This Memorial Day, I was privileged to give the keynote remarks on the Vietnam War at the National Cemetery at the Presidio of San Francisco. It was a beautiful day, and over 3,000 attended.
I served two combat tours in Vietnam between 1968 and 1970, as infantry platoon leader and company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division and the First Cavalry Division. I was awarded two Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and the Bronze Star with 'V.'
My remarks were as follows:
"It is an honor to speak on behalf of my comrades, who fought in Vietnam long ago and far away.
There are a lot of memories from two combat tours. If what you are about to hear sounds in any way unique, it was not; I’m sure my experiences would be familiar to almost any soldier who fought as a combat infantryman.
When I first went to Vietnam in January of 1968, I was a 21-year-old infantry lieutenant; a paratrooper and ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division.
Our brigade of the 82nd was deployed to Vietnam as reinforcements during the Tet Offensive that had begun that month.
After flying by way of Alaska and Okinawa, we finally landed at Phu Bai, just south of Hué. It was sheeting down rain. A Marine CH-46 helicopter landed beside our transport. It had just come in from Khe Sanh, the combat base which was under siege in the mountains to the west,
near the Laotian border. As the tail ramp of the helicopter came down, a Marine ‘deuce and half’ truck backed up. Bodies in gray-green bags were offloaded into the truck bed.
Most of the paratroopers with me had served in Vietnam before. To them, this was an ordinary sight. It wasn’t ordinary to me.
In those first weeks, it rained ceaselessly and was surprisingly cold. But when the rain stopped and the sun came out, it was like operating in a sauna. Most of the fighting was small unit actions and ambushes.
Below Hué, along the Perfume River in the first days of that heat, we found the first of many mass graves of civilians who had been executed by the enemy during their occupation of the city of Hue. There were over a hundred men, women and children in that ditch. All had their hands tied behind them, and most - but not all - had been shot before being buried.
In the north, there was hardly any cover or concealment - the rolling hills were covered with ankle-high scrub, but not much else. In the south, there was thick jungle and enormous rubber plantations stretching for miles along the Cambodian border.
On my second tour, in the First Cavalry Division, I commanded a company of light infantry. We were what was known as a ‘rucksack’ outfit. Airlifted by helicopter, we submerged beneath the jungle like a submarine at sea, moving quietly. Patrolling and ambushing, we stayed out weeks at a time. We were resupplied by air about once a week.
Under the canopies of the jungle and the rubber trees, the blue-green light was like being in an aquarium. The rubber plantations were planted in a precise grid. You could see a hundred yards in every direction. The thick jungle, however, was formidable. We moved cross-country. Our enemy used the
trails; we ambushed him there. Trees, vines and bamboo were so thick we often crawled in the trapped heat and humidity beneath them, through the rotting vegetation on the jungle floor.
The wildlife in Vietnam was impressive. There were tiny deer that barked like dogs, dirty-brown ‘sun bears’ with bright orange markings on their chests, huge wild boars and spiders as big as your hand.
I was once nearly taken out, literally, by a giant sloth. It came crashing down through the triple canopy overhead, missed me by inches and hit the ground so hard it bounced. As we watched, it very slowly climbed back up the tree it had fallen out of.
One night my entire Infantry company was routed by giant termites as big as your thumb. Attracted by our body heat, they burrowed up from below, chewing through our ground sheets. When I radioed Battalion why we were changing position, they couldn’t believe it. On another occasion in a firefight in one of the rubber plantations, a huge termite mound about 5 feet high, 5 feet thick and hard as concrete saved my life and those of my radio
operators, enabling us to shelter behind it from an enemy light machine gun.
Almost every man who served in the field ought to remember a big lizard that lived in the jungle canopy overhead. Its real name was the Tokay Gekko, but that wasn’t how it was known by American soldiers. Its call was raucous. It sounded exactly like what the troops called it: ‘F-YOU! F-YOU!’ it would call all night long.
Our tracer ammunition was bright red, theirs was neon green. A firefight at night was red and green strobe lights with stereo explosions, men yelling in English and Vietnamese, screams, cries, grenades detonating, RPGs exploding against the trees. Artillery impacting at night sounded like huge loads of flat wooden boards, falling from a great height onto a concrete floor.
As soon as action started, everything seemed to move in slow motion. I would physically touch each man I spoke to; a hand on the arm, a pat on the back. I would make them repeat to me what I told them, then go to it. Physical contact like that in a fight is immensely reassuring to a frightened man. It was reassuring to me as well.
The courage of our men, who gave their lives or were grievously wounded, out of devotion, or anger, or adrenaline or fear, was amazing. Our medics went into action with nothing more than their medical aid bags, treating the wounded under mortar and machine gun fire.
One of our chaplains, a Jesuit, carried an issue .45 Colt automatic, and used it to protect the wounded. He got there by experience, having seen our wounded shot and killed by the enemy.
There were near misses. One morning at the last moment I was called off a helicopter about to take off. There was some small administrative detail that needed attending to. The helicopter was shot down shortly after departing. There were no survivors.
Another day, I received a radio call that a B-52 strike was on its way to our location. At the last moment, someone up the command chain had noticed where we were. My entire company literally ran due east until we were radioed to get down. Three B-52 loads of bombs soared in over our heads and obliterated an enormous swath of jungle behind us. Immediately afterward we were ordered to go into the impact area and conduct a 'bomb damage assessment.' That got us into a fight with the heavily-armed survivors of the enemy unit the strike had hit.
Had we not been warned and been caught in that B-52 strike, it would have easily been the biggest ‘friendly-fire’ incident of the Vietnam War.
Let me tell you something about my infantrymen. They were terrific soldiers. Almost all of them had been drafted into the Army. Only eight months before, they had been living ‘normal’ lives in the States. After Army basic and
individual training they were flown to Vietnam, arriving as individual replacements.
With minor variations, they looked and were equipped very much like the Marines and soldiers who fought in the Pacific in World War II. They wore jungle fatigues, jungle boots and steel helmets. On their combat harness they carried fragmentation grenades, or colored smoke or white phosphorous grenades; two canteens; a K-Bar sheath knife; and ammunition carriers full of 20-round magazines.
They carried the M-16 rifle; or the 40 mm grenade launcher; or the M-60 machine gun; or the short-barreled 90 mm recoilless rifle. If they were on a machine gun crew, they carried cans of linked-belt ammunition for the gun.
They carried radio sets, the very first ‘Starlight’ night-vision scopes and spare batteries.
On or in their rucksacks, they carried spare boot socks; more ammunition; more water; claymore mines; more linked-belt ammunition for the machine guns; small antipersonnel mines, extra rounds for the 90 mm rifle; empty sandbags; and folding shovels.
They carried iodine tablets to kill the bugs in the water. They carried Kool-Aid sent from home to mask the awful taste of the iodine.
To protect against malaria, they carried dapsone and chloroquine primaquine tablets. But if they were exhausted and their resistance was down, as they usually were, the anti-malaria tablets were about as useless as the Army-issue insect repellent.
They didn’t carry anything that could prevent amoebic dysentery, or the immersion foot that afflicted many in the rainy season, when their feet could swell up and their skin literally peeled off in strips.
They carried cans of C-rations, or dehydrated Long Range Patrol rations. They carried chunks of C-4 plastic explosive to heat them.
They each wore a pair of metal dog tags embossed with their name, service number, blood type and religion. In my company in the First Cav, one tag was worn on a chain around the neck. The other was laced into a boot. That doubled the chance that at least one dog tag would be recovered.
They carried Bibles; missals; hymnals; prayer books; good luck charms; and talismans, or nothing at all. I never heard anyone belittle another for what he believed in. I did hear pleas and promises to God, by men under fire.
They carried all these things, like pack animals, in the rain and the heat and the fighting for a full year. They bitched, like all soldiers bitch, but it was a strangely proud kind of bitching. If you asked them what they were fighting for, they weren’t hesitant. They weren’t fighting for South Vietnam, and they weren’t fighting for Mom, or the flag or apple pie. They were fighting to survive the war so they could go home. What they were really fighting for - they didn’t realize until years later - was each other.
And one day, at the end of their endless year in the field, they boarded a resupply helicopter on the back-haul to the rear area, turned in their weapons and gear, showered, were issued a new uniform and began the long trip home.
To most of them, their service in Vietnam would turn out to be the most astonishing feat of their lives.
They were absolutely terrific. America should be proud of every one of them.
Thank you for letting me share some of my memories of them."