Part 1: Escalation

Part 1: Escalation

Early events that set the conflict and United States participation in Vietnam are outlined. Wisconsin Vietnam veterans share stories of strong bonds of combat brotherhood that came from increasing adversity. Members of the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy recall the allure, challenges and heartbreaking loss of early combat against the increasingly rampant advance of the Viet Cong.

PREMIERE DATE: May 24, 2010

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War Transcript: 

Announcer:
Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories is a partnership of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, the Wisconsin Historical Society and Wisconsin Public Television.

ADVISE AND ASSIST

James Daley: 
I just remember the first time we got assigned to B Company. I was convinced that they were all criminals. Just the way they acted, the things they were doing. I wasn't in contact with anybody I served with until about 1990. I got a call from a fellow. He was one of my former lieutenants. I asked what he was doing. He told me. He said, “Well, what are you doing now?” And I said, “Well, I'm circuit court judge.” He said, “Oh, that’s -- I wouldn't have thought that.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I would've thought you'd be in prison.” He got there late in my tour. (laughs)

Larry Miller:
You might have to ask 15 people what day it is. You just don't know. You lose track of that. So I called back to the ship and said, “What's the date today?” They said like August 16. “Lt. Cole,” I said, “I have to be back in the states August 20.” “Holy--! Okay.” Buh-buh-buh-buh-buh.

I flew back to the ship, grabbed my gear. Flew to Danang. I grabbed a flight, come home. In a matter of three days, I'm sitting at home with my mom and dad. Three days. They should've never turned me loose on the civilian population in three days from when I left there. You just can't. You know. It'd take the rest of your life to even try to come to terms with this, let alone, here you go. You're gone. That's a bite.

Narrator:
Their country asked them to serve, and they answered the call. But when the men and women of Wisconsin went to fight in Southeast Asia, they had no idea that the Vietnam War would be part of them for the rest of their lives. Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories.

Announcer: 
Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories was made possible bylead gifts from Don and Roxanne Weber and from Associated Bank; with major support from the Ho-Chunk Nation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation; and from Wisconsin Public Service Foundation, Kwik Trip, the Forest County Potawatomi Foundation, Oshkosh Defense, the General Motors Dealers of Northeast Wisconsin, the Oneida Nation; and these Wisconsin individuals and companies who believe that it is long overdue, but never too late to honor the service and sacrifice of our Vietnam Veterans; with additional support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

 

John Brogan:
I was drafted in 1954. And I wound up, the better part of a year, assigned to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1955. And it was an interesting time in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which were the three constituent nations that made up French IndoChina in 1950.

We were providing military assistance, and supplies, and arms, and training to the French army, already at war with the Communists in the north. By 1954, they were good and truly equipped in Dien Bien Phu.

John Mielke:
I was in the reserve military, rather than the regular Army as a physician. Then one day, I got the information that I was going to Vietnam. And I was going to take care of helicopter pilots.

In 1962, we didn't have any military over in Vietnam at that time, other than the MAAG units, Military Assistance and Advisory Group, that took over when the French were defeated.

John Brogan:
Dien Bien Phu was more than just a major defeat. It was a major wake-up call to the West. The Vietnamese captured the fire base, the best troops the French Army had. Then they let them go. And the pictures of these French soldiers and the nurses that came out of Vietnam were just horrendous.

You have to look at it like this. The world, at that time, had certain images of people of color. It came as a terrible cultural shock to see all these little North Vietnamese as the victors, against this bunch of mechanized Westerners.

And within a short period of time, we had taken over the colonial cloak that the French had dropped on the ground.

John Mielke:
We sailed up the Saigon River, and we hit Saigon about 6:00 at night. I'll never forget the view. It was absolutely gorgeous, this French city, with its wide boulevards. And to add to the beauty of it was the Vietnam women.

This is my first experience of the military not knowing what they're doing. These guys have been on the ship for 24 days. They gave them all $75 and let them go. I'll tell you who knew what to do. It was those girls down there. They had it all figured out, and the taxi drivers, and they just cleaned them out of their money. These guys came back, and drunk, and every other which way. I thought that was kind of sad. How were we supposed to act in their country, that we didn't know anything about?

John Brogan:
I got in and out of Saigon regularly, carrying messages and communications. We were out one night to a night club. And the place erupted. It was like a movie set. Boom! Bang! Dancing, argument, wham! The first thing I see is somebody takes one of these things, smashes it on a table, and slices the guy across from him.

And the only guy who knew just exactly what to do, said "Run!” He jumped up, smashed a beer bottle to get himself armed, and then ran through a window, retreating as fast as we could. I wrote home to my mom and said, "Boy, wow!” 20 years old, DePere, Wisconsin, and wow.

John Mielke:
And our job was to transport Vietnamese soldiers, to transport them out into the field, or wherever they were going to fight, or what needed to be done. It was between the Communists and the non-Communists. We chose one side in a civil war.

John Brogan:
At the end of Peace Treaty of Paris, after Dien Bien Phu, they separated Vietnam, North and South. Ho Chi Minh was running the North. And Diem was running the South, and we were backing him. We picked a guy and we got him elected. And then he did what we told him to do. And then, we couldn't understand why everybody else hated us.

John Mielke: 
The warrant officers who flew these helicopters were very worried. They had no machine guns. And the first couple weeks of their flying, the Vietnamese weren't shooting them down. Well, they weren't leading them enough.

Then they were taking a few hits. I remember when the machine guns went in. The crew of the helicopters were really happy. But then one day, toward the end of my stay, they said that the Signal Corps was coming in, and the engineers. Then you knew that we were going to escalate big time.

I can't believe the amount of equipment and men that came in. They replaced my little quarters with a field hospital.

John Brogan:
The French were sour. They were bitter about the Americans with all this hubris coming in to take up where they failed. Twenty years later, we failed. They had Dien Bien Phu and we had the helicopters off the Embassy.

 

William Moore:
A buddy of mine came over and said, “Wow, we can get all this good schooling by going in the Navy.” I still have the flyer, showing the outline of the Nautilus, which was the cutting edge nuclear submarine back then. And I got a hold of a recruiter. August 8, 1961, we went like this, and off we went for our Navy career. I wanted to get into submarines, obviously, so that was the whole deal.

Wayne Jensen:
I had just finished my junior year in high school when I turned 17. And I always felt that I wanted to make a career of the Navy. I remember it well, because my mom and dad got into a big argument. My mom didn't want me going in the service. The deciding factor was my dad telling her, look, he's going to go when he's 18, and he's going to be bitter at you for the year that you wasted of his life. So she finally consented.

Daniel Schaller:
I'd been in college, and I joined the Navy. They were looking at my records, and they thought I should go to electronics school. My dad was a mechanic, and I'd worked in a garage in high school, you know, in a service station. I didn't really know electronics, but I learned. I found out I had a pretty good affinity for learning that and working with it. I can't remember if I knew about Vietnam at the time or not.

William Moore:
I came on board the Perch over in Subic Bay, in the Philippines. Come along around the month of August, 1964, everything kind of changed. They were coming down the middle of the streets in Olongapo shagging everybody back to the base, that war had broken out. We didn't know what they were talking about. “War?” They said, “Yeah, the Viet Cong fired on the Maddox.” And we said, "Who are the Viet Cong and what's the Maddox?”

Wayne Jensen:
I remember it was at night, off the coast of Vietnam. I was a radarman at that time, on watch, in what they called CIC, Combat Information Center. So we had about seven different radio frequencies that we would be monitoring at any time. And I do recall pandemonium.

Turner Joy and Maddox, the North Vietnamese gunboats were attacking them, and they were taking them under fire. Hectic. Everybody went to general quarters.

But so far as being the catalyst for our active involvement in Vietnam, the conspiracy theories as to whether or not they were actually attacked, I don't know to this day.

William Moore:
So that was the beginning of it. We went right over to the fuel piers, and once again, bullets, beans and black oil. We took on fuel, food and ammunition and headed over. We started operating with a SEAL Team, Green Berets, UDT, Frogmen, ROK Special Forces.

Daniel Schaller:
We started doing surveillance and electronic counter measures. It was basically receivers that were picking up radars, and track radars in Russia and Red China. They'd fly off of carriers. We had a twin engine Douglas A-3. And in the back was electronic equipment and the seats for four of us.

When we were flying up along Russia, you know, we'd come right up alongside of a MiG-21, which was their best fighter aircraft at the time. They'd have their missiles. We could see them. You'd sit and go up there and wave at 'em. Once in a while, one of the guys would give them the international signal, you know.

William Moore:
The operations with the Special Forces is what we did. Those were our torpedoes, so to speak. And what these guys would do, beach recon, sabotage, whatever their mission was, our job was to get 'em there. Of course, we were hoping there wasn't anybody there waiting for us.

I was bridge phone talker with a lot of the battle stations, so I was very fortunate to be up there. The enginemen, and a lot of the guys that never got topside would not get a chance to see anything.

Daniel Schaller:
There was a lot of accidents, you know, in the couple years I was over there onboard carriers, too. In fact, I sat up front once, just for one landing on the carriers. And you come in, looking at it, and it looks so much like a postage stamp there. And you wonder how in the world can a guy be trained to land on that thing.

As soon as you touched down, you gave it full speed, because if the cable snapped, you wanted to have the power to get back off again. Usually, you didn't find people when they went over.

You did it so much, twice a day, for a long period of time. And you always thought that, my goodness, that next time, it might be your time.

Wayne Jensen:
All of a sudden one morning, I got a shoe thrown at my head. I woke up, and I was ranting and raving, “What the heck was going on?” And I looked over and there my younger brother was.

Bruce Jensen:
I walked into the barracks, just as Reveille was going off. And the first guy that woke up, I asked him, "Can you tell me where I can find Jensen?” He says, "Well, hand me my shoes.” So I gave him his shoes. And he turned around and he whipped one, and he hit Wayne in the head.

That was Wayne's first idea that I was going to be stationed with him. "What the hell are you doing here?” I said, "Well, we got duty together.”

Wayne Jensen:
Bruce and I, we reported down to San Diego. We picked up the 3rd Marines, spent two or three trips going back and forth into Vietnam. The first, and it was the biggest amphibious operation since the Korean War.

And my term of enlistment was due to come up. So Bruce carried my sea bag off. And I watched the ship pull out with my brother, going to Vietnam.

William Moore:
Several of the guys that we did operate had gotten killed over there. And it just brought it home that it was a real war. You're with 'em. You're out drinking with them on the beach. You're having fun. You're out there going to war with 'em. And they are my closest friends. Sorry. Gosh. Oh.

Daniel Schaller:
I think that's the way most people in the service get through this, by joking around, by doing stupid things, you know, to take your mind off of the real. And what was real was that you had a chance to die any time you went on one of those. We knew it. We all knew that. We were very young. But after you'd been flying there for a year, you know, you feel like an old man.

 

SEND IN THE MARINES

Roy Rogers:
We were actually the first troops that went to Vietnam as combat. March 10, 1965, in the middle of the night, they woke us up and said we had two hours to pack up our things, and we had to be on the parade ground at 3:00 in the morning. They put us in the trucks. Never told us where we were going.

Took us to Pearl Harbor and put us on a troop carrier. And 15 days later, we were in Okinawa. Then we went to Vietnam. We went down the nets on the side of the ship. We had all of our gear. We got off of the landing craft. When we got on the beach, there was all kinds of women and kids there. They had bottles of Coca-Cola for us, and flowers. It was, “Where are we?” We didn't know where we were.

John Dederich:
The first full unit went ashore at Red Beach, just north of Danang. And I followed shortly after that in April. For three or four months, all we did was expand the perimeter. And yeah, we would take a little sniper fire here and there, but it really wasn't a full fledged combat situation when we first got there.

First, you had to find them before you could fight them. That's what the sweeping operations were. That you would go through the valleys, hoping to find a unit large enough.

Richard Erck:
Our motto with Recon: Swift-Silent-Deadly. And I chose that over being in the regular infantry, just because it was a lead outfit. I thought I would enjoy it more. And I did. I don't regret that decision. I met some really hardcore soldiers, guys that knew why they were there, and knew what to do.

I had that John Wayne syndrome. I wanted to get out and stop 'em right there. Fight like a man. It didn't happen. You didn't see 'em. You walked into traps, and you were fired on by snipers that you didn't see. And it was a completely different mind-set then. And it took us quite a while to learn to fight them, to give 'em back some of what they gave us.

Roy Rogers:
My father sent me over a 16mm camera. And I hung that around my neck with a shoestring and carried it around. And one of the things I filmed was kind of like a play-acting firefight on top of one of the hills with a fox hole. They made believe they were shot and falling back. You know, this was pretty early in the time that we were over there, so it was easy to play-act. Now I see the films, and it bothers me, because it wasn't funny anymore after I realized what it was like.

John Dederich:
I mean, we were with the same unit, the same people now for a year, year and a half. These were the closest people you knew in the world. And all of a sudden, they started to take injuries and deaths. That was really hard. So I had a great deal of anger. And eventually, it would subside. And then you would just realize that fear and anger, neither one of those were going to help you in the situation.

Somewhere in the middle of it, you'd lose track of what day it is, or what month it is. You really don't care. But you resign yourself. I had never thought, after maybe that six or seven months, that I was ever going to come out of that country alive. You pretty well knew that.

Richard Erck:
Every second, every day, every night, back-to-back. Doc Nichol, he and I sat back-to-back many a night. When he first came to my platoon, we didn't want to take him. I told him I wouldn't go on patrol with no green corpsman. And he told me, if he could whip my butt, then would I let him go? I said, “Sure, come on,” you know. We went around and around. We rolled around the concertina and down the ditches. After that little fight, I said, “Okay, Doc, you can go with us.” I gave in. He says, “Well, you're a tough little 17-year-old punk,” he says, 'cause he was 20, an old man. “Come on, old man, I'll kill ya.” We were Siamese twins after that. We stuck together.

Roy Rogers:
Four days before I was due to be sent home to the states, I volunteered to go out on patrol. I was singing a song, Handy-Man, I think. I was weaving back and forth. And all of a sudden, there was a big explosion. I looked down and there was blood shooting out of my hand, just like a bubbler. Then someone was yelling, "Corpsman!”

John Dederich:
Of the original unit, or at least our platoon, three of us that either hadn't been killed or wounded. We were coming down out of the mountains. I rounded a building and stepped on a landmine, and went 50-60 feet in the air. Then, you know, the right leg went one way, the left leg went the other way. I got a little bit charred. The first thing I thought when I came back down, "Where's my rifle?” You know, crawling for your rifle.

I moved a little bit, then a corpsman came and stopped me. I had brought the unit partially into a landmine area. But the corpsman stayed with me.

Richard Erck:
Under fire, Doc was tough. He was quite the guy. We were patching up our platoon sergeant, wrapping around his chest because he'd been shot in the chest. And he was sitting up on a log. There was fire going everywhere. He handed me the bandage, and I saw the round hit him in the hand, and the bones came right out of the palm of his hand, and then it hit-- The sarge somehow got his arm, he had his arm up here, hit his arm. And he fell on the ground, he's holding it. And he's hollering and cussing and carrying on. I told him, “Well, I suppose you're done now, right?” "No, I ain't done!” he says. And he jumps up and tries to finish with one hand. And I wrapped him up. And we moved up the hill, trying to get everybody out of the ambush we were in.

Roy Rogers:
When I was wounded, I figured God had a reason for me to live, 'cause the Bouncing Betty that I stepped on is meant to make a wishbone out of you. But my rifle took the blunt of the force of the explosion. They tell me they never found any of my rifle. They couldn't put me back together like Humpty Dumpty, but they did the best they could.

John Dederich:
I didn't think I was going to live anyway, 'cause I could look down. I could see the mess I was. Almost everything was black. And I was kind of happy, because they had morphine, and they put tourniquets on the legs, and stuff like that. They put me on a stretcher, and this guy's running alongside of me, saying, "Can I say a few words for you, son?” And I said, "Yeah, but hurry up!” I mean, I was hedging my bets at that time. I mean, I didn't think there was any way as heck I was going to make it. And I never did figure out what he was.

Richard ErOh, my God,” you know, “Doc was only shot in the hand.” And they said, "Well, he must've got hit going up to the helicopter.” I had a hard time coping with those losses. These guys were the Toughest of my outfit. They were the best. And I lost 'em all in one shot. And you didn't want to get close to 'em. You get too tight with a guy and you lose 'em. It hurts every time, you know.

 

DROPPING BOMBS

Lowell Peterson:
There was a draft program for doctors. You either had to go in after your training was over, or risk that you were going to be drafted. I decided I didn't want to be drafted into the Army, and I liked to fly. So, I signed up for the Air Force.

I went to Flight Surgeon School. They tried to teach a bunch of dumb doctors how to march. We took turns marching the squad around. I marched my squad right into a fence.

Alvin Whitaker:
My dad was a Tuskegee Airman. And my earliest recollections are of being at and on airbases and around airplanes. And the only thing I ever wanted to do was to fly airplanes, and fly in the Air Force, and to fly fighters. That was my one goal in life. And it turned out that I'm heterozygous for the sickle cell. That eliminated me from the program to become an Air Force pilot.

But I knew about Vietnam. I can recall listening to reports about the domino effect, that we had to stop the Communists. And that if we didn't, the North would sweep down and engulf the South, and the South would fall. I bought it. Tradition of service, the country calls you, you respond, so I joined.

Lowell Peterson:
President Johnson decided he needed to eliminate some of the flow of supplies from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. He decided to start a bombing campaign against the North, Operation Rolling Thunder.

But it was done with the pilot's hands tied behind their back, in that they were limited as to what they could hit and what they couldn't. There were airfields full of MiG fighters sitting in North Vietnam that were off limits. We might hit a Russian and drag the Russians into the war. But nevertheless, they still sent my pilots up there to bomb and get shot at.

Alvin Whitaker:
I personally never dropped a bomb. But I was dedicated to doing everything I could to keep the weapons systems going, which I did. The unit went on Temporary Duty to Thailand, the Royal Thai airbase at Korat. So I volunteered to go.

And this was a time when we were not officially there. We were not allowed to take any photographs in the flatland. We were not allowed to talk about what was going on. “Training missions.” These training missions were anything but. We were bombing as early as the spring of 1965.

Meanwhile, the Chinese and the Soviets helped the Vietnamese put together very good defenses.

Lowell Peterson:
A flight of four F4-C fighters had been attacked by a SAM missile for the first time. Knocked two of them out of the sky, damaged the third one severely, and the fourth one was able to return to base.

Well, when this happened, President Johnson and Secretary of Defense, McNamara, Johnson said, "Bob, can we get rid of those?” McNamara said, "Sure, we can get rid of them.”

So what they did was programmed a mass gaggle, 48 airplanes, to go after one SAM missile site, and just show the North Vietnamese that, you know, who was boss.

Alvin Whitaker:
1965, we had a lot of losses, just a lot of losses. I mean, the pilots' situation involved flying 100 missions, or a year, whichever came first, then rotating. And I can remember one friend Carl Richter. Carl completed his 100 missions, and he volunteered to go a second 100. Volunteered. Didn't have to.

Lowell Peterson:
All the airplanes we had were in the air. As it turned out, it was a sting operation by the North Vietnamese. They set up a bunch of white painted telephone poles, and an active radar site, and that's what we sent 48 airplanes after. They had every gun in North Vietnam pointed at us.

One of my pilots said it looked like a fourth of July celebration gone bad. We only lost six airplanes. But six airplanes is six airplanes. And it's six pilots.

Alvin Whitaker:
It's kind of difficult, 'cause it brings-- It was when Carl Richter was lost. And I can remember, we were in the shack. And we were getting reports on the radio, because he was shot down. And they were trying to hold off the Vietnamese soldiers while they tried to pick him up. And they did pick him up. I can remember we were just elated. Everybody just went crazy. Unfortunately, he had suffered really severe injuries. He had ejected at very a high speed, and he went into shock and died in the helicopter on the way back.

Lowell Peterson: 
Frank Tullo was shot down that day, and was able to be extracted from the jungle, picked up by a Jolly Green Giant helicopter. They got out of there while they were being shot at. He came back to Korat the next day. The whole squadron was out there to meet him.

I took him to my dispensary. He had a laceration over his eye, and I sewed that up for him, and examined him, and didn't find anything else other than a whole lot of North Vietnamese sweat and dirt. I sent him to the Officer's Club. Everybody got drunk that night.

 

ELUSIVE ENEMY

Will William:
Coming out of Mississippi, I was prepared, anyway, for survival. When I started getting higher in school and learning about the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, I couldn't square it. I couldn't understand how this could be true. We're created equal, and I'm seeing people being lynched. But it was easier for me to fight. And on January 3, we boarded ship and left for Vietnam.

Jim Kurtz:
But the people who went as replacements went by air. We flew directly to Vietnam and to Tan-Son-Nhut, which is the main airport in Saigon. The plane lands and they open the door up. And it was just like walking into a blast furnace. This was at 3:00 in the morning. It was probably about 90 or so. And then, the tremendous noise of aircraft taking off on missions, helicopters going all over the place. And the smell. It just knocked your socks off.

Well, I go down the steps, and there’s a sergeant down there with a clipboard. And he said, “All the lieutenants but Lt. Kurtz, follow me.” And I said to him, "What did I do wrong?”

Dan Hinkle:
I landed at Ton-Son-Nhut, got off the airplane, and went to 90th replacement depot. Within a half an hour, I was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division. The next day, I was on a chopper and we flew out to the base camp. I was assigned to a company and given a platoon. I was in-country 48 hours, and I was an Infantry Platoon Leader with a combat mission.

Thirty days after I arrived, I was crawling through tunnels in Cu Chi-- with a flashlight and a .45, and I didn't care.

Will Williams
In Cu Chi, we built our base camp, right above the tunnels. I don't know why the military didn't know they were there. They had intelligence people, and those tunnels were old. People within the perimeter was getting wounded or killed, and the perimeter hadn't been breached. No one had gotten in. We couldn't understand it. We took a lot of casualties from people in the tunnels.

Dan Hinkle:
The tunnels were already in place, way before we got there. They were used against the French. There was entire little communities down underground, ammunition storage, food storage, hospitals, and hundreds of firing perches.

Will Williams:
We had what we called tunnel rats. They’re usually the smallest people in the outfit, were the ones that would go into the tunnels and search. Johnny H. Johnson was our tunnel rat. And he had gotten shot. I went in and brought him out. And my curiosity made me go back in to see what's beyond where he was hit.

When you first go in, you would go around the corner or down and up again. And it protected them from explosives and from bombs. They had kitchens there where they cooked. It's basically where they lived and fought, right beneath us. That was their staging area.

Jim Kurtz:
Later, I was up at a place called Loc Ninh, which is an old rubber plantation. And it turned out that we were up there to provide security for the French, so that they could make some money.

Will Williams:
It was the heart of the rubber plantations. We saw the Firestone, Michelin and GoodYear plantations. The rubber trees, you know, that we were fighting for, I think. That's part of why I was there, was protecting our corporate interests.

Dan Hinkle:
And I was in a mechanized battalion. So we had tanks and armored personnel carriers. The thunder of us moving, you could hear it for miles. There were things that fell by the wayside, like trees.

We had a representative, a Frenchman, attached to the battalion that would follow along behind us and count the number of rubber trees, so the United States could reimburse these people for the trees we destroyed.

Jim Kurtz:
The rubber plantations that were still operating, they were paying off the VC to not bother them. Then, when we'd come in there, if we got into a firefight, we would have to pay for any tree that we shot.

After I got promoted to Captain, and they didn't really know what to do with me, one of my jobs would be to go out with the plantation manager, and we would count trees with bullets in them. I had taken some French in college. I knew a little French, but not much. And I never made an effort to communicate with him. I mean, if they wanted Uncle Sam's money, they could talk in Uncle Sam's language, as far as I was concerned.

Will Williams:
At times, we did get hit pretty hard. I know right outside our base camp, at Ho Bo Woods, I couldn't understand why we kept going in there. We would go this week, lose a lot of people. A week or two later, we would go right back, and the same thing would happen.

Dan Hinkle:
We would take the same ground, over and over and over. And I didn't know until 20 years later that it was a war of attrition. Isn't that a term? A war of attrition. It's acceptable to us if we only lose one guy to your six. Our victory amounts to a body count.

Jim Kurtz:
I was in a G-1 Section, and one of my jobs was to deal with body count. And this General walks in, and he says, "Captain, uh, I don't like these numbers.” And then I said, "Sir, I agree with you.” We’d had a bad day. The 1st Division had a bad day. We took some bad casualties. He said, "I don't think you understand. I don't like these numbers.” And what he was suggesting was that the body count wasn’t high enough. And I said, "Sir, here's a grease pencil and a rag. You do what you want to do.” And then he blew up. And he said, "Captain, you're insubordinate, and your career is over.” And I said, "I'm not going to do anything like that, because it's wrong.” And he stormed out of there. He was really, really very unhappy with me.

Will Williams:
I don't know. I don't know how you can make anyone understand it, what it means to lose someone, if it's not you getting hit, but someone you've known, to see them die.

Dan Hinkle:
I got wounded, right about Christmas and New Year's. I was reassigned, because I wasn't able to continue as a platoon leader. I went from tunnels in the jungle to having a hot meal in the Officer's Club at Ton-Son-Nhut Airbase. Two or three days later, my platoon was caught in an ambush. I should've been there. (sobs)

 

AIRMOBILE

Kerry Denson:
Flying with the 1st Cav Division, we were the first Airmobile Division in the Army, a wholly new concept. Here we had the capability with this Huey, UH-1, to completely support a soldier with aircraft. Put soldiers in by air. Supply 'em by air. Reinforce 'em by air. Medevac 'em by air. Give 'em fire support. Close air support by air. And the stars just lined up for that type of warfare.

William Rettenmund:
I was not much for flying. I didn't like heights. When I went over in a boat, I said to myself, "Self, you've never really committed yourself, and the Army wants you to be a helicopter mechanic, and a crew chief that flies all the time. You've got to get your butt off of this being afraid of heights stuff and stick it out.” That's kind of what I did.

Gary Wetzel:
Some people told me I was the number one gunner in the outfit. I was flattered about that. But it was scary to me up and to the point, it's like when I would pull that trigger. Then it's like, when you pull that trigger, that fear would kind of go out of you.

Then when you come back in and you're picking up the wounded, some guys are holding their guts inside, or some guy is hanging onto his leg, because he doesn't want to leave his leg in the LZ. And you try to not let that interfere with what your job is, or what you're trying to do.

War is horrifying. It's not glorifying.

Kerry Denson:
I was flying the UH-1, the Huey, and we had a crew of four, a pilot in command, a co-pilot, a crew chief and a gunner. Armament, all we carried was an M-60 machine gun on each side that the crew chief and the gunner each had to keep everybody's head down while we inserted our infantry.

They liked riding in a helicopter. Sat with legs dangling out the side of the aircraft, completely unrestrained, flying along at 1500 feet and 90-100 knots. I don't ever recall, ever, anybody falling out. Getting in close, they were standing on the skid. As soon as we got close enough, they were on the ground and gone.

This thing was a well-oiled machine. It's just unbelievable. Everybody knew what to do, and did it.

William Rettenmund:
We usually went in from 1500 feet, and went into the LZ, ten of us. And ahead of us, the gun ships were shooting. And ahead of them, the artillery was hitting, trying to soften up the landing zone for us. Usually, we tried to land all ten of us at the same time. And the faster you can get down, the harder it is for them to hit you.

It was a wild ride. Coming off of 1500 feet is like riding a rollercoaster. We came in at about a couple hundred feet, they would say, "Door gunners, open up!” So we would just, whatever looked like would hide somebody, we shot at.

Gary Wetzel:
We just hit the treetops and then we got nailed with an RPG, just blew the front of the ship apart. And we kind of come to a skidding halt. And the crossfire was horrendous. The first 30 seconds, like 50 of the guys got killed. Just so bad. They were waiting for us.

All this banging, and yelling and screaming. And I've got to get Timmy out, my pilot. Damn near ripped the door off. And I just kind of lift him up, and then I had my hand, which is on the airframe over here, but then all this got blown out. I took my arm here, and tucked it inside my pants. And then I got the Thompson and then skid around the chin of the chopper. And you can hear 'em chattering. They're trying to take my 60 off. I yelled at them. They looked at me, and, end of that story.

I went back by Timmy. He said, "Tell Jane I love her,” which is his wife. I go, "Shut up,” you know. “You tell your old lady you love her.” That was the third time him and I got shot down.

Kerry Denson:
You could look out there, and you could just see a sea of red tracers. The sergeant running the pad, he says, we've got a couple guys out there that are hit, and we're not getting ammunition out there to the guys on the end. Would you hover out there and kick off ammunition. I says, “Let me talk to the crew.”

I told them what they asked us to do. The crew chief made the decision. He said, "Well, if I was out there, not getting ammunition, and some candy ass helicopter pilot wouldn't bring it out, I'd be pretty pissed. Saddle up, boys.”

William Rettenmund:
Then I turned and looked over, and I could see the pilot was looking back at me. I could see the red dots on the visor. And he finally said the door gunner's hit. I unhooked my belt and climbed over the seat. He had a field jacket on, and the blood was coming out of the field jacket, out of the cuff on the bottom. We've got to get out of here. He's hit pretty good. And there was blood all over the helicopter. The blood comes from the back and flies forward.

Gary Wetzel:
That's when I got hit in the leg. And there was a period from when I went down to the one knee, till I got back in the gunwell. How I got there, I have no idea. I knew I had to get back to my 60. Then you could see the VC were kind of gathering up, making a human wave attack. They started coming, raking back and forth. They were dropping four or five feet right in front. They'd do that a couple times. They couldn't penetrate. I ran out of ammo. I had my .45.

Just then something out of my peripheral, I jumped back. I go, whoo, you know. So instead of sticking me in the guts, he stuck me in the leg. I eliminated the elements and had to pull a bayonet out.

Then finally, they dropped troops about half a click from us. They worked their way towards us, then to one side. That's how we got help.

Kerry Denson:
And we took ground fire, small arms. It shot the engine out, came up through the floor and hit me in the leg. We were going down. The aircraft tumbled through the trees. And luckily, it landed right side up. But we were all in bad shape. I remember very little of this, but I jettisoned my door. I jumped out and I fell down. And I don't remember anything after that. And they said when I jumped out, the bones of my left leg were sticking through my flight suit. That was the last time I saw Vietnam.

William Rettenmund:
I remember one time we called out into the jungle. We got there and there was seven bodies laying out there. Ponchos don't like to stay closed in the air at 100 miles an hour. There were a lot of gray faces and blue faces. They don't really teach you much about that in helicopter school.

The worst one for me, KIA picking up. It was the first one. A. Gonzalez, his name was. Never forgot it. I forgot my roommate's name, the pilots' names, all that. But I never forgot his name.

Gary Wetzel:
Should I have been dead? Probably. That's what they tell me. And here I am. You know, just blown to smithereens, and shot, and stabbed, and bayonetted. I still function. Guys I fought with, some of them, I don't know who they are, are the ones that put me in for this.

I wear it for the guys that aren't here. I wear it for you. I'm just a caretaker, that's all I am. I'm just a soldier trying to do a job.

 

ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE

James Daley:
I went to UW-Whitewater for a year, majoring in football and beer. As a result, they invited me to leave. In those years, not a whole lot of options. I figured I'd enlist in the one service that would get me out of the country quicker, before my dad found out. So I joined the Marine Corps. And they're the only ones that promised they'd have me out of town the next day.

Dan Pierce:
I got in a little trouble when I was a youth. And my probation officer was a Naval Reserve Officer. And he thought it would make a man out of me if I joined the Navy Reserves. So I thought I'd fool him, and instead of getting a tan in the Gulf of Tonkin on a two-year Navy stint, I joined the Marine Corps for four years.

Don Weber:
I had a hard time in school. I was always the one that got the lowest score on any spelling test, or math. And I grew up thinking that just, I'm a loser. I'd been told that. And you know, you're not a good student. You're not going to make it. And so, you know, I would get in fights. The Marine Corps turned my life around.

Larry Miller:
My older brother was in the Marine Corps right after Korea. And I had an uncle that was World War II Marines, you know, the islands, Guadalcanal, Palalua, and Okinawa. So I just figured, it's the thing to do. So I joined.

Then after that, it was Vietnam. Naval Gunfire Forward Observer. We went out with the battalion search and destroys. They put us on OPs at night, just me and the radio operator. Whenever we really got up against the enemy, I had a ship on call, and I'd call in Naval gunfire and try to take care of them, get 'em off us, kill 'em. Basically, that's what we did.

James Daley:
Our job was essentially to respond to where the North Vietnamese would make an assault on one battalion. You'd stick a battalion out in a field someplace as bait. Their job was to engage and stay engaged. And we'd come in behind them and squeeze in between the two of them. Hammer and anvil tactics, they called it in those years. The Marines were in the north. Marine Infantrymen were assigned to a line company.

Your chance was one in one to be killed or wounded. That was the statistics. And they were pretty accurate.

Dan Pierce:
Quang Tri, Phu Bai, Dong Ha. Everything was just thrown together into one mass blur, which was 90% boring and 10% chaotic. I guess chaotic might be putting it a little blandly.

Don Weber:
Gosh, you know, here you are. You're trained, but this is for real. They came and said you're going to be reporting up on an outpost called Con Thien. I wasn't quite sure where that was. But it was the very northern tip of South Vietnam, the demilitarized zone.

Larry Miller:
There was no color. Everything was blown apart, because they had Agent Oranged it all. They had burnt it all. I mean, we walked out of this greenery, and your whole world went black and white. I remember it just like we're sitting there today. I went, what is this about.

James Daley:
The DMZ was a line on a map, six miles south of the Ben Hai River and six miles north of the the Ben Hai River. It's six miles on their side of the line, six miles on our side of the line, which were demilitarized. (laughs)

Don Weber:
They kept dropping mortar rounds. That went on for hours. And we knew we were in for a long night. Then they started with the ground forces. They just kept coming and coming.

Larry Miller:
That's when it turned into a different war. Because the North Vietnamese, they basically wanted to come down across the DMZ. They did not want to do the Ho Chi Minh Trail. And the Marine Corps wasn't going to let 'em. You know, it was multi, multi troops. I mean, 4,000 or 5,000 at a time would come down across the river. And we were up there trying to stop 'em.

Don Weber:
My squad leader, he'd been there for almost ten months. I made up my mind when I got over there, to do whatever he told me, because he had survived. We called him Sergeant Rock. He came out to get me out of my fox hole, because they were going to be over-running the area. And as we were running back inside the perimeter, you know, a mortar round came in-- (voice breaking) And killed him.

Dan Pierce:
When you're in a firefight, and someone is injured or killed, you don't have the time or the capacity to grieve, or to cradle them, or give comfort. But then when it's over, is when everything hits you. The adrenaline starts to wear off, and the reality sets in. The pain that you've seen on your fellow Marine's face, or the vision of a Vietnamese's head exploding, because you shot him in the eye. No time during the firefight, but afterwards, much reflection. Much reflection.

Don Weber:
I survived the night. Most of the rest didn't. I have no idea why. You know, those things change you forever.

Larry Miller:
Uh, that was it. That was the real stuff up there. It was just horrific. If that's a word that even describes it. It had every aspect that there was to have. The body mutilation, the trench warfare, the artillery. It had it all. Thousands against thousands. You know, it was just.

James Daley:
We got over-run. It was an interesting night. But it's the next morning, where you, I just remember sitting there having a cigarette, and the sun was coming up. And I had a C-ration can, made a cup of coffee, instant coffee. I just remember, I started to pick up the coffee and my hand was shaking so bad it splashed. I put the other hand up to take a drag off the cigarette, and I could hardly find the cigarette. I still have this dream about that morning, smoking that first cigarette and that first cup of coffee, and how it felt so good to be alive. It's one of those things that will always be with me, and will come back at the strangest of times.

Narrator:
They had gone through hell and survived. But they had lost too many along the way, along with a part of themselves. And what they received for their sacrifice was a nation that had turned its back on them.

Don Weber:
Most of those men and women were pretty healthy, physically and mentally, before they went through this. And when they came back, and particularly the time we came back, it was really sad. I remember when I landed, coming home, I had to take my uniform off in the airport, because people would spit at you. That's the thing that I find really hard to cope with.

Dan Pierce:
Still a lot of guys that haven't found their way home, I don't think.

A lot of Vets try to justify, rationalize, for all the death and dying. But there's really no explanation to it. Figuring it out is a waste of time. It's just another war that's started by old men and fought by young boys.

Richard Erck:
I thought he was killed in, you know, one of our ambushes. I never saw him again. And the service never tells you where these guys go or what happens to 'em. Nobody knows where they're at. Someone called me and I answered the phone. "Yeah?” He says, "Erck, you know who this is?” And that voice sent chills, you know. "Doc?” "Yeah!” he says, "You knew it was me?” I said, "Yeah.” You never forget that voice, you know. And you know, the tears flow.

I said, "They told me you got killed up there at Phu Bai.” He said, "They told me you went, too.” And then he told me that Sergeant Meyers had survived, too, and he was in Minnesota. The guy had been driving past my house, within a mile, to go fishing on Lake Michigan, every year. And I had thought he was dead all these years. In my mind, they were all dead. We get together every year, or even more than once a year, we get together. But, you form a bond that's tighter than brothers. They had my back for me.

Announcer: 
Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories was made possible bylead gifts from Don and Roxanne Weber and from Associated Bank; with major support from the Ho-Chunk Nation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation; and from Wisconsin Public Service Foundation, Kwik Trip, the Forest County Potawatomi Foundation, Oshkosh Defense, the General Motors Dealers of Northeast Wisconsin, the Oneida Nation; and these Wisconsin individuals and companies who believe that it is long overdue, but never too late to honor the service and sacrifice of our Vietnam Veterans; with additional support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

 

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Part 2: Turning Point

As the war waged on, scenes of deadly attacks are juxtaposed with the American public's increasing animosity toward the war. The Tet Offensive shocked both soldiers and the world due to previous beliefs that the enemy was incapable of such an effort of massive military force. Veterans reflect on the staggering casualties in Vietnam, and describe their own modes of coping with the reality of war.

Part 3: Draw Down

Though the war began to wane, dangerous missions continued against the North Vietnamese Army. Veterans recall scenes during the last major battles, where many lives were lost in the jungle terrain. Secret missions in Laos helped combat enemy threats against the Hmong population. As the U.S. began to pull back troops, thousands of refugees were evacuated and POWs were finally released back home.

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