Rick Berg

Memories of Chaos

Profilers: Young Kook Yoon & Huanchen Wang


Story When I Get Back from the War

Us: Could you first introduce yourself a little bit?

Professor Berg: Uhh… My name is Rick Berg. I teach English literature and American literature at USC. I have a PHD, a couple of other degrees. I have taught at other colleges. For a long period of time I worked on and still work on, as a matter of fact, textbooks and movies about the war in Vietnam. So, as a matter of fact, I have been doing that since around 1979…

Us: Right after the war?

Professor Berg: Yeah, actually right after the war. We put together a conference in 1980 that brought together… it was one of the first conference actually on the war in Vietnam. I brought together a group of people to talk about it which ultimately got turned into an addition of an academic journal and turned into a book. So, yeah, I have been dealing with this stuff for a while.

Us: So how come you weren’t serving in the army then, but becoming a teacher – teaching literature?

Professor Berg: Wait, is that two questions? “How come I was serving? And how come I went from a…

Us: No, I mean by kind of transforming your role…

Professor Berg: Ok, got you. Well let me see… My history in terms of the military is that I was drafted into the Marine Corps, which needs to be noted everywhere. And I was drafted because of all that goes around in the 60s because of the draft and between who was drafted and all that stuff. I quit high school when I was in 9th grade and I had been working for years.

Those are the guys who they drafted, partially. Wrong neighborhood… and when I got into the military, I said, “well, there are other thing I could do with my life and maybe I could go to school when I get out”. I wasn’t very serious about it. And when I went to Vietnam, I guess I became more serious about it because at some level I wanted to know, almost naively, why I was being shot at. So, I kind of turned me from “uhh… may I will go to school when I get out – I can do that” to “no, I really want to go to school”.

And then when I went to school, I wasn’t going to be a political scientist or historian, but I was interested in culture and literature and stuff like that so I went to UC Irvine and lucked out – I was in the right place at the right time. The degree in literature which allowed me to investigate a new cultural production, which I’m assuming you guys are dealing with in your course.

Yeah, so, I don’t know… I hate to say that went to college because I was in a warzone – that’s not the point – but what it did was, actually I remember the afternoon when I was shot at, but it actually made me more serious about the kinds of things that I didn’t know and I wanted to know. So, yeah… that’s the straightest answer I have. But yeah, it’s not this “I went to war dumb and decided to go to college” – it just changed my attitude towards college.

Us: So, is that the greatest influence about the war?

Professor Berg: Wait, are you asking me “is the war the greatest influence on me” or “is that the greatest influence in terms of the war?”

Us: Yeah, the second one.

Professor Berg: Yeah… Um, no. I mean there are all sorts of things that have come about because of my relationship, not simply to the war and combat and being in Vietnam, which in many ways are kind of like three different things. And there are other things, some negative, some much more positive, some about how you change your perspective and how you change your perspective about the world.

I mean, being there and coming back and being part of the 60s, coming from where I did it, it just changed the way I looked at the world, not drastically change itself, but the things in the world and forced me to kind of want to think about these things. And exactly the same time, it traumatized me and it left me with all sorts of things which were not as bad as some other guys, but you end up with a kind of post traumatic stress syndrome. But, you know, these things are that. So there’s a… what I… I guess what I will say is that there is a… it has been a profound influence on my life.

Now if you would have asked me 25 years ago, I might not have said the same thing, but I’m getting older and further away and I can begin to see how being there, involved in that war caught up in aspects in combat – those three things, keeping those things separate – that had kind of changed my life. So all of that has. Going to school uh… does that make sense?

Us: Yeah, yeah. And what what kind of specific…

Memory in Vietnam Part 1

Professor Berg: And uh, I remember dreams that I had then. And it was vivid… I was in Vietnam in 1968, which is I think before you guys were born. And I still remember dreams that I had there. And as vivid as if I had them yesterday although certain memories are getting really ragged at certain ends but…

Us: Was that about the war in your dreams?

Professor Berg: No actually, the ones that I remember were about coming back. I actually don’t remember dreaming about the war while I was at the war. I remember about dreaming about the war when I got back and for a long period of time I used to have a nightmare that was… I had been called… even though long after the war was over… there was a civilian and I had been called up to go back to the war and it was just awful. And it was odd because it was not so much about going back to Vietnam because these are two different things. It wasn’t as if I was dreaming to go back to Vietnam.

It was dreaming to go back to the war. So it’s here that I started to dream about it. I don’t remember dreaming about it there. Now, some of the things that I remember I think about it because – your professor had told me about this – that I’ve been thinking about the things that I’ve told people before about the war. But things stay. It’s not just about the war stories and… those are there, I can tell you… but there are also other things.

Because I was – let’s not dramatize this too much – I was in a place called Marble Mountain which was about five miles south of Danang, maybe eight miles south of Danang. And it’s on a beach so … you’re talking about a guy who never saw a jungle… if you were to say “Vietnam had jungle” I would say “no, Vietnam had beaches”. And it’s not like it’s a resort area. From what I’ve heard it’s not a resort area.

So I was at this beach and we were at a relatively more or less safe area compared to what other guys had done over there, what happened to me was like 10 in the afternoon walking here at USC. So it was an odd place where I was at. So I remember… I remember stealing… it’s a bad thing because it’s a cliché from a movie.

I wrote a story once about how a friend… how two of us… two friends of mine and I went to up to the division headquarters and conned them out of four surfboards, drove them back to where we were at, built a lifeguard tower and set up surfing it Vietnam. And we had it in the back at one of the three-quarter PCs which I used to drive. So when you used to go to Vietnam… in Vietnam everyone used to hitch rides… hitch-hike on the road or you flew in helicopters. So coming into the Nang, you got all these guys coming out there.

You have the surfboards at the back of the truck so they were like… and it was these guys coming up from up out of the field are looking at these trucks full of surfboards going that way and they’re just lined up and it’s like pandemonium as we drove by because it was like the most bizarre thing that they had ever seen.

So yeah, I remember getting those surfboards. I remember this too, there were Vietnamese working on the base and Chieu Hoi, you know Chieu Hoi? No? I was just wondering if he had mentioned these things. Chieu Hoi program was that the Americans would drop things and they would invite the Vietcong, which was mostly those who were fighting. And they would invite the Vietcong to come to our side. So the Chieu Hoi program right… they would come to our side and they would end up in different battalions as guys who would go out on patrols with us.

And I remember working with them, three of these Chieu Hoi. So we had… it’s odd the amount of respect we had for the Vietcong. It an odd and unusual kind of myth but we had these three guys working with us. And I remember going out on patrol with two of them one night and I had been there six, seven months. And I was aware it was a night patrol – we know what the hell we’re doing. And we know we’re not in a dangerous area but we’re not safe either. So we set up in this field, this ambush in the field and we don’t want to do anything. And gave one of the Chieu Hoi some gum. “You want some?” “Yeah.”  And he’s over in a hole over there and we’re all quiet. And you can hear him chewing this gum.

And we’re like, “What in the hell? Man! Quiet! VC!” “No VC!” And you know, it’s like there weren’t any there, and there weren’t any there and he’s just out there doing this thing. It’s odd moments like that that come to mind. Or there was a man that was acting as a translator for the battalion. And he worked with what was the intelligence.

And I remember we used to hang around and talk to him, he’s this schoolteacher, he was older.  He’s this schoolteacher we used to talk about the war. He was just a nice, wonderful, kind man who was in this thing.

And you could get the sense that he didn’t really want to be in this thing. You know, we were talking about getting drafted. “Oh you we’re drafted” I said, “Yeah”, “how long?”, I said, “couple years”. He kind of laughed and said he got drafted to and I said, “How long”, and he said “nine years”. And I mention this as being kind of unusual because marines were allowed to go into the cities.

The army and air force could go into the cities. They could go into Saigon, they could go into Denang. But it was illegal for marines to do that. Even the villages that were outside of our base camp, the only time we could go through there legally was through patrol. So we had an odd and distant relationship to a lot of the Vietnamese. We couldn’t… I used to driving around to Denang, when I could I would stop and wander around because I needed rest.

So there was always this thing that marines, or at least enlisted marines that were of my rank were always at a distance. So those are the kind of stories that I talk about these guys that keep coming to mind these days. But yeah, didn’t know the other ones. There are all the combat stories, right? There are all of those which are always bizarre.

Us: How many combats were you involved in?

Professor Berg: Not as many as many other people but often enough. Maybe a half dozen times. Maybe when people were really shooting in my direction. So, so… and mostly small arms fire. I mean we never got mortared.

The biggest thing was the battalion base camp, which was about 6 to 800 people, it go overrun. So that means if you’ve seen these movies that… it got overrun at night so they blew holes in the wires at four different places and something like 21 guys died that night and maybe a considerable bit more were wounded and it was a… I remember it as a long three-day thing because… I can even tell you the date it was over because I celebrate it every year. It was on the morning of May 5th, myself and four or five of us we’re sitting on the beach leaning up against the building that had been blown up.

We had been fight for… that night we had been fighting for at least eight hours and we had been at other things for two days so we were all sitting and it looked like a bad WWII movie because we were up against something we had helmets.

Over there, right over there are three dead VC soldiers and we’re watching the sun come up over the South China Sea. And it’s like that moment at which you know “okay, I’ve gotten through this one”. And there’s that exhilaration that you’re alive and you’re sitting on a beach and it’s warm and it’s May and most of the guys you know are alive and that’s what happens when you fuck up because you going to be dead. And you know, this is a birthday, this is a birth…

Memory in Vietnam Part 2

Professor Berg: To explain where I was I would have to… I was at an outfit that was called Amtracks. Amtracks are these big things that they supposedly land marines on. They look like big Cracker Jack boxes  with shreds. And you’ve ever seen a Vietnamobile they’re supposed to have troops on the inside. So I was with Amtracks.

But they have Amtracks and that’s why at the beach you park all these things because there are four, five at each company. And so what they had done is that they had overrun us to blow up the Amtracks because the Amtracks cost us 150,000 dollars. When the Amtracks are parked, they’re parked next to each other in the front’s down right? Okay, so we’re being hit, it’s the middle of the night you get up, you throw yourself out the bunk, you throw yourself out of the hooch and part of where my squad where I was supposed to go.

We were supposed to go down to the command post which was overlooking the tractor park. So, you know, small arms coming in this way and you’re running around, it’s the middle of the night, you don’t know who’s firing here, you don’t know who’s coming around in the corner. That’s the scary thing about being overrun.

Everyone is going to their post, but everyone is running. So you’re running this way and somebody could be running around the corner and that could be one of those… you know… It’s also, it was that many of them. I think the amazing thing was that there may have been twelve there may have been less than twenty.

So we hit the tractor park and you can see… Do any of you guys know what a satchel charge is? A satchel charge looks like that bag. It looks like a mail bad and it’s got C4 packed into it. And what they’re doing is they’re running by these tractors and they’re throwing these satchel charges into it because the gasoline is on the floor. So if they can get it to blow up this way, it can just go up. Okay, so while this is going on, the guys who are driving these tractors have to get in through the top and close these things on the bottom and back away because if these are being blown up it means the ones next to it will be blown up.

So that’s going on and thing are being blown up and you’re watching people run around and this is being blown up and that’s been blown up and small arms are coming in every way and the command post is here and you don’t know who’s shooting at you.

And I leap into this hole that is I don’t know… to many people are in this hole. And as I leap into the hole and stick my head up, I see this explosion and I see this kind of arc in the sky. You know, like a comet, like a flame just… like this flame leaps up into the sky and it lands – it must have a hundred yards away from us – but lands in the middle of the tractor park and the Amtrack is burning. And you can see it, it’s burning, it’s like a bonfire.

And there was this scream and it was as if this arc… it was as if this flame was screaming and this bonfire was screaming. And it was one these tractor rats – it was what we called those people who we’re driving these things—a twenty year old who burned to death in the middle of the park. And none of us could get to him to put him out and even if we could he couldn’t have survived because there’s so much… and that’s one of the things that stayed in my head, still stays in my head, and that scream of this kid burning in the middle of the tractor park. And again, you have things exploding here, you got shooting going on here.

A friend of mine was running across – the tractors are parked next to each other—and he’s running across on top of the tractors. You could see him running across the top of the tractors to get to the last one to drive it away while this guy is burning small arms is going on. It’s just this, it’s just, it’s just… my memories of chaos and… I hadn’t been in Vietnam for too long. I had been here maybe around five weeks.

And this has stayed in my head than more years than I can remember. And that was the third thing of two other things that had been going on. So we had been doing this for like days. It’s a… and the end of that, the end of this night is the morning Buy robaxin sitting in front of the sea watching the South China Sea, the sun coming up from the South China Sea. And then, and then there was a time that I went out on a patrol. We’d go out on a patrol and they’d send us out in front of a… okay, you go into a village, you’re going to set up an ambush outside the village.

You’re going to be 500 yards maybe couple hundred yards outside the wire. And you know, it’s just a waste of time se we’d just sit down. And I remember one night we were on an ambush and it was late and I was there a long time. And we used to have movies there right? Because this is the kind of strange world we lived in. We had beaches, we had surfing, we had Coca Cola, we had outdoor movies which would show and we had people being bundled. We had this outdoor movie and we can hear, because everyone is sitting outdoor. We can hear them laughing.

So now we’re really pissed off because we missed the comedy. Why weren’t we there when we had the comedy? And coming in next morning, just annoying, these things after a while were just annoying. We didn’t want to be there. We didn’t want to play war. We didn’t want to do this crap. So we come in and I walk past a guy who’s coming in and I said, “so you assholes we’re watching a comedy last night” and he said, “oh yes, the funniest thing that I ever saw in my life” and I said “what was it”, “oh it was John Wayne’s stupid movie called the ‘Green Berets’, it was absolutely hysterical, it’s just hysterical”.

And I don’t know if you guys have ever seen it but there’s a moment at the end of the movie, which a friend of mine actually put in a book, but there’s a moment that John Wayne is walking hand to hand with this Vietnamese orphan. Have you seen it? And they’re walking down the beach at South China Sea but the sun is setting.

So here’s these guys five miles from the Nang, with a movie that looks like it’s from the Nang, watching John Wayne and they go the beach like right over here and they thought this was just hysterical. They said this was the funniest goddamn thing that they ever saw. And I guess this connects with many years later when I was back at the United States at UC Irvine, it wasn’t easy being in the war and then being here.

So I didn’t talk much about it I don’t think. I remember walking by one of these student bars and I overhead two guys talking. And one of them said, “Oh, did you see John Wayne’s “Green Berets’ which was on last night?” The other one said “no”. And the other guy said, “oh, you should have, that’s one of the realest war movies that I’ve ever seen”. And I think that changed my life.

I think at that point I realized that I had to talk about Vietnam because if people were confusing this thing with Vietnam, a country… if they were confusing that with Nang, which is a beautiful city… and the war, you had to do something about it. It’s, it’s… and that’s why the war… you know I’ve always, always… it is necessary and right to say Vietnam is a country… because we got all that bullshit with… we now have the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War. So it’s always necessary and kind of have to insist on it. So, so… but there is something I think for vets that unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to know Vietnam.

And there is this other thing, you know, and I put a name for it, I just call it “Nam” and I have no desire to confuse it with the culture and confuse it with… And that’s the geography in the world in which we lived in. And my relationship with that, which is grounded in this geography… and you could always see the culture, you could always see it over there.

You could see the history but because we were marines and because we were dumb Americans in 1968, we couldn’t quite break that out. And, you know, I got a history lesson from guys we knew. Down the road, through the village was an old French fort. And I used to have friend… seven minutes? Ok, another story.

So we used to have a… if you’ve taken a look at the pictures where Marble Mountain is, there actually like three things where it looks like the rock’s jumping coming up out of the ground. It’s really kind of flat right?

And there is a pass between two of these, and on that pass, which is where the asphalt ended, we used to have a guard post. And that stop, we would stop all the Vietnamese going this say and all going out. And this is one of those things… if I don’t know if I remember it… and there were these three… and we knew, we knew enough about the dignity of those elders, those old men.

You would see them, you would deal with them, you understood the amount of dignity they carried with them. And I remember there were three of them and they were stopped. And I remember, there were three of them and they were stopped. And the soldiers, the marines kind of recognized who they were at.

They were going to give them at least the respect that they would give to somebody else. So it wasn’t to be disrespectful. And one of them tried to speak his high school French to him. And, and you could read the look, which was no way we’re they going to know French. And we would giggle, we couldn’t figure if he didn’t answer because he was never going to speak French again or because his French was so awful that they didn’t want to acknowledge it. But you could just see thin in their face.

Us: So was he angry or?

Professor Berg: No, they, they… no it’s that attitude… it’s that deep dignity that no way in hell would I respond to them in that language again. And they weren’t much fond of us. And I always look back at it and think they probably though that we were from a deeply, darkly uncivilized place. But you could see that no way they were going to respond in French. Bad French, good French, indifferent French.

So obviously this fort that had these memories… and that was there so that… I also remember the same… I remember this very well… at the same post. I don’t know but there is a name for it. Those sticks that the women carry the rice baskets on… well the marines used to call them “idiot sticks”. And one of the ways we would check to see—and it’s extremely rude—and we used to check the women who were carrying these things had no weapons.

But we didn’t go through the rice because we knew that if you start doing that you really piss them off. But there is a… there is like a big blister, there is like a big, fat piece of flesh here. So if you’re new to this it’s all rubbed raw or there’s something… so you’d kind of reach in here—which is rude—you reach into the women’s thing because they were carrying these thing since they were little.

But you got all these stick-headed marines who think this is stupid. You’re going walk around carrying these things balanced on it. And I remember one… oh, she couldn’t have been very big, I don’t know 5’4” maybe. She did that thing, she put it down and stood there and a couple of these marines were going to prove just how stupid it was. And they walked over to try to pick this thing off the ground.

And they could barely get if off the ground because it’s about a hundred and some pounds and it has to be balanced. And you could see it one moment “they do this all the time?”

The Truth and War Atrocity

Us: Professor, thanks for answering your question, if you don’t mind may I ask one question?

Professor Berg: Sure, please do so.

Us: I have heard of some rumors about the Korean war atrocities in Vietnam. I remembered that in 1997, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung visited Vietnam and apologized for the war atrocities, is that true? Since they are not clearly teaching about it in Korea, I never knew it well.

Professor Berg: Actually, what I have heard of those issues regarding South Korean army was very horrible. But, I think one historical event should be proved and before being proved, it is not right say to insist that historical story. However, what I have heard of the issue about the South Korean troops was more than a rape; there were more terrible stories about it. However, you never say and insist before those things are proved by historians.

Us: Thanks for Professor Berg to share your precious experiences and memories of the war with us today, we learned a lot today, and we are very appreciated for your help and intention with our sincere heart. I hope you have a great day sir.

Professor Berg: Thank you guys, have a great semester.

This entry was posted in American, Civilian, Combat, Profile, The Draft, US Marines, Viet Nam, Vietnamese. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Rick Berg

  1. Derya Samadi says:

    Rick Berg was my professor at Occidental College in the 80′s. He introduced me to the concept of orientalism and so much more. Thank you for making this profile. Rick you look great and I am glad you are talking about your experiences. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Gail Darnell says:

    Dear Rick, As I listened to this tape, it amazes me how much you and your Uncle Joe (my father) had in common. In dad’s later years his stories of experiences in WWII coming more frequently…as if they too happened “yesterday”. I grew up with these stories and witnessed the effects. Wouldn’t you two have had quite a discussion! About five years ago I wrote down the story of his capture and some details of his time as a p.o.w. Though not a literary piece, I’m glad I made the effort. Dad passed away January 9,2011—just a few days from turning 91. He would have enjoyed watching this tape of Professor Berg!! Your cousin Gail

  3. Gail Darnell says:

    Dear Rick, As I listened to this tape, it amazes me how much you and your Uncle Joe (my father) had in common. ( I wrote down some of dads experiences as a p.o.w. ) Wouldn’t you two have had quite a discussion! Your cousin, Gail

  4. anonymous says:

    I, too, studied with Richard Berg at Oxy in the 80′s.
    He was the most amazing teacher there: in the richness and depth of his thought, in the care and compassion he had for his students, and the mind-bending and world-shattering questions he posed. He changed my life forever. I aspire to teach as he did.
    That said, Oxy treated him really poorly. For waking up his students minds, they denied him tenure in his last year. For that, in my book, they have my undying contempt.

  5. Alex says:

    I took Rick Berg’s Eighteenth century literature class at Occidental in the 1980s and it changed the way I looked at the world. He made me think, really think, and it kept me up at night. I guess that’s the beauty and the curse of having a really great professor who changes the way you understand language, literature, politics. He really was, and I’m sure still is, an extraordinary teacher. Very interesting to hear about his experience during the Vietnam War.

  6. Dietz says:

    Hey Berg-Just talking to Orsan about you & wondering what happened to you & he suggested trying to Google you.Un believably you came up first on the list…Go figure.I did wonder what had happened to you…after all you were a major influence on my life..I won’t go into why. I’ll have to listen to your ramblings & see how they tally up with what you related to us around the pool at Manhatten Place. BTW Lou sends his best .He gave up Graphic Design after moving up here to Seattle & has been a Holistic Counselor for the past 15+years…Long story. Also -since a picture tells a thousand words google my name…it will mke you question the fates!

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