James Vielbaum grew up in Hartford, Wisconsin, raised in a tight-knit family, as one of five children. His father, Louis, was a machinist in West Allis. His mother, Dorothy, helped maintain a hospital. He enjoyed a typical childhood in Wisconsin. James enjoyed spending his free time outdoors, including frequent visits to Pike Lake to swim. His favorite things to do were to fish, hunt, ice-skate and play sports, namely football. These activities took up his time all the way through high school.
James Michael Vielbaum was born on Sept. 26, 1947. His life was short lived; he served in the Vietnam conflict, and his life was taken from him on Jan. 31, 1968, at the age of 20. This isn’t a story of the loss his family suffered, though. This is a celebration; a remembrance, of the lives he touched and the memories he helped create.
Everyone has a story, but sometimes they need someone else to tell it. This is a philosophy that runs true with every person, no matter their profession nor the details of their life. There are unique qualities in every individual worth sharing and worth hearing. Every person who has ever lived has had an impact on someone else’s life. Every person has a story worth telling. It is up to us to make sure that no one’s story goes untold. This statement becomes even more important when it comes to the lives of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Vielbaum is one of 14 Washington County, Wisconsin service members who died in Vietnam. The Germantown American Legion reached out to UWM for help in preserving those stories as part of an educational effort surrounding the Moving Wall coming to Washington County next fall.
James was every bit as close with the community as he was with his family. He was well liked in school. He loved spending time with his friends. However, being liked in the community didn’t mean James was perfect. According to his brother, Mike, James had a way of finding himself getting into trouble.
His senior year, James was elected Homecoming King. While he and his friends were building a float for the parade, they thought it would be fun to sneak into a local beer distribution center. Everything was going well, up until the owner found out. The owner went to the school, and he wanted punishments. James and his friends denied the incident; they almost got away with it. The school told a member of the group that everyone else turned him in, which wasn’t true. This led him to give out the names of everyone else hoping to avoid punishment. James’ punishment was being kicked off the football team and barred from attending Homecoming. His mom, of course, was mad that he could no longer wear the suit they had picked out.
Stories kept coming from Mike Vielbaum. He and his wife, Diane, kept recalling little details of James’ life. Another story was when James went sledding down 5th street and ended up passing through the intersection and under a car. Or when he nearly severed his toe on the spokes of his bike. James wasn’t just a soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country; he was a person loved by many, who touched the lives of even more.
As Mike, who was wearing a bright orange crew neck, and a baseball cap, talked about his brother, it was apparent how much this meant to him. Mike is currently retired. Prior to that, he worked for a furniture company specializing in oak furniture.
James was drafted into the Vietnam conflict. He, and many others in this small community, were being called to serve in a controversial conflict.
James was able to be home for his final Christmas. It was during this time home that he proposed to his girlfriend, Jenny Miller. He was now engaged to be married.
As they were talking about Jenny, Diane looked at Mike and asked if James had any other girlfriends. She said “James was a handsome boy; he ought to have had others.”
Just before leaving, Mike talked to James and told him he was looking forward to him coming home for good. James responded, “If I come back it will probably be in a box.”
Only a few, short, weeks later, James was killed in Vietnam. James Michael Vielbaum was killed via friendly fire, a horrifying detail that has a story of its own.
Mike’s grandson, Mason, discovered the true details behind the death of James in Vietnam. Mason has an appreciation for the military, so he found a book focusing on the city of Saigon. Mason found the name Vielbaum in the glossary. There it was. The family finally knew the truth.
“As soon as I saw the Army guys walking up to the door I knew what happened,” Mike said.
The loss of James was felt throughout Hartford. The family received donations of food and flowers from various members of the community. James’ place of employment started collecting funds to try to have a plaque put up in his honor. The owner of the local library, M. O. Holton, matched every dollar the community donated. There is currently a plaque at the Hartford Library in James’s honor. Additionally, there is a memorial in Hartford in remembrance to the three local soldiers who gave their lives in Vietnam.
“The worst thing is, is that he died for nothing,” said Mike.
Mike and Diane met shortly after James’s death. They are still married today. They named their first son after James. James is currently a school teacher and helps teach children with disabilities. Mike has dreams of being able to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C.
James Vielbaum is buried in Union Cemetery in Hartford. Buried here are soldiers from conflicts as far back as the Civil War. On one recent chilly day, the sounds of children playing echoed nearby, children living their normal lives. These normal lives wouldn’t be possible if not for the brave men and women who pay the ultimate price for our freedoms.