Combat Chaplain: A Thirty-Year Vietnam Battle

Combat Chaplain: A Thirty-Year Vietnam Battle

by James D. Johnson

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In 1967 Chaplain James D. Johnson chose to accompany his men, unarmed, on their daily combat operations, a decision made against the recommendations of his superiors. During what would be the final days for some, he offered his ministry not from a pulpit but on the battlefields—in hot landing zones and rice paddies, in hospitals, aboard ship, and knee-deep in mud. He even found time for baptisms in the muddy Mekong River. In Combat Chaplain, we live with Johnson as he serves in the field with a small unit numbering 350 men in the Mobile Riverine Force. "This is a very powerful true story, unique in its personal close-up of infantry and Riverine warfare, and the terrible human price paid by one battalion during eight months of the controversial Vietnam War. He shows that even men of God can come to despise the enemy for the evil that they do, while acknowledging that they, too, are God's creations. Chaplain Johnson's book should be required reading by national leaders before they consider whether to commit our troops to combat."—James P. Maloney, Major General, USA, Retired

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781574416268
Publisher: University of North Texas Press
Publication date: 08/15/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

James D. Johnson received his Ph.D. from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He received several Bronze Stars for valor, the Air Medal, and several Army Commendation and Meritorious Service Medals. The author of Combat Trauma: A Personal Look at Long-Term Consequences, he lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

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Combat Chaplain: A Thirty-Year Vietnam Battle

By James D. Johnson

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2001 James D. Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57441-626-8


June 28–August 18, 1967

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 28, 1967: What have I gotten myself into? Suddenly, I feel terribly, devastatingly alone. A part of me wants to turn around and return home. That's impossible. I'm over the Pacific with 175 other GIs heading to Vietnam. My mind is a blur as my thoughts hopscotch to so many events of the past few days.

I can still see my ten-month-old son, Grey, waving goodbye to me Sunday morning. I know he couldn't understand what was happening as I left to go to the airport. I was about to burst, not knowing if I'd ever see him again.

"Don't cry anymore, mommy," two and one-half year old Kellie had said to my wife, Barbara, in the Charlotte, North Carolina terminal. I can still see my daughter wiping her mother's tears as final goodbyes were spoken. The last thing I saw as I looked out the plane window was Barbara, Kellie and my parents all waving.

The whine of the engines seem to be telling me I must be crazy to leave my wonderful family and go to war. I feel sick to my stomach. After all, I did volunteer for this tour.

Five months ago at Fort Knox, Kentucky, I began to realize that I was getting closer and closer to receiving orders to go overseas. For a young chaplain on active duty, orders for reassignment after twelve months meant going to either Korea or Vietnam. I decided that if I was going to spend a year away from my family, I wanted to go to Vietnam.

A senior chaplain named Ed volunteered to make a call to Washington on my behalf. He said he could get me assigned to Vietnam. I remember stepping nervously into his office.

"Are you sure you want to go to Vietnam, Jim?" Ed grins, realizing he's about to show off some of his clout.

"Yes. I'm sure." But I don't sound too convincing, even to myself.

"Okay, here goes," he says, as he dials the number to the personnel department of the Chief of Chaplains Office in Washington, D.C.

"Nellie this is Ed at Ft. Knox. How is my favorite sweetie in Washington?" He winks at me, then goes on. "I have a sharp young chaplain here who wants to volunteer for Vietnam. Can you arrange it?" He paused and I realized hearing Ed say volunteer suddenly didn't sound so good.

During the following few weeks, I prepared baggage and attended special training. I learned how to shoot and dismantle an M-16 rifle and .45 caliber pistol, even though chaplains are prohibited by the Geneva Convention from carrying weapons of war. Nevertheless, I didn't want to find myself in a situation of needing to defend myself and not knowing how. This training was all "unofficial" and I was careful that none of it would be reflected on my records.

Now, as the pilot announces that we'll stop on Wake Island to refuel, I see Wake is nothing more than a pinhead in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We disembark while the refueling takes place. It's here that I do my first Vietnam counseling. A young soldier, noticing the cross on my collar, approaches me, and asks if we can talk.

Outside, we find some privacy. It's late afternoon, only an hour before dark, and the sun's rays are glistening off the pacific waters.

"What's on your mind?" I say.

"Sir, I shouldn't be going to Vietnam. My mother's been sick." He proceeds to give me a litany of family problems, as if the longer the list, the greater the reason he shouldn't go.

"Have you put in for a compassionate reassignment or a hardship discharge?" This private doesn't seem to have a reason for either, but I don't tell him that. Now is not the time or place.

"They told me at Ft. Jackson that I'll have to do that in Vietnam."

"That's probably right." Right or not, he's now on the way and it can't be done here. "See your first sergeant when you get to your unit and also maybe your unit chaplain. Maybe they can help."

He is desperate and asks if I can't arrange for him to catch another plane back to the states. I guess he must think I am God, or at least a general.

"I'm sorry, there's no way you can stay here." He looks really disappointed, and I have the fleeting thought that if he were stateside, he might be a candidate for AWOL. But unless he's quite a swimmer, he won't get far. I think this poor nineteen year old kid is on his way to his first nervous breakdown.

FRIDAY, JUNE 30, 1967: It's 2:00 A.M. We've gained a day because of passing over the International Dateline. We're on our descent to land in Vietnam. I wonder what Barbara and the kids are doing now. The thought that it will be a year before I make the reverse trip again is sobering.

Only 365 more days to go! Already, that magic number is in my mind as it is with a prisoner. There's a sentence to be completed; a miserable thought, even though I have volunteered for the "sentence".

Everyone on the plane is quiet. The landing lights of the aircraft are on and, as I look out the window, I fully expect to see tracers from the Viet Cong (VC) weapons coming at us. There are none. My last phone call to Barbara just twenty-four hours ago at Travis Air Base now seems an eternity ago.

"Sug, how are you?" I had said when she answered the phone.

"Okay. Where are you?"

"Still at Travis, but we leave in a few minutes." She began to cry softly. "Are you okay?" I know that she isn't.

"I'm fine. I thought you'd already be gone. I miss you."

"I miss you too." Tears began to fill my eyes. "We'll just have to plan for R&R in Hawaii."


"How are the kids?" I ask.

"Fine, I guess. They don't know what to make of you not being here. Kellie cried for you last night."

I swallowed the pain I felt. "Well, just love them for me and know that I love you with all my heart. I'd better go. I'll write and make a tape soon."

"I love you, too."

I tried to think of something light or funny to say, but I was hurting too badly and my brain was a blank.

We touch down and taxi to a stop. A rather large Air Force sergeant comes aboard and tells us nonchalantly, and somewhat arrogantly, where to go when we leave the plane. Some of us want to tell him where to go. I make my way from the plane to a shelter a few hundred yards away. The only lights are four dingy bulbs and the glow of flares in the distance. I see several air police nearby who have clips of live ammunition.

After a half-hour, I finally find my baggage. Already, I am eager to leave Bien Hoa as the heat is beginning to have its effect on me even at 3:00 A.M.

Upon arrival at the 90th Replacement Battalion in Long Binh, we have paperwork and briefings. We draw linens for bunks, and perform several other small details. The first briefing is by a non-commissioned officer (NCO) who sounds like he has a mouth full of marbles. I finally catch a few winks of sleep about mid-morning. It's been a long time since I've been able to lie down and sleep. Being six feet six makes it impossible to sleep in the small seats of the airplane. Now, the heat of mid-morning makes it miserable to even lie still.

It had been my hope that I would be assigned to an infantry battalion during my tour. I get my assignment, the 9th Infantry Division. Great! Being away from home for a year anyway, I might as well live in the field with those who are doing the fighting. Besides, it'll be good for my career should I decide to stay in the army.

I write a letter to Barbara, because as tired as I am, sleep will not come. I wonder how she and the kids are. Artillery is being fired in the distance and mosquitoes bother me in spite of sleeping under a net. I wonder what incoming mortars sound like. I pray for my family, and for the scared kid I talked to on Wake Island. Only 362 days to go.

1:15 P.M.
Friday, June 30, 1967
Hello my three sweeties,
Well, I'm in Vietnam. I miss you three more than anything in the world.

SATURDAY, JULY 1, 1967: Shortly after lunch, my name is called on the compound loud speaker. Soon I'm on the way over the rough roads headed to Bear Cat, the division headquarters located about eight miles from Long Binh. The world is now left further behind.

On the ride to Bear Cat, I see my first rice paddies, water buffalo, Vietnamese hooches, and smell for the first time the unique odor of a Vietnamese village. Highway 15 leads to Vung Tau on the coast. Bear Cat lies just off this highway and is about thirty miles from Saigon. As we ride, Chaplain Charlie Meek, the division chaplain, briefs me on the current enemy situation around Bear Cat. The VC have been quiet for some time in this area. He does point out a hole in the road made by a mine that the VC had blown several days earlier. The roads are a mess, rough and dusty.

Arriving at Bear Cat, I'm surprised at its large size. Chaplain Meek has a good bed, stereo, refrigerator, and a homemade shower. I had assumed everyone in an infantry division would sleep either in tents or on the ground. Charlie is a kind, father type figure, which I badly need now.

"Jim, I'll be sending you down to Dong Tam in a few days." He tells me. "You'll join an infantry battalion; the 3/60th. They'll be going aboard ships for riverine operations at the end of the month."

I'm puzzled. I've never heard of riverine operations before. "Is it like the Marines?" Charlie is a former Marine, but I have forgotten that.

"No, nothing is as good as the Marines." He offers a slight grin.

I'm not sure what he means, but I'm certain I don't want to get into a Marines vs. Army thing.

"Riverine operations will be different from anything we're doing over here," Charlie says.

I don't even know enough to ask intelligent questions.

"I'll take you to Dong Tam tomorrow and you can see a little of what the Delta looks like."

SUNDAY, JULY 2, 1967: "Goooooooood morning, Vietnam" This trademark morning greeting from the Armed Forces Radio Station awakens me. Today Chaplain Meek has several services in different locations and tells me to just tail him wherever he goes so I can see how he operates.

We board a helicopter and head south into the Mekong Delta. From the air, I'm amazed at the number of rivers, canals and waterways. I learn that 2,400 kilometers of navigable natural waterways and 4,400 kilometers of man made canals make up the Delta. The waterways are sources of life for the Vietnamese. It's their source of food, means of transportation, washing machine, bath tub, and commode. The numerous rivers, canals, streams and ditches are heavily influenced by the tides and seasonal monsoon rains.

Our first stop is at Dong Tam, a base camp the size of four football fields. General Westmoreland, the U.S. Army, Vietnam commander, personally chose the name of Dong Tam. It means "united hearts and minds." He believed that the name would signify the bond between the American and Vietnamese people in the combined objective in the Delta. Also, he thought it would be an easy name to pronounce and remember.

We fly to a maintenance unit at Ben Luc. The place is a sea of mud as we are in the midst of the monsoons. They last six months, and you feel as if you are caught under a shower. You can't get away from the rain. The saying is, "It only rained two times last week, once for three days and the second time for four days."

Back at Dong Tam, I meet another "Jim", whose place I'm taking in the 3/60th. He is to be moved to the 3rd Surgical Hospital, also located here at Dong Tam. This is the first that he has heard of this reassignment and he seems surprised.

Returning to Bear Cat, we fly over what the French used to call the "Paris of the Orient," Saigon. It is a sight to behold for this country boy. The houses and buildings are close together and the streets are a mass of humanity. We fly low which allows me the opportunity to see the city from almost tree top level.

MONDAY, JULY 3, 1967: After breakfast I take my first malaria pill. Monday is the day we all must take this, to forget is to risk malaria. There is also a personal dilemma involved here; many tell me the pills cause diarrhea. But Malaria can kill, diarrhea can't!

Today I go to Saigon and meet with the USARV Chaplain, the senior chaplain in all of Vietnam. Just north of Saigon, I'm impressed by a roadside memorial, a huge statue of a tired looking Vietnamese soldier sitting down, staring out into space. He's dressed in full battle gear. I realize this must be the way many Vietnamese GI's think. They've been fighting for many years; their tour isn't over at twelve months.

In Saigon I'm utterly amazed. Lambrettas, small three wheeled vehicles resembling a motorbike with a cab, are everywhere, along with bicycles, scooters, taxis. Some of the vehicles look like mopeds with side cars. The streets have no markings and everyone just noses through the intersections. There are few stop lights and most don't work.

The USARV Chaplain had been my post chaplain at Fort Knox, Kentucky for a short period of time, so I know him fairly well. He asks how things are and welcomes me to Vietnam. He remains seated at his desk, shakes my hand, and gives me a short briefing on what to expect and what to do in different situations. I listen attentively in spite of his arrogance and patronizing attitude. He keeps talking about our obligation to the American public, but I really don't know what he's talking about. Vietnam probably seems like a 100,000-piece jigsaw puzzle to most Americans. If a parent has a son here, that's the only piece of the puzzle that matters.

When the briefing is finished, I salute and leave. Here at the HQ, brass are everywhere. I feel out of place and I'm glad to get out of brass hat boulevard.

As we drive back through Saigon after getting my baggage, my driver gets lost. I have been lost from the time we left Bear Cat this morning. We finally find our way out and head home. I've been here two days and I'm now calling it "home."

My driver drops me off at the finance office for processing. Here, I'm given "military pay certificates" (MPC) for my green backs. MPC is supposed to be used only internally by the military. Vietnamese accept it, but if and when MPC is changed, the MPC held by the Vietnamese will be about as valuable as Mardi Gras beads. I don't imagine I'll see greenbacks again until I go on R&R in January.

The first major battle of my war begins for me today and it's not a battle fought with guns, artillery, air strikes and gun ships. This battle is with loneliness, homesickness, frustration, fear, and despair.

The first "ambush" occurs on my return from Saigon back to Bear Cat. I'm soaked from a monsoon downpour while riding in the open Jeep. It's been one week since I left my family but it seems like a year. I'm beginning to feel like I'm in a bottomless pit.

TUESDAY, JULY 4, 1967: The fourth of July! A year ago I spent this holiday quietly with my family. This morning I draw my equipment. I now have some jungle fatigues and jungle boots. Even though they aren't faded like some of the "veterans" at least I don't have the tale-tell sign of stateside fatigues that shout to everyone how new I am. I mope around most of the day, feeling sorry for myself. I smile outwardly but inside I'm dying.

Late in the afternoon, I call home via a Military Affiliated Radio System (MARS) station, which enables me to call the United States through ham operators. The connection is so bad that Barbara's voice is garbled, but at least I hear her and know that she is okay.

In the evening, the division band has a concert. I'm still feeling down, however, I do find their last piece quite amusing. It is the 1812 Overture and ends with 105 millimeter howitzers firing live rounds out at the enemy.

Back at the hooch, I take out the pictures of my family. This depression is about to kill me. My prayers seem so empty. My personal enemy continues his frontal assault as I sleep; I dream of missing my family.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 5, 1967: I awake and my "battle" continues to rage. The only good news is that Chaplain Meek tells me that I'll be reporting to my new unit tomorrow instead of waiting until next Sunday.

Walls of self pity wash over me. I get a second plague shot. With my luck, the antidote will give me the disease.

THURSDAY, JULY 6, 1967: I'm able to laugh in the early morning light as I go out to catch the aircraft that will take me to Dong Tam. The sign over the shelter at the little dirt airstrip reads, "Bearcat International. Elevation 32 ft. Please don't pee on the Runway." I chuckle and this humor is good for me.

The sun is just beginning to cast its rays over the eastern horizon. With the fog lifting from the water-soaked rice paddies and with wisps of smoke rising from the Vietnamese hooches below us, you'd never guess from high above in our helicopter that a war was going on. Can God actually be in this forgotten place? The gunners on the helicopter suddenly open their doors, and cool morning air rushes in. As we descend for our approach to Dong Tam, I'm still amazed at the waterways.

Paul, my chaplain's assistant, is waiting for me at the Dong Tam air strip. It takes only four or five minutes to get to my new home which is on the other side of our base camp.

The hooch has tropical wood siding, slanted for vision and cross ventilation, but it keeps the rain out. The floor is wood and the top is a general purpose small tent. A built-in desk is ample for writing and typing. Two wall lockers are sufficient for extra fatigues. Footlockers fit snugly under the folding cots. At least I know the hooch floor will not be littered with dirty underwear. I am advised that due to the wet conditions in the Delta, no one wears any!


Excerpted from Combat Chaplain: A Thirty-Year Vietnam Battle by James D. Johnson. Copyright © 2001 James D. Johnson. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction Back to the Real World,
Chapter 1 Acclamation and a Decision — June 28–August l8, l967,
Chapter 2 Mobile Riverine Force and Snoopy's Nose — August 19–September 26, 1967,
Chapter 3 Ben Tre and a Hot a Landing Zone — September 27–November 2, 1967,
Chapter 4 Bad Luck Tony and My Tho Orphanage — November 3–December 31, 1967,
Chapter 5 R&R and a Massacre — January 1–19, 1968,
Chapter 6 Vinh Long and Tet — January 20–February 2, 1968,
Chapter 7 Death on all Sides and "Keep your head down!"February 6–March 6, 1968,
Chapter 8 A Different War and a Missing Body — March 7–June 25, 1968,
Chapter 9 Home and Demons Awaken — June 26, 1968–March 1, 1996,
Chapter 10 Going Back! and Miracles — March 2, 1996–Present,
Epilogue At Frank's Grave and My Parade,

What People are Saying About This

Patrick J. Hessian

A dynamic true story of love, anxiety, fear, and the pathos of war. This is a superlative work and one which ought to rivet the minds and hearts of all who read it.
—(Patrick J. Hessian, Major General, USA (Ret) Former Chief of Chaplains)

Ted Gittinger

This work . . . has raw insights into the visceral experience of combat and the psychic damage it does which are rarely seen, and almost never from this particular point of view.
&3151;(Ted Gittinger, Director, Special Projects, Lyndon B. Johnson Library and coeditor of International Perspectives on Vietnam )

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