McDowell said he wasn’t “keen on the Navy or submarines” and he didn't want to be a pilot. He knew his father had served in the Army in World War II, where after serving six or seven months, he was given an honorable discharge due to severe asthma.
As Vietnam was escalating, troops were being rushed through training. Like grasshoppers, right away soldiers were sent to a series of bases readying them to be shipped out. McDowell hit Fort Jackson in South Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas.
“(We) stayed in the same barracks as Elvis Presley. He wasn't as famous as today,” McDowell said. “Most of us knew we were going to Vietnam and were sent to jungle school in Panama. The weather and other conditions were similar to ‘Nam.”
At Fort Benning in Georgia and then back to Fort Lewis, he underwent basic training, which covered weapons, jump school, jungle training and the Vietnamese language. There was more training in jungle warfare.
“Not so much IEDs, like Iraq, but punji sticks, sharp-pointed bamboo, often smeared with feces," said McDowell, who stressed they would be hidden in the ground.
Late in 1966, he was shipped to Vietnam, one of about a million-and-a-half Army soliders.
“By early 1967, after being in-country (for) two months, I was serving as sergeant E-5, (a) squad leader of 10 guys,” McDowell said.
Honored for heroism
McDowell was awarded the Bronze Star medal with a “V-device” for his “heroism in connection with military operations against a hostile force” March 17, 1967. He was a squad leader with Company C, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, in the Army.
The squad’s mission was to search and clear an area in the Kontum Province in Vietnam. The documentation associated with the medal outlines McDowell’s heroics.
“When the first platoon was initially engaged by the enemy, Sgt. McDowell and his squad were in the rear. He immediately volunteered to move his squad forward to aid in the evacuation of wounded personnel. Despite heavy enemy fire, Sgt. McDowell assisted in their evacuation and then maneuvered his own men to an area where another element of the company was engaged.
“Disregarding the danger to himself, Sgt. McDowell directed his squad in providing covering fire while more wounded men were evacuated. Following this action, he once again led his men forward to conduct a sweep of enemy positions. His courage and peerless leadership throughout the entire encounter were inspirational to the entire company and substantially contributed to the defense of the company area. Sgt. McDowell's outstanding display of aggressiveness, devotion to duty and personal bravery is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.”
The “V” stands for valor for heroism in ground combat.
“That is the only time anyone can receive it. It is one step above the regular Bronze Star for meritorious service,” McDowell said.
Two months later, a helicopter came to the platoon in Idrang Valley, offering his unit special long-range recon because of their special training. The movie “We Were Soldiers” starring Mel Gibson was where McDowell had been.
“It’s a very realistic movie for real soldiers who saw combat. I had to watch it three times before I could watch the end,” McDowell said.
Calling in air strikes
Special forces were at An Khe Vietnam, where McDowell said "they hooked up the five of us with Montagnard, very primitive Vietnamese soldiers.” An Khe is the home of the First Cavalry Division.
After a few days together, “25 Montagnard and five of us went out after dark,” he said.
“Our job was to walk at night to find enemy positions. We jumped out of helicopters at 2 a.m. or just before sunrise. We ascertained the Viet Cong troops are there and we called in air strikes.
“Quite a few times we got in (some crap); we were pinned down several times. We had to call in Puff the Magic Dragon, a fixed-wing plane. They claim in 15 seconds their machine guns could put a round in every square foot of a football field. Needless to say, the Viet Cong didn’t like that very much. Occasionally we had to call in white phosphorus grenades to eliminate the enemy,” McDowell said.
“When I left to come home, I had not quite 72 hours left and was still in the field. Helicopters came out, told us to get on and we were to go home. It was the best thing I heard in all 14 or 15 months while there. We flew to Pleiku, division headquarters for fourth division and from there to Manilla and to Travis Air Force Base, Calif. near San Francisco. It was just daylight; the lights were on Golden Gate Bridge, the pilot banked so we could see them, all 107 of us on the plane. They went crazy when they knew they were coming home,” he added.
‘Going home,’ local cop
When asked to re-enlist, McDowell was offered the rank of sergeant E-6 and $12,000 in cash.
“No. I’m going home to Sandusky to see my relatives. I felt if I did more tours in ‘Nam, I wouldn't be coming home alive,” said McDowell, who left the Army on Dec. 12, 1967 and “only 14 days without a job.”
“I didn't know what I was gonna do,” added McDowell, who was offered a job by the late Perkins Township police chief, Tom Amicarelli.
McDowell left Perkins after three years for the Erie County Sheriff’s Office. In 1980, he was hired as the investigator for the Huron County Prosecutor’s Office.
“When I retired, I was in full-time civilian law enforcement 49 years; I don't regret a day of that decision. You try to help people and do good things and when it's time to leave you can say you made a lot of difference in people's lives and that's a good thing," McDowell said.