By Craig Johnson, Army Veteran
Squad Leader, 1st of the 46th, 196 Infantry Brigade, Americal Division Vietnam 1969-70
I had just been hired by the US government. The government told me that my job might be anything, but I knew where I was headed. I was going to Vietnam. I was going to kill my nation’s enemies. I was vulnerable to this invitation to join the government payroll because I had just completed undergraduate school. I was now 1A (status: eligible). Nixon had just been elected President on the promise to end the war. I did not want to go to Vietnam. I particularly did not want to kill people although at the time I really didn’t understand the full implications of taking someone’s life. During training, I spent every available moment in base libraries searching for news that Nixon had ended the war. As the days passed with no news, I began to think about deserting, going to Canada. I was already in the Army. If I went to Canada, I would not be a draft dodger, but a deserter. That was serious. If I deserted, I was certain I would never be able to enter my home again. But Vietnam was not my cause. I was not even sure what the cause was. I had seen film of our truly revered President Eisenhower talk about the domino effect. Once Vietnam fell, all of Southeast Asia would become Communist. If Southeast Asia became Communist, India with its billions of people would fall and so on. I was not convinced. I was also not sure how the whole mess in Vietnam started. I also wondered at the difficulty the US was having stopping our part in the fighting. I had read that just before his assassination, President Kennedy had ordered our few troops out of Southeast Asia. The first thing the new President Johnson had done was to reverse this order. This did not fill me with confidence that Nixon would bring an end to things by increasing the bombing. Ultimately, I went to war.
I left from Ft. Lewis. Wet snow covered the ground. The temperature was about 35 degrees. The plane had regular seats, but there were no windows. I was scared. Even though most of us would never see any violence, we were all scared. There was no preparation. No First Sergeant stood in front of us to tell us where we were going (specifically where we were going; everyone knew we were going to Vietnam.) Nor was there anyone to tell us what to expect when we got there. Twenty-two hours later, after spending what seemed like an absolute eternity in a darkened tube, we landed. We had landed at Cam Ranh Bay. It was a huge base. On one side was the Pacific. Surrounding the base on the land side was a perimeter manned by a Battalion of Army grunts. The most of the war this base saw was the occasional mortar round fired from an ingenious VC mortar team that managed to come within range despite the Battalion of Infantry attempting to keep them at a distance.
When I stepped from the plane, a blast of heat and humidity struck me in the face. It was October, but it was hot and very humid. I was ordered to a barracks loaded with bunk beds, mattresses rolled in two, no sheets, no pillow. I was exhausted. The next afternoon, I boarded an Army plane for Chu Lai, my Division Headquarters. I spent two weeks there learning the only information of value I had received in the year I had been in Army schools. We were given classes on booby traps. Each area had its unique booby trap designs. We were given lectures by Chu Hoys – North Vietnamese Army Regulars who have surrendered to work for the Americans. During this two-week orientation, I stood the first realistic guard duty of my short service career. We did not know that we were ring five in a series of perimeters guarding the base. I was now in “Indian Country.” This was where the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) owned the countryside.
I went to my Battalion LZ in a chopper, a supply Huey. It was a long flight. We were at about 5,000 feet to protect ourselves from 51 caliber machine guns and rifle propelled grenades (RPGs). The climb from the helipad to the bunker line and LZ perimeter was a long, vertical thousand feet. I checked in, rifle and pack in hand to be assigned to 1st Platoon, Bravo Company. Two weeks before, Bravo Company had been hit hard. 1st Platoon had lost its Lieutenant and several squad leaders. I was here to replace one of the squad leaders. The platoon would be on “the Hill” in a couple of days. I waited. I met no one. I read when there was light. I had been given a tiny bunker all to myself. Nights were tough. I was never sure what to expect. I waited for the Hill to be hit by sappers or mortar rounds. I was getting used to the constant tension. It never went away, but it did not dominate my every thought either as it had.
The Platoon arrived. They were shaken. They were physically spent. The platoon was given three days to heal from immersion foot, sores, sleep deprivation. Then they – we – would move out for another 30 day mission. I was called to a meeting the night the Platoon returned. I was given a squad, a rifle squad. When we walked off the Hill, I would have three other guys and me: Terry Moreland from Salem, Tom Baney from Ft. Wayne and John Seabaugh from Cape Girardeau. I remember Terry picking a land leach off my neck at the base of the Hill as we walked off. That was the beginning of a true hatred of land leaches. They were everywhere in the field, high and low bracing their bodies waving in the air feeling our heat, coming for us, mounting us sometimes three on top of each other. Ten, twenty, thirty at a time on a bad day, each leach injecting its own brand of coumadin. The blood flowed. Infections set in. I grew to hate them.
My first mission was not a good one for me. The Battalion’s area of operation (AO) was a free fire zone. Anyone in the area who did not wear OD green was the enemy. We were to either kill or extract them. Our area extended from Central Vietnam to Laos. The platoon walked west for four or five uneventful days. About 10:00 one morning, we hit a small village. There were NVA there. The NVA also had their families – woman, children, elderly. We were spotted. An AK47 opened up. Game on.
I was so new. Three weeks earlier, my new wife and I were in San Francisco attending the stage play “Hair.” Now I stood in the midst of hell. The most prominent structure in the village was a large bamboo building. Several NVA were firing from the structure. Big Mike, an M60 machine gunner, was standing John Wayne style in the middle of an abandon rice paddy without
cover firing from his hip pouring death into the hutch. Seabaugh fired an M79 white 3 phosphorous grenade into the hutch setting it ablaze. A man appeared on fire. He stumbled still on fire. Someone I did not know came up behind him putting three or four M16 rounds in his back and buttocks, the rounds reemerging out his shoulder and side. In ten minutes, we had
swept the village. There was a hole somewhere near the center of the cluster, a tunnel. Grenades were tossed in. It was a large hole. A couple of guys jumped in (I thought they were absolutely fearless.) An old man was yanked out, naked, blood dripping from both ears. I learned latter that the grenades had been percussion grenades. Then a young boy was pulled out also naked, but dead. He was perhaps 10 years old. Others followed. Some dead. I wept. I could not stop crying. I was ashamed of being seen crying, but I was also frightened to find a private place for fear I might be found by the NVA and shot. I might be killed on my first mission while weeping.
There really was not time for any of this. Mortar rounds began coming into the village. Clearly the accuracy of the rounds was an indication that this event, the overrunning of the village, had been anticipated. The rounds were spot on. We gathered those villagers remaining and left.
I made it through the critical first month. Baney taught me the ropes. Then he was transferred to another squad. Seabaugh finally warmed up to me. Terry looked after me as he looked after everyone who came within his scope. Others came. I had Bronze Star recipient. I had one Silver Star recipient. He was a wonderfully unlikely farm boy from Davenport, Iowa. All of us but Baney had a Purple Heart. One of us had four. This is not the kind of notoriety one wants although forty years later, they look impressive in a shadow box. I did come to some terms with what I was doing. I loved these guys. I did my best to be kind in the midst of the brutality. But there were problems.
R and R was one of those problems. I was to meet Bonnie, my wife, in Hawaii. Bon had spent the past five months in Australia totally oblivious to what was happening a thousand miles north of her. She was waiting for me in Honolulu when my plane touched down. I was skinny, pockmarked with sores having done battle with my daily enemy. The GI’s were to walk through a gantlet of wives awaiting their husbands. Bon never mentioned it, but I bet each of us, even those assigned to the rear, looked very different. I was emotionally stiff and shut down. I was not feeling well. I was not feeling anything. We found one another, kissed, went back to the hotel, made love – all stiffly. I had brought a couple of high quality Ship to Shore radios taken from dead NVA for shipment back to the States, back to the World. I showed Bon asking her to mail them when we parted. They smelled so strongly of Vietnam, of strange wood smoke and Asia. I hadn’t noticed until we opened them in that room. I watched Bonnie withdraw. She looked at my body many pounds lighter, covered with foreign marks and knew that I had been someplace very different. To make matters worse, in a few hours, I would be returning. Despite all of that, Bonnie has fond memories of our time together. I have indifferent ones. It was not because I did not love the air she breathed. There was part of me missing. When I boarded the plane to return to my guys, I wept uncontrollably. I did so without self-consciousness. I had earned my stripes. To hell with them. Anyway, I was not the only one crying.
I made it through to come home to Bonnie. Almost all of us came out within a few days of each other, all of us ending up in a hospital in Japan. Baney was left as was Seabaugh and Moreland. Moreland was killed two days after I left the field. Surrounded, he was killed charging a line of NVA. Terry took two in the chest, a tight shot group heart high. He was dead before his leg finished swinging. Through all that, he was the only one in the squad who died. I was not there by his side. Most of us were not there. He was left with strangers. I loved him so much.
That was many years ago. My wife and I are still together. We have raised two sons. We have built a good life. I brought much back from Vietnam. For the most part, that stuff lay dormant while I provided a living for my family. More recently it has reemerged. It is good that it has. There was a deadness in me all of those years, a disconnect. I struggled to relate to other’s problems. I had this dead zone. I thought it was natural. More recently anger has come and dreams, difficult dreams. I struggle with leadership that begins wars on a whim having no idea the cost. I guess I am entitled to that anger. I am involved with our young men returning from the wars in the Middle East. I am involved with the mothers and fathers of those who have not returned. I am very much a pacifist.
But not all of my combat Company is pacifist. Every year, there is a Company reunion. Most of those guys remain hawks. Those that are more like me are the ones who went to the deep woods upon returning. We do not see them much. For some, the war still goes on.