Reflections of a Tank Mechanic from Vietnam and Back
Profilers: Ajraf Mannan & Josh Morales
Part 1: Introduction
So, what year were you drafted?
How did you feel about getting drafted? Did you want to go? Or were you planning to not go?
When I went into basic training, I started to feel like, it is what it is. These guys are training me to meet people. And I tried to learn as much as I could from the drill sergeant. It was my responsibility to go. I was going to fight for my country, although this is not my country–I am from Honduras, but I was here. This was my country. I was willing to go and fight. It’s necessary.
That is the job. See, because when I got to Vietnam, I realized that Vietnam was not a walk in the park, but I had to adapt to it. At the beginning, I was scared. But, as time went by,
I kind of got used to it. I got to the point I was not scared anymore. But, I didn’t know who was my enemy. Because they didn’t wear a uniform. No uniform. They were farmers. They were soldiers.
What was your political opinion about the war when you were in Vietnam? Did you feel like we should’ve been there, or we shouldn’t have been involved with what was going on with the country at that time?
At the beginning, I felt like we should not be there. We didn’t have business in Vietnam. But, as time went by, I saw how all the authorities were treating their own people. I came to the conclusion that we had to be there. Somebody had to protect this people. The United States being a world power, it was our responsibility to be there, to protect their people. It got to the point that I started to dislike the North Vietnamese.
Because of the terrible things they were doing?
They were using kids to attack us. In the process, the kids were being killed. I didn’t agree with that. I didn’t agree with that little kid running with a grenade towards a group of American soldiers. A 9 year-old kid, very little, just to kill an American. It got to the point that you didn’t trust nobody. You could not trust a boy. You could not trust a grown-up man.
How was it adapting to those types of situations? Was it more difficult or was it having to trust your own soldiers and own men more?
Oh, believe me, we trusted our soldiers, we trusted. If you did not trust your soldiers, who could you trust? You had to.
Part 2: Life as a Tank Mechanic in Vietnam War
Before you were drafted, what was your profession? What did you end up doing when you became a soldier? Were you just a ground soldier?
At the beginning, when I was in Saigon, I worked in supply. It wasn’t hard, It was easy. That didn’t change. When I went into tanks, I started by advising another tank. Granted, Vietnam didn’t have good tanks. They didn’t have that many tanks. I believe because at that time, we had 60 tanks. At that time, it was probably the best tanks.
And where did you learn how to get into tanks? Were you still stationed in Saigon or did they move you somewhere else?
No. I volunteered to go into tanks because I was a mechanic before I went into the army.
When I went to the job, I learned heavy equipment over there. So I adapted to tanks very easily. A tank is nothing but a bulldozer. The difference is that a bulldozer doesn’t have a gun. Doesn’t have a machine gun. You get used to it. Once you start learning, the firing mechanism on a tank is a piece of cake. It’s simple.
And what was your day-to-day once you started getting into tanks?
You had to keep the tank in top shape to fire. Every day, you had to give ammunition, bling, three sets of uniforms, eight sets of socks. Because it rained all day all over there. If you get wet, your feet get wet. You had to change your socks. So things like that we normally don’t pay attention in civilian life.
So a lot of checklists to make sure everything would run smoothly?
Oh, yeah. You have to. You have to see what’s in the tanks. I mean the weapons. You have to go and fire the tanks, fire the machine guns, individually. Same as a battalion, same as a company. You know, when go you as a battalion, a battalion is something. Fire tanks. But when you go as a company, handle tanks. When you go as a battalion, fire it. The other thing is when you command a battalion, and then you are analyzing in the whole picture, there is companies, brigades, divisions. And all together they make big bonds, powerful bonds.
How was it using tanks in Vietnam? Especially because so much of Vietnam is jungle. Was it difficult to work with tanks, or not really?
You had to be careful about rocket-propelled grenades because they will die in the jungle.
A rocket-propelled grenade will not destroy a tank. But it could destroy a bullet. One of the big advantages is that a tank, you could use it as an artillery. You know, if you have a group of, let’s say, brigands or soldiers, you can use high-explosive ammunition. Fire at them, the ammunition will blow up, It will blow them up.
Part 3: Vietnam Veteran’s Reflections
Once you got to Vietnam, what were your first impressions of it? Was it raining all the time? Was it hot?
It was very hot and humid. Very hot and humid. But it didn’t impress me yet this is the enemy.
To me, it didn’t look like an enemy. It looked like anybody else.
It was just another place?
Yeah. But we adapt. If there is something that a human is, the humans are amazing at adapting to anything.
What is your strongest memory of the war? And why do you think it stuck with you so much?
One time, my tank got stuck in the mud. I had to get it moving before I could eat. There is something in the tank that is called the center guide. The center guide kept in the trunk in the center. It makes it stay in the center when it doesn’t fire. The center guide, you can turn it upside down. The center guide is about three inches long. I can turn it upside down. It will face the ground. And when it turns and the center guide will dive, it will go into the ground. And when the tank turns, it will pull the tank forward. Because the center guide will dive into the ground. It wasn’t easy the first time. But anybody who knows about tanks will know what I’m talking about.
And how did the tank get stuck? Was it like just raining and it just got stuck in the mud?
It was raining a lot and we were stuck in the mud. And the only way out was to turn it down. The center guide upside down. The center guide is supposed to go up. It will be facing down. I’m talking about the center guide that is three, four inches long, facing the ground.
And that’s what helped move the tank forward?
That will pull the tank forward. They don’t teach you that in school. You learn as you go along.
Was it really stressful being in that situation, knowing you were also in charge of everyone else in your tank?
It is stressful. Yes. When you get one tank going and you notice that it gives up going. Then you go into the rest of the tanks. For every six center guides, there is one upside down. And it works. It works to the point that nothing will stop you. The tank will not keep you stuck in one place. You will move.
Was it difficult to manage everyone on what to do, especially in a high intense situation like that?
No. Because we were all on the same sheet of music. I explained to them what I wanted to do.
They agreed with me. Yes, that will work. And we did it. Once we did the one tank and it worked, we did the other tanks. And they did it. And the rest was a piece of cake.
And during the war, while you were in Vietnam, what was your opinion on the antiwar movement going on in America?
You know, I would like them to be there, in my position.
Did you face a lot of racism or name-calling when you came back to the states from Vietnam?
Yes, when I came to Los Angeles. No, they didn’t come into my face on that. People they were calling me, they were screaming child killer. You know people do not care about the United States; they don’t love the United States.
Was it hard transitioning back into civilian life back in that time because of all the protests?
Well. I hated them. I hated them. Because you know what? I was doing something for them to be able to express themselves the way they want; they don’t realize that.
What year did you leave Vietnam, and were you happy you were finally getting out of there
I left Vietnam in 71,
So you were there for a year?
Yeah. But, I was not happy because many of my soldiers would stay behind. They would probably die. I wish I could be with them. You know, it’s sad, to see the guys stay behind. But that’s the way it went. I was dull, moralist. Cause they’re going to die. When I went back to the states, I asked, why not others?
That made you upset?
That upseted me because the other poor guys would stay.
And not having a nice warm welcome when you got back to the states made it harder?
And that was not a good thing. There was no warm welcome. I tell you what–I was in the service for 11 years. I never have had a warm welcome. Every time I came to the states, I tried not to wear the uniform.
Because they’d harass you and call you names?
Do you feel that people’s perception of the war has changed over time or do you feel that it’s still the same?
It has changed over time. They think that we should not go to war. I wish these people would know what it is to be in war.
You wish that more people in America were more patriotic and could understand?
More patriotic and they would read about what is going on in the world.
And how fortunate we are to have what we have in freedom?
Yes, we have a good opportunity in the United States. These guys dont know it. They don’t have an idea.
Now what would be a message or a lesson you would like to share with people or with future generations about your experience in Vietnam? Or in the military?
I like to tell people that freedom is not free. Freedom, you pay freedom with your life. And if you don’t protect that, you might end up like the Vietnamese.
So you would just hope that listeners out there could understand: Freedom is not free. And to cherish what we have?
You got that right.
Was it hot in the tanks, especially in the hot and humid country?
It was very Humid, but they had vents to circulate the air, which kept it cool but took lots of work. The soldiers showered every day with 1 gallon of water because, throughout the day, they were sweating and very sticky.
How was it working with a tank in that type of environment with such unpredictable weather?
It was normally ok, and we never had that many problems except for when it would rain. When it rain, the tanks would sometimes get stuck in the mud, which would be a hassle to get them out, especially if it was still raining. But the humid weather was not difficult to handle as long as my father’s crew cared for themselves when they returned to camp. Otherwise, they could get sick, and my father would stress how important it was to keep up with your hygiene, especially in a very hot and humid environment.
How was your life in Honduras before you came to America, and why did you decide to move to America?
In 1967 my father came to America for a better education. But when he applied to college, the school did not accept his high school diploma. He would have to redo all of high school, so my father decided to go to the Job Corps instead.
Where did his passion start with being a mechanic, and what made him want to pursue that when working at the Job Corps?
My father’s aunt had three mechanic shops in Honduras. That’s where he learned to be a mechanic and where he spent most of his time when he was growing up. His skills grew as he came to America and worked at the JOB Corp. That is why he knew he would want to work in tanks when he joined the army. His commander was also a great teacher that taught my father a lot, especially through combat training. But, many of the controls of the tank were very similar to a bulldozer which helped my father pick up things easily. The one component he had to learn was making his crew work as a well-oiled machine to keep all the operations smooth. Things got easier when my father became a commander and taught a class on armor vehicles and heavy gun machinery at the US Army Armor Military school.
Was there a Honduran community that he belonged to before being drafted?
He did not know anyone from Honduras when he came to America. The Honduran Community was not very relevant when he came to Los Angeles. Everyone he knew and his culture were only in Honduras. It was very lonely and difficult at first because he did not fit in with the community, especially since it was majority white people. My father suffered through depression during his first few months in America because many of his passion and things he loved were not really in Los Angeles, like soccer, his favorite food, and he especially missed his family.
How does he relate to being Honduran after his military service?
My father does not relate much to being Honduran anymore; he is more proud to be an American. He started disconnecting from his cultural roots after his time in the military because that was the last time he went to Honduras. He still loves his culture and is proud to be Honduran, but he is not as close to his culture as he once was. He plans to return back to Honduras one day to try and find his family, but he was an only child, and both his parents have passed, so he does not know if it is worth going. The biggest thing that caused him to disconnect from his culture was the lack of Honduran cultural presence during his time in America. To this day, my father only knows four people from Honduras, and only one of them did he grow up with.