I was in the office on a rainy September 1967 day. I worked for the State of Vermont Forest and Parks getting $35 a week for my forty hours work. I got a call from a recruiting Sgt. at work! He said “Why don’t you join the Army boy?” My response was “No thanks, I’ll take my chances with the draft.” That was the wrong thing to say to a recruiting Sgt., only two weeks later I got my first draft notice in the mail. “Report to your draft board, Balboa Panama Canal Zone.” I panicked ! How was I going to get to the CZ on $35 a week?
I went to the draft board in Montpelier Vermont. Asked how I was going to get there? They took some info and threw the draft notice in their waste basket. I thought “thank you” and left. The next week I got my second draft notice, “report to your new draft board, Montpelier Vermont”! Damn!
Lets go back in time to my Junior year of high school. I turned 18 in Dec. of that year and signed for the draft like many other Army brats. They always filled their quota with volunteers for the draft. All Army brats who wanted to get away from the family or use the GI bill to go to college after serving.
Dad was a career soldier, First Sargent stationed at Fort Clayton, Panama, Canal Zone. I had spent the first three years of high school at Balboa High School. I had been in the Jr. ROTC program all three years. (we will see later that this was some of my training) I was always the old guy in school because I didn’t start school until I was six. This may be the place to say that I went to 13 different schools and Balboa High was my longest stint. The US Army also had jungle training in Panama for guys going to Vietnam. I got to do some of that training with the ROTC. I also at age 17 was made the youngest assistant scout master for the boy scout troop at Fort Clayton. We took a 7 day hike across the isthmus of Panama, 117 miles up one river and down another, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. We were supplied by the army choppers. It was mostly jungle and river terrain.
Training is the key to my survival. I had those three years of JROTC (Junior Reserved Officer Training Corp). BHS was a big school with several buildings like a college campus. I was on the drill team and qualified expert with the M14 rifle.
After the receiving second draft notice I did as told and reported to the draft board. They gave me a bus ticket to Manchester NH for a physical. I passed. Damn! A week later I was on a plane to somewhere near fort Dix, NJ. then a bus to Dix.
You have probably seen the movie “Stripes” where the bus stops at the training center and a Drill Sgt gets on the bus and starts yelling to get off the bus and line up. Well that is the way it was. Having had the experience in ROTC I knew how to impress the DS. Also I was older than most if not all the draftees. I got off and lined up helping the other guys to line up the way we used to. (Two things impress a DS, one is moving when told to quickly, and the other is saying yes Drill Sargent loudly when given an order.) I knew this and stood out to the DS immediately. First thing he asked was if anyone had any prior experience or ROTC. I allowed as how I had three years JROTC. I went from $35 a week to $99 a month for pay. Kinda big cut in pay, huh?
I went through 6 weeks of basic training and was promoted to E2 and sent to Advanced Infantry Training for another 6 weeks. Upon completion I was promoted to E3 and the same day E4 Corporal and before I could sew the stripes on I was made an acting Sargent and sent to Drill Sargent school. All this because when given an order I complied instantly and with a loud “yes Drill Sargent”. The ROTC didn’t hurt either. I want to explain why it is so important to act quickly when given an order. It comes into play in combat. When in combat someone shouts “incoming”, you cannot stop and think ” now that means that a mortar is on the way, guess I better get cover”. No by the time you go through that process you are dead. So they train you to move fast and hit the ground taking cover wherever possible.
Drill Sargent school was another 6 weeks and then it was off to “Riot Control Training”, another part of my training. Next they gave me orders to report to a Basic Training company and I was given a platoon to train. One cycle and half another as a Drill Sargent. It was interesting seeing young guys learn how to become a soldier. Lots of stories could be told, but not here and now.
Orders came down to report to the Sixth Armored Cavalry at Fort Meade Maryland. I had to help train that outfit in riot control. At the end of training I was assigned to Air Cav Troop with the Sixth.
April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. A sad day in our history.
There was rioting in Washington D.C. We were dispatched to disperse the rioters. (This is what I’m proud of) We dispersed them without hurting a single person. Part of the Riot Control Training was the psychology of a riot. It seems that there are instigators who get people all fired up and rioting. Then they quietly slip away. The way to disperse rioters in D.C. was classic. The streets are laid out in grid form. We formed a giant arrow of soldiers with fixed bayonets, a column of more soldiers following. When we got to an intersection the guys behind formed the “double echelon” (arrow) going down each street left and right. After a few intersections there were small groups of 2-4 people and they just left the area. My training was nearly complete, but not quite.
We were sent to Camp A.P. Hill in Virginia for live firing exercises. Live fire means that there are bullets flying over your head while you crawl from point A to point B. Then we got to shoot M60 and 50 caliber machine guns at targets. Every fifth round was a tracer round and we started a forest fire. They had us stop firing and go help put the fire out. (comedy of errors)
Did a little flying in Huey’s and that was the best part of all my training. January 1969 I got orders to Vietnam. Joined the 25th Infantry, 2nd of the 27th Company D (Wolfhounds) . I got to use my leave time at home. Landed at Long Binh Air Base. Stepped off the plane into a wall of heat!
There are two seasons in Vietnam, HOT and dry and HOT and wet.
Got to Cu Chi which was the headquarters of the 25th Infantry. They told me to go into a bunker and stay there as the Tet Offensive was started. I didn’t even have a weapon yet. Talk about being scared shitless!
That was a bad night with no way to fight and lots of action right there on the base. This is a good time to tell you about the Tunnels of Cu Chi. The Vietnamese had been fighting for many years. Before we got there, the French were there for many years. The Viet Cong had a network of tunnels and could pop up almost anywhere in Cu Chi. We knew they had some tunnels but never knew the extent of the network until after the War ended. ( for a good read I recommend The Tunnels of Cu Chi by Tom Mangold and John Penycate)
I finally got issued a M16 and was sent out to a fire base called Jackson. We generally stayed with a fire base for a couple weeks. (a circular area with bunkers around the perimeter and concertina wire out in front of them.) We had claymore mines (curved shape charges with over 700 ball bearings designed to explode out like a shotgun) facing out. FB Jackson was near the rubber plantation. Straight lines of rubber trees. Lots of safe places behind trees but step out between them and you are a sitting duck. Hard place to fight .
From the fire base we would go out on a mission. It could be a search and destroy sweep, or an Eagle Flight, or an ambush. Search and destroy missions were just as it sounds. We had a VC (Viet Cong) sympathizing village to go into and search for VC or weapons or large stores of food and materials. I only did a few of those and I felt bad about invading someones home.
Eagle Flights were my favorites even though I was pushed out from 30 feet and pulled a ham string. It was a hot LZ (landing zone) meaning we were taking fire as we were landing. The door gunner was scared and started pushing us out so his pilot could de de mau (get the hell out of there) Still had to walk back 9 klicks. (kilometers). I loved flying! We sat on the floor with our legs hanging out. The Huey’s had their doors removed so they could carry extra men. Nine choppers would carry two platoons out nine klicks and drop us off to walk back trying to draw fire. (stupid way to fight a war) I was on enough Eagle flights to qualify for the Air Medal but sadly did not get it.
We got shot down once. Had a fuel line hit. The pilot auto rotated down and we had a hard landing. Cracked the windshield and broke a skid. We circled the chopper until another Huey came and hooked onto ours and flew off with it. Kinda cool to see one Huey slung under another.
Ambushes were tough. We were sent out at dusk and set up near a trail. Had to stay awake all night to listen and watch with a Starlite Scope. (night vision scope). Fighting at night was serious shit. If we got into a fire fight we would call in gunships and the night would be lit up like day time with flares.
We spent two weeks on river boats sitting all day in the sun and listening to radio AFRN (Armed Forces Radio Network). Just as dusk came the boat would pull over to the river bank and drop us off to set up an ambush. Anything moving on the river after ten o’clock at night was fair game. I don’t remember any visits.
We had another two week riding on tanks. Until one of them hit a land mine and lost a track. We formed a perimeter around it and a big Chinook came with mechanics and a new track. After the tank was fixed a general ordered me to walk in front of the tank so it would not hit any more mines. He didn’t give me any equipment to locate them. Just my eyes. Lucky me, there were no more where I walked. (wonder why I have little respect for generals?)
Many of our sweeps were through rice paddies. In fact some of our ambushes were too. I would be in the rice paddy with only my head out of the water trying to be the smallest target possible. (Dad gave me the best advise, keep your head down). We trudged through all kinds of terrain from rice paddies to jungle to rubber plantations to bomb craters. It was so hot that we would take turns swimming across some craters full of water to cool off.
At one time or another I walked point, flank, or in the column carrying an M60 machine gun (maybe 30-35 pounds). I walked point more than flank. Point is the lead guy watching for booby traps. Flank is walking off to the right or left twenty yards or so.
Hedge rows were marked with broken English saying “this area is booby trapped , GI stay out.” Funny thing is when the generals heard about that they sent us through to find the traps. What kind of intellect did that general have? The first guy to go in set off a trap and was killed. We pulled back and the CO ( Commanding Officer) called in a helicopter gun ship with 20 millimeter machine gun. That gun cut the trees down and set off all the traps, secondary explosions were going off. The sign was true. The kid who volunteered to go in was only 18 and had just gotten a “Dear John letter from home”. Wonder why the CO didn;t call that gunship in instead of sending the kid?
Agent Orange was used everywhere we went to defoliate the trees and (give me and hundreds of us diabetes years later). Napalm was never used in Vietnam. But I saw it used and I saw the aftermath, too.
Fire base Diamond. We left one fire base early one morning on choppers. They took us up near the Cambodian boarder. A “sky crane” (really big helicopter that could carry heavy loads) came in with a D9 bulldozer. A smaller chopper brought the operator and he dozed a big circle to loosen the ground for us. He drove back under the sky crane and we hitched it up and flew away. We went to work filling sand bags and building bunkers. Placing concertina wire, putting steel pieces across the top of the bunker and covering it with sand bags. Chain link fence was used in front of the bunker and called an RPG screen. RPG is rocket propelled grenade. About twenty feet in front of the bunker it was supposed to make the RPG explode before it got to the bunker.
That first night we would not have completed building. So we were sure to have a ground attack. * of us were sent outside the perimeter to set up a LP (listening post). We set out claymores at each end of the dry ditch were chose to have our site. We had an M60 machine gun, a duper ( M79 grenade launcher), and 6 m16’s. Using the starlight scope we could see the enemy and hear them before they got to us. We also had a PRC 25 radio and could communicate with the CO, and artillery, and mortar men.
There were two other LP’s left and right of us. About 1 AM I could see dozens of men coming towards us. When they got close to us we opened fire and set off the claymores. The main force went around us and hit the other LP’s. We called in artillery, mortars, and gunships. Even talked to a jet jockey. He asked if we had a strobe light. We did, he was able to ID us, I told him about fifty yards north of us was a machine gun shooting at him. He dropped napalm on it and the shooting stopped. The mortars were sending flares up and it was like mid day. We were supposed to have a path into the perimeter but never got in.
In the morning we had to do a body count. Body counts were so important for the ” chickenhawks” so they could keep the war going. We counted about 50 and the CO told his ” superior” it was 100, that guy added some to the number and the report on the news was even higher.
We left FB Diamond a couple weeks later and built FB Diamond II. The first two or three nights we could count on a ground attack each FB we built.
I have to laugh when I see movies with the soldiers wearing ruck sacks. I was there 10 months and never saw a ruck sack. We carried everything we needed in a spare pair of socks tied together and slung over the shoulder. This way if we were ambushed we could drop them and fight. We did have flack jackets issued but they were so heavy and HOT they got lost quickly. Did I mention that it was HOT in Vietnam?
I did get an R&R (Rest and Relaxation) I went to Japan. Yokohama and I made the Ohio Bar my home base. The Japanese people were so nice to us. Friendly and they tried to speak English to us as much as possible. It was a 5 day R&R but I was gone two weeks. The CO said guys come back when their money runs out. I made mine last as long as possible. Didn’t get in trouble for it either. I heard that they let infantry guys stay longer if they wanted.
I got an eight day early out. That means my orders to return home and ETS (end term of service). Got to fly to MACV headquarters to get copies of my orders. They used mimeograph machines back then. I needed about twenty copies to give to different people along the way. Got a Currier flight there and back in a LOCH chopper. (looks a little like a bumblebee) Fast and flies at treetop level to evade gun fire.
Landed at Oakland AF base and mustered out of the service. Bought my plane tickets in uniform for the discount and threw the uniform away for good. Went to Disneyland to put the war behind me. Had a blast with two girls from Detroit (they worked for NCR ) we went to Knots Berry Farm as well then departed.
Got to Montpelier 5 days before my folks expected. Total surprise for them. Had a good reception from family and friends but the public , not so much.
There is a lot more I could tell you and I am willing to answer questions. Nothing you ask is a stupid question. Anything is fair to ask.