There was a saying about going for your one-year tour of duty to Vietnam: "Gain a day, lose a lifetime." Our year began and ended with United States "time" and since Vietnam was across the International Date Line, our year was one day less - however, 56,869 servicemen "lost a lifetime." This paper is about my personal experiences as a combat infantryman in Vietnam from May 1969 to April 1970.
This paper does not pretend to be history. The Vietnam War itself is history: much has been written about the politics, the leaders, the strategy, and the influences of this conflict - but, my experiences will not make any history book. I will always remember however, that I was a part of that history.
This is not an account of great personal sacrifice nor heroism: many soldiers experienced much more, sacrificed much more, and were far braver than I. It is also not meant to be an account of what every infantryman in Vietnam experienced. Vietnam was never the same place for the 2,600,000 men sent.
This paper is divided into monthly sections. There has been an attempt to summarize the important world news events at the beginning of each monthly section. These were sorted and summarized from the periodical, "Facts on File."
The source of my personal experiences was a diary I kept during the year. I have attempted to convey these experiences and feelings as accurately as possible. Therefore, the grammar and sentence structure will not always be of the quality expected in a formal paper. Several unreferenced quotations in the body of this paper were taken directly from the diary.
Another aspect of this research was to find and compare the experiences and feeling of other infantrymen who also served in Vietnam. All of these would differ to a degree: there were peaks and valleys of emotions, there were mental and physical extremes, and degrees of safety and danger. But all of us had been changed. "How different we were from everyone who had not shared with us the miseries of the monsoon, the exhausting patrols, the fear of the combat assault on a hot landing zone" Caputo xiv). Some things were the same.
For the reader's reference a section of the map of our area of operation has been included at the end of this research paper.
President Nixon offered Vietnam peace plan providing for mutual withdrawal of U.S. and Hanoi's troops. Supreme Court Justice resigned. James Forman demanded $500 million from churches and synagogues as "reparations" for American Negroes. British hope of joining Common Market revived by deGaulle resignation. Apollo 10 astronauts flew lunar landing craft to within nine miles of the moon. Allied forces captured Apbia Peak (Hamburger Hill) in heavy fighting. Sirhan sentenced to death for murder of Robert Kennedy.
We were going to war in style! On May 9th, we left McCord Air Force Base at midnight on a Seaboard World's DC-8. I couldn't help but think about how many will be back next year; naturally, I was hoping to be one of them. There was so much to live for. The men were rowdy before we loaded on the buses to go to the airport - then it got quiet. Perhaps the impact of what was happening to us was finally hitting home. Those hopes in Basic of being assigned to any MOS but infantry - the dream of being stationed anywhere but Vietnam - these were now gone. "The certainty of being in a war, pending doom that comes in each day's light and stays with him all the day long. The soldier in advanced infantry training is doomed, and he knows it and thinks about it. War, a real war" (O’Brian 49). It was finally happening. I remembered thinking of one of our "marching songs" from basic and AIT, "Oh trainee, going to Vietnam, Oh trainee, going there today.” We had a stopover in Guam to refuel and then we were flown on to Cam Rahn Bay.
When the plane begins its decent, there are pale gray mountains. The plane slides down, and the mountains darken and take on a sinister cragginess. You see the outlines of crevices, and you consider whether, of all the places opening up below, you might finally walk to that spot and die. Two hundred men draw their breath. No one looks at the others. You feel dread. But it is senseless to let it go too far, so you joke: there are only 365 days to go (O’Brian 66).
After receiving our orders, another plane took us to Chu Lai, a large base to the south of Danang, headquarters for the Americal Division. We spent a week there at the Combat Center. It was a resort-like place, tucked in alongside the South China Sea. It was hot and sandy - it could have been pretty but it wasn't. There were too many unnatural things: the junk piles, the bunkers, and the billets, which closely resembled a grubby labor camp. The heat was impressive and oppressive - you could sit in the shade and not sweat but just a little effort would send it pouring. "There beside the sea you got your now-or-never training" (O’Brian 66). We had classes in civil affairs, safety, survival, VC mines and booby traps, first aid, weapons, patrolling, ambushes, counter ambushes, FAC (Forward Air Control) and artillery, map reading, and finally, tactics. Ho Chi Minh had a birthday while we were at the Combat Center; at 2:40 in the morning, the VC celebrated by hitting some part of the base with either a rocket or mortar attack.
At night you could sit on the beach and watch fire fights where the war was being fought. There was a place to buy beer and to talk with friends you had known from basic and AIT. You would wonder what the next year would be like, you would wonder how you would act in situations you knew you would soon be facing, and you would wonder what it was like to die. "You wish it were all over. You begin the countdown" (O’Brian 67). Carefully you would mark off the days on your pocket calendar in the back of your diary.
After a week at the Combat Center, I was flown to Duc Pho. I had been assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Brigade. The base at Duc Pho was known as "LZ Bronco." We turned in our records and some clothes to the company and, after supper, we were issued some gear. I got an M-16 rifle, and ammunition, a helmet, poncho, poncho liner, and a backpack. It seemed like things got worse as you went along in the Army and in Vietnam. There was much more going on here than in any place we had been before. On May 22, I was sent to the field to join the company for the first time; I had been assigned to the second platoon. The next few days were uneventful; I just learned how to act.
Arriving in Vietnam as a foot soldier is akin to arriving at boot camp as a recruit. Things are new; you are not sure how to conduct yourself - whether to show fear, to live secretly with it, to show resignation or disgust (O’Brian 67).
At the end of the month, the company was flown by Chinooks to Chu Lai for stand-down. This was a part of Chu Lai I had not seen before: a big PX, USO, cold beer and soda, and floorshows. Actually, I had not been in the field long enough fully to appreciate it but I was still grateful. After returning from stand-down, we were back in the field. We got the 30th off since there was a cease-fire for Buddha's birthday. I still had not seen any action and I was beginning to wonder if something was wrong with me. Some of the guys had talked about being scared and I had not been that scared yet.
May 31st changed both accounts. That morning our company found the enemy; some of us were pinned down for six to six and one half-hours. First, you were scared of the enemy's fire, then the helicopter gunships and the jets overhead, then the sun, and finally you even worried that the company coming to help you might mistake you for the enemy before they realized it. We had eight killed that day - one was a guy that had come into the company the same day I had - and twenty-four wounded. We were credited with twenty-nine "confirmed kills" and "Rumor Control" said an estimate of eighty plus. It was still so frustrating to see guys getting killed for this place. "It didn't matter that you were young and had plans, that you were loved. You came to love your life, to love and respect the mere fact of it. Being 'good' meant staying alive, and sometimes that was only a matter of caring enough at any given moment" (Herr 135). It rained hard that night but it seemed to help. It turned your misery from your mind to your body.
Warren E. Burger named new chief justice. President Nixon announced 25,000 troops to be withdrawn from Vietnam. Pompidou elected French president. Apbia Peak reoccupied by Reds. Middle East clashes intensify. Communist forces besieged U.S. base at Benhet. Prince Charles invested as Prince of Wales.
On June 3rd, we were pinned down again. This time, however, we were going to help the company that had helped us on the 31st. We had just gotten in to Bronco when we were told the APC's (Armored Personnel Carriers) would be coming to get us soon so that we could go help Delta Company. The tactics of the North Vietnamese had changed since the Tet Offensive; now it was to get one unit in trouble and then wait until we sent help and then ambush that help. We cooperated that day by riding into a large U-shaped ambush. It was not as bad as the 31st; only six were wounded but more than twenty were dusted off for heat exhaustion. I almost passed out from the heat - I had stopped sweating - and I remember having some weird, scary thoughts as the napalm from the jets went off just over a hundred yards away. We went back to Bronco for the night and I slept real well. I did wake up once and the place was really stinking. I thought, "You are still in Vietnam" and I went back to sleep.
During the first half of the month, I got a good work out "walking point" (being the first man leading a flank) both day and night. Walking at night was bad even if you did not have to walk point.
One of the most persistent and appalling thoughts which lumbers through your mind as you walk through Vietnam at night is the fear of getting lost, of becoming detached from the others, of spending the night alone in that frightening and haunted countryside. The man to the front and the man to the rear were the only holds on security and sanity. We followed the man in front like a blind man after his dog, like Dante following Virgil through the Inferno, and we prayed that the man had not lost his way, that he hadn't lost contact with the man to his front. We tensed the muscles around our eyeballs and peered straight ahead. We hurt ourselves staring at the man's back. We strained. We dared not look away for fear the man might fade and dissipate and turn into absent shadow. Sometimes, when the jungle closed in, we reached out to him, touched his shirt. (O’Brian 83)
On June 13th, we went to LZ Liz - three big hills with arty (artillery), higher-higher (our colonel), bunkers, showers, cots, and three hot meals a day. I changed to the weapons squad the day before - there were four of us then in the squad: two machine gunners and two assistants. Liz was good for a change; we were now used to being shot at or mortared once or twice a day but it was relatively quiet here except for our 155's. One health problem began this month, I had already had two boils and I had barely been in the country a month. The one on my knee was about well but the one on my left elbow was still swollen.
After we left Liz, we went to an area we had named the Gaza Strip, an area between the river and the sea. Things were now back in routine.
The heat was what woke us up, cooking through the poncho liners. Then flies. Everyone stirred slowly, lay on their backs for long minutes, talked in little groups. At that hour no one really kept guard. A look out into the brush now and then, that was all. A cursory feign, it was like waking up in a cancer ward, no one ambitious to get on with the day, no one with obligations, or dreams for the daylight. (O’Brian 9)
The company moved out to a day position, platoons going out on patrols, the company moving out to a NDP (night defensive position), and squads going out on ambushes or snakes at night. I also went on my first two CA's (combat assault by helicopter) this month.
I had learned most of the slang by now: a "lifer" was the career noncommissioned officers and officers. The NCO's who go through a crash two-month program to earn their stripes are called "instant NCO's." FNG meant "f___ new guy" and a REMF was a "Rear Echelon Mother F_____;" a hand grenade was really a "frag;" infantrymen were "grunts" who operated in the "boonies" short for boondocks; no one used the words "die" or "death." A man was hit, not wounded. If he was killed, they said he was "wasted," "blown away," "greased," or "lit up." The enemy was "Charley, Charles, or Chuck" from the words in the military phonetic alphabet for VC - Victor Charley. Anybody on our side was "friendly." After six months in Vietnam, you were "over the hump" and everything else was "downhill." When men were approaching their DEROS (date eligible to return from overseas) they were "getting short." When that date came, they departed by air on a "Freedom Bird" for the "world" or the United States. The favorite expression for anything that went wrong came from the Get Smart television show: "Sorry about that." The Vietnamese peasant lived in a "hooch." "Beaucoup," reflecting earlier French influence, was as much a part of the vocabulary as it was in WWII, and a hamlet or a village was a "ville" (Emerson 64, Westmoreland 304, & O’Brian 76).
Lull in Vietnam fighting reported as first U. S. troops withdrew. U. N. Security Council censured Israeli actions changing East Jerusalem status. Clashes intensified at Suez Canal. Biafra relief efforts blocked. Senator Edward Kennedy involved in mishap that took the life of a girl passenger in car he was driving. First men land on moon. North Vietnam charged invasion of Laos by U. S. troops. Spain's General Franco designated Prince Juan Carlos as his heir. New evidence linked cigarette smoking to heart, lung diseases; broadcasters planned smoking ad ban.
"Line number 500 come in for a job interview." That was me but I could not believe it. Of course, that did not mean that I had a job. I rode back in on the resupply chopper: I could almost feel the resentment some of the guys must have had for someone who had just gotten here and may already be getting out of the field. I reported to "Top", our first sergeant and he sent me on over to S-1. The interview lasted about 15 minutes: I am sure someone who had not shaved or taken a good shower in two weeks made a good impression. One observation: "You think you've got a real good tan over here until you finally get a bath."
The next day it was back to the field, back to patrols and the sniper fire on the beach. I found that there were many things to be afraid of. The moment you understood this, really understood it, you lost your anxiety instantly.
I had started carrying the "pig" - the M-60 machine gun - early in the month and that extra weight sure did make things difficult at times. We were CA'd again - fortunately it was a "cold LZ."
On July 12, three of us were building a hooch (temporary shelter using our ponchos) and I almost passed out. My elbow had swollen up a lot since yesterday and, when I showed Doc, our medic, he sent me on to the rear on the resupply chopper. At Bronco, "Top" took me on down to the aid station; they cut on my elbow and also took my temperature. Since my temperature was 104 degrees, they suspected malaria and sent me to the hospital at 6th Support. The results were negative on the malaria; they did tell me that I had cellulitis.
While en route to the 6th CC (Convalescent Center) in Cam Ranh Bay, I stayed at the hospital in Chu Lai for a couple of days. One thing felt real odd there for a while until I finally placed it: I was eating with metal silverware for the first time in a long time. It was also the first time since Vietnam that I had been in an air conditioned room and the first time since leaving the states at Fort Lewis that I had used a deodorant! Cam Rahn Bay was almost heaven; our Quonset hut was air conditioned, there was a PX, library, club, gift/junk shop, movie and a beach - plus, flush toilets! On July 29th, I was changed to Class II - Class I was "healing" - Class II "healed but needed to get into shape."
It was here that I learned just how different things could be for someone in Vietnam. This area was definitely "nice duty:" It had almost everything you would find on an Army post stateside. I also spent a lot of time talking to others; I found out our almost daily sniper fire was not the usual experience for most grunts but that others had fought in more "hard" battles than we had. I learned how naive some people were as to what others were going through in Vietnam. One man stated that the people in Cam Ranh Bay sure had it nice. Naturally, I agreed with him; he went on to tell how few of these really nice things they had in Chu Lai. That is when we stopped communicating: To our company, Chu Lai was a vacationland. I was happy to be out of the field but I also learned how desperate some of the men were to get out of the field. One admitted to me that he had shot himself in the foot. "Some drank bad water hoping to get a fever of unknown origin, others would not take their malaria pills" (Emerson 65).
The hardest thing I personally had to accept at Cam Ranh was the "freedom birds." Just watching those things leave and thinking how happy those people inside were and how happy you were going to be when your turn finally came could almost make you cry. Wanting to be out of a place so badly and being so close to where it was actually happening sure was frustrating.
President Nixon concluded nine-day tour of eight foreign countries. Worst religious rioting in thirty years broke out in Northern Ireland; Britain dispatched troops to quell violence. New Sino-Soviet border battle. Bobby Seale, chairman of Black Panther Party, was arrested on murder charge. Combat lull ended in Vietnam. World wheat crisis developed. U.S. jet hijacked to Syria.
On August 1st, I was allowed to drop my Class II status and go on guard duty at the main gate. Unfortunately or fortunately, this lasted only six days. At one o'clock in the morning on August 7th, I was at the replacement station ready to fly back to Chu Lai when explosions sounded like they were going off between the 6th CC and us. News reports later told of a VC squad who had managed to slip past trip flares and guard posts on the northern perimeter and had made their way to the army hospital. "After hurling satchel charges at ward doors and windows, the guerrillas fired automatic rifles into the long, low buildings. Dashing through the darkness, the Viet Cong also blew up a chapel and a water tower" (Time 31). Two Americans were killed and 98 were wounded, some gravely.
That attack was totally unexpected. Things like that did not happen in safe areas. But it again demonstrated that "you could be in the most protected space in Vietnam and still know that your safety was provisional, that early death, blindness, loss of legs, arms or balls, major and lasting disfigurement - the whole rotten deal - could come in on the freaky fluky as easily as in the so called expected ways" (Herr 14).
On August 10th, I was back in the field with the company; we were on the Gaza strip again. They told me they had been shot at three times that day already. One hour later the resupply chopper landed and we were shot at again. A good friend was hit in the stomach by sniper fire; when we set up our NDP, we heard that he had died.
Charles really wrote the book on fire control, putting one round into the heart of things where fifty of ours might go and still not hit anything. Sometimes we put out so much fire you couldn't tell whether any of it was coming back or not (Herr 62).
We were sniped at again each of the next three days. On the 13th, two more friends in our platoon were hit, again during resupply. Both were on their way back to the world; one dead and the other with broken ribs and a punctured lung. By then, the war business was sickening. Really, our platoon had been fortunate up to that time considering all the times we had been shot at but things just seemed so senseless. One minute your friends were alive and well - the next few minutes a chopper is taking them to a hospital, maybe. "Like many inexperienced soldiers, I suffered from the illusion that there were good ways to die in war. I thought grandly in terms of noble sacrifices, of soldiers offering up their bodies for a cause to save a comrade's life"(Caputo 161). But there had been nothing sacrificial or ceremonial about Earp's or Norman's death.
We had learned about death by now. But we learned about death at an age when it is common to think of oneself as immortal.
Everyone loses that illusion eventually, but in civilian life it is lost in installments over the years. We lost it all at once. The knowledge of death, of the implacable limits placed on a man's existence, severed us from our youth as irrevocably as a surgeon's scissors had once severed us from the womb. And yet, few of us were past twenty-five (Caputo xiii).
That night, our company moved out with third platoon leading, for, at the time, an unknown reason. We walked until 1:30 in the morning and then we set up around a VC ville. At daylight, we shot at anyone who ran. Later we went over to search the ville and, before we left, the place was burning.
The thing I didn't like was seeing the women and children hurt or killed. Of course, they may be VC but you'll never know. The whole damn thing made me feel sick most of the day. I'm just praying to go home alive and sound just as soon as possible! I hate this place, this war.
"A man saw the heights and depths of human behavior in Vietnam" Caputo 4). The South Vietnamese with us that day told us we would not be shot at for a while since we had hit their ville; he was right. The next day we were CA'd across the Red Ball (Highway 1) between Bronco and Liz and we swept the area towards the "strip." At one ville some of the guys started kicking around a VC suspect we had captured. I had sympathy for what was happening to him but I am not sure I had sympathy for him. "Now I didn't care. I became passive; I wouldn't beat them up but I wouldn't try to stop it. There'd be days when I'd just be sick of it"(Hersh 37). I just hoped our guys were that “brave” when it mattered.
On the 21st, we went to Liz to pull guard again. It was nice to get out of the field, get a shower and clean clothes, and just lay around most of the time and rest. I did take over the machine gun while we were here; the company commander let Pete, the gunner, take a job as a cook. I also had one very pleasant experience; the only MARS call I got to make to my wife was here and it was also on her birthday.
After our week on Liz was over, we moved west to the area called the 515 valley. We were apprehensive about it; this was the first time most of us had ever been there and all we had to go on were rumors. For the most part it was quiet. Third platoon did spot some VC and wounded one and captured his pack. The "Red Baron" (third platoon leader, a butterbar lieutenant) was real thrilled about all of this - he was new in the country. That night third had a snake and they hit a booby-trap just a little while after they left. They had gone back to the same place they had been to twice before. The "Red Baron" was really shook up on the horn; I guess he found out that this war works both ways.
The ground was always in play, always being swept. Under the ground was his, above it was ours. We could run but we couldn't hide, and he could do each so well that sometimes it looked like he was doing them both at once, while our finder just went limp. All the same, one place or another was always going on, rock around the clock, we had the days and he had the nights. (Herr 14)
North Vietnam leader Ho Chi Minh died; Thang succeeds Ho. Fiercest air clashes since 1967 War followed Israeli raid on Egypt. Senator Dirksen dead at 73. President Nixon announced new troop pullout; reduced draft call by 50,000 men. Controversy erupted in Senate over U. S. involvement in Laos, Thailand. Major drive along Mexican border to halt illegal drug traffic. Car prices raised (average GM cost - $3,360).
For the first two weeks we stayed behind Liz, either in the 515 valley or, for a short time, in the hills. We came into contact with a few VC; we would accidentally spot them, fire a few rounds, and they would be gone. A few people were injured by booby traps; four were lucky, the point man tripped a booby trap but, fortunately, they heard ticking and ran. It was thought to have been a 155 round. There was one good "Search and Destroy" mission. The area had been declared off-limits to any Vietnamese but someone had just decided now was the time to get people to leave. Our company, plus the SVN, who were always there whenever we had one of these missions, did as the title of our mission stated, searched and destroyed every village we entered. At the end of the day, you could see smoke all around the valley where we had been. At least this was not like the last ville, as far as I know, no one was injured or killed. If you were Vietnamese and did not mind someone burning down your hooch, it would not have been too bad of a day.
On the 15th, our company was going to act as a decoy for a LURP team (a long-range patrol). Supposedly we were going for a scenic walk to the top of one of the mountains and then were coming back down the next day. Of course, the LURP team would stay behind. Before we got to the top however, things changed. First, we found a sick VC; then later the men heard voices and ambushed two others, killing one for sure. Some of the other men in our platoon were sent to the top to secure it and they spotted three or four more VC. Our platoon's RTO (radioman) was hit twice in the leg and the "Red Baron" and one of his men were hit also. Rogers, the RTO, went into shock and died. Everyone could not get to the top to set up a defensive perimeter so we just scattered out and slept along the trail that night. I sure was scared, it was so thick there.
It was the inability to see that vexed us most. In that lies the jungle's power to cause fear: it blinds. It arouses the same instinct that makes us apprehensive of places like attics and dark alleys. Men with active imaginations were most prey to these fears. A man needs many things in war, but a strong imagination is not one of them. In Vietnam, the best soldiers were usually unimaginative men who did not feel afraid until there was obvious reason. But the rest of us suffered from a constant expectance, feeling that something was about to happen, waiting for it to happen, wishing it would happen just so the tension would be relieved (O’Brian 83).
The rest of our platoon and third platoon came back from the top the next morning. Then we started back up with first platoon leading. They did not get too far before the enemy opened up on them: three men were killed and three wounded - almost every one of them was a head wound. We secured a LZ and got out the wounded; then, with chainsaws, the LZ was expanded so that we could take resupply and load the dead. A little while after this, we were mortared but it seemed as if they were bracketing us - the rounds were falling either too long or too short - just getting their calculations fixed for the night. Our NDP was the trail again.
"Sometimes there was the awful feeling in the air that people would die at their foxholes or in their sleep. No one doubted that we would be hit. We simply waited" (O’Brian 8).
I was so tired that night I nestled between some rocks and went to sleep while "Spooky" was working out.
"Spooky" was a C-47 standard prop flareship, but many of them carried .20- and .762-mm. guns on their doors, Mike-Mikes that could fire out 300 rounds per second, Gatlin style, 'a round in every square inch of a football field in less than a minute,' as the handouts said. Spooky. Every fifth round was a tracer, and when Spooky was working, everything stopped while that solid stream of violent red poured down out of the black sky (Herr 132).
We were supposed to go to the top of the hill again today too but we were a good bit late getting started since practically the whole company refused to go. Our company commander and higher-higher decided we could make a new trail and then we said we would go. The CO even walked point and helped cut the trail. Alpha Company was already at the top when we got there; they had been CA'd. The place was really set up; there were enough bunkers for both companies to use. Our platoon got the worst end of the perimeter that night - it was away from everyone and so thick and dark that you honestly could not see your hand in front of your face even if it were only a foot away. The darkness was frightening but the forest was protection. Someone would have to have been good, and extremely lucky, to find and slip up on you.
We had good news the next day! We were going down the mountain. Our platoon led, cutting the trail. It took us about seven hours to get to the bottom and then we had another three or four thousand meter walk to get to Liz. The Army was broke that day; at first we were going to go to Liz via helicopters - that did not work out. Next, they were going to send us some C-rations, most everything had been eaten the night before - that did not work either. My breakfast and lunch was a small round tin of peanut butter and grape jam.
We were glad to get out of the field, especially glad to be out of the mountains. Liz was changing, however. The lifers had decided we had to have haircuts, steel pots, and a weapon at all times. We were sending snakes and patrol out and, perhaps worse of all, the sergeant major was teaching tactics. We were CA'd to the strip after our week on Liz was over. Things had slowed down some - we were not getting sniped at now as much as we had been before.
U. S. casualty figures in Vietnam lowest since August, 1967. U. S. announced it would withdraw troops from Laos. Radical SDS rampage in Chicago. Hundreds of thousands participated in Vietnam Moratorium Day. Mets win World Series. President Nixon called on U. S. public to help inflation fight. The sweetener, cyclamate, recalled from market. Willy Brandt elected chancellor of West Germany.
On the fifth, it was our turn again for the stand-down at Chu Lai. The monsoon season is definitely here, but, for once, it worked for us instead of against us. We got to stay five days at stand-down instead of three because the choppers could not fly in the low ceiling. When we returned to Duc Pho, we were sent on to Liz. There were to be two companies on the hill this time instead of just one. Our primary purpose was to get new bunkers built. The old bunkers were not going to make it through another monsoon; in fact, someone in the other company was killed because of a bunker cave-in.
We were supposed to send snakes out each night off Liz. Sometimes we did, but more often than not, our platoon would go to the last bunker on the road, wait there until dark, and go back to our own bunkers. This was a common practice:
At night we were supposed to send out ambushes. Sometimes we did, other times we did not. During the night's radio watch, we would call our nonexistent ambush, asking for a situation report. We'd pause a moment, change our voice by a decibel, and answer our own call: 'Sit Rep is negative. Out.' (?)
If you were lucky enough to get assigned to that last bunker, or another good out-of-the-way place, you could end up with a half an hour of guard that night; every snake going out might stay with you.
I celebrated my first wedding anniversary on Liz. It had all of the things you would want for such an occasion: rain, mud, and 8' x 8' x 6' bunker with four to six people in it, a Dr. Pepper can filled with fuel oil for light. What more could you want to remind yourself how happy you were one year ago? I also celebrated my twenty-third birthday on Liz. I was given an R & R for the seventeenth of this month on the thirteenth! Fortunately, since this left no time for stateside reservations, I was able to get it changed until next month. I made Spec. 4; we got a new platoon leader; a butterbar from Georgia who enlisted so that he could come here and avenge a friend's death (or so he said). When the company left Liz, I had to go on profile because of two new boils. Those were interesting times, you would be trying to get well but they would put you on such nice clean details as the trash run.
President Nixon addressed nation in effort to unify stand on Vietnam; cited secret withdrawal plan, letter exchanged with late Ho Chi Minh. Supreme Court ordered an end to school segregation at once. Israel announced destruction of Egyptian missile sites along Suez Canal. ABM, weapons bill enacted. Mass civilian slayings in Vietnam (My Lai) by U. S. soldiers reported. Red China again denied seat in UN. 250,000 demonstrated in Washington against war. Apollo 12 mission returned from man's second landing on moon. Lodge resigned as Chief U. S. delegate to Paris peace talks. U. S. returns Okinawa to Japanese rule. First draft lottery since 1942 held.
I was still on profile when the company came back to Liz on the sixth. Due to inclement weather, the war was slowing down. Alpha Company has a compound built on the strip, Bravo has one on the Red Ball, Delta is supposed to be building one out in the 515 valley, and we are supposed to finish rebuilding the bunkers on Liz. November the eighth was a milestone day: "Hump day for the Nam! Six months in this sorry damn place and now the rest is downhill." I was already looking forward to January when I would be down to double figures.
For the next few days, we worked on our bunker or we were sent to work on the "hotel" (a large bunker for any visitors who might drop by). For some reason, we pulled road security; you could easily sink to your knees in mud and some of the ruts were almost waist deep; it was hard to imagine why anyone, including the VC, would go there by choice. Each platoon was sending a long and short snake out each night. I came back from a short snake on the eighth and had to go on a long snake the next night. It was by special request however. Our platoon leader had messed up the night before and he told me he wanted me to see how good, mediocre, or poor he worked. I really appreciated the opportunity. It was an experience I needed. He took us towards the river two or three clicks south of Liz (a click is 1,000 meters or the distance of a grid square on our contour maps). He also took us through some places that scared the hell out of us, especially to be so far away from home.
On the fourteenth, I went to Bronco for some clean clothes, haircut, new boots, and getting my lifer shirt made! I was on my way to Hawaii! The stay in Danang at the R & R Center was nice but it was not what I was looking for. I waited, read, went to the USO and the main PX, read, showered. I was even feeling guilty about taking such long, hot showers. On the eighteenth, our flight left for Hawaii. The flight was 13 1/2 hours all total, but, since we crossed the International Date Line, we arrived almost 5 1/2 hours before we left.
It was great to be an "almost" civilian again; a married civilian even, wife and all. After two days, I got over the feeling that I was dreaming. Things were so different - so good! The war was still with me, however. A wedding was being held in the lobby below our room and they shot off fireworks twice. I caught myself both times halfway to the floor. All you could do was smile a little - that would have been good for Vietnam but it was a little embarrassing in the Hawaiian Hilton. On November 24th, the six-day R & R was over. It was hard to leave Patty again.
I got back in time to eat my Thanksgiving dinner in the field. We were working with a company of ARVN's in a ville north of Liz on the old 515 road. Our company's war was called off the next day. The "old" Charlie Company was making the news because of an old massacre. (Most of us then did not realize the "old massacre" was "Pinksville" or My Lai.) The next night we were supposed to go back down the road a few thousand meters and then sweep back "killing everything that moved." A baby "Pinksville" was the melodramatic way our lieutenant put it. He gave a real rousing speech about killing and burning hooches "while visions of glory danced in his head." He made me sick! I was real disgusted at first. But, as the "mission" progressed, it got very, very ridiculous - therefore, very damn funny. The ARVN's were making so much noise - talking, firing their weapons - they were sorry. The only "success" of the mission was getting one ARVN wounded by his own men.
On that March day I felt the hatred the GI's often had for the Vietnamese. The soldiers always told stories of operations with ARVN, how the Vietnamese would whistle, or smoke, or deliberately make noise to warn the VC and avoid a firefight (O’Brian 102).
Like most Americans, I had mixed feelings about the Vietnamese people. There was contempt for the ARVN's but respect for the NVA - we would have swapped allies any time. "Charlie Company had an isolated life, staying either in the field or at one of the artillery fire bases. Unless there was an operation in a village, the men saw only whores, beggars and thieves" (Hersh 24). That was the "Charlie Company" one year earlier; that was us too. It was hard to get to know the ordinary Vietnamese citizens in such isolation. We learned from bitter experience that even apparently friendly villagers might be our mortal enemies. "Fully a third of the Americal Division's casualties this year have been caused by booby traps, and many of the explosives were probably made by meek-looking farmers and grandmothers" (Newsweek 37). GI's commonly refer to the South Vietnamese - allies and enemies alike - "dinks." Our feelings were somewhat like one of these:
He remembered how difficult it had been to tell the villagers from the enemy and sometimes it had seemed easier to hate all of them, but he had always tried very hard not to (Kovic 187).
I hope they kill everybody over there, because they won't tell you where the VC is. They should kill every g--d--- thing over there - VC, animals. . . . . (Hersh 25).
In the states, we heard one of the solutions to the Vietnam conflict was to use the money we were spending on the war and just pave Vietnam so the Japanese could use it as a parking lot. In Vietnam, there was more. The loyal Vietnamese should all be taken and put out to sea in a raft. Everybody left in the country should be killed; bomb the country flat and then make a parking lot. Then you sink the raft (Hersh 25). We knew that the country could never be won, only destroyed.
CBS-TV came to see us the 30th! The news spread around the ville where we had our perimeter and we had to go see them. We were an impressive bunch of noisy dudes walking towards the cameraman. No weapons, beads, headbands, sunglasses, peace signs - all the necessities to show the world that the U.S. has the greatest fighting force anywhere.
President Nixon announced third reduction in forces in South Vietnam. House committee held closed hearings on alleged Songmy (My Lai) massacre. U.S. urged Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories in exchange for binding peace agreement. Price of gold fell to record lows ($34.90 unofficially). Violence Commission issued its final report. Panama President Torrijos reversed brief coup. First public flight of a 747 jumbo jet.
December started out hard. We left the ville on the first and crossed the Red Ball towards the strip. We finally stopped walking about nine clicks later. The next morning about 7:30 we left on patrol and returned about noon. First platoon spotted some "suspects" so we had to go back after them. After we returned to the day position, we packed and walked another two clicks to our NDP. I was really getting a sore shoulder; the M-60 and the ammo alone weighed almost sixty pounds - this did not include whatever was carried in my backpack.
The strip had changed - all the scrub pines and other growth near the beach had been bulldozed clean - it was like one wide beach now. We stayed on the strip until the thirteenth; we had long range patrols in the daytime; we blew up all of the bunkers we could find, we captured some "suspects" - we never knew or ever heard whether they were the "real thing" or not.
We changed the name of our weapons squad; we became the Weapons Kingdom! I had been squad leader since late August but now I was the King. The other machine gunner was Prince Duck, our assistants were Dukes and Earls. "Going crazy was built into the tour, the best you could hope for was that it didn't happen around you, the kind of crazy that made men empty clips into strangers or fix grenades on latrine doors. That was really crazy; anything less was almost standard" (Herr 14).
We went to Chu Lai for stand-down again. It seemed at first as if we were in for a good time but, for me personally, at times it was depressing. There was too much time to think.
We returned to Bronco after stand-down and, from there, went about four clicks due west to search the area around two hills we called Iron Mountain. Our company got lucky and found three or four empty tunnel complexes with "rooms." These were searched and destroyed. We were lucky again the next day; we found a lot of VC stuff - rice, a few rounds of ammunition, clothing, some documents, and even a propaganda leaflet wishing us a Merry Christmas if we weren't BAD U.S. guys.
From here, we went north to Liz. Santa came to see us on Christmas Day; he brought Colonel Wilson, the Chaplain, our CO, and "Top" along for company. The "family" you would most like to see at Christmas. I did get a newly rebuilt machine gun and our "visitors" left each bunker a bottle of wine.
Our new Colonel put out some new rules we had to follow while we were on Liz. Weapons (unloaded), steel pots, boots, jungle fatigue shirt, ammo, clean shave (every day), and haircuts were now mandatory; also, no peace signs, rosary beads or crosses, or bush hats allowed either! "An infantryman doesn't hardly have anything going for him over here at all and this D. B. is trying to take even that away." It would be so good to get away from all of this.
Our platoon leader told me that he had put me in for a promotion to E-5. That would be good for the money and for the extra benefits stateside but it was no big deal. Too many people had made E-5, and since they were bona-fide squad leaders, they had to stay in the field; there was little chance for a job in the rear until you were very short. Right then, the job in the rear sounded much better.
If a foot soldier in Vietnam has a single obsession, it's the gnawing, tantalizing hope of being assigned to a job in the rear. Anything to yank a man out of the field - loading helicopters or burning trash or washing the colonel's laundry. Unlike the dreamy, faraway thoughts about returning alive to the World, the GI's thinking about a rear job is not comminuted by any distant, unreachable, unrealistic passion. It's right there, within grasp. You watch the lucky ones wade into a rice paddy and toss their packs into a chopper. They grin and give you the peace sign. There is a self-pity, and envious loneliness, when they are gone (O’Brian 164).
Liz must do something to me - the company rotated off and I rotated back to the Aid Station. I had another boil on my left knee; I was put on a "no-walking, no-standing" profile. Happy New Year! Four months and "change" and I will be home.
New Year's truce ended in Vietnam; drop in Red infiltration reported. Administration announced agreement with France to fight illegal heroin traffic. Federal reports showed U. S. economy was slowing but consumer prices continued to rise. Israeli jets bomb Cairo area. Texas ranked number 1 in college football after defeating Notre Dame 21-17 in Cotton Bowl; Chiefs defeat Vikings 23-7 in Super Bowl. TWA plane hijacked to Lebanon. Rightist coup foiled in Iraq -- political violence in Pakistan U. S. jets bombed North Vietnam.
A week later, after several shots, many pills, some cutting and some cleaning, I was pronounced healed again and ready to rejoin my company. We were now in the hills southwest of Bronco. Two new guys from first platoon had been killed by a booby trap that had accidentally been set off by some kids playing near where they were. After searching a few of the hills, we were coming back down to the valley when we spotted some "dinks." Our platoon sergeant volunteered to go after them; all of us did not have to go however. In the meantime, two "Sharks," (Helicopter gunships) were working the hill over. They claimed two KIA's and our GI's said we had one. When we checked it out, there was one dead babysan and we "captured" three more. There was supposed to be another group of them although we never did see them. But higher-higher would still be happy; more KIA's for the body count.
The unwritten rule, 'If he'd dead and Vietnamese, he's VC.' We were fighting in the cruelest kind of conflict, a people's war. It was no orderly campaign, as in Europe, but a war of survival waged in a wilderness without rules or laws (Caputo 229).
It is not a war fought for territory, not for pieces of land that will be won and held. It is not a war fought to win the hearts of the Vietnamese nationals, not in the wake of contempt drawn on our faces and on theirs, not in the wake of a burning village, a trampled rice paddy, a battered detainee... the only obvious criterion of military success is body count (O’Brian 124).
The next week seemed like a series of marathon patrols. Just walking heavy with all our gear, all day long. Your back and shoulders would be numb or hurting like hell and you still keep on walking. You feel like yelling for a break or just stopping - the more you walked, the madder you got.
On the eighteenth, we were CA'd to the hills northwest of Liz. "Flying over jungle was almost pure pleasure, doing it on foot was nearly all pain" (Herr 10). In the air, you felt safe; so far removed from it all. But you still suffered inside, traveling so fast toward something that could be so frightening.
We knelt or sat with our legs dangling over the open lips of the choppers. We started to go down. The worst part of the Combat Assault, the thing you think about on the way down, is how perfectly exposed you are. Nowhere to hide your head. You are in a fragile machine. No foxholes, no rocks, no gullies. One moment the world is serene, and in another moment the war is there. You sit in your helicopter, watching the earth come spinning up at you. You jam your magazine into the rifle. We came in at tree level, and the helicopter's machine guns opened up on the forested ridge, spraying down protective fire. We waited for the crack of enemy fire, trying to hear above the sound of the bird and our own fire. The helicopter nestled into its landing area, hovering and trembling over the paddy, and we piled out like frantic rats. We scrambled for paddy dikes and depressions and rocks. There was no incoming fire, a cold LZ (O’Brian 106).
We stayed in the hills a few more days, walking in the daytime and freezing at night. Nothing accomplished except getting a few days closer to DEROS. On the 22nd, we came down the hill and headed for Liz. Then, on the 23rd, we took over the company who had just left. Duck, who had a job on the South OP, came down to see us. He's wanting off – we can’t believe it! We tried to talk him out of it but he would rather be in the bush! It couldn't be that boring. I would get a chance to find out however; I was next in line for a rear job! We celebrated a lot that last night - it is easy to do when you have your own fireworks. We did a lot of H & I'ing, rifles, machine guns, claymores, the works.
The last week in January was the beginning of a whole new routine for me. The South OP had radar and an IOS team stationed there and the line companies would send men who were getting "short" to pull guard for them at night. There were three guard positions and one "rover;" each man had a four-hour shift. This was my "new job."
Middle East fighting intensified. My Lai probe widened. Sharp rise in the jobless rate. Busing ban sought. The military moves to end draft deferments; Army reported rise in racial tensions; volunteer army plan. Arab terrorist attack at Munich airport. Calley trial date set for May. More hijackings to Cuba. Frazier defeats Ellis to win heavyweight boxing crown. Swiss jet bound for Israel crashed, sabotage suspected. Reds seized strategic Plaine des Jarres in Laos. Split verdict in trial of "Chicago 7." Kopechne inquest report filed.
You do not realize how tired you are until you get a chance to sleep for as long as you need to. For the first five or six days on the OP, it was not unusual to sleep until 11:00 or 12:00 - sometimes this would be almost twelve hours. After a while, however, just the opposite began to happen. With guard dividing up the night the way it did, you may or may not get too much sleep before daylight. This was a major personal problem on the OP, but it was easy to cope with since you realized how minor it was compared to the ones you had experienced in the field. Duck was right, things were boring up here. Dull. "But the boredom and routine were painless, something like jumping out of a frying pan and into a sort of steam bath, not a fire" (O’Brian 106).
In the field, we played cards a lot - mostly "hearts" and "spades" - read, and sometimes wrote a letter or two. Here, it was the same thing only now there was more time for reading and writing letters. We did have one major project while we were there; the three of us from "Charlie Company" had to build ourselves a bunker. One of those guys, Jerry, and I were sharing a hooch. Actually, it was a metal culvert, about 12' long, 5' wide, and 4' high in the center, covered with sandbags. We finished digging the hole for our new bunker, and, before the month was over, had actually finished building it. Really we were not in too big of a hurry - the old hooch was better than what we had had in the field. Besides, we were getting "short" and the rumors were really flying about a "5-day drop" for each month you've got left this year. It would be nice going home in mid-April but I would not believe it until I was home. "I had been thinking about going home a lot more here lately. Life just isn't over here!"
Unemployment rose to 4.2%. National rail strike blocked by Congress. O'Brian new Democratic Party chairman. Senate passed cigarette ad ban, FDA drafted warning on birth control pill. Israeli troops raided Syria, Egypt. Lockheed asked interim U. S. funding. Senate cuts voting age to 18. Prince Sihanouk deposed in Cambodia. Fourteen officers accused in My Lai incident. Strike halted postal service. Revolt crushed in Congo. U. S. crime rate up. Allies attacked Red positions inside Cambodia. Increase in Vietnam fighting. Big Four powers held Berlin talks. Air controllers "sick-out" disrupted travel. Banks lowered prime rate to 8%. Thousands died in Turkish earthquakes.
When we finished with our bunker, it was nice - for a bunker. It was a 12' X 12' split-level, complete with electricity, bunks, mattresses, an 8-track tape player - Jerry and I even took a blowtorch and lightly burned the walls to darken the grain in the plywood! It was the middle of the month however, before it was a decent fighting position, covered with the proper depth of sandbags.
The "grunts" and the "radar" people were often at odds with one another. Technically, the OP was for them but oftentimes, they would interfere with our lives too much. They couldn't understand why we wouldn't go out and work on a bunker all day long. They did not understand that the bunker did not mean that much to us, in fact, there wasn't much in Vietnam that did mean anything to us at all. We did not try to understand them at all. Quit hassling us . . .just leave us alone!
Another person not getting along with the "grunts" is our colonel. All of the "humping," the snakes, the rules for proper dress at Liz have not gone unnoticed according to Rumor Control. Supposedly, he found a booby trap (U.S. frag) in his hooch; his chopper has received fire by friendlies; and, Delta Company alone has a $500 reward on his head.
At the end of the month, our company was back on Liz and I went to see the guys for one of the last times. I was glad that this might be one the last times; not in a derogatory sense at all - it just meant I was going home soon. It felt good to be one of the old-timers - most of the company hadn't gotten over the hump yet! In a way though, you missed being with them - they're the ones you knew best. Some of the best times in Vietnam were when friends were just talking. You got to know a person much deeper than your friends in the states do. The small talk was over quickly because you knew what he had been up to lately - the same thing you had. The communion between men was strong. "The battlefields of Vietnam were a crucible in which a generation of American soldiers were fused together by a common confrontation with death and a sharing of hardships, dangers, and fears" (Caputo 229).
Still, I did not regret taking the job on the OP, no matter how boring or how much hassling I had to contend with. Things were changing in the field. In the beginning of my tour, you may not have liked an individual, but you still tried to get along. There was a common bond; getting back to the world. After days like May 31st for instance, you realized how dependent you might some day be on another person or they dependent upon you. Race or religion did not make a difference; if it did, it was never obvious or flagrant. Now racial tensions were cropping up in the company; there had been some fights. Marijuana was there in the beginning, but never in the field; drugs, hard drugs, were becoming more common. Another problem was the carelessness of the troops - the little things that, if it were just that one person who was endangering his own life, OK. But, don't let it include my friends or me.
Communist launched major drive in South Vietnam; Paris peace talks continued. Carswell rejected by Senate as Supreme Court nominee. Alaska oil pipeline halted. Indians on Alcatraz rejected park offer. Brandt visits U.S. Thousands (10-15,000) rally for Vietnam Victory (pro-war) compared to 250,000 at November Peace March.
April 1-5, all sorts of emotions are going through my head. All of the rumors concerning drops are everywhere. You hope it is true but too many things in the Army have been disappointments so you don't let happiness take over yet. Then, someone leaves that is supposed to have a DEROS two days after your own - then you worry, have they forgotten me? But the realization that this rumor is also TRUTH builds and builds. You know now you are going home! Your dream since last May!
On April 6th, I pulled my last guard and packed my backpack for the last time. I was ready to go! We cleared Bronco, then got our records at Chu Lai. It was still hard to believe. We had to stay two days in Cam Ranh Bay before we were put on a flight manifest. On April 11th, about 3 o'clock, we left Vietnam.
When the plane leaves the ground, you join everyone in a ritualistic shout, emptying your lungs inside the happy cave of winners, trying to squeeze whatever drama you can out of leaving Vietnam. But the effort makes the drama artificial (O’Brian 197).
The plane banked and headed out over the China Sea, toward freedom from death's embrace. None of us was a hero. We would not return to cheering crowds, parades, and the pealing of great cathedral bells. We had done nothing more than endure. We had survived and that was our only victory (Caputo 229).
You add things up. You lost a friend to the war, and you gained a friend. You learned, as old men tell it in front of the courthouse, that war is not all bad; it is not something to scoff; some stories of valor are true; dead bodies are heavy, and it’s better not to touch them; fear is paralysis, but it is better to be afraid than to move out to die, all limbs functioning and heart thumping and charging and having your chest torn open for all the work; you have to pick the times not to be afraid, but when you are afraid you must hide it to save respect and reputation. You learned that the old men had lives of their own and they valued them enough to try not to lose them; anyone can die in a war if he tries (O’Brian 198).
It was a defiant yet dispirited army. They were against the war, not because of political perceptions, but because it took away too much, it put them in danger, and they hated the nagging, the bullying, the hassling of the military. Everywhere we waved to each other by giving the peace symbol, the V, which meant getting out (Emerson 63-4).
. . . a war in which each soldier fought for his own life and the lives of the men beside him, not caring who he killed in that personal cause or how many or in what manner and feeling only contempt for those who sought to impose on his savage struggle the mincing distinctions of civilized warfare – that code of battlefield ethics that attempted to humanize an essentially inhuman war. According to those “rules of engagement,” it was morally right to shoot an unarmed Vietnamese who was running, but wrong to shoot one who was standing or walking; it was wrong to shoot an enemy prisoner at close range, but right for a sniper at long range to kill an enemy soldier who was no more able than a prisoner to defend himself; it was wrong for infantrymen to destroy a village with white-phosphorus grenades, but right for a fighter pilot to drop napalm on it. Ethics seemed to be a matter of distance and technology. You could never go wrong if you killed people at long range with sophisticated weapons… so who was to speak of rules and ethics in a war that had none (Caputo 229)?
Regardless of the outcome, I wanted to see it end. At the same time, a part of me did not want to see it end in a North Vietnamese victory. I kept thinking about . . . all the others, and something in me cried out against the waste of their lives. The war was lost, or very nearly lost. Those men had died for no reason. They had given their all for nothing. I think these ambivalent feeling were typical of American veterans who, like me, were both opposed to the war and yet emotionally tied to it (Caputo 342).
Caputo, Philip. A Rumor of War. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1977.
Emerson, Gloria. Winners and Losers. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1978.
Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc., 1977.
Hersh, Seymour M. My Lai 4. New York: Random House, 1970.
Kovic, Ron. Born on the Fourth of July. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1976.
O’Brian, Tim. If I Die in a Combat Zone. U.S.A.: Delacourt Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1973.
Westmoreland, William C. (General). A Soldier Reports. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976.
MAGAZINES & PERIODICALS
“Facts on File” – Weekly World News Digest, Vol. XXIX (May 1, 1969).
“Facts on File” – Weekly World News Digest, Vol. XXX, (April 2, 1970).
“GI’s In Battle: The ‘Dink’ Complex.” Newsweek, December 1, 1969.
“Shock for a Symbol.” Time, August 15, 1969.
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