he was on the USS JC Breckinridge, a vintage troop ship that saw action in World War II and Korea with 5,000 other soldiers headed for Southeast Asia.
“My attitude went to hell after they sent me over after being married for 30 days. I was a lifer before that,” he said. “I was over there for 10 months, 17 days, 22 hours, and 15 minutes.”
The trip itself on the aging USS Breckenridge was a marathon.
“The ship only had one operating screw and it took us 21 days to cross the Pacific,” Niswonger said. “They decommissioned it once it got back to San Francisco. We had men spread all over the decks of that ship. A swabbie came up to me one day and told me to swab the deck. He handed me a mop and a line and said to tie the mop, drop it over the side into the ocean and scrub the deck with it. I knew how to tie a knot but tied it loose, so the mop fell overboard. I did it again and thought that sailor was going to kill me before he walked away.”
He landed with his unit and all their equipment at Camron Bay.
The US Army Signal Corp establishes communication links for combat units. In Vietnam with the heavy jungle growth that was a challenge.
Their main work was setting up large 40 to 60-foot tall towers called “flyswatters” in slang terminology since they resemble huge flyswatters standing on end once they’re in place.
Niswonger spent a lot of time high in the air, adjusting the electronics on those towers. When he was up there, he was completely exposed to enemy fire.
“The first thing they wanted to get rid of was our communication,” Niswonger said. “They had us on target all day, every day. I was never in combat and never had to shoot anybody. I could hear the shots being fired at me, but never had a bullet hit close by or even close enough to hear it whistle.”
Much of that protection from VC and NVA 7.62mm bullets came with a unit of South Korean Marines that we assigned to protect the signalmen in the field.
“They had a battalion of ROK Marines. They shot anything that moved that didn’t speak English or Korean,” Niswonger said. “They were great.”
The ROK has a well-earned reputation for operating the best “Black Market” of any foreign military service and this battalion lived up to that image.
“We built a new mess hall with the supplies the ROK “found” for us,” Niswonger laughed. “We didn’t ask them where they got the plywood and all the other materials.”
They took mortar fire almost every night, but during the day the ROK Marines would establish a perimeter and the signalmen were able to work without worrying much about snipers or other attacks.
“It was discipline the hard way with the ROK,” Niswonger said.
He witnessed some cruel treatment of captured NVA and suspected Viet Cong by the ROK Marines.
“They abused them like you couldn’t believe,” Niswonger said. “They hit them with the butt of their rifles in the back and kicked them. I felt sorry for those guys even though they were the enemy.”
He witnessed some other horrors in Vietnam as well.
“I saw some guys with bad leprosy,” he said. “They had almost their entire faces eaten away below their eyes all the way to their jaw.”
During his almost 11 months “In Country” they traveled all over Vietnam setting up towers, repairing damage from Viet Cong sabotage, and maintaining communication.
When his tour was up, so was his time in the army.
Soon after returning to Texas, he found his wife had a case of “Elizabeth Taylor Syndrome.”
“She’d say I feel like a new man, and then she would go and get one,” Niswonger joked.
They were divorced and she remarried six more times. In Texas, the law limits you to getting married just six times within the Lone Star State.
“For her final marriage she had to go to Louisiana since she hit the limit in Texas,” Niswonger said.
Texas in the mid-1960s was booming as was the entire United States.
“There were more jobs than people to fill them,” Niswonger said. “I had seven or eight different jobs. I worked for the railroad, for National Cash Register, and then the RVEA.”
He lasted the longest at the RVEA, but after two years, and witnessing two other linemen electrocuted at work he looked for another job.
“I believe things come in threes and we already lost two men,” he said.
He found his career at Mountain Bell back in Las Animas. He worked for the communications giant for 25 years before retiring.
“I got crossways with a supervisor so I got out the first day that I could,” Niswonger said.
He worked another four years as a contractor with the most interesting work coming in maintaining and repairing 300 pay phones in Yellowstone National Park.
“I had a trailer at Fishing Bridge and stayed in Gardiner, Montana too,” Niswonger said.
That was just summer employment since the park is closed each winter.
He spent winters back in Colorado working when a new office opened in Riverton.
“I had a friend who told me I should come to Riverton,” Niswonger said.
He arrived and stayed in Fremont County.
“I came here for the outdoors,” Niswonger said.
The skills he learned with an M-14 on the firing range as a young private lent themselves well to hunting big game in Wyoming.
Niswonger has two sons and a daughter, a lifetime of memories, experiences, and few regrets.