A Soldier's World Before, During, and After the War in Vietnam
Profilers: Alexandra Ornes, Robert DePompa, Cullen Burt
Getting into the War
Q: How did you first get involved in the war? Were you enlisted? drafted?
No, I was one of those crazy people, there was seven friends of mine we went and took a college deferment test. We were all in junior college Meridian, Mississippi and I was the only one that passed the test. And we were having lunch a couple of days after that at the school and I said guys I’m the only one of the group that’s got a choice I’m gonna join the army. So I went and joined the army. I had actually planned to make a career out of the army. But I joined up and I was twenty years old, just turned twenty years old and I had my twenty first birthday in Vietnam. It was a great place to turn twenty one. So in the army first I went to Fort Campbell Kentucky, for what they call basic training then I went to fort Irwin California for advanced infantry training then like I said fort hood Texas where they were forming up a brigade to send the whole brigade to Vietnam. So I was in college I wasn’t really happy with what I was doing so I decided to join the Army.
Q: What did your family, friends, and college classmates think of the decision? Were they supportive of your choice?
My dad, he was a world war two guy, he was in the Navy in world war two so he kind of understood what I was doing. Of course my mother didn’t want me to go. My friends, they all thought I was crazy cause they were all trying to get into the National Guard or get college deferments or do something to get out from going. And i wanted to go, I said i wanted to join the army I wanna go so, there was a couple of my friends that, there were two guys that went into the Army about the same time I did and of course they, we, were encouraging each other and one of them was actually in Vietnam the same time I was but we weren’t anywhere near each other. So i just kinda, I thought I’d make a career out of the Army but it just didn’t quite work out.
Q: You were mentioning your friendship with the Vietnamese translator, SGT Phuk. How did that relationship develop and did it change your perception of the South Vietnamese?
That was really, that was special. He was our interpreter. He was always on the command track with the captain so he could interpret and he would interpret when we got prisoners or what have you and he would interpret if we got radio signals fro, the South Vietnamese Army. Some of the radio people spoke english and some of them didn’t, so he would translate anything for us. We were together, from about June till October we were on the track. We went out every week so we were together like six days a week generally, sometimes more. One time we were out for 44 days. We slept on the track, we lived on the track, we were just together.and he and I became friends. It gave me some insight because he was from North Vietnam. He escaped from North Vietnam to get away from the communists. He was verently anti-communist. He was gonna fight them no matter what, he was gonna fight the communists. We worked together there and we were together on the track and I really thought a lot of him, he was a great guy. When I went to Vietnam I had bought a .45 pistol that I put on an Army belt and my brother-in-law had given me a bowie knife. And I wore that pistol and that knife from the time I got to Vietnam to the day I left. And the day I left, SGT Phuk actually came to my tent to say goodbye to me. And he said you’re leaving and we hugged and I said well, you need this more than I do so I gave him my gun belt with my gun and knife on it. So I thought a lot of him, I hope he’s doing fine today.
Friendship in War
Q: You mentioned how you transferred positions multiple times during your service, did the moving around make it difficult to form bonds with your fellow soldiers or did it make it easier?
You know, I think that if you’re in a peacetime Army I think it would make it a little more difficult. But when you’re in a position like that being in Vietnam, being in a war, just immediately when I went from the infantry to the cavalry, within just a few days it was like I had known these guys all my life. It was all first name basis, “Im so and so”, as a matter of fact the Lieutenant when I first went to third platoon, it was the first night I was there, there were some guys playing cards and they said “hey do you wanna play cards with us?” so I said “yeah sure”. I wanna fit in, I wanna meet the guys so I put my stuff up and I went over and I sat at this card table and I played cards with four or five guys for a couple hours. Were talking you know, were all the same age area, early twenties, and this one guy gets up and he had his shirt off and he put his shirt on, his lieutenant bars, he’s our commanding officer, he said well i’ll see you guys later, I didn’t even know he was an officer. So you fit right in, it was very easy to make friends in that situation.
Q: As a veteran did you face any of the anti-war sentiment prevalent at the time?
It was very prevalent at the time, I didn’t face as much as some people did because I was at Ft Jackson South Carolina. Also, as soon as I got out of the service I went back home to Mississippi, I’m a southern boy. Well the south is very patriotic, it’s a very patriotic place, it’s a very patriotic way of being brought up. Military service is, I had lots of people that I met in the service. When I went to boot camp, the first week that I went to boot camp I was with a group that came from Mississippi, we all came, went in at Jackson Mississippi, and went to Ft Campbell Kentucky, I think all but three of the guys out of about 40 had volunteered to join the Army. So in the south it’s that kind of thing, I think maybe other parts of the country weren’t that way but still it was going on. My wife and I, we moved to Atlanta for about ten months before we went back to Mississippi, and we joined this big church in Atlanta and we were going to church and every time we’d go to the sunday school all these guys, all they wanted to talk about was how to keep from going to vietnam. And I finally told them one day, I said look, I just got back from Vietnam Y’all know that I don’t wanna hear this kind of talk anymore. You do what you gotta do but let’s let this thing lay, and they did. Being out around town and all, especially at Ft Jackson, Columbia South Carolina is where the town is, its a military town. This fort provides lots of jobs and stuff, so everybody from that area kind of treats you pretty good too but when I got back home, being in Mississippi, you see stuff on TV and every once in a while you come across somebody but I didn’t really have that hard of a time, people didn’t bother me that much.
Current Perception of the War
Q: Has time changed or challenged your perception of the war?
Not in a big way, very frustrated. I saw a bumper sticker one time on a Marine, ex-Marines, truck that said “we were winning when we left,” and that’s the way I’ve always felt about it. I know that when I was there in 1968, with the troops that we had there, we could’ve won that war. My perception was them, and has only gotten stronger since then, the American military man did not lose that war. The politicians gave that war up, we didn’t, as a matter of fact, as far as I know, we were never in a battle that we didn’t win. How do you win all the battles and lose the war? Because the politicians pulled out of the war. Since then, history, I’m actually a certified highschool history teacher, that’s a long story, but I’ve read a lot about history, studied a lot about history, I’ve taught history, I only did my student teaching but i could’ve taught history. I’ve looked at the history of it, I’ve talked to friends, four of the guys that I was in the highway patrol academy with were Vietnam vets, and were still close. We text each other and email each other and talk to each other, call each other once in a while, we’re still close. And we’ve looked at this thing and talked about this thing all these years, and we’re all about the same accord that the politicians did us in in that war. We could’ve won that war if that’s what they wanted us to do.
Q: Do you have any closing thoughts? Anything that younger generations should take away from your experiences?
This is my own way of looking at things, because I think military service is very very important, service to your country is important. When I came through school and I was going through school, highschool, that kind of thing, we had classes called civics, and in this civics class you learned about being a citizen, voting, and that kind of thing, keeping up with politics and all that kind of stuff. I don’t think they have classes like that anymore. This is a great country, the greatest country in the world. There’s no place in the world that you can go and live like we live here and have the opportunities we have here. I think, just my own self, that if I could set something up I would say when you got out of highschool you would have a choice; go two years in the Army, Navy, Marines, something, you would have to go to something for two years, when you got out of that your college would be paid for, or you could go to college and when you got out of college you’d have to go in to the service for two years and then you could start your career. I think every young man should have, to me it’s the opportunity, to serve the country, to be in uniform, to learn what it’s like. I don’t wish for anybody to have to go to war, nobody’s ever been in a war would wish for anybody else to have to go to war. But, to be in the service, all kinds of places all around the world you can serve and not be in combat. I think that it’s a great thing, I still think it’s that way that service to the country teaches you service to others. Helping others is a way we help ourselves and so it’s just like police work. Police work is the closest thing to being in national service and not being in it but you’re serving, you’re helping people. There’s situations where you have to take command and tell people what to do, 99% of the time you’re trying to tell them what’s best for them so you’re working for the good of the community, for the good of the people, for the good of your family. Being in police work, being in national service, Army Navy, Marines, any of that, to me is the same thing. I think it would be a great thing if 90%, I mean I know everybody can serve, people have medical reasons they couldn’t actually be in the service or something even in peacetime but for 85-90% of the young men coming up, I think a couple of years in the service would do them a great bit of good.