As a music conservatory drop out, I knew it was a matter of time and I would be drafted. I thought it best to enlist in the Air Force or Navy and learn a good skill since I was not to make a career out of music -- not to mention that it would be better than infantry in Vietnam.
To make a long story short, I enlisted in the Air Force and turned up in a tactical air control party in the 1st Air Cavalry, U.S. Army, with the same ground pounders that I thought I was to avoid. It was traumatic for a kid that studied to be a classically trained pianist. I'd rather not talk about any more details other than that's my story.
- Frank Ruiz
I am now 70 years old. Thoroughly contemplative about the Ken Burns Vietnam series as I was witness to much of it from 1966 to 1968. I boarded a plane for the long trip to Bangkok, Thailand, at the age of 20; saying goodbye to my parents and my comfortable life in California. At long last, arriving in Thailand sans luggage, I was met by my handler from Continental Air Services (CAS) from Vientiane, Laos, my ultimate destination.
I spent two years there in Laos, as a French/English translator and working with the Chief Pilot's office. As far as I can recall, I was the only American female to be there. So very many interesting occurrences took place there, I grew up there and became a self-determined young woman who was never afraid of adventure intelligently planned!
I met very many people such as Pierre Salinger, General Vang Pao, the Pathet Lao leader, and Pop Buell from Indiana, who helped teach the Hmong and men farmers many things, and devoted his life to the cause of freedom for the Lao people. I will never forget my time there and my small, albeit interesting contribution to humanity.
My name is Han Nguyen. I am a refugee. I am an immigrant. I am an American. I currently live in Tucson, Arizona, but 42 years ago, my family and I were part of the mass exodus out of Saigon while the Vietnam war was coming to a chaotic end in April 1975.
On the morning of April 28, 1975, word reached my mom that if anyone in the family was considering leaving Vietnam, then it was imperative we make our way to my Aunt Thanh’s house, in the South Vietnamese Naval Base at “Ben Bach Dang”, also known as the Saigon Seaport, before the lock down at noon. At the time, my parents, Hao and Camtu, along with us three kids, lived with my grandparents (Dad’s parents) and several uncles and aunts in Saigon. My dad, Captain/Instructor Pilot for the South Vietnamese Air Force and Huey helicopter pilot, had recently returned from the war after his platoon had disbanded following the capture of Da Nang. Mom had just given birth to my sister two weeks earlier.
After a quick conversation, the family all decided that leaving Vietnam was the only real option they had. My mom hurriedly packed a suitcase with as much formula as could fit, cloth diapers, medicine and other first aid supplies, clothes and five ounces of gold she had saved for hard times. All three generations: our entire tribe of twelve Nguyens (Dad, Mom, Grandpa, Grandma, two aunts, three uncles, my brother, sister and myself), made it safely onto the base before noon.
But then, seeing that the gates to the base had not yet been locked down, my dad decided to take my grandfather off base around 2 pm to see Grandpa’s brother, Senator Qui, near the capitol building to inquire about the current state of the government. While they were out, the city came under attack from the North Vietnamese forces. Bombs exploded and gunfire erupted everywhere. The base went into emergency lock down, and my dad and grandfather were still on the outside.
Dad and Grandpa finally made their way back to the base, only to find the gates had all been locked down. Luckily, moments later, an officer of the “Hai Quan”, South Vietnamese Navy, drove up to the same gate in a jeep. He shot the lock and drove his jeep through the gate, allowing my dad and grandfather to slip through the gate. Another soldier tried to stop them, but they kept moving until they returned to Co Thanh’s house, where we were all staying.
By the morning of April 29th, the atmosphere was heavy with sadness, anxiety, fear and uncertainty. My uncle, Canh, Major of the South Vietnamese Navy, was currently in another city outside Saigon. He made contact with my aunt who was on base, and told her to wait for him to return. His plan was to take them and their two young kids, along with any of us who wanted to wait, out of Saigon on a smaller Navy boat. My mom discussed the choices with my dad and his family, and courageously decided at that moment to leave her family and her country in pursuit of a better life with my dad, us kids and her in-laws.
That afternoon my uncle Hoan, 18 years old, found a bicycle which he used to explore the Naval base. During his outing, he found the route from Co Thanh’s house to the Seaport, and also reported that people were already starting to assemble by the docks.
Around 7 pm, we began to make our way to the Saigon Seaport. I was 15 months old then and just barely started walking. Dad carried me, Mom had my baby sister in her arms, and my 3 year old brother tagged along with the uncles. In route to the port, we had to cross a bridge once secured by a locked gate. Luckily, someone had already shot the lock off that gate, and thankfully, the soldier approaching to secure the gate let us pass before re-locking that gate. The closer we got to the docks, the more people we saw gathering. Soon the crowds became hoards of thousands, all taking the same escape route we were taking.
There were three large ships docked alongside each other. Boarding the ship was a huge challenge in itself. There were no ramps to walk up like those of luxurious cruise ships. We had to muscle our way up a rope ladder dangled off a side of the ship. Through many obstacles, we all finally made our way up and out to the farthest of the three ships. We assumed that ship would most likely be the one to go. While on that ship, Mom happened to overhear a soldier whispering to a priest that the boat we were on was out of commission and would not be going anywhere. Meanwhile, people were still desperately trying to get onto the ship we were currently occupying. Mom decided to follow her gut, tell the family, and followed the priest onto the middle ship. She says the scariest part of her journey was the process of transferring us kids from the deck of one ship to another, with at least a 50-foot drop to the ocean beneath.
We ended up on the HQ-502 Vietnamese Naval ship, formerly the USS LST-529, a Landing Ship Tank launched in 1944 for the Invasion of Normandy during World War II. The ship, overcrowded with about 5,200 people, made her way out of the harbor around 1 am. The HQ-502, at maximum speed on both engines, ran only 14 mph. On this occasion, she had only one engine running, barely. The ship crew had to enlist ten men at a time to help manually row the oars in order for her to reach a creeping speed down the channel. As we traveled down the channel, gunfire suddenly broke out in the night sky. It was the Viet Cong on the banks, shooting at our ship and any vessel that passed by. The captain cut all the lights on the ship and directed everyone to get down and stay low. Many people sadly and tragically were left behind in Vietnam that day, including my two aunts, Mom’s sisters, who were so instrumental in getting us out of the country.
Shortly before 11 am the following morning, April 30th, while we were still on the shores of Vietnam, the grim announcement came through the radios: Saigon, the Capital of South Vietnam and the Presidential Palace had been captured by the North Vietnamese forces. The South Vietnamese President confirmed the surrender. So many people wailed and cried in distress, some fainted and a few were so devastated they jumped overboard into the ocean. We suddenly realized we were adrift at sea on an overcrowded, barely functioning ship, with no country to return to nor any idea where we were going.
After literally drifting in the ocean for three or four days, we were found and rescued by an American Naval ship. They pulled up parallel to our ship to throw over fresh water, fruit and other life-saving supplies. In addition, they towed our ship all the way to Subic Bay in the Philippines. We were at Subic Bay only long enough for the American military to help transfer all 5,200 of us off the HQ-502 and onto a larger commercial cargo ship. We were headed directly to Guam.
Twelve days later, we landed at Orote Point in Guam, 2,500 miles away from Saigon. Through a program called “Operation New Life”, the American government had set up a refugee tent city consisting of 2,980 tents and endless rows of cots, at Orote Point to care for and process Vietnamese refugees fleeing the war. My family and I were among the 112,000 refugees housed in Guam. Within our first week in Guam, my dad was able to make contact with Jim and Barbara Buffalo of Savannah, Georgia. The Buffalos had sponsored my dad when he came to the US for Huey pilot/Officer Training in 1969. They initiated paperwork to sponsor us through “Operation New Arrivals”, a program created for the relocating of 130,000 Vietnamese refugees. We knew at that point we would eventually be going to America. Between Orote Point Tent City and Andersen Air Force Base, our stay in Guam was less than two months.
From Andersen Air Force Base, my parents, brother, sister and I were flown to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, one of four US military bases temporarily used as Vietnamese refugee camps. My dad was able to make contact with the Buffalos a couple more times after we arrived at Fort Chaffee. Because Jim and Barbara couldn’t sponsor all twelve of us, our extended family, Grandma, Grandpa, uncles and aunts, had to wait a couple months longer before coming to the main land.
On a Sunday in mid August, thanks to the Buffalos, we were taken to Savannah from our refugee camp. Two months later, we were reunited with the extended family in Georgia. Our sponsors helped to rent us all a duplex. Our family of five lived on one side, and our extended family lived in the other. I was between two and three years old, but vividly remember playing on the steps to the front porch of that duplex.
My parents were in their late 20’s/early 30’s, so starting over in a foreign country with three young kids was extremely difficult. Fortunately, they both had jobs in Vietnam which allowed them to learn/use/speak some English. Jim helped set my dad up with a job. Monday, our second day in Savannah, Dad started working in a small ceramics shop for $2.10 an hour. He found a bit better paying job a few months later as a layout artist for Savannah’s local newspaper. My parents and some of their friends who also came to America slowly began to find and contact each other. My dad heard about a potential opportunity to fly a helicopter again for employment, but the path would be through New Orleans, Louisiana.
In February 1976, Dad and his younger brother, Hai, moved to New Orleans to explore the job lead while the rest of the family stayed behind in Savannah. A month later, my dad returned to Savannah, packed up the AMC Hornet and moved our family to New Orleans. With three young kids to support on a $5 an hour wage, my parents couldn’t afford for my dad to enroll in academics school for his pilot’s license. He purchased the books needed to study for the exam, and when he wasn’t working at the shipyard, he was studying for his written test. The next hurdle was the flight test through a contact in Dallas, Texas. This, too, would have cost much more than my dad could have earned in half a year on his wages. Through these many challenges, my parents persisted, and by October 1976, my dad was flying a helicopter for Petroleum Helicopters, Inc.
Dad and Mom had saved enough money to buy our first home in February 1979, and I started school a few months later that same year. My generation of Vietnamese kids would be the last generation to come out of South Vietnam, and the first generation to integrate into the American public school system. Two years after buying our first home, we moved into a four bedroom house where I spent the rest of my childhood. My two younger, American-born brothers would later be added to our clan in that house.
Mom entered the American workforce in 1982. We were all learning how to be Americans together, in different capacities and institutions. My mom always encouraged us to learn and excel in English, but also made it mandatory that we speak Vietnamese at home. In fact, it was considered disrespectful for us to speak English to my parents. Over the years and with the addition of all-American grandkids, however, our family’s language has certainly morphed into “Vietnamenglish”, a mix of Vietnamese and English. I didn’t always recognize or appreciate this when I was younger, but being raised bilingual and multi-cultural has been one of my most valuable assets in my adulthood.
The obvious cultural differences with my peers did present some hardships in school. I was certainly a target of bullying: mostly name calling like “Ching-Chong” or “Gook”, and being told to, “Go back to China where I belong”. Little did they know China was as foreign to me as it was to them. Besides, the popular Bruce Lee and Saturday Kung Fu movies helped curb the bullying, because these same kids also assumed that all Asian kids might know karate.
The difficulty of navigating cultural differences with my schoolmates didn’t compare, however, to the painful experiences the culture clashes presented between my parents and us kids. They were raising us in a new world while trying to preserve old world ideology and culture, and we were growing up around a collage of different cultures my parents knew very little about. For example, things that were a normal part of growing up to us like going out or hanging out with our friends outside of school seemed highly risky and unacceptable to them.
Through love and persistence, my family and I have mostly worked through our misunderstandings, learned to embrace our differences and continue to teach each other about old world and new world cultures. We’ve allowed the richness of American culture to permeate and shape our existence every bit as much as we’ve contributed to coloring the beautiful, diverse American fabric, and the roots we’ve established and continue to grow here will and have become part of the great American story.- Han Nguyen
Thank you for the opportunity to share my personal experience. Others may not be interested in it, but it helps me to organize my thoughts and reflect.
Vietnam-Cambodia experience, and the legacy.
The voice calls out, this time in a South Tucson parking lot, yet always the same. “When were you there?” he yells. It is always the first question. And I say “most of 69, half of 70” without turning around. We trade MOSs, geography and it begins…with zero bravado and considerable evidence of reflection…and ends with him saying “we got screwed”. I agree. A determined hand clasp, a look straight in the eye, two beat up older guys who still have some fire. And, at some level, we are still pissed.
The beginning: I read King, Thoreau, Gandhi to see if I was a conscientious objector, to see if I could go. Yes, I could. And I think it’s OK to fight, OK to get hurt, OK to take life and OK to die, but there should be a damn good reason. Political, military, business and media leaders ought to be able to explain their thinking to the American public without chicanery.
I was drafted after college, the draft notice appearing at my door, handed over by the Postman who said “I’m sorry”, around the fifth inning of the seventh game of the 1968 World Series. I told my parents after the game was over. Priorities.
I always felt that the US simply drafted the people it cared least about.
My acceptance into OCS came a couple days later and I could have done that, but getting drafted first meant I lost my choice of MOS (military occupational specialty). Either way, it was going to be Combat Arms. I thought maybe I could do my time, get out early and go to graduate school. It was either prescient or delusional. Still not sure. Young guys make stupid decisions and maybe that was one of mine. Still, I have a taste for knowing things at the ground level, and that was the case.
We were poorly trained and rushed into combat.
The basic training battalion next to mine at Ft. Dix (NJ) was quarantined for meningitis and one near me at Fort Sill(y), Oklahoma, was Iranian. Time does not guarantee progress or enlightenment.
Being there: One year here is five years there. It felt that way then and it still does. Times creeps so slowly. You are with the same people, 24 hours a day, often not straying more than a few feet from the gun pit, then only to break open ammo. There was absolutely no concept of a weekend. We had no clue. We did, however, know with precision how many days we had left.
I was with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Those are the people with the yellow horse head patch. We were near the Cambodian border right away, and eventually into that country. In the late Spring of 1969 we were literally squatted on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I would not have thought that possible, but it was. The North Vietnamese did not want us there. You can imagine the consequences.
At the height of my power and influence (none), I was a Sgt. E-5, what you call a Buck Sergeant, and I made almost $300 a month. Yes, a month. I saved $2200 and blew it all on a MGB-GT right after I left the VA Hospital. No regrets.
It takes months, but you learn the language. It was a combination of the military’s phonetic alphabet, fractured French/Vietnamese (“boocoo” instead of “beaucoup”), and soul music. To shoot a round of white phosphorus was to hear “Wilson Pickett on the way.” It’s like other languages: use it or lose it.
I kept my guys alive.
You define yourself over there and your life is distinct largely because of where you are and what weapons you use. My M-16 jammed the first time I used it, which was the second night in the field. I grew fond of some weapons, notably a M-40 grenade launcher. The weapon I used daily, a 105 MM Howitzer, was good because it could chuck an artillery round seven miles and also become a direct fire weapon. We carried it under a Chinook CH-47 (there is an alternative name) helicopter.
Being on remote fire bases/landing zones involved a wager. You fired away, the enemy knew where we were, you would inevitably be surrounded, and they would come for you. The bet was that air power could intercede and save your hide. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Living with Black guys, all kinds of minorities, changed my life for the better. I was a low-income white kid from Upstate New York. Now I was sleeping next to Indigenous Alaskans, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Mexican-Americans and a great number of African Americans. Why were so many guys Black, Hispanic, Mexican, Native American? Easy. College students like me had deferments. Schools are primarily locally funded, poor schools were often minority schools, minorities did not go to college, so they got drafted. A high percentage of my unit, normally more than 50%, was Black.
On one of my first nights in the field I crawled into a sleeping space and William (not Bill) was putting the hairnet on his ‘fro. He had a hardened look and an M-16 set to rock & roll (automatic). I read Jet [magazine]. DC Jones was my best friend but there were lines we could not cross. Before I left the US, I thought Martin Luther King Jr. was wrong in emphasizing opposition to the war, that it would draw energies and support away from the civil rights movement. A couple days in Vietnam showed me how right he had been.
You fight a war of choice, a non-essential war, amidst a time of burning cities and serious racial tumult, you watch Malcolm X and Martin Luther King get assassinated, you draft the Black guys, then you complain about “bad morale”? Be serious. The racial tension was real, but also inversely proportional to the level of direct involvement in combat. Free time lets tensions grow.
I am here in part because I decided to become good at my job. And luck.
We got the s— kicked out of us one night in July 1969 after a series of wretched decisions that left us terribly exposed. We knew it was coming. We fought our guts out, we were great, and we were so mad that we all declined to answer any questions about who deserved medals. The division commander landed early the following morning, got off his chopper and walked straight to the center of the LZ (landing zone). Some guy yelled “you get us the f— out of here!” and the General was smart enough not to hear it. Kept walking. He was a good man. A couple hours later we were gone, to another Hell Hole with rats and left-behind NVA (North Vietnamese Army) propaganda. We got nailed there as well.
It is a weird life, but it becomes your life.
The little stuff that might surprise you:
A small, thin man with glasses, SJ arrived on LZ Carolyn with the words “SJ – Super Jew” in block letters on his flak vest. JB was from the Arkansas-Texas border: a ripped, quiet, intelligent Black guy who taught SJ how to play complicated versions of dominos. SJ taught him chess. On an ammo box.
I got a kick out of hooking the 105 to the O-ring on the bottom of the Chinook. Think of the Starship Enterprise landing on your head. Gymnastics with heavy weapons.
I never felt so bad as when I was there, and one day I almost gave up. I sat on a fuse can for a while, then decided to keep moving.
Humor is where you find it. Summer of ’69, a remote landing zone in a brutal area. You can see a cigarette from far, far away, so there is rigid light security. It makes sense in a way, but we are, after all, firing large weapons and we’re not hard to find. Still, when someone is sneaking a smoke and accidentally tosses the lit butt into several hundred pounds of discarded gunpowder, you have to know that the resulting fire, pointed skyward, can be seen from Hanoi, about 500 miles away. This elicits hysterical laughter as we wonder what the NVA are thinking.
We had a bunch of college grad draftees out there who were, by conventional wisdom, misplaced. My unit of 45-50 had a theatre major, an artist, a photography major, a few math majors. We read, and so did a lot of the other guys. Our presence was awkward for some officers, who varied greatly in leadership ability. We were disinterested in doing things “by the book”, and that led to a serious conflict for me.
The college grads tended to be a buffer between guys with unrestrained hatred for the Army, and toward all officers. “FTA” did not mean Future Teachers of America. It’s hard to overstate the bitterness and anger that many guys felt, and officers felt the brunt of that contempt, fair or not.
I do not recall having a single substantial conversation about the rightness or wrongness of the war. It’s hard to understand that now, but at the time it seemed irrelevant.
The best commanding officer we had actually fought [alongside] us and got shot through the mouth for his troubles.
One Lieutenant got smoked during my second or third month. That was a three-step process: a smoke grenade, CS (tear gas), then the real thing if behavior, or perceived behavior, did not change. One LT was killed, murdered, in another battery in my battalion. I would never justify that, but I understand how it happened.
Some people in the US felt contempt for Vietnam vets, even when we were there. I think a lot of that was grounded in racism. Trust me, even before we got “home”, the feeling was mutual. And it was not just a matter of feeling animosity toward anti-war protestors.
Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in July ’69, the bloodiest month of my life, and we looked up, feeling no particular pride, just certain that the moon was part of another world, that we were much further away.
Because telecommunications were more primitive, I never had a phone call with my family or anyone else during my 14 months and 26 days there. It was all done by written letter, and I’m glad that was the case.
The aftermath: The experience changed my life in both direct and subtle ways, the subtle being more important. I didn’t have a “post college” twenties and I came away more than skeptical of formal authority figures, an attitude that is not good for a career.
Coming home was largely how I perceive a release from prison to be. I had two specific ideas. First, I would not tell war stories. Second, I would not be a full participant in American society. I wanted to be alone, remote. I found somebody to be alone with. We are still together. Lucked out.
For months afterward I could not understand why people wanted to sleep indoors. I was fine being stretched out on two ammo boxes, end to end, my head in my helmet straps, my boot laces loosened, an M-16 across my chess. Sweet dreams.
Aside from a brief phone call in early 1972, I have never spoken to anyone I ever served with.
I used the GI Bill to get a PhD.
I walked into the great Vet Center at the UA once and felt stunned. It is so good; it is what they deserve. I came home alone and some guys took off their uniforms and hung them on the fence at Oakland Army Base, and just walked away. Life is not fair and you can’t let the anger swallow you, but it never fully goes away.
Both my adult children have been to Vietnam for educational or professional reasons. One lived in Cambodia for five years. Vietnam is thriving and Cambodia is at least a vastly better place than it was in the late 1970s. I wish them well.
I have worked with DOD and the military in tangential ways over the last decades. I enjoyed them and the issues, but I always detect a disrespect for Vietnam Vets, draftees in particular, among professional military. I am not amused.
Lessons? All of us have to do the accounting because there are negatives and the positives to these experiences – if you live. I’ve spend many an hour doing my accounting. I can list many assets as well as liabilities, but there can never be a finalization. Am I in the red or the black? Still don’t know.
The strongest legacy from the war for me is an ironclad belief that you should not let tragedy define you.
It’s been a long time, almost 50 years, the memories are not great but over the years I’ve met people whose lives have been far more traumatized than mine. There is no point in comparing wretched experiences.
Many people go through harsh, unfair, violent, brutal experiences. I know people who have been through genocide, rape, domestic violence, other wars, devastating illness or some other Godawful time. I’ve seen poverty in Africa to the point of going numb, but people are resilient.
Some of those people have emerged from pain and become the most radiant, productive, optimistic, caring, wise people I know. They never forget, and the experience resides within them always, yet they don’t let the tragedy define them. I try to be that way. Mostly, I succeed.
Now I have left academia and I work in Africa, with poverty and other challenges always in my face. Could I do that in the same way, had I not had the Vietnam-Cambodia experience? No.
Addendum: I have two bumper stickers on my truck. One says “Vietnam Veteran” and the other is of the US flag with the words “THINK: It’s Patriotic”.
- Wayne Decker
I was the wife of a Vietnam veteran. He was in the Air Force and did two tours. The last tour of seven months was mandated when he had two months of active duty left to serve. His experiences as a platoon sergeant changed his life, my life.
My husband returned with PTSD, but it wasn't recognized as such at this time.
He slept - when he slept - with guns under his pillow. He had been the average age of the man sent to fight, nineteen, and upon coming home with zero time to decompress, he had no idea what he was to do with his life. Who was he? What does one do with skills to kill?
He is a quiet man with deep sensitivity and creativity. His humor is wry, and you have to know him well to know his moods as he presents a fairly flat effect. I knew something was amiss with him, however. I nagged and nagged until he went to the Wilshire LA VA, in 1978, and asked for counseling. By a twist in the Fates his records were at that hospital, and with a cancellation he was seen immediately.
He came home crying. He told me he'd been trying to figure out how to blow his brains out without leaving me and our daughter a mess. Thanks to the VA and that counselor, who was on call with him anytime within the next year, he never did it. He became part of the first studies for PTSD, Los Angeles. But the window closed on what we was willing to deal with. His flat effect remained. He became reclusive. I couldn't reach beyond the walls he built. With great pain, we separated in 1985, one of the hardest things I've ever done because how does one leave one's best friend? Except he wasn't there.
I became a Systems Therapist. My Master's thesis dealt with DEROS [Date Eligible for Return From Overseas], PTSD and the Vietnam Veteran. I specialized in trauma and grief issues. Now, over 40 years hence, a woodworking accident triggered him facing the war demons. With two years of fabulous counseling via the VA in Ohio, he is opening himself up and healing. He and I are both remarried and still in touch. Perhaps, at least in spirit, one never leaves a best friend.
His grief now is having lost so much of his life, living behind the walls of war. And I hope for him constantly a new awareness that all any of us have is right now, and within the present are so many beautiful miracles to sense and feel.- Anna Lands
I was born and raised in the little state of Rhode Island, and graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1968, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering.
I was enrolled in U.S. Army R.O.T.C. program at URI, and went, immediately, into the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant in the transportations corp. In September, 1968. All I wanted to do, in the military was to fly, and with the help of personal political friend, was assigned [to] Fixed Wing Flight School, to train as a Fixed Wing Aviator in the "ARMY”. (That's another story in itself.)
Training took place at Fort Stewart, Georgia for a couple of months, followed by tactical flight training in the L-19 reconnaissance aircraft (commonly referred to as the “Birddog”). Immediately upon completing Fixed Wing Flight Training, I was assigned to Vietnam as a Fixed Wing Aviator in the 3 Corp area (near the city of Saigon) in Phu Loi, Vietnam. That was where my flight experiences began, on December 3 1969 and lasted until December 3, 1970 - to the minute.
I started flying the ”Birddog” on reconnaissance missions within the week. Most incidents took place within a 200-mile radius of Saigon and stories of all-night "EAGLE WATCHes" of the city of Siagon, missions with Special Forces around the city of Phuoc Vinh, and a really surprise mission into Cambodia on the day when US tanks were deployed into that country to scout out Viet Cong.
[I also have a mission story to tell of an aerial photograph of a Viet Cong P.O.W. camp, on the side of a mountain that gave me a one-time pass at eye level distance from the site. A story so scary to tell, because me and my photographer could have been obliterated by antiaircraft fire on a second pass.]
Many more stories of flying the “Birddog” in Vietnam in 1970 , but that's about it for this typing. There are many may more incidents to cover, because of who I am. One final hint, I am one of the very few African-American reconnaissance “Birddog” pilots ( if not the only one).
- Captain Frank H. Nesbitt (Ret.)
I was in college at the time, a very small New England college quite removed from 'the world'.
Several people I knew went into the Army, some went to Canada. Everyone I knew came back from Vietnam.
Still, so many years later, and without the weight of personal loss, I carry a heavy grief.
The grief became heavier and painful when I read the following from this author's note (p.xv) in William Manchester's “A World Lit only by Fire”.
"Yet I knew from experience that ...chains of circumstance are always there, awaiting discovery. To cite a small, relatively recent example: In the first year of John F. Kennedy's presidential administration, four developments appeared to be unrelated - America's humiliation at the Bay of Pigs in April, Kennedy's confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev in Austria six weeks later, the raising of the Berlin Wall in August, and, in December, the first commitment of American ground troops to Indochina. Yet each event had led to the next. Khrushchev saw the Cuban fiasco as evidence that the young president was weak. Therefore he bullied him in Vienna. In the mistaken belief that he had intimidated him there, he build the Wall. Kennedy answered the challenge by sending four hundred Green Berets to Southeast Asia, explaining to those around him that ‘we have a problem making our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place’”.- Anna Lands
I served three tours of duty in Vietnam, in the US Navy from April 1969 until December of 1972. My first tour in Vietnam was river duty, in the Mekong Delta.
My father was chief radiologist for Pima County, and he worked at Pima County General Hospital in Tucson. In 1969 my father requested to participate in the USAID program for volunteer physicians in Vietnam. The time he spent in Vietnam was during my deployment in country. He was assigned to the main hospital in Saigon teaching, training and upgrading their radiology department.
My father was under the direction and authority of the US State Department and the US Embassy which allowed him the opportunity and ability to get down to the Delta and spend time with me and my fellow shipmates. The memories and the stories are too numerous to put [in an email]. I have many photographs and 8mm movies of time we spent together while he was there.
I served two more tours in Vietnam on board the USS Shelton DD790 as naval support activity off the coast of North and South Vietnam.
- Bob Eby
“We were last in order to clear Rt. 9, but when the forward companies made contact with the NVA, we were ordered to be picked up by chopper to leapfrog ahead and become point element.”
“Joegy,” I recall my grandpa saying after he’d had a few beers, “Your two best friends are your rifle and your horse. And if you got just a little bit of water left in your canteen, give it to your horse first.” Grandpa was a sergeant in the 1st Cavalry in 1917 and he was deployed along the Arizona border during Brigadier General John Pershing’s Mexican Punitive Expedition against the revolutionary Pancho Villa. He knew the value of the horse and rifle to the cavalry soldier.
Fifty years after my Grandpa learned the lessons of mobility from atop his horse, I found myself an infantry lieutenant with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), the “1st Air Cav,” in Vietnam. It was a new concept for the Army, swift deployment of light infantry troops, their artillery fire support, supplies and equipment—primarily by helicopter. We had mobility and firepower that the other Army units simply did not have.In the early spring of 1968, that mobility would come into play during one of the war’s most prolonged encounters, one that struck fear in the heart of President Lyndon Johnson and gripped the attention of the nation. Leading the 2nd Platoon, D Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 3rd Brigade, 1st Air Cav, I was to be a part of the historic relief of the courageous Marines who held on for 77 days at Khe Sanh, and experience the effective use of the Air Cav’s awesome agility in breaking the grip of an entrenched enemy and of opening the road to the besieged combat base.
The Marines’ mission at Khe Sanh was to block the North Vietnamese infiltration across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and to establish a jumping-off point for a proposed but never authorized American advance into the panhandle of Laos to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Some 15 miles south of the DMZ and barely seven miles from the eastern frontier of Laos, the Khe Sanh Combat Base was almost completely surrounded by towering ridges in the center of four valley corridors leading through the mountains to the north and northwest of the base. To the south, Khe Sanh overlooked its namesake hamlet and Route 9, the only east-west road in the province of Quang Tri, linking Laos and the Vietnamese coastal regions. Built atop a plateau, the base covered an area approximately one mile long and one-half mile wide and had a 3,900-foot aluminum mat runway that could accommodate fixed-wing aircraft up to the size of C-130 transports.
By January 1968, the North Vietnamese had cut off Route 9 and built up their forces around the 6,000 Marines at Khe Sanh to 20,000 troops, unleashing a strike a week before starting their Tet Offensive that was waged across South Vietnam. President Johnson and his advisers feared the Khe Sanh siege would be the prelude to a full-scale assault comparable to General Vo Nguyen Giap’s crushing 1954 Viet Minh victory over the French at a similar base at Dien Bien Phu. Obsessed over the fate of the firebase, LBJ had a table-top mockup of the Khe Sanh base set up inside the White House and told his advisers, “I don’t want any damn ‘Dinbinfoo.’”
The dire Khe Sanh situation, with the trapped Marines reduced to living underground, was dramatized in news reports as likely to be a “very rough business with heartbreaking American casualties.” It was being framed as a major test of strength between North Vietnam and the United States, loaded with heavy political and psychological overtones. As LBJ personally sent off Marine reinforcements to I Corps from El Toro Marine Air Station, Calif., on February 17, he told them: “This is a decisive time in Vietnam. The eyes of the nation and the eyes of the entire world, the eyes of all of history itself, are on that little brave band of defenders who hold the pass at Khe Sanh.”
I had only arrived in Vietnam in January, and when my parents sent me newspaper clippings about the Marines at Khe Sanh, I thought that if there were a place on earth that was close to being hell—it had to be Khe Sanh. Little did I know that my platoon would soon be at the spearhead of the overland expedition to end the siege.
On February 7, the Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, just seven kilometers southwest of Khe Sanh, was overrun, heightening the alarm over the fate of the Marine base. Only massive bombing—some 110,000 tons dropped during the siege—kept a full assault at bay.
American casualties at Khe Sanh were high, and the intense shelling hindered effective aerial resupply of the combat base.
On March 2, Maj. Gen. John J. Tolson, commander of the 1st Air Cav, got the green light for his plans for the relief of Khe Sanh, dubbed Operation Pegasus. The mission was: Destroy the enemy forces within the area; open Route 9 from Ca Lu to Khe Sanh; and relieve the Khe Sanh Combat Base. In this operation, the 1st Cavalry Division would be augmented by the 1st Marine Regiment, 26th Marine Regiment, 3rd Army of the Republic of Vietnam Airborne Task Force and the 37th ARVN Ranger Battalion.
The basic concept of Pegasus was for the 1st Marines to launch a ground attack west toward Khe Sanh with two battalions, while the 3rd Brigade would lead the 1st Cavalry air assault. On the first two days of the operation, all elements would continue to attack west toward Khe Sanh; and, on the following day, the 2nd Brigade of the Cavalry would land three battalions southeast of Khe Sanh and attack northwest. The 26th Marines, which was holding Khe Sanh, would then attack south to secure Hill 471. On D plus 4, the 1st Brigade would air assault just south of Khe Sanh and attack north. The following day, the 3rd ARVN Airborne Task Force would air assault southwest of Khe Sanh and attack toward Lang Vei Special Forces camp. Linkup was planned at the end of seven days. Some 20,000 U.S. and ARVN soldiers and U.S. Marines would take part in Pegasus.
D-day was to be April 1, and an airstrip in the vicinity of Ca Lu, Landing Zone (LZ) Stud, had to be ready well before. Also, Route 9 between the Rock Pile and Ca Lu had to be upgraded and bridges repaired to allow prestocking of supplies at LZ Stud.
Also, key to the plan’s success would be the closely integrated reconnaissance and fire support effort of the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, and air, artillery and B-52 Arc Light strikes. The 1/9 Cavalry, which was unique in that it had infantry and air assets combined, operated like the scouts of old out of LZ Stud, moving in gradually increasing concentric circles up to the Khe Sanh area, working all the time with air cover from the Seventh Air Force or the 1st Marine Air Wing. The 1/9 Cavalry was almost the only means available to pinpoint enemy locations, anti-aircraft positions and strong points that the division would try to avoid in the initial assaults. The squadron was also responsible for the selection of critical landing zones.
As Tet broke open at the end of January, my platoon was operating around Bong Son, or “VC Valley,” along the coast. We were moving north to begin operating out of Camp Evans. It wasn’t until late March that we began hearing that our battalion might be a part of Pegasus.
In my diary entry of March 22, I wrote:
March 22, 1507 hours. It’s hot. I’m sitting under poncho liner. Tonight, to go out and set up a goat to catch any VC setting up mines. Rumor still is that we will go to Khe Sanh….
At 0700 hours on April 1, 1968, the attack phase of Operation Pegasus started as two battalions of the 1st Marines attacked west from Ca Lu along Route 9. At the same time, Chinooks and Hueys airlifted the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry into LZ Stud in preparation for an air assault farther west.
Weather delayed the attack until 1300, when the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry air assaulted into LZ Mike, located on prominent ground south of Route 9 and well forward of the Marine attack. The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry also air assaulted into the same landing zone to expand and develop the position.
Monday, April 1, 0817. We are waiting to be picked up to go to LZ Ca Lu. From there we go to LZ Thor. Thor hasn’t been decided definitely yet. The terrain there is thick and mountainous. We air assaulted to the top of this mountain. It is jungle and grassy. I jumped from the chopper and hurt my arm.
The 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry air assaulted into an area north of Route 9, about opposite LZ Mike, within range of supporting artillery. Both landing zones were secured and no significant enemy resistance was encountered. A battery of 105mm Howitzers was airlifted into each landing zone, and bad weather notwithstanding, everything was in place before dark. The bad weather of D-day was to haunt the 1st Air Cav throughout Operation Pegasus.
On April 2, the 1st Marines pushed along the axis of Route 9. Two Marine companies made limited air assaults to support the regiment’s momentum. The 3rd Brigade air assaulted the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry into a new position farther to the west while the other two battalions improved their positions.
Tuesday, April 2, 1000. The sun is out. We’re on a high mountain top surrounded by a river on three sides. Today, D Company is to air assault to a new location to set up there. We just got a log ship with food and water. It was nice sleeping last night.
We didn’t carry our “butt packs,” but our web gear, C-rations, fragmentation and smoke grenades, ammunition, M-16s, M-60s, M-79s, LAWs (light anti-tank weapons), PRC-25 radios and a 90mm recoilless rifle weighed us down enough. Sometimes we wore our flak vests, but we avoided doing so whenever we could. My point man that day was a lanky guy with a peace symbol on his helmet we called “Hippy.” He was an excellent point man—the first guy in order of movement as we moved through “Indian country.” Hippy found the site where an enemy .50-cal. machine gun had been, and a North Vietnamese Army helmet and a bag of raw opium. The NVA used opium for medicinal purposes—and perhaps to prepare themselves for suicidal sapper attacks. I told Hippy to take the bag back to turn it in. I never checked to see if he did.
Tuesday, April 2, 1720. D Company led the air assault to where we are now. My platoon led a ground movement. We found a site for a .50-cal. anti-aircraft gun. Also. some of my platoon found some ammo and grenades (NVA). Now we are waiting to see where we’ll set up. We’re hot and tired.
When the initial attacks met less enemy resistance than expected, General Tolson ordered an acceleration of the tempo. There were now six air cavalry battalions and supporting artillery deep in enemy territory. To get the 26th Marines out of their static defense position, on April 3 Tolson ordered its commander, Colonel David E. Lownds, to launch a battalion-size attack south from Khe Sanh to seize Hill 471, a strategic piece of terrain affording a commanding view of the base. Following heavy artillery preparation, the Marines seized the hill, killing 30 of the enemy. On the same day, the 2nd Brigade of the cavalry division assaulted one battalion into an old French fort south of Khe Sanh. Initial contact resulted in four enemy killed.
Our company was moving through very dense jungle, and 3rd platoon was the point platoon on this advance. Its men made contact with the NVA, and we could hear the firefight ahead of us. The massive bombing had upturned the soft, rich dirt, and the gigantic craters made great pre-dug foxholes we could climb into. A popular NCO in the 3rd Platoon was killed in the action.
Wednesday, April 3, 0953. We are sitting in the jungle right now. 3rd Platoon hit some NVA a little while ago. They got one of their men KIA. The S-3 carried him back on his shoulders and then three of my men took the KIA to the rear. We’re waiting for artillery to come in. There are huge bomb craters all around. I can hear the choppers circling the area now. There are trees, high grass and ferns all around.
Later in the day, we set up a company-size perimeter on jungle-shrouded Hill 242, not far off Route 9. So, we could get resupplied, we started clearing a landing zone by wrapping detonation cord around some of the smaller trees and blowing them in two, but there were too many and we were unsuccessful in the LZ construction. The NVA surrounded us but apparently did not have the force or will to attack us directly. One of the other units, using a small flat-bed utility vehicle to bring us supplies, a “mule,” was ambushed as they moved down the road, resulting in some killed. We didn’t get any food or water, except for rain water we gathered on our ponchos.
Wednesday, April 3, 1808. We moved to this Hill 242. NVA mortared us. We had 10 or 11 WIA. NVA have us surrounded now. One platoon from another company tried to bring us food and water but got pinned down. I hope we make it through the night.
At one point, the platoon sergeant and I were checking our section of the perimeter when we heard that distinctive clank of the bolt of an AK-47 being pulled back from outside our perimeter. I yelled, “Get down!” We hit the dirt just as the automatic weapons fire started chopping the leaves above us. He had a horrified look on his face, and I let out a nervous laugh. When that AK opened up, one of our machine gunners started pumping M-60 fire into the jungle in the area of the sound of the enemy fire, no doubt saving our lives.
My platoon had five PRC-25 radios. Some entire companies had only two, but I realized how critical communications was and I wanted my five authorized radios. Two radio telephone operators (RTOs) were near me constantly, and later that night I heard the company commander get on the radio and say that it appeared that artillery rounds had landed in our perimeter but did not explode. He said that they could be “duds”— or chemical agents. I stayed awake all night thinking I might die from a nerve agent, but it didn’t happen. The next morning, we moved back to a position where the 105 Howitzers had been brought in by Chinooks.
After a while, I got almost numb to the idea that I could be killed at any time. I had been scared before but always did my best to hide it. Although I saw dead and wounded around me, I could keep myself somewhat detached, but when I saw the 2nd Platoon leader of C Company killed, my sense of invincibility deteriorated.
Thursday, April 4, 1800. I have my platoon in position on the perimeter. As we came back today we picked up a couple of the dead and wounded who tried to get us supplies yesterday. When we got back here we saw more dead and wounded. The 2nd Platoon leader of C Company was killed. One medevac chopper was shot up. The NVA here are dangerous. I don’t like this area. I hope we all get out alive.
On April 5, the 2nd Brigade continued its attack on the old French fort, meeting heavy enemy resistance. Enemy troops attacked the Marines on Hill 471, but the Marines repulsed the attack, killing 122 North Vietnamese. The fight was one of the heaviest during Pegasus, as units of the 1st Brigade entered the operation with the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, air assaulting into LZ Snapper about seven kilometers due south of Khe Sanh Combat Base and overlooking Route 9. The circle began to close around the enemy.
Friday, April 5, 1550. I got the word today that our battalion may walk to Khe Sanh tomorrow. This could be disastrous. We’ve incurred a lot of dead and wounded since we’ve been here. I hope to God we make it alive. I’ve had a lot of close calls and I’m getting scared again. Everyone is scared of this area. The NVA are numerous and good fighters. We’re digging in again for tonight.
On April 6, the 1st Marines continued operations on the high ground north and south of Route 9, moving west toward Khe Sanh. The heaviest contact of the day occurred in the 3rd Brigade’s area of operation as the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry continued its drive west on Highway 9. In a daylong battle, which ended when the enemy summarily abandoned his position and fled, the battalion had 83 NVA killed, one captured, and 121 individual and 10 crew-served weapons captured. Some troops of the 1st Air Cav were airlifted to Hill 471, relieving the Marines at this position. Two companies of troopers remained on the hill, while two other companies initiated an attack to the south toward the hamlet of Khe Sanh.
Using mortars, hand grenades and rocket launchers, an enemy force attacked 1st Cavalry forces at LZ Snapper. The attack was a disaster for the enemy, who lost 20 killed. At 1320 the 84th Company of the ARVN 8th Airborne Battalion was airlifted by 1st Cavalry Division aircraft inside the Khe Sanh Combat Base and linked up with elements of the ARVN 37th Ranger Battalion.
Although 1st Cavalry units had relieved Marines at Hill 471 and airlifted South Vietnamese airborne into the Khe Sanh Combat Base, Route 9 and the road leading into the Khe Sanh base remained to be cleared, and that was the task that lay ahead of us. It was common practice for commanders to rotate personnel or units as point elements, and on this day it was other units’ turn to be ahead of D Company. We thought we’d caught a lucky break, as we were last in order of movement on this day. But when the forward companies made contact with the NVA, we were ordered to reverse our movement and go back to the road to be picked up by chopper to leapfrog over the two companies in contact to continue the mission to clear the highway. We were now point element again.
Saturday, April 6, 1400. Well, we tried to walk from this LZ to Khe Sanh, but we had to come back as the two forward companies received effective fire. Now our company is supposed to air assault to 500 meters east of Khe Sanh. This is a glory push to see who can be the first to walk into Khe Sanh. I hope we make it. We have many reporters with us.
On April 7, the ARVN 3rd Airborne Task Force air assaulted three battalions into positions north of the road and east of Khe Sanh to block NVA escape routes toward the Laotian border. Sporadic fights continued throughout the area as the enemy withdrew. American and South Vietnamese units began picking up significant quantities of abandoned weapons and equipment. The old French fort, which was the last known enemy strongpoint around Khe Sanh, was now completely secured.
We air assaulted near the top of a mountain that seemed to be solid rock. As we were moving toward the crest, bullets whistled overhead. There was no cover and the ground was just too hard to dig in if we had to. We just kept moving toward the crest. The point squad radioed that they saw bunkers as they approached, so I had the platoon get in a line formation so all firepower would be to the front. The lead squad got to the bunkers and said the NVA was gone. My platoon and the rest of the company occupied this area at a location near the intersection where Route 9 branches off toward Lang Vei.
It had been a regimental size NVA complex with all kinds of weapons—mortars, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, ZPU-4, AKs, RPDs, RPKs, RPGs and commo wire linking bunkers surrounding the whole area. The area was heavily pockmarked with bomb craters, and we found dead North Vietnamese in bunkers. It was here that one of my guys found an old French bugle and put parachute cord on it to make a tassel. I grabbed an AK-47 and an NVA bayonet and ammo pouch as souvenirs.
Sunday, April 7, 1045. We air assaulted to an open area on a mountain top and received light sniper fire. We found a complex (NVA) with rockets, mortars-tube and ammo-AK-47s, and all sorts of material. I have a sharp AK-47 which I hope to keep. We are to go to Khe Sanh.
We were now about two miles outside of Khe Sanh, and although the bunker complex was abandoned, the road to the base still had to be cleared. My platoon led the clearing action, straddling the road by 30 meters. We didn’t know if NVA were still lurking in the area, and we had to avoid “toe popper” bomblets that had been dropped by the Air Force. We carefully searched each bunker all the way to the wire at Khe Sanh, but it seemed the NVA had vanished.
Sunday, April 7, 1700. We are at Khe Sanh camped outside the east entrance on Highway 9.
At 0800 on April 8, the relief of Khe Sanh was officially effected, following the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry’s successful clearing of Route 9 and the road to the base. The 3rd Brigade airlifted its command post into Khe Sanh, and the 7th Cavalry assumed the mission of securing the area. The 3rd Brigade elements occupied high ground to the east and northeast of the base with no enemy contact.
Ours was the first platoon to walk into Khe Sanh, and as we did I blew the cavalry charge on the enemy bugle.
A newspaper wire report dated April 8, 1968, described the scene: SAIGON (UPI)—Blowing “Charge!” on a captured Communist Bugle, American ground forces linked up with the long-surrounded Marine fort of Khe Sanh and then fanned out and killed at least 103 North Vietnamese in the hills on South Vietnam’s northern frontier, U.S. spokesmen said today….
At Khe Sanh, where round the clock Communist artillery fire had driven 6,000 Marine defenders underground, the Leathernecks Sunday whooped it up as Army 1st Lt. Joe Abodeely’s unit walked the last two miles into the camp, Abodeely, 24, of Tucson, Arizona, and his platoon formed the 1st Air Cavalry spearhead of the 20,000-man Operation Pegasus drive that broke the Communist grip around Khe Sanh in a week-long drive that covered 12 miles of jungle, hills and minefields.
The lieutenant triumphantly blew on the bugle he found in a captured arms dump. Its notes echoed across the red dirt plateau.
Abodeely’s unit had landed by helicopter two miles from Khe Sanh and met no resistance the rest of the way. The helicopter leapfrog technique, plus a Marine road-clearing drive, formed the backbone of Pegasus….
While it was nice that the press saw fit to put a lieutenant’s name as leading the operation, it was the Marines who defended Khe Sanh for 77 days and fought their way out of the base, and all of the 1st Air Cav troopers who engaged and drove the NVA away from Khe Sanh who were the true heroes of the epic fight.
In the end, the NVA suffered tens of thousands of casualties and was forced to withdraw. Their campaign against Khe Sanh was foiled by the unprecedented mobility of the Air Cav.
As General Tolson later wrote: “It became increasingly evident, through lack of contact and the large amounts of new equipment being found indiscriminately abandoned on the battlefield, that the enemy had fled the area rather than face certain defeat. He was totally confused by the swift, bold, many-pronged attacks.”
Yet, soon after, American tactics changed, and just three months later Khe Sanh Combat Base, where much American blood had been shed, was dismantled. But Khe Sanh, and the courage and determination of the men who fought there, will never be forgotten.
After Vietnam, Joseph Abodeely finished law school and became a Reserve JAG officer, his last assignment at the Military Police Operations Agency. A Maricopa County, Ariz., deputy county attorney from 1971 to 1985 before entering private practice, he has also been the CEO of the Arizona Military Museum since 1980.
- Joseph E. Abodeely
I trained at Monterey's DLI (Defense Language Institute) in '68 and at Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, TX (briefly) to be a 98G radio intercept linguist in North Vietnamese Dialect.
At the time the Security Agencies were separate from Military Intelligence branches. Our job was to listen to NVA radio, record and transcribe their voice communications being clear that we were not to listen in to South Vietnamese (VC) or the SV Army Comms.
Interestingly the unit I joined was formed at Ft. Huachuca with converted Navy P2V Lockheed submarine chase aircraft. (I flew sufficient hours on the P2V aircraft and others to earn 23 oak leaf clusters to my army air medal.) They were Army Security Agency stationed on Cam Ranh Bay Navy base and converted to multiple radio listening positions. The aircraft during form up were stationed at Marana. Five (I believe) aircraft were flown to Vietnam in 1967 or ’68. They were selected because of the long flight times which allowed for listening to signals for 10 or more hours/18 hour flight.
I joined Crazy Cat 1st RR Aviation in Jan. 1969 at Cam Ranh.
Typically we took off from Cam Ranh Bay Naval station. Briefing began at 9 o’clock in the morning with take off at about 10am. Later departures risked too much heating on the runway. We flew north along the coast to near the border with North Vietnam then inland to fly intercepting patterns over the Ho Chi Minh trail. We stayed on station there for about 10 hours. Then returned to Da Nang to refuel and drop off our transcripts and tapes before returning to Cam Ranh about 4-5am.
I had two 'song bird' intercepts during my tour. A song bird meant that you heard NVA chattering in plain text about going after a downed US pilot who was shot down. I was able to translate and send directly to the ground within minutes of intercept as part of the rescue effort. Both those episodes resulted in rescue of the pilot before they could be reached/captured. I am not saying that my intercept was even used, but we were participants in those efforts. Other linguists also had song bird intercepts.
An important intercept which affected me personally occurred on a couple of night missions late in my tour. The NVA operator broke chatter silence which was quite unusual. His chatter was very personal about R&R home visit and complaints about officers who dominated the visiting entertainment to the loss of time for the enlisted personnel. Exactly the sort of scuttlebutt conversation we might have on our days off.
In September '69 I was commissioned and had to leave Crazy Cat as part of Army policy. Something I did not realize until after I accepted the commission. I returned stateside earlier that a full tour later to serve as OIC of a linguist group at NSA, near Ft. Meade, MD.
Shortly after leaving the service in 1971. I went back to NAU in Flagstaff to study ecology and forestry in graduate school. There I met Quakers, and partly due to my reflections on the NVA radio operator intercept events, I became a member of the Religious Society of Friends , which I continue to follow their precepts against wars and support for those who feel led to conscientious objection to all war.
chiến tranh không lành mạnh cho trẻ con và lại sinh viên khách. war is not healthy for children and other living beings
Peace to all. - Charlie Thomas, 1st Lt. US Army Security Agency 1969-71 & Linguist 1967-69 Sp5 in Vietnam '69- Charlie Thomas
I was one who did not want to go to Vietnam. I was actually drafted twice in 1968. I was older, 24, married and working. I was able to join an Army Reserve Unit in California before receiving my second draft notice. I moved to Tucson in January 1971 and was in the 414th Armor Unit in Tucson.
It was difficult managing a family, (wife and new son), full time job and Army Reserve meetings. Any vacation time was spent at the two week annual Army training camp. Most men did not want to be in the Army and the attitude was very negative. We were there because of the Vietnam conflict and no one wanted to go to combat. I am proud to say I served, but did not enjoy my time in the military. I was very happy to end my my military obligation and return to civilian life.
- Douglas Shumway
My father, a Marine, went to Vietnam in 1967-68. We lived on base, and I was born at Camp Pendleton on his twentieth birthday. During his time in the jungle, he was sprayed with Agent Orange at least once.
He came back a quiet man: one who rarely told stories about the things he'd seen and done while deployed. He went on to become a police officer, and rose through the ranks to become captain, then chief of police, and he sat on City Council. He spent his life serving his country. He saved his pennies, and retired early, at age 52. The next year, he was diagnosed with stage IV Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. He underwent treatment for five years before finally succumbing to the dastardly sickness planted inside him in the jungles of Vietnam.
Vietnam is a word, today, that brings pain, and sorrow, and a longing for the father it tore from me.
- Lauri Owen
November 1968, after having Thanksgiving Dinner with my family, I left Tucson for Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego to begin boot camp. I was 17-year-old and had enlisted in the Marines since I was having some problems in high school and felt I needed to serve my country.
After completing boot camp and Infantry school at Camp Pendleton, California, I returned to Tucson for my 30-day leave. I was assigned to return to 5th Shore Party at Camp Pendleton where I spent two short months before receiving orders to deploy for Vietnam.
This meant several more weeks of training at Staging Battalion at Camp Pendleton and was swiftly flown by commercial air to Da Nang. The initiation to a combat zone was quick and dramatic since, as we landed, we came under a rocket attack and were whipped off the tarmac to be assigned to our units.
I was a bulldozer operator assigned to 7th Engineers, based in Da Nang.
I was only in-country for two weeks when I was sent joint operation with the Blue Dragon 2nd Marine Division ROK (Republic of Korea). Little did I know then that the training we received at Camp Pendleton, was about to be tested.
After three days at sea on a LST (landing ship tank), we awoke before dawn and were loaded on to landing craft to make an amphibious landing on a place known as Barrier Island, south of Chu Lai.
We were not briefed before hand that this was a NVA (North Vietnamese Army) stronghold, basically a rest and recuperation (R&R) center and rallying point for communist forces. As we landed from the beach, troops from the Australian Army approached from the south of the island, 101st Airborne from the north, and America from the west.
The initial landing was historic in the sense that it was the first amphibious landing made by the Koreans in over 20 years. The resistance was fierce as we pushed forward clearing the jungle to set up fire bases for the infantry. I soon learned that dozer operators were affectionately referred to as “sniper bait" since we were sitting ducks for snipers.
As fate would have it, three days into the operation, I hit a mine and blew the track off my dozer. Battalion headquarters let us know that they wouldn't risk sending a mechanic to repair it, so we destroyed it with C4. From that moment on, I was relegated to my primary MOS (military occupational specialty) that all Marines are trained for, that of a basic rifleman.
About six weeks into the operation, I contracted Jungle rot and was medevaced back to Da Nang, treated for three weeks, then returned to my unit in the bush.
For the next few months we endured constant sniper fire, many attempts by NVA and Viet Cong to overrun our compound. The living conditions were beyond anything imaginable, lack of clean water, C-rations three times a day, seven days a week, no way to bathe, oppressive heat and humidity, being covered with mosquito bites and sores.
The five engineers I was with shared the use of one hammock, which ended up saving my life the night we were nearly completely overrun.
Since I had serious dysentery and was very weak and suffering greatly, I was going to be medevaced yet again.
Roughly around midnight, an 81MM mortar emplacement took a direct hit from a Chinese 122MM rocket and all the rounds exploded, blowing me about 30 feet. I was knocked unconscious, and was eventually dragged to a safe spot until the medevac helicopter could land. I fell unconscious again and awoke in Da Nang in the triage unit and was taken into the operating room.
The next morning, I awoke in the surgery ward and was greeted by my battalion commander that informed me I was being evaced to Yokosuka Naval Hospital in Japan where I spent the next two months recovering.
I finished out my tour in Japan and returned to Tucson for a 30-day leave, then reported to Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), Yuma where I was given a 15 month early out.
At that point in my life, I was a 19 year old disabled veteran.
- Ed Conley
A few weeks before Vietnam fell in April of 1975, a group of Tucson women attending a weaving workshop, received a call asking if they could house 300 or so (out of thousands) children from Vietnam. Many people, including the U.S. government, believed these kids were at risk of being murdered by the Viet Cong because they had been fathered by American servicemen.
The kids were in orphanages, many already scheduled to be adopted throughout the world. Those 300 kids didn't come to Tucson, but the same women were asked to help them get out of Vietnam by developing a communication center between the orphanages, the adoption agencies across the world, and the international & military airlines. Only three "Watts" services existed in Tucson at that time, so it was a major challenge to set up a system that allowed world-wide communication.
The volunteers manned the phones from 6:00 p.m. - 6:00 a.m. talking to all of the parties who were involved throughout the night. Thousands of children were able to leave (estimates vary from 2,500 to 40,000). The flights landed at The Presidio, near San Francisco. Jim Kolbe (later Congressman Kolbe) was the coordinator on the site and I coordinated the communication center.
A tragic crash occurred early in the effort, killing 138 people, including 78 children. Most of the volunteers were already adoptive parents, several with kids from Vietnam, so this crisis was very real and the volunteers were all impassioned to do everything possible to save the children. The phones were located at Hughes Aircraft. This all happened in the span of about two-and-a-half weeks.
Several weeks later, these same Tucsonans welcomed a special group of people from the Queen of Peace Church in Saigon who had escaped and were in need of very specific major medical services. Again, Tucson doctors and volunteers spent hundreds of hours operating, obtaining prosthetics (young men in the group were missing at least one limb), repairing the bodies and assisting the recovery. Later, jobs were created for these youths at Tri-Tronics by John Vancza.
About the same time, the [Vietnamese] ”boat people" were arriving at Camp Pendleton and the Wilson Foundation asked Jim and I to go there and determine how Tucson might be able to help. There was no formal U.S. government resettlement program at the time and there was no money either for the refugees or for covering the costs of managing resettlement. The Wilson's funded a phone and a secretary, and the program was launched out of Catalina Methodist Church and staffed by hundreds of Tucson folks.
After one press conference, doctors, interpreters, drivers, and an employment expert (David Kha) all contributed many many hours to assisting farmers, fishermen, shopkeepers and generals in adjusting to their new life in America. Businesses called to offer jobs.
There were also terrible events that happened here. One involved a child committing suicide and another, a grandmother setting fire to her house. The media was very helpful and ran many stories at the time - it would not have happened without them! Five hundred people were resettled during a 2-2 1/2 year period before the program became part of Catholic Community Services, which is still in the forefront of resettling displaced individuals.
There are many stories of individuals and families leaving their country, who made that terrible journey, and how they have contributed to Tucson and the U.S.
- Georgia Vancza
On January 1969, Steve turned 18 and during his first year of high school he started planning a law enforcement career. Knowing he would soon be drafted, Steve joined the Army with the stipulation that he wouldn’t start basic training until August. He wanted one more summer of hanging out with his friends and help support his family. During his time off, he met my new boyfriend and gave his approval.
Our mom was distraught, our dad left us and now her first born child was going to war. We were a military family, so there was an abundance of pride in Steve’s decision, but our fear was overwhelming.
Steve was proud of his Military Police status. He looked very handsome in his uniform. My older brother sent letters to me and most ended with a note to Mike, my boyfriend. “Tell Mike to keep it cool.” That was code telling Mike and me that he didn’t want me to get pregnant before getting married.
Steve made it home, but he suffered from PTSD. One day, he came fully awake and placed his hands around our mom’s throat. Steve told our mom to throw a shoe at him if she wanted to wake him. But what mother does that? She did from that time on.
In addition to suffering from PTSD, Steve’s body experienced strange symptoms. Eventually, we found out that many of the issues were Agent Orange related. Steve had a large growth behind his ear that put pressure on his brain which left him with no memory of what he had done for several hours. Within a short period of time he was confined to a wheelchair. The VA doctors were able to shrink the tumor which eliminated the “awake blackouts” and allowed him to walk with a cane.
Steve died at 55. The VA doctors couldn’t agree on his cause of death. My older brother has been gone for 11 years and I miss him everyday.
- Joette Schenck
I have waited 50 years to tell this story, and maybe it is not long enough. There is still enough hurt, enough pain, that it is hard for even good and sincere people to hear each other.
I was a conscientious objector against the War in Vietnam and went to prison for it. This is my story.
I was raised in Tucson and went through college here, graduated early from the U of A, and received a scholarship to go to medical school in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins. But that turned out not to be a good time - I was 20 years old when I went and I do not think I was either intellectually or emotionally ready for medical school - I had an almost magical view of what medicine was - and the reality was very different. In 3 years I flunked out. I was immediately subject to the draft, the year was 1967.
I had been politically aware for some time and had a very negative view of the Vietnam War, which I thought was a needless tragedy promulgated by the Cold War mentality of prior leaders who seemed determined to ignore local realities and foist upon the American people a kind of mindless anti-Communism which allied us with some of the worst dictators in the world. Yet I was also deeply in love with this country - with the idea and the ideals of America - and thought of myself as being patriotic. But, the more I thought about the Vietnam War the worse it seemed - I did not feel I could participate in a war to which I was morally opposed. But now push came to shove: what was I to do? I was frightened at the prospect of what I might have to do, if I were to follow my moral compass - my total experience with lawbreaking to that point had been one traffic ticket at age 17.
I decided that what made the most sense to me was to be willing to go into the military - since I was not opposed to military service per se - but tell them of my opposition and hope that I could still be useful. That of course proved not to be possible and I was given orders to ship out to Vietnam. I wrote an appeal to my congressman, Morris Udall, and on the basis of that, was allowed to apply for discharge as a conscientious objector, from the holding company at Ft. Lewis, WA. I did so and waited.
In the meantime I tried to be the best soldier I could for them and was sent to be troubleshooter finding lost equipment. One day the CO sent a Jeep with three fellow soldiers (armed!) to pick me up to go back to HQ. They were not supposed to tell but they told me that my discharge as a conscientious objector had been denied and I was going to be ordered to sign out to go to Vietnam. So I had about 20 minutes, sitting in the back of the Jeep, to work up my courage and decide. I expected that if I had the courage of my convictions and refused orders, I would probably break down totally and cry. But when I was escorted to the top sergeant and he gave me the order, I had this feeling as if a great weight had been lifted.
At that precise moment I realized that I was freer than anyone else there - even though I was going to prison - since they were trapped in the system (with which they might not agree) but I was not. I pitied them.
So I said, "Sargeant Bourgault, I am sorry to cause you such trouble, but I must respectfully refuse this order." They were stunned - I do not think they had ever had anyone quietly and politely refuse orders. They did not know what to do and looked at each other. I suggested, "Do you want me to confine myself to quarters?" They decided that was a good idea. Ultimately they decided to keep me there at HQ working in the office, and since I did my work well and was reliable, they did not object too much when I planted flowers all around the HQ building.
Ultimately, I was court-martialed and sentenced to two years at hard labor and dishonorable discharge; since I did not contest the charges there was a plea agreement to reduce the imprisonment to one year and a Bad Conduct Discharge. One year seems like nothing - until you are serving it in prison. I was initially in the stockade at Ft. Lewis, but after two months was sent to the military's main prison in Leavenworth, KS. That was an upper level of Dante's Inferno.
We were sent by commercial airplane with an armed guard - a nervous kid our age who dropped all the bullets out of his revolver when escorting us. There were all sorts of people going to jail - some of them pretty tough - but we had been told that at Leavenworth we would likely have to submit to being raped by some of the more aggressive convicts or would be thrown off one of the upper tiers. As we approached the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, one of these tough guys asked me to pray for them.
But we were OK. I found out what it felt like to be part of a minority group but even though assaults were not unusual, I was never assaulted and after seven months got out on good behavior. But I was still in the Army as I had appealed my conviction, and was sent to a holding unit at Ft. Huachuca - until Tucson attorney W. Edward Morgan, who was doing draft counseling - begged me to give up the appeal since a hostile company commander could order me again to go to Vietnam and I would be back in prison. So I did, and was out.
I went to see Dr. Philip Krutzsch, Chairman of the Anatomy Department at the nascent U of A College of Medicine, for whom I had worked during summers when I was still at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Krutzsch, a combat veteran of WWII, read me the riot act - that I had thrown away an opportunity (medical school) that other students would have given anything to be able to have. Then he arranged for me to see Dr. Herbert Abrams of the Department of Family & Community Medicine, who offered me a job as an administrative assistant. Then they conspired to have me take the Board Examination for admission to the sophomore class of the U of A College of Medicine; and I re-entered medical school, graduated with honors, and have been a practicing physician in Arizona ever since completion of residency.
In the long years since, I have not kept my 'nefarious history' secret but I have not gone out of my way to emphasize it. I had and have no quarrel with those who served - I have the greatest respect for them. They did what they thought was right and in many instances went through hell for it, and many died. When I had a chance to talk to them and explain that I was doing what I thought was right, there was never a problem - especially with those who had been in combat. I love them all, even if they hate me.
- Abraham Ruddell Byrd III, M.D.
I was in Vietnam 1970-1971, serving in the Army as an officer. I had no interest in serving in the Army, but my draft number was 31, and I was in my 2nd year of college. Knowing there was no doubt that I would have to go into the Army at the end of my college deferment, I joined a two year ROTC program, to become an officer.
I served in a built up area, Cam Ranh Bay. After the My Lai incident, it got a bit crazy with weapons locked up with a triple lock system in the main office. We got hit one night by sappers, VC dressed in black, running through the area tossing explosive charges and shooting anything they could. In the confusion and mayhem, no one was able to get the weapons out of the racks, before the sappers were long gone. We lost a number of soldiers that night.
Drug use was almost at epidemic levels in Vietnam, (maybe that was why the triple lock system on rifles). You could walk thru the sand and see empty vial after vial that originally had heroin in them (we called them "nickel bags" as they cost about $5). When someone was caught on drugs, usually via unannounced urine tests, they went to Detox centers in Saigon area. They came back, thankful that they had been caught, and were free of the Heroin, but it wasn't long before they were shooting up heroin again.
We were co-located with some ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers, who clearly did not have any ownership of fighting for their country. One time, while on alert at our signal site, known as Hill 184, we went on alert for possible enemy intrusion and the bunkers were manned. Lunch time came and the ARVN soldiers got up and left to go eat, without regard for their posts.
It was a very happy day, when I left Vietnam. There was great relief when the big commercial jet went wheels up, and you knew you had survived the Vietnam War. I was relatively unscathed from the experience, but it was really sad when I returned to the USA, and processed thru an Oakland, CA base. Sad, having done my duty and served for my country, in a war that I did not want to be in, and being told that we should not wear our Army uniforms when flying home, as we could encounter rude comments, or spitting, or worse from those against the war. Things have changed, and there is respect for those who served in Vietnam but it was rather hurtful, coming home to a divided America.
- Jon Bailey
I am a poet. One of my dearest friends was Mr. Richard Vandemark. He passed away a short time ago. Richard tried to please me by translating his name to Spanish and introduced himself to my Hispanic friends and family as, “Ricardo.” We became friends when I worked in administration and development for a non-profit and he was on the board of directors.
We built our friendship on trust and respect. I knew how to listen and he was not uncomfortable about being friends with homosexuals.
Richard was one of the most accepting people I have met. He lived his life aware of what he had done in his past and wanted to make amends. In the end, Richard achieved peace with the Buddhist practice of Mindfulness.
As a poet, I use my craft as a writer and an artist, to make sense of my life. I wrote a poem about our conversation titled “Confession.”
"Confession" By: Evamaria Lugo
He did horrible things in Vietnam, he told me. He said it quietly, in his low lovely voice, furtively looking around the room to make sure no one else in the noisy coffee shop could hear him. I told him that he had been a soldier, doing what he was told. Following orders. He moved his head from side to side, everyone tells him that, he said, trying to make him feel better, but it does not work. Ever.
In the middle of the night he wakes up unable to breath, sweating like he is running away, tortured by images, sounds, and even smells that make him fear going back to sleep. With a sorrowful smile, he tells me he was just a poor, uneducated seventeen-year-old. A hyperactive young boy who just wanted to travel and date exotic women in a foreign land and who, instead, became a baby killer.
This war of long ago is over, according to the politicians and history, but it lives in his memory, and the war is never far for him. I listen to him quietly. He lives caged by these horrific memories. I can see this now. I want to ease his suffering somehow, to ease his pain, and although I am a Buddhist and a pacifist, I am ashamed to say I could murder war right now with my own bare hands.
- Evamaria Lugo
I arrived in Pleiku, Republic of North Vietnam (RVN) in September of 1968. I was assigned to a transportation company as a platoon leader. My duties were mainly running supply convoys out of Pleiku to places such as Kon Tum, Dak To, Ben Het, An Khê, Qui Nhơn, Ban Me Thuot, and anywhere else a truck could travel. My unit also provided support, on occasion, to the 4th Infantry Division.
I was very fortunate that I never ran into an ambush, although we were shot at and we hit a few land mines. After the bombing by the B52's ceased, our compound was hit by rockets several times. On several occasions we were sprayed with Agent Orange. This eventually caused me to have Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. When I returned from Vietnam my experiences were largely ignored. There was no harassment or thank-yous for my service.
- Ian Steele
I married David Sayler, a 19-year-old soldier, on December 23, 1967, in Tucson Arizona. I was really quite innocent, an unsophisticated, shy, pretty child of 17. I don’t want to make it sound totally crazy about us getting married, and after all, he would be 20 in a month. He was cute, fun-loving, with all the confidence one person needs, and as a bonus—he had all the answers. David’s family consisted of only himself and two older, financially stable, parents.
I came from a family with an overwhelmed mother, soon to be divorced for the second time. I was the oldest of 6 girl children at home; we all lived on the thin line between being totally broke and downright poverty. My expectations of marriage were embarrassingly little. I knew these facts about ourselves and by some teenage logic thought we would be just fine.
Of course it did not last, but Vietnam played a huge role in our getting married and in our teenage marriage. We had dated for two weeks in late summer when his draft notice came to his house on September 17. The next day he signed up with the Army and asked me to marry him. I am sure he was a bit scared thinking about going into the Army, not to mention Vietnam, which only could be expected. I said “yes” without even thinking about my senior year at Pueblo High School, or how little we knew each other. He left for Basic Training in less than a week.
David had Basic Training at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and then he was stationed for his MOS (Military Occupational Specialties) training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. He flew back to Tucson for his Christmas leave and to get married. We -- or really he -- had a plan. We would drive to Georgia in his ‘57 Chevy convertible. A radio disk jockey friend gave us some coupons at different gas stations around town, good for a few services for David’s beloved car. The different mechanics looked incredulous when we explained how we were planning to drive this vehicle to Georgia. David didn’t even explain his plan, that he would start out driving, and then when he got tired and it was late, it would be my turn to drive.
We left late on the 29th, with all our belongings stuffed into the car. Yes, it was cold due to the lousy heater and a couple of rips in the top but at least it hadn’t started raining. A couple hours down the road, it was my turn to drive. I pulled over a couple hours later somewhere on I-10 in New Mexico, upsetting the plan for my driving some 7 or 8 hours through the night while David slept. The next morning we drove on to El Paso and further down the road, probably about 20 miles west of Pecos, a horrible sound came from the under the hood. The engine stopped running and David skillfully maneuvered the car over to the side of the highway.
We didn’t sit there long; a Cadillac of some vintage with a white man driving and a black man riding shotgun pulled over and offered to help. David told them our story of his being a soldier and how we were on our way to Georgia. They opened their big trunk up; there were several different license plates, ropes, tools, and rags. Pitching things around they pulled out a chain that they thought would work for a tow. They hooked up the broken Chevrolet and we were towed into a dealership of some sort in Pecos. Were we worried for our safety? Can’t really say we were, but that trunk with at least three different license plates that I saw did make a very big impression on me.
The drafty Chevy convertible had blown a rod straight through the engine block -- alas, she was not destined to make it to Georgia. I am sure the mechanics back in Tucson had realized the same thing. David phoned his parents and asked for 200 dollars to buy a car. The dealership had a 15-year-old Oldsmobile that we could afford. David needed to take the car to Western Union to pick up the money, so he left me there as collateral. The car salesmen were a bit nervous about this, but agreed joking around about how it should be alright as we were only married less than a week. David’s plan for the Chevy was that his Dad would drive out and tow the Chevy back to Tucson for eventual repair, but that plan (like all the others) did not happen. We did spend that night at a cheap motel. Sitting in that motel, for the first time since I said “yes,” I was a bit concerned about my new life.
The next morning with our belongings loaded in the new car, which truthfully felt so luxurious and warm, we drove up I-20 headed for Georgia. It was New Year’s Eve day and David had to be back to school late on the next night. About 5 o’clock that night pulling into Shreveport Louisiana, it was raining and the new Oldsmobile starting clunking. Unbelievably there was a garage still open and we limped in. The mechanic was so kind, while I sat in the dingy, dismal office; he and David spent about 5 hours doing something with the transmission. It was so dark and rainy. I don’t think I was all that worried but I loved that new hardtop car, and of course it wouldn’t be me who would be in trouble if I didn’t make it to the Fort the next night.
It probably was close to midnight when we left the garage; I truly hoped we shared our gratitude with our angel mechanic. Even though the big plan was as blown up as the Chevy engine with a knocking rod, the part for me to drive at night was still in place. I only made it East on I-20 for a couple of hours with the rain for company. I would roll down the window, put my hand out and get it wet and rub my face, trying hard to stay awake. Finally, with some sense in my brain, I pulled over somewhere and I joined David asleep in the car.
The next day we drove towards Augusta without any mechanical problems. David had arranged for me to stay with his friend’s wife who was already there in Augusta with an apartment. We made it to the friend’s apartment about supper time that night. Soldiers in MOS training had to stay on the Fort during the week. David had to be at the Fort by 9 pm that night. After supper, we got back in the car and headed for the Fort and David swings off the road on to some side dirt road. He thought we had enough time to have sex before his time to report. Truthfully, I really didn’t want to, but dutifully climbed in the back seat, but within seconds there were white lights shining in the car. Two policemen were knocking on the door. Was I frightened? Not quite yet. David immediately starts talking and showing them our marriage license which was in the glove box. One of the officers took David over to the police car and one of them stayed and talked to me. They gave us a lecture and said they would talk the situation over with the captain that night.
We drove the few blocks to the Fort with David reassuring me that it would be alright. I dropped him at the gate and made it back to the apartment. I visited with our new friends for a couple of hours when around 11 pm there was a knock on the door. Opening it, one of the police officers was there. “Oh, hi” I managed to say. “We talked it over with the captain and we aren’t going to press charges” was his response. Of course, I was relieved with that; David had claimed that he wasn’t particularly worried but I was some. So the police officer said “Do you want to call him at the Fort and let him know that it is going to be ok?” “There isn’t a phone in the apartment” was my reply. “I will take you to a phone booth” was his answer.
I left the apartment with him, having no idea how to even contact David even if there had been some emergency. We drove around, he stopped at a little store and bought me a Coke. Finally he pulled over somewhere and said he wanted to have sex with me. I thought, “What? I didn’t even really want to have sex with my own husband that night, why would I want to do it with him?” Now I was very worried. I had no idea where I was and it was in the middle of the night. I stared out my window looking at the forest wondering if I should just bolt from the car. I was plastered on the passenger door. Handling a grown man who maybe could put me in jail was very scary; finally, he started the car and drove me back to the apartment, which turned out to be only a few blocks away. I walked in the door and though I had not ever seen it in a movie before then, I put my back on the door blocking the outside world and crumbled into a heap crying. My new friends, who were worried about me being gone and all, rushed over and comforted me.
When I saw David that weekend and told him what had happened, he said “Maybe we shouldn’t say anything.” I realized that we were powerless. I knew not much could be done. I was thinking somehow maybe he could find the officer and tell him off, or threaten him. I was sincerely disappointed that David wasn’t at least upset that I had been so frightened. Maybe he was embarrassed for getting us in such a fix.
David finished with his Basic Electronics course work and we moved to Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. I became pregnant with our first child. When he finished his MOS training I was 6 months pregnant and the orders came for Vietnam 11 months after his enlistment. We still had the Oldsmobile which ran pretty well; we packed her up and headed west back to Tucson so that I could get settled at my mom’s and her new husband’s house before he left for Nam. Still the same plan, “My now-pregnant wife, and freshly 18-years-old, can drive at night and we will make it back home in 24 hours or so.” No point in wasting leave time being on the road.
As our standard procedure we leave at night time, having spent the day packing the car and cleaning up the apartment. David drove a few hours and then it was my turn. It was about 1 in the morning, I closed my eyes for just a second to rest them and the driver’s side tire blew out. I didn’t even panic, probably because I had no energy left, which was good, and brought the car safely to the side of the road. We spent the night in the car.
The next morning with David still sleeping the sleep of teenagers, I got out to look at the damage. A local truck driver pulled up behind the car. I knew we didn’t have a spare. The driver drove me into town to a gas station and wished me luck. The station mechanic picked up a couple of re-treads and drove me back to the car. One was put on the car and the other in the trunk; we started out again to Tucson.
It must have been later that day, crossing into East Texas the Oldsmobile engine started with some serious sounds. Pulling over to the roadside, we sat there for a while before a local sheriff stopped to see what the problem was. He sized us up immediately, knew whatever cash we had it wasn’t going to be enough for a dealership garage. “I know a boy who will fix your engine for ya.” We limped behind him until we pulled up to a local garage in a black neighborhood. Sure enough they were very nice to us. Once again I sat in a dismal office, this time with alarmingly swollen ankles and belly. David helped out in the garage fixing the engine. We were there for two days, staying at a motel close by. The second evening I walked across the street to a bar-restaurant. It was a new experience to be around so many black people. Everyone seemed to be having such a fun time. I did get some dinner and took it back to the garage for us. Once again, a mechanic helped us out at what had to be a very modest charge.
We got back on the highway, trying hard to make it to Tucson. The car had one more flat tire just before crossing into Arizona. Pulling over to the side of the road, we waited for someone to stop to help, as we didn’t have a jack handle. A car with California plates and several black women inside stopped and loaned us their handle. Regrettably, a few days later, we realized that the handle had been tossed in the trunk along with the other tools. Finally, we made it back to Tucson.
The whole time I was around Army people, 1967 till 1973, I had not heard any stories about how awful some civilians had been to the Vietnam soldiers. Possibly they did not want to say, and I would never doubt someone else’s story, but that was not our experience. It was a war generally fought by the lower economic classes and people with jobs that didn’t require a college education, and these were the people who helped us.
I want to document that there was kindness shown to us, I am so sure nobody thought we were anything but what we were, a little Army family. We were so fortunate to have so many people help us out with their skills for so little money. We were so fortunate that people who maybe did not have our best interests at heart, let us go. We were so fortunate that we were not killed by my night driving as I was so sleepy and inexperienced. We were so fortunate that the Army taught us both a lot of skills and gave us opportunities to live in Germany and Georgia. We were so fortunate that even with two tours in Vietnam, David made it home each time. I wish that everyone could have been so fortunate. Tragically, that was not the case.
- Joline Albaugh
First I want to say I did not know Lloyd until after his Vietnam tours, when I met him at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff where we were both students. We were married 15 years and our son was 9 years old when he passed away, 29 years ago.
Joseph Lloyd Husband served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970. Unlike some of the soldiers interviewed in the Ken Burns program, he did not have a desire to be a Marine or to serve in the military. However when he knew he was going to be drafted (remember 1-A) he joined the army. He served two tours of duty as a medic for a helicopter dust off unit stationed in the DMZ. He was stationed at Da Nang, Quang Tri, and Phu Bi, and possibly in some other areas. When he had days off of active duty he worked as a volunteer at a local children's hospital.
Although he was a generally upbeat person, he had a deep and profound anger that would sometimes surface. His family told me that this was not an element of his personality before his Vietnam experience. I think this was PTSD, but we didn't hear too much about it at that time, and having interactions with the veteran's services department over his education benefits aggravated it.
Joseph, as he was known to the military, although his friends and family always called him Lloyd, talked about what a beautiful place Viet Nam was and that he would like to go back there sometime after the war was over. He also talked about some of his experiences there. Many were so heart breaking it was hard to listen, but I thought that if he had experienced this I could stand to listen. I have tried not to remember these stories.
In 1988, at the age of 40, Lloyd was diagnosed with kidney cancer. This is a type of cancer that is usually caused by environmental exposure to heavy metals or other industrial pollution. Lloyd grew up in Flagstaff in the 1950's and 1960's, an area that never had that type of pollution, or really any pollution to speak of. His doctor said we would never know what had caused the cancer, but I and his family believe it was exposure to Agent Orange. He was not exposed to it directly, but as a dust-off medic he was in areas several days after they had been sprayed, and we now know that as those compounds break down they are hazardous. I did report his death due to kidney cancer to the Agent Orange Information Database so that there would be a record of it.
I didn't think I could watch this series of programs about Vietnam, but now I can't not watch it. When I hear and see Johnson, McNamara, [William] Westmoreland and others speaking, I am so ashamed of my country, and the way they sacrificed my generation to save face is unconscionable.
My father, a World War II veteran, said in his later years, “It's not right the way those boys were treated when they came back from Vietnam. My generation should have stood up for them, we should have done something. I've regretted for many years that we didn't. That was wrong.”
Lloyd worked as a production engineer at Hughes Aircraft here in Tucson for about five years before he died.
- Susan Husband