Service & Sacrifice

Building bridges during the Vietnam War

MARQUETTE — When you sit down and talk to Charlie Hawes in his home in Marquette, his easy manner makes it hard, at first, to connect the fact that the decorated veteran served in the U.S. Navy during Vietnam

“I joined because I figured it was my duty, obligation. But it was also always family oriented, too.” “Hawes said. “I had two uncles that served in the Navy during World War II and one uncle who served in the Army in Korea. My brother joined just before me, and served a tour in the Air Force.”

Hawes served as an E-5 second class petty officer in the U.S. Navy in a Construction Battalion, an arm of the military known as the SeaBees.

According to the USO website, the Seabees are responsible for building much of the temporary and permanent infrastructure for locations around the world.

Hawes and his battalion built roads and bridges.

“There were equipment operators, builders, electricians, utility men, surveyors,” Hawes said, anything a construction company has, the SeaBees has.”

During his time in the military, Hawes was decorated with the National Defense Service Medal; Vietnam Service Medal with Fleet Marine Force Combat Operations Insignia; and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with Devise.

Hawes shipped out to Vietnam in August 1967 where he served at a base in Hue, Phu Bai.

“They flew us over in a cargo plane. You’ve seen the ones with the jump seats on the sides where the bottom goes out so the paratroopers can jump out the back,” Hawes said. “Three days and two nights it took us to get there. We island hopped…. It was just under 10,000 miles. All of us were happy to get off the plane.”

Very soon after his unit arrived and got settled in, it became obvious they were in a war zone.

“When we first got there, actually, two or three weeks later, our base would be mortared. The NVA (also known as the North Vietnamese army) and the Viet Cong (natives of South Vietnam fighting against the South Vietnamese government) wanted to let us know they were there. And they blew up a lot of buildings there… like “We’re still here, just because you guys are coming in to take over, or whatnot. They wanted to let us know that they were in charge out in the jungle, That’s why the Marines were always sending patrols out.”

Hawes himself was a heavy equipment operator. He hauled the bridge material and also operated machines such as bull dozers and front end loaders.

“When the Tet Offensive started, the NVA blew up every bridge they could find to stop the reinforcements from coming north. And it was our job to rebuild the bridges so the Marines could get their heavy equipment (like tanks) across. To get into Hue.”

Hawes estimated that his battalion rebuilt dozens of bridges both big and small.

“When we got there, usually the Marines, we were their friends, they were our friends. The Marines were always ahead of us. They would advance, then we would put our own perimeter there. We would take over our own security. Then they were working on the next section. “

He relayed first-hand accounts of what it was like to be in a war zone. In many ways, he said it was very different from how a civilian might imagine an attack.

“Like it shows in the movies, everybody get back in the fort, well all the enemy (was) right up to you…their mortars and everything else, you wouldn’t be there the next morning, “Hawes said. He described one instance where the Marines started a pacification project with the Vietnamese.

“They wanted the people to more be accustomed to us – that we were helping them. So the Marines would build a small enclave inside of the villages. In a decent- size river, a bridge there, they would have a big enough place to build a pier in the middle of it.

Hawes said the enclave included M-6 guns, sandbags and small bunkers surrounded by Constantine wire. He said this particular bunker was just being finished as the SeaBees were building bunkers south of it.

“The next day I went by there, there wasn’t one single thing left. It was just leveled. There was nobody left alive. It was just like somebody came in with a bulldozer and leveled it out,” Hawes said. “The security there was light, so they ( NVA or Viet Cong) just ran up, threw (explosive) charges over the top of the Constantine wire and obliterated everything.”

There were pleasant times, too. He said he felt fortunate to be in a unit at a base, because soldiers who were stationed at one place were able to, for one thing, break bread together. But the bread might not look like anything you would see in the U.S.

“(We asked) what are those little black spots in our bread? And they said ‘Oh, those are boll weevils, we can’t sift them out – you just bake them. There’s a lot of protein in them,” Hawes chuckled.

Once Hawes got back to the states, he put his truck-driving skills to work doing deliveries for the Armor Meat Packing Company. He also learned the meat cutting trade at night. He then moved on to Mikes before finally landing a job at the Marquette Branch Prison for 18 years. Its from there that he finally retired.

He said volunteering for different causes was almost second nature, especially having been in the military.

“You got used to being in a group. You know, you were helping people,”Hawes said. “So a friend of mine ran the program at St. Vincent de Paul. He says ‘Charlie, you got anything to do next week?’ I said no, I’m free. He said ‘ Well how about coming out to St. Vinnies and help out out there and be a volunteer.’ I said ‘sure,’ and I have been out there over 10 years now.”

Among his civilian citations, Hawes was awarded the Marquette County Veteran of the Year in 2017. and U.P. Veteran of the Year in 2018.

He was also on the committee that brought the travelling Vietnam Wall to Marquette County in 2018.

“I was honored to be on that committee,” he said.

But his volunteer efforts haven’t stopped there. Hawes is a life member of VFW Post 6 and DAV Chapter 22. He is also a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 380, where he serves on the executive committee, and American Legion Post 44, Marquette.

Regarding his military service, Hawes said he can’t think of anything he would change. He noted it’s the right fit for people who are career oriented, or just want to serve their country.

“Vietnam went on for 15 to 16 years. It was a scary time to join,” he said. “But there’s so many opportunities in this, and there’s so many ratings you can study and you get your GI bill and you’re done, and you’ve got no debt when you leave. Generally you’ll get a diploma and you’ll learn a lot of trades along the way.”

Of his long list of accolades and tens of thousands of volunteer hours over the last decade, Hawes brushes it aside as something anyone can do.

“If you’ve got time, whether it’s for your church, for the Veterans home, St. Vincent de Paul, or volunteering to cut the grass for your neighbor. It doesn’t matter if its big or small….Just stopping over to say ‘Hello, how ya doing? Those kind of volunteers, just being a good neighbor.’

Jim Provost, chairman of the Marquette County Veterans Alliance, once told The Mining Journal that Hawes continues to go above and beyond the call of duty to help his fellow veterans.

“Charlie is a very dedicated and responsible advocate for our veterans, and he can be called upon at a moment’s notice to help with any project or fundraising activity,” Provost said. “He expresses his ideas when he feels they positively affect the lives of veterans and always puts them firs. As a family-first veteran, he gets a great deal of support from his family and often has them helping him at events. He is a gentle and positive personality and a friend to many.”