Experieces from Vietnam War by David Johnson
Profilers: Jordan Tolentino, Alayna Lewis, Bryce Herman, Sang Lee
Introduction of David Johnson
What side were you fighting on and what branch?
The Americans, and the U.S. Army Special Forces and Paratrooper.
Why did you decide to volunteer to fight?
When I originally volunteered to go to Vietnam a friend of mine from high school, who was also my neighbor across the street, he graduated a year and half before I did and he was killed in the Iron Triangle with the 101st. Like I said we were good friends and a neighbor, he was killed. My dad was a paratrooper during the Korean War, so I volunteered and went in and volunteered to go Airborne and it was unusual because when I went in at 1968 they were allowing privates to go into Special Forces, if you placed high enough on your aptitude test, which I did. So, I was able to go into Special Forces as a private.
What made you want to extend your visit 4 times?
I was good at my job and our job was to keep Americans alive and we were good at it. See I was lucky when I went to the 173rd. People I should be with were Special Forces too and we had served together in forces. So we stayed together, and they used us as a recon team and sniper. And so, we were able to go out have a lot more freedom of movement then a lot of your regular infantry would do because we should be responsible to the CG of the unit. I wasn’t responsible to a captain; I didn’t have a lieutenant over me, and basically they let us work the way we work with Special Forces.
How old were you when you entered?
17. Then I turned 18 when I was in the Army, because you have to be 18 before you can enter a combat zone. That’s another thing about Vietnam, the average age of the average soldier was less than 20 years old of age. Plus, Vietnam too, they did a study a few years ago and the average soldier during WW2 and the Korean War, if they were in service the day the war started and went all the way to the end of the war, during WW2 and Korean War they spend an average of 160 and 180 days in combat. In Vietnam, during his one year, he averaged 285 days in one year.
Human Element of David Johnson
I was lucky in that my base camp for my unit was static so we actually got to know the people in the villages and the people in the surrounding area. And we would do things like, our medics would go out and treat injuries and stuff like that, and the people knew that they could come up to us. Plus, we would trade our ration for local food, we traded cigarettes for local food and everything.
How were prisoners treated?
Our policy was that you treat them they way you wanted to be treated. You did not mistreat a prisoner. In fact, I know a couple people in our unit that were court martialed for mistreating prisoners. You can get a lot of information out of a person. You can’t get much out of a body, we preferred to take prisoners. A lot of time by just treating them with respect they would tell you things because all the sudden they are not being treated the way they were told they were going to be treated. You’re not beating them up or doing anything like that. We would give them water, give them chow, give them a cigarette if they wanted a cigarette. It would totally surprise them how they were being treated, they we were being treated like people. Now when the National Police got a hold of somebody totally different story. I had no respect for the National Police because they would abuse them and mistreat them. There were bad things that happened you would hear about, like prisoners being killed and tortured. But then again, there were the other NVA that were very professional and had respect for them. They were very well disciplined, and they were not afraid to fight, but by the same token they were professional soldiers. VC I had no respect for them, and for the most part NVA did not have any respect for them.
One night we were in our base camp and all of sudden, we were getting ready to go out on night patrol and all the sudden we hear weapons fire down in the village. So we went down there and the local VC had come in and killed the barber, his wife, his mother, father, children including the little baby that was six months old. Then, we had another time when the VC came in and actually tortured a bunch of our school children just because they were going to school. They blinded them and actually mutilated them and what was strange about that was about three or four weeks later we have somebody call out, “Hey GI, have something here for you” and it was NVA who brought the VC to us.
What was the scariest or most emotional part of the war?
The most emotional part was that I lost my best friend in high school and I had a fiancé get killed. Crashed in a helicopter. Scariest part though really, delivering set of twins in the village.
Were you preparing for that at all?
I had training as a combat medic, but delivering two babies no, we weren’t trained for that. We were trained to patch someone up that had a hole in them. During the time I was there we delivered five babies.
What were the differences in the military before you entered opposed to during the Vietnam War?
I came in the 60s and that’s when we started integrating the military. Before the Vietnam era, blacks served only with blacks. The only whites who would serve with the blacks would be white officers and that would be considered a punishment, that was a career ended for an officer. Then, white only served with white. During the Vietnam era was the first time when we started integrating groups together. In a lot of ways, it was really difficult for these soldiers who came from the deep south where there was still segregation, because now all the sudden they are having to deal with black officers and black NCOs telling them what to do. The soldiers that came from the northern states and California, where we were used to going to school with them and being around them, treating them as equals. But once the bullets started flying, all the sudden, color of skin just goes away. In war there is a lot about patriotism, but in war, you’re fighting to keep yourself alive and the guy to right and the left of you. Because once you get in combat, they are your brothers. You become closer to them, and you do to members of your own family.
Personal Injuries from Vietnam War
Do you have any wounds from the war?
Yes. Legs, shot in the left arm, shrap metal in the left arm, head and scratch from shoulder still. Do you know what they call a Purple Heart? Expert infantry badge for the other side, because they are doing their job. It took me awhile to be able to use my left arm again. (points where bullet entered and exited in his left arm)
When you were injured like that, did you go into shock or how did you react on what you didn’t expect?
I got hit. We were across this little bridge and I was tailing Charlie and for some weird reason I shifted my weapon from down like this to up like this and a sniper fired, hit my weapon and deflected in my arm. As I was going down, evidently I flipped the switch to rock and roll and squeeze the trigger because they said they found two dead VC. And the round looked like it walked up the gun barrel and took them both out. I didn’t even know I was hit until the lieutenant yelled if anyone was hit and I started to check myself out. Then I noticed some holes in my shirt and said yep I’m hit somebody give me a hand up. I probably did go into shock, I remember a helicopter coming in. I had an IV bag in me got in the bird and started to lift up and medic started to lean forward to take a look at me and next thing I knew he was laying in my lap and had blood coming out of his neck. The round came up through the floor of the helicopter right behind the armored plate underneath the pilot seat. Went in this side of his neck and came out this side of his neck and missed everything of importance. As he is in my lap, I have one hand on him, holding his neck. The crew chief comes over and take a look, and we get into the battalion rear. Doctors come out and take a look at him and tell him he is a lucky bastard. Then they sent us to 67th EVAC and when in the surgery, there twice. When they open you up the first time they did treat it, but since you can get infected so easily, because of the tropics, they would leave it open to drain for a couple of days. Then, they would call you back in and clean and stitch you up. Then I went back to my unit and my medic and my guys helped me work my arm so I could get full movement out of it again. They took out almost half the muscle.
Coming Back to the U.S
How did the war affect you when you came back to the U.S. and coming back into civilian life?
It took quite awhile to get to trust people again and there was a lot of animosity because you come back and you’re called a baby killer and people spit at you, stuff like that. The most hurtful thing was that I tried to join the American Legion of VFW and I was told by both organizations that were not accepting you guys, not a popular war, we don’t want you. That’s why the DAV was started. Started by Vietnam veterans because the other organizations didn’t want us.
Where with other wars guys were traveling by slow boat so they could work things out, where Vietnam you bottled it up inside. You kind of cut your brain in half, one half of a brain was as a soldier and the other half was your civilian side. You locked the civilian side up why you were over there and when you left you locked the soldier side up. In fact, the way we were treated when we came back, I think that was a lot of the reason why programs like the wounded warrior and everything that started up was to support the troops when they came back so they wouldn’t have to go through the BS we did. Vietnam was also a very personalized war because most people who would go over there who go into country to a replacement center, you would go to a unit, and while you’re in that unit everyone is leaving at a different time. Every other war you would go over as a unit, the unit left as a unit and they could sit and talk about their experiences. In the Army, you couldn’t do that. You came over on a plane you dropped in the replacement center, you left on a plane and you might not know anybody on that plane. I flew into Fort Lewis and then you’re mustered out.
Reflections of the Vietnam War by David Johnson
What was the most important thing you learned about yourself while you were overseas?
That I could handle a lot more than I ever thought I could. And that I could actually be very calm in a very hectic situation. You learn to trust yourself, you learn to trust your instincts. And you learn to grow.
Can you give any specific examples of when you dug deep and found out more about yourself?
Every time you have to go in to get a friend. There was one time we were on patrol and we ran into a patrol from another unit. We were patrolling through the same area, and we went right and they went left. Talk to them for a while, got a couple hundred meters down the trail and we hear an explosion and went back and turned around. They ran into a 105 booby trap and well one of the guys we found enough of his body to fill a four-quart pot. It literally blew him to pieces. Another guy lost a leg, and that was kind of rough. But you learn that you have people here that are hurt and you are going to treat them get them help and do what we can. Every time you go in situation like that where you have to go into someone else’s aid you have to calm down you have to dig deep and you have to be the calm one because somebody else’s life depends on it.
For a closing question, what was the way the war impacted your life the most?
I feel you looking a lot more and you learn to value the little things. Also made me more confident in doing a lot of things than I was before. Heck I jumped out of airplanes, I jumped out of helicopters while they were still flying because that’s how we did it when we were in for a CA. We got out on the skid, he would low level across and we jump off. I learned to respect and value my friends a lot more. That’s definitely that one thing in the military does. It also made me more aware of people’s’ feelings because when you’re treated badly you know how you feel so you can extend that to other people. I think combat makes someone a better person because it teaches you things about yourself that you never knew. I’ve seen some big football players in combat curl up in little balls and cry like a baby and you see this little 90-pound nerd get up and go running out and drag somebody in twice his size under fire, so I mean it teaches you about people, don’t judge a person by they way they look because it will surprise you every time.
Thank you for your time, appreciate it.