My Vietnam War Story
By Dwight F. Davis
When I began writing this story it was May 20, 1998, 28 years after I left Vietnam. I was playing on the Internet and came on a website with material about the Vietnam War including several other sites with the personal stories of folks who had served in the military in Vietnam. I read one thoroughly which was written by a guy who had served as an infantry officer in the First Division (the Big Red One). Much of this guyís story jived with my own experiences and it got me to reflecting about my experiences and stimulated me to write it up.
In general, there is nothing truly remarkable about my experiences in Vietnam, however, I believe my experience as an infantry platoon sergeant there was a defining moment of my life because it taught me what is important (i.e., God, family, friends, trust, integrity, and perseverance). I have had some success in my life since I left the Army including earning a Ph.D. in Government from Florida State University in 1974. I also served successfully on the faculties of three major state universities (University of Illinois-Chicago Circle, University of Oklahoma, and Texas A&M University) including being tenured and promoted to Associate Professor at Texas A&M University. When I left academics I served as a leader in the largest state legislative program evaluation unit in the United States, and also served as a bureau chief in the Division of Motor Vehicles in the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. All of this pales in significance, however, compared to my service in Vietnam. It was simply the most important thing I ever did. I suppose I reached that conclusion because the stakes were so high there; people got killed, however, I also believe it is because it was real service to my country no matter that it was unpopular. In addition, the fact that I served reasonably well makes me proud of myself.
Like many veterans, I have fantasized about writing a book about my experiences in Vietnam. I doubt, however, that will ever happen although it might when I retire. I suspect a good writer could write a book about my experiences since there are many interesting anecdotes. For right now I will just try to provide the bare bones version.
I will try to tell my story as accurately and as honestly as I can, however, I am afraid my long term memory will fail me on the some of the details and the proper sequence of events. I left Vietnam September 7, 1970 and, as I begin this journal, it is May 20, 1998, so a lot has happened to me in the interim and my memory will be stretched.
TO FORT LEWIS
My story begins with a flight to Seattle, Washington from Pensacola, Florida. I had been given a monthís leave before I had to go to Vietnam, however, I spent the last week visiting my girl friend, Jeannie Miller, in Ft. Walton Beach, before I left for Vietnam. She drove me to the airport in Pensacola, I kissed her good-bye, then started on my adventure. At the airport in Seattle, I got on a bus which took me to Ft. Lewis and the reception center for FNGs (F**king New Guys) on their way to Vietnam. I arrived about 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon as I recall. After the inevitable in-processing, we were issued three sets of jungle fatigues and a pair of jungle boots. The instructions I received at Ft. Benning told us to bring our duffle bag complete with khaki uniforms, a couple of pair of regular fatigues, our issue boots and some other nonsense, none of which we needed. Except for a few civilian clothes I brought, this stuff stayed in my bag the entire time I was in Vietnam unused. When I returned home I gave this stuff to my mother who donated it to the Theater Department at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.
While we were being in-processed there was an interesting occurrence. An Army nurse, a First Lieutenant, and her husband, an enlisted man, were checking in and were told they would have to stay in separate transit barracks. The nurse went ballistic and gave the poor sergeant in charge maximum grief. He then left to check with higher higher (commanders to whom he reported). It turned out they found some way for this couple to stay together in the same quarters. I was amazed because I did not perceive the Army as having any flexibility. I suspect, however, had the nurse been an enlisted person, she would not have gotten her way.
I killed about two days at Ft. Lewis with nothing much to do except share nervous stories with the other soldiers I met. I went to a movie one night, "Midnight Cowboy" which was a good movie and won an Oscar, however, it was depressing. One of the main characters played by Dustin Hoffman was a scrounge who lived by his wits on the streets of New York City. The other main character was a hick from out West played by John Voight whose goal was to use his sexual prowess to get things from rich women in New York. These two ultimately get enough money to take a bus to Florida which they envision as the promised land, however, the Dustin Hoffman character dies on the bus trip. Not too uplifting for a guy on his way to serve in the infantry in Vietnam.
The next day we got on bus which took us to the airfield which had large commercial airplanes for the trip to Vietnam. Shortly after I got there my name was called out by some officer in the front. I reported to him and he put me in charge of a loser who had gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) to avoid going to Vietnam, had been caught, and was being shipped out instead of going to jail where he should have gone. I was actually handcuffed to this guy until the plane took off and was handcuffed to him again when we got to Vietnam until I was able to turn him over to some military police who were waiting for him there. As it turned out, I would relive this experience again when I left Vietnam. I was proud that I had graduated No. 2 in my class at the Noncommissioned Officers Course (NCOC) which gave me the rank of staff sergeant E-6, however, I was to learn that E-6s got picked on for all sorts of sh*tty details.
The guy who graduated number 1 in our NCOC class is Tom Ridge who served successfully in Vietnam and went on to become a congressman from Pennsylvania and then the governor of Pennsylvania. He is now Secretary for Homeland Security in the Bush administration responsible for coordinating the efforts of federal agencies to fight terrorism. I sent him an E-Mail when he was governor and, after seven months, he responded with a very nice letter. I was tickled by his comment about my son who graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Tom said that my son appears to be a bright young man who figured out it is much better to be an Air Force officer than a U.S. Army infantry platoon sergeant.
The flight to Vietnam took approximately 16 hours with a two hour stopover in Alaska where the plane was refueled. A normal breakfast in the airport in Alaska cost approximately $10.00; not cheap for 1969. We arrived in Vietnam at about 4:00 a.m. Our arrival point was Cam Rahn Bay, a huge military facility with many aircraft and a large transit area. I arrived there on November 1, 1969. Again, the usual in processing, then we were put on a bus which took us to the barracks where we stayed for a little more than a day. The bus had wire mesh over the windows, to prevent grenades from being thrown in, we were told by the bus driver.
By the time we arrived at the barracks it was almost 7:00 a.m. and it was already hot. I was to find out that the normal daytime temperature in Vietnam was over 100 degrees and got up to 115 degrees. In the mountains of the Central Highlands where I was to serve, it might get down to the 80s at night and we would be freezing because of the radical change from the daytime. I decided I needed a shower so I went to the large shower facility behind the barracks. I got undressed in the alcove area then went into the shower area. There I met a Vietnamese woman who was washing clothes in a large metal tub. She waived and said "Hi GI." If it didnít bother her it didnít bother me, so I took my shower without worrying about her.
Basically, we just killed time at Cam Rahn, although we did get to go to the NCO club the first night for several beers and to listen to the Filipino band singing popular rock and roll tunes where the "Ls" sounded like "Rs." The men assigned to Cam Rahn generally ignored us and we were all fairly amazed by the place. It was a huge expanse of sand because the ocean was close and it was easily 500 meters from our barracks to the base camp perimeter with all the concertina wire and machine gun emplacements.
The next day we were all called into a large meeting room, they read off our unit assignments, and told us which bus to take to get transportation to our various divisions. I was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division which, at that time, was headquartered at Camp Enari near Pleiku City which is in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in the military area called II Corps. The far South was IV Corps and was largely a huge mass of rice paddies and swamps. Above that was III Corps which included Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam and the largest city on the Vietnam Peninsula. I believe that area was also largely rice paddies and small villages, not including Saigon. One of my friends from NCO School, John Gilbertson, who also graduated as a Staff Sergeant from NCOC, served there in the 25th Division and he later told me that one of their biggest problems was trench foot because they humped through wet land so long. There were also many more booby traps in the III Corps and IV Corps areas than in the Central Highlands. I Corps, the most Northern part of South Vietnam, was mostly a Marine area of operations (AO), and it has the highest mountains in South Vietnam. The Central Highlands seemed like a good deal. I saw my friend John about a year after I returned from Vietnam. He had just been released from Walter Reed Army Hospital where he spent the better part of a year recovering from wounds he received in Vietnam. He will walk with a limp for the rest of his life. He went on to work as a counselor for juvenile delinquents and I suspect he was good at that.
One of the amazing facts about Vietnam is that it is a wonderfully beautiful country. I discovered that over and over when I flew on helicopters or in C-135s and looked down. The beaches in Vietnam may be the most beautiful beaches in the world and the mountains where I was were truly gorgeous with many impressive water falls, lush forests, and broad plains with rice paddies and rubber plantations. Everything is green. Of course, when we were there, the land was also pocked marked with the results of bombs and artillery shells. Some areas looked like the skin of someone with really bad acne. I understand that we dropped more ordinance there than in W.W.I and W.W.II combined.
I got a ride on a C-135 from Cam Rahn to Pleiku Air Force Base which was an American Air Force Base located just outside Pleiku City and approximately 10-15 miles from Camp Enari which was my destination. The
C-135 trips were often fairly interesting because they normally involved some Vietnamese military types and sometimes some civilians as well. It appeared that many Vietnamese military people traveled with their families and often their pigs and chickens as well. When we got to Pleiku Air Force Base I got on a bus which took us to Camp Enari. Again, the windows of the bus were covered with wire mesh.
Camp Enari was another huge base camp. It was devoid of trees and the land looked much like what you find in South Georgia, lots and lots of red clay and plenty of dust which kicked up every time a helicopter came in. When we got there we had more in-processing and were then assigned to transit barracks. In many ways the base camp looked a lot like a regular Army facility back in the states. Among the lessons I learned my first day there, however, is that the United States of America was not referred to in these terms. Rather, it was referred to as "the World." The psychology of that impressed me immediately. It was clear that soldiers in Vietnam did not think of Vietnam as part of the real world but rather some sort of bad nightmare place which you wanted to leave as soon as you could.
Some guys started their "short timer" calendars shortly after they got to Vietnam. That was a mistake because once you started counting the days you had left on your tour, they started to go by more slowly. I did not start counting until I had a little less than 6 months left and I am sure the days went by quicker before I started counting. For us, the tour was 365 days. My Dad served in Vietnam for 14 months from late 1960 to early 1962 and I believe the Marines typically had a 14 month tour early in the war. By the time I got there, however, everyone was serving 365 days.
The guys stationed at Camp Enari who were short (had little time left to serve) were obnoxious about that. They would ask FNGs how many days they had left which would be about 362-363, and then they would say: "I have less time in hours to spend in the God Damn Army than you have days left to spend in Vietnam." Other comments included: "I am so short I donít have time for a long conversation." "I am so short, I can play handball against the curb." "I am so short I left yesterday." etc. etc. etc. I told myself that I would never do that to new guys, however, I was just as bad when I got short. War can make one cynical.
We spent about five days in the transit area going to all sorts of classes and orientations to Vietnam. At one point we even got issued M-16s and went on a sweep outside the base camp for a couple of miles. Even guys who were not infantry got to go on this excursion which was interesting because they were not pleased. At the end of our sweep, we went to a shooting range and fired our
M-16s for a couple of hours. While we were there we bought pineapple from a Montagnard who used a long machete to carve off the outside for us. The Montagnards charged a dollar for whatever they sold you; one banana one dollar, one pineapple one dollar, etc.
Theoretically, we were not supposed to spend dollars on the local economy. We were supposed to use Vietnamese currency, the piaster, or Military Payment Certificates (MPC). MPC looked like funny money since the bills were in various colors including pink. Periodically, all MPC was collected and replaced with new MPC in the interest of cutting down on black market trading. If a Vietnamese could get hold of dollars or MPC, there is nothing they could not buy. Some guys told me that in Saigon you could buy anything from street vendors, including weapons. Stuff that the Post Exchange (PX) did not have the street vendors had. It turns out that much of what the street vendors had was stolen from the PX resupply points.
The Montagnards were very interesting. They were, historically, a nomadic people, living very much like Native Americans prior to reservations. They are a distinct ethnic group from the Vietnamese and are built a bit stockier. The Vietnamese slang word for Montagnard literally translates as "savages." In general, they were treated like blacks in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. In addition, since Americans wanted to use harassment and interdiction (H&I) fire with bombs and artillery to make the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) nervous, especially at night, they herded up many of the Montagnards and moved them into to artificially established compounds so they would not get hurt. Over time this had the effect of hurting this culture. Despite their bad treatment by the Vietnamese, including South Vietnamese as well as VC and NVA, the Montagnards had a reputation of being good fighters and dependable allies. In addition, they carried as much stuff as a GI which could amount to 60-70 pounds. The South Vietnamese soldiers in contrast whom we often called "Marvin the ARVN", generally appeared to carry little equipment. ARVN stands for Army of the Republic of Vietnam. I know from my reading that the South Vietnamese Army paid heavy dues in the war and many units distinguished themselves with first class efforts, however, the ones I saw were not impressive and most looked liked they were "shamming" (goofing off) most of the time. We respected the Montagnards, however.
As noted earlier, we got classes on all sorts of stuff while we were in the transit area. My personal favorite was a class for noncommissioned officers (NCOs or Noncoms) and officers which was about how to keep your troops from being ripped off in Vietnam. The crusty old E-7 who taught the class was good. He held up a glass jar and said: "I can put Sh*t in here and label it Sh*t, and I can still sell it to a GI." I found out later that he had a point. Of course, alcohol abuse did not help in this regard, however, I have seen stone sober GIs buy crap and pay a premium and I even did it myself on a few occasions.
During some downtime, I went to the divisionís PX which was very large. If you had a ration card you could buy liquor or beer. I had not been issued a ration card yet. Right next to the PX was a large shower and steam room facility in which you could get a rub down from a cute Vietnamese woman wearing shorts and a halter top. I took advantage of that and enjoyed it immensely. I was told later that you could have sex with these women; some guys even alleged that you could get "souvenir" sex which meant free. It was not obvious to me that any of this was possible while I was there.
When I finished my orientation, I was put on a deuce and a half (a very large truck) and taken to my new battalion headquarters which was in the divisionís base. My battalion was the 2/35th or "Blue Cacti" which was the battalionís symbol. The battalion had a long and distinguished history going back to the Spanish-American War. There I was met by the battalion supply officer who was a captain who had been a first sergeant, then went to OCS (Officers Candidate School). He was a crusty old guy who appeared to be a fine soldier. He issued us gear including an M-16 with ammunition, rucksack, four grenades, two smoke grenades, two hand held flares, a claymore mine, two canteens, a five quart water bag, a gas mask, a poncho liner, a poncho, air mattress, and three days of C-Rations (C-Rats). Then he took us to meet our company clerk. In my case it was "C" Company or "Charlie" Company. The clerkís job was to get us into his paperwork files, then get us out into the field. He told me I was being assigned to the 2nd Platoon.
Speaking of gear, it was amazing what we carried in the boonies. Most guys had an M-16 and two or three bandoleers of M-16 ammo with approximately 8 to 10 magazines in each bandoleer. This ammo weighed approximately 10 pounds. We generally wore the bandoleers strapped across our chests. The machine gunners carried an M-60 machine gun and approximately 200 to 500 rounds of ammo for the machine gun. The M-60 machine gun weighed approximately 25 pounds and the ammo weighed approximately 15 pounds. The guys with the M-40 grenade launchers carried it and a vest full of ammo with extra ammo in their ruck sacks. This ammo weighed at least 15 pounds.
We also all had pistol belts and some guys added the harness that went with the pistol belt. I did not wear a harness because I never figured out how to make it fit right and it also added to what was on my shoulders with the ruck sack straps. On my pistol belt I carried two pouches with two grenades in each, a canteen of water, and a smoke grenade attached to a strap. When we went to Cambodia some of us also carried incendiary grenades to burn stuff up.
Mark Roe, machine gunner
In our ruck sacks we carried extra ammo, extra smoke grenades, one or two flares, extra ammo for the machine gunner, and an entrenching tool which is a small fold-up shovel for digging fox holes and fighting positions. We also carried two canteens of water and a five quart water bag tied to the top of our ruck sack which further added to the weight. In our ruck sacks we also carried three days of C-Rats in cans, and some personal stuff. I used an M-16 ammo can which could seal so it was water tight to carry stationary, envelopes and a pen so I could write letters to my folks. I also carried my cigarettes in this can. I also carried a sweatshirt for when it got cold in the mountains and an extra pair of socks. Sometimes we carried socks wrapped around our waist so they could dry out. On the bottom of our ruck sacks we tied our poncho, poncho liner, and air mattress. Some of us carried two ponchos so we had one to keep the rain off and one to use to build a shelter in the boonies when it rained. We also tied a claymore mine to our ruck sack. Some of us occasionally carried a jar of instant coffee. You got some instant coffee with C-Rats, but we generally wanted more. The down side of this is that the jars often broke in your ruck sack. Some guys carried some other personal stuff such as small radios and tape recorders. We prohibited using radios in the boonies because they could give away your position to the enemy, but guys used them in the rear. I appreciated the guys who had tape recorders because I sent two tapes to my folks back in the World. My Mother kept them and gave them to me about 20 years after I got back from Vietnam.
Generally, when you added up all we carried it amounted to 60 to 70 pounds of stuff. In the 1970s there was an article written by a Tim O'Brien whose book about his experiences in Vietnam I also read. The title of the article was "All the things we carried," or something close to that. He describes in great detail what guys carried and used it as a way to tell their stories. It was a powerful piece of writing.
I mentioned that I sent a couple of audio cassettes to my folks while I was in Vietnam. That turned out to be much more difficult that you might assume. You could record up to one hour using both sides of the tape, however, we tended to run out of things to say after a few minutes. You generally did not want to tell your folks the bad stuff so you gave them general information instead. I once spent approximately four hours trying to record one hour on a tape to my folks. I actually recorded less than an hour and that was with the help of several of my buddies who I got to talk into the microphone. We had a really funny experience once when a buddy of mine, Mike Jones, was recording a tape to his wife. He also got others involved including singing badly. We recorded over a tape my folks had sent me and that is the funny part. On my folks tape, my Mother comments on some nice fraternity boys who came to their house for a charity and she says: "They were such nice boys." When we made the tape to my buddy's wife, that line remained on the tape right after several of us in a drunken stupor sang some popular tune. It was a hoot how it came out.
I spoke to the clerk about my "early out" to attend graduate school. While I was home on leave, prior to going to Vietnam, I visited Tallahassee and went to Florida State University (FSU) to see about getting accepted to graduate school. I had been advised that I could get out of Vietnam early if I got unconditionally accepted to school and school started within 90 days of my ETS (Estimated Time of Separation or DEROS, Date Eligible to Return From Overseas; the date when you go home). It turned out that my grades had been so poor in undergraduate school at FSU that the director of graduate studies in the Government Department did not want to accept me. My Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores were acceptable, however, my undergraduate grade point average was only 2.4 which was too low to get accepted. I explained that I could get out of Vietnam early if I was unconditionally accepted and, the professor said: "I donít want anyone to stay there longer than necessary," whereupon he signed my acceptance paper. I brought it with me to Vietnam. The clerk said he would do the necessary paper work for my early out. Interestingly, when I eventually went to graduate school I did quite well, completing my Ph.D. with a 3.8 grade point average. What a difference maturity makes.
During my time at Camp Enari, I had occasion to read a newspaper from the States, I cannot remember from what town. Some guys had newspapers sent to them periodically by their folks from back home. The remarkable thing about this newspaper was that it had a story about the new draft system. Beginning in the Fall of 1969, guys were to be drafted by lottery according to their birthday. College deferments had been eliminated the previous year. I was to learn the significance of the new draft system a couple of years later in Graduate School where we read a book entitled Little Groups of Friends and Neighbors. It was about the old Army draft system. It turned out that the draft system was very corrupt. There were draft boards in every community that decided who got drafted and the result was that draftees were disproportionately the sons of the poor, the working poor, and the nonwhite. I had believed that, if you were 18 and were not in college getting a college deferment or did not have a physical problem that made you 4-F (unable to serve in the military due to physical problems), you got drafted. That was not the way it was. Years later, upon reflection, I concluded that the expansion of the anti-war movement, which began in 1969, and the pressure from the general public, not just college students, to get out of Vietnam, was directly related to the beginning of the draft of the sons of the middle class. I still believe that.