East St. Louis -- It was a celebration fit for kings and one long overdue the four Purple Heart recipients who were recognized at American Legion Post 2505 said.
They fought and were wounded in the Vietnam War, and when they returned home they said other Americans met them at the airport with boos, spit on them and called them baby killers among other names.
And, for the first time since they fought they were recognized by some fellow veterans, city and state leaders, with their family and friends in attendance, which made them feel awfully good, they said.
Bennie L. Radford, his younger brother Joe Radford Jr., Percy L. McGee and Roy L. McCain Sr. were all treated like heroes. The banquet room at American Legion Post 2505 at 5020 State St. was brightly decorated with purple and white balloons at every table. There was a purple and white balloon draped arch at the head table.
And the crowd that gathered there let the purple heart recipients know they loved them. There were several loud, long strong rounds of applause with cheers and claps mixed together.
Cameras were flashing. There were hugs, handshakes, thank yous and congratulations showered on each veteran there, but especially on the Purple Heart recipients.
"This celebration is something that lets us know we are appreciated," Bennie Radford said.
Joe Radford said no one has paid any attention to them and their service since they came home because people felt they should not have fought the Vietnam War.
"It's a great feeling to know that people do care that we went to the military and did our job and lived to come to talk about it. This is great," he said.
Food and refreshments were prepared by Linda and Bill Mixon, from Mixon Insurance Agency in East St. Louis.
The Radford brothers and McGee's pictures were on display in frames on a table next to where they sat at the head table.
The men all donned their purple heart medals on their jacket pockets. Many people got close to them so they could get a very personal glance at them.
Bennie Radford got three Purple Hearts for the wounds he suffered on three different occasions while fighting in the U.S. Army. He was just 19 years old when he signed up for military duty. He said he had four children and "I wanted to have a way to provide for them. And, it was something I always wanted to do -- fight for my country" Radford said.
The first time he got shot he was 21 years old and was fighting in the Vietnam War. He said he didn't really know why he was fighting the Viet Cong. And he didn't think any of the others who were young like him knew why they were fighting.
But it was clear that it was on the orders of his country. So for the pride that red white and blue flag stood for and to protect the freedom of all Americans, Radford said he did what he had to do.
The pain was so excruciating that Radford said he thought he was going to die.
"You're in pain, but you've still gotta fight. You see people dying all around you and you're praying that you can make it back home alive," Radford said.
He said it was hard to get to know his fellow comrades because replacements were coming in all of the time to take the place of the soldiers who had been killed.
He said he and his brother are the only two children his parents had, but that didn't stop his brother from joining the Marines to fight for his country. From 1966 to 1970, Joe Radford Jr. was in the U.S. Marines. In January 1967, he went to Vietnam, where he said "it was a big mess." It wad a land of rice patties, weeds, insects and enemies. It looked like a jungle. In March 1968, Joe Radford said his platoon was ambushed by the Vietcong.
"We started with 150 men and came back with 39. I was one of the 39," Joe Radford said. He and his brother, who after getting shot a third time, ended up in a hospital, in different locations, at the same time.
The 64-year-old Joe Radford said he has a lot of pride for what he, his brother and other veterans liked them did to protect the rights and freedoms that Americans now enjoy.
"He told me if I got shot a second time, he was coming in and he did," Bennie Radford said.
Joe said, while smiling, "I didn't want to him to get hurt."
Like his brother, he saw many men die from the wounds they received while fighting in the war. "It's hard seeing fellow comrades fall and you can't help them," he said.
Radford recalled that it was Gen. William Westmoreland who gave him his purple heart while he was in the hospital in Great Lakes, Ill.
Joe Radford was shot in the knee. Bennie Radford sustained bullet wounds to his chin, right leg, and side.
The brothers haven't really talked about their ordeals while in military service, since they've been home, Joe Radford said, "because it is too painful."
"It's just something we don't talk about," he said.
McGee was in the U.S. Army from 1964 to 1968. He was a demolition specialist. In May 1968, he was blown up with an anti- tank mine in Vietnam. He was awarded the Purple Heart on May 11, 1968. Veterans Day means a lot to him because he comes from a family of military people from his father and uncle who served in World War II, to his son who fought in Kuwait in 1991, to his cousins who fought in the Vietnam War.
He described the war as being "like a nightmare."
"I was 17 years old and had never been overseas. And, there I was in a jungle. It was 130 degrees in the shade. There were wild monkeys and wild tigers, and snakes everywhere. I had to deal with the tensions of the war, the wild animals and for the first time ever -- racial tension. Some members of the Ku Klux Klan were in my group. I was in during the time of the civil rights demonstrations. To get back home, I had to stay strong and keep my focus on just that -- getting back home," McGee said.
He joined the army "to get away, get a good job, and I got caught up in a war. I joined at a bad time," he said.
McGee and the Radford brothers along with McCain were very thankful to everyone who came out to American Legion Post 2505 on Sunday afternoon and participated in the celebration for their years of service to this country.
Individually, the men told a reporter that they thank all of the veterans everywhere for their sacrifices to make this country great.
Mia Radford, one of Bennie Radford's 16, children was not born when her father was in the military, but she has heard the stories and has seen many pictures.
She said she is very proud of her dad and uncle Joe Radford.
"He brought the sterness that he learned in the military home. We all knew that daddy didn't play," she said.
"My dad fought very hard for the freedoms that I and every American enjoys. Words can't put into context how I feel about what he and my uncle did and the other veterans, too," Mia Radford said.
McCain, who was filled with emotion, said he got his Purple Heart after he was wounded in Vietnam, too.
Veterans Day, he said, "means a lot to me -- especially today."
"I was asked to come here and I did. It has been 46 years since I was wounded and 45 years since I have been back from Vietnam. I was in Operation Shelbyville Nov. 6, 1967. I was in a major fire fight. The enemy was in the trees. I got hit on my right side and down through my buttocks. And, just to finally get some recognition for my service to this country feels good," McCain said.
State Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson was one of those in the crowd who thanked the men.
"I am proud to be here with them," Jackson said.
Former East St. Louis Mayor Gordon Bush and two of his brothers, Pearson and Barlow Bush, all served in the military -- Gordon and Pearson in the U.S. Army and Barlow in the U.S. Marines.
Gordon Bush said Veterans Day is a secial time for all of us to pause and say thanks to the military family that has fought and in some cases died or are still missing in action or prisoners of war.
"We have to thank those who went to war and those who were ready to go to war if they were called, too," he said.
Speaking about the Purple Heart recipients, he said "They shed their blood for these United States of America."