Perspectives From an Empathetic Vietnam War Veteran
Profilers: Besties 4 the Resties
Stu Einstein’s Oral History Video
Background & Early Life
To start off, could you briefly introduce yourself and provide some background on your upbringing and values that you had when you were raised?
Let’s see, my name is Stu Einstein. I’m 77 years old, I was born and raised in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, an old established community in central Pennsylvania. It’s in what is a fairly conservative area. But my parents and some of their friends were those rebellious liberals who got together, they’re a very small select group sometimes so that they could talk about things in a way that was meaningful to them and could actually say stuff they wanted to say. My family has been in Carlisle since the 1700s, and was pretty prominent in the community, which had its good points and bad points. I’d say worst point was on my grandmother’s side of the family. I found out not too many years ago that her family was the last recorded slaveholders in Carlisle or in Cumberland County. On the good side, my great grandfather on my father’s side was the sheriff and the Burgess and a member of the town council. So they’re kind of these two sides to the coin. Although some people might consider being Sheriff kind of equivalent to some of the other stuff. But so I was, as I say, I was raised in a liberal household, went to Georgetown University for a year and a half. Latched on to membership and SNCC (Student Nonviolating Coordinating Commitee), became a follower of a kind of a rebellious priest on campus who led us on marches in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which is where I learned the words to, “We Shall Overcome” and all sorts of other things.
He introduced me to Bobby and Ethel Kennedy one day at their house, which was kind of cool. Big, I was a big Kennedy follower. When I was 14, I was the youngest volunteer in town on Jack Kennedy’s presidential campaign. So that sort of shaped my thinking. After a year and a half at Georgetown, we parted ways, because I had kind of discovered that DC had much more to offer than stuffy classrooms on a college campus. And they were not willing to continue my scholarship to do things like hanging out in Congress and the Library of Congress and exploring everything else the city has to offer. So I left there in January of 66, I knew I would be drafted immediately, I had a low draft number, so I enlisted in the Army. So I’d have some choice of what schools I would go to, as it turned out, that kind of got flipped on its head because I was nominated to go to Officer Candidate School and went that route. So I went to Vietnam in February 68 as a young Second Lieutenant, served an extended tour of 18 months, and came home captain in September of 1969.
Thank you for that introduction. So you sort of already touched upon this, but at what age were you drafted? And how far did the war already start? And then also, at that age, at that time, when you were drafted, what was your sort of opinion or view on the war?
I actually enlisted versus being drafted in March 1966. And by the time I completed several levels of schooling, I went to Vietnam mid February of 1968. So I arrived, just at the tail end of the infamous Tet Offensive. There’s still a lot of mop up operations going on. But the specific offensive itself had been about two weeks before I got there. My opinion was kind of, kind of nebulous. I had just finished military schooling. So obviously, I had had pounded into my head, all these good reasons that we were there and all these great things we were accomplishing by being there. But in the back of my mind, even then, I had questions about whether we were there because we wanted to be there. Or if we were there, because Vietnamese wanted us to be there. And by Vietnamese wanting us to be there, I was sort of I had this mental distinction that just grew broader and broader over time, distinction between Vietnamese people and Vietnamese government. Because I, I pretty quickly learned. They were two, they lived in two different worlds sometimes.
Could you perhaps elaborate on that distinction?
Yeah. In my first assignment, I was working at a battalion headquarters, we were on a secure as secure as it could be Basecamp, where we had Vietnamese employees from the local town that were bused on to the base camp every day, and had jobs anywhere from cleaners to tailors, to barbers. And in the headquarters where I worked, we actually had a number of Vietnamese women who worked as clerks in our building. So through them, I had some opportunities to go to their homes in the town, and got to talk to them at work, but also got to talk to them and their families, without anybody else in uniform around. And the consensus among those folks, pretty much seemed to be they liked having the Americans there, because we provided some really good jobs that paid very well compared with jobs on the local economy. But if you got a little bit away from that group and talked to people outside the town, the people who lived in a small village, the farmers, it was primarily an agrarian economy. And all they really wanted was for everybody, they didn’t care what side you were on, they just wanted everybody to leave them alone and let them raise their chickens or grow rice in the rice paddies or, or do whatever it was they did for a living. Because they felt a constant push pull between the two sides and you know, in a particular village, we might have people in the village during the day helping with a, say a project building a school. And then we’d go back to our base camps at night. At night, the NLF or Viet Cong would come into the village and depending on their inclination that night, either punish people or remove people that they thought were collaborating with the Americans. And they were, they were just living in a hellscape constantly.
Serving in Vietnam
So you mentioned that you served in Vietnam for 18 months?
Could you elaborate on what your role was in the military? And did your role experience any changes throughout that time?
Yeah, my first job, I was a battalion adjutant, which was an administrative job. And at first, I was a little frustrated, because I thought, well, I’m just going to be shuffling papers all the time. But it turned out that the papers that I was shuffling were virtually all the paperwork that went through the battalion headquarters. So as a first assignment, it was a great way to learn not only about our organization, but about where we, where we fit into the bigger scheme of things. I was included in the commander’s briefings every morning, and they covered the whole whole area around us, and gave me a good view of the bigger picture. So I did that from February, through June. And then in July, I went to one of our line companies, which was located at the same base camp, and in fact, about 200 yards away. I was with the 701st maintenance battalion, which was part of the First Infantry Division. So I went to one of the one of the maintenance companies and there, I quickly moved through a succession of roles where I was a supply officer, then the maintenance platoon leader, and then the shop officer, which oversaw all of the supply and maintenance operations of the company, and also served as a company executive officer. So if the company commander was gone for some reason, I was in charge. So I did that until April of 69.
And then I transferred across the road. That was when I was promoted to captain. And I was transferred across the road to the first supply and transport battalion, where my title was division ordnance supply officer. So I was responsible for obtaining and distributing all the weapons and vehicles for the entire 1st Division throughout our area. And a lot of that involved making liaison trips to a huge depot that was about 15-18 miles away. Long Binh army depot, which was the supply center for the whole southern part of the country. And I’d go down there, did a lot of poking around and did some helicopter surveillance, where I’d spot a bunch of tanks that were parked in an unusual area or Jeeps that were in a special spot. And then after we landed, I’d go to my contacts and say you know, those five Jeeps that I’ve had on requisition that you don’t have in stock. And I’d show them a Polaroid picture I had just taken of a lot more than the five Jeeps that I needed. So that was probably the most fun assignment because I got to do a lot of traveling around and got to get out and get off the base camp. And Long Binh was pretty civilized because there were a couple of major headquarters there, a lot of generals were assigned there. So they had things like indoor plumbing that flushed. They had snack bars where you could get a cheeseburger and a milkshake. They had a Chinese restaurant that had pretty good food and really good air conditioning. So that was kind of a treat.
Did you find yourself feeling like a part of a community when you were there?
I actually found myself part of a couple of different communities. Because the military is sort of cliquish, anyhow, under any circumstances. And if you’re in a combat zone, you get real close real quick. And then, I had the, I think the huge bonus of becoming part of the Vietnamese community as well, which most of the people that I talked to, who served there, never had that opportunity. The only time they saw anybody who was Vietnamese was if they were on a joint operation with a Vietnamese unit. Or if they had maybe, Vietnamese interpreters assigned to them, or Vietnamese at the other end have a weapon that they were manning, but they never had the chance to really make friends with, with Vietnamese people. And I, I did the, about six months ago, I, through some sleuthing and footwork, tracked down the phone number of a young lady who was about my age, but she was like, my little sister, when she was one of the clerks in our headquarters, and I called her and we spent an hour on the phone catching up. And not too many guys get a chance to do that.
Yeah, that’s really nice that you had that opportunity.
I actually got her information through a woman that I met on Facebook, who I didn’t know at the time, but she ended up marrying a guy who worked in the building right across the road from me. So she and I became Facebook friends, like two years ago. And she was good friends, and is still in contact with some of the people that I knew that worked as clerks in our various offices. So it was really, really cool.
That yeah, that sounds awesome.
I think the flip side of that is, and this may be jumping ahead, but I had an opportunity to go back to Vietnam in 2006, with a group from Hobart and William Smith Colleges here in Geneva. I had always wanted to go back, but I didn’t want to do a military rah rah, they say we lost the war but we know we won. That wasn’t the point at all. I wanted something educational, cultural. So this was perfect. We were there for two weeks. And one day we were in the town where I had been during the war. It had been really rough territory. We ended up having lunch at a restaurant that’s owned by a woman who was still to this day, celebrated for her exploits with the National Liberation Front, Vietcong. And she and I sat there and chatted about our war where her people and my people tried very hard to kill each other. While I cuddled her nine month old granddaughter on my lap. Thank God, somebody’s got a picture of that. It’s, like, one of my favorite, favorite pictures of all time.
Yeah, sort of going back to like you just mentioned as well, you having a foot in different communities like other people. I guess how do you sort of like, grow from that experience? And did you ever face any, I guess, like internal adversity or strife because of it?
I’d say the only hassle I ever had was fear. There was a tendency among some people to, and this hasn’t changed much and here we are in the 21st century, but to regard Vietnamese people as other and use derogatory terminology, even when talking about or sometimes talking to Vietnamese who are on our side. So, I mean, I almost came to blows with a guy in the club one night, who called me a gook lover. And three people had to hold me back while three other people took him out of the building. So there was that aspect of it that was very, very difficult. The other aspect of it in my mind was, I had mentioned earlier there was this kind of dichotomy in my thinking of whether we should or shouldn’t be there, and except for the fact that we would be if we did it the wrong way, which we did, we would be leaving people in the lurch and deserting people that had helped us. I became more and more of the feeling that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Looking a little bit back in history, when Ho Chi Minh approached Harry Truman in 1946, to ask for our help in getting the French out of the country. We should have done that. And he, I mean, had we done that he would have been on our side, never would have become aligned with Communists, and none of this nonsense, presumably ever would have happened.
Are there any specific, like memories that you have during when you were serving that were most memorable to you? Or perhaps challenging in any way?
Yeah, challenging. I mean, one particular challenge we had was, we had a commanding officer at one point who kind of he lost track of the fact that we were in a combat zone and was very stateside in his thinking about military courtesy and cleanliness, and you know, paint the rocks, the general’s coming for a visit. And that was at the time when I was the company executive officer. So a lot of times, I was the one who had to get people to do stuff that I thought was total bullshit. But the boss’s boss had said to do it. And it wasn’t an illegal order. It was just a nonsense order. So there was no grounds to disobey it. So I had to do a lot of fast talking and bribery to get guys to go along with some of the things we had to do. I think one of the worst days, and challenging from an emotional standpoint, was May 9 1968. I’ll never forget the date. At one of our other base camps, a rocket hit the hooch, where a bunch of our maintenance guys lived and killed six of them, including two that I had gotten pretty close to. And one of them, the rocket hit directly on his bunk. So there was the emotional impact of that. And then, as part of my job, I helped compose a lot of the correspondence for our battalion commander. And it was really, emotionally tough to write the letters to the parents of those guys who’d been killed. And to try to rebuild everybody’s morale after that. Because we went through something that I still go through to this day on Facebook pages dealing with the war and war veterans. There are a lot of guys who are very gung ho, if you weren’t entered for infantry, you weren’t in the war. Well, the facts of the matter are, that actually, for every infantryman, there were somewhere between nine and ten support people in the background that fed them, paid them, fixed their equipment, got the new equipment, did the paperwork necessary to get them paid and get them promoted. So I found myself as sort of the self-appointed morale officer whenever our guys came in contact with somebody who kind of belittled them such as, yeah, you’re just a clerk, what do you know about the war? And I’d use the story that I told you about those six guys. And when that rocket got done with him, they were every bit as dead as if a machine gun that got them out in the jungle somewhere.
Returning Home From the War
Yeah, so after returning home from the war, how were you treated? And then also, did your viewpoint change on your participation? Or did it remain the same?
Ah, I was treated, okay, because I stayed in the army for a while longer. So home was another military base. It happened to be a huge culture change because it was a research and development facility in New Jersey. I was the operations officer in a development lab where there was one GI and about 125 civilians. So I was essentially civilian, except I wore the same color outfit every day. And there was another lab on the other half of our building. My secretary was good friends with the secretary in the other lab. Introduced us. And two years later, we were married. So that was something good the army did for me. I felt strongly enough about people not wanting to participate that shortly after I got back, my brother was applying for conscientious objector status. And I wrote a letter of support for his application and signed it Captain US Army because after seeing what some guys went through who really genuinely shouldn’t have been there, and what it did to them and the potential it had to do great harm to the people around them, I became a firm believer in if you believe strongly enough that you’re willing to live with the draft dodger nomenclature, more power to you.
Yeah, so I guess fast forward. Fast forward to I believe 2006, you mentioned?
Which was your return to Vietnam. So how did you feel emotionally about returning to Vietnam later in your life? And then I guess what was your perspective on the country during your visit?
First of all my perspective actually went back to when I was there during the war because I had a chance to fall in love with the country and the people and the food. That is what I wanted to go back to. So I was with a small group, there were only ten of us. The professor that was leading the group, I think this was like his twelfth or thirteenth trip that he had gone either with students or in this particular trip, he put together a group through the college’s alumni house but invited me to join them so I was a little apprehensive. Our route was Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, and Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. Starting out in Hanoi, I was a little apprehensive. First of all, if anybody had told me in 1968 or 1969, hey you are gonna land in Hanoi airport. I would have told them yeah right that is going to happen. So we landed in Hanoi airport. Everybody was amazingly friendly. Americans are so welcome that it is unbelievable. Our guide was, well at that time, I thought of him as an older gentleman, he was probably younger than I am now. He and I talked quite a bit about the war. So our last day there, he said I think we can be really honest with each other. Can I tell you something? I said sure. When you get back home, you tell your friends that Americans need to get over this war. We are over it. We are way beyond it. He said you live in the past. To us, the past happened, today is happening, and we look forward to how we can build a better tomorrow. But he said just to put in perspective for you, before you, there were 25 years of the French, who were awful and treated us in ways that you would not even think of. Before that, it was a thousand years of the Chinese, who were so brutal that a lot of Vietnamese still can’t even talk about it. So he said, to put the American war in perspective, for the years that you were here, you were no effin deal. And this is coming from a guy who worked for the government during the war, had to evacuate his family to the countryside so they wouldn’t be in Hanoi when it was being bombed. So he kind of set me straight on where we stand.
I think the only person who I caught any grief from was a guy, who I believed it was his uncle, had worked, and I’m not sure if it was as an interpreter or something else, but had worked with the 25th infantry division, which was located in the area right next to where the first division was. And he said he was made promises orally and in writing, if the Americans ever pulled out and it looked like something bad was going to happen, they would get him and his family out. And they didn’t. They left him behind. So this guy was really pissed off at being left in the lurch like frankly millions of other people were. But that was the only animosity, the only anti-American comment that I heard the whole time. Hue was, parts of it were, huge parts of it were destroyed during gigantic battles. And parts of it in 2006 were still being rebuilt. And the goal was to make it bigger and better than it ever was. Hoi An was a neat little port city that was almost destroyed during the war. It’s bounced back, it is now a united nations UNESCO cultural center. It’s thriving. And Ho Chi Minh City, the only people that call it Ho Chi Minh City are government bureaucrats. Everybody else calls it Saigon.
So I guess sort of just to wrap up. Were there any lasting impacts of your experiences in the war or any lasting takeaways? I know you mentioned that you always strive to look for the good in people. Are there any takeaways, lessons, or impacts of the war on you or your family that you would like to share?
Let’s see, impacts on me and my family. My kids grew up kind of inquisitive about the war and my role in it and then as they got older, they could see how and I could see how my thinking about that war affected my thinking about Iraq, Afghanistan. They just do the same things over and over and over again. And to no avail. We go in to “help,” and our way of helping is to take over, which we certainly did in Vietnam, we certainly did in Iraq and Afghanistan. And by taking it over we deprive the people whose country it is, whose war it actually is, we deprive them of learning how to either fight the war or come to some peaceful negotiated settlement. And then we stick around long enough so that public pressure back home builds up and elections come up or something happens and all of a sudden it’s like oh okay we are done, we got to go now. And we just pull out and leave them, with equipment that they don’t have spare parts for, or without equipment that we provided but we took back with us when we left. It’s just kind of insane. I think we need to recognize, it’s kind of like if France had come into the United States and helped us by taking over the Civil War. What would that have done? Nothing. We learned the hard way, by killing enough of each other that we said wait a minute. This is stupid. We got cousins fighting cousins, we got brothers fighting brothers, we got families that are split. Enough, we are done. And Vietnam was, a lot of wars the same way, many of the families that I got to know had nuclear family in the north. And they couldn’t see each other. If they did see each other, they’d have to kill each other. It’s just nuts. Didn’t have to be that way. I think I got to like Vietnamese food so much that I said, you know, if a big fight breaks out, somebody has to have a potluck dinner recipe swap, and food would take care of everything. Everybody would just sit down and eat together and chit chat and we are all good.