It was January of 1968 and 21-year-old Allan Bixler was on his last tour during the Vietnam War.

At a base camp in the Central Highlands in Vietnam, he was caught in the Tet Offensive — a coordinated campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian command and control centers.

“Our unit was attacked once a week. They did it about 11 p.m. at night,” Bixler said. “We were on 24-hour red alert and up almost five days straight.”

“It played on us mentally,” he said.

Bixler, a Darien resident who is now 74, was recently selected as grand marshal of the 2020 Darien Memorial Day Parade.

While the parade has been canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Bixler is still being recognized as grand marshal.

To qualify as grand marshal, a candidate must be recommended by the town’s Monuments & Ceremonies Commission.

“The Grand Marshal is a Darien resident, past resident or someone with Darien connections deemed worthy of the honor. They have usually done community service in Darien,” said Darien resident Karen Polett, who serves on the commission.

Polett continued: “Allan is a veteran, very active in the Boy Scouts, volunteered with Wreaths Across America, and serves on the Monuments & Ceremonies Commission. He has helped with the Memorial Day Parade and Darien town ceremonies for many years.”

Last year, Patricia Parlette was Darien’s grand marshal. Parlette died in November of 2019 at the age of 92.

Repairman

“Some of this stuff sticks with you for a long time,” said Bixler, recalling events that took place more than half a century ago.

While serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, Bixler worked as a Sixth Plant Carrier Repairman. He traveled all over Vietnam in a communications van, helping with repairs.

His unit was responsible with “keeping all the communications of the diplomats and higher ups, so they could communicate with each other,” he said.

The communication devices were modular units that had different channels on them. “We had to make sure these units were up and running,” he said.

“If any one of our sites had problems, we would get into a helicopter and fly to that location and fix them,” he said. “We rotated once a month.”

Attack

Before the Viet Cong would attack, while Bixler was in his bunker, he said he would hear a lot of noise.

“Any place where there was a helicopter base, you knew you are going to get attacked,” said Bixler, adding that the Viet Cong were mainly after the helicopters.

One night, at a base camp on the Vietnam rotation border called Laos, “the Viet Cong wiped out four top secret Cobra helicopters,” he said.

There was only one time during the Tet Offensive that he said he was concerned about losing his life.

While in the trenches, “the soldiers in there the longest were always on the defense perimeter, and the new troops were always in back of you,” he said.

“It was dark, and about three trenches back, a friendly guy in back of me got spooked and thought we were the enemy. We heard a ‘click,’” Bixler said.

“Fortunately, the guy misfired,” he said.

While Bixler said he never developed post-traumatic stress disorder, he did have reoccurring dreams — up to 20 years after serving — in which he got drafted again.

In his dream, ‘I said, ‘You can’t do that. I’m too old to do that,’” he said, adding the dreams eventually went away.

“A changed man”

In the time he served, Bixler said it was like he became a different person.

“I landed in Vietnam in March of 1967 and went home March of 1968, and in that period, “I was changed.”

Prior to serving, he was still living with his parents while working and going to school part time.

“New Jersey was the furthest we went,” he said.

While serving, “I traveled all across the world — you grew up very fast,” he said.

“When I came home, my mother said to me, ‘You are not the son that left here.’”

Outside life

Bixler grew up in Port Chester, N.Y., and moved to Darien in 1977.

An early job he had was working for Homelite Chainsaws in Byram, a business which no longer exists.

“They were the chainsaw manufacturers of the country,” he said. “I would test the chainsaws.”

After serving, through the GI Bill, he received an engineering degree from the University of Houston in Texas.

He became an engineer, working for the Southern New England Telephone Company (now Frontier Communications of Connecticut) in New Haven, designing fiber optics.

In 1987, he started a remodeling construction business in his name, where he still works today.

Community service

Bixler is an active volunteer in Darien.

He’s a member of Darien’s Monuments & Ceremonies Commission, as well as Darien’s Veterans of Foreign Wars.

He also volunteers with Wreaths Across America every September through mid-December. Wreaths Across America’s mission to remember, honor and teach is carried out by coordinating wreath-laying ceremonies at cemeteries throughout the United States, where veterans are buried.

“Each weekend, we go to different location in town to collect donations,” Bixler said.

On the second Saturday of December, “we unload the wreaths and place them on all the veterans cemetery graves in Spring Grove Cemetery,” he said.

Spring Grove is located on the corner of Post Road and Hecker Avenue, across from Darien Police Station. In 2019, wreaths were placed on 1,400 of more than 2,000 graves in Spring Grove.

“Darien has one of three veterans cemeteries in Connecticut,” Bixler said. “Spring Grove is the oldest. Civil War veterans are buried there, and those from even prior wars.”

Previously, Bixler was an adult supervisor in the junior and senior high school youth groups at the United Methodist Church in Darien. He planned events and activities, such as dance marathons to raise money for charitable organizations.

Additionally, he served on Darien’s RTM and on its Parks & Recreation Commission, and was also chairman on the commission at one point.

He’s a former assistant scoutmaster for Darien’s Troop 53 of the Boy Scouts of America.

He was involved with the Boy Scouts’ annual tag sale for almost 25 years, collecting items every spring from homeowners who donated to the tag sale.

In the town’s youth sports, he coached Little League baseball and football when he son Cory played.

He and his wife, Sharon, now also have a 2-year-old granddaughter, Skyler.

Coronavirus pandemic

Bixler said in many ways, the current pandemic is scarier than what he experienced during the war.

“When you’re young, you feel you’re invincible. This was an adventure to us,” he said. “This virus scares the heck out of me.”

He has two cousins and a friend who had the virus.

“One was hospitalized,” he said. “I didn’t think he was going to make it.

“We feel this is what our parents went through during the Great Depression,” he said, referring to others in his age group. “Hopefully, modern medicine will come up with a vaccine.”

sfox@darientimes.com