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World War II and the Vietnam War are perhaps the events that best define America in the twentieth century. During World War II the United States strode onto the world stage, marking the dawn of a period of world dominance not seen since the Roman Empire. One can argue, though, that it was in Vietnam that the United States came of age. The newest world power failed in a war against a tiny, third-world nation. Certainly that third-world nation had superpower backers; certainly the Americans fought with strict, self-imposed limits due in part to roiling problems on the home front. The explanations for failure, some valid and some not, are legion, but the truth remains: the United States committed itself to defending the freedom of South Vietnam, a nation that is no more. America failed in its stated military mission; the colossus had stumbled.
Vietnam and its era very nearly pulled the United States to pieces. Protests ripped at the fabric of American society, pitting generation against generation, class against class, race against race. Assassins’ bullets rang out; presidents fell from power; cities burned in great blazes of societal anguish. The United States that emerged at the end was still dominant, but it had changed. Perhaps it was all part of a great national maturation process. Perhaps it signaled the beginning of the end of America’s international authority and greatness. Regardless of its perceived long-term impact on America’s future, the Vietnam War is without doubt a part of what it means to be an American today.
As is to be expected of such an important period in American history, a plethora of books detail the Vietnam War. Generals, politicians, historians, journalists, novelists, and filmmakers have all turned their attentions to defining the conflict. Arguments, sometimes intriguing and sometimes dangerously ill-informed, abound on the thorny questions in the intellectual briar patch of the history of the Vietnam War. Did the United States enter the war for valid reasons? Could America have won the war, or was it an unwinnable exercise from the beginning? Who was to blame for the eventual American failure – the military? The media? Protestors? The South Vietnamese? How did the war affect the United States, and why does it remain a source of political angst after so many years? The historical fight for the soul of the Vietnam War remains in doubt.
Sometimes lost in the high-stakes academic struggles for ownership of the Vietnam War are the simple and eternal stories of the soldiers and Marines who fought it. All too often in academic, journalistic, or film attempts to seize the high ground of the Vietnam narrative, the fighting men – the frightened, dirty, bloody actors in battle – are either ignored or are treated as stock characters to make a larger point. The battlefield, the sharp end of war, is where doctrine becomes reality, where orders become action, where the narrative intersects with life and death. Battle is the true story of war, and those who fight battles are the scribes of conflict. Those who have never served can understand much about war – its leaders, its driving forces, its outcomes – but anybody who has not been there will never understand combat; its true nature will always hover just beyond our collective grasp.
It is not the purpose of this study to evaluate the causes, tactics, or societal impact of the Vietnam War. Instead of contributing to the enduring historical debates that surround the conflict, this study will center on the lives of the American combat soldiers during the Vietnam War. Each soldier was a young man with his own story, torn away from the most formative time of his life to spend a year in a violent and surreal world. Truly, to understand the Vietnam War we must understand the soldiers’ lives. What was it like to receive a draft notice a week after you were married? What was it like to burn leeches off of your skin after slogging through the rice paddies? What was it like to feel your body lurch as bullets struck home? What was it like learning that you would never walk again? These are the deepest questions of war.
Although their hair is graying, the members of the Vietnam generation are still here. Their presence is a historian’s dream come true. They are the living history of the war. All you have to do is talk to them. Oral history, interviews with the men themselves and their families – men who often have been waiting for decades for someone to ask them about their war – is perhaps the most efficient tool for understanding the beating heart of warfare. Like any other historical implement, oral history must be used with great care. Memories dim over time and details fade. But when leavened with corroboration from other sources, including unit histories and after-action reports, oral histories can serve as an important window on the past. For many, the memories of the most important events of the Vietnam War are seared onto their minds. The moment when they first met their bellowing drill instructor. The moment they first killed someone. The moment when they opened the door to learn that their husband was dead. These indelible memories allow us to experience, at least in part, the reality of war.
Soldiers, sailors, airmen, coast guardsmen, and Marines served in and around Vietnam in a variety of essential functions, ranging from driving trucks to piloting fighter aircraft. While those positions were all vital to the United States’ war effort, this study will focus on the experience of members of the US Army and Marines who served in ground combat. Even with this limitation, no collection of oral histories can pretend truly to be representative of the overall experience of the over one million Americans who served in combat slots in Vietnam in a war that lasted for eight years. Since a sample of statistically meaningful size would fill an archive, not a book, this collection will instead use a dual focus in an attempt to bring the soldiers’ experience of the Vietnam War to life in a meaningful way.
Wars are prosecuted in units, ranging in size from fire teams to armies. Especially at the sharp end of war, men function and live or die in groups. The military is well aware that it is not patriotism or love of the flag that makes men risk their lives in battle; it is small unit loyalty. It is devotion to one’s comrades. Men who endure the rigors of training and the crucible of war together form the closest of bonds. Soldiers struggle past their own fear and charge a bunker line not because of tactics or orders, but because the very best friend they will ever have might die if they don’t. Combat is a story of brotherly bonds, whether bonds of boozy fellowship at base camp between missions or bonds born of battle. It is often difficult, however, for oral histories, as singular stories, to reflect the intricate bonds formed by a group of men in wartime. To best understand how it felt to lose a friend in battle, you have to understand the depth of the shared friendship, its genesis and its nurturing as well as its violent end.
To illustrate the powerful group dynamic of war, one group of oral histories in this study is taken from men who all served in the same unit – Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 47th Infantry. Charlie Company was the focus of my last book, The Boys of ’67:Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam, which had as its research foundation a series of over 60 interviews with survivors of Charlie Company and their families. During the interview and writing process for The Boys of ’67, I became about as familiar with a military unit as an outsider can be. Because of that familiarity I knew how the unit functioned, how it hung together, and how its stories intertwined. In this study a few of those stories are revisited – stories that are interlocked pieces of the puzzle of how a unit of brothers comes to be and how that unit functions in war.
But Vietnam was more than 1967, the year of Charlie Company’s service. Vietnam was more than the Mekong Delta, the place of Charlie Company’s service. Vietnam was geographically and chronologically complex. If the collective testimony of Charlie Company serves to illustrate the depth of the group nature of the conflict, a second series of oral histories must stand for the war’s breadth. The Oral History Project of the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University has done a wonderful historic service by first gathering and then transcribing and digitizing hundreds of oral histories with Vietnam veterans. The collection represents the raw materials of history, a vast mother lode awaiting prospectors. The second group of interviews in this study is taken from the collection of the Oral History Project, and investigates different places, different experiences, different forms of combat, and different relationships in an attempt to hint at the vastness of the experience that was the Vietnam War for Americans in combat.
When conceptualizing this project I first envisioned arranging it chronologically. But it struck me that the chapters would get endlessly repetitive – here is combat in 1965; here is combat in 1966; here is combat in 1967. Jettisoning that idea I moved toward organizing the project around the “big events” of the war – the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, Tet 1968, Hamburger Hill. But that organizational scheme seemed so tired and worn – focusing on well-known stories and mega-events. Neither format lent itself to what I wanted to accomplish – to tell the soldiers’ story of Vietnam, of the war in its infinite small-unit complexity. After internal debates and external discussions, I decided to arrange the book in the manner that the soldiers themselves experienced their war. Readers will be able to follow the soldiers and their families through the conflict, from before they were drafted, through training, through their first experiences of war, through combat, through hospitals, through funerals, to today. Although the stories contained in the study vary chronologically, they are eternal stories of civilians becoming soldiers, warriors, and veterans. In this manner readers will be afforded the clearest understanding not of individual events but rather of what it meant to be a soldier in Vietnam.
Each chapter is preceded by a short introduction intended to provide necessary context for the oral histories themselves. How many people were drafted and how? What was “Search and Destroy?” Where were soldiers trained? When were the major periods of combat in Vietnam? How did the soldiers come home? Providing insights on such basic questions is necessary to frame the stories, to tack them onto the bulletin board of history. While the introductions will often by necessity address points of contention – the draft, US tactics, the poor reception of returning soldiers – they will not descend into taking sides in the roiling historical debates on these issues. The introductions will serve only as the picture frames; the pictures themselves are the point of focus.
Oral history, in its raw form, does not always make for riveting reading. Interviews are often somewhat conversational in nature, full of asides, bantering between interviewer and interviewee, long pauses, ummms and hummms, yawns, sneezes, and potty breaks. What is contained in this collection are transcripts of interviews that are edited enough to make them readable. Most questions from the interviewers are redacted, but some are incorporated into the transcript when needed to help the answer make sense. Some colloquialisms, when not central to the story, are cleaned up. The oral histories will not include ellipses to indicate omissions – or the entire manuscript would be littered with endless dots. In the end, I had to strike a balance between readability and transcript accuracy. The editing attempted to adhere as closely as possible to the original transcript, with its original meaning left intact at all costs. Readers can access the original, raw transcripts themselves to see more of the stories. Those transcripts taken from the Oral History Collection of the Vietnam Center and Archive are digitized and available online at www.vietnam.ttu.edu/oralhistory/. The oral histories taken from Charlie Company are housed at the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage at the University of Southern Mississippi. Transcribing and digitizing the interviews is presently underway. Researchers can access the interviews as they become available at www.usm.edu/oral-history. While listed as a single author book, this study has been a collaborative effort. Robert Thompson, a Ph.D. student who is working on pacification efforts in the Vietnam War at the University of Southern Mississippi, has played a major research and authorship role in the project since its inception. Rob helped to identify the interviews used in the study taken from the Texas Tech collection, he handled many of the transcriptions, and he authored chapters 3, 7, and 9. Without Rob’s capable across-the-board help and his willingness to write three of the chapters, this project might never have seen the light of day.
Chapter One: Who We Were
It was the 1960s, an era in American history that was already destined to be tumultuous. It was the time when the massive baby boom generation came of age – a generation collectively determined to do things differently than had their World War II-era parents. It was the era of Civil Rights – with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the legislative peak of the movement had passed. But militancy, assassinations, and cities on fire in the long, hot summers were still in the offing. It was the time of the counterculture, of rock-n-roll and Woodstock and Altamont, of the Stonewall Riots, and the beginnings of the Gay Rights Movement. The discord in America was palpable, almost a living thing. The final, and perhaps the most corrosive, element of this toxic mix was the Vietnam War – a war that would have been difficult at the best of times. A war made almost unwinnable by the buffeting storms and crashing seas of its historical era.
What it was to be an American during the Vietnam War era is maddeningly complex. On one hand the country seemed somehow quaint. It was a much more rural nation then – a nation that for many seemed to be epitomized by one of its most popular television shows, The Andy Griffith Show. The America of Barney Fife and Mayberry. But it was also the America of bad acid trips and Charles Manson. It was the era of Doris Day singing “Que Sera Sera” on her variety show, but it was also the era of Dennis Hopper and the rebelliousness of Easy Rider. It was in this schizophrenic era, from 1964 to 1973, that over 50 million young Americans turned 18. This largest-ever US generation, while pulled in so many directions by myriad cultural and societal forces, was quintessentially American. They were city toughs in leather jackets; they were tanned and rugged farm boys; they were California surfers; they were factory laborers. In numbers greater than ever before they looked forward to a college education. They looked forward to marriage and raising families of their own. On one hand theirs is the story of an America between acts,
of an America caught in a costume change. On the other hand, their story is eternally American, a story as true to the unchanging American soul as apple pie.
As the war in Vietnam gained momentum, it was up to the nearly 4,000 local draft boards to provide the military with much of the manpower necessary to transform first President Lyndon Johnson and then President Richard Nixon’s strategic notions into violent battlefield reality. While common perception sees the rice paddies and highlands of Vietnam as populated by luckless draftees, the reality is somewhat more complex. There were roughly 1,800,000 draftees in the Vietnam era, making up 33 percent of the force committed to Vietnam. The remainder of the military was comprised of nearly equal numbers of volunteers and “forced volunteers,” men who enlisted under the threat of the draft, usually in hopes of getting a better military assignment.
The draft – the perceived sword of Damocles hanging over the baby boom generation – became the natural focus of controversy and national division. To many male boomers it seemed that a nameless and faceless bureaucracy was hell-bent on sending them to Vietnam. As the war lingered, the fear and paranoia grew, resulting in a well-coordinated anti-draft movement that roiled across college campuses nationwide. In reality, though, the draft was shot through with loopholes, leaving over 57 percent of the male boomers deferred or disqualified from military service. Enrollment in college, physical infirmity (which often only required a note from a friendly doctor), joining the National Guard (which boomers knew was not going to get called up for service in Vietnam), and marriage status were all well-known, and quite legal, ways to avoid being drafted. Despite the perceived voraciousness of its appetite, for the vast majority of males the Vietnam-era draft was a toothless tiger. Service in Vietnam, for draftees and volunteers alike, was very much the exception for the baby boom generation. Whereas nearly every male of military age had served in some meaningful capacity during World War II, and 70 percent of draft-age males served in the military during the Korean War, only 40 percent of draft-age males had served in the military during the Vietnam era, with only 10 percent of draft-age males seeing direct service in the Vietnam War itself. It fell to this 10 percent of the male baby boom generation to do the fighting and dying in a country half-way around the world.
The US military personnel who went to Vietnam hailed from across the nation – from the streets of Harlem to the plains of the Midwest, and from the cotton fields of the South to the urban sprawl of California. Although geographically diverse, the Vietnam era military shared some defining traits. The military was slightly more African-American and Hispanic than the population as a whole, with blacks suffering 12.5 percent of the casualties in Vietnam, being only 11 percent of the overall American population. The military in Vietnam was overwhelmingly made up of the sons of working class America – sons of factory workers, farm laborers, and sharecroppers – with over 80 percent of the soldiers having no more than a high school education. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Vietnam era soldier was young, with the most common age being 19, as opposed to the average soldier of World War II, who had been 26.
The dominant story of Vietnam, then, is of young Americans just out of high school – hard-working young men with World War II veteran fathers and uncles. These were young men who were planning for their futures, planning marriages, planning careers – planning lives. This is the story of a minority within America’s largest-ever generation. A minority that did not want war, a minority that desperately wanted to live – but a minority destined for war. For many, the journey from civilian life to Vietnam began with the receipt of a simple letter:
Selective Service System
ORDER TO REPORT FOR INDUCTION
The President of the United States, Local Board No. 67
To Timothy D. Fischer Lake County
Rm. 115, WACO Bldg
125 East Earle Street
Painesville, Ohio 44077
You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, and to report at Painesville Post Office Lobby on May 18, 1966 at 6:45 AM DST for forwarding to an Armed Forces Induction Station.
M. J. Nolan
(Member or Clerk of Local Board)
Barbara Hill was born in South Dakota, but her family soon moved to California. In Canoga Park High School she met Fred Kenney, whom she married soon after graduation. Fred was drafted in the spring of 1966 just before Barbara learned that she was pregnant. Fred served in the 3rd Platoon of Charlie Company, 4th of the 47th Infantry, where he was universally known as “Cool Wig” because of his wavy hair. Fred Kenney was killed in action on July 11, 1967. Barbara remarried to Don Hill and had four more children before their divorce. Barbara worked for a First American Title Company for 22 years before retirement. She and her son Freddie do their best to honor Fred’s memory.
I was born in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge reservation. When I was one we moved to Santa Monica and later up to the Valley. Freddie [Fred Kenney] lived with his family in a ranch house on 5 acres back then. His father died when he was only 34. They had eight children and lived in Chatsworth. During high school I got to know Freddie’s sister, Ruthie. We just hit it off, and we started hanging out. Freddie had gone to Europe, and I was at their house when he came home. And we just like met, and that was it. It really was one of those things. Freddie and I just hit it off, so we just started hanging out from that moment. He was very good looking. He was the nicest guy. We were so young, but he was just so nice to me. He was just crazy about me. And that made me feel the same way about him. He was just so nice. I knew of him in high school, but I didn’t really hang out with him. One of my friends, Bonnie Hood, she was kind of dating him. But she’d gone back to North Dakota, in the summer while he was gone. And she had a boyfriend back there. So it kind of just worked out [when] Freddie came home, and that was just it. I still remember that night, and we were inseparable after that. He came home, and he walked in. All the kids were around. It was always Ruthie, his sister, and his twin, Suzy, and a couple of his friends that he went motorcycle riding with. They were all really good friends. We all just hung out. We were young. We would drink some beer and just have fun.
Freddie was in the Checkers motorcycle club. And that’s what we used to do on the weekends. They’d have a ride out in the desert, and we’d just pile in the cars and go out there the night before, party it up. And then he would ride. He was really good at it. He was very athletic. And he was just really strong. And riding those bikes out in the desert was really hard. And when I met him that’s what he was doing. And we hung out at the house a lot. My mom loved him. She didn’t care if I was there. I was 18. And I was working and hanging out up there. That’s what I did. Freddie was not quite a year older than me.
We got married December 10 of ’65. I never even knew his name was Elmer. When we got married, when they said, “Do I take Elmer?” I couldn’t believe that they were saying that ’cause we didn’t call him that. The only Elmer I knew back then was Elmer Fudd or something. Then Freddie worked as a carpenter for a few years, with the union. And he made pretty good money too. We got this little brand-new, one-bedroom little house kind of on stilts looking over Chatsworth Lake. And it was really nice. My sister gave us a dog, and he ruined the carpet. The guy came to fix something, and he saw that. There were no animals allowed. So we got kicked outta there. And we went to another apartment in Chatsworth. And that’s when he got drafted. It wasn’t a very long time. It just all happened so fast. We were all scared, and we didn’t want it to happen. I know there were a lot of people that thought of ways to get out of it. But I don’t recall anything like that. It just seemed like horrible timing. And we’d got this new apartment, and we were kind of like starting fresh. It was like everything was going to be perfect, and then he got the draft notice.
I lived with my mom after Freddie left for training. It was April when they got drafted. A month later, I found out I was pregnant. So, I just stayed with my mom, and I still hung out with Ruthie and everybody. Then my mom decided they were moving to Cottonwood, California, up north. So I was kind of stuck in limbo. That’s when I was sleeping on Mary Lou’s [Fred’s sister’s] couch, waiting for this baby to come. Freddie was very excited, and then when he came home on leave in December, we were all at the Kenney house. They all were having their same parties and stuff. I don’t even remember how long he was home. It was a couple of weeks, and then he had to go. It was very sad. Somebody took our picture. I have it. It was December, and the baby was due in January. It was very sad. And then when he was on the boat to Vietnam, in January, our son was born. His name is Frederick, Freddie. We didn’t do the Elmer thing: Frederick Anthony Kenney.
James Nall was from Fairfield, Alabama, where he wanted to grow up and be the next Willie Mays. After graduating from high school, Nall moved to Los Angeles to live with his sister and went to work for the US Post Office before being drafted in the spring of 1966. He served in the 1st Platoon of Charlie Company, 4th of the 47th Infantry, with Steve Huntsman, Carl Cortright, Ernie Hartman, and John Young. During his service in Vietnam, Nall was transferred to the 5th Battalion of the 60th Infantry and was later wounded in action. After returning from Vietnam, Nall went back to the Post Office in Los Angeles, where he worked for another 34 years.
I’m from Fairfield, Alabama, in Jefferson Country about 7 miles out of Birmingham, Alabama. I’m from a family of 12 – number seven. My dad’s name was Sidney, and my mother was Mabel. My mother used to tell me that she worked cleaning up for people, maybe would get 60 cents a day to clean up. My daddy worked in a steel mill for 30 years. We lived in a three-room house, which had a front room, a middle room, and a kitchen. It had a little old bathroom on the end. We had a houseful; used every room. A lot of the boys slept in the kitchen. We had a roll-away bed. We had a little garden in the backyard; raised a little corn and beans. Fairfield was 13,000; half and half. Black people, basically they lived on the hill, and the white people lived below. We had two movie theaters in Fairfield, one for the whites and one for the blacks. 51st Street separated the whites from the blacks. Over behind some woods was a part of Fairfield, but we didn’t know that it existed. It was where most of the well-to-do whites lived. We didn’t know what was behind them trees.
We had separate schools. On 54th Street was a white school in kind of a zone. Black people lived around it and could look into the white elementary school, but couldn’t go to it. In Fairfield we didn’t have any [race] problems. I guess you could say you had your space, and you had your place. You knew what to do. We could go to downtown Fairfield to shop, but there wasn’t no blacks working in downtown Fairfield. Didn’t own no businesses. When I was a kid I went to school, but I picked up bottles: cokes and RC bottles. We would get a penny a bottle. In Fairfield we had corner stores owned by Italians. They lived on the hill next to their stores with the blacks. Their kids went to the white schools. There were about ten Italian stores up on the hill. If people didn’t have no money, they would write up in a little book, and they would pay them later.
My daddy used to drink a lot of moonshine. He didn’t do his money like he should have. With 12 kids, he really probably had to take a drink. But he loved his moonshine. People had little houses and sold moonshine. Even the police department knew about these liquor houses. They used to go in ’em. Some people were on the take. They had some good cops, and some low-down, dirty cops too.
Daddy was the type of guy – mama would go down to meet him at the plant to get the money. ’Cause if daddy had any money in his pocket, he would go in them liquor houses. You know that moonshine? You get hot. You can go to sleep in there when you drink that moonshine. They’d clip you. Some lady called my mama one time and said that she had daddy’s money, but she knew that he needed it with all them kids. Some people never worked. They just had them liquor houses and made money on the men coming out of the plant.
When I was a kid, on the weekend we worked. Old Mr Brown, who lived a couple of houses down, had a mule named Frank and a wagon. He used to drive that wagon through town, and the kids in the neighborhood would get on the back. And he had a field down there, and we would go and we were picking cotton, potatoes – you know, to make a little extra money. He would pay us two cents a pound for cotton. Some of them people could pick cotton. But every time they brought that croaker sack full of cotton, he would mash it down like there ain’t nothin’ in there. The most I ever made? I don’t think I made a good three dollars picking cotton.
I graduated high school in 1962 and went to Wynona Trade School in the Birmingham area. I took cement finishing and plastering for two years. I got a certificate, and we did a lot of work in Birmingham, back when they used to plaster the inside of houses. That’s hard work. I made a little bit of money, but I wound up having to get a regular job working in a cafeteria. The black people who worked there couldn’t eat on the floor; we had to go back upstairs. But the white kids could eat on the floor. Like when they took a lunch break they could sit out there [with the customers]. But we couldn’t sit out there and eat. We had to go back up by the locker room. It was separate. I lived at home until I was 21. Mom and I went downtown a lot. And I remember all those signs. We used to have to go back to the back of the bus.
There would always be a lot of seats up front, but you couldn’t sit past that sign. You couldn’t move the white sign up, but white people could get on and move that sign all the way back. You might only have six rows of seats in the bus, and the rest of them is white. You can’t go and sit there, even if it is empty. You can’t go past a white person and sit in front of them. It was the law. When we would go to stores there would be white water fountains. You had the colored water and the white water. I never tasted any of that white water. For all them years, I obeyed. I didn’t never know how white water tasted.
After I finished trade school in 1964 and I worked for the cafeteria for a year, then my sister, who was in California, said, “Why don’t you leave?” So I went out to California in 1965, and I got drafted in 1966. I was in California about a month before the Watts Riots. I finally got a job in the post office in February 1966. And in May of 1966 I got drafted for the Vietnam War. But I never really gave it [being drafted] much thought. I never looked at it from that point of view; I never did think that it was a race thing. I just looked at it like, “Okay, I’ve been drafted for two years.”