Part 3: Draw Down

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.

PREMIERE DATE: May 26, 2010

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War Transcript: 

Part 3: Draw Down

Don Heiliger:It was on the 15th of May. It was a night mission. We were heading-- 30 miles northeast of Hanoi. Just about ten seconds before bombs away. Got a little tug on the back of the airplane. And all the lights starting coming on right away. The fire light. We got our bombs off. And then, immediately started to climb. There's an old adage, the air above you doesn't do you any good when you're bailing out. You want a lot of air below you. So we got to 5,000 then 10,000. By that time, we were watching the fire creeping forward in the airplane. Then Ben says, the fire's gotten to my cockpit, I've got to get out. And he ejected. I got to about 23,000 feet and the fire got to my cockpit. What you do, is you pull up the handles. That just arms the system. You squeeze the triggers. It blows the canopy. Point-three seconds later, you shoot out. A lot of interrogations. A lot of tough ones, people beating you up. Good guards, bad guards. For six years.

Narrator:
When Don Heiliger became a prisoner of the North Vietnamese in 1967, he thought the war would be won in six months. When he was released more than six years later, it had been decided that Vietnam was a war the United States would never win. And while Don waited for freedom, tens of thousands of men and women from Wisconsin served in Southeast Asia, living new stories every day. "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.

 

BROKEN BODIES: FOREVER

David Kies:
At 7:20 in the morning, along the river, we were policing up our equipment and boom, the thing went off. I still don't know what happened exactly, how it went off. The guy I was with, Eric, was killed. And we both lost both our legs. He died and I didn't. And the third guy who was with us, I never knew his name, got both his eardrums broken. There was always a medic very close. He shoved a cigarette in my mouth and he gave me a shot of morphine. I said, "Give me another one." He said, "I can't. It's against regulation." But he did. That's probably why I didn't pass out. They took me to the helicopter. One of the guys that I met at my first reunion said, "I've been holding this back for 33 years." But he said, "I threw your legs on the helicopter." (laughs)

John Dederich:
You wake up, you've got tubes coming out of you every which direction. You look around. And you say, well, "I really don't want to live anyway." Then I flew back to the field hospital in Danang. Thrown into just a huge area, where wounded people are coming in and out, and they're doing surgery on 'em, and putting them on a stretcher, hosing off the cement area where they're doing it, and bringing on another one. You're laying there, just kind of watching it, trying to get the hell out of there. I remember turning to once side so I wouldn't have to watch the constant traffic. You think the only war that's going on is the one that you're fighting. When I was in that field hospital, I realized that there's thousands of them just like us, and they're getting wounded every day.

Alice Plautz:
Sometimes we'd work 18, 20, 24 hours straight, just getting everybody off the table. We had neurosurgeons. We had chest surgeons. Orthopedics. All the different specialties, so that like, if they were wounded, and they went to a surgical hospital, which was just immediate, you know, get him breathing and keeping him alive, then they would come to us. But a lot of times, we would get the fresh wounded. There were many nights that we would get 300 to 350 in about an eight hour period. And sometimes, they'd be on our operating table a half-hour after they were wounded. There would be blood all over the place. The floor, you know, they would wash it in between. But you could be standing in blood through the whole case. And when you've watched them cut the arms, the legs, and then take out the eyes of a 19-year-old, you want to go, "Ah, get me out of here!"

David Kies:
Came back to Walter Reed. That was a great place, unlike what you hear today. A ward with about 40 beds on it. It was an amputee ward. Some guys, by that time, were hooked on morphine. It was a lot of screaming. If you didn't know, you'd swear you were in a crazy house someplace, just like a mental ward. But I had a doctor, he came to me and he said, "I know what they're going to do to you." They wanted to give me a knee disarticulation, in other words, take my knee apart. He said, "Don't let them do it. I know where you're going. You're going to Madison when you get out of here. There's some really good doctors in Madison."

John Dederich:
When I went from Danang to the Philippines, that's where I met probably the smartest or cruelest doctor in my life. He yanked the bandages off of my raw wounds on both of my legs. And he said, "Son, you're just a mess. You're going to cost us a lot of money to put back together. You better go get a good job and pay a lot of taxes." (laughs) You know, at the time, I thought it was a pretty good statement. I thought it was funny.

Alice Plautz:
One of the things I still haven't figured out how they did it, is they always had their records with them. And I would open the records and I would say, this is Johnny Brown from Cincinnati, Ohio. And he's got two sisters and three brothers. And I realized, this was making it more difficult. And one night, one of the surgeons said, "Alice, you haven't read us a chart in a long time, or one of the records." I said, "No, and I'm never going to do it again." And he started to laugh. He says, "Yeah, I know what you're thinking." Because it was-- They became your younger brothers.

David Kies:
I did come back to Madison, the hospital. Wheeled me into the back. They just left me there on a gurney with a sheet over me. This guy walked up to me in a three-piece suit, and whipped the covers back and started poking me. Well, he had a cigarette in his mouth with an ash about two inches long. I thought it was going to fall on me. That was my doctor. (laughs)

John Dederich:
I flew into a Naval hospital. Amputees, as a group, there was one, two, three wards of them, which would've been about 60 amputees. Just from Vietnam at the time. You know, we're in a wheelchair for six or seven months. One of the funniest things you ever see in your life is two amputees in wheelchairs, you know, trying to-- One guy says, "I'll kick your ass." Then the other guy says, "With what?!" You know, it just can't happen. But yeah, we would practice, you know, balancing on the back wheels of the wheelchair, going down the hills of San Francisco.

David Kies:
I had a Corvair at the time. I used to drive it with my hands, totally illegal. 'Cause they were so small, I could just reach down and brake. And for the gas, I'd use my cane. I remember going to my dentist. And he was on the second story of an old hospital building. I'd throw my wheelchair up as far as I could get it, then climb up on my knees, get it, throw it up some more. I went two flights of stairs that way. (laughs) But there were barriers everywhere. There were no disabled plates for the car. There were no hang tags for the mirror. There was never a ramp anywhere. But it was because of the Vietnam thing, that it all came about.

Alice Plautz:
We had a room where people could come in and sit down. We had television. And we used to watch. At the end of the week, they would give you the statistics of what happened that week, 50 people wounded, three people killed. And we'd say, "Isn't that fascinating that in this whole country, they're saying only 50 people were injured? Do you think they counted those 300 that they brought to us a couple days ago?" Even then, they weren't telling the truth about how many people were wounded.

John Dederich:
I think learning to walk with the artificial legs was probably the biggest challenge. We had people that just would throw their meals. They wouldn't take any treatment. They would refuse to wear an artificial limb or leg, and all those kinds of things. And I felt the same way, when I didn't want to live, or when I didn't want anybody to see me the way I was. You know, am I fortunate that I was 19? Yeah, kind of, because I didn't have a choice. The other choice was not to. You know, so I had my whole life ahead of me. I spent ten months in a country that determined how I was going to live the rest of my life. So, yeah, I was going to either feel sorry for myself, or get on and make some doctor in the Philippines really happy.

 

HAMBURGER HILL: MAY 1969

Cletus Hardy:
The way I actually got in there was a judge by the name of Orthouse in Lancaster, Wisconsin, telling me that I better pray that I passed my physical. He had decided that the military was probably a better place for me than the streets around Fennimore, Wisconsin. So that's basically how I got in. I think me called me Mr. Hardy at the time. When he said that, I was pretty sure he was serious.

Roger Harrison:
March of '69, when I got to Cam Ranh Bay, they gave me my orders for 101st Airborne Division. And I went to the First Sergeant and I said, "You can't put me in the 101st Airborne Division. I've never jumped out of an airplane. I'm not jump qualified." He said, "I don't give a 
(---), that's where you're going." (laughs) They don't care. I was only with my company a month when they sent us into the A Shau Valley.

Cletus Hardy:
The A Shau Valley, when Hamburger Hill came around, Battalion Commander Hunnicut, he got it in his head that he was going to take that mountain come hell or high water. Terrifically mountainous terrain. They, the Vietnamese, who had a hell of a base camp coming into the backside of that, they're actually driving trucks and tanks into that base camp up there. And he decides he's going to come up the front side and take it away from them.

 

Roger Harrison:
Around May 10, they sent us up on Hamburger Hill. Dropped off on the west end of the hill, one of the ridge lines going into Hamburger Hill. We fought every day, sometimes two and three times a day. They'd pull back. They might make a hundred yards, or so. Make contact again. And one day, our point man got killed. I don't think he made ten yards. We stayed there for two days and never moved.

Cletus Hardy:
You've got a sister battalion in trouble, you go into high alert. Well, as luck would have it, all of the people that could've gone back up there, he only needed one more company to take this mountain, as he was saying it. That company happened to be A Company, the 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry. And our claim to fame, we were the Band of Brothers. They flew us back up there. And we were there for four assaults on the mountain. And I never, never, never did understand it.

Roger Harrison:
I was just coming out of the thick stuff. I was the first guy to move up, and all of a sudden, seeing white shrapnel. I never heard the explosion. When I hit the dirt, the ground, then all hell broke loose. They were coming close. I could feel the dirt hitting my helmet and my back. And I couldn't get a shot off. I was pinned down. The rest of my guys had to come up, lay down a base of fire so I could get up. I took about two steps and dove, and just started doing the whole crawl. I got back into the middle of the company, grabbed an M-60 machine gun, grabbed as much ammunition as I could carry, 'cause all of a sudden I heard my guys hollering for the medic. I went up there and helped them guys out. We lost everybody in my squad but two guys and me.

Cletus Hardy:
And I don't think anybody will ever know how many died up there. It was hang onto tree roots to pull yourself as you went up that damn thing. It was so slick and so, you know, it rained. And if it weren't raining, it would be hard to go up it. Plus, you've got, I don't even know how many Vietnamese up there, that are trying to kill you. And they're dug in. And when you think it can't get no worse than this, it would get worse than that. I never had any respect for that man afterwards, Hunnicut. I can remember him coming across the radio. People were going, "You're going to get us all killed. You've got to get us the hell out of here." And he said, "You're getting paid to fight a war, not make decisions." He's up there right now in a helicopter, for Christ sakes, 2,000 or 3,000 feet above us.

Roger Harrison:
It was either one or two days before we took the hill that we moved off the ridge and we tied into another company. Because we were short of people, we had to tie into somebody else to get some strength up. On the 19th, we had some fighting. And on the 20th, it was all over with.

Cletus Hardy:
On the top, it happened that we ended up getting up there first. Hunnicut could see what was going on from the air, and it wasn't his unit. A third of the 187, I think, was called Rakkasans. And the Rakkasans, he said had given so much for that hill that they had to be the ones to take it. It's raining, and mud slides, and there's dead bodies everywhere. I've got to think that's what Hell must look like. He wanted our company to hold up so he could get a company moved up so they could pass us to go up to the top of that mountain. And I'll never forget that. I thought what the hell kind of game are we playing here, with all these lives?

Roger Harrison:
In my company, we started out with 115 guys. And after we took the hill, there was 37 of us left.

Cletus Hardy:
We were up there, but I can't ever say we took it, 'cause I don't think we spent ten minutes up there the whole damn time. We went down and they started airlifting people out. That was the end of it. It was for nought. It's a terrible, terrible thing that happened there.

Roger Harrison:
A lot of people weren't happy that we had to leave it. I mean, why spend all that time? Why didn't you pull us off and B-52 it after the first couple of days? You know, why did we have get all these guys hurt, then leave it, then B-52 it?

Cletus Hardy:
The things that the veterans have been through, the Vietnam Vets, we all came home and depending on what your buddies were doing, smoked pot and drank beer, and self-medicated for a lot of years. For a lot of guys, the nightmares, the cold sweats, they're still there to this day, and they'll never go away. I know they'll never go away. My mother was telling us when we first came home, how scared they were. They just didn't know what the hell was going to happen. I'd just tear out of bed at night, go flying outside, and just gone. Just running in my sleep. Gone.

Roger Harrison:
For, I don't know, maybe eight or ten years, getting up screaming, in a cold sweat. Just jumping off the bed and hitting the floor, all kinds of different things. But yeah, you still have them.

 

FIREPOWER: AIR SUPERIORITY

James Overman:
The first day of pilot training, we were standing at attention, and this guy walks up and he said, "What the hell are you?" I said, "My dad is from Germany and my mother is 100% Native American." "I want to tell you something, Indian. There are no Indians who are ever going to fly my (---) airplanes." Wow. My dream was to take anything to be a pilot. And this guy's insulting me. And once in my lifetime, I knew enough to keep quiet, because the goal was bigger than this dummy. My dad and my mother, they came to my graduation. I'm very proud of that moment, and I think about it all the time.

Ray Boland:
There were two units in Vietnam called Aerial Rocket Artillery. Cobra Gunships. We were flying helicopters, but everything we did was managed by the Field Artillery Fire Control System. So, typically, when we took off, it was in response to a Forward Observer on the ground with the Infantry, calling for a fire mission, where the enemy was so close, they could no longer use cannon fire. Typically, we were firing within 25 meters of the friendlies, both day and night.

Dave Van Dyke:
The Forward Air Controller, the FAC was in charge of the air war. There wasn't a bomb dropped in-country that didn't have a FAC in control of it. And the FAC was in contact with the ground, and had got clearance. Politically, we knew what the situation was, and we reacted with it. Being the FAC there, I think was the best job I ever had. The meaningfulness of what your decisions and what your skill produced could be really important.

Gene Hunter:
The AC-130 was pretty secret. They really didn't want people to know the platform existed. It was called SPECTRE. You notice the way SPECTRE is spelled. What it is, it's a skeleton that rides a horse at night and swings a sword of death. And that's what gunships do. They ride at night and swing a sword of death. No way would I want to be on the ground. It's just so dead-accurate. And just a short burst with the 20s, I mean, you're looking at 3,000-6,000 rounds a minute coming out of those things. And it just-- (imitates explosion) I would not want to be on the ground.

James Overman:
I called out to Military Assignments, Classified. I said, "Sir, what do you have? I want to get back over there." And they said, well, have you ever heard of the AC-130? I said, "No. We've got a gunship?" "Yeah." "That's what I want!" Our assignment was to destroy trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When you're flying over enemy territory, the sensors will light, infrared, Black Crow. We're immediately looking for trucks. The Black Crow was the most magic of all of them. And they never figured it out. The Vietnamese, the Chinese or the Russians. We would fly in a thunderstorm, or complete overcast, where we couldn't see the ground, and they couldn't see up to shoot at us, and zap a truck right through the clouds. You'd get that red flash. Yes!

Ray Boland:
The pilot in the backseat was typically the pilot in command and firing the rockets. We had four rocket pods on our aircraft, each with 19 firing tubes. So, a total of 76 rockets if you were fully loaded. You'd fire the rockets. The co-pilot in the front would suppress, with the mini-gun and grenade launcher in the turret, rake before a small arms fire was reaching you. And we would return to base, re-arm, re-load, and get ready to go out again.

Dave Van Dyke:
A company size unit had gotten surrounded. He's getting ready to put in the hard bombs. And as I rolled in, about six guys on the ground started shooting at me. I'm talking a fighter now. And you see the rocket fire, you drop the bomb on the smoke. Just shoot a rocket right back at 'em. And the lead fighter was coming down the pike already. Rocket hits, smoke, boom. And that put an end to it. That's why we didn't get into too many gun fights with the FACs. They usually tried to hide and shoot behind you. 'Cause if I saw 'em, I killed 'em, you know. That was all there was to it.

Gene Hunter:
When the AC-130 gunship flies with the rear cargo door open and the rear ramp up, we would lay off the back ramp, from about our waist up, into the slip stream, scanning for AAA, Anti-Aircraft Artillery, and call the evasive action to break right, break left, or whatever. The pilots always said they could tell how severe it was by the pitch of the IO's voice when he was yelling.

James Overman:
If this is the ramp, right here, and he's laying on there, he is down about like this, so that he can see up ahead and out to the sides. If he sees it in time, he could tell me to break to the right, and it'll go right on by, and I go back into the firing circle.

Gene Hunter:
I remember one night that we snapped so hard and dove so quick that the negative Gs came in and it lifted me up off the ramp. It was like being in outerspace. 
James Overman:
Well, this one we had, his name was Humphrey, his depth perception was perfect, because he never took a hit. They came so close, the smoke actually came in the cockpit. And I looked up through the glass and I saw all five of 'em. One, two, three, four, five. My god, we've got to talk! (laughs)

Ray Boland:
You're talking intercom with your co-pilot. You're talking one radio with your wing ship. You're talking another radio with the Air Force. Another radio with the people on the ground. Another frequency with other Hueys, if they were involved. And trying to keep all of that straight, and who was who, and who was talking to who, and which one is coming from which direction. Occasionally, people literally screaming on the radio. And the guys on the ground are popping smoke right by their position, and they're saying, "Hit the smoke." The situation was that desperate. Trying to picture being down there, and 20 meters away are all these guys coming at you. And you're not going to, after you shoot, turn around and go back to the base camp. They were still there. It was very, very tough.

Dave Van Dyke:
You got to remember, the guy on the ground, he's the same age as you are, and he's a young lieutenant. And you can tell when somebody is getting shot at, 'cause you're listening to 'em on the radio, and their voice is up an octave or ten. And he's got himself a platoon or something out there in the woods, and somebody's trying to kill them, and he doesn't know what to do about it. So, you'd calm him down and put some Napalm on those guys, or something like that. Or you'd get a guy that gets hurt, and now you're covering the dust-off. The guys are shooting at the dust-off. You'd shoot at the guys. The bad guys crawl in a hole and hide for a while, until you get your guy out of there. It's, you know, it's a good feeling.

Gene Hunter:
The adrenaline that pumps through you every single night, you would just sweat off pounds. But I didn't have to live it 24/7 like the guys on the ground. I never had to face my enemy face-to-face. I think that's one reason that I haven't had a lot of the trouble that some of the other vets have had.

 

REAR ECHELON: STILL A WAR

Doug Bradley:
It's the end of Basic Training, and we're finding out where we're going to go next. And I was one of about five people that was called out of the formation to go to this office. And they're sending me to the Army Hometown News Center in Kansas City, Missouri, because my MOS is 71-220. I'm an Information Specialist. I'm an Army Reporter and a writer. Well, I mean, I was just-- I was shaking, I was so excited. I just thought, this is great, I'm not carrying a gun. I go back to the formation, where just about everybody in my unit was being assigned to Advanced Infantry Training, and within a matter of two or three months, they were going to be in Vietnam. I couldn't share my joy for myself with anybody, because I felt so terrible. These guys were just totally bummed out.

Peter Finnegan:
I ended up in the hospital in Chu Lai. And this re-enlistment officer came around. He was going from bed to bed, talking to people. And he said, "You know, if you re-enlist, right now, I can get you out of the Infantry and get you into an entirely different place." And I said, "Well, what have you got?" He said, "Cook, mechanic, photographer." And I thought, there you go. But it turns out that I saw more on regular basis, as a photographer. So I didn't really buy myself a lot of security.

Robert Spencer:
Our unit, the 570, supplied mail to five other base camps in the Mekong Delta. My basic job was to help sort the mail, break it down, and get it out to the different areas. And to check in these different areas, to make sure that the mail had gotten there, and it was distributed properly. After 18 months, when I was sent back to the states, very, very depressed. Having problems eating, having problems sleeping. Some of the guys I played ball with were saying things like, "He stayed in Vietnam too long. Something's happened. He's not the same." After about three or four months at home, I just saved enough money to buy a one-way ticket back to Vietnam.

Doug Bradley:
They called it the air conditioned jungle, because we worked in air conditioned offices. Probably in one of the least dangerous places in Vietnam. And we had a lot of guys writing and editing for the paper, which was called The Army Reporter. It was probably the largest Army newspaper in the world, because Long Binh was the largest Army base in the world. We had about 25,000 or 30,000 GIs, and 10,000 or 15,000 Vietnamese working on that base. And we also had a magazine, and it was sort of this glossy publication about being in Vietnam.

Peter Finnegan:
The magazine, "The Hurricane" magazine, that I worked for, they wanted all color transparencies. And so, we had an unlimited supply of 35mm film. You could trade film for anything. We spent a lot of time in Saigon, at massage parlors, the bars, the cat houses. And in Vietnam, the potency of the marijuana was incredible. The opium was there. And you'd just give them some film. At that time, Saigon was a great place for a 21-year-old guy to be.

Robert Spencer:
When I stepped off of that airplane, it was like being liberated. I pulled up where I had worked, and lived with a Cambodian family. I started to learn Vietnamese, fluently, by asking questions. "How do you say, I want some water?" (speaking Vietnamese) "I'm hungry." (speaking Vietnamese) "How to count?" (speaking Vietnamese) And so, I was learning the language in a way I was being sensitive to their culture. And they reciprocated by really embracing me, and sharing some things with me that reflected back on what was happening in the United States.

Doug Bradley:
So here it is, '70 and '71 in Vietnam. What was going on? Well, you know, with Vietnamization, it had basically changed the war from a ground war to an air war. So we were bombing the hell out of the place, but we didn't have enough ground troops. And we were trying to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese. I mean, nobody wanted to be the last GI killed in Vietnam. So the Army was breaking down. Because you take everything that was happening back home, race, generational, drugs, etc., that was personified in the Army, especially in Vietnam.

Peter Finnegan:
When the peace and quiet is just shattered by an explosion, everything shakes, including the guts, you don't know if it's you shaking or not. I would do the, "Dear God, you get me out of this, and I will give up that whore house run to Saigon. I will never smoke opium again." And all of a sudden, it was all over with, and you'd be, well, look at the time. So I still owe him, big time.

Robert Spencer:
Now, some of them were speaking English quite well, so I could tell, you know, that they weren't just peasants. One of them, he said, "What this war's all about is like the war you had, the north and the south was fighting." "Oh, the Civil War." He says, "Yeah, that's what we have here, is a civil war. We don't need any American presence. We didn't need the French here. We didn't need the Chinese here." He said, "We will work this out."

Doug Bradley:
I was seeing pretty discouraging stuff, but I couldn't report discouraging stuff. My job was to put on a happy face, and that things were fine. When I saw a story that I needed to write, I didn't write it. When I saw something that needed to be exposed, I didn't expose it. You know, I was part of it. I was a GI in Vietnam.

Peter Finnegan:
I just got so wrapped up in what we were doing, and taking pictures, and thinking I was some kind of Soldier of Fortune, and I'm never going to die. Finally, after my second extension, it was wearing down on me. I was a mess. And it got to the point where my friends went to my commanding officer and said, "Pete is not going to live." You know, it was pretty obvious that there was something wrong. So they denied me to extend another six months.

Robert Spencer:
Living in the United States, in one state, one neighborhood, for 21 years of my life. I didn't realize the impact that it had on me, until I was able to go to a different culture. I experienced a form of liberation, a form of self-identity. Not according to someone else's definition. I experienced some things about Vietnam that were outside of daily combat in the swamps, and in the rice paddies. And to share a different perspective of Vietnam, the way I saw it.

Doug Bradley:
I was one of the fortunate ones. And it was painful to go out and do stories, and talk to guys, when you had those moments when all of a sudden they would look at you and say, "Why do you have a pen and I've got the rifle? How did this happen to you, and why didn't it happen to me?" What do you say? There's no answer for that. I'm lucky, and I know it. And I'm sorry. That's about the best I could do.

Peter Finnegan:
I'll never step over that line again. I know that there's a lot of Vietnam veterans that struggle, and don't always do so well. I feel for them. I know that I've got this addictive personality, that I don't think I've got another come-back.

 

FIREBASES 1970: HENDERSON AND RIPCORD

George Banda:
There was a lot of battles that we'd gone through. And we had lost a number of people. And the powers that be said, hey, these guys need some R&R. Let's put them up here at Eagle Beach. Let them relax. We were there for about a day or two. And from right there, after all that relaxing, and good times, they flew us out to Henderson. I never had heard of Henderson. When we landed there, one of the worst firebases I had ever seen. The jungle was right there. I mean, I looked around and I went, there's no protection here. Anybody could sneak up here real quick. You wouldn't see 'em till it was too late. You know, and that's exactly what happened.

Steve Manthei:
Ripcord was big time. Big time. We'd push up this hill. I know two. It was in view of Ripcord. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. A lot of activity. I mean, you really saw it. What I expected, we were-- out of there, 'cause I know we were going to be ticked. And a lot of the old guys did, too. There was only a few of us, what I call "old guys," that had been there for quite a while, you know. And then we had a bunch of new guys. Our leader, at that time, was a new guy, too. We totally expected a booby trap, and we've move out that night. But then they said we were saying, which kind of upset us. I went down and dug my hole, more deeper and bigger.

Charles Lieb:
Fire Support Base Ripcord, 53 days we had incoming fire, whether it'd be mortar rounds, recoilless rifle. A lot of artillery rounds being fired in support. And this is at the time they had hatched the plan that as the monsoons let up, they wanted to attack the North Vietnamese supply camps in the A Shau Valley. This was their territory. Nobody had been in the A Shau Valley since Hamburger Hill. The Companies we had out in the field started taking significant casualties and meeting significant enemy opposition.

George Banda:
I turned and I yelled. I said, "Hey, you guys better wake up! Something is happening." And an instant later, I saw a flash. RPG hit five feet away from me. It exploded. I went up flying in the air. I was upside down. I landed on my head, rolled over, got up real quick. I was deaf. I could see tracers flying through the air. I could see explosions, but I couldn't hear anything.

Steve Manthei:
All hell broke loose. A wave of RPGs hit the command post on the top. And I mean, it was, it knocked me off my feet. There they were, right with us. It was eyeball to eyeball. They had broken through. Screaming, hollering, cussing. All kinds of noise. Machine gun fire. Everybody opened up. I mean, it was a fight. I popped that hand flare. And what I saw coming up from the east side up that saddle, nothing but heads.

Charles Lieb:
They attacked on Hill 902, at 4:00am. Because you'd been in the defensive positions. You hadn't seen anything, heard anything. Things were quiet. People were lulled, not paying as close attention. They crawled in under the cover of darkness with satchel charges and weapons. And were above the perimeter, and came pouring into the holes while others were coming up the trails and the hillside into 'em.

George Banda:
Doc was just laying there on his back. It looked like he was asleep. In fact, I thought he was. I said, "Hey, Doc, get up." And I tried to pick him up, and the back of his head was gone. His head was full of sand, which was just-- it freaked me out. I caught a round on the left side of my head, which severed an artery. I mean, it just squirt for about five feet. And being a medic, knowing that an artery had been severed, you know, I'm bleeding to death here. I couldn't stop it. Trying to take care of the guys. The Lieutenant was dead. Sergeant Steiner was dead. And I looked for Ed Vesser, my friend. "Where the hell is Ed?" I said, "I can't see him." And he was blown, maybe 100 feet down there, or he walked down there. I'm not sure how he got down there. But there he was down there, laying there.

Steve Manthei:
I heard Cooper. I believe he was on Ripcord at that time, calling on the radio. Nobody answered. Well, I knew that the CP had been eliminated. So I got on the radio. And I told him we needed Cobras now. And the Cobras finally did show up, and I was happy as heck about that. But I wasn't real happy about what I saw afterwards. Radcliffe, a good friend of mine, was gone. Hewitt, Zoler, --, Lentz, you know, Herndon, Harbor.

Charles Lieb:
I led the combat assault out there to see what had happened and evacuate the wounded and dead. And one of the soldiers who had been in my platoon, all you could find was his boot with his dog tag on it. It was pretty brutal. And we had the unenviable task of trying to police up what was left, and identifying what was left.

George Banda:
I don't think I ever told this to anybody. But I hesitated to go down there. People are shooting at us. You get so scared that every cell in your body is just terrified. But he was my friend. So, I crawled down there. I got to Ed. And the thing that I'll always remember is he said to me, "I knew you'd come." Terrible. I feel guilty about that. Still do.

Steve Manthei:
I don't consider it a loss. We kicked their hind ends, compared to what they did to us. It seemed surreal to me. When we took off from the LZ with the wounded, I looked down, and there was bodies of NVAs all up and down that saddle. I'm proud of my service. I'm proud of the guys that were there, definitely. I guess we all left something on that hill.

Charles Lieb:
It turns out that the battle for Fire Support Base Ripcord was actually the last large battle that the US was involved in, in the Vietnam War. There's a lot of pressure on the homefront to reduce the American casualties. Commanders became reluctant to go to places where they knew there were heavy enemy concentrations. It's a shame, because we never really fought to win. We fought not to lose. And I think most of us who were there thought we should fight to win. Because that's what we went over there to do.

George Banda:
Dragged him up the hill. Got him up to the sandbags, and laid him down. I said, "Ed, Medevac will be coming soon, just hang on," you know. He died at 7:40am. He didn't make it. But that's war.

 

RESCUE: SAVING LIVES

Robert Curry:
I saw a poster in high school, and it said, High School Graduate, You too can fly." I enlisted, and ended up flying what they call right seats in an OV-1 Mohawk It was a two-crew. It had ejection seats. It was pretty fast. And the Army and the Air Force had been in an argument over who should have it, because it was used as a close air support aircraft. The Air Force argued that anything with weapons on it should be an Air Force plane. The Army could keep the planes, but they'd have to fly them unarmed. We flew recon missions, 24 hours a day in North Vietnam, monitoring their traffic coming down to the DMZ, so we could determine if there was a build-up or a move.

Steven Schofield:
I was a real Special Forces Trooper. I tell ya, I wasn't in Vietnam very long before I said, "This is a waste." And I think when I got the offer to go to Laos, that was in the back of my mind. Then they pulled me aside and said, "Well, this is what you're really going to be doing in Laos. Your cover story is that you will be a public health advisor for Military Region 2. But your Top Secret duties are you're going to run search and rescue for American crews that were shot down in Laos.

Nhia Thong Lor:
My name, Nhia Thong Lor. I lived in the north of Laos, close to North Vietnam. My father, older brother, they were soldier. They all got killed when I was 12 years old. My family was killed. And I'm mad. I wanted to do something to protect my family and country. And that's why I joined the Army.

Steven Schofield:
Laos was a war done by the US on the cheap. And what the CIA had done was organized the Hmong tribal people to fight North Vietnamese encroachment into Laos. When I first when to Long Chen, which was the secret CIA base, it was just amazing. An asphalt air strip in the middle of nowhere, not on any map. A town of probably 15,000 or 20,000 at the time. Non-stop aircraft flying in and out of there. And then these Hmong, dressed in every kind of uniform you can think of, carrying any kind of weapon you could ever imagine. I had no idea. No one had any idea it was there. And it was all Top Secret.

Robert Curry:
This is '71, so the war "was on it's way to some kind of resolution." So the United States was pulling back. The Air Force stopped flying F4 cover up there, because they didn't have any more jets. And North Vietnam used to start launching MiGs at us. We'd get the radio call, "Spud, we got bandits at a bullseye heading." And bandits meant MiGs. And bullseye was code for Hanoi. So of course, we'd have the plane cranked around, and throttles to the wall, and you know, the thing just about shaking apart, trying to get back. Then it would be the count to when you died. "Spud, ten minutes to your position." "Nine minutes to your position." "Eight minutes to your position." So you had a lot of time for thinking. And it was, is this how it's going to end, because we had nothing to fight them with. I mean, they would just take us out.

Nhia Thong Lor:
At the beginning, you know, you're like a kid. You don't know. You're not scared of anything at all. You're just willing to fight, you know. A couple years later, all my friends in my group, they got killed, and not even know it. You had to be careful.

Steven Schofield:
I'd only been in San Tong probably a month or two. And I saw this little guy walking by. And I stopped him, and I said, I'm going to take your picture. I posed him over by the jeep, so I could see how tall he was.

Nhia Thong Lor:
He see me with my friend. Back then, he's young. And I'm a little kid, too. He's like tall. I watched him, like this.

Steven Schofield:
When I took that picture in Nha Tong in 1969, it was because he was unique, a small, young soldier. There weren't that many of them in the Army then. But by the time '72 or '73 came around, there were whole platoons full of ten- and 12-year-olds, because the Hmong were just wiped out.

Nhia Thong Lor:
A lot of people died that time. My uncle, my older brother, he died that time. And I almost died, too, because I cannot walk. My brother-in-law carried me like a baby, on the shoulder, and take me to area, and the helicopter come picked me up.

Robert Curry:
We took a blast and flew for a little bit, and went down over Laos. Out of any of the POWs, not one was ever returned from Laos. So you knew this was pretty dire. When I was on the ground, there was a fire fight, so I just thought, this is it. And then, it took me some amount of time to realize that no, these are two groups shooting at each other. There was a North Vietnamese group coming in. And by the luck of the draw, there was a small Hmong squad, about a dozen guys, on a hilltop, just watching traffic. And they held them off, and got the choppers in, and got us out. 
Steven Schofield:
And then in '73, the Peace Accords were signed. And the CIA, Air America left, Air Support left. The Hmong were hunted like animals by the North Vietnamese Army, because they had done such an effective job working for the US government against them. So they were hunted down.

Nhia Thong Lor:
So, at that time, the United States, they had a program to help people. One American, he know me right away, you know, so he say, "You want to go to United States?" I say, "Yes."

Robert Curry:
Here, I'm complaining about being there for a year. And these people are there until they die or they get rescued. And they were there with their families and their children. A third of their population was totally wiped off the earth. How do you pluck a people off a mountaintop and put them in Wisconsin, a half a world away, and expect that they're going to exist at all? But if you look at the generations that come after them, the young kids in school today. They're becoming doctors, leaders of society. Thank God, you know, because of what they had within them, but not by anything that we gave them.

Steven Schofield:
A very primitive society. No knowledge of science. No knowledge of how things worked in the most sophisticated western society in the world. I just have tremendous respect for these guys that have come over her and made it in this country. And they're Americans, as much as I am. And they're doing well. And they will do well.

Nhia Thong Lor:
Still dreamed like you were fighting, and try to get out of Laos to the United States. I still dream it. Sometimes I have nightmare. Scary.

 

THE END: WAR AND COUNTRY

Don Heiliger:
May, 1967, when I was shot down. It was the second heaviest month of airplanes shot down. The fun began when we got to Hanoi, right to the Hanoi Hilton. That's when the torture started. Before you lose your mental, particularly your mental faculties, lie, cheat and steal to get rid of the pain. Anything to get rid of that pain. As soon as they get it off, and they find you in another lie, they put it back on. But you've gained time. After about three or four times of the heavy application, and a long time waiting, and all that, they say, okay, okay. They stopped. There's nothing better than to meet your first POW, and you realize you weren't the only guy.

John Pieper:
I enlisted right out of high school. I was 17 at the time. That was 1973. For me, the Navy was an opportunity to go into helicopters. Having grown up with the nightly news, that was something that we as a family did. I was very much aware of what was happening in Vietnam. I had an uncle that served in Vietnam. There were still some US forces on the ground, but very few. Just the idea that it was winding down. I knew there was still a possibility of at least getting up in that part of the world.

Don Heiliger:
In November, 1970, they took everybody. We moved into 50-man rooms. People that had been solo for four years, were finally with somebody. That's when I call the renaissance period. Shortly after we moved in there was Christmas. And we weren't allowed to have Christmas. That was against the camp rules. We said screw it, we're going to do it. We made our version of the Christmas Carol. And I was Mrs. Cratchit. Nobody ever gave me any awards for it, but they thought I was really good as Mrs. Cratchit.

John Pieper:
We were off the coast of South Vietnam. We were there to pull out civilians, and the Embassy, if South Vietnam began to fall. April 28, 1975, was when Ton Sun Nhut Air Force Base was attacked. That was at night. We could hear C-130 pilots on the runway. A lot of tension and anxiety in their voices. Lined up, trying to get off. And just the idea of history, really in the making, even at that point, I had a sense of the magnitude of what was happening.

Don Heiliger:
Four nights a week were movie nights. Somebody told a movie. The art of storytelling came back. And we could make a good movie last two hours. The only problem we had, we had the purists who wanted the movie exactly like it was. And we had the other people who wanted every bit of X-rated material you could put into it. We formed classes. We taught everything we could think of. I taught music appreciation. I taught accounting. We learned languages. That was the thing that probably helped me the most. I learned French, Spanish and German up there.

John Pieper:
The 29th was when they started with the evacuation of the Embassy in Saigon. That's where we had the Air America helicopters coming out. They were bringing out Embassy staff, higher echelon South Vietnamese, government officials, and families. And then the helicopters would take off again and go back in for another load, and come back out. From horizon to horizon, it literally was covered with ships.

Don Heiliger:
November to Christmas, 1972, the bombing had reached Hanoi. With the B-52s. We had become a political football back here. And with the negotiations, Kissinger, in trying to make sure he got us released, from the fifth day after the negotiations were signed, which was the January 27, 1973, five days later, they brought us all into the courtyard. They read the Accords. You could see the movie cameras up above. I think they expected huge pandemonium to break out. So we already put out the word, nothing. When they read anything, walk back in the room. And we did. And the Vietnamese would grab us, the guards that could speak English, and they'd say, "Did you hear what that is?" "Yes, we're going home," and walk back in the room. Our little victory.

John Pieper:
The third day, April 30, that's when the South Vietnamese Army helicopters started coming out. They were basically loading up their families and trying to escape, get away. They were afraid of what was going to happen to them. Rightly so. We would guide them in. They would land. We would get the people off, shut the helicopter down, and we'd push those helicopters to the edge of the deck and off the side, because for each one that we threw overboard, there was another one lining up ready to come in.

Don Heiliger:
500-and-some of us came back. That's all. That's all there is. And we arrived back. And in the Philippines, they announced with our group, a little group of 20, because the first one, there were 100-some. There were all kinds of reporters out there for that first group. God Bless America group, and all that kind of stuff. And so, we were only 20. There's not going to be many there. The whole air field was filled. And the people were there, even for our group of 20. It was unbelievable.

John Pieper:
And then, the Vietnamese refugee ships started coming out, in preparation for escorting them to the Philippines. One flight, where we took an ABC News crew, and we were filming from up above. You know, different sights and the different ships, what was going on. A cargo ship, with its decks loaded with people, literally, from one end to the other, the desperation was just incredible. We did hear stories about the North Vietnamese coming into villages and rounding up the people that had supported the US. You know, when you talk about human tragedy, what it must've been like for those people. So many people, who were trying to get away. Trying to find a place that was safe.

Narrator:
America's endless war had come to an end. It was time for the country to leave it behind and move on. The majority of Wisconsin's Vietnam Veterans preceded to build productive and successful lives. But they had all brought the war home with them. And it lives vividly on in their memories, and their nightmares. For that, and for their service, we will forever owe them our deepest gratitude. For that, they deserve our undying support.

Butch Soetenga:
I wanted a South Vietnamese flag, not one that you just go buy one, you know. So I decided, when these victory ships come into the bay, they have to fly that country's flag. These are big, beautiful flags. And so, working nightshift one time, I climbed up onto the superstructure. And then, on top of that is a big, like mast kind of thing. I climbed all the way up there. But the flag that they're flying is locked with a padlock, so you can't bring it down off the flag pole. So then I shimmied all the way up the flag pole and managed to unhook the flag, bring it on down, tuck it inside my jungle shirt, continuing my shift of work and get off that ship before the captain woke up that next morning. Oh, he was ticked that that flag was gone. He wanted to know what crew was on there. They searched our barracks. I managed to hide it someplace. I don't even remember where. But like the next day, I sent it home. It's a very cool, all-cloth, South Vietnamese flag. When I look at that, I think, you know, it's not a flag for any country. Here's this flag that so many guys gave their lives for, and the country doesn't exist anymore.

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 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.

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