Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward Connection to the Vietnam War

May 12, 2017

This week’s Bubbler Talk question comes from John Koeppen: What Milwaukee building was used as the military induction center for draftees and enlistees, during the Vietnam War?

"It’s completely different than what it was back in 1968," he says.

Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward. During the Vietnam War, the white building at right was the VA Center and the red brick building down the block was the Armed Forces Entrance and Examining Center. Both served as induction centers.
Credit Marge Pitrof

Maybe you can tell, John knows the answer- at least part of the answer. He's a Vietnam veteran. The Milwaukee building he’s talking about is in the now fashionable Third Ward - the white building across the street from the Milwaukee Public Market.

The sixth floor was where he and hundreds of young men the country drafted - many a few months after their 18th birthdays, had to report for medical exams, before the country could send them to fight in Vietnam.

John points to the door he entered off St. Paul Avenue, before climbing the stairs to the waiting room. “I was in there with 30 to 40 guys, and you kind of talked a little small talk, and then you’d start going to stations. They had an eye station, a hearing station. There was a great room, and they made everybody duck walk. You’d grab your ankles and duck walk. The doctors wanted to know if you could maintain your balance,” he says.

John and others scrubbing the barracks floor for inspection. They cleaned on their hands and knees, in their underwear, for the big inspections.
Credit Courtesy of John Koeppen

John says most of the guys bravely faced the prospect of going to Vietnam, a place they knew little about. Yet there were also a few who tried to flunk the physical.

“They would do things to raise their blood pressure. There were guys who would scratch their corneas, so that their eyes were blurry,” he says.

John says more fear – and bravery surfaced, when military recruiters walked into the room, looking for draftees who could help fill the day’s enlistment quota.

John, on the far right, with four other men from Wisconsin on graduation day from Fort Polk LA, the home of the combat infantryman training school.
Credit Courtesy of John Koeppen

“The sergeant came out and he said, I need five people to join the Marine Corps, and so three guys volunteered, and then he said, I need two more volunteers or I’m just going to take two guys. Then he took one guy, and he took another guy, and the guy started crying. So somebody else stepped forward and said, ‘I’ll go instead,’” he recalls.

An Army recruiter noted that John passed his physical. “He said to me, you’re going to get drafted in two months, so I’ll give you two years regular Army, if you leave today. I said OK. I called my mom and said, I’m not coming home. I called my dad, and my dad was quite angry with me. He said, I’ll come and get you. I said ‘dad, I might as well go.’ It was kind of like – duty, honor and country for a lot of us who were working in Milwaukee, blue-collar working class."

John left the building and boarded a plane to Kentucky for basic training.

John Koeppen in the field, or bush as they called it. This shot was taken during an operation along the Cambodian border. It was a lunch break in an area with little shade, called the plain of reeds. John sat down in the mud to eat, grab a little water and rest before they moved out.
Credit Courtesy of John Koeppen

So what takes place today on the sixth floor of the building now called The Mayer? A company called Regus occupies the space, and it agreed to let us visit, so we asked another Vietnam vet to come along and share his recollections – Bob Bach, who for a long time worked at WUWM.

The building Bob reported to when he was 17, and the neighborhood looked a lot different than it does today.
Credit Marge Pitrof

However, as we were talking toward the building, Bob announces, “This is not where I went.” Instead, he points to the red brick building down the block with the Aveda sign on it. “Which was referred to as the Induction Center or AFEES – Armed Forces Entrance and Examining Station," Bob says.

Yet, we still wanted to visit the sixth floor of The Mayer. On the way in, Bob touches the spot outside where a VA sign had hung – this building used to house the Veterans Administration, before it moved to National Avenue.

Jarrod Mikulecky of Regus and Bob Bach, former WUWM Morning Edition host tour what is now an office space rental company in The Mayer building in Milwaukee's Third Ward.
Credit Marge Pitrof

Today the place, where hundreds of young Milwaukee men lined up for physicals for the Vietnam War, is a bustling office rental company, filled with other young people. Spokesman Jarrod Mikulecky shows us the shared office spaces, the fully-furnished individual offices and break out spaces that business people can rent for as long as they need. We find the only remnant of days gone by - a small doorway that hides a closet.

Bob wonders aloud if the spirit of the young men who had to come here nearly 50 years ago is imprinted in the space.

“Is some of that energy propelling these new people forward in a positive way, so that all of those other lives kind of live on?” he asks.

When our tour ends, we begin walking to the red building down the block – where Bob took his physical exam, mental and IQ tests for induction into the Marines during the Vietnam War. Bob says the neighborhood is much different today, than when he came here in 1968.

“It wasn’t a very pretty place – it was a working space. The old warehouses, many of them were beginning to fall apart. It’s just a Renaissance,” he says.

Bob Bach during the summer of 1968.
Credit Courtesy of Bob Bach

Bob vividly remembers arriving here when he was 17, after his parents signed for him to enlist. He says he believed, at the time, joining the Marines was the patriotic thing to do, and he guesses his parents reluctantly agreed to support him.

“My dad brought me down here. There were some protesters out in front of the door. They were encouraging draftees and enlistees – as I was, to not to go in, change your mind, you still have time, back away, we’ll help you with counseling, we’ll get you in to draft deferment,” Bob says.

He remembers his dad shielding him from the demonstrators, guiding him into the building and saying good bye.

Bob presses his face against the door he entered nearly 50 years ago and sees the cement steps he climbed with the metal railings.

Bob Bach peeks into the building he entered many years ago, for induction into the Marines, during the Vietnam War.
Credit Marge Pitrof

He recalls the military had painted lines on the stairs that led the young men to the stations they needed to visit for their exams. Those who passed were ushered into a room where they raised their right hands and took an oath to protect the United States. Then they boarded buses for Mitchell airport and flew out to various military bases for basic training, before going to Vietnam.

Bob Bach and Joe Bailey standing in a clearing during an operation about 15 miles from DaNang, during the summer of 1969.
Credit Courtesy of Bob Bach

“Sometimes I wonder what happened to all of those guys. Intellectually, I know that some percentage never came home from Vietnam,” Bob says.

So the history these two buildings in Milwaukee’s Third Ward hold is that they were the places thousands of young men had to report, to be inducted, into the Vietnam War - whether they enlisted or were drafted.

Why does Bubbler Talk questioner John Koeppen want more Milwaukeeans to know the military history of this now trendy neighborhood? He says he especially wants younger people – who have never lived under a military draft – to learn the stories of those who did.

“People always want to talk about the generals or the protests, but there’s a whole generation of young men who went and served honorably, and they never have been given the credit that is due to them,” John says.

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