The untold story of when Ernie Banks went to Vietnam

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Any brush with a celebrity can create lifelong memories and good stories, especially when they happen in a war zone.  A combat medic from Wisconsin was drafted in 1968 and shipped off to Vietnam.  As WGN’s Steve Sanders reports, little did he know his war experience would include Mr. Cub himself.

“I’ll be honest. I was oblivious. I was you know 19 years old, I had a nice hot Chevelle and I wanted to chase girls and drink. And I really didn’t care about the war.”

Like many young men growing up in the sixties, Jerry “Doc” Schuebel from Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin knew it was a good bet he’d go to war.   He got his college acceptance and Uncle Sam letters the same week.

“You get your draft notice in the mail. It says, “The President, your friends and neighbors are inviting you to join the United States military. (laughs) I always got a kick out of that. I thanked my neighbors. I couldn’t thank the President.”

He went to Fort Campbell for basic training and Fort Sam Houston to become a combat medic. Senior officers told his graduating class that not all 288 of them were going to Vietnam; only 287.  One was underage.

“Doc” was put on a chopper to the Mekong Delta where he joined the 9th infantry and a combined army navy unit known as the brown river navy. The sweltering, thick, wet, jungle terrain was easier to navigate by boat than by land. Essentially they were bait to draw out the Viet Cong.

“They knew the area, and they could pick and choose when they wanted to attack you. You knew they were going to sooner or later, and that was the scary part.”

Combat medics dealt with everything from malaria to jungle rot to ringworm. Uncomfortable, but war wounds were worse.  (Doc-demonstrating how punji spikes work) “So when you broke the bamboo on top and your foot fell in here, the two pieces would go together into your leg.”

“I learned real quick after a month in combat that I don’t know nobody that can measure heart.”

It’s been 46 years since Jerry “Doc” Schuebel came from from Vietnam, but his memories are fresh. “Somebody asked me, Doc, when were you in Vietnam?  I said last night. Because that’s how it is.”

“Doc” also vividly remembers a day in the Delta around Christmas time that took his unit completely by surprise.

…”And a guy with a Cubs hat and his fatigues gets off and works his way down to the pontoon.  Low and behold it’s Ernie Banks. So, the Captain decides we’re gonna scrounge some steaks and beer from the Navy and we’re gonna have a steak fry. The first thing Ernie did when he hit the pontoon was take his shirt off ‘cause it was hot as blazes. He left his Cubs hat on and he hollered out he says is this anybody here from Chicago? And he looks around and he hollered out well he says, anybody here from Wisconsin? Well I waved my hands you know and I says ya I’m from Wisconsin. here was a Navy guy that came running up and he had a Polaroid camera. Ernie put his arms around me and Doc Soul. And the Navy guy took that photo.”

“I’m a Cubbies fan. (big smile) …definitely not no Brewers here!”

Doc’s son Josh had heard the Ernie Banks story for years.  Cue the eye roll.

“I never believed it. I’m a big sport collector, memorabilia, what not, and never knew it was true ‘til about 2000, 2001 this Polaroid finally came about.”

“To tell you the truth it turned out pretty darn good considering where we were at. And he took it that quick. Well as soon as he set that down to let it dry, I snatched it.”

Doc Soul on the left was killed in combat a few months after this photo was taken.

“When I see that photo it’s hard for me obviously cause I didn’t live in that generation to even begin to understand,” says son Josh. “But I put myself if I was an 18 year old kid there, here’s this mega superstar baseball hero of the time especially from Chicago and that right there is very powerful.”

Josh sent the photo to WGN after Ernie Banks died in January.

“I was sad,” says Doc.  I didn’t know Ernie, only that quick passing. But, just remembering the guy and the way he was, the way he carried himself, he was a class act.”

Though not a baseball fan himself, Doc carried that Polaroid around for years, just in case he ran into rabig Cubs fans in a bar.

“Guys would start talking about the Cubs I’d go jump in there, I’m gonna tell you what, I said I bet you a beer that Ernie Banks, your Ernie Banks was with my unit in Vietnam. Oh they’d start cussing and screaming and calling me names. I’d pull that picture out and I’d throw it on the bar & they’d look at it and cuss me out and all.  They’d say we’re gonna buy a beer only because that’s you and Ernie Banks in that picture.” (big laugh)

Steve asks Doc- “You’ve won a few beers in bars.”  “Yayayayaya  Ernie got me quite a few beers.”

Cubs fan or no, Ernie Banks gave old Doc Schuebel one helluva war story.

“It was my honor to have met the guy. In that short 15 minutes my time in the sun with a hero you know.”

Steve Sanders,  WGN News.:

Doc doesn’t use the word “hero” lightly. In fact, he says the only true heroes in Vietnam were the ones who didn’t come home. You can find and share this story- and all our tributes to Vietnam veterans  at our website, wgntv.com. Tomorrow night, Veterans’ Day, Sarah Jindra reports on Chicago’s welcome home parade that happened eleven years after the last troops came home from Vietnam.

Click here to watch our hour long documentary:  www.salutingourvietnamveterans.com

Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Mike D'Angelo contributed to this report.