They are the words of soldier Mark W. Harms in 1968, summing up his combat experience during the Vietnam War. His stunning letter home is just one of hundreds featured in this unforgettable collection, Letters from Vietnam. In these affecting pages are the unadorned voices of men and women who fought–and, in some cases, fell–in America’s most controversial war. They bring new insights and imagery to a conflict that still haunts our hearts, consciences, and the conduct of our foreign policy.
Here are the early days of the fight, when adopting a kitten, finding gold in a stream, or helping a local woman give birth were moments of beauty amid the brutality . . . shattering first-person accounts of firefights, ambushes, and bombings (“I know I will never be the same Joe.”–Marine Joe Pais) . . . and thoughtful, pained reflections on the purpose and progress of the entire Southeastern Asian cause (“All these lies about how we’re winning and what a great job we’re doing . . . It’s just not the same as WWII or the Korean War.” –Lt. John S. Taylor.)
Here, too, are letters as vivid as scenes from a film–Brenda Rodgers’s description of her wedding to a soldier on the steps of Saigon City Hall . . . Airman First Class Frank Pilson’s recollection of President Johnson’s ceremonial dinner with the troops (“He looks tired and worn out–his is not an easy job”) . . . and, perhaps most poignant, Emil Spadafora’s beseeching of his mother to help him adopt an orphan who is a village’s only survivor (“This boy has nothing, and his future holds nothing for him over here.”)
From fervent patriotism to awakening opposition, Letters from Vietnam captures the unmistakable echoes of this earlier era, as well as timeless expressions of hope, horror, fear, and faith.
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"In less than one minute, a relatively peaceful day went straight to hell."
Corporal Jon Johnson of Ohio served with the Marine Corps in Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, while in Vietnam. His honors include the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnamese Service Medal with two stars, and the Presidential Unit Citation.
After returning home to Ohio from Vietnam, Corporal Johnson was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and was soon after selected to serve with the Marine security detachment at the Canadian World Exposition in Montreal, Canada, in 1967. Corporal Johnson is active in the Marine Corps League and is the Senior Vice Commander at his Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter.
He wrote the following letter home to his parents and wife in Sidney, Ohio.
8 April 1966
Dear Mom & Dad & Peggy,
Operation Jackstay is over. I guess now I'm a veteran. Nothing they could have done would have prepared us for this. We now know the training in Hawaii and the Philippines was a piece of cake. God doesn't know about the Mekong Delta, He didn't create that hellhole. I think when He rested, the devil slipped one in on him. They told us before we went in that we were the first American unit to operate that far south in the war. I think everyone else had more brains. Maybe when I'm out of the Marines I'll be proud of this, I'm just too tired to feel anything.
We lost some good guys. How do you explain this in a letter? One minute they were there, then dead. I have no idea why I'm still here. Our third night into the operation we set up on the high ground, what there was of it, and all of a sudden I heard a shell coming in. It was the most horrifying sound I could imagine. I was in position with another guy, George from Boston, and it was as dark as it could be. I can't describe that sound. It would be close if I said it sounded like a freight train coming out of the sky. No warning, just that sound. My instincts told me that it was up and to my left. Just as I looked that way it hit about 100 feet from me. The flash of light and explosion was tremendous. It knocked me stupid. Next thing I knew I was laying on my back wondering why the voices were so far away, and my head felt like there was a basketball inside trying to get out. For some reason George kept asking me if I was dead, and I thought why the hell didn't he shut up. Finally things started coming back into focus and I heard the screams. I told George to get ready because I thought there was going to be an attack soon. Then I noticed I was on his right. I was on his left before the shell hit. Sgt. Joyce comes running by and asked for help with the wounded. All we could do was crawl around in the darkness feeling for bodies. I found the foot of someone and told him. He had a red lens flashlight and turned it on. It was Sgt. Herrera, dead. I went back to my position, and the corpsman was working on George. He had been hit in the leg with shrapnel but would remain with us. The shell killed two and wounded nine. That was it, just one shell. But my God what a price.
We're on our way back to Subic Bay now to pick up replacements and take on supplies. The whole atmosphere has changed. No more chicken shit stuff. After Subic we're going on another operation. They say this one is near the DMZ. It has to be better than the Mekong Delta.
Sorry to be so down in the dumps. I'm just tired, very tired. Don't expect many letters because we have no idea when we will return to Vietnam. I don't take writing gear with me on an operation. Wouldn't have time to write anyway.
I'm supposed to feel something for those we lost. Wish to God I knew what.
Love You Mom--Love You Dad.
I love you Peggy.
Your son & husband,
Marine Joe Pais described his reactions to the war in a letter to his mother in Raton, New Mexico.
August 30, 1965
. . . Mom, I know I will never be the same Joe. Last night I lost one of my best buddies. It wasn't Bob, but he used to run around with us. Somehow the VC got through our lines and threw a grenade into where my buddy was sleeping. One of my other buddies was wounded seriously and he's expected to die any time. You know, Mom, things didn't really bother me until we got out here in the bad part of Da Nang. And now I lose two of my buddies. It's hard, Mom, to get over something like this, that's why I say it's gonna be different.
I can't even smile anymore, nothing seems funny to me, everything is serious now. Once I get out of here I never want to hear another word about Vietnam or wars. You read in the papers about demonstrators and all this other bull . . . they ask why we are over here. Well we're stopping communism over here instead of in the people's backyard back home in the USA. And we're doing a damn good job over here and we'll keep on doing a good job. Our Marine Corps saying is "Death Before Dishonor."
Well the rainy season has finally moved in. It rains just about every day now. Sometimes all day and all night.
I've moved to a new position now, I'm squad leader. I'm in charge of six men. Of course I'm still in heavy machine guns, our job is real dangerous, our life expectancy in combat is seven seconds. I'll be home though, I won't let anything stop me.
I sure would like to see my family, especially my little niece. It's gonna be like a new world when I get home. Everything is gonna be so different. You know I haven't slept in a good old bed since Jan. 2. Out here we sleep on a shelter half or a poncho with one blanket. The hard ground doesn't even bother me anymore. Hot chow, we very seldom get that. We've been eating C-rations ever since we got here. I'm gonna have a straight back and an iron stomach. No more food poison for me. It wouldn't even bother me. . . .
Well, Mom, I'm gonna have to rush off now. I'll write more later. God bless you.
I love you,
Sergeant F. Lee Hudson III of New Jersey served with the U.S. Army Radio Teletype Section Chief 6th/15th Field Artillery, 1st Infantry Division and 1st/7th Field Artillery, 1st Infantry Division. He arrived at Vung Tau, Vietnam, from USNS Gordon on June 1967 and left Vietnam on April 24, 1968. He assisted the field artillery in many engagements, including the Tet Offensive. He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal.
Sergeant Hudson wrote the following letter home to his parents, Fred and Edith Hudson, of Pine Hill, New Jersey.
2 Feb. 68
Dear Mom and Dad,
I keep writing these letters every day just to let you know that I'm all right. This is another letter written with a flashlight. I know you must be pretty worried with all the action that is going on. The only thing I'm worried about is what I heard on the radio today. Johnson is thinking about extending all enlisted men who are in the Army. I'd hate to spend more than two years in the Army.
Today has really been a wild one. Just before noon today everybody was rushed over to the ammo dump. Because of all the firing in the last few days, our batteries are running low on ammunition. So today a rush convoy from Long Binh came up with the ammo and the guys had to break it down and restack it for helicopters. They worked right through lunch and dinner. Now it's eight o'clock and they're still working.
The ammo pickup area is right near our perimeter, and around six o'clock we had incoming small arms fire from Charlie. The whole base is under alert, but after the firing stopped they went back to work again. We're still under alert and this may be on for a few more days. We haven't been able to get any laundry in or out and most of us are wearing dirty clothes. Today we got a little mail. Little incidents have been occurring all over the area and Charlie seems to be everywhere. Well now I've got to get back to work. I'll write again tomorrow. Take care and don't worry.
Chief Warrant Officer Anthony B. De Angelis served with the U.S. Army during his tour of duty in Vietnam from February 1967 to January 1968, departing the day of the Tet Offensive. He was awarded the Bronze Service Medal for Meritorious Service and the Vietnam Service Medal with two battle stars.
He sent the following letter to Lis C. De Angelis, his wife, to assure her that he was fine since he was involved in a major attack that was in the news at the time in June 1967.
June 10, 1967
Just in case you already heard about our attack this morning I don't want you to worry. I'm alright. You'll have to excuse this letter as I have had only two hours sleep in the last 26 hours, and my arm still hurts from the tetanus shot I just got. Early this morning, about 1:30 a.m., Mr. "B" woke me up and said quite seriously, "O.K., Tony, let's go, this is it." I was still half asleep, but the whooshing staccato of booms signaled my senses as to what he was talking about. Like the precise ass that I am, I faultlessly dressed myself to include lacing and tying my boots, and then ran a quarter of a mile to our defense bunker while the mortars were incoming. En route I ran into some barbed wire which cut me up a little, thus the reason for the tetanus shot. When I got to the bunker, the only ones there were Captain Jefferson (our Negro battery commander), my personnel sergeant, the supply sergeant, and a few privates. It was raining like hell and they had already begun counter mortar fire. The regular mortar crew were pinned down in a bunker near the billets, so there I was pitching in with the others passing mortar ammo to Cpt. Jeff who was lobbing them out. We were firing every 30 seconds, which meant we had to really hustle; and we were! We were firing all kinds of illuminating flares over the area where we seen them coming from, and the firing battery of 105s right next to us was lobbing the shells into the area. We were very fortunate that we suffered no casualties except for scratches and bruises as a result of getting to positions. However, our sister units on the hill here with us were not as lucky. They sustained 41 casualties (all wounded as far as I know). The sky above us was like daylight while we were firing, and a good thing, too, because as fast as the men got hit, the medevac choppers with their red cross on the side were flying right over our position to get the men out, and we had to be careful we didn't hit them with mortars, as fast as we were firing. They had guts to fly through that barrage of both incoming and outgoing garbage. The attack lasted about two hours, but we continued firing the rest of the night to insure against further attack. We didn't get the all clear until eight a.m. this morning and then we went back to work, where I am at now. This was the first time the hill has ever been attacked, so you can guess a lot of people were quite surprised. Anyhow, everybody acted beautifully and I wouldn't worry about these people not knowing what to do in a similar situation. The new battalion CO was very pleased with the way our battalion reacted.
The Middle East reports are really confusing. I certainly hope it settles down quick. I find it hard to believe Nasser resigned. It appears he had no other choice and was banking on his people to beg him not to. Well, darling, it's been a long night. I'm too tired to write more, but I want to. Darling, I love you very much; Christian and Michael, too. Mr. Caruso called me this morning to see if I was alright. His unit took a lot of casualties. It reminds me, too, that I better call Mike as I know he's aware of our attack and I don't want him to be concerned. Darling, I'm sorry but I don't know how it happened, but I lost the Saint Christopher medal you gave me; it must have come loose from the chain. I feel real bad about it, as anything from you I consider very special. Darling, I love you. Give the boys my love.
First Lieutenant James Michener wrote the following letter home to his parents while he was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967. In addition, he served as personal pilot for Major General Byong H. Lew, Commanding General, Republic of Korea Tiger Division, II Corps, Vietnam. His honors include the Air Medal with V device (for valor) and the Bronze Star.
17 November 1966
Tuy Hoa, Vietnam
Dear [names omitted],
I'm exhausted and have been away from Tuy Hoa for almost a week. Thus I was unable to write. On my return I found eight letters, two newspapers, and two packages. This was wonderful but now I'll have to spend several evenings trying to catch up on correspondence.
A week ago today my platoon, the 1st Platoon, departed for Dong Tre and was to come home Sunday night--tonight is Thursday. But the time was lengthened until noon Tuesday.
Dong Tre is a Vietnamese village housing a Special Forces camp. We were there to furnish air support to units of the IV (Fourth) Infantry Division ("Ivy Division") and the 101st Airborne Division ("Screaming Eagles"). These units were making a general sweep of an area about one hundred miles square. They were looking for Victor Charlie ("VC")--that's what we call him.
Both units ran into a little action from time to time. But nothing big. Captured 41 North Vietnamese soldiers and killed 56. Plus quite a cache of weapons was found. Enough to think that possibly a battalion-sized unit might have been out there.
Of course we were constantly busy hauling food and supplies to the men in the field. We made several combat assaults also, but the areas proved moderately secure. The weather, especially when visibility was zero-zero, posed a big problem as the region is not flat--it's mountainous.