Rocky Olson Interview
Salt Lake City, Utah
Give us your full name and spell it for us, please.
My name is Rocky Olson, R-O-C-K-Y, O-L-S-O-N.
I grew up in Sunset, Utah, and I presently live in Roy, Utah, a little suburb next door.
And your rank when you left the service?
I was a Sergeant E-5.
You grew up in Sunset. Tell us about your life before you went in to the military?
Well, I think I had the average life of a young man in the '50s. I grew up in the '50s and I had a typical young man's life there. I did a lot of very enjoyable things. Played a lot of baseball and football and spent an awful lot of time at the city park doing things that were very athletic and enjoyable, and swimming in the summertime and skiing in the winter, and a lot of things that are very typical. I had a lot of friends in my neighborhood and we played—had a lot of ping-pong tournaments and just did a lot of fun things.
I went to Clearfield High School and graduated and went one year to Weber State University, and then chose to go on an LDS mission. And when I came back from that mission, I reenrolled in school and went one more quarter and then I decided, you know, here I am, I'm 22 years old, I don't have a college degree, I've got the military breathing down my neck. The draft was full speed ahead and—
Had you received your number?
There was no numbers. During my era, there were no numbers. That was when everybody—they got everybody that had a trigger finger—they drafted. And unless you had something pretty major wrong, that you passed the physical; and as a matter of fact, I had pneumonia the day I had my physical, and they passed me. And so a month later, I reported for my induction and off I went.
What year and month was that?
I don't even remember.
This would have been, let's see, about '68, early '68, and then I went and did the Basic, and advanced infantry training, and then received my orders sending me to Vietnam.
Before you got in the military, obviously, it's on the news. What did you think about the war?
The war was a very scary thing. My father had fought in World War II in the Philippines and he had told me his stories numerous times, he was very proud of that. And this was a little different war. People were not very patriotic about signing up and joining. People were trying to stay away and using deferments wherever they could to keep from going off to that terrible Vietnam War. There was a perception that this was not a valid place for U.S. soldiers to be, and the soldiers had the reputation of being baby killers or those kinds of things, which was not the case.
How did your dad feel about it?
Well, my father was scared to death. Knowing what he had done in World War II, he and my mom were very afraid. I was the oldest of eight children and this oldest boy now is going to go off to war, and it had been going on for a little while and looked like it might be going on a little longer. And I had received my draft notice, and I was going to be there a year fighting as a combat infantry soldier.
Did your dad give you any advice?
As a matter of fact, he did. He came to see me when I was at Fort Ord in California. He came to see my graduation and I ask him, "What's the best thing to do, Dad? What do I do when I'm in heavy combat?" And he said, "Well, based on my experience against the Japanese and the Philippines," he said, "the very best thing to do is, when you're in the heat of combat, grab two of them, and bang their heads together. That way you have two less to worry about."
So that was kind of a joke, but the point was, sometimes there is nothing you can do about it, you just do what you have to do. And that is what happens. Soldiers invariably go over in wartime conditions, thinking, “I could never kill anybody, I couldn't do that. How do you physically shoot somebody?” But the first time you have one of your very best friends shot and killed, or maybe blown apart while he's standing next to you, and you can see the person who did it, you learn how to fight and how to kill very quickly. And the next time that happens, you'll be the first one to shoot, and you won't wait for your friend to be killed. Sometimes a learning lesson is a terrible thing.
Did you volunteer for anything or were you able to select any kind of specialty or anything for yourself?
Well, as a matter of fact, the huge demand was for infantry soldiers. Now, I had heard stories before even joining the military that it took eight support personnel to support every infantryman in the field. And I thought, well, I've got a year of college education and I'm a little more mature, I'm 22 years old, whereas many of the soldiers are 17, 18, and 19, and I thought maybe I could qualify for something other than being infantry.
The first time I met with a sergeant who worked over my paperwork, he said, "If there was something that you would like to do in the military, what would you like to do?" And the first thing having thought, having been a returned LDS missionary, was, “I would like to be a chaplain's assistant,” because I knew the scriptures fairly well. And I thought that would be a great thing for me and I wouldn't have to do the physical fighting that was so dangerous and scary at the time. And he looked at me, and he said, "You must be a Mormon, right?" Evidently, I wasn't the first person who'd ever requested that. And a month later when I got my orders, it was infantry, and my fate was set.
So when did you leave for Vietnam?
I left for Vietnam in November of 1968.
Were you just going over as a general replacement?
Yes, remember the Tet Offensive happened in May of 1968, where invading North Vietnamese and Viet Cong armies hit every major city and facility in South Vietnam all at once, and they were hoping to totally demoralize the U.S., and get the Vietnamese people to rally behind them and have this big revolt. Well, it turns out, that never did happen. There was an outstanding victory for us. It took a month, but we won every battle and pushed them all back and, you know, the Viet Cong army was never a major force in Vietnam after that time, because they were just totally defeated, but that took many casualties, especially with the 101st Airborne Division that I was to report to.
And so I was a combat replacement to replace one of those soldiers who had been killed or wounded during the Tet Offensive. And so in November I came in and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division.
Did you know that before you left the United States or was that—?
No, I did not know. I would be assigned to wherever I was needed, that's how that works.
How did you arrive in Vietnam?
I was flown over on a civilian airplane and climbed off the airplane wearing khakis, which is kind of a semi-formal dress. And when I got there, I was issued my combat fatigues for the first time, and given a brand new experienced M-16 rifle, and went through a week of training to get me used to the climate, and teach us some of the tricks that the soldiers were finding were happening a lot to soldiers in the field.
Arriving by airliner, was that kind of odd?
Well, it was arriving by airliner. We were all American boys, you know, before landing there. You have to remember that this was right at the height of the Vietnam War, hundreds of U.S. soldiers were being killed every week in Vietnam. Hundreds every week. That was terrible. But we didn't feel that yet. All we knew was the United States of America. And now we are being sent, and we climbed off this airplane, and as we stepped down the ramp, we were immediately hit with the humidity and the heat.
What did you see? Did you land near Saigon?
We landed, yes, near Saigon.
What did you see?
Well, not much, as a matter of fact. They herded us, in formation, off to a building where we sat and waited and eventually a bus came. And this was a green military bus that, you know, they're commonly seen all over the place, except that the windows were all bared and had screen over the windows so somebody could not throw a grenade in the bus as it was traveling off base. So it was kind of a security measure, and that was our first indication that, hey, this is dangerous. And they took us to the 90th Replacement organization and began the indoctrination and teaching us and also helping us learn how to do pushups better and crawl in the mud and some things they took pride in doing, during that week we were there.
When did you find out you were going to be in the 101st?
Well, when my week was up and it was time to be assigned, I just stood in a formation and as they announced where each individual soldier was going, my name came, with many others, who were being assigned to the 101st Airborne.
What did you think about that?
Well, that was very scary. I know the 101st Airborne is a very famous, old combat division going clear back to Normandy, jumping on D-Day behind the lines, they have fought in every battle since, and they are fighting today in the wars that are currently going on in Afghanistan and Iraq. And they just always seemed to be picked on, and we like to think that we were very elite. We were the only division in Vietnam that was allowed to wear a colored patch on our sleeve, the screaming eagle. Every other division in Vietnam wore the subdued patch, the camouflaged patch, but we were not.
And so we were very proud of the fact that we had a colored patch and they filled us full of ideas that the enemy was afraid of us, because once they saw that patch, that colored patch, they knew they were dealing with the best, and they would run, that's what we were being taught. Of course, that was not true, but that was a nice way to start, anyway.
So tell us about arriving in your unit. Did you go by helicopter or did you go by truck?
Yeah, I went by helicopter everywhere I went, mostly. I was flown clear up north as about as far as you can go, up to Camp Evans, which is maybe within about 20 miles of the DMZ.
This is your first helicopter ride?
Yes, my first helicopter ride, and this was a big Chinook helicopter.
What do you think about this?
Well, this was very exciting, to fly over the jungles and fly in this big helicopter and look out the tiny windows and see stuff below, and nobody shot at us. And it was very hot and I was carrying a heavy pack on my back, loaded with munitions and food and everything, and an M-16 now across my lap, as I sat on those webbed seats inside the helicopter. And I knew this was serious, and we were all afraid, and we did limited talking as we flew all the way up to the north, up to where we were being assigned.
And then the helicopter landed at a base and I was picked up on a small Huey aircraft that holds about six armed soldiers at a time. And then I was flown out to the outskirts of Camp Evans, where I met my company for the first time; they were just camped outside the base in the low lands. And I stepped off the helicopter and it was directed to where the commanding officer was, a captain, and he assigned me to a platoon and to a squad, and there I met for the first time, the people that were to be my brothers, and then that's how we felt about each other.
Race was not nearly as important as it was back in the United States. There were certainly divisions, but in combat, we were all brothers, and we all protected each other, and we all fought for each other, and I became very close to soldiers from all around the United States.
Tell us about your first time when you really had to pull that trigger.
My very first time was probably within a week of landing in Vietnam. Our area of operation was right along the Gulf of Tonkin, actually on the beaches of the Gulf of Tonkin. We had received intelligence that a platoon of NVA soldiers were hiding in a little local fishing village, getting resupplied, and so during the night, we hiked about five miles through rice paddies, all night long, and finally surrounded this tiny little fishing village.
My position was the closest to the water, the water of the Gulf of Tonkin, and we just waited for the signal. We had some armored personnel carriers and 117s that were with us and when the signal was given, they shot some flares up high in the sky. And of course, that lit up the whole village, and then everyone – not only we knew that the search had begun, but the enemy also knew. And so the other half of this cordon, this circle of soldiers collapsed, and they started moving towards us, searching the village as they went.
Well, immediately, seven Viet Cong soldiers came running out of the village and started running down the beach right next to the water and that was about 300 yards away from us, so that was a little far for accurate small arms engagement. But my position happened to be the closest one there so we opened up with our M-16s and M-60 machine gun. And it was like in the '50s, the old pinball game where you shot the bear with the beam of light, and if you hit him, he'd turn around, he'd run back through the screen, through the little arcade game again, and the idea was to keep him running back and forth. And as we'd shoot at these soldiers, they'd change their direction and run back the way they were going and then they'd change and run back and we kind of had them at a great disadvantage.
So the captain of our company came running down to my position and as he ran up to where I was, he tripped over a piece of debris and fell downright on his face. And I remember thinking at the time, he'd done a perfect one-point landing on his nose. But, of course, it wasn't the time for humor then, and he jumped up, and using language that was very common to soldiers, he asked, "What's going on?" And we showed him, just pointed, and boy, he began shooting also, and then pretty soon he says, "Let's run down the beach." Now, the beach made a little circle. The beach closed up to the trees and we thought by running straight down the beach, we could cut these guys off. We'd just beeline it straight, and by the time they worked their way around, we'll be ahead of them and we can take them prisoners.
So we started running down the beach, the other half of my squad, so that's about four of us. The other half of my squad were in a little different position, back in the trees, and they couldn't see what we were shooting at, but certainly they were very excited, because they knew we had made contact with the enemy. Then, this was in the early morning hours, remember the sun was just barely starting to come up, and suddenly they heard all this shooting, and as they looked around behind them where there should be no one, they saw shadows running between the trees. And, of course, they knew no one should be there, but that was us pursuing the enemy. And so they spun around the machine guns and M-16s and open fire on us, and that was my first friendly fire.
And the first indication that I was under fire was somebody had lobbed an M-79 grenade up over the trees and it came down and detonated about ten feet away from me and blew me to the ground. And I laid there seeing real stars and make-believe stars at the same time, as I laid on my back, looking up into the sky. Finally, I regained my composure and realized that we were under attack by our own guys and so I rolled over and faced, especially the machine gun, that was shooting the tracer bullets within inches of my prostrate body on the sand, and we were all yelling, of course, as loud as we could, "Stop shooting, it's us, it's us!"
And finally they heard what was going on and the captain stood up and marched over to those guys and read them a royal riot act that soldiers are famous for doing also. In the meantime, the soldiers had gotten away, and we were not very anxious to go chasing after them, following their footprints in the sand, because they would probably be up there somewhere in the jungle waiting to ambush us. And so we elected to let them go, and that’s my first engagement.
I would be wondering if I could make my legs move.
Well, in this particular instance, they were not shooting back at us. So this was like that old pinball game, that old arcade game. We were just shooting at them and as they ran. And we never did hit any of them, by the way. They were just too far, and we were shooting automatic having big time. So I was not afraid. I thought to myself, “Hey, this Vietnam War is going to be pretty easy. I can do this,” you know, “this is going to be easy.” But when they start shooting back, you get a different opinion.
So your first time in combat, you come under friendly fire. That must have been a sobering experience.
Well, I had been in various degrees of being under fire – sniper fire or small unit engagements – a lot of times the first two months, I guess. But I don't know that I ever had a real terrifying experience until we came in for Christmas. We had a Christmas stand down. For two days, we were allowed to come in to Camp Evans and eat real American food, and relax, and sleep all night, and do things that soldiers do; play a lot of cards and those kinds of things. And it was two days of rest and relaxation for us. And then once the two days was over, we were sent back out into the field, and we were to patrol the grassy low lands up next to the Annamite Mountains, which were about ten miles away from Camp Evans.
One morning, my squad was on a small hill. It was called Hill 51. It was 51 meters above sea level and that's where it got its designation, Hill 51. We set up on top of that hill, the 12 of us, and in the morning, when it got light, we broke our defensive position. We looked down into this old—and this was an area full of rice paddies that were all now overgrown with waist-high elephant grass, and from our position up on that little knoll, we could look out into this vast acreage of old fields and we couldn't see a thing out there that would be dangerous. So just at the crack of dawn, we walked down in file, single file, spread out, of course. And when all 12 of us got down into the field, 60 NVA soldiers ambushed us, and they had us in the classical L-shaped ambush.
They were hidden in the hedgerows that surrounded each of these rice fields and they had us in the classic ambush. And that was the first really, really scary time I had fighting the war. Of course, we had no place to hide. We were lying there with grass about waist-high, provided a little cover, but certainly no protection, and we just laid there in the grass praying that nothing would happen. The radio operator who was up just in front of me a little ways, immediately got on the radio, started calling for help. By then we already had wounded. People around us were crying for help because they had been wounded seriously and they were pleading for a medic, which we didn't have. Just the 12 of us were by ourselves.
And in the meantime, the enemy were crisscrossing this field with fire and, of course, we were trying to stay low so we wouldn't be seen. I was carrying an M-79 grenade launcher weapon that shot grenades, and so I would load the grenade into the chamber of the launcher, and then I'd roll over on my side, and shoot that grenade almost straight up in the air, and it would go about 300 yards up in the air, then fall back to earth. I was trying to make that detonate as close to me as I could, forcing the enemy in that hedgerow that was about 20 yards away, to back up away from me.
And as this is happening, I heard the radio operator get shot several times, and he was dead. And I just knew by the sound that he was dead now, and so our only hope was if that radio call made it to someone who knew where we were and what we were doing.
About five or ten minutes into this little battle, it was very hard to raise up and shoot at the enemy, because if you raised up out of the elephant grass, then they knew exactly where you were at, and they concentrated their fire there. During one of the processes of shooting a grenade, I got a little higher than I should be, and a machine gunner that was about 20 feet away turned on me. And I laid there on my side and I was watching these tracers zip within just inches of my body and I was facing the machine gun trying to make myself as small as possible.
There was a little red flower, much like a snap dragon we have in America, and the field was full of these little flowers. And I remember I was lying on my side, putting a new round in the chamber of this M-79. And the stem of one of those flowers got cut as the bullet went past the length of my body, and that flower fell over, and fell against my sweaty face, and I thought about the opposites that's here. We have the beautiful Mother Nature and her flowers, and here this terrible mayhem that I'm enduring at the same time. So, anyway, that happened.
The squad leader who was up about ten feet in front of me, yelled back to me above the roar of the rifle fire. He yelled back, he says, "Sergeant Rock, are you all right?" Now, Sergeant Rock was a nickname, named after the famous World War II comic book character. Because my first name is Rocky, I was given that name. He yelled back to me and he says, "Sergeant Rock, are you all right?" And I said, "Yes." And he said to me, "Let's go get them."
He and I jumped up and charged the nearest hedgerow. We both thought we were going to die within just a few moments in that field, and we did not want to die lying in the grass. We wanted to die fighting like soldiers. So we jumped up and charged the nearest hedgerow. Him firing his M-16 and my firing my M-79 as fast as I could put the bullets or the grenades in the chamber. We actually made it to the hedgerow without being killed, either one of us. And just as we made it into the hedgerow, here came the American helicopters started strafing the hedgerows that were around us, forcing the enemy back. And once they were backed off a ways, another squad of soldiers that had been about a mile away came running in, and they were some physical ground support, and we started caring then for the wounded, whose cries of pain I could hear all around me.
There were actually only four of us of the 12 who were not killed or wounded immediately, including myself and my squad leader. However, within just a matter of a couple hours, they would all be killed or wounded, including the squad leader, who was killed, and that left me the lone survivor of that battle. And that was very difficult. I cried a great deal, and that was a tough thing to lose all of my friends, all at that one time, within just an hour.
How do you put that all together in your head, after that's over?
I was immediately assigned to this new squad that had come to our relief, became part of them and we didn't come back. We lived out there, and so that night, when we set up our little ambush or night defensive position, I just had to endure it. These men were all well-known within the company, and these soldiers who came to our aid knew them very well, and a lot of folks were physically exhausted from what had happened during the day. The chasing we had done after the enemy, and emotionally, I was drained, as you can imagine. All of my very best friends were all dead or very seriously wounded, and never would I ever see any of them again. And that was tough, and I just have to learn to endure, and buck up soldier, and press on.
Was that a long night?
Yes, yes, it was a long night. It was a long week. It was a long month. Eventually though, as we learn to do, we just put things in the background, whether we lose a loved one at home in a car accident or something tragic. It's very difficult to begin with, but as time goes on, it mellows out, and we just learn to live with it, and that's what soldiers do.
So now you're in a new squad, you're with new guys, what happens next? You must have a timeline in your own head.
Well, since I was with the 101st Airborne, we were taken by air most everywhere we went. We didn't do very long marches like the old-day foot soldiers who might have to walk 20 miles to go to the next engagement. When one of our sister companies or someone else needed help immediately, they could pick us up by helicopter, and take us right to the battle front and drop us off. So there were a lot of people coming and going out of the squad and out of the company with 101st, because there were lots of casualties. When you're always in combat, it's not like we were going back to the rear and play cards for a month until our next engagement. We were just day, by day, by day.
Now, I have to say fairly, that most of the time, it was very boring. We tried to find a bush to crawl underneath and read a book or do something to pass the boring time away. However, there were just moments of sheer terror when we were called upon to do something. And sometimes that involved repelling down out of a hovering helicopter, down into where the combat is going, and the idea is to get to the ground very quickly, because you're being shot at. And so that happened a lot.
And consequently, a lot of soldiers I was with, there was a continual turnover during the year, and there was nobody I was really with. This was not like I had a band of brothers that I kind of went with the entire year, because soldiers, when their year was up, they went back to the United States or when they were shot or wounded or were lucky enough to get some other kind of assignment, which they quickly chose, they left. And so I was with many different squads and many different platoons within Alpha Company of the 506th Infantry. So there really was no group that I belonged to. I was just assigned to a unit as was required.
Tell us about Hamburger Hill.
On May the 10th, 1969, Soldiers from five battalions of 101st Airborne and other support divisions attacked a hill that they knew was occupied by the enemy, not realizing, of course, how strong they were. These soldiers fought for nine days trying to capture that mountain and could not. They had taken many casualties and General Zais, who was the commander of the 101st Airborne at the time, flew in to an adjoining hill and told the commanding officer there, the Colonel, that he was going to relieve them of the responsibility of that mountain. And he wanted to bring in two brand-new, fresh companies and attack the hill one more time in the morning.
Of course, this commanding officer felt like he was being demoted. They had lost about 50 percent of their men, but yet they had valiantly fought on that mountain. And this was a big tall mountain, it was about 3,000 feet high. So it was a tall, ornery mountain like we have here in Utah. And so these soldiers had been fighting up, and then they'd get beat back down again or come back down for safety for the night, and then have to do the same thing again in the morning. Well, when the decision was made, General Zais said, “Okay, I will give you two brand-new, fresh combat companies, and you will personally be in charge of these two companies and direct them up the mountain.” I was in one of those two brand-new companies. So I was not there the full ten days.
It was day eight, actually, when we flew into that adjoining hilltop, landed, and we were given loads of C-rations and worked our way through the body bags, many of them filled, and down into a ravine, where we were to be the next morning, when we made our final assault. We dug very shallow fox holes, because the jungle ground was so hard with big boulders and jungle vines, it was very difficult to penetrate that jungle soil. So I did manage to scrape down about six or eight inches, about six feet long, the length of my body. And that was to be my place for the night, down at the bottom of this ravine, looking up the hillside, where we would be attacking in the morning.
We were told that it was quite likely we would be attacked during the night, so there was a decision to be made by the captain as to how much time we should actually sleep. The next morning would be very grueling and so we needed our rest. However, the likelihood of attack meant that we needed to be awake, too. And so finally, he made a compromise, and he said we will allow 50 percent of the people at each position to sleep, and the other 50 percent have to be on alert.
My position was right close to the radio operator, and so as I was lying during the night, it was my turn to watch, and nothing was happening. I just watched the shadows and apparitions go back and forth through the jungle as flares behind me and in front of me were bursting the air, causing shadows to, you know, cause scary things to happen. And I could imagine all sorts of things happening, but nobody ever shot at me, so I thought, “Okay.” So my turn came to sleep and I crawled over and woke up the medic and told him that it was his turn to watch. I then crawled back to my shallow fox hole and laid on my back and I held my rifle across my chest and I went to sleep.
And it seemed like immediately, it might have been 15 minutes or a half an hour later that suddenly there was a huge explosion right by my head, and it blew my rifle off my chest, out of my hands, down around my ankles. Of course, this happened very quickly and I fumbled around trying to find where my rifle had went and I found it down around my ankles and I turned over, and looked up onto that black hillside, and there was nothing that I could see in the jungle. And then I noticed about five feet away from me, there was an enemy soldier, and his arm was missing, and much of his head was missing. And the lieutenant came running over, and jump into my little excavation with me.
And we looked at this guy, and we decided what had happened was, he was crawling down the mountain trying to get away from the attack that was going to happen in the morning—of course they knew what was happening. And he was trying to find a way through our lines, and escape off the mountain. And he came across me, he crawled up, and came across me sleeping in the shallow foxhole. And he raised back up on his knees, and reached in his pack, and pulled a grenade out of his backpack, and he pulled the pin on his backpack so he could lob it in to my hole with me. But when he pulled that pin, it malfunctioned, and detonated in his hand blowing off his arm and much of his head. That was very scary, and needless to say, I was awake the rest of the night watching.
But we could not take prisoners. We could not afford medical personnel to take care of this guy. And obviously, with much of his head missing, he was going to die within just a short while. So the lieutenant crawled up there with a pistol and finished him. And in the morning, we attacked the mountain officially. And we were supposed to go up on line, soldiers side-by-side. But because of the terrain, we quickly found ourselves going, following each other. And the enemy were up on top, throwing hand grenades down and we were shooting at them, and we worked our way up and it got more severe as we got towards the top.
Now, I became the radio operator of the second platoon right then. I had worked in that capacity before and so they wanted me – the radio telephone operator had been wounded by our artillery, friendly fire, just moments earlier – and so they gave the radio to me, and my responsibility was to stay with the lieutenant who was the leader of this platoon. We were in rear security, and the other two platoons were up front, and so that was good, because we didn't have to be up where people were throwing grenades at us.
Well, the lieutenant in one of the two platoons was quickly shot, and had to be pulled back down off the mountain. And so the captain came on the radio telling my lieutenant that he needed to go up and be the new leader of the attack. And consequently, being the radio operator, I had to go with him. And so we spent the rest of the day, he and I, leading—I don't want to include mine as being the leader, but I was following this brave lieutenant as he ran around kicking guys in the butt, keeping pressure on the enemy, keeping us moving, and we ran from one foxhole or one tree stump or one rock to another pressing ourselves up the hill, and firing at anything that moved and a lot of things that didn't move; just keeping intense fire upon the enemy.
And, of course, airplanes were dropping bombs and napalm and artillery from many bases, fire bases, all around the hill, we're bombarding the hilltop with artillery and it was just a non-stop 4th of July explosion.
How do you possibly communicate?
Well, it's very hard to do, and as a matter of fact, as we got up towards the top, I witnessed some U.S. soldiers throwing hand grenades over a ridge. They could hear somebody and they could hear shooting on the other side, but they didn't know who it was, so they started lofting grenades over the ridge. Well, on the other side of the ridge—I talked about the 101st being there, but there was also two division of South Vietnamese that were supporting this attack and they were the ones on the other side of the ridge and they suddenly were under grenade attack so they started throwing grenades back over the ridge at us. So from my vantage point, I could see both of the grenades going back and forth and I knew that it was friendly on both sides, but because of the noise, I couldn't tell anybody, and we couldn't yell above the fire.
So we just kind of watched it and we tried to make radio contact, and eventually they discovered who they were and they stopped throwing grenades at each other, and we pressed our way up the mountain. And the lieutenant and I managed to take out a bunker that was causing a lot of problems. We actually ran up to it. We were in a long trench that had been a North Vietnamese trench, but we had overrun it, and now it was filled with U.S. Army troops, and the lieutenant told me to give the order to attack. And so I held the handset up close to my mouth, so I wouldn't be misunderstood, and said the famous words, "Ready, get set, go." It wasn't really military lingo, but everybody jumped up out of their trench and we charged and it was kind of like the old, World War II trench warfare.
We just jumped up and charged into their attack, and immediately several of the guys got hit and fell back in, but because of the pressure we gave on the enemy, we were able to make it up to where they were. And the lieutenant and I came up to a bunker, and we both jumped on both sides of the port where the machine gun was firing, and he threw a grenade in, and it made kind of a small noise like it must be a very big cavern or maybe the grenade was a partial dud. And so we each pulled grenades and on the count of—we popped off the spoon, which ignited the grenade, and four seconds later it would explode, and we counted, “one, two,” and then we threw them both in that portal.
Of course, we didn't want the enemy returning those grenades to us. That's why we waited the two seconds, and they both detonated inside with the same sound, and so we just knew that it was a pretty good-sized room down inside there, and the firing back stopped. And we ran around to the other side, and could not find an entrance to that bunker so we just moved on past it. And, eventually, we got nearer to the top of the hill, and of course, there was lots of firing going on. I'm skipping much of the story, but we finally made it to the top.
The lieutenant and myself, the radio operator, and one other infantry soldier—the three of us ran up, and just as we got to the top, there were a small group of maybe three enemy soldiers running along the top, and we cut them down promptly, and Hamburger Hill had been taken. Now, there were probably other soldiers attacking from other parts of the hill who also counted themselves as being among the very first on top of Hamburger Hill. But being with that lieutenant as I was, he was in charge of the American attack, I was there, and we captured the mountain.
Now, we stayed up on top of the mountain for a few days, but it had no logistical advantage to us. We never did intend to hold it, we attacked it, as mountain climbers say, we did it because it was there, and that's where the enemy were. So once the enemy were no longer there and the U.S. Army didn't want it, we abandoned the mountain about three or four days later and shipped us all off to different places. And we left the mountain to the enemy and they came back and rebuilt it and it became a prominent North Vietnamese Army stronghold again.
Doing such a task, that was very unusual.
Yeah, that was. There were 600, to begin with, 600 U.S. soldiers and two, as I told you, two regiments of South Vietnamese soldiers that attacked that from around the mountain all at once. This was to be the very last major battle of the Vietnam War. Of course, the war went on for several years longer, however, this was the last major battle of the Vietnam War.
What's the strategic purpose of all these?
Well, we felt it was futile. We hoped once we—we being the low level, Army infantry grunts, as we called ourselves, we, of course, as we captured it, we wanted to hold on to it and maybe build a base up there or something. But once there was no longer anyone to fight, people with much more knowledge, supposedly, than we had decided we needed to give the mountain up and we would go off to other places where enemy soldiers still existed.
And so they just abandoned the mountain, and that was very disheartening, as you can imagine, where we had lost so many. Now, the count after the battle, some months after they gave us a total of 505 enemy soldiers were killed on top of that mountain. There were 52 Americans that died, and about 250 that were wounded. So the enemy, they were destroyed. It was the 27th North Vietnamese Army that was on top, and we had effectively destroyed that entire army and we would like to have stayed up on top and built a fortification and stayed there, but—
So tell me about that moment, when you're looking down, tell us what you're seeing.
This was very mountainous, jungley country. This was in the middle of what was called the A Shau Valley. Well, that's really a misnomer. There were lots of little valleys, but mostly huge mountains, but collectively, it was called the A Shau Valley. And so this Hamburger Hill, it was in the middle of the A Shau Valley. This particular hilltop had just been totally denuded of jungle, because of all the artillery and napalm and endless sorties of bombing attacks on top of the mountain, and so we were climbing over big huge teak trees that had been downed. We had to crawl over them and if you've ever been deer hunting and you have to go through an area where there is a lot of downfall, that's what this was like. But the triple canopy jungle was no longer above us any longer, we had to crawl over it or through it as we worked our way up the mountain.
And once we even had captured the mountain, of course there is lots of debris and many entrances to enemy hideaways were buried, because of our bombs or because of this debris. And so, being a radio operator, I was called up to the command post to help man one of the radios that kept track of aircraft during the first night there. And when my turn came to go back and sleep, I kicked a little hole in some debris, so I could kind of get my body down below the level of earth and I just kicked the hole with my boot in the debris, in the middle of the night, and lay down.
As I lay there, just before I went to sleep, I heard some noise down below me, and first thing I thought was, "Oh, I've got rats right underneath me." And so I kind of rolled off, and I looked down in there and just then, a hand came right up through the hole where I had been laying, a hand, a bloody hand. And there was a soldier, an enemy soldier, was in that debris down below me, and he was pleading, "Chieu Hoi." He gives up, he surrenders. And so, of course, I pulled away some of the debris, and when he got his head up out of the hole, I shoved my rifle down right inside of his mouth, down his throat, and started yelling for help. And pretty soon a lot of other soldiers came to my aid and I held that rifle right there and the little Vietnamese soldier was quivering, he was so afraid this big giant five-foot-ten, American soldier was hovering over him with this rifle down his throat.
You didn't know if he had a grenade or anything.
But I didn't know a thing, no. And I was set to pull the trigger, if he did anything that was suspicious, I would pull the trigger. But as it turns out, it didn't, and once the other soldiers had dug him out, we took a prisoner. Now, taking prisoners going up Hamburger Hill didn't happen because we were way too busy fighting and we could not leave soldiers behind guarding wounded enemy soldiers. And so in the heat of combat like that, this was a situation where you just didn't take prisoners, and that's what happened. So this was actually, as far as I know, the first prisoner we took on Hamburger Hill. And much intelligence was gathered from him, during the rest of that night, by the South Vietnamese people that were with us and in the morning, they flew him off in a helicopter, back to a prisoner-of-war camp.
I've read that you had artillery strikes, and napalm, and everything supporting you, going off just in feet of you.
Tell us about that, what it's like to do that.
Artillery, of course, unless you're very close, you don't know. Typically it doesn't really make that whistling noise unless you're very close, and then when it detonates, the idea is, you want it detonating close to where you are, because you don't want to force the enemy—you want to force them back away, up and out of their holes. And so you want it to drop close to you, but obviously not too close. So this is scary, and sometimes those explosions—and when they explode, they're not like you see on television, big giant fireballs, that's television effects. When these things explode, it's just a huge explosion and lots of debris flying in the air and gun smoke, gray, kind of hovering over that area where the thing went off. And if it was close, it would actually suck the air, you know, away from you, and it was quite scary. But we would call in the artillery and move it up the hill as we moved behind it, and hopefully that would provide some advanced protection for us as we moved our way up the mountain.
What about napalm, would you comment on that?
Napalm, lots of napalm. Tons of napalm was dropped on that mountain, and that was always a very scary thing. We loved it because that could go down into the trenches, where a bomb and artillery would have to actually land in the hole to do anything. Napalm, you know it's a jelly gasoline and when it hit, the canister would break open and then it would ignite. And, of course, that jellied gasoline would go down into the low areas, which were bunkers and trenches, and it was devastating, it was horrible. Because then we had to move through that area and, of course, there were dead Americans and dead North Vietnamese in those trenches, and war is not a pretty thing.
I remember, as a boy, watching television shows in black and white, showing John Wayne charging up a mountain and someone would get shot and John Wayne would run over and hold him until his man made his last dying statement. Then his head would turn to the side and he'd die, but there was no visible blood, and there was no holes, and this person had all of his arms and legs and it wasn't as dramatic. In real life, people are blown to bits, you know, and sometime they live a little while minus much of their body, and so it's not nearly as romantic as I had seen on television. And that's one of those things you just have to learn to live with, and you hold some of these soldiers until they die and then you lay them down and you move on up the mountain.
You're a religious man, you’ve been taught all your life in your faith that killing is wrong. Can you talk about the psychological effects of your first killing and just the psychology of that?
Being an LDS missionary, as I mentioned I had been, part of my duties as a missionary was to preach love and peace and harmony and Christian values and God's love and those kinds of things. And here I was, less than a year later, I was a paid professional killer, and I was given medals and pats on the back for causing mayhem. And this caused a great deal of—that was a big huge change in less than a year, and this was something that did not come quickly. Of course, I never dreamt that I would ever be a soldier and have to face someone and to maybe end his life.
So that was the moral dilemma was there, but I remembered – as even as a missionary – reading in Ecclesiastes in the second chapter where the Prophet says, "There is a time for everything. There is a time for living and there is a time for dying, and there is a time for war, and there is a time for peace. There is a time for killing, and there is a time to refrain from killing." So that was kind of my justification, and I did believe in fighting for my country, even though I was not anxious to go off to war. I did believe in fighting for my country and I had raised my right arm to the square and took an oath to obey the Commander in Chief and fighting in Vietnam was one of the things that I had to do.
Where did you go on your mission, by the way?
I was a missionary in the Central States, central part of the United States. Independence, Missouri was the headquarters.
Did you meet any other Mormons when you were in the service?
No. I lived with basically the same 100 or 120 soldiers, as I told you, out in the jungles or on the beach or wherever we were at. We were autonomous. They brought food to us every few days and letters and, of course, a re-supply of ammunition, but I did not get to go back to base camps very often. And so I was just basically with the same 100 men the whole time I was in Vietnam, and there was never another Utah soldier that I ever met, you know, as soldiers come and go. And as far as I know, I was the only LDS soldier that belonged to my unit.
Did they treat you differently? With you being the only Mormon, that's a novelty.
Well, that was a little bit of a novelty, but like I said, we very quickly became brothers in this affair, and whenever a Catholic or a Protestant chaplain would come out, they would fly him out, and this maybe happened every third week or so, we would actually see a chaplain. They'd fly him out into the field, and he would hold church services, and I went to Catholic Mass or I went to Protestant services. I never ever saw an LDS chaplain. There weren't just that many of them, especially out where I was at, out in the jungle, so I went to Catholic Mass whenever I could and went to Protestant services.
And the soldiers, they respected the fact that I was just a little bit different when the ration came around for beer, I didn't take it or if I did take it, I quickly traded it for peaches or candy bars or something, and I didn't smoke as most soldiers. And I would estimate maybe 90 percent of the soldiers I was with used marijuana, and mostly quite openly.
The U.S. Army was so desperate for having soldiers out on the field that they could not afford to prosecute soldiers by taking them back to the field and maybe taking a month to go through a court marshal proceedings. They couldn't afford that, and so they just kind of tended to turn a blind eye. And as long as the soldiers did not do that during times when it was dangerous or at night, when we were on guard, they just kind of tended to look the other way. And told us, of course, not to do it and they would prosecute us, but they never did.
Did Hamburger Hill change things for you?
Was it just more of the same?
Hamburger Hill was more of the same. Of course, it was the most tragic thing I had gone through since that ambush – that was just a terrible, terrible incident. But when they picked us off, my company, off of Hamburger Hill, they flew us to a small firebase, a fire support base, and it was called firebase airborne. And this was a tiny little base that held about 100 men, and it was an artillery base, and that was one of the bases that had been dropping artillery on top of Hamburger Hill.
Well, during the attack on Hamburger Hill, this firebase was attacked on one of those nights and it was overrun. About two-thirds of the firebase had been overrun before morning came, and the valiant U.S. soldiers who were still there, were able to fight back and retake the mountain. Now, they are very desperate for help though, because most of the people guarding this little firebase are now dead or wounded and they needed help immediately.
And so my company was ferried by helicopter off Hamburger Hill to this little firebase airborne. And there, we proceeded to clean up the bodies, and we piled up the enemy, in big piles, and doused them with diesel fuel and lit them fire. Of course, we couldn't dig enough holes to bury all these people and we couldn't just leave them there for sanitation reasons. We were going to be living there, and so we did the very best we could to destroy any remnants that were still around, and burn the bodies. And then we rebuilt the firebase, and dug new fox holes, and built new bunkers, and just refortified the position.
Tell us about being short.
Being short. There are about three groups of people in Vietnam. Those who are brand new, and they're gung-ho, and they're feeling that they can, themselves, stop the war, and they have not seen much combat, and they are very eager to earn medals and to do valiant things. There is another group that has been in Vietnam for a while and they're a little more cautious and they're experienced. And they realize that even the smallest animal can become a fierce enemy if forced, and we were forcing these North Vietnamese and Viet Cong people to do things they didn't want to do and they were very good fighters, maybe as good as we were, man-to-man, but our superiority and logistics and air gave us the best advantage.
And the third group was the scared-to-death old-timers, and these were soldiers who had been in Vietnam; their DEROS, estimated date to come home, it was approaching quickly and they did not wand to die the last week in Vietnam and so they became kind of like an anchor around this infantry group as they moved on, doing their duties. They always wanted to be in the rear, because they didn't want to die.
And I'm speaking in general. Of course there were valiant soldiers who fought clear to the end. One of them was a good friend of mine who was a sergeant and he had both of his legs shot off the day he was to leave. Helicopters that were coming to pick him up, a helicopter was, and we happened to run across an enemy base camp, by just accident. And as we came in to the base camp, one of the soldiers who was still there fired several bullets from a machine gun, and they went through both of his legs, and he took two hits in each leg. And we had to carry him about a half a mile to the top of the mountain so he could be ferried out by helicopter. And when they got him back to the rear, they ended up amputating both of his legs.
And, of course, I never saw him again, but he sent us a very encouraging letter about six months later thanking all of those who had been involved with taking care of him, saving his life, and carrying him to the top of the mountain and thanked us for doing that. And, of course, that caused us all to cry again, remembering this brave sergeant who was fighting to the very end of the day he was to go home.
What was your last day at Vietnam? When did you leave?
My last day in Vietnam, this was in November of 1969. President Nixon had made the decision that we were going to start winding down the war. One of the first large units that were to be pulled out of Vietnam was the Third Marine Division, and they were actually up right on the demilitarized zone, the DMZ, and actually working in it.
I know that was supposed to be a no-mans land separating North and South Vietnam, but we worked in it, and so did they. And so as they pulled the Third Marine Division out, the 101st Airborne expanded our area of operation and that became our new responsibility, too. And they moved my company actually up inside of the demilitarized zone, and so here I was, right on the border within sometimes hundreds of yards of North Vietnam. And we just did patrolling and had a few small engagements my last week, and some sniper fire. But turns out my very last week was kind of mild as compared to what I had seen.
And my day came, finally, to leave, and the helicopter landed and my very best friend, who was in my squad—I was the squad leader at the time, an E-5 Sergeant. And he was one of my team leaders, he came up and we embraced each other in a soldierly embrace, and we patted each other three times on the back, and that's kind of what you do is three pats, and then you say goodbye. And I had a big speech prepared to give to him, but I couldn't remember it at the time.
Everything was so exciting – I was going home – and I felt so bad for him and the rest of my buddies. We had taken some photographs and one of the soldiers had a can of Tang orange juice that he had buried in the dirt all night and we dug that canteen up and we passed this canteen of cool Kool-Aid around and that was our big celebration. We all took a sip of Tang. And then I said good-bye, and the helicopter raised up and lifted its tail to gain forward momentum and off it went, and I waved and said good-bye.
Of course, that was the last time I was to see them. I got a letter about two months later that this same soldier that had hugged me, he was killed. They had landed on top of a mountain and he jumped off with a lot of other soldiers, and the helicopter lifted up to gain altitude. But before he got high enough in the air, he tilted his tail up to gain forward momentum, and when he lifted his tail up, the rotor blades in the front came down, and chopped up five of the soldiers, and my best friend was one of those that got chopped up. It was very tough.
That's a friendly fire story.
That's a friendly fire story.
Tell me what you think when you hear a helicopter.
I have learned from experience, living close to Hill Air Force base, I can tell when a helicopter is ascending or descending by the sound. I can still tell the difference between different kinds of helicopters, just by the sound. So I have learned to distinguish helicopters. The first thing I think of when I hear a helicopter overhead is, in my mind, I yell, "C-A!"
We always yelled C-A in Vietnam, because somebody, somewhere, was getting ready to do a combat assault and that was kind of our moral support to whoever that was, we'd yell "C-A" up at the helicopter, because somebody was going into harms way, and we knew that meant. And so today when I hear a helicopter, I, quite often, in my mind, think of that and yell, "C-A," just as a habit.
What do you feel?
Well, you know, that's a long time ago, Vietnam was. I am over that. I have never, ever suffered from any of the post suffering that soldiers have done, ever since the beginning of fighting, I guess. Lately we've given it some names, what that's called, but I have never suffered from that. I don't know whether it was, I was a little more mature than most of the soldiers were, or maybe having lived away from as a missionary as I had, that I had learned to live away from family. But for some reason, I've been able to take that a little better than many soldiers.
And I have never jumped to the ground when a car backfired or swung at somebody who tapped me on the shoulder, you know, out of reaction. It's just never been my reaction. I just have adapted back reasonably well, I guess, assuming your listeners here think I'm reasonable.
When you returned to the United States, how did you come back, by airline?
I came back from Vietnam by airliner, just the way I was delivered there, and I believe it was a TWA chartered airline, and it was full of soldiers and there were a few stewardesses, who walked up and down the aisle, giving us food and things. And, of course, seeing a real round-eyed American woman, you know, that was quite a thing, and everyone was trying to get their attention and talk to them. Because this was a touch of home, this was a touch of America. Where we had been, we called—it was not part of the world, okay? Back home was the world; Vietnam was not. And so these were stewardesses form the world, and this was amazing.
When we landed in Oakland, California, everybody took their hats off and threw them around that aluminum tube in celebration. And actually the airport was a little foggy, so the airplane had to lift off and circle around, and there was a lot of booing going on because we didn't land. And finally, it came around and landed the second time, and I remember climbing down the steps off of that airplane, and actually, I got on my hands and knees and kissed the tarmac, the asphalt, because that was American soil – so to speak – with tears in my eyes. I was thankful to be home.
And then quickly, they sent me to a place to change out of my fatigues, back into a different dress. So those khakis that I had arrived in with my medals and everything and within a day or a day and a half, put me on an airliner and I flew into Salt Lake Airport, where I met my parents. My mom was so relieved, I remember, I climbed off the airplane, and she didn't recognize me at first, because spending a year in that hot, hot sun—I tend to tan very easily, and I had just a very, very dark tan. And so when I climbed off the airplane, they didn't realize until I was all the way down the steps, as they watched me from inside the terminal, that that was really me, even though I was uniform, because I was so dark.
And my mom was just really in tears. She was so happy to see her son home. So that meant that within two days of being in combat, I was sitting at the dinner table with my family, trying to be civilized and trying to act like I belonged there, where my heart was still back with my brothers back in the jungle.
What did you think when you saw the fall of Saigon?
Well, when I saw the helicopters landing, taking all of the soldiers and as many civilians as they could, in those last hours, away, I was glad that it was all over. But yet, I felt, to a large extent, this had been a waste of time for 52,000 soldiers who had been killed in Vietnam. As it turns out, we hadn't accomplished much, I thought, at the time. We hadn't done much except learned how to use some new weapons. It was terrible, and it felt like it was just a waste of time.
I've since come to realize however—one of the original goals of sending soldiers into South Vietnam was to stop communist aggression. North Vietnamese was communist; the South Vietnamese people were not. And so when they moved in and started attacking South Vietnamese targets, and the first advisors were sent over, the idea was to stop communism right there and leave them in North Vietnam, do not let them take over South Vietnam. And eventually allow some Thailand and the Philippines and all of those other countries around that area.
And that was one of the goals, and I look back on it, and I realize that, in fact, we did. We stopped communism. They expended so much of their energy and so much of their efforts just trying to fix South Vietnam that the domino theory never did happen. Laos and Thailand and the Philippines, Cambodia, they're all free countries now, and communism has kind of fallen on its own accord. It just didn't work very well, and maybe we saved those countries from having to endure that additional suffering of communism.
Can you talk of that experience and tell me what life was like in the jungle?
Life in the jungle was mostly unpleasant. That's where I lived, and when it was the rainy season, the monsoon season, which is equivalent to wintertime in Utah, it would just rain day and day after day, and just weeks at a time, just solid, heavy rain, and we just learned to live in it. Sometimes I would take the liner out of my helmet and then put the liner over my face as I lay back in the mud. Put the liner over my face to keep the rain out.
And I'd lay back in the mud and sleep and the water would be rushing by me and sometimes I even would have to use a belt and tie it around a jungle vine to keep me from being washed down the mountainside. So it was miserable and during the monsoon season, it would get down, as I recall, down into maybe the low 50s and that was extremely cold, when I'm used to it being very humid and up around 100 or 115 degrees, 50 is cold. And keep in mind, we had no sleeping bags, and we had no cots, and we just laid down in the mud, or wherever we were at, and slept. And if you could find a tree that was shaded to protect you from the rain, you did that.
But remember, we were forced every night to form a little circle, like a wagon train, and guard each other with our backs to our buddies and watching the jungle. And so sometimes we were forced to be out in places where there was no protection at all, and you just sit there at night, looking out with the rain beating down.
And the leeches that are all over in the jungle, crawling up to you, and attaching themselves to your body; as you sleep at night laying there, they'll crawl up to your face and start sucking your blood out of your cheek or out of your mouth, and that happened to me, one occasion. I guess I was sleeping with my mouth open and when I was awakened for my turn to guard, I felt a blister in my mouth. It felt like a blister. And I crawled over to the place where I was supposed to be on guard and I put my rifle in my lap, and I started playing with that blister in my cheek. And then I remembered, yeah, I better look and see what this was. So I had a little four-by-four inch mirror that I carried in my pack. So I crawled back there and got that mirror and a poncho, and I pulled the poncho over my head so it would hide the match that I was about to light.
I lit that match and looked into that mirror and bit down on that blister and, of course, my mouth exploded with blood, and then I realized that, that was a leech that was inside the fleshy part of my cheek. And, of course, I couldn't pull it out with my hands, because it was just way too slimy, and so I just had to bite it off with my teeth in chunks and spit it out, until I had finally managed to bite it all off and chew that thing out of my mouth. And then, of course, my mouth bled for quite some time afterward because they inject a little chemical. They don't actually suck your blood, but your blood stops coagulating and so you just bleed very profusely until that finally bleeds out and that was the case with my mouth. So anyway, I just lived wherever I was at, and that's what you do.
When we were in combat and we were fighting and sometimes soldiers were killed and it was terrible, because I was friends with all of them, with all 100 or 120 of them. I knew them all. And they would fight and risk their lives to save mine, and, of course, I would do the same, and when one of them died, that was very, very, very difficult, and it took a while. I got used to it, in the sense maybe that a doctor gets used to a patient dying, it's a sad thing, and you hate it, but that does happen periodically. And so I just had to face it that way, that, that's what's going to happen, and you do your very best to prevent that from happening, but it just does.
Answer the question: What I ultimately learn from the Vietnam War…?
Boy, I don't know. I guess my impression of that war, what I learned is that – you know, I was going to say something about my book. After I had been home for a while, I began to have a new look on the Vietnam War, and I hoped back then, that all future politicians on the national and state level would all be combat experienced soldiers, whether they be Marines or Navy or Air Force or Army. Because the next time they sent young soldiers off to fight, I wanted them to know what they were doing, because they had been there.
I think it's so easy for politicians to say, “Oh, we need to attack this little country here, because they might be supporting communism or something.” They don't seem to realize that these are young men who have mothers and who maybe have babies themselves, and wives. And it's a terrible thing they're sending them off to and I don't want them just doing that nonchalantly. I think they should understand that this is a very serious business they are in. And so that's my thought, is I would just love to have politicians, make it mandatory that they be combat veterans, and understand, before they send soldiers off to war.
What do you tell these kids, especially these boys, who are fascinated, in your lecture circuit, about war and guns and fighting, and what do you tell them?
When mothers come up to me sometimes and ask for my advice, because being a soldier is very popular right now. When they come up to me and say their 17-year-old son wants to join the military as soon as he can after high school, I tell them—and I even tell the son, if he is there—I say you can earn three or four times as much money if you're an officer as if you're a low-level, infantry enlisted man. So my advice to you is to go to college and get a four-year degree, and then if you still want to join the military— and sometimes that will change their minds, they get a larger scope of things, if they can actually graduate from college. But if they still want to join the military, go ahead and do that.
Now, for those who are insistent upon joining the military now, the military is not a bad thing, in my mind. They are needed to protect our country and to stand as a measure against those who would do us harm, and sometimes that's in foreign lands. There are many, many people who make the military a career and that can be a very fulfilling and profitable time. The very first thing that happens to a young soldier is, they are put in some area, where there is infantry, or maintenance, or repairing instruments, or being an air traffic controller, or driving trucks or whatever, there are some good skills. Now, I'm going to have to exclude infantry from that, but there are many skills that can be learned, and soldiers are the beneficiary of thousands and thousands of dollars that the government spend teaching these young soldiers to do something that's of the benefit to the military.
So if, after four years, they decide, well, maybe the military isn't for them after all, they can still come home with a skill in their back pocket, and they can become a truck driver or an instrument repairman or get a job working on airplanes or something. So it can be very beneficial, even if it's not a career.
We had a veteran, Lee Sanchez, said there was such a clear division with those who volunteered and those who drafted, and the amount of guys who were minority, poor, and uneducated who were in the infantry. Did you notice that in your squad? This attitude, was there resentment?
No, I don't think there was a resentment. There was probably not a fairness. Infantry soldiers, you were either draftees – if you were a draftee, then you spent just two years in the military. They were not very willing to spend a lot of money training you to do something when they knew they were going to lose you in two years, and so that meant that they had to use you somewhere else, and that, quite often, meant that you were going to be an infantry soldier.
So during the time I was in Vietnam, in late '68 and through most of '69, the vast majority of soldiers were draftees. If you could pull a trigger they could make you an infantry soldier, and so they didn't waste time spending money, teaching you to do something other than to pull a trigger. And of course there are lots of tactics, so they taught us, you know, preservation and how to shoot straight and those things. So they did train us very well to be infantry, but infantry doesn't roll over very well in civilian life unless maybe you are a police officer or something, but there are not many opportunities for infantry men to use their skills.
Really not being valleys at all, but being mountains, but is that why – because it was so dense? A Shau Valley.
A Shau, yeah. A Shau Valley is just a dense mountainous region like the Rocky Mountains are. Of course, there are valleys between mountain peaks, and since it was triple-canopy jungle – which means there are three layers: the very high tall trees, and then the medium trees, and then the low-growing shrubbery – and so it's very hard to be seen from the air, and so the enemy loved to hide and build their camps and live there, because they could not be seen from the air.
And the bad part is that U.S. infantry soldiers had to go in and chop their way through the jungle and try to find them, and quite often that left us—consequently infantry soldiers had to go out and then find them and chop their way through the jungle and engage, and that left us usually the recipient of ambushes. That's how we discovered where they were is when they started shooting at us or blew claymore mines on us or started shooting rocket-propelled grenades at us and then – “Oh, here they are.” So that's an obvious place to hide, up in the mountains. You can imagine if the hunters who live around here who deer hunt, you know, there is really easy to hide among the pine trees and the vegetation, and if you imagine there are three layers of that, it's very hard to be seen from above.
I'm really amazed that you don't suffer from it. You saw so much, and participated in so much combat and death, you're in pretty good shape here – and also napalm – you were around Hamburger Hill, and we've got a lot of guys here with some physical problems because of napalm.
Yes, there are many soldiers who have suffered as a result of our own napalm or enemy explosives, physically and mentally, and it's very tough. I've been very lucky not to have to suffer through some of that. I do get emotional sometimes when I see things that remind of those days.
I was watching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir do a Memorial Day special program, and it was full of patriotic music, and they were showing the Vietnam Wall in the background. And I was actually there in the tabernacle watching that live, and I had to get up and leave the tabernacle, because it just overwhelmed me. I didn't want to be a big boob in front of everybody and nobody understanding why, but there are times where I see things on television or I am reminded on the 4th of July or something. Even the flag going by still gives me a pause, and I want to stand at attention. And I never had that feeling before. I was always very patriotic towards my country, I thought, but the flag of United States of America means something special to me now, and to other veterans.
But many have suffered, and many choose not to talk about that sad era in their lives. That was a difficult time and they would block it from their memory if that were possible. Sometimes that's not possible and they have to live with horrible things that they saw or maybe were involved with and I certainly understand that. Luckily, I have been able to get through that era and have been among those who have been able to educate others on what it's like to be in war. What it's like, how you prepare, what, how to maybe overcome some of those problems when you get back. And for me, personally, that was good therapy for me to be able to speak about it, and tell other people about it, and it was difficult at first, but I've managed to survive.
It seems like there is a very tight, very close supports for it. Everybody gets it and understands each other.
Yes. You know, soldiers from any war, there is a lot of rivalry among the military units; the Marines versus the Army, or the Navy versus the National Guard. Once we get a little older, and especially if we've been in combat together, and we've relied on each other to help, maybe as far as even saving our lives, there is kind of a camaraderie among soldiers now, and I meet soldiers on the street and we hug each other and we welcome each other home.
That's kind of a little code word, code phrase, that Vietnam soldiers have, is when we see each other, we shake hands, and say, “Welcome home” – because nobody else welcomed us home – when we see each other. And so we welcome each other home, and shake hands. And some are very eager to talk about the war, and others are not eager to talk about it at all.
And sometimes people will recognize me as being a Vietnam soldier and a husband and wife will walk by when I'm doing something and the wife will say, "Oh, there is a soldier, do you want to talk to him?" And he'll say, "I want nothing to do with that Vietnam War" and walk on. And I totally understand why he feels that way. I wish that all soldiers could overcome those physical and mental barriers in their lives, but I realize that's just not possible in most cases, and we just learn to live with the handicaps we have.
Underwriting for this program is proudly provided by:
KUED and the Utah Department of Veteran Affairs invite you and your family to honor Utah's Vietnam War Veterans.
Armed Forces Day
Saturday May 18, 2013
Utah State Capitol
2:00 to 4:00 p.m.