Jerry Van

We Were Going to Vietnam

Profilers: Christine Nielsen, Luis Villanueva, Matt McKinney, Kevin Lee

THE WORD VIETNAM

I’ll take you back to the first time I heard the word Vietnam, Ok? In 1960, I was a freshman in high school and I took the test, and they put me in these accelerated classes and they finally put me in the basic classes. The teacher, this lady that had watched my grandfather go to WW1 and my father in World War II, goes up to the blackboard and looks at the world map and she says: you girls you can go to sleep and you boys, you listen up here. This is Vietnam, good chance you’re gonna go there. So when you hear Vietnam you listen up. So I had already been forewarned that I was going.

So in ’65, I graduated from high school and in ’66, ’67, we got our, it was like a reunion on the bus going to Los Angeles, from New York City. Wall Street here there was the induction center. So all the guys, 20 guys in the bus at least where in my group, with 3 or 4 in front of me or behind me in these induction centers. It was quite a trip. I had this heart operation when I was 4 years old so they sent me to a doctor, my mother sent me to the doctor to diagnose me and he said I was ok, so I eventually went in. So I got to Fort Ord in ’67, August ’67. We did our basic training. There was nothing too different or anything about basic training. It was kill, kill, I wanna eat dead birds’ bodies, I wanna kill. That was the kind of the things that we said at the time. So we get ready to go, go get orders to get our advanced training, the AIT, and we find out that about half the people in our platoon were going to San Francisco, to the Presidio and in Monterey. We figured out that they were somebodies friend, or you know “I ain’t no senator’s son” remember that song? So, I get to Fort Knox, in armored recon. You  know you’re armored recon if you got armored. If you are not you’re just recon. If you got a horse you get to ride. So anyway, we’re kinda standing in there in this line, on a Sunday in October, you know we got thirty days off, and it’s becoming very aware that some of us are gonna reach room temperature before the year ends. Before another year is gone. So it’s becoming more and more reality check. Before it was just you’re going.

Jerry Van Part 1

DO YOU WANNA DIE?

So I got to see this commanding officer. He was a captain, a West Pointer, you call ‘em troops in the squadron in calvary. So we get up to him and he said I see, man, you can drive a truck. And they just had some trainees killed by these worthless General Motors trucks with hydro transmissions that should have never been in the military. Like they would roll over real easy. It wasn’t the drivers fault as much as it was the trucks. So he says you can have your wife back here you can throw her a party but you scratch one of these trannies I’ll see you in Nam. So, he picked three drivers and kept me for himself. You carry around a card with you that has an IQ bar but it’s a military IQ—it’s not about how you read or spell. You take a lot of tests. And they tell you, man, if you don’t do this you’re gonna be right on the bottom. So you get pretty inspired by basic training you’re all there, you’re not seeing nobody. We all had this meningitis scare. You couldn’t see people. You couldn’t go off your post.

So anyway we get I did some time there and got to know this commanding officer, this West Pointer. I call him “Captian Bucking For General” two times Vietnam. So we knew this gang pretty good, this recon gang. Know as much about the enemy as you can without letting the enemy know you exist. Take searching out their weakest link that had taken out with minimum force, basically recon. You don’t report to your commanding officer you recon, instead of every other thing in the military is report. You don’t report, you recon. This is always in your mind: know as much about your enemy. So anyway I’m there and I’m driving this truck and I’m keeping these trucks running. I knew something about trucks all my life. If these men could keep these jeeps running and none of these guys could drive these stick transmissions. So if we kept these jeeps running for the old man he looked better. So he let us do things that not everyone could do. So we could get these clutches for these jeeps because it wasn’t our maintenance, but we could do it. It’s what’s called third echelon. We sent it out, well we never got it back. So the whole time it’s on a dead line item on your old man’s card. So we’d get the clutches rebuilt and I’d sit out there and they made me a mechanic.

This Jewish guy from New York City, that ran the motor pool. He said, “Hey man, you wanna die?” I said, “Not really.” So I became a mechanic. Hey man, whatever. You knew you were gonna go because you had this year ahead of you. So anyway I go over as a mechanic. So I went on my basic leave. I went into the redwoods, hauled a load up to…my leave was driving a truck. I took somebody’s vacation and I took a load from Stockton to San Francisco to the state line, any way can’t remember the name of it. But I went to when I was with my father when I was 5 years old to load redwood plywood. So I’m looking over at those trees and said, “Hey this may be checkout time, you don’t know what you’re getting into.” So it was a thing that sticks into your mind. And look we had a little water house, we had drops, safe way stores so one of them was in Fairfax. Fairfax is where the Mamas and Papas of the song “Young Girls come into the Canyon.” Well this manager tells me, that’s the canyon. Where all these hippies are coming out.

So I had always been a straight. I never did no dope. Did a little drinking with the boys and this was before things changed, big time, ’65, ’66. I just wanted to carry a man’s lunch all my life that’s all I ever wanted to do was carry a man’s lunch, because some day I was gonna be that man. So I had this different perspective and then here all of the sudden this things coming down around me doesn’t look good. Not that it looks bad for me in my life..It’s why are we doing this? In school, the teachers knew this. It just can’t. You know when you know this from the time you are 13 years old, you just think about it a lot. So when we get over there you see these guys that represented those crosses at Arlington West, those guys they did like my father in WWII. They went in and died for their country and they pulled them out and then they put them back in. Well in Vietnam you went in and you did a year in a unit that existed, that had a history. So right away man this looks like a dang loser. YEAH that’s what they all said too. So there’s that one tombstone that I showed you of them guys that had checked out the 150 a week that was born two or three days after I had got to Vietnam, well that’s when I really found out what a dead bang loser it was because I was in the engineering unit that was gonna build roads to nowhere.

In Cam Ranh Bay, when we are leaving, I run into this long range reconnaissance patrol guy and he was with these ROK’s (Republic of Korea), these Koreans, and they go into these villages, and they knew there were VC in these villages. When you say long range reconnaissance patrol, they meant it. They stayed out with the ROK’s for a long time. One thing in Vietnam, no Charlie never mortared no ROK, because the village will disappear. These people are cruel and brutal. They’re not that far away from what happened to them during WWII and before. These people can be vicious. The Koreans were the most racist people I’ve ever seen in my life. They hate black people. Because, I don’t know, maybe it’s this thing. This guy was sitting on there with these ROK’s and said the problem with you Americans is that you’re too easy. They went in there and cut the chicken’s throat, the man’s throat, whatever they had to do to find out what they wanted to know. They would come out and tell these GI’s the problem with you Americans is you too easy.

Jerry Van Part 2

YIN & YANG

“What was your first experience as soon as you got off the plane in Vietnam? What was the situation like there?”

Well, I went from from where we landed, I think Cam Ranh Bay, we went to the bay and they pick you up the unit, 39th engineers. They had a real jeep, like WWII style jeep and picked us up and the guy picked two of us. This guy I went in country with and came out with. We landed up at Fort Ord together. So we make a turn, this guy hits the turn, and out of the seat comes out this grease gun, one of them Thompson submachine guns, the one you put .45’s in. These guys had the old stuff, we had the Ford Jeeps the rollover specials, the newer one. We carried M14’s; we didn’t carry M16’s because we were engineers. We didn’t want them because you know we’d throw it over there in the corner or we would stick them in this dirt and we knew it would work. The 16 you didn’t know it would work.

So we didn’t have no problem every time I went anywhere I carried an ammo can with clips because me and Charlie would go hand in hand if we didn’t have to. And we stayed on that bunker isle, we knew Charlie was across the bunker from us. One time we got twenty-five, See I wasn’t there at the Big Tet, the one that you all know of. I was there in ’69, so we didn’t know what we were gonna get. We were an headquarters company, artillery unit headquarters and had infantry headquarters. We didn’t have anything on this bunker line except M16’s so they give us this one machine gun that shot the same rounds as an M14 and a pole bunker. Where you would be up in these bunkers and we could shoot down. It was much easier to shoot down than to shoot up. So we’re there pulling guard and it would get scary. You just don’t know what’s gonna happen because it wasn’t no full moon. When it was the full moon, we would be up there smokin’ dope. But when it wasn’t full moon, you think about it, so 25 mortars, there was this South Vietnamese unit that was put across from us and they would stand down during this Tet. We just figured they were standing down there to part of this July the fifths command.  All we were doing was setting a perimeter on them on a marine air base that was these phantoms. They always shot at this airbase with rockets, with 122’s. They sound like you gotta open the door. They make this whoop-whoop-whoop noise. They were so slow but they didn’t waste any shots. They always landed up over on the airbase.

So during this tet, 25 mortars hit between two of our bunkers. Just bang bang bang. We’re sliding in the bunkers and thinking they’re just gonna open the doors on us. We didn’t know. We don’t know a whole lot about combat either. We know how to shoot a gun and we weren’t afraid to kill somebody. There was no chance we were gonna kill somebody to stay alive. This was all for real. So we saw the flashes and we were part of this defense command the marines set up. We used to be our own defense command and we used to call up next door if we wanted to call up a flare over us. Well, through this marine defense command we were a half hour later waiting flares that were gonna come from next door. But they had to call them up and tell them to come. We were just shittin’ our pants man. We didn’t know what was going on.

That general would fly around in the chopper and say well, we’ll send some guys over there tonight, and they would send these guys outside the wire and they’d go find them a nice place to sleep. Because, they knew. How many times can you take a heel for nothing?  So that’s why I say from Vietnam to this thing where you were gonna die for your buddy or gonna be all voluntary force. We’re gonna have your potatoes peeled for ya. FTA in the army didn’t mean fun, travel, and adventure, it meant fuck the army.

You could find enough tools in the motor pool to make a tool room that get me through this inspection because I want out of this army worse than you do, or at least as bad. I won’t let the lifers fuck with you. I said, I’m your man. And he didn’t but after he left it was a little tough, but it’s just the way it was because you were either on one side or the other. Yin and yang, back and forth, side to side, you were either on one side or the other, and we really knew how big a loser it was.

Jerry Van Part 3

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