I completed Flight School at Pensacola, Florida, in June of 1967 and headed north to my first tactical squadron, Marine Corps Fighter Attack Squadron 531 (VMFA-531) at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina. I worked hard at checking out in the F-4 Phantom over the next 3 months and headed overseas to Okinawa, Japan in October 1967. We were to be replacement pilots for our squadron, which by the Spring of 1968 was based at Chu Lai and Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam (aka South Vietnam).
Most of us were anxious to be transferred "in-country" and I shipped out for Da Nang in March 1968. The North Vietnamese/Viet Cong Tet Offensive was still on and we flew many close air support missions –– sometimes two a day –– to assist our ground troops in the northern part of South Vietnam. We also flew bombing missions where we were controlled by ground-based radar units called Air Support Radar Teams.
In April of 1968 I took a six-week "break" from flying, which was the custom in the Marines. The best way to have an appreciation for close air support was to be with ground troops for part of your tour of duty. I volunteered to reinforce the Air Support Radar Team at the Battle of Khe Sanh, up near the de-militarized zone (a rather ironic name for the border between North and South Vietnam). At Khe Sanh we lived in a small underground bunker that surrounded what looked like a metal closet that was the jammed with computers and communications equipment. The radar antenna was outside about 50 yards away and had so many shrapnel holes in it we were amazed that it kept turning. Every night we controlled Marine and Navy aircraft that were bombing the hills that surrounded our location on the plain. During the day we and other targets at Khe Sanh took "incoming" artillery from the North Vietnamese.
In May I left Khe Sanh by taking a flying leap onto a helicopter as it touched dtown and almost immediately took off again for Da Nang. We made a stop at Phu Bai, where I came the closest to "buying the farm.” As the helicopter landed to take on more troops it began to take incoming. I followed everyone already on the helicopter to the nearest slit trench to the side of the landing pad. I jumped in just as an artillery round thudded a short distance away. It shook the ground violently and threw dust all over. I assumed it was close.
Back in Da Nang, we lived a more normal existence, living in a platform tent and flying out of the Air Force Base there and the Marine Corps Air Station at Chu Lai, about 20 miles south. I worked at the Air Support Radar Team in Da Nang for another couple months and then returned to flying.
In November of 1968, I left Da Nang for a one-night stay in Okinawa and the next day flew all the way back to El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in California.
Some of the little things that come to mind about Da Nang, which was a huge base, include little kids who could remove your watch in about two seconds without you even knowing it, barrels of moving rice where you couldn't tell the difference between the grains and the maggots, a four-foot long centipede that could have chilled out the devil, and of course that scorpion that nearly earned me a medi-vac flight to a hospital ship in Da Nang Harbor. All-in-all things were not too bad, since we had a chance to fly most every day and, I think more important, we had each other to hang around with.
Writing Through Time
I began by wondering about Vietnam.
And writing about it, and thinking about it, and reading about it. Vietnam has always fascinated me because it’s a piece of history that I am a part of. My presence on this earth is directly dependent on the fact that my father went to war, fought the war, and left the war, unscathed, to marry my mother and to have me. Almost twenty years after the day of my birth, he goes to the office five days a week and reads the newspaper in the morning. He likes to jog and make shakes out of soy protein and bananas. He was my softball coach. He’s good tempered, friendly, and kind of a pushover. He’s my dad.
When I was seven years old I was shocked to discover that my second grade teacher, Mrs. Niskanen, had a first name. Linda. Not only that, she lived in a house like I did. My mother told me that she might even have a family, with a husband and kids of her own. I had always just supposed that Mrs. Niskanen spent all day being our teacher, and that when we caught the bus home, she sat at her desk until the next morning when we would come tumbling through the door, grasping the worksheets we had completed for homework. If I had actually thought about this, maybe it would have all seemed slightly illogical, but I didn’t have time to dwell on such things. In this same way, I always had the quiet belief that my parents didn’t really live before I was born. If I wasn’t there, I subconsciously reasoned, then it didn’t really matter what went on anyway. Again, if I had actually thought about this, it would have been clear that my parents had to have lived before me. They were grownups and I was just a kid. They had lived more years than me. But clearly their sole point in life was to be my parents.
It took me until the second grade to realize that my teacher didn’t live at Clark Elementary School. It took me until my first year of college to fully realize that my parents didn’t live entirely in my short twenty years. They had lives before I was born, before my sister was born, before they had even met one another. They had lives like the one I’m living now. My dad, who tells dumb jokes that I love to hear, who rakes the lawn, who makes great soy-banana creations, who plays tennis every Sunday during the summer, is the same man who flew an F-4 Phantom Jet over the napalmed hillsides of Vietnam in 1968. And so I want to know that guy. I want to know what Vietnam was like, what he thought about, what he felt. I want to crawl into that cockpit beside him when his plane was falling one thousand feet, five thousand feet, ten thousand feet, and know what it was like before he knew about me, before he knew for sure that he was even going to marry my mother.
In the middle of March, 1999, my father drove two hours to meet me for lunch. We ordered burgers at the Brickway on Wickenden Cafe and chatted about school and work. Once our meal was done, my dad ordered coffee and I asked for a hot chocolate. I set the small tape recorder on the table and we talked for three hours about Vietnam. Recorded on the tape is a charming man singing old show tunes, piped out through the small speakers of the cafe. The soundtrack played four, maybe five times. Later, it made me laugh to transcribe the interview and hear the winsome voice sing the words “the way you wear your hat” over and over again. My dad wore a red sweater. I don’t remember what I was wearing.
“Start from the very, very, very beginning,” I said.
“In the beginning there was molten lava. The Earth cooled slowly over millions of years...”
“Daaaad,” I pleaded. And then I had an odd feeling. I knew I was being taped, and I was suddenly aware that maybe I had said the word “dad” in that exasperated Dad-just-be-serious-for-two-minutes tone so that, years later, when I had dug up the interview tapes from my box of important things, I would listen and and laugh and remember that my dad was wearing his red sweater, and that when he joked about the molten lava he was smiling. I would remember how we laughed a lot and lost ourselves for those three hours. I would remember how, when my father was explaining air tactics, he used his silverware to create flight simulations. I would remember that, although I always rolled my eyes at his jokes, I really did love them. Whenever my dad tells his dumb dad-jokes my sister and I laugh and my mother says very seriously, “don’t laugh at him. He’s not funny,” which makes us laugh even more. When I listen to the tape in thirty years, I will remember this and laugh again.
...and then I felt all out of place and time and I was forty-nine years old, listening fondly to a tape I made for my English class. I was nineteen years old, sitting cross legged at a cafe with my dad. I was fifty-four years old, sitting in that same cafe with my daughter. And, finally, I was twenty-four years old, watching the sun set from the cockpit window of my F-4 Phantom in 1968...
March 15, 1999
(K: Kerry; D: Dad)
D: When I was in high school I had a chance to apply for a scholarship and I got excited about the Navy and Marine Corps. I took the exam, which was kind of like a best kept secret, that you can get the military to pay for your college education. (Laughs.)
K: Did you know that you’d have to go to Vietnam?
D: No. When I started college, no.
K: Why not?
D: I don’t know, I just didn’t give it a lot of thought. I mean, in ‘62 it wasn’t even that big. The United States didn’t make a commitment to Vietnam until ‘65, around there. There were people over there in ‘62, and even before that when Kennedy was President, but it was just a small advisory task force.
K: You never even thought about it?
D: No, not that I would be going to Vietnam. It crossed my mind that we had advisors in Vietnam, but that’s all we had –– an advisory task force, a couple thousand people. So, anyway, I applied for this scholarship and I got it. It was great, because it paid for all college courses, forty dollars a month for room and board –– which was a lot at the time –– and all your books. The only downside was that at the end of college, you owed the Navy or the Marine Corps four years. I took the scholarship and went off to Villanova for the NROTC. I liked the idea of military even before that. In fact, one of the main reasons I went to Villanova rather than Boston College was that Boston College had Army ROTC, and I like the Navy ROTC better. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into the Marine Corps. After my Freshman year I had to decide, and then I figured I couldn’t see myself on some ship in the middle of the ocean. I’d get seasick. (Laughs.) I was just starting to think that I might like aviation and I didn’t know if I wanted to live on an aircraft carrier, so I decided to go into the Marine Corps.
K: Did it eventually become apparent that you would have to go to Vietnam?
D: Yes, by the time I was a Junior it was pretty certain.
K: Did that upset you?
D: No. No, because when you’re in NROTC that’s what you’re trained for. That’s all we talked about, when we would get the chance to go to Vietnam
K: So you were excited?
D: Yeah, yeah, I wanted to go.
K: Did you ever think you might not come back?
D: No. Very few people thought that. Especially in aviation, unless you were involved in an accident or something, you were probably going to come back. We had what was called “air supremacy,” which means that we owned the skies. We didn’t have to worry about getting in a dog fight ––
K: Yeah, but you could get gunned down from the ground, right?
D: You could, but that was relatively unusual, because most of the ground troops in the North Vietnamese Army just had rifles. They had to be really lucky to shoot down a plane. Small anti-aircraft equipment was not that accurate. Anyway, I went to Villanova and after my Freshman year I decided to take up the Marine Corps option, and then after my Junior year I had to go to Quantico, a boot camp down in Virginia. The day you graduate you are commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. I had three or four weeks off and then I had to report down to flight school in Pensacola, Florida in the middle of June. You would normally stay there eighteen months, but because of Vietnam they were running through people in thirteen months. That means that I never Carrier qualified, which was OK, especially for the Marine Corps.
K: What was flight school like?
D: Flight school was a lot of fun, actually. We soloed in a little single engined airplane out of a place called Saufley Field, right near Pensacola. Saufley is where you flew your first airplanes, although I had already flown as part of a flight indoctrination program while I was still at Villanova out of Willow Grove Naval Airstation. So, I had flown in the kinds of planes that I would be training in. Let’s see, I went down there in June of ‘66 and soloed in August of ‘66. I took an exam and, because of that and my performance in flying, I was lucky enough to get into jets. I went into Jet School, which was in Meridian, Mississippi. Navy and Marine Corps jet pilots went to qualify in a T-2 Buckeye. The Airforce had this real neat F-5 that they flew. The T-2 was much slower, the most basic jet you could fly. I flew that, qualified, and I got my wings in June of ‘67. I only had a week off and then I had to report to my operational squadron in Cherry Point, North Carolina, where I had to qualify in the F-4. Now, when you go from a training aircraft to a real airplane, it’s kind of like going from a twenty year old Volkswagen to a Mazzarotti.
K: Was it fun, or scary, or what?
D: The first few times it was kind of scary, because I had to get used to the airplane. But then after week or two, you’d love flying. You couldn’t wait to fly, you know?
K: What was it like inside the plane?
D: The F-4 was a two seat airplane –– the co-pilot sat behind the pilot.
K: You were the pilot?
D: Right. And in the Marine Corps, they didn’t have a co-pilot in the backseat. They had what was called a Radar Intercept Officer, an RIO. In theory, the F-4 was a tactical airplane for air-to-air intercept work –– that’s what it was created for –– so you’d run intercepts on enemy airplanes. There was a radar that was controlled from the backseat, and the Radar Intercept Officer would run the intercept and give you control. He might say “Bogey, ten o’clock, thirty-five miles.” You couldn’t even see it, so he might say, “hard left, a hundred-and-forty degrees,” and you’d try to roll, outmaneuver the other airplane, so that you rolled out right behind him, you know? Now, you have to keep in mind that the Bogey isn’t just going to keep flying straight and level. He’s probably going to try to evade you, especially if he picks you up on his radar. If you rolled out right behind the Bogey, the RIO would say “Fox 2,” which means “fire your missile.” We had two kinds of missiles on the airplanes. Fox 2 was a heat-seeking missile –– an infrared missile –– so when you got behind somebody, you’d fire this thing and it’d go right up their engine. Fox 1 was a missile you used while you were still a long distance away. Computers in the airplane calculated the intercept from the missile, and then the missile would adjust as the other plane was flying. The point is, we had air supremacy, so in Vietnam we controlled the sky. The F-4 actually became an FA-4 Fighter Attack. It was still called an F-4, but it had an attack mission. We mostly either dropped bombs or helped with close air support.
K: Did you ever have to drop Napalm?
D: Yes. We dropped Napalm as part of close air support mission work. It was either 250 pound bombs or sometimes 500 pound bombs if we had stationary targets that we were looking for. About half the time we did close air support work. Sometimes that was machine gun fire, twenty millimeter, and sometimes it was Napalm. Sometimes you’d drop small bombs in close air support too –– 250 pound bombs.
K: What did you drop the bombs on?
D: Troops, enemy troops. Our own forces would come into contact with the enemy and they would try and get back-up, especially if it was a large contingency of the enemy. Depending on the situation, there would be a forward observer on the ground, a Marine officer that would determine the best kind of ordnance to use on the enemy, depending on how concentrated they were, where they were, and how far away they were from friendly forces. And then they would say, “We want you to come in on this heading and drop a 300-yard string on Napalm bombs,” or they might say, “Most of what we’re taking is anti-aircraft fire and we know where the anti-aircraft position is. Here are the coordinates. We want you to drop four 250 pound bombs right on top of them.”
K: Could you see the targets?
D: The clearest definition of the target was usually if there was a forward observer in the area who was airborne, who would drop a smoke bomb on top of it. So there’d be yellow smoke coming up, you know? And he’d say, “A hundred yards to the North of my yellow smoke, that’s where it is.” And you’d look there and you might see a glint of metal or something like that, and you’d say, “that’s it.” We didn’t have a real good definition of the target most of the time. It might be defined, “parallel with the river and a hundred yards off to the side of it” or something like that.
K: Did you ever drop bombs on villages?
D: Nope. No. But that wasn’t policy either. We wouldn’t indiscriminately bomb a village.
K: Right. But it happened...
D: Well, by a mistake, yeah. In fact, when I stopped flying and I was in an Air Support Radar Team, our unit mistakenly bombed a friendly village. We didn’t do anything wrong. That’s what the investigation showed anyway, because we had the right targets in the computer. The computer calculated where you should drop the ordnances from an airplane. Everything worked fine, we just had the wrong coordinates.
K: Who gave you the coordinates?
D: We’d get them from field units, a lot of times from Marine Corps reconnaissance people. Force Recon is a real gung-ho part of the Marine Corps. Those were the people that painted their faces up and went out in the middle of the night, snooping around, looking for targets. They had to operate close to the enemy all the time. After a night of looking for targets, they would call in coordinates. And then, during the daytime, we’d be out hitting those targets.
K: So what kind of bomb was dropped on that village?
D: Those were 250 pound bombs, maybe some 500 pound bombs, I can’t remember. I was a controller. The airplane we were controlling dropped the bombs.
K: Did that ever weigh on your conscience?
D: Yeah, I mean, at first I thought, “Oh my God, we made a mistake.” We had to seal up the radar unit and the computer, and then they had to do an investigation really quick because we couldn’t afford to keep that piece of equipment out of operation. It was a metal box that you could sit two people in. A big closet, kind of. They checked out all of the inputs that we made in the computer to make sure that they were all correct. Everything panned out OK. It bothered me later because I wanted a copy of the investigation. I wanted to know what eventually happened. At first they told me it would be a couple months. And then after a couple months went by and I asked, it was like, “Oh, don’t worry. You guys were OK. You didn’t do anything wrong.” But I wanted to know what happened. And they said, “Well, we don’t really know and we don’t even know where the report is.” They just basically said, “Don’t bother us. You guys didn’t do anything wrong.” What bothered me most was I never got closure. There were a lot of mistakes that happened over there... So anyway, after qualifying in the F-4, I went out to Okinawa, which is a couple thousand miles south of Japan. Okinawa is a big island, mostly military bases that the United States controlled. I worked on Okinawa in this unit called the Air Support Radar Team, which was a non-flying position, and tried to get a flying position in Vietnam. I wanted to go. I probably could have stayed on Okinawa for thirteen months, if I wanted to. I ended up having a split tour. I spent six months in Okinawa at Camp Schwab, a beautiful site with a nice lagoon and everything. It was perfect, but we knew Vietnam was going on and most of the people wanted to go.
K: They did?
K: Were there draftees there?
D: Well, none of the officers were draftees.
K: You were an officer?
D: Right. All the officers wanted to go to Vietnam. There may have been some enlisted guys, but the Marine Corps had very few draftees, at least in my specialization. Most of the draftees were in the infantry, and I was in aviation. Anyway, I kept bugging the squadron commander and was reassigned to what’s called “in country” at the end of March ‘68. I flew out of Da Nang and Chu Lai, which were two air bases near each other. Every day you’d go through the same routine. You’d get up at about five-thirty, six in the morning, out of platform tents, and then you’d go eat breakfast. In Chu Lai tents were all set up not far from the side of the runway. It was loud, but the night flights were pretty much out of Da Nang, because Chu Lai was not a good night airport. In Da Nang, we lived on top of a hill that was actually about a mile and a half from the runway. We took a truck down. Got up in the morning, took a shower, and then got in this truck. Got all your flight gear and then ate breakfast at the Airforce station.
K: What did your flight gear consist of?
D: A flight suit. Except the bottom part was a G-suit, which was this bladder you put on that covered your legs. It had holes in it to go over your knees, and holes on the side of your legs.
K: Why did you have to wear it?
D: When you were pulling a lot of G’s in a turn, those bladders would fill up with air and squeeze your legs. The idea was that they would keep the blood in the upper part of your body, where you needed it. You wanted the blood in the upper part of your body so that you wouldn’t black out if you took too many G’s.
K: How many flight suits did you have?
D: Oh, I don’t know. Six or eight. They actually had a laundromat there at the base. It was called the “clean sheets Marine Corps,” because if you had an aviation job, it wasn’t living in the field. It was completely different, which was what always made me happy about the Marine Corps. I wasn’t living out of my backpack somewhere. On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly like being back in the States. There were a lot of things that I took for granted in the States that just weren’t in Vietnam. I remember –– it’s really weird, the things you remember –– I remember coming back to the States and the first doorknob I ran into, I didn’t know what to do with it. I looked at it, and I was going to touch it, but I didn’t know to whether pull it or to turn it. My mind was calculating, “I know what this thing is...what do I do with it?” It took about five seconds and then, oh yeah, that’s right, turn it. It was weird getting used to those things when I came back. So, we’d get up in the morning, take the truck in, have a quick breakfast, go and get a flight briefing, and you’d be airborne 7:30 or 8:00 AM. Missions were anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour and a half. Sometimes you’d go out with two airplanes, sometimes one. Sometimes it was close air support, and sometimes it was just hitting targets. A lot of times we’d go out for another run in the afternoon.
K: What did you do in between the runs?
D: We went back to the area, hung out, whatever. There was a lot of time involved with debriefing, checking out systems on the airplane, and making sure everything was working with the maintenance crew. And then we had to fill out forms and keep records. If we landed at 9:30, maybe we’d leave the runway at 11:00, go back, have lunch, and then we’d be back by 1:00, get briefed, and we were airborne again my two.
K: What did you do to pass time when you weren’t working?
D: Shoot the breeze in the Ready Room with other pilots. Talk, play cards, tell war stories. If you were working a particular area for several days dropping bombs, you’d tell other pilots what it was like. You wouldn’t want to get trapped in some kind of a canyon, where you were making a low run and you really couldn’t pull the airplane up fast enough to get out of there. So we’d always talk about terrain. You’d say, “We got a company or two companies of Marines or Army up in Co-Rock Valley, and there’s that one lower valley off to the side there. If you get called in for close air support, you don’t want to go into that area. Or if you do, make sure you have a minimum altitude of a thousand feet. Make sure you get out of there.” You know, that kind of thing. There was a lot of talking with other pilots.
K: Were some of the pilots close friends of yours?
D: Oh yeah. Spud Halcomb, old Bullet Butt. (Laughs.) He got shot in the rear. A bullet came through the skin of the airplane and up through the seat of the aircraft. He was really lucky the bullet didn’t hit the canister of the ejection seat. It has a mortar shell that sends the ejection seat through the canopy of the airplane, so it’s like a live ordnance, two of them there, on either side of the ejection seat. It rockets you out if you have to eject from the airplane. There’s live powder in there. If you hit it with a bullet you blow the whole airplane sky high. The bullet came through the aircraft and through the seat but it didn’t hit the ejection mechanism. It just hit him. The bullet went into his rear. You’d be surprised what you can do when you’re in pain. According to him, he wasn’t in that much pain anyway. There were actually people who were hit much worse who brought airplanes back, because they really didn’t have a choice. If you were doing close air support missions, the enemy would wait and see the airplane come in just above treetop level and they’d just throw up all kinds of stuff. They'd have ten guys shooting automatic weapons up into the sky, hoping that you’d fly through one of the bullets. And sometimes you’d get hit doing that. I had my aircraft hit once and it tore off a small part of the end of the wing. But that’s all. I didn’t even know it till I got back on the ground.
K: Who were some of your other friends?
D: Oh, I don’t remember all the names now. He was probably my best friend, Spud Halcomb. Jim McCaffrey was another guy we used to fly a lot with. John McDermott. Yeah, we were a tight bunch because we were all together. There would be, let’s see, probably about twenty to twenty-five pilots in a squadron if we were fully manned. Sometimes if a detachment had to go and support another squadron you might be down to twelve or fifteen. That would be unusual. Usually about twenty pilots. And we had to keep the airplanes going. In the hot weather with all the flying we did, some of the systems wouldn’t work sometimes, so you’d have to take airplanes that weren’t totally working and do the best you could with them. Maintenance was a problem over there.
K: Who was your radar operator? D: I had different people. Most of the time I flew with this guy John McDermott. Yeah, about two-thirds of the time.
K: Had you always wanted to be a pilot?
D: I don’t know, when I was a boy I never really dreamed about being a pilot that much. It wasn’t really till I was in my junior or senior year of college that I thought it might be something I’d want to do. I mean, as a young kid, I wasn’t around other aviation people, so I never really was drawn to it.
K: What did you do at night, when you weren’t flying?
D: A lot of hanging out. Listened to Armed Forces radio. We’d play cards. Read.
K: What did you read?
D: I read some great books over there. One I remember, when I was underground in Khe Sanh, was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I was really into it. It was a forceful kind of a book. Very strong presence. It just seemed such a right book in the right tone for where I was. I tell you, it was a long book. I read Atlas Shrugged underground. I read some of Mamet’s books and other cheap novels and junk that was laying around. So anyway, I flew for about two months. It was April I guess. The Battle of Khe Sanh was still going on and they needed volunteers to go there, where the Air Support Radar Team was. The Air Support Radar Team had about four or five enlisted technicians and two or three Marine officers that would control airplanes from inside this steel box. It had a little radar that was maybe fifty yards away. The radar would lock on our friendly airplanes and then we could control them. You could actually fly the airplane or give verbal controls to the pilot from this computer box. In Khe Sanh the computer box was underground. About five feet of dirt and logs on top of us, in an area maybe fifteen by twelve feet. We lived in a hole underground.
K: Everyone at Khe Sanh lived in a hole?
D: (Laughs.) Everyone had their own hole. The Air Support Radar Team all lived in a twelve by fifteen foot area. Seven guys.
K: You slept and worked there?
K: Did you ever go above ground?
D: Oh yeah. We’d go above ground whenever it was safe to do so, you know? K: What were the people liked who you lived with? D: Nice. All real nice guys.
K: Were any of them drafted?
D: I don’t know. You just didn’t ask. I don’t know. It never really came up in conversation. The enlisted guys were very capable. They were primarily computer guys and maintenance guys who knew how to keep the radar up. There were radar technicians and computer technicians. And then the three of us, the three officers, would control the airplanes. We’d get these targets, these latitude and longitude targets delivered from the reconnaissance folks at night, and then the next day we’d hit targets by controlling our friendly airplanes. We did a lot of the work at nighttime and in poor weather, because it was very demoralizing to the enemy. The computer- guided ordnances could be dropped in terrible weather and by airplanes that you could barely hear because they were so high. Most of our runs were out of small arms range at about fourteen thousand feet. It was a very effective system, and it could be extremely accurate if you made a good run. You would lock on the friendly airplane and the computer would calculate the distance between where the airplane was and the point in space that the airplane had to release its ordnance to hit the target. You’d put all this information into the computer about the type of ordnance, the type of airplane, the altitude of the airplane. The ground elevation of the target, the latitude and longitude of the target. You had target information, you had ballistics information, and you had airplane information, all in the computer. Like I said, it would calculate a virtual target, a point in space that you had to release the ordnance, the bombs. We would make the run-in by controlling the airplane, usually verbally, giving commands to the pilot to reach this virtual target. And when he reached the virtual target, he had to be very precisely on a heading. We gave one degree corrections to pilots. They would just tap the stick a little bit, just nudge it over a little bit. You’d say, “Ten thousand meters to release. Arm all weapons. Arm port station three and five.” As the pilot was making the final roll in, you’d want to make sure he was exactly on a heading. There was a little box that had a paper system with an ink blotter, like the machines that calculate volcanic eruptions. The paper had all these lines on it. The center line was right on course. One little line to the right would be a half of a degree, and two lines would be one degree. As it was tracking, you would want to make sure that it was stabilized right on the center for your last few thousand meters. At two thousand meters you’d say, “two thousand meters, stand by, stand by, mark, mark.” Mark means release your ordnance. I’d always say “mark, mark” with about two hundred meters to go just for reaction time, for pickling, for pushing the release in the airplane. Three hundred miles an hour. At fourteen thousand feet it could be four hundred and fifty miles an hour. So, you’d say, “mark, mark” and then you’d say “check all switches safe, turn right” or “we’re going to have another run,” or “come back and release some more ordnances on another target,” or “bring another airplane in.” We’d do that all night long. It was a lot of fun. We would rotate, shift. We had a great time in there. We wouldn’t want to stop. It was like playing a game making the run-ins. We’d have contests to see how long we could hold somebody. If you could line somebody up with ten thousand meters to go and never have to give them a half of a degree course change, that means that you lined that guy up for two miles without one change.
K: Did you ever think about what you were dropping the bombs on?
D: No. No. These were people who were killing our people. The situation in Khe Sanh was kind of weird. It was a political decision that Johnson made that we were going to make a stand at Khe Sanh. He had decided that we were going to put in an all-out effort to demonstrate to the American public that we were winning in Vietnam. He decided to take a major defensive stand. We were not going to lose Khe Sanh. Hold Khe Sanh at all costs. It was crazy because it was such an untenable position. It was surrounded by high, steep mountains. We controlled the valley and, unfortunately, the North Vietnamese controlled the mountaintops. They set artillery and mortars on top of these mountains and would lob shells on us, during the day primarily. And then, at night, we would send troops up to rout out the North Vietnamese. Our troops would come down in the morning and the North Vietnamese would come up from the back side of the mountains and take over again. (Laughs.) It was crazy. It went on day after day like this. It was real scary for those ground troops. There were some horrendous fights on the tops of those mountains. Lots of people killed. We’d take control of them and blow up bunkers that we found up there, then we’d come down, and they’d go back up. The Air Support Radar Team was only a very small part of the people who were there. I don’t know how many people there were at Khe Sanh –– maybe five to ten thousand people at the height of it, most of them living underground. (Laughs.) There were Cambodian forces that were fighting for us who lived in tents outside the perimeter. They were kind of crazy. The Cambodian troops were like, “if you get killed, you get killed.” There weren’t a lot of precautions taken for Cambodian troops, either by us to ensure their safety or by their own commanders. They just lived in pop-tents on the ground. They lived on the edge of the base, so they would get hit by shells that missed the main part of the base. It was kind of a weird base because it looked like a dump, just pieces of equipment here, there, and other places. Most of it was underground. You’d see some tents, some big tents, but they were for storing stuff that didn’t matter, that wasn’t that important. Most of us US troops lived underground in bunker complexes. I was in a real small bunker with our Air Support Radar Team, but there were other bunkers that held hundreds of people. There were troops that were in the city of Khe Sanh, two or three miles away, that were out in the field. They were camped, and if Khe Sanh was ever attacked big-time these troops would just collapse in on Khe Sanh to defend it. We had troops even further out that were doing reconnaissance work to see where the enemy was and if they were getting closer to Khe Sanh. We used to have practice drills. We were assigned fifty yards of perimeter that was our responsibility, so you’d want to make sure your weapons were all ready to go and cleaned. We kept hearing these rumors that they had captured North Vietnamese out there, and these people they’d captured would say, “oh, there’s a plan to launch an assault on Khe Sanh in two nights,” or something like that. Then the word would spread and we would have to make sure our weapons were all clean and we would have to practice running out from the bunker to the sand bags on the perimeter. K: Was was that like?
D: That was scary, because I had never really fired my weapon against somebody. I always had this dream that hundreds of people were going to be charging me, but we were never called to man the perimeter. I remember cleaning my weapon and thinking of all those times in training when I had to put my weapon together blindfolded. Thinking about it, that all made sense. If your weapon jammed, you’d know how to fix it pretty quick. (Laughs.) I’m glad they told us all that stuff. Let’s see... We didn’t live underground all the time. They had this water buffalo –– it looked like an oil truck, only it had spigots underneath it. The truck was filled with water, and we would turn on the spigot and crouch down to take a shower.
K: Under the truck?
D: Yeah. We would usually stay near the door of the bunker, because a lot of times we could hear ordnances come whistling in. If it was a quiet night we would stay outside just to get some fresh air. We were near the perimeter, an area where ground troops would form up to go take one of those hills at night. They were full assault troops with rifles and all the gear and everything. Radio guys, everything.
K: What did you think about them?
D: I thought they were unbelievably brave. I used to talk to them before they went up the hill, and that’s where I’d find out these crazy stories. A kid would say to me, “this is the fourth time this week that we’ve taken this same hill” or “last night we lost two guys.”
K: How old were you then?
K: I’ve read that the average age was nineteen. Did you ever think about how young you all were?
D: No. No, because you weren’t. You really weren’t. The old maxim, “go to Vietnam, you’ll grow up really quick” is true. There were eighteen year old kids who were well beyond their years.
K: That’s almost two years younger than me.
D: Yeah, but you would change too. Anybody would in the same situation. Somehow you never really thought, “I’m too young for this.” So, these guys would take the hill and come back and then go do the same thing two nights later. It was crazy. But we fulfilled the objective. We defended Khe Sanh, and then we declared we won, and we abandoned it. (Laughs.) K: How long were you there?
D: Well, I was only there in the last part of the Battle of Khe Sanh. It went on for about four or five months I think. I was only up there a month.
K: Were you in Vietnam for the rainy season?
D: No, if I remember right, I missed most of it. I think I came right at the tail end and left right at the beginning. But it rained other times too. And when it rained over there, holy mackerel, it was downpours for hours and hours, huge rains. They’d wash out roads and everything.
K: Where did you go after Khe Sanh?
D: Well, when we left Khe Sanh, the helicopter touched down real quick in a place called Phu Bai, which was not far from the Demilitarized Zone. When we stopped, we let some people off, and then the helicopter pilot told everybody to get off and head for the trenches because we had started to take incoming. Along side of the runway there were these narrow slit trenches. We all dove for the trenches and I can remember hearing this thud and feeling the ground shake as I was still about two steps from the trench. I just dove into the thing, about four feet deep. (Laughs.) When I got into the trench, I remember feeling parts of my body to make sure they were all still there. We took a couple more incoming rounds and then it stopped and we ran back to the helicopter. (Laughs.) The pilot said, “Next stop, Da Nang!” So I went back to my squadron and flew again. I flew from May till November, and about a week before Thanksgiving, I went back to Okinawa, and then the next day flew back to the States. I was done with Vietnam, but I was still in the Marine Corps. I had a four year obligation. When I came back from Vietnam I still had two years left. At the end of my four years, they were thinking of sending me back to Vietnam, but I only had six months left, and by that time the war was starting to run down. In 1970 it wasn’t as heated as it had been before. I was over there in the worst part of the war –– ‘67 to ‘68. The Tet Offensive and all that. By 1970, things had toned down a little bit. They didn’t need as many pilots over there, so I didn’t have to go back to Vietnam. I signed up for air traffic control school, because I thought I might want to work for FAA after I got out of the Marine Corps. When I did that, I had to extend my stay a year from the time I finished air traffic control school, and that meant that I was actually in the Marine Corps four years and two months. I got out in ‘70. Went into the Marines in June of ‘66 and got out in July of ‘70. When I got back from Vietnam, they wanted people with combat experience to train other pilots in the F-4. I thought that was what I was going to do, and about a week before I had to make up my mind, a good friend of mine was killed while training a new pilot in the F-4, about a month after he got back from Vietnam. I said, “no, after spending a year in Vietnam, I’m not going to buy the farm that way.” We were in flight school together and we were over there in the same squadron. The people you were in Vietnam with were the same people who were in your squadron back in the States. If you were coming back, somebody else was going over. You might be back a few months and then one of your buddies over there would come back. You knew everybody. So I went and learned to be an air traffic control officer, and that’s what eventually got me a job in FAA. That’s when I went to Glynco Naval Airstation down in Georgia. I did a lot of flying while I was down there, but most of the time I was taking air traffic control courses. When I came back, I was assigned to an outlying landing field near Cherry Point called Bogue Field, which was a little dream come true. It was right on the beach in North Carolina. (Laughs.) We had ground control approach radar there, which was neat. We could control the airplanes landing on runways. All the services use it. Civil pilots use instrument landing systems. They’re in the cockpit, and the pilot rides the glide path down. In the military, ground control approaches are conducted by controllers, who talk the airplane down. The military prefers this. They consider it it more accurate. It can also be used in a tactical way. We had a ground control approach unit at Cherry Point that I was the officer in charge of. That was a lot of fun. When the assistant officer in charge got out of the Marine Corps of the radar air traffic control facility, I took his job. I left the Marine Corps from that position.
K: When did you meet Mom?
D: It was the Christmas before I went to Vietnam, when I came home on leave.
K: You were dating then?
D: Well, I was home maybe once, twice, including the time just before I went to Vietnam. I met her, and then when I went away I thought, “that’s somebody I’d like to know.” When I came back on leave I looked her up. I went to Vietnam in October of ‘67, and we must have met in December of ‘66. I came home around the Easter before I left for a week, and we dated.
K: For a week?
D: Yeah, I hung out with her, you know? And then I was gone, until just before I went to Vietnam. That’s when I took that drive up the Blue Ridge Mountains. And then I dated her for the two weeks I was home before I left for Vietnam.
K: Were you in love?
D: By that time, yeah. I think she may have visited me once when I was at Cherry Point. After Vietnam, she visited me a bunch of times.
K: Did you carry a picture of her when you were in Vietnam?
K: Did you know you were getting married?
D: No. Well, yes. I mean, it was kind of sudden because we had had a total of maybe two or three weeks of seeing each other. When I was in Vietnam, I was sure enough to buy a diamond. (Laughs.) You could get ‘em cheaper over there in Thailand. That’s where they all come from anyway. You could buy anything in Vietnam. I bought a sports car in Vietnam. I bought it and had it shipped to the United States from England so that my Triumph would be ready for when I came back. Everything was so cheap over there. I bought pearls for my mother, you know, the ones Mom has now. You didn’t really have to declare anything if you were in the military. When I came back, we went looking for diamond rings, and she kept saying “oh, I like that stone” and I kept saying “how do you like the ring?” (Laughs.)
K: What did your parents think about you being in Vietnam?
D: My mother was really nervous. She was somewhat acclimated because my brother went once before I went and again after I came back. She had a son in Vietnam for almost four years. (Laughs.) Big time praying. I was in Cherry Point before I left with the F-4 and we were flying over the ocean doing some air to air work. I don’t know what happened –– I suspect my G-suit wasn’t working right –– in this air to air work, you’re pulling some high G’s. I started blacking out. It came on quick enough so that I lost control of the airplane. We went from about 21,000 feet to about 3,000 feet. The guy sitting behind me was getting ready to punch out. Back then, he couldn’t punch me out. It was just the way the airplane was configured. He was really a hero. I can remember him yelling, “We’re at ten thousand feet! Pull up, come on, come on, come on! You can do it! Pull up, pull up, pull up!” And then finally I leveled off at three thousand feet. We would have crashed into the ocean. The first thing I remember hearing from John was, “We almost bought the farm, you asshole! Get this thing back up to 21,000 feet!”
K: Why did it happen?
D: I don’t know. I had unbelievable medical exams after that to make sure everything was OK. They thought it might have been something to do with my G-Suit. Maybe I pulled too many G’s without the G-suit working right. I don’t know.
K: Did flying scare you after that?
D: No, because when something like that happens you don’t just jump back in the plane and do the same thing over again. They’re very careful. Gradual. You fly some runs pulling a couple G’s and see what happens. You pull three G’s for about ten or fifteen seconds and then see what happens. And then you pull it to the max to see what happens. And then you pull it to more than the max, just in case. Three G’s means that your body weighs three times what it is. With four, five, and six G’s, it gets difficult to move parts of your body. I told my mother all this in a letter afterwards and then when I came home two weeks after, she said that she had dreamt the whole thing.
K: What did your dad think about you going to Vietnam?
D: My father was always real calm about everything. He was really mellow, an easy-going guy. I’m sure he worried, but he was very proud of us.
K: Did you write letters home?
D: Oh yeah, I wrote a lot. I have a box of some letters down in the basement. I ought to go through that.
K: Did you keep a journal?
K: Did you take pictures?
D: Yeah, but you couldn’t take pictures of a lot of Vietnam. They didn’t want you taking pictures of US installations.
K: At any time while you were in Vietnam, did you wish that you weren’t there?
D: With about two months to go, I had seen it all, done everything. I was used to it. I thought it would be nice to get home. With about two or three weeks to go, they don’t even bother flying you. It’s all paperwork.
K: Did you count down the days?
D: Yeah, the last couple weeks. Some enlisted guys we had in our unit were really funny. They’d keep marks on the walls.
K: What did you think of the North Vietnamese soldiers? Did you harbor any aggression toward them?
D: No, not really, probably because aviation was remote from contact with the enemy. Dropping bombs was like watching a movie. You couldn’t hear anything. You could see it, but it was kind of remote. In some respects, it’s not all that good. You have a sense of participating in the war from a distance, and so you don’t bring closure to a lot of things. You always wonder what happened with the missions you were on. You’d get very little follow-up. In a heated battle on the ground, if you won or if you retreated, you were there. You experienced it. You’d remember it. We didn’t have that same sense of active participation. It was kind of weird. It was all remote. With the Air Support Radar Teams, we were doing everything underground –– controlling airplanes that nobody could see or hear, dropping bombs that you couldn’t hear, that the pilot couldn’t hear. There was a strange sense of other-worldliness. That’s typical of a lot of aviation jobs.
K: Where were you in Vietnam?
D: The northern part of South Vietnam. Right in the middle of the narrow part of Vietnam was the Demilitarized Zone. The narrow area, as it extended south, was I-Core, and that was where all of the Marines were. The Marine Corps had this ultra-combat role, so we wouldn't be found near cities.
K: Were you around any Vietnamese people?
D: Da Nang was such a big base that you drove through little villages to get from the runway area out to where we lived. So they were around.
K: What did they think about you?
D: They were glad that we were there. The Vietnamese people in the South were strongly pro or con. All the ones where we were were very much pro-US. A lot of it had to do with cultural background and religious background. Most of the Vietnamese who were strongly Catholic were very much aligned with the French and then subsequently with the United States. So they tended to be in the ARVN –– the Army of the Republic of Vietnam –– which was a South Vietnamese army. I didn’t see too many ARVN troops because most of them were out in the field, but if you were in the infantry, you’d be working a lot with the ARVN troops. There were other people helping out too. There were these fanatic troops, ROK troops, the Republic of Korea. Those guys were crazy, ferocious fighters, always in the front lines. They were very strong allies to the United States, and were actually better fighters than the Vietnamese. They were a sizable force, not a major force, of the Republic of Korea. They loved sending their troops down there to get them battle-ready in case they had to fight North Korea.
K: What memories do you have that jump out?
D: I remember wishing I had the opportunity to meet Vietnamese people. There was this big base there, and the few Vietnamese people that were around were the people who had been poisoned by us. There were people who sold black market US goods. Little kids could rip your watch off in three seconds. Those are the people that you had the opportunity to meet. They were made that way, in large part, by us. It was sad. I never had the chance to meet normal Vietnamese people. It was especially sad because in Japan I had taught girls English and visited Japanese homes. I never had that opportunity in Vietnam.
K: Are there any specific days you remember?
D: Well, I remember some combat missions that were tougher than others, especially the ones with close air support... when we took some fire or when troops wanted us to lay down a string a napalm or a string of bombs that was very close to their own position. We’d always be very reluctant about doing that.
K: What do you think now, thirty years after you were in Vietnam? How do you feel about the whole crisis?
D: I have the view that there should have been a clearer definition of the military role versus the political role. The political role was so dominant at the expense of the military. It certainly made our position over there untenable. Commanders were always being restrained and we got involved in a lot of administrative stuff that detracted from the military missions.
K: Were you glad that you were there, that Vietnam is a piece of your personal history?
D: Yes. I’m glad I had the chance to help. In other respects, though, I’ve never had a desire to go back to Vietnam. Because we were so removed from the people and a lot of the battles, I never grew to love the Vietnamese people or the country. In retrospect, if given the opportunity to go and help a country that was being overrun, Vietnam would not be high on my list as compared with other countries. This is probably because I never got the chance to see the big picture. That’s another part of it too. You’re studying the big picture right now, but you have to realize that most people who were in Vietnam didn’t have the big picture. It was like feeling the side of the elephant. A lot of people assume that people who were in Vietnam knew about all of Vietnam, about what was going on politically. This is untrue. People ask, “did you know that you were killing people?” The response to that is, “no –– I knew I was doing my job.” You just can’t put Vietnam on a higher moral plane or on a political plane. It’s easy to ask, “did it bother you that you had to kill people?” Well, no, it didn’t bother me because I did it so remotely. I didn’t even have confirmation of the fact that I was killing people, although I had a pretty good idea of it. This was true even of ground troops participating in the heat of battle –– if you shot someone who was going to kill you, you probably wouldn’t be bothered too much by the whole thing at the time. It’s those intimate situations when you don’t have the opportunity to moralize or to think of the big picture. I didn’t know a lot of things until I got back from Vietnam. I didn’t know anything about all the body counts. None of that. I didn’t know anything about the stuff that went on in Vietnam while I was there. I knew what my job was. I knew, in the limited sphere of combat, what the military situation was. That was about it. That’s true for everybody probably, except the generals.
K: Were you surprised by the stories in the media when you got back to the United States? The arrival of the troops from Vietnam was so different from the arrival of troops back from World War II...
D: Yeah, we were surprised. We never knew the opposition was as forceable as it was. Remember, though, I came back to a military base. The news in Cherry Point, North Carolina was about how the fishing was. (Laughs.) It wasn’t about protesters.
K: What did you think about the protesters?
D: I thought a lot of it all was out of line. The depth of the opposition first hit me when, while in North Carolina, the air force sent all these big cargo planes with troops up North to protect federal facilities from demonstrations. At the time, Spiro Agnew was making these talks about defending the United States’ position in Vietnam. We had to have troops defend him. I looked out on the runway in Cherry Point and saw twenty-five of these huge cargo planes, filled with fully-armed combat troops, going to places like Newark, Boston, Providence...
K: Do you think Vietnam was an unjust war, that the United States should not have gotten involved?
D: It should have been resolved long before it was by the US determining that this was a political war, where military objectives were not likely to be met. (Laughs.) We should have declared ourselves the winners and left, before we were chased out. Even if we had achieved the military objectives, it would not have solved Vietnam’s problem. We only solved things on a short term basis.
K: Were you particularly patriotic during Vietnam?
D: Times were a lot different then. During the early Sixties there was a heightened awareness of the value of life. Young people believed they could do anything and everything. It was a great time to be alive at my age. I believed that the government was decent, and that government service was a noble thing. That’s why I still work for the government. If it weren’t for Kennedy and patriotism, I may have thought differently. Now it’s completely different from the early- to mid-sixties because there’s a lot more cynicism. There’s a lot more hedonism. By the end of the Sixties, this cynicism came to a head.
K: All right, Dad, it’s your last chance to be immortalized by this interview. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
D: I guess the whole idea that living through Vietnam is not the same as studying Vietnam retrospectively... the object of studying Vietnam with retrospection is trying to get the big picture and to then analyze what happened. Living though Vietnam, nobody had the big picture at the time. In the military, we were so isolated... The news we watched in Vietnam was Armed Forces TV, or Armed Forces Radio, where the lead story was the score between the Yankees and the Red Sox, not the fact that there were five thousand people demonstrating outside the courthouse in Boston...
Over Spring Break, I traveled home and spent time in the basement, blowing dust and cobwebs off of boxes that contained letters sent from my father, in Vietnam, to his parents and to his sweetheart, later to be my mother. What I found, however, was much more than old letters. All four of my grandparents died before I got to know them, and so the boxes I found with their old possessions filled me with interest. I looked through their birth certificates and their death certificates. I read a letter my grandfather had sent to his father the first Christmas he was away from home. I leafed through several letters my great grandmother addressed to her daughters, including my grandmother, for them to read when they were older. I looked at hundreds of pictures, most of them black and white, showing my dad holding his stuffed animal lamb he called Boojie, and my dad’s parents leaning casually against a fence in their backyard. I found my mother’s old college notes and her father’s high school yearbook. Hands covered in dust, sitting on the cement of our basement floor, I upended the contents of the trove of history I had found.
In a note that my grandmother saved, dated 1952 when my father was eight years old, he wrote, “Dear Mom, I have gone to the Feast of St. Anne at nine o’clock mass. I drank my juice but did not eat my breakfast. I will be home about ten o’clock. Your son, John. P.S. I wore my Levi jacket.”
Fifteen years later he wrote home, in a crinkly thin envelope with FREE written where there is usually postage, “I just controlled a ‘landing zone preparation’ mission for the last twenty minutes. We hit right on target and had fifteen reported secondaries. The LZ happened to be an enemy strong point. I think we leveled the top of the hill a few yards...”
October 6, 1963
Dear Mom and Dad,
Everything is fine at Sheehan Hall. Parents’ weekend is on Oct. 18–20. Are you coming down? The 1st Platoon is marching –– this year that means me (unless I get my head cut off or something.) So come on down to watch the thrill of your life (Ha! Ha!).
If you come could you bring:
a) corduroy pants
b) shower shoes (those cheap rubber things)
c) something to eat
d) NEEDLE AND THREAD TO SEW ON A NAVY PATCH
and take home some:
b) more laundry
I had no trouble with the box on the way down. Everything went smoothly.
I don’t need a footstool.
Orders for the Villanova blazer are on October 8. I have to have a $10 deposit fee.
How is Gregory doing? Where’s he applied to school? I hope Dad’s making out OK.
(Quantico Boot Camp)
Dear Mom and Dad,
Poison ivy is almost gone but twisted ankle is here again. I had one day of light duty after twisting it on the Speed March Reaction Course –– about the hardest thing we’ve had to do so far. We split into 15 man teams and had 35 minutes to run the Obstacle Course and the Hill Trail –– about 3 1/2 miles. It’s actually pretty funny to talk about now that it’s over. We would be staggering along the Hill Trail and an officer would pop out of the woods and say that one of us was shot. So we would have to carry him the rest of the way –– or at least until we were out of sight. We were also supposed to be under “enemy fire” at one point. Since we were running against time we first yelled that we were all “killed” 2 miles back. We also succeeded in running through a coffee stand set up for the officers. I twisted my ankle coming down the last hill –– just before the Chopawamsic Creek. I picked up about a half of a mile by swimming across while the rest of my squad carried my pack and gear around. Silva made it across the finish line with rifle and underwear. When the Major wanted to know what happened to my utilities and gear someone yelled: “he was hit by a flame-thrower back on the trail, Sir.”
Tuesday I managed to shoot a 194 on the rifle range and qualify as “Marksman.” The range is one of the few things you can enjoy here.
Liberty begins at 1200 Saturday. Friday evening we march out to TA3 and TA4 (about 4 miles) for “Squad in the Night Attack.” Sounds like fun. A good chance to pick up on some more poison ivy.
Hay-dee, Hay-dee, Hi-dee, Ho; Only two more weeks to go. Take a look at what we get inspection chits for. The Sergeant informed me that according to his alignment string, my locker was at least 1/2 inch back too far.
P.S. Sorry about the penmanship, but writing times are hard to find and places even harder.
May 1, 1967
(El Toro, CA)
It was a delight to receive your letter today, I certainly miss you and the good times that we enjoyed together. I don’t think I will ever forget them, we shared a lot and this is always good.
You are a very courageous person, John, and I will always admire you for it.
Thank you for the pictures, how about sending a couple of yours, if you haven’t given them all to Peggy. (Ha!!)
Cassandra is flying out next weekend –– but who needs a girl when the “horniest” in the world are out here. Honestly, it is everywhere you turn. And you know something, I love it.
... It looks like we won’t go over at all this year. I’m a little disappointed but it’s easy to be consoled out here.
Well, take care, John, I must study for a late hop tomorrow night, a little ECM work.
Take care, Pardner, and write right back.
P.S. My best to Skip. Get the hell out here.
November 22, 1967
(Sacred Heart University, Connecticut)
I can see your face perfectly as you read this letter. You are standing with your legs planted firmly on the ground, about twelve inches apart. You are frowning a little, and your lower lip is protruding over your upper. I miss you more this week than I have since you left. I love you.
... Your slides came yesterday. They turned out really well, but some of the shots are too dark. I wish you were here to explain them to me.
... Nothing much is new here or at home. I tried out for a play last week, but I don’t know yet whether I got the part.
Oh –– it’s five of ten and I have a class on the other side of the school. I’ll mail this, and write again tomorrow.
So – ‘bye for now and God bless.
I love you!
April 5, 1968
Dear Mom and Dad,
The base took a few rocket rounds the other night, about a mile east of Hill 327. Except for the people who were hurt, I think it was a good thing. I saw for the first time what the sprawling giant, Da Nang, could do when it was hurt. Within about twenty minutes flare ships and spotlight planes were on the scene, artillery had zeroed in, and we had their coordinates and inserts running through the computers. We dropped twelve tons from here and artillery finished it off.
I’ve had about 75 missions already and I feel like I could do it all day long... The time goes fast around here when we’re up and operating. Morale has been real good with the team.
... I’ve received a few letters from Peggy since I’ve been here. She took a weekend off and went up to New Hampshire to campaign for McCarthy.
It looks as though Johnson is trying to save himself at the last. I hope something productive comes from any talks because our bombing missions over North Vietnam have really been doing the job and to quit for awhile with no results would really give the NVA a chance to resupply their units down here.
April 17, 1968
Dear Mom and Dad,
The helicopter dropped down for a quick descent on the field and a few seconds later we scrambled out the back for the nearest bunker. The first thing that caught my eye was a dingy old red and yellow sign that read “Welcome To Khe Sanh –– An All-American City –– (still)!”
Yesterday our detachment commander down at Da Nang asked me how I’d like to control at Khe Sanh. A half-hour later I was on a helicopter and on my way. We flew north off the coast up to Quang Tri and then headed northwest for Camp Carrol, where we made a quick stop and the continued west for Khe Sanh.
Khe Sanh from the air looks a lot like the surface of the moon. Tiny mounds of sand bags cover the tops of bunkers and large craters scar the red earth where incoming artillery rounds have landed.
I’m up here with ASRT “B,” still dropping bombs and feeling fine. There are two other officers in the team and about eight enlisted. We live underground in a heavy wood and steel bunker. Only the radar and antennas break the surface of the ground. Things have quieted down in the last few weeks but they’re still out there, which the incoming artillery rounds attest to.
... The usual tour of duty up here is six weeks. Other than getting dirty and staying dirty all the time it’s not too bad. I usually go up to see the sunlight about once or twice a day also.
April 24, 1968
Dear Mom and Dad,
Three hundred missions later and I’m still going strong. I’m working on the midnight to seven shift. There are two other controllers and myself here.
I’ve been living off of little green cans known as C-rations, with meals like meatballs and beans, fried ham, and spiced beef. They’re not too bad but it’s very easy to get tired of them.
Our bunker is about sixty feet long and ten feet wide. No one goes outside very much, so it becomes very boring. I’ve been playing a lot of cards and doing a lot of reading when not on duty. I’ve had six secondaries (another explosion after impact) and two hundred missions since I’ve been here. Last night I dropped 2400 lbs. of bombs, from five aircraft, on one target, all at once. I could feel the ground shake back here in Khe Sanh, six miles from the target.
The country around Khe Sanh is beautiful, except for the bomb craters and parched hillsides. We’re on a plateau 1500 feet high. The weather has been cool and dry every day since I’ve been here. We’re located in the northwest section of Vietnam about ten miles east of Laos and fifteen miles south of North Vietnam.
Needless to say, Khe Sanh, and Vietnam, are great places to save money. Everything I make is tax free and I make an additional sixty-dollars per month as combat pay. Even more important, it’s almost impossible to spend money over here.
Have a happy Mother’s Day, Ma.
May 24, 1968
Dear Mom and Dad,
In four more days I should be on my way back to Da Nang. Outside of the other night, when we had a “red alert,” things have been pretty quiet around Khe Sanh. I’ve got that “time-to-be-moving-on” feeling... Will it ever be great to take a shower and eat off of a plate!
I’ve gone over the 400-mission mark, an average of about eight aircraft controlled per night. The best comment I’ve heard given to the ASRT was yesterday when an Army spotter plane preferred that we drop from 2 F4-B’s at 18,000 feet rather than come in low over the target and drop themselves, from 50 feet. Said we would probably have greater accuracy. So we showed him our stuff and put a 500 pounder right through the door of an NVA Command Bunker – from 18,000 feet up.
One of our big advantages is being able to destroy their morale. Just picture some dark rainy night with Charlie safely dug in on the reverse side of a hill to avoid artillery fire. Our aircraft are too high so he never hears a thing. He never sees us and the aircraft never sees him. But, all of a sudden, there it is –– twelve 500 pound bombs on top of him.
Our other big war up here has been declared against the rats. We’ve had 36 KBT’s (killed-by-trap) since we started three days ago, a few of them the size of cats. Not a very nice story but thought you'd like to know how we spend some of our spare time.
During the rest of my spare time I’ve been doing a lot of reading, thinking and daydreaming (mostly about a certain redhead –– and it ain’t Greg).
... I’ll write again when I get to Da Nang.
July 13, 1968
I used to think you were the most experienced traveler I knew –– Alaska, San Francisco, Vietnam –– but I was wrong. The true test of the joy of traveling is to dash through Port Authority on Friday during rush hour, elbow your way to a ticket agent, make a mad dash to catch your bus only to find the bus will be ten minutes late. Part B of the travel test is to board an air-conditioned bus only to discover that the air-conditioning is broken.
... Bangkok! I’m learning more geography from you than I did in eight years of grammar school. When you get there be sure to visit the Temple Wat-Tshing. It looks very pretty in the encyclopedia.
The summer’s halfway over already. 16 weeks ‘till the middle of November.
On the news the other night, they announced that servicemen returning from Vietnam who had only 5 months left to serve would be able to be discharged immediately. Does this apply to you???
Name some of your favorite authors or types of books and I’ll send you a million. The one book I sent you was written by my uncle. I hope you like it. Also, tell me if you want any food. I don’t know what kind of stuff to buy that would arrive intact.
I love you, Marine. Very very much. And I want you home safe and soon. My friends are beginning to think you’re a myth. I’ve known you for 1 1/2 years and they’ve never even seen you. Maybe I’ll put you in a display case when you come home.
The lifeguard just told us that four sharks were spotted half a mile out. They’re sending helicopters out to find them. Nothing like a nice relaxing day at the beach!
Does the Corps pay for your expenses while you’re on R&R? If they have postcards in Bangkok, send me a million, okay?
I promise to be a more faithful letter writer from now on.
When I was accepted into Brown, my father began the stream of jokes that he was going to be my roommate and go through college all over again. When I received my course packet that summer, he flipped through it eagerly, selecting the courses he was going to register for. On the first day of orientation, my dad wore the Class of 2002 baseball cap faithfully. When it was time to say goodbye, he sadly took off the cap and handed it to me, but I handed it right back.
The class that my father did take with me, whether he was aware of it or not, was entitled “Writing Vietnam.” The course description began with, “there were many Vietnams,” which became apparent as I talked with classmates who had American fathers and Vietnamese mothers, students whose parents had protested the war, and others who had no connection with Vietnam whatsoever, aside from what they had learned in their tenth grade history class. Every Tuesday and Thursday we met, somewhat bleary eyed (it was nine in the morning), and woke ourselves up with a good dose of literature, of talking about the assigned books, of sharing our writing and our experiences, of workshopping various pieces.
The culminating event of the class was a three day Writing Vietnam conference, attended by such writers as Tim O’Brien and Phil Caputo, poets Yusef Komunyakaa and Marilyn McMahon, oral historians Laura Palmer and Frank Grzyb, local vets, community members, students, and scholars. Finally able to walk from lecture to lecture with books in hand, my father dutifully attended every event offered. Together we chatted with the vets and the writers, and with one another at breakfast before the readings, over coffee after the writer’s forum and photo exhibit.
After all is said and done, I find myself with a connection through time. As for my father, directly following the vet-to-vet workshop he pulled me into a side room and gave me a piece of writing. Maybe he too found a connection through time –– both into the past and into the present, where I stand, over thirty years removed from his experiences overseas. What follows is Vietnam, in my father’s own written words...
What I Think About Vietnam
Kerry, you have asked me to tell you more about the three Marines who were killed while guarding the perimeter at Hill 268 in Da Nang.
I don’t think much anymore about the murky past of Vietnam. Like the morning mists that obscured the endless hills west of Da Nang, the “incident,” as it came to be called in the reports, comes and goes infrequently now. I used to see it much clearer. As in Tim O’Brien’s stories, it was one of the things I carried.
I drew the duty that night. I didn’t draw it that often because there were usually enough officers in our Air Support Radar Team to share this little ritual of officer in charge of the late night. After controlling the last mission, somewhere around midnight, the rest of the team drifted out of the oversized box that housed the communications and computer equipment used to control our nightly bombing missions. I began to brief the perimeter guards who would supplement the patrol that had been out on the perimeter since dusk. I checked their equipment: flack jackets, helmets, rifles, night scopes, sniper scopes, binoculars, water, first aid kits, and plastic bottles to pee in.
They got on me because it was always the same briefing. Charlie’s last reported position was invariably miles away and all of the perimeter security was up and operating. I responded, prophetically for this night, “OK, tonight let’s pretend that Charlie’s just on the other side of the mine field.”
I wondered who checked the miles of trip wire, the mine fields, and slit trenches that began not far down the slope from our ridgeline home. Another night in Vietnam and another day closer to leaving.
The duty officer sent damage reports on targets that we bombed that day, highlighted with comments about secondary explosions noted by those of us who flew the missions. A nice bright flash was good for a fuel or ammunition dump. A smaller series of flashes could mean a truck park or fortified troop positions. We also received messages on targets to add to the next day’s list. And once in awhile we received notice of a hot target that needed to be hit soon, maybe a truck convoy or troop concentrations. For these we woke up the Major, who had to authorize a flight crew scrambling one or two F-4 fighters that could be on target before it went cold.
The rest of the time the staff sergeant and I kept each other awake as best we could.
“Lieutenant, see that sign they painted down at the napalm dump? The one that looks like a squadron insignia, only with the pregnant Vietnamese lady on it? See them words under it? ‘You make ‘em, we bake ‘em.’ Nice, huh?”
“That’s fuckin’ disgusting, Sergeant.”
And a long and wistful “Yeah, ain’t Nam disgusting.”
The perimeter checked in by radio every half-hour. “King Lear (our oddly metaphorical squadron call sign), Sector Five, no activity. Over, Sector Four.” “King Lear, Sector Four, no activity. Over, Sector Three.” “King Lear, Sector Three, we got some movement down in the valley. I think it’s a water buffalo. Maybe it’s one of the Nam tigers down out of the mountains. We’ll try and bag it. Let you know later. Over, Sector Two.”
Two more perimeter checks and we couldn’t raise Three. “Four, this is King Lear. Do you know what’s going on over at Three?” “King Lear, Four. Looks OK from here. They must be keeping their heads down like they're supposed to.”
After five more minutes of trying to raise Three, it was, “Shit. Let’s mount up and find out what’s going on.”
“Lieutenant, you’d better get the paperwork ready, because chances are they been doin’ drugs since they got to the line.”
* * * * *
Simms, Ulrich, Marshall. Until now, I’ve forgotten most of the details. But I’ve never forgotten their names. And I’ve never forgotten what we found after crawling our way down to Three position.
The Sergeant was right, of course. They had been doing drugs. Each was found in the slit trench about twenty yards apart, with a bayonet wound to the chest, their faces frozen in ashen silence. I ran back and forth among them and pleaded for them to answer me until I realized I was bringing chaos to their wake. The sweet smell of hash hung on them like incense for the anointed dead. They looked so young, so innocent. They were our sacrifice.
The perimeter was strangely peaceful and beautiful in the misty new light of another Vietnamese morning. I remember how little I really knew about each of them: What did they expect of life after Vietnam? Who did they love? What did they write home about?
And then I felt Nam again, like a mind-slap. Fuck! Never move a dead man on the perimeter; there’s a good chance he’s been booby-trapped. Shit! Charlie’s probably penetrated the perimeter. I called the general quarters and we ran through hours of confusion, searching, and computer equipment checks. The last thing I remember is what I forgot. I left the dead on the perimeter.
I don’t think much about Vietnam. I can’t see it as clear. After I left I learned to hate it and now I don’t care about it anymore...