Charlie Don't Surf
Profilers: Beau Goodrick, Alex Glenn, Jessica Ornstein
So first of all, so what is your name, your rank and position, and when did you enlist or were you drafted?
Sure. For USC people, I was UCLA ROTC grad. I graduated from UCLA in 1968, skipped the graduation ceremony because you’re one of a thousand, but was commissioned at the time of graduation as a second lieutenant in the army. My branch was engineers, I was commissioned as a combat engineer although I never served as a combat engineer, interestingly enough. My name is Bob Holmes, I live here in Manhattan Beach, and I served in Vietnam late in the war, from the period of July, 1970 until a year later, July of 1971.
And where were you stationed in Vietnam?
In Vietnam, I started out with a basecamp — you might put it in quotes and call it — of Saigon. I finished up with the 1st Brigade, 5th Mechanized Division in the Quang Tri province, in the city of Quang Tri up on the DMZ. I was all over the country because, while I was headquartered in Saigon, I was with the Army Security Agency, which officially didn’t even exist in Vietnam. It was called the 509th Radio Research Group, and we had subordinate units with each independent U.S. brigade, each U.S. division, and each Army division of the ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam forces. So I was down in the Mekong Delta way out in the boondocks; up in the Central Highlands-Pleiku and Kon Tum; out on the coast; out around the Michelin rubber plantation; Cam Ranh Bay; China Beach; Danang; Quang Tri; the DMZ. If I had a better arm I probably could have almost hit Vietnam with a rock, I was right on the DMZ. I had the benefit of being all over the country.
Okay, and while you were there, what was your assignment or mission? While you were there, what were you doing everyday?
I went over there with a Top Secret security clearance with cryptographic and special intelligence access because I was with the Army Security Agency. I was their staff engineer, which again, given the fact that I was a political science grad, that’s kind of a strange assignment but strange and wonderful are the ways of the Army. And so I was involved with the planning and programming of construction, major repairs, and so on for the facilities: the Radio Research stations and so on which do electronic signal intercept. I wasn’t enjoying myself so I was fortunate that a full bird Infantry Colonel, Clark Trainer, who had been the executive officer of a unit that I was in stateside here in Vietnam, was the executive officer of an independent Mechanized Infantry Brigade up on the DMZ. Colonel Trainer was able to assist me in getting transferred up there, where I became the Intelligence Operation Officer for the brigade. There my job was, through everything, POW interrogation reports, electronic intelligence, ranger and scout reports, captured battlefield things, POW interrogations, everything you can think of that feeds in information to get that and my staff and I would try and analyze that and try to figure out where the enemy was and what they were doing.
Thoughts on the War
So when you went over to Vietnam, before you got there, what was your opinion of U.S. involvement in the war, and then when you were there, did that change at any time? And then, overall through your experience.
Sure. I went there feeling that we were assisting the South Vietnamese people in resisting an invasion from the North, resisting aggression that they did not want. When I was over there, certainly the government of President Thieu and Vice President Ky didn’t quite meet the standards that we’d like to think for our government here, although unfortunate incidents over the decades sometimes cause us to question our state and federal governments here, maybe we aren’t as perfect as we’d like to think. And while I was over there, I realized that, from my perspective, the great bulk of the Vietnamese people were like everybody here in the United States: they love their families, they’ve got a job – in most cases it was an agrarian society, they farmed in the fields and so on – worked hard, wanted to come home to their families at night, their kids, and be left alone. And I really felt that the best promise for that was with the Thieu/Ky government. I would see the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong blow up bridges to disrupt the flow of goods from these farmers, and so on, to market. Just a stereotypical guerrilla war; to disrupt everything and that would hurt, what we call in this country, the rank and file.
And my opinion of that really didn’t change during my year there. It was a tragic year because, for political reasons, the United States forces were very limited. There was tremendous infiltration, we weren’t able to bomb in North Vietnam during the bulk of the war. I finished up, as I mentioned, on the DMZ. At sunset, we would see North Vietnamese tracked and wheeled vehicles poised for infiltration into Vietnam. They weren’t there fishing just to get some chow for dinner or a midnight swim, they were preparing for infiltration. But because we played by the rules, we couldn’t bomb them. So it was a very frustrating Buy epivir online experience. So my frustration level increased tremendously but my view of the war really did not change by virtue of being there a year and traveling extensively.
And what would you say your experience was with the local Vietnamese citizens?
Due to my security clearance, I wasn’t allowed to really wander in the villages and so on, but in Saigon my buddies and I could go out to a restaurant and so on like that, do things. And again, my wanderings, my drivings, up and down QL 1, the main north/south route. My visits to villages down in the delta, my sense was that they were people just like you and me, and they just wanted to get up in the morning, have breakfast, go out in the fields, and not be bothered by anybody – the Saigon government or the invaders from Hanoi – and just have their lives, their wives, their husbands and their kids. And that was my impression.
Are there any specific memories that stand out to you about your time in Vietnam?
You know, its tough when you look at a year in your life to pick out some specific memories. I remember on Christmas Day in 1970, we all went out to an orphanage, I was in the Saigon area at that time, and I’ve got some photos of that that I remember. I remember, kind of humorously, one of the most scared times I had, was a non-combat time. I was down in the delta and this crazy lunatic South Vietnamese Army 1st Lieutenant was driving my assistant and I to an airport, and I almost pulled my .45 on him to make him slow down. I swear to God I thought he was going to tip over that jeep. This isn’t the Grand Prix races. Now I’m a Southern Californian, so I’m used to fast driving, and I had a Porsche for a number of years, and I’ve done some things that I shouldn’t do – did some street drags in high school, Westchester High over in the LAX area – but this guy, I thought I was going to die a non-combat death. And I thought, this isn’t what I came to Vietnam for, so that one in its own way is sort of funny.
And the other, kind of bespeaks to the, shall we say, poor judgment of youth. My last working day in Vietnam was July 1st, 1971, and on that day, we had received previously that the North Vietnamese were going to have a rocket and mortar attack on a South Vietnamese base around Dong Ha, which is very close to the DMZ. And so we were going to go up and take care of that in what they called a Pink Team. There were two assault helicopters, the Cobras, one Huey with aero-rifle platoon guys in it in case one of us got shot down, and a light observation helicopter, a little two seater, they called them a Loch, L-O-C-H. Well one of the other Cobra attack helicopters had mechanical difficulties, then the Huey carrying the ARPs had mechanical difficulties, your not going to send the little guy who is basically unarmed up, so basically our Cobra was going to go on this mission by itself. I was flying front seat, which is where the gunner or the observer, and I was intelligence observer, flies and the pilot flies the backseat. So it was a configuration like this, front and back, just like the old fighter jets and so on, pilot and copilot. We got about a hundred feet off the ground and we blew a couple of fuses, or circuit breakers or something, I’m not really that mechanical, and our armament system went out. So on my last day in Vietnam, I’m flying a combat mission with no weaponry except my .45 pistol, and I’m thinking, “I didn’t have to go on this mission. This is the stupidest thing I have done in my life.” Subsequently maybe I’ve done other dumb things, but that was the stupidest thing I had done, to date in my life, volunteering for that mission. Obviously, since I’m still sitting here and I’m able to make fun of myself, it worked out okay. We went in, stayed at about 2,000 feet, called in artillery on the bad guys and took care of them. But yeah, I didn’t think much of that now, just the folly of youth so I made it and that was fine.
Were there any misconceptions about the war that you found to be well-founded?
Ask me that one more time please.
Were there any misconceptions about the war that, because you were in the U.S. for a lot of the war, did you think that when you went over there that “Oh wow, people really think that the war is this way” and found that it was another way or in some ways, the way that people thought it was here were actually true?
Well I think that by the time I got over there, in 1970, the anti-war movement had peaked, and also we were going through so-called Vietnamization, which was in theory, the transfer of U.S. know-how and so on to the South Vietnamese which basically amounted to a withdrawal. And so that’s really what it amounted to. You know, I know there were some people in the United States that did view the U.S. troops as killers and vengeful and so on like that. I think the same way that I portrayed the villagers as wanting to get up in the morning, do their job, come back and be with their families, I think that most of the U.S. soldiers had the same attitude: I just want to get through this. I do fault the U.S. government, Department of Defense, and the various services for not giving the soldier, and the Marines in particular, the guys who are really on the ground, a better idea, a better orientation.
I’ll give you an example. We were there for one year period of service. Americans were very goal and objective oriented and competitive, we want to win this thing in a year. And they were really irritated, many times, that they couldn’t “motivate” their South Vietnamese counterparts to be as aggressive as we were. What they forgot is that we’re running a hundred yard dash, we’re running a one year tour of duty, while they’re there for their entire lives. And some of them had been fighting that long. Their parents had fought the French, the Japanese in World War II, and were now fighting the North Vietnamese invaders. Its really hard, and again, I’d contrast it with pumping as hard as you can on a hundred yard or a 5k race versus pacing yourself for a marathon, and I don’t think that there was really an understanding of that.
What was it like after the war coming home?
I think disappointing would be a good word. I can’t speak for women because I’m a guy, but I’d say as a guy, no one likes to be thought of as a sucker. And I think, while my friends down at the beach, my surfing buddies, were glad to see me back in one piece, I think that they thought I was a little bit of a sucker, because I went and they didn’t. They just kept doing their thing here you know, some beer, some joints, some waves and so on, and I was there for a year and now I’m back so lets go catch a wave.
Do you see any parallels between the Vietnam War and the current War on Terror?
I think that one mistake we make, and those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, as they say, is that if you’re going to fight, you need to really fight. You don’t go in, and I’m not suggesting things contrary to the Geneva Conventions, although that didn’t seem to stop the North Vietnamese in their treatment of U.S. POWs, at the Hanoi Hilton. I’ve had the chance to meet Senator McCain and a number of other POWs who were beaten senselessly at the Hanoi Hilton even after there was no intelligence to be gained, they had given up all they could. But no, I’m not suggesting when I say “Go in with everything you’ve got,” contrary to anything decency, Judeo-Christian ethic or Geneva Conventions, but you don’t go in piece by piece by piece by piece, then withdraw piece by piece by piece by piece. If your going to fight, you fight. If you don’t want to fight, don’t. Don’t put guys, and now gals, in harm’s way without giving them the resources to do the job that your asking them to do.
So the Vietnam War Memorial that’s in Washington D.C. was designed by an Asian woman. I don’t know if you know a lot about that, but did you have an opinion on it being designed by a woman, and also by a girl that was Asian?
I’m sort of an equal opportunity employer. The fact that she was Asian, the fact that she was female was of no consequence to me. I wouldn’t have cared if it was an African-American man or a transgender Hispanic. I think it’s a good design, I think its done a lot, and I, on a personal note, have never visited. It would be a little too painful for me. Some may have seen the HBO movie, Taking Chance, with Kevin Bacon. I did survivors assistance duties here in the United States for parents and widows. I also did body escort duty and escorted remains home.
How did your involvement in the Vietnam War affect the rest of your life?
I have kind of a wise crack, and I say “Whatever faults I have, and I’ll take full claim of those, I won’t blame it on anybody, and whatever is the matter with me, that’s me. But the good things I’ve accomplished, and there have been a number of successful accomplishments in business and charity and life, government and so on, those things I’ll give credit to my mom and dad for a good upbringing, I give credit to the Army for maturing me, and I give credit to the Vietnam War for giving me a lifelong perspective.” You have a bad day at the office, you have a fight with your girlfriend or your boyfriend or something like that, you know, you come home and you’ve got a warm bed, a hot shower, no live bullets, no incoming rockets or mortars, and you can eat whatever you want. How bad can things really be? And you’ve got good medical care. You think in terms like that, and it puts in perspective a bad day in the office, the surfs not up, or your team lost, you don’t think the professor graded you fairly in your course. It gives you a good, lifelong perspective about what life is really about.
Did your role in the War have anything to do with you going into politics?
No, nope. I had an interest in politics my entire life. I had worked precinct work in a Presidential campaign in the sixties, when I was still in high school. I was 17, you couldn’t vote then until you were 21. And then in the fall, I worked, I took over more precincts, and worked on that same Presidential campaign in November, when I was a freshman at UCLA at 18 years old. When I came back from Vietnam, I kind of just relaxed, and, sort of in a way, a childhood lost, well maybe not a childhood, but college years. You know, I had white sidewalls at UCLA because I was in ROTC in an era when long hair was pretty prevalent, and everybody knew that you were either a cop, a narc, or in ROTC with the haircut that I had, and no mustache and everything like that. So I came back, and you know, got a job, a professional job, and moved up the ranks professionally, but enjoyed living here at the beach, here in Manhattan Beach, and my friends and so on like that. And finally, some years later, I got back into politics, both at a local level where I wound up being elected to City Council and serving as Mayor and got back into partisan politics.
How did you feel about the portrayal of the war in movies like Apocalypse Now or Platoon?
You know, again, if we go back to some comments I made to you before the taping started and so on, I said that the Vietnam War is really a thousand wars, the war in the central highlands in Pleiku and Kon Tum provinces is markedly different then the war down in the Mekong and the rice paddies, markedly different than it was in the Michelin rubber plantation, Parrot’s Beak, areas like that, the DMZ where you were fighting North Vietnamese regulars, highly trained skilled troops versus ragtag groups of guerrillas in some cases. So each of those conflicts, each of those movies, may capture some element of truth to them, obviously Hollywood makes its money getting you to the theater, the box office, watching it on DVD, whatever. I’ll tell you though, the wise crack out of Apocalypse Now, “Charlie don’t surf!” and so on, I’m a rabid body surfer, I’ve body surfed Bonzai Pipeline in Hawaii, Puerto Escondido, the Wedge in Newport Beach, and some pretty good sized waves around the world and I had my UDT duck feet in the back of my pack in Vietnam and actually got in the water a couple of times. So there are some crazy elements that do ring true.
And one other thing that I would say is that the war in Vietnam, in many respects, mimicked or mirrored what was going on here in the United States. Racial tensions, lets talk about that for a second if we have time. You know we had difficult times here in the United States, we had the Watts Riots in the sixties, remember I’m in Vietnam ’70-’71. There were racial tensions in the Army, like there were in the rest of society. And we had an incident, up in Quang Tri, where the MPs circled the enlisted mens’ club, and lowered, remember we are a mechanized infantry unit, and lowed the tanks’ turrets at the enlisted mens’ club. They certainly weren’t going to fire, but that got the attention of the people inside were having racial problems. I had a black enlisted man who did not want to salute me as a Captain, and he and I dealt with that, and I left with a salute. Not because I needed to be saluted, but because you do have to have discipline in the military for it to be an effective force. Drugs, lets talk about that for a second. I actually saw more drugs in here in the South Bay – Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach – than I did in Vietnam. And again, I would say that the Army mirrors society. You have people with addictive personalities in the service – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard – I mean you have people with addictive personalities in society at large. So I really found it not to be so markedly different except for the environment that you were set in, where you were carrying weapons and helmets and doing stuff like that.
And how much did those differences, the racial differences and the racial tensions, the societal differences, affect the cohesiveness of the United States Army as a whole?
I think, I obviously can talk best about the Army but I think we probably had it somewhat in the other services, the Marines, the Air Force and so on, and the Coast Guard as well, but I think that, again just like here in the United States, you think about, maybe in your class at SC, maybe in your job at XYZ company, there are some African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans that you really like and some that, if you never saw them again it wouldn’t bother you at all. And I think that that was really the case there too. There were some people that you were very, very friendly with and others that just seemed to have a racial or an ethnic chip on their shoulder and bonded together. I think it was more prevalent that you would have African-Americans kind of bonding together as a more cohesive ethnic group than you did Hispanics, Asians, or Caucasians because that was a time of an awakening civil rights movement that really seemed to start in the sixties, in the South, with African-Americans.
And do you agree with how President Johnson and the rest of the government handled the war?
Well no. I know that’s kind of a good way to sum things up. But no, because it was handled in a political manner. Now I’m all in favor of civilian control of the military, I’m not suggesting military coups or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Secretary of the Army is the one that gets to call all the shots, but I think it gets back to my three words that I use in my business life and my personal life and my consulting life: goal and objective. I think that our actions were not consistent with our goals and objectives: not bombing Hanoi, Hai Phong Harbor, the North Vietnamese rail lines and so on. That cost thousands of U.S. lives. If we weren’t prepared to do that, then we weren’t really prepared to send people there. And I would remind some of the people who may be younger that may view some of these tapes, that that was the era of the draft. You know, a lot of people today don’t even know what a draft is, and it was compulsory military service. When you were 18, as a guy, you had to go down to the Selective Service Board, physically go down because we didn’t have computers and the internet in those days, I know its hard to believe, but you had to physically go down and sign up. And with that, you were subject to the draft, involuntary military service. And so many, many of the 58,000+ of my brothers and sisters who died in Vietnam or in support of that war, were draftees. And I think that we as a country let them down by not giving them the support they needed or by putting them in a situation where they didn’t have adequate resources.
Now what would you say, in your opinion, was the difference between World War II where it was fought as a full on war versus Vietnam? Would you say that the media played into it or what kept the government from allowing them to really fight with no hands tied behind their back?
Probably a couple of things. You know, politics certainly played a part in it. The invasions, or the threatened invasions or attacks of our closest allies by Hitler certainly enabled us to go ahead with a Declaration of War there. Obviously the sneak attack on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, made the decision pretty easy to declare war against the Japanese. I think that most everybody really felt that the future of the United States was at stake. That, and our allies that we seem to relate to most closely. And so I think that that was one unifying factor. Also, Roosevelt didn’t try to micro-manage the war from Washington D.C., he let the generals and so on do it. And occasionally there were situations where some of them needed to be slapped down a bit, General Patton got a little carried away with himself, a very effective general but even he had to get the reins pulled in on him. And I certainly am in favor of civilian control of the military, but it wasn’t “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” or too much coaching from the bench, the players were allowed to play to use a sports analogy. In Vietnam, I don’t think there was an adequate explanation to the people and I think that we’d grown a little bit soft at that point in time.
I won’t try to extrapolate the whole war to one person, but one of my buddies, who didn’t have to go to the service, his draft number was high or whatever, he didn’t have to go in, but he was anti- anti-war. And there was a point during the war, it was announced that draftees would be sent to Vietnam. And I said to him, “Hey Randy, congratulations. I hear your going into the service.” And of course he looked at me like I was crazy, “Well what do you mean?” I go, “Well, now that you know you don’t have to go to Vietnam, I’m sure that you’ll feel comfortable enlisting to protect the rights of freedom of speech that you’ve been enjoying the last few years.” He told me to “eff off” and that ended that conversation. So it was a different era.
How do you feel that the war, like we talked about with the Vietnam War and the War on Terror, about how the fighters aren’t allowed to fight? How do you feel that that has affected the global view of the United States? Do you feel that that has given the United States a negative view by the world?
It certainly has lowered, I believe, the world view of the United States. You know, I think people can see with Obama setting a specific timetable, just as the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese were very patient, so are the Taliban and the other Muslim terrorists, very patient. If they know that they just have to last out a year, two years, whatever, its okay, they’ll do it. And, you know, in sports you don’t tell the other team what play your going to run. In baseball you don’t say your going to do a hit and run, you know, to advance the runner from first to second so that they can set their infield. In football, you don’t say that you’re going to feint to the left and run off right tackle. You know, you just don’t give away your plays. You know, you try to keep the other side off balance. I think that the United States has shown to be really good at getting into something, but not really good at completing it. And so I think that that has to give pause to some of our allies, and some of those folks that may be on the fence. Can the U.S. really be trusted in matters of foreign affairs, and military affairs.
Okay, great. Thank you very much.
Bob, do you remember me? Carl
Is this former city council member of Manhattan Beach, Bob Holmes in the ’70s i think?
Hi Mr. Holmes, thank you for sharing your Vietnam experience. I’m Canadian, so my memories of the war years is of course remote. But in 1972 I met Jim, an American technical soldier who was severely burned by the torpedo he was launching: it exploded next to him, burning and blinding him. He told me that Korean doctors in the hospital where he was sent saved his eyesight by using placenta. He welcomed me to his Manhattan Beach home where I stayed a while before travelling back to Montreal. I’m sorry to say that we’ve lost track of each other. As a vet yourself and a Manhattan Beach citizen, do you know this man and that story?
Bob hello don’t know if you remember me but I used to surf and ride dirt bikes with Mike Reynolds , tried finding him but no luck if you have any info let me know thanks