Sgt. John Alexander
U.S. Army – Vietnam
101st Airborne, 326th Combat Engineers, Company A
John Alexander is an active member of local military organizations and is the current commander of VFW Post #3652 in Hammond, LA. He served in Vietnam as a parts clerk for the 101st Airborne Combat Engineers. As he describes his military unit in Vietnam, he said his experiences were very similar to the casual, yet professional attitudes shown in the ’70’s hit TV show, M*A*S*H. Part 1 of this interview takes us through his training experiences before leaving for Vietnam.
Thank you for your service to our country, Mr. John.
I would like to hear about what made you want to go into the military when the Vietnam War was going on?
Let me start with my background. My father only had a couple of years of college and he tried to join the army during WWII, but couldn’t get in because of his feet so he became a guard at an ammunition plant in Des Moines, Iowa. He ended up working for the state highway commission in Iowa and [after that] he worked for some fairly large construction companies. Then he came down to Biloxi and worked on housing at Keesler Air Force Base.
We ended up moving down to Biloxi [where] I graduated from Biloxi senior high and went to Perkinston Junior College. I got two years there in industrial arts and then went to Mississippi State and got my bachelors degree.
At that time, the Vietnam War was starting. I wanted to go into the Air Force as a pilot, but because of eyesight, all I could qualify for was as a navigator. But I picked up a double major so I’d have enough time in ROTC to get my commission. This was about ‘67 [but] somehow I didn’t get in even though I qualified on the score in the test. By then, I [had] changed my course schedule so I was stuck going an extra year to undergraduate. So I had five years and I had all the requirements in physical education and industrial education and industrial arts. [I decided to do my student teaching in industrial arts.]
Did you go into industrial arts because your dad was in construction?
I got into industrial arts because I had an industrial arts teacher in junior high school in Iowa that was very good and I really enjoyed it. His name was Mr. Hand. He became the highest-ranking enlisted man in the Air National Guard in Iowa and was the liaison for the commanding general up there. He ended up with forty-some years of service before Vietnam, so he got out at a good time.
I was born the fifth son of five. The oldest brother was in the army in Alaska and he was crew chief on helicopters and he became the crew chief for the commanding general helicopter and twin-engine small aircraft. Then he went on to having an insurance adjusting business in Minnesota. He ended up flying from his office in North Dakota to his home in Minneapolis and he crashed in a snow storm and died.
Oh my. Did all of your brothers go into the military?
The second one went into the Air National Guard in Iowa working all the time at guard camp and just spent the minimum time and got out.
The next one was a teacher. He went in about the same time as my second brother. He ended up going to Wyoming and getting time off and enjoyed it. So that is why I think he spent his career in the Air National Guard. He had a better time at the guard unit.
Then the fourth brother went into the Navy and it was unfortunate, but he spent a little bit of time in the brig. He ended up dying of cancer in a VA hospital in Iowa.
Delayed Enlistment — Then there is me. After I got my BS degree, I went down and joined delayed enlistment. Delayed enlistment was a program they had back during the Vietnam era where you could sign up and have up to four months before you actually went in. So I went down and passed the physical and everything on August 2, 1968 and I didn’t go in until November 2, 1968. So I had a little bit of time there to do before I actually went in.
Basic Training — I went into Fort Polk, Louisiana—which was Camp Polk then. When I was there, it was officially changed to Fort Polk. It was upgraded because of the Vietnam War and the amount of trainees coming through there. It was one of the main places for jungle warfare for infantry—
Didn’t they have something like “Tiger Village” that simulated Vietnam?
I was lucky—they had South Polk and North Polk. I was at North Polk. [There you are far enough away from the rifle range that], you rode in trucks. They put you in these two-and-a half-ton, cargo-like trucks — open on top and packed in like cattle, but at least you rode. Otherwise, you had to march for about twenty miles to get to any place.
I didn’t go to graduation because when [our] flights or buses where leaving for advanced training, mine happened to leave about the time they had the graduation ceremony. So I missed [it].
Advanced Training – Combat Engineer — I flew up to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I was put in the combat engineer training. (When I signed on delayed enlistment, I also signed up for OCS [Officer Candidate School], which I was guaranteed at that point.)
Did you choose combat engineering or that is where they assigned you?
That is what they said I was going to do. That might have been because of the industrial arts. Because a lot of people got E2 out of basic, if you were scheduled to OCS, you usually didn’t get a promotion out of basic or out of advanced training. They saved those promotions for other people.
So I went to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for combat [engineer] training. It was interesting because sometimes there was snow on the ground and sometimes there wasn’t, but we went out to build bridges and stuff across the water [anyway].
We woke up one morning and there was ten inches of snow on the ground, so they marched us back to camp area. One guy dropped his rifle and broke the stock it was so cold. Sometimes you would be in open areas for lecture and it was so cold people wanted to fall asleep.
One time we were building pontoon bridges, which are the boat bridges with the metal going across the top for roadways. You would have to get the pontoons inflated. In the water you would have to turn them around, so we would wear hip boots. If you messed up— like I had to duck down because the rope was going above my head and water rushed in my boots. You got really cold.
Sometimes you would have night maneuvers going across the water and landing on the other side. You got to act like John Wayne!
How long was that training?
Combat [engineer] training was, I think, three months.
I was offered infantry OCS, and you had to accept it, or you were out. That was the only choice they gave you. I went ahead and accepted it and they came back about fifteen minutes later and changed it to engineering OCS. If I had not accepted the infantry, I wouldn’t have gotten the engineering OCS. So again, it was a way of weeding people out.
Engineering Officer Candidate School (OCS)
So then I went to engineering OCS in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. That was a very good and enlightening group of people I was with. We had some of the brightest people I had ever met in my life.
We had one guy that was kind of short, frail, and mousy. He was probably maybe 5’4′. He had an IQ of a genius. You could ask him any question about any subject and he could talk about it for a half an hour. Sometimes the instructors got side tracked. They would ask him a question and he took up the whole time. Everyone just loved him. Even though he was kind of frail, he made up [for it] in intelligence.
We had another individual. His father was an Army General and when we were mid-class, he got transferred to the Navy officers candidate school. He put in to be a pilot and that took priority, and his father was okay with him transferring from one branch to another too. He was a real nice guy.
We were in old barracks and the one next to us were forced to take all their footlockers, beds, and everything, and had to set them up in the street outside their barracks for inspection.
We would have these army manuals. There were two hundred and fifty of them or so. Even though you didn’t have time to read them, everyone had them at the end of their bunk beds and they had to be in a certain order. They would come through—the officers—and knock them over. You’d have a whole aisle-way of everyone’s different books and all of them messed up. You’d have to find time to straighten those up.
You’d have to polish your boots and stuff. You did it in the few hours time you had to sleep. You did it under your blanket with a flashlight in your mouth.
Some of the things that I’ve read in several books about WWII and what people have gone through in combat — it simulates how tired you get and what different ones have to go through. They’re too easy now.
We did have an officer in one other company. Even [other] officers turned against him. He ended up ruining about one-hundred-and-fifty rifles by having people polish them so much they wouldn’t work anymore.
That didn’t go over well. Instead of taking his commission away, they just sent him to Vietnam and let someone else suffer.They had a ceremony when he left and they all turned their backs on him. So who knows what else he did besides the rifles.
That is one of the bad things about the military and the industry. A lot of times, people who shouldn’t be in management or officer positions—they just transfer them. They don’t want to deal with them. You see that a lot. So I saw kind of what happened there.
You hardly ever had much of a meal. We had to eat what was called a square meal. You had to keep your eyes ahead and know where your plate was and eat in a square — up and over to your mouth. All the time, your upperclassmen were asking you questions and you couldn’t eat while they were asking you questions. One of the nice things was when you got KP. There were all these trays of uneaten food and you would just grab food–pies and different things– and eat while you were in KP cleaning the plates off. I loved KP. [He laughs.]
One of the things that happened to me on OCS–I think it was a good thing. At one of the meals I had, the upperclassman—I can’t remember what he did, but I thought it was really gross, and not right. I had just had enough so I told the upperclassman off and I got up and walked out of the mess hall, which had probably a thousand people eating.I am sure a lot of people heard me tell him off. I headed back to the barracks and about halfway back or so, he was running after me and he kind of halfway apologized. Anyway, I was still mad. So I can’t remember what he said. I think that in a way, that was probably a good thing — [that] I stood up for what I thought was right. Just knowing he had to run after me was an indication of that.
That was a turning point — when I decided to drop out. But it took several weeks before I was able to get out.
Dropping Out of OCS — At an exit interview, they asked me why I continued — there are a lot of people who drop out. You start off with one-hundred-and-twenty in a company. They had first candidate, junior candidate and then senior candidate. At each one of them, they replaced half or two-thirds of the company. So usually by the time you graduated, out of the original people, there might have been like twenty to thirty. So it was pretty rigorous training.
At a later interview they asked why I continued to work hard and not give up, like I guess most of them did. I said I didn’t think it was fair for the others trying and staying in, to hurt them. So I continued on for while I was in there.
As a result, because of those two incidents, when I did drop out, I got promoted to E4. While you were in, you got pay grade as an E5, which is sergeant. But that was only on paper. When you dropped out, you went back to E2, which was the same thing you were in basic training. I became an E4. They said that was almost unheard of. I think probably both incidents contributed to that.
I didn’t think it was right to hurt other people. It was a good group of people. It was just I had made up my mind [to drop out].
I think if I had gotten a turn-back after the first part—I got a four-way turn-back—only to get people to drop out. Some people were turned back and put in other companies and start part of their training over. They could do that several times at first. Some people actually tried to do that. The philosophy was to spend enough time in OCS and your other training, and not have to go to Vietnam. So they would ETS [Expiration of Term of Service] out of OCS! [He chuckles]
So what happened to a candidate if they dropped out?
At that time, you were guaranteed Vietnam. You had to wait for your orders.
So you knew you were going to have to go once you dropped out and that was okay with you? You didn’t mind going to Vietnam then? I mean, that’s a big decision to make!
If they would have, when they had turn-back, given you enough time to rest up and recover some, I think it would have made a difference. But I was so physically exhausted [that I did not want to continue].
Waiting for Vietnam — So at that point, when I dropped out, I had about two weeks in a holding company in Fort Belvoir to wait for my orders. We got to go to Washington, DC.
We had a couple of guys that learned to sew and had a sewing machine and they were probably making a thousand or two thousand dollars a week because most of the candidates in OCS had these baggy pants and you’d have them tailored so they’d fit nice and neat. So they’d rip the pants and sew them up for a couple dollars a pants and they made a good fortune out of that. Once in a while when you were in the holding company, you’d have KP [kitchen patrol], but other than that you’d have free time. So some of them did very good.
Kind of proved that what you did in the military, you could make a difference on your attitude. Those guys could have just done nothing and had nothing to show for it. They came out very enterprising.
After I had two weeks in the holding company, then you had two weeks before you went overseas. Then I went out to Oakland, California to fly to Vietnam.
At that time, they just started the de-escalation of Vietnam. So there’s a few people they were going through changing their orders from Vietnam to Germany. Mine were left Vietnam.
I went over and I think it was probably because of being in OCS, I ended up with a combat engineer company. In Vietnam, they had all West Point engineer officers except for one that was an ROTC officer. I think that made a big difference.
The attitude and training of the officers—they were very much like M*A*S*H on TV. They did an outstanding job. You can be relaxed and lax on some of your rules and still do a good job. They were more interested in the job.
Like, the laundry thing and uniforms were a lot different than now. Things were sewed on. Now a lot of it is attached no matter what shirt you are wearing. A lot of times our laundry would get mixed up and you would get someone’s shirt with a different name, maybe different patches, maybe no patches.
One of the things people did when we didn’t have a patch — I was with 101st Airborne, 326th Combat Engineers, Company A — and if you didn’t have a 101st patch on your sleeve, you drew a stick figure of a chicken for the eagle. [We laugh.]
While I was over there, I was inspected by the assistant commander, General Smith, and he was I guess over supply and different things. I found him to be very knowledgeable and a very nice person. He came down and I think he was planning on spending only 10 minutes with me but, he spent probably a half hour or 45 minutes with me. He understood everything I was doing and as a result later, my lieutenant wrote a letter to my parents saying that the General thought I was one of the best parts clerks he had seen in 28 years of service. That letter though, I had to get it—right now [our VFW post] has it. I was trying to get a hold of the lieutenant that wrote it, but he wrote it to my parents. I didn’t know about it until after I got back. The General never said anything about the fact that I had a name tag different than my name when he was sitting there. [He chuckles.]
One of the things we did while I was there as a parts clerk for the motor pool was, I had my parts put in metal containers so that we were able to, if we had to, pick up our parts and take them out to the field. I didn’t have to, but we had that capability.
I was stationed at Camp Eagle which was a large 101st Airborne camp south of Hue [pronounced “way”]. It was the capital of that province of South Vietnam and was fifty miles from the DMZ [de-militarized zone]. So it was up by the A Shau Valley, which was a very active path through which the North Vietnamese and Vietcong traveled.
Being in the 101st Airborne, did you ever have to jump out of a plane?
No, what they did was more air repel – they were repel qualified — where they went down ropes out of a helicopter.
What year was this when you were over in Vietnam?
I was over there from ’68 to ’70. When I first got there, I was made assistant to the company clerk. I think I was the 148th person out of 150. We were so overstaffed.
So that first two weeks there they didn’t even realize where they put me. They never came around in the morning and woke me up. So I got up when I felt like it. I always missed the formation. They had a formation where they went around picking up cigarette butts and policing the company area. Usually I would miss breakfast, but I got to work after breakfast.
The food over there for the most part was good. But sometimes we had the same food for months. They kind of got the same rations.
What was a typical meal?
Breakfast wasn’t bad. There for a while spam, and stuff like that, is what they got stuck on for a while.
One had been killed. The other had both arms and both legs blown off and lived for three days before he died.
Then another one ended up I think having metal plates put in his head. That one got the Silver Star. What happened was they had found a tunnel and were gong to put explosives in and blow it up. A North Vietnamese soldier popped out of it and started shooting. The guy—a 101st airborne soldier — was wounded, but he still ended up killing that North Vietnamese soldier. I don’t know what else he did, but he ended up getting a Silver Star for his actions.
One of the things I thought was different was that at the top of the hill from us were the Gulfport SeaBees. They had their own base within our base. They got a new commanding officer shortly after I had gone over there and he thought they had it too nice. So he made them give up their metal pots and some of their air conditioning units and different things that made our unit a lot better! We had people going up like rats to carry away their stuff that they didn’t want! So instead of an army cot I had a nice metal cot with springs. [We chuckle]
We had barracks with windows all along the sides for air [flow], and metal roofs with sandbags on top to catch shrapnel and to hold metal on. At least we had “not-bad” living quarters.
Was it hot?
The temperature part of the year was extremely nice, and part of it was where, in the afternoons it would rain about 2:00 or 2:30. Before that, you would get completely soaked because of the humidity, and then the rain would soak you the rest of the way. [He chuckles.] Part of the year it was 120 in the shade. It was hot. As a result, when I came back I weighed 118 pounds. I gained probably 15 or 18 pounds in two weeks, drinking water, after coming back. And that’s why my uniform — I’ve never been down that low since — and that’s why it doesn’t fit now.
But our company had two 2 1/2 ton dump trucks (those were the big trucks)and seven 3/4 ton dump trucks, which is like a 3/4 ton pickup, but it had hydraulics where it had a dump body in the back, because we were an engineer company. We had, I think, five or six jeeps.
The Seventh Cavalry had a big base within our base, and theirs was a helicopter unit. They had a lot of Cobra helicopters and Chinooks, and the bigger troop-carrying ones, the Hueys. Sometimes we would trade parts.
One time I had some Australians come by and they tried to get some parts off of us, and I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. So I didn’t help them out.
But then I had to be careful. I was very good on having what our motor pool needed and when we needed it and, like everyone, I didn’t always have authorized parts.
I had to be careful because our helicopter battalion got caught in an inspection and they had a full helicopter of excess parts that weren’t authorized. I never got caught on it. I learned to sign my officer’s signature just as well as he could. It wasn’t authorized, but I think he knew it.
[Like I said earlier,] we operated a lot like M*A*S*H. We would have formations and stuff — people would pet their dogs. We had some ceremonies for some people presented with medals and stuff and people would stick out their gut and do all kinds of things and make faces. We didn’t take it too serious.
One time, the aviation company had a jeep that was made into a dune buggy which wasn’t authorized. When they had an inspection one time, that dune buggy ended up in our company and our officers were driving it around making use of it while the other company was being inspected.
We had the officer over me [who] One time he had to go to the medics because he fell out of the jeep in the company area trying to catch a baseball.
Then we did have — I’m not sure if it was a medic or one of the other guys that got a Purple Heart from the medics and some of them would mess around out in the fire bases shooting 79 grenades. They had a little shotgun that had a little barrel and little shells that shoot grenades. They don’t arm unless they go a certain distance so they would stay in that distance and shoot them at each other. One of them somehow went off. I don’t know if it bounced and went far enough to go off. I think he got a purple heart.
Then you would hear other people where someone would just kick something that was like a flag or something like a South Vietnamese flag or North Vietnamese and it would be booby-trapped and it would go off and they wouldn’t get a purple heart. A lot of things depended on the officers and what the people did for the people.
Citations and Medals
I will say our company was very good about putting people through [for] things. I did get an army accommodation medal while I was there. I got the bronze star for my service. It was for outstanding performance. The bronze star can be given for two things. One for combat or it can be for outstanding performance. I kind of thought everyone got that, but they didn’t. a lot of people in that were even in combat didn’t get it.
So I had two Vietnamese Service medals. I’ve got the National Defense Medal and the Army Commendation Medal. I have six medals.
We had for the company area, soldier of the month every month. I did receive soldier of the month while I was over there for my performance and I got to go to China Beach because of that. While there, I was afraid I would end up getting an Article 15, for sunburn.
One day I went out fishing on a sand bar and got sunburned and then I fell asleep on the beach. I was kind of a red lobster. So if you couldn’t perform your duties you could end up getting an Article 15, or written up for it. I ended up okay.
Emergency Leave – Hurricane Camille
While I was there, I went home on emergency leave after two weeks as company clerk. I went home because of Hurricane Camille and I spent about ten days or a week at home. Our house in [Hurricane] Betsy, had water up to the end of our driveway. For Camille, we had probably about 8 feet of water in the yard. It only came up and stayed about a half hour and it was out. A lot of the furniture was ruined, but some of it was saved. I helped my father fix it up and clean it out.
When I was home on emergency leave, I went up to Mississippi State and went to football game.
Fort Dix Protest
Then when I went back, I was sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey and I was held over there instead of being shipped out from there right away back to Vietnam. We were held over because there were war protests of the Vietnam War.
So I was picked to guard a hippie in this gym. They had seven or eight. They took them out and dumped them off and made them walk back. But one evidently caused enough damage that they were bringing charges against him. So they put him in this gym in a folding chair and had several of us on each corner in the area roped off. They wouldn’t give us any ammunition, but they gave us a gun.
Did he know you didn’t have any ammunition?
I don’t know. That was interesting. The secretary of state at that time came by and was viewing what we were doing.
Fort Dix was kind of an eye opener. Everybody in our group had been sent on emergency leave and was from Vietnam. Fort Dix kind of treated us as if we were dirt. We weren’t welcomed there at all. Everyone was put on guard duty all the time or KP and we had one Vietnam dog handler that was an MP. They put him on KP and wanted him to clean grease traps and stuff.
What was the reasoning behind their attitude?
When we first got there, they put us in the barracks and officers came in and they wanted everybody to jump to attention and people didn’t. Everybody just kind of looked at them because in Vietnam you didn’t salute your officers. Over in Vietnam, you had a job to do and the officers didn’t expect to be saluted or anything, but you treated them as officers and you did your job. There, they wanted it like you were in basic training. People didn’t go for that. Most of them had been out in the jungle in combat and stuff.
Now one thing I didn’t agree with—I was told by an officer in the infantry battalion that was next to us that they had one guy who wasn’t cooperative, so they took him out and dumped him and forgot where he was for a little while. That doesn’t make happy soldiers. Our company wouldn’t have done that.
What kind of engineering did your battalion do in Vietnam?
Our company did a lot of work for villages — building roads for people to get products to market. When I left Vietnam we got a yearbook that shows some of the things they did for community service for villages and stuff.
What our company did a lot was clear landing zones. So a lot of them used their demolition training. Instead of cutting down trees, a lot of them made C4 and cut them that way and then sawed them. They would go out and open landing zones. If there was a landing zone open and they closed and it then they decided to go back, they would check it for booby-traps and stuff.
We only lost one person during the year I was there. This other one got about I guess 25 or 75 yards from the helicopter and they found several booby-traps and mines. They decided to go back to the helicopter because it was too dangerous and they missed one. He stepped on it and lost both legs. He lived for a couple days and then died. He was a really nice guy.
So I guess they had booby-traps everywhere.
Yeah. That was the scary thing. A lot of the booby traps.
Then they [also] had different deadly poisonous snakes. When I was out on guard duty before I came back on emergency leave, I did get bit by a poisonous spider over there.
I took off my boots while on guard duty and it bit me by the heel. At first it would look like take a little ball point pin dot. In about two days it starts getting bigger. Just dead skin. In about four or five days, they cut an area probably about half inch or three quarter inch round and a quarter inch deep and it was all dead skin. They caught it in time, or I guess you could lose a foot or more. It is a brown recluse or something. I don’t think getting bit by one counts for a purple heart.
But that was the only thing I had for medical other than when I came back from emergency leave…they’d had some cases of Hepatitis [in the camp]. They’d had a typhoon that went through the area and washed out a lot of the roads in our base camp, and a lot of those areas had to be rebuilt.
Hepatitis shots aren’t good! They’re about 10 cc’s and give you a big knot on each cheek. The person in front of me that got the Hepatitis shot, bent the needle…tailbone.
But one other thing that happened in Vietnam is that, when I went to China Beach, we were waiting for a jeep or a truck to go on a boat to go across some water, and there were some South Vietnamese soldiers there and some little kids. The Vietnamese soldiers just watched the little kids throw rocks at us. We had a medic that was….he was just ready to shoot them, because they were throwing rocks at us! But another soldier stopped him.
That’s a good thing.
Yeah. It was hard to tell what the South Vietnamese solders were going to think. It was a little tense, that moment.
We were by the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] 1st Division, and it was one of the outstanding South Vietnamese regiments. So I think that helped around our area, too.
So their presence made things better?
Yeah. But I did hear of some incidents where our people messed up and almost had standoffs between ARVN and our soldiers.
What was the relationship like normally — because y’all were there to help them.
Well in that case a lot of the ARVNs lived with their families and were married, and our soldier’s propositioned an ARVN’s wife…
Yeah, I guess that would do it.
…that kind of made it a tense standoff.
Taking liberties where they shouldn’t.
But I also know, at least there were lots of rumors over there that a lot of the soldiers out in the field didn’t like the commanding general, which was Zais [Gen. Melvin Zais]. Rumor was they had a $10,000 reward out for someone to kill him. Now how true that is or not…
He was the leader of the South Vietnamese?
No, the 101st. I think it was his outhouse or one of them anyway, was booby trapped one time.
So they really didn’t like him.
No. But you know, some of the officers, of all different ranks, aren’t good. You see poor officers and you see poor management people in industry.
You wonder how they got to those positions.
Yeah. Sometimes just by who they knew. But then other times people did end up, like that lieutenant that was over me. He got promoted to captain while I was over there. So I think we had several captains in our organization for a while.
What rank were you at that time?
I had gotten promoted to Spec 5.
What is that?
E5. Same thing as a sergeant but you don’t have command over other people.
And for that I had to go in front of a board. I was recommended by a company captain and the lieutenant , and had to go in front of a review board and pass it to get promoted.
One other thing that happened while I was over there is I was selected for an honor guard. And at our battalion there was a formation and they selected a few of us from each company to go and represent us. So we had to dress in our best fatigues and go up there and we had formation and they presented a bronze star to a bulldozer that had seen action. So we had a ceremony and a bronze star that was presented to a bulldozer! You know, you don’t have to be all strict.
Well that bulldozer worked hard!
It did. I mean it saved some lives.
But another time we had incoming rockets. The Vietcong sent in some rockets one night, to hit our helicopter battalion and hit the oil storage. They took a load of people from our company, and while I was in the truck going up there to help clear the runways and stuff so the helicopters could have it, one helicopter was hit, and you could see parts flying above you.
There were 1,500 fifty-five-gallon drums of oil that were blown up that night.
So we went up and helped to pick up rocket tubes and other things to keep the runways clear. The only person who was hurt that night was a bulldozer operator who got his hands burnt from the heat.
But they had some rockets that landed in the aisle ways of some of the living quarters of the people who lived by the helicopter pad.
They weren’t hurt?
They weren’t hurt. They had a lot of duds, so that was good. But they had enough that it made it an exciting night!
And it was lucky that just one person had his hands burnt.
Now another incident that happened while I was over there was that right up from us was a helicopter pad where the infantry company loaded up supplies and ammunition, and took it out to the field.
And one day, I don’t know if it dropped out of their cargo net or somehow went off within the cargo net, but there were flares and rockets and everything flying up and going off and some of us were out there taking pictures. I just had a new camera and it didn’t have any film in it. Otherwise I would have had some good pictures!
And someone yelled, “Incoming!” There were probably about ten or fifteen of us standing there, [but when] I turned around there wasn’t a soul in sight. And about then it landed fifteen feet in front of me. But it happened to not go off. It was a flare or something. I could’ve gotten burned probably, but that would have been it. Still, that was still kind of scary. Those people, they scattered fast. I mean all I did was turn around and there wasn’t anybody there!
The bunkers were probably a hundred yards apart or 150 yards apart. You could yell to each other, but you weren’t real close. And sometimes we had starlight scopes and sometimes we didn’t. (Now it looks like the army has them all over the place, so you can see at night. It’s interesting what you can see with those.) They were usually kept in a safe in the company area.
So one night I had guard duty and you always had your orders read and you were supposed to call and get permission to fire if you saw anything, then they’d turn around and say, if you’re being charged, “Shoot.” Some of these orders, you know, they didn’t even make sense. But that was supposed to be if you saw someone and couldn’t identify them, because they would send parties out at night time to see what else was going on. You might have friendly troops coming back in. I never saw any go out or come back in. But one night, I’m pretty sure someone came through our line and several of our bunkers looked and never could find him, which is kind of scary.
You had these claymore mines which were about an inch thick. Inside you had a little sheet of lead that was probably about an eighth of an inch thick or three-sixteenths and divided into little squares kind of like a waffle where it would break up into maybe a thousand little bullets — if it went off. It is curved shape so it would cover an area out front. You’d have wires going back to your foxhole.
One morning when we went out to check them. I did find one turned around aimed at us.
Wow. I hope it was turned by accident.
We don’t know, but my guess is someone turned it during the night. But they would—Vietcong would do that a lot of times. So you would fire on yourselves.
One time there was a convoy and stuff that got stolen off the truck. They were sneaky. They could get on and off without getting caught sometimes. The convoy is just driving through. So things like that could happen too.
Were you nervous a lot over there? Were you always on your guard? There wasn’t any downtime I guess.
Not too much. The people on guard duty were more or less sacrificial. There were early warning systems.
One night, I don’t know what happened but at one of the sites right outside of where our office area was, they set off tear gas. The people on guard duty came crawling back to our area, which was dangerous because they left the front unprotected.
But the tear gas was bad. It covered our whole company area. It can burn your eyes and make them water.
I got a little bit used to it in OCS. You took turns being in charge of different things. One time, I had a unit that I had to keep in formation and we got hit with tear gas three times as part of the training.
I had a unit I had to keep in formation.
They said, “Why can’t you keep your people in formation?”
But that night, a lot of them didn’t have gas masks or anything. They were suffering out there. That was a little bit scary.
Another thing we did while I was there was, one night they had out in the A Shau Valley they were told there is some bridge that needs to be blown up. They took everyone in the company area and we unloaded our ammo bunker on the helicopters or trucks to take to our helicopter pads.
We put shaped charges — kind of like a bomb that they could put on a bridge or something to blow it up. All they found was couple of sheets of metal, but they put one on it and blew it up! [He chuckles.]
I don’t know if they brought back any explosives. They didn’t mobilize us to reload our stockpiles. I guess they kept it out in the field or used it. But we worked probably four or five hours loading everything up from our ammo bunkers. Everyone worked together to do it and you didn’t mind it.
The guy I replaced as parts clerk had his own private jeep that he stole. He wrecked it the week before I took over. So he just wrecked it and took off and left it.
You had to be careful because if you had a spare tire on a vehicle and someone needed one, they would steal it rather than fix their own. So in a way, that was a lot like M*A*S*H.
While Mr. John was at Camp Eagle in Vietnam, Bob Hope came with his USO show and performed for the 101st Airborne on Christmas morning, 1969.
Bob Hope and Connie Stevens
Mr. John had a great vantage point for the show, considering there were over 15,000 servicemen in attendance.
By the time I left we were down to 80 something from 140, almost 150. At that time, we were becoming a little undermanned. Then went down from there, but I don’t know how fast or how much. At that point, they weren’t really asking people if they wanted to re-enlist. That pretty much ends it on Vietnam.
Were you married at this time?
While I was over there, I sent in my application to go to graduate school at Mississippi State since I had my BS from there. I got accepted so when I came back I got an early out because if you had less than four months, they would let you out of the service. That was 1970.
Thank you, Mr. John, for sharing your story with me, and thank you for your service!