Part 2: Turning Point

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.

PREMIERE DATE: May 25, 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. 

Ken McGwin:
The Vietnam War was a horrible, horrible weight to put on the backs of teenagers.  What did you do to a generation of people?  Boy. 

Linda McClenahan:
I think it's important for everybody to tell their story.  The only thing we can truly give each other is our stories.  We need to share those.  This attitude that men aren't supposed to cry.  There's plenty to cry about, so what's the issue here?  Anyway.  But see, I didn't cry myself.  Or, I didn't have any emotions except anger.  I was either numb or pissed off, you know, for years and years and years. 

Charlie Wolden: 
One thing about combat, is that you don't have a choice to learn, to live through it.  And also, you don't have a choice when you come home, to learn new ways.  You're different.  You've changed.  One of the tragedies of Vietnam, and I mean, it's a tragedy, is that even today, there are a lot of people, including a lot of the veterans that fought over there, who don't fully comprehend that it's hard to come back out of it.  I mean, it's just too big.  (sighs)

Narrator:
The war was entering its bloodiest year, 1968.  Predictions that the fighting would soon be over proved misguided, when in fact, it had not reached the halfway point of America's longest war.  And the stories of Wisconsin's men and women who survived that war and that pivotal year, are haunting.  "Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories." 

Announcer:
Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories was made possible by lead 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. 

 

WALKING POINT

Owen Mike:
As a Ho-Chunk, from the day I was born, my destiny was to go to war.  I showed no fear, 'cause going to war is a blessing.  And being a warrior is a blessing.  But the most sacred is to die on a battle ground.  Their nationality, it made no difference.  We were like a team.  We worked together.  And they found out that it was going to be good to accept me.  It was the most important part of my life, because that's the first time in my lifetime that people respected me. 

Cletus Ninham:
Being Indian is, well-- Why don't we make this guy a fight man, and a flanker.  That's the guy that goes out 25 yards of the company, and a flanker is the one that goes on the left or right side of the company.  That's what I did, mainly.  I don't know why it didn't freak out the Indians.  Your nerves better hold up, because you don't know what's going to happen.  And you live one day at a time.  They only knew me by "Chief," they didn't know my first name.  It didn't bother me at all.  Because like I told one guy, it's okay to call me Chief.  But on a reservation, I'm just a brave. 

Mick Lyons:
So I got to the 2nd -- Marines.  Instantly, I was made point man.  There was only one problem with that.  I was a better point man than most of the guys they had before, because I could see the mushrooms.  We would go out in the spring and find morel mushrooms.  My step-daddy taught me how to do that.  He taught me how to see through the shrubbery, and the growth, and be able to discern what I was looking at.  I could see the booby traps.  And I could see the trip lines.  And I could see the stuff that might be in front of us, the NVA bunkers, or whatever.  And I'm very proud of the fact that nobody ever died when I was on point. 

Owen Mike:
Walking point ain't the easiest job.  A lot of 'em don't want it, 'cause the life expectancy is very short.  And my CO asked me if I want that job.  I said, "Yes, sir." For the rest of my tour, I was a point man.  And I know I have saved many Marines life, because I knew what I was doing.  I'm like a cat, a tiger in the mountain.  I was cunning.  I was deadly.  I became a killer. 

Cletus Ninham:
You look for booby traps, anything that looks out of place.  I learned that from hunting.  You know, you look around your environment, and you see what's out of place, any movement, and you know, if something's wrong.  You see the birds take off, you know something's there.  We never got hit while I was on point or flank.  Soon as I got off, we got hit, we'd get hit by a sniper.  Shot, small fire would come upon us. 

Mick Lyons:
When you're in the situation where you can die within the next three seconds, at any given time.  Your ears, your sense of smell, your sense of touch, your eyesight, everything just explodes. 

Owen Mike:
When I was walking point, all a sudden, all hell broke loose.  All kinds of noise.  I hit the ground.  Boy, my hair stood up.  We ran into a band of pigs.  Running here and there.  We were all laughing, you know.  I said, "No, no, no.  Leave 'em alone," I said.  They're not part of the war. 

Mick Lyons:
I enjoyed the night, because they couldn't see me any better than I could see them.  The smell is what gave each other away.  We could literally smell each other in the jungle at night.  The jungle came alive at night.  I used to like night patrols.  And my buddies didn't.  Most of them were city kids.  Poor city kids. 

Cletus Ninham:
All of a sudden, I just heard a big explosion.  It was like I was falling down in slow motion.  It was burning like somebody just put a hot fire in my body.  I looked down, I seen the holes in me, you know.  And I could stick my fists through 'em.  They were trying to get us out.  They couldn't.  The wind was too strong.  And they're pulling me up in a hoist.  They couldn't get me up, 'cause I was going like Tarzan through the bamboo.  And I was going to be crushed to death.  So, they had to drop me from treetop high.  They pushed the button and dropped me.  And they'd run out of morphine.  And they couldn't understand, with that many holes in me, why I wasn't screaming.  The medic, all night, was slapping me, thinking that I was dying.  He'd say, "You got to stay awake." And so, I told him, "You hit me one more time, I'm going to hit you back."

Mick Lyons:
You're doing everything you can to keep your buddies alive, and yourself alive.  The gooks were surrounding us.  And I'm sorry for using that word.  It's a dehumanization.  These were people that we respected.  They were full-blown North Vietnamese Army regulars, in uniform.  And they were fighting for their country.  And we thought we were fighting for ours.  And it's taken 40 years for me to finally understand that. 

Owen Mike:
We showed our utmost respect to the enemy.  'Cause we look at 'em as-- (speaking native language) It means a brave soldier.  And I'm one.  We're on equal terms.  He respects me, and I respect him. 

Cletus Ninham:
I came back from Vietnam, I was a mess.  People just seen medals on me.  You can't look inside of a person and see what's going on.  But that person is hurting bad.  A young guy, see that many people die, you know, that's not natural.  Just put me back the way I was before I went over there. 

Owen Mike:
We called it a playground.  Not a battle field.  It's a playground.  'Cause my spirit was playing with the enemy’s spirits, like children's, in the spirit world. 

 

MONTAGNARDS

Jack Boers:
I came back from Korea, the bloody ridge, heartbreak ridge, got out of the military.  Very bored.  Come by the Post Office about 10:00 in the morning, an old Uncle Sam picture, "We Need You!" And I said, you know, I'm going to go back.  I went back.  And about five or six guys in line.  They said, "You're an ex-serviceman?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "What were you in?" I said, "Infantry." He says, "You're in the Army as of today." And then I joined Special Forces.  And I stayed '59 to '71, in Special Forces. 

Howard Sherpe:
We had what I called the interview.  I had put down all kinds of things that I thought I could be in the Army, including combat photographer, and combat artist, because these are things I had training in.  I had driven trucks.  I'd been a truck driver.  And he just looked through it, and said, "I'm putting you down for medic." I just kind of sat there, like, "What?" You know, I'd never had a First-Aid course.  I hated the sight of blood.  He says, "Oh, we need a lot of medics in Vietnam.  Next!" 

John Plaster:
Because I was Special Forces, what was referred to generically as a Green Beret, I'd heard whispers about something called SOG.  And whenever I'd ask someone, "What is that SOG thing?" they'd all hush up or give me stern looks, because these were men who'd already served.  A friend of mine, who'd already deployed to Vietnam, and was serving in SOG, though I didn't know it, told me, "Sign up for CCN." Later, we used to refer to that kind of invitation as flattery of death.  We lost a great many men. 

Jack Boers:
We set up bases.  We started training the montegnards, or the civilians.  They got paid a little bit, you know.  To them, it was quite a bit.  We issued uniforms.  We issued weapons.  Trained them in American tactics, and so forth, recon patrolling, security.  And A-team, with a bunch of your company montegnards, then we'd operate out of there.  It was more or less kind of an eyes and ears for intelligence, of the movement of the enemy. 

John Plaster:
Working with the montegnards, it helped give me a lot of insights on the American Indian, because they were basically the American Indians of Southeast Asia.  Pushed to be the mountain people.  And montegnard means, in French, "mountain people." I was flown by C-13 to a SOG base in the central highlands.  Adjacent to the northern-most provinces of Cambodia and the southern-most provinces of Laos.  From the first time, it struck me, my god, that's what the big secret is.  We're operating in Laos.  We're running missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  These were very, very dangerous missions, where literally, you have two Americans and some indigenous soldiers, montegnards.  And you're 20, 30, 40 miles behind enemy lines.  If you don't have someone you really want to rely on and trust virtually with your life, you don't want them on your team. 

Howard Sherpe:
They said that if anyone wanted to volunteer, we could go into the montegnard villages and treat the montegnards.  It was such a different culture.  It was getting in a time machine and taking a trip back, almost to the stone age.  I just found it enjoyable to go out there and work with them.  I couldn't talk to them.  But we treated everything you can imagine. 

Jack Boers:
In camp, a lot of times they had their celebrations.  They'd set up a row of jugs of rice wine.  You'd be in command, honored, you've got to sit there and you've got to drink with them.  Oh, man.  Sometimes, when they were going to have it, you'd like to hide.  But you can't.  Boy, I'll tell you. 

Howard Sherpe:
This isn't the only reason that I kept wanting to go back to their villages, but as soon as you're all done treating everybody, then you can get to the --, which is rice wine.  I do have to admit, it gave you a pretty good buzz by the time you headed out of the camp. 

John Plaster:
They loved American movies, especially the cowboy movies.  And it was funny, because if it was a cowboy and Indian movie, they would identify with the Indians. 

Jack Boers:
They liked Westerns.  Oh, boy, they would holler and scream.  It would tickle you to death.  Yeah, they were all right. 

Howard Sherpe:
I really believe they kind of looked out for us.  We'd patrol in some of the same areas.  And one time, there were a bunch of montegnards that were coming up, and they kind of cowered over to the other side.  And then somebody must've recognized me.  And all at once, they get up and they come running over, and shaking hands, and bowing.  So I knew that they knew who I was.  And I think when they know that you're with that patrol, I think maybe you're a little safer. 

John Plaster:
The montegnards worked really well, meshed really well with Special Forces and these operations, because they'd grown up in the jungle.  We brought the sophistication of modern warfare, communications, air support, and so on.  And working together, it made a very effective team.  And operating behind enemy lines was a very unforgiving environment.  In fact, of the 22 missions that I ran in SOG, 19 of them, we had to shoot our way out. 

Jack Boers:
They were very good fighters.  I mean, you really relied on them.  You had to figure ten percent that you were training were Viet Cong, but you didn't know who.  You just had to kind of watch.  There were some bad times.  You forget the bad times and remember the good times. 

Howard Sherpe:
We came back to one village one time.  It was deserted.  Nobody was out.  The chief finally came out.  His face looked like somebody had taken a baseball bat to it.  The VC had come in, and in front of all the other villagers, had beat him, as an example of what'll happen if you let the Americans treat you.  Even though we were trying to help them, I think they were caught in the middle.  I think a lot of times, they probably didn't have a choice of who they supported, if they wanted to stay alive. 

John Plaster:
I have a recurring dream, where I go back to Vietnam, my team's still there.  And they have all my gear.  They're so happy to see me back there.  And it's all the old guys.  And I don't know, maybe it's like an old dog ready to go hunting again, or something, but they're ready to go do it again.

 

KHE SANH, JANUARY 1968

Ray Stubbe:
The Navy, at the time, was asking for chaplains, because of the buildup in Vietnam.  When I went through chaplain school, I found people were saluting me.  I found that very troubling.  I just didn't like it.  I didn't want it.  It wasn't that I had a low self-esteem, or anything.  It wasn't that.  It was just that I felt chaplains shouldn't be officers.  So, anyway, they assigned me to 3rd Shell Party, and I went to Khe Sanh.  We were close to the Laotian border, under the demilitarized zone, North Vietnamese.  And the signal intelligence people had determined that two divisions were coming down Laos, and were coming toward Khe Sanh.  We knew we were going to be attacked.  It was a decision whether to abandon Khe Sanh because of this, or to reinforce.  And the decision was made to reinforce. 

Lance Larson:
I was in communications.  And the war was really picking up.  There was a lot of casualties, especially in the Marine Corps.  All of a sudden, everyone is buzzing and screaming, you know, "Get your gear together!" They said we're going to Khe Sanh.  Nobody knew where it was.  I remember all this activity.  There was just men.  You're talking 900 men running around, screaming, yelling, filling canteens, getting ammunition.  Then sergeants yelling, you know, "This platoon over here..." Getting them in heli teams, and how they're going to go, and everything.  Then all these helicopters came and we just started loading on.  You know, there was like long lines of men. 

Ray Stubbe:
Sunday, the 21st of January, and I was going over my sermon notes.  And all at once, explosions, you wouldn't believe.  And on one side of us, was what we call a POL dump, petroleum oil lubricants.  That was on fire.  Further on, was the ammo dump, which was cooking off, spewing off all sorts of rounds, itself, while we were taking rockets and mortars.  I remember seeing from a distance, a man on a stretcher whose abdominal wall was missing.  You could see the intestines.  And knowing what I know now, obviously, I would've run to him to try to comfort, do something.  But I just stood there.  To my shame, I just stood there.  And the reason is that the emotions become frozen. 

Lance Larson:
The day we arrived, is the day after all this had happened.  And I remember everything was just shot up.  All these trucks with the windows all smashed, and the tires were flat.  They were blown up, and helicopters wrecked.  They took my battalion to what they called the rock quarry.  The NVA were kind of coming in this valley west of there, putting mortars there, and mortaring the base.  And they figured they could launch a ground attack from that position.  They could sneak up, and from that rock quarry, just swarm that one corner of the base.  So, they wanted at least one more battalion, us, out there.  We used to say we were just mortar bait, you know. 

Ray Stubbe:
Then now we had four infantry battalions with attachments and everyone else, about 6,000 people.  During the siege, we were surrounded by at least 40,000 North Vietnamese.  Our base was a little under a mile long, mainly an airstrip.  About a half mile wide.  Khe Sanh sat on an extinct volcano.  So the area was born under heat and violence.  And it sort of, the spirit sort of lingered there, I think. 

Lance Larson:
Before it was dark, they launched another, you know, heavy artillery attack.  I don't know how many rounds, 500 or 1,000.  Nobody's lived unless they've been in an artillery barrage, 'cause artillery is nasty stuff.  It's like the loudest train roaring right by your head.  That's the noise, you know?  The ground shakes, it's terrifying.  It was at that moment I said, "This is not the war they talked about when I was in training." I'm sitting there with a reinforced regiment of Marines, you're talking 6,000 Marines, fully armed with tanks.  And we're all worried about getting overrun.  This is like Korea, this is like World War II. 

Ray Stubbe:
Probably the most bloodiest battle of the whole Vietnam War.  There were some days that we would take up to 1300 incoming rounds a day, despite all our bombing.  B-52 strikes, saturation bombing.  The ground was rocking constantly.  There's many passages in the book of Isaiah, talking about the earth being shaken and mountains trembling.  Words from the Bible suddenly became very, very real. 

Lance Larson:
President Johnson swore he wasn't going to lose Khe Sanh.  Those B-52s were incredible, they bombed every day.  You had to get in your hole because you wouldn't hear the planes.  Then, suddenly, the earth is shaking and you'd see these huge mountains and geysers of smoke and destruction, and big chunks of metal flying through the air, even though it's 2,000 meters away.  And we'd say, how can anything live through that?  But they did. 

Ray Stubbe:
We all got to the point where we knew we were all going to die.  I guess because we knew we were going to die, we were so much freer to live.  You didn't have to worry about getting wounded, or worry about dying, 'cause you know you're going to die anyway.  So, if some guy's out there by himself, wounded, and the rounds are going off, well, just go out, run out, dash out, and drag him in. 

Lance Larson:
It went on until the end of March, until Operation Pegasus.  It was over two months.  It was starting to wear us out.  We were really tired, wore out.  Ron was a radio man, one of my best friends, he was killed.  My other buddy, Saxon, was really hurt and medivac-ed out.  The major I was the radio man for was all messed up, he was medivac-ed.  The colonel was hit.  His aide was hit.  Everybody was pretty much hit, except for me.  I spent all my time with them.  They were my, like, sense of humor.  They were my strength.  Then like that, a man's killed or even wounded.  Even if he's wounded, it's the same thing.  He's gone, just like that.  Just-- It's very hard, it's very hard.  It was very hard. 

Ray Stubbe:
When I was evacuated, I ended up at the Naval Support Activity, which is a medical facility at Danang.  I arrived there around lunchtime, and they had white tablecloths.  And here I was, I must have stunk terribly.  Gaunt, emaciated, full of mud that had impregnated my skin, and you couldn't wash it off.  Wearing a helmet, flak jacket, and here are all these officers, these doctors, in their starched utilities, with creases down their trousers, you know, sitting like civilized people, eating their lunch.  And here I walk in.  And it was quiet, and no one would-- No one sat with me. 

 

TET 1968

Roger Treece:
I was assigned to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 1.  I had a top secret crypto clearance.  That's just about as high as you can go without being the president.  I wasn't allowed to leave base without two armed escorts.  And I wasn't allowed to carry a weapon, because of my security clearance.  The instructions to my escorts were to kill me, rather than let me be captured. 

Ted Fetting:
And of course, word had gotten round that there were build-ups all over the place.  That was -- in a delta, leading into Tet.  I don't think anybody had any idea it was going to be that bad.  Because I think they would've been better prepared, and dealt with it better.  We were incredulous, areas that we could go through normally, you know, all of a sudden, there were all kinds of enemy. 

Don Jones:
I was an advisor to the Vietnamese.  Pretty impressed with the corps staff.  Very well-grounded in what they were doing.  Things were looking pretty good in November.  Things got a little tight in December.  And in the Danang area, we started seeing a lot of activity to our west.  It kept building and building during January.  It was clear that something was going to happen, somewhere along the way. 

Thomas Baertsch:
The South Vietnamese, untold by people that know now, were pretty much wise to what was going to go on.  They knew that this wasn't going to be what the Americans thought it was going to be, there was going to be a cease-fire for that holiday.  They had fully intended to try and overrun as many places as they could. 

Miles Wilkins:
I was assigned as the X-O for a special forces camp.  We were a relatively small camp, a few hundred indigenous troops.  But they sent like a battalion along with, I think, as many as 17 tanks to attack our camp.  And we lost that one. 

Thomas Baertsch:
I was asleep in a bunker, and all of a sudden I hear this, "Any station this net, any station this net.  We're being overrun, we've got gooks on the wire." And I looked into where the radio operator was, and he was sleeping.  So I got up, I went over, and I got on the radio.  I just said, "This is 7-4-3 Charlie, can I get any assistance?" And the guy keys the mic again, and you can just hear this horrific battle raging. 

Don Jones:
The morning of Tet, we got awakened at about 4:30.  The first thing that I noticed when I got to the compound was that there were South Vietnamese army forces up on the back wall.  And they were firing off the back wall with rifles and machine guns.  And I figured that probably was not something that they were doing for practice. 

Miles Wilkins:
And there was a tank that was probably 15-20 yards away from us, just sitting there pointed.  And then he fired at us with his main gun.  I got hit in the hip, and it was like I was paralyzed, I was down on all fours.  In fact, the colonel said, "I think Wilkens has had it." And I can't-- It's probably just a matter of seconds, but I'm wanting to say, "No, I haven't!" And the colonel helped me.  And actually, we went underneath the dispensary building.  Now it's in the middle of the night, and they've pretty much gained control of the hill by then.  The NVA troops were in, going through the dispensary.  They were basically walking like six inches over our head. 

Ted Fetting:
It was bedlam.  And a lot of people killed, a lot of people killed.  When I was hit twice, they came in with choppers and got me out of there.  Here I am, being taken to this aid station.  We get down there, we get inside, and we're told it's too hot, we've got to get out of here.  So you've got to lift out of an area like that.  And we did, and I was convinced that was it, this is Waterloo. 

Roger Treece:
Sirens went off.  We went in the bunker.  Between our barracks and the flight line was the ammo dump.  They hit the ammo dump.  And it was burning, so it lit everything up like a torch.  And the bunker's shaking, and no weapon.  Knowing that if the Marines fall back, they're going to blow our bunker on the way through, because we're all expendable in here.  And you're sitting in there in the dark, and the rats are running over your legs, in your skivvies.  "Get me out of here." Didn't think I'd make it through that night. 

Thomas Baertsch:
He was in such dire straits that he gave me the coordinates to the center of his compound.  And he said, "Start dropping them in and walking them out to the wire." I knew it was at Ca Mau.  Their main communication got knocked out, and they were on a jerry-rigged antenna from the back of a Jeep.  And just because we were on top of that hill, that's why we heard them.  So I was relaying.  Called for artillery support.  "This is --7-4-3 Charlie, give me some battery, one round, on this coordinate."

Don Jones:
The general walked over to a map and took his swagger stick and he pointed to the village behind us.  He just said, "They're in there.  We need to get rid of 'em." So for the better part of a couple hours, the planes at Danang would just take off, make a left turn, fly behind the compound, drop their bombs, circle around, land, get more.  That was the end of the threat to Danang. 

Miles Wilkins:
To the best of my knowledge, the first and one of the only times that they ever used the tanks in the entire conflict in Vietnam.  There were 24 Americans in camp.  14 got out, 13 were wounded, and ten were missing.  The A-team at -- was the most decorated A-team in United States history. 

Ted Fetting:
The whole place was chaos.  Saigon itself was chaos.  Being taken by bus from the hospital to the plane, I don't think any of us were confident that we were out of it yet.  Got on that plane and the old plane took off.  Then, we're thinking, we're going to get shot down at the end of the runway.  Oh, man.  When we lifted off and we were out of range, it was just an incredible, incredible feeling.  I guess I'm going to see tomorrow after all. 

Don Jones:
There was praise, I think, for General Lam, in terms of inside the Vietnamese circles, nationally and locally, for having saved Danang.  But there were other parts of the country where it stayed hot for a long, long time.  For the South Vietnamese, it was a very tough time.  They just got hammered. 

Miles Wilkins:
This was a very organized military type of attack.  There's nothing amateurish about it.  And in fact, the entire Tet Offensive, how many places they hit with such force at one time?  It was really probably a turning point in terms of, if nothing else, respect for the degree of military force that they were able to employ. 

Thomas Baertsch:
Ca Mau was this provincial headquarters.  There was only 50 guys there.  Overrun, 100% causalities, 23 of them dead.  35 years later, Christmas Eve, I get an email that simply said that he was Captain McMaken, and he was the one that was on the radio that night.  And that if it wasn't for --7-4-3 Charlie, that there wouldn't be anybody left.  That's heavy, you know.  And it's not for me, it's for them.  There were a lot of guys that didn't make it. 

Roger Treece:
After Tet, I didn't go back in a bunker.  I'd find a ditch.  I'd find anything.  I would not go back in a bunker.  I didn't want to be trapped again.  I'd made my peace.  I was ready to die, you know.  And unfortunately, I felt that way for 28 years.  Just waiting to die. 

 

HUE CITY , FEBRUARY 1968

Sam King:
We'd been on patrols and been in a little bit, but nothing till Hue City.  Tet, New Year, in '68, the Viet Cong overran Hue City, took it and dug in.  And we had to go in and dig 'em out.  I mean, literally, you know, dig 'em out.  Out of holes, out of little bunkers.  I went into Hue City, low man on the totem pole, you know, PFC.  It was a full squad.  Came out with a full squad, I think it was 14 days later.  But it was me and one other guy, were the only two from the original ones that went in.  The rest were either killed or wounded. 

Charlie Wolden:
They formed up a large group of people, and they issued us new weapons and gear, and put us on trucks headed to Hue.  The trucks we had, had boxes of ammo.  Crates and mortar rounds.  We’re sitting on top of it.  So we're all sitting on top of it.  As we were going into Hue, people were coming out of Hue, just streaming.  It was like the parting of the Red Sea, people just getting out of our way and we were smoking into Hue.  First thing I saw was a tank jammed up into a building that was all burned out.  There was a Jeep that was all burned out with a body hanging out of it.  And the billows of dust coming up, you couldn't see in front of you.  And then the shooting started.  Just deafening.  And I'd see flashes coming out of the buildings around us, I didn't know if anybody was shot or what.  The next thing I remember, I'm laying on the ground, boxes of ammo all over the place.  Those mortar rounds we were sitting on.  And the truck was on its side, hit a bomb crater.  And it just went over, okay?  And a "ping, ping." When a bullet goes near you, it's like "snap." But it was hitting the ground, it was like, "crack, crack, crack, crack!" And they're hitting.  Dust all around me.  I thought, I'll just lay here, they'll think I'm dead.  And the other thing that became really apparent right then, there was no background music, man, this is real.  As simple as that is.  This is real. 

Sam King:
Well, the guys that had been there a long time had never been in something like that, Hue City.  Sometimes, the bullets would be flying, tracers.  It almost looked like you could walk on 'em.  I was totally baptized in all aspects of it, from seeing my friend die to seeing an enemy die at my hands.  It changed me forever. 

Charlie Wolden:
Nobody knew how big a unit it was or anything.  They started sending Marine companies in there and they just-- They were just too little.  The NVA were all over the place.  They were on streets, or in alleys, or in buildings.  They were all over the place.  And it was every day.  Every day we were making contact.  Every day we're taking casualties.  Every day we're going through houses.  Every day we're running across streets that had snipers block by block. 

Sam King:
It would take us sometimes a day to go 100 yards, if you were lucky.  And the heat and smell.  The smell was something else, smell in combat, smell in war, after a battle that's went on for a few days, it's just something else.  Blood has its own smell.  It smells like hot copper. 

Charlie Wolden:
We were down from a squad of maybe a dozen people down to five.  And they sent our squad out on kind of a recon.  And all of a sudden, all hell broke loose.  I mean, it was just shoot, shoot, shoot! All over us, okay?  I had a sharp pain right here, right underneath my arm.  I said, "I think I was hit!" And Cole looks at me.  Cole, over the top of Dunham, he says, "On count of three, we're out of here! One, two, three!" We got up, I got up, Dunham got up, and just, poof, out of his back.  I mean, it was instantaneous.  It's entrenched in my mind.  Poof, and he fell forward, right through the shoulder blades. 

Sam King:
Guys, you know, run through fire, I think some of the bravest people who did the bravest acts I've ever seen, never ever got any credit.  Didn't really want any. 

Charlie Wolden:
Yeah, I ran out and got that guy.  And I did it because I was terrified.  But my definition of being a hero as a child was, you're John Wayne, you're fearless, okay?  I was terrified over there.  The definition is overcoming your fear to do your job.  And I don't think much of the word "hero" any way you look at it. 

Sam King:
You never knew where they were going to spring up from.  You couldn't call in the air strikes, because it was the ancient capital, and the Vietnamese government didn't want any air strikes.  That citadel wall, it was a castle.  So they knew we were going to come through these particular gates into the inner city into the citadel itself.  They were just set up there with machine guns. 

Charlie Wolden:
We were only allowed to have, in Hue, on the south side, direct fire weapons.  That means, we didn't have any mortars or artillery.  They didn't want to destroy the city.  Ancient courtyards.  These things are hundreds of years old.  Don't wreck the courtyards, okay?  And the irony of it is, before we were done, the city was in rubble, just what you had to do, because it was every damn house. 

Sam King:
But it wasn't till late in the battle that they actually let two planes, they had to be Vietnamese pilots, come in and knock out a section of the wall.  When we finally took the citadel, it was kind of over.  It was mopping up.  Got through that unscratched, which amazes me to this day.  Come home.  And the war was, after the Tet in '68, it got terribly unpopular among the people.  That was a hard thing to go through, screaming the standard "Baby killer," and "You should've died in Vietnam." For doing what we considered our duty.  All us 18, 19, 20-year-old Marines, soldiers, airmen, Navy guys, we didn't know about the damn politics of the thing.  Most of us hadn't been old enough to vote, hardly, you know?  I hate to say it about my country, but at that time, it was not a good place to be if you were in the military.  So I asked for orders back to Vietnam. 

Charlie Wolden:
They had a saying, "Don't mean nothing, don't mean a goddamn thing." Suck it up.  Don't mean nothing, don't mean a damn thing.  Don't put a meaning on it.  You put a meaning on it, you start thinking about it.  You start thinking on it, you start feeling.  Suck it up and move out.  And the purpose was to get us through.  To emotionally and physically survive it.  We called it "the 'Nam." The 'Nam.  And "the world." That was the real world, this was the surreal world.  This was not real.  This isn't the world.  This is not the world that I want to live in.  That's the world.  But I just didn't fit. 

 

BROWN WATER NAVY: MOBILE RIVERINE FORCE

Michael Hoks:
I was the first one to put my hand up when he asked for volunteers for Vietnam.  We were the first River Division over there, which was something I didn't hear of.  And apparently, that's what I volunteered for.  In World War II, most people remember the boats going up on the beach, dropping a ramp, and the army guys running off.  That's exactly what we were on.  However, this boat was totally re-fitted.  It was our job to get the army where we knew there was heavy concentration of North Vietnamese.  And then we would go in and drop 'em off, give 'em gun support and medical evacuation.  Complete evacuation when the operation was over, or if something went wrong. 

Bruce Jensen:
The boats that I was on, we went up some rivers where the boats were longer than the river was wide.  And we had to pull up onto the beach and back down just to turn around.  But my boat, being equipped with a helicopter pad, we were the medical aid boat for the division.  And my job, when we brought in the helicopters, I'd have to get out of my gun mount, go up and stand on the corner of the flight deck, and wave the pilot in to set down.  He couldn't actually see, because the nose of the helicopter was over the edge. 

Mike Demske:
I got orders for swiftboats.  The delta area where I was stationed, there was no highways.  To get from village to village, you had to go by boat.  And we were supposed to patrol and prevent any infiltration of supplies, medical supplies, food, ammunition, to the VC.  They would try to sneak it in via the ocean.  And our job was to stop that.  And then Admiral Zumwalt took over as head of the Navy in Vietnam, and we became river runners. 

Ken McGwin:
Went to the Westchester County.  We had about 120 in the ship's company, and the LSTs had that unusual mission, you know, of being able to navigate the waters of the Mekong.  Far up into the delta, where other Navy ships could not go.  The armored gunboats, the tangos, would tie up alongside the LST, refuel, meals, try to repair.  And at night they would circle, drop grenades in the water to try to keep the Viet Cong from being able to swim out there and do damage with mines or explosive charges. 

Michael Hoks:
We helped each other.  It wasn't Army, Navy.  It was Riverine Force.  If the Army was still on the boats, they'd get their guns out there.  And one side or the other side, sometimes both sides of the boat, we had shooting.  We worked together with them very, very closely.  I have a high regard for the 9th Infantry.  Because at a top speed of less than ten miles an hour, we had to fight our way out of any situation. 

Bruce Jensen:
Very few missions that we went on, did we go in and out without receiving fire.  One time, something out of the corner of my eye just caught my attention.  I look up, and here was a mortar shell going up, and I was just mesmerized by it.  And then it started coming down.  And then it dawned on me, exactly what was going on.  I thought, "Oh, hell." I ran and I dove.  I went right through the opening of the gun mount! And back up, firing away. 

Mike Demske:
Once you started running the rivers, invariably you were going to get ambushed someplace.  For a while there, I think 75% of the people that were on the boats were killed or wounded.  Everybody on my crew was wounded at least twice.  I mean, the jungle was right up to the riverbanks.  That's when Admiral Zumwalt ordered the use of Agent Orange.  After they had sprayed it, you swore you were on the moon.  There was nothing alive, just incredible.  But it did move the VC back further. 

Ken McGwin:
Early morning hours, two tremendous explosions, and they had managed to get out there.  Frogmen fastened targets on both sides of the ship.  The worst damage of any Navy ship in the war.  Many, many people dead.  Many, many people hurt.  It was just, try to find them and get the ones that were alive out of there if we could.  We couldn't use torches to cut people out because of the diesel fuel, and it was vaporized in the air.  Just choking.  You could hear people struggling to get out.  They died, I suppose.  We just couldn't get to them in time.  Everybody fought back with everything they had, and...  (voice breaks) It was a hard thing to do. 

Michael Hoks:
We'd drop them off at first light, help them off the boat.  And then we would just stay in the area.  And when they confronted any enemy action, they would radio back to us.  And if we could help with the machine guns or the mortars, that was our immediate duty.  Otherwise, they'd give us coordinates and we would have the howitzers or the flyboys come in.  Then there were times where the Viet Cong resistance was bigger than what we expected.  And they knew they could not cross the river because of the boats.  Then they would fight back through the Army.  And it was always a very depressing day when you knew that you were supposed to...  pick up 40 guys and only 20 show up. 

Bruce Jensen:
Being the medical aid boat, we had it somewhat cushy compared to the rest.  But we still had our fire fights.  And we got to deal with the wounded.  Some of it bad, but we were part of the getting them out, and getting them to safety.  I've seen enough blood and gore to last me a lifetime. 

Mike Demske:
I remember talking to Admiral Zumwalt at one of our reunions.  His son was on swiftboats, and he ended up dying from cancer from exposure to Agent Orange.  He said if he had to do it all over again, he'd still do it, because it gave us 30 more years to live, even though a lot of us suffer from exposure to it.  We were young and dumb, and we didn't know what the effects would be of it.  I don't think the Navy knew what they were.  We would tie our clothes on a rope, and throw them in the prop wash when we were running.  It's the only way we had of cleaning our clothes.  Here, the river was full of Agent Orange, the riverbanks were, and it just, we didn't know it. 

Ken McGwin:
All my memories of Vietnam just focus right back on that one night.  And I had thought that when I got older, it wouldn't bother me anymore.  But it does, it gets worse.  And no matter how hard I try, I can't shake that guilt.  I've had the chance to have a good life.  And they never did.  They never had a chance. 

 

THE PRICE: CASUALTIES OF WAR

Andrew Thundercloud:
Some of the religious things that we have, have a lot to do with warriors.  And there were certain times that I had heard these warriors tell their stories.  I often listened to them, and I never, ever really gave it much of a thought.  It was something that I accepted, that perhaps one of these days I was going to be doing that.  And I know my mother always wanted to have a doctor in the family, so I became a corpsman.  My father had been a Marine during World War II.  He'd go around and tell people, "My son is a corpsman with the United States Marine Corps." 

Linda McLenahan:
It was actually my intention to become a sister when I graduated from high school.  But in 1967, the Vietnam War was hot and heavy, protests were hot and heavy.  It moved me to a point of, I was tired of the people in the street telling me how to think, or the government telling me how to think.  So at that moment I decided, before I give my life to God, I'd give three years of my life to my country.  So when I graduated in June, I joined the army. 

Mike Weaver:
I signed up into the medical corps.  And the flight going over was terrible.  It was the most gut wrenching, unnerving thing you've ever sat in, because everybody in that plane knew where you were going.  Everybody knew that not everybody in that plane was going to come back alive, or not injured.  It was surreal.  Civilian stewardesses, cute gals, very friendly, trying to give you some water, or a pop, or a snack, knowing that not everybody would come back. 

Sue Haack:
I worked for a two-star general, General Burba.  He said, "Your job in Vietnam is only going to be six months.  Because the guy that had it before you had ten days left in 'Nam, and went outside the hooch and shot himself.  He couldn't deal with the job anymore." And there was only two of us women and 26 guys in the office.  But I was picked to do that, handling of the dead.  How they were killed, when they were killed.  And send the letters home. 

Andrew Thundercloud:
And I never really talk about the first six months that I was in Vietnam.  I refuse, you know, I just absolutely refuse to talk about that.  All I'll say is, I survived.  One of the chief hospital corpsman from MAAG 16 came to our unit, and was looking for corpsmen to volunteer to go fly medevacs.  That was the only time in my entire military career that I volunteered for anything. 

Linda McLenahan:
Got to the WAC detachment on Long Binh post.  Now, the WAC detachment, there were about 7,500 or 8,000 women in Vietnam.  Most of them were nurses.  The rest of us were enlisted women or officers who worked in administration, finance, communications.  I was at the Com Center, the communications facility there, the US Army in the Republic of Vietnam.  All the casualty reports went out of our office. 

Mike Weaver:
One day, we were assigned to a remains unit, for deploying some of the fallen.  They had not been, if I can use the term, processed yet.  So they were still, many of them were in body bags.  It was an old French factory building.  And the first time I saw the first Indiana Jones movie, where you get to the end of the movie, and the ark is being hauled down this huge aisle, and then the camera pans back and you see how large this building is, and you see all these other crates that look the same as that crate?  That's the same feeling I had. 

Sue Haack:
It was a daily, basically, all-day thing.  It never ended, the letters going home, having to send those.  There was nothing warm about a form letter on my typewriter, and I just added the name.  "Mr.  and Mrs.  John Doe," and "your son." They were signed by the government.  So you just-- It was a cold feeling.  I mean, you hated it, but somebody had to do it. 

Andrew Thundercloud:
When we would fly medevac, we'd fly from 6:00 in the morning till 6:00 in the evening, then another corpsman would come in and fly from 6:00pm to 6:00 in the morning.  Once we landed and we started picking up the WIAs or KIAs, I got busy taking care of the wounded.  There were hundreds, hundreds, of wounded Marines that I picked up.  I saw everything imaginable. 

Linda McLenahan:
One day on the radio, we picked up a squad that was under attack, that was asking for help.  And...  They didn't get it.  To helplessly listen...  was kind of tough.  I lost God over there.  So my idea of being a sister after I got out was out the window.  Of course, years later, I was able to put all that in the proper perspective. 

Mike Weaver:
You try to dehumanize it as much as you can, because if you don't, you just can't get through it.  And then it revisits you again, and again, and again.  I call it the "demons." And it will destroy you.  It will literally destroy you. 

Sue Haack:
"Haack the WAC," "Suzie with the Oozy." We were silly girls in 'Nam.  You had to be.  You had to keep the morale up of the men, even if you didn't feel it.  You had to be there for them.  I was a soldier.  I couldn't do anything about protecting them there, but all the ones that I had to put away, I guess the rest alive are mine.  I was just very protective of them.  And I've always said, "My soldiers, my buddies." Always been.  I've said that ever since I came home from Vietnam.  It's just me.  
Andrew Thundercloud:
There were 15 of us that went over to Vietnam at the same time.  And there were only three of us that came back.  I guess to be honest with you, I really didn't want to come home.  Because I was thinking, "Who can take care of these guys better than I can?" The thing I wanted to be remembered, was that I was a good corpsman.  And I'd, you know, hope that somebody would say, "Well, Doc Thundercloud." "Oh yeah, I remember him! Damn good corpsman." That's all I wanted. 

Linda McLenahan:
It would get to the point where a lot of choppers would be coming in, and they'd say, "It's going to be a busy day tomorrow.  We're going to have a lot of casualty reports," and think of the people coming in as work rather than people, because it got too hard.  It got too hard.  That was what hit me about the wall actually.  I processed names all the time, and here are all these names.  That's when I lost it the first time. 

Mike Weaver:
I lost 18 schoolmates from Janesville.  The year I was in Vietnam, over 16,000 American military personnel were lost.  It is staggering to me.  I think that works out to about 40 or 50 a day. 

Linda McLenahan:
You want my poem?  Okay, all right, you ready?  War is hell, a wise man said.  And those who knew so nodded.  War is hell, a young voice cried and with his friends he plotted to lead his troops of neighbor chums against imagined foes.  To charge and die a thousand deaths, up and down he goes.  Charging bushes tall and green around his father's yard, collapsing upon the soft green grass after fighting brave and hard.  Then gather round and re-choose sides, new strategies to form.  Then charge and fall and rise again, no losses do they mourn.  But suddenly, the boys grow up and the game's no longer fun.  Their friends, they die and don't get up, and they're not sure just what they've won.  And the neighbor girls who couldn't play with little boys at war, become nurses and support troops who give them care and more.  And soon they find what others know.  They learned the lesson well.  It's just the way the wise man said.  Truly, war is hell. 

Announcer:
Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories was made possible by lead 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. 

 
OTHER VIDEO+

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.

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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