Years ago, James F. Anderson wrote a manuscript about his tour of duty in Vietnam as an artillery officer assigned to the ‘Wolfhounds’ of the 25th Division. His tour overlapped mine by almost two-weeks and we both thought that we unknowingly might have crossed paths. I enjoyed reading his story; one of friendship and camaraderie between the races, and one I could relate to as some of my best buds during training and in-country were also African American. With his permission, I’m posting his ‘Foreward’ and part of a chapter where he tells of his experiences after leaving home and finally arriving in Vietnam. Jim’s manuscript is untitled but his words below are copyrighted.
It began during the Korean War. As a matter of policy, President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948. During Korea, units remained largely segregated – separate, but given an equal opportunity to die was as close as the Army came to complying with Truman’s directive. Racial integration of the military became complete during Vietnam. Tens of thousands of soldiers returned with stories of friendship and camaraderie, often times, these relationships were with soldiers of a different race or ethnicity. They shared stories of a brotherhood that was forged in combat, with families who never had friends of another color or ethnicity. In truth, these friendships would never have occurred had it not been for the war and specifically the draft.
Parents and wives were forced to accept these new friendships – this was particularly true if his friends’ act(s) of selflessness and courage had saved his life. To accommodate these new friendships, overt family behaviors would have to change immediately; learning to control thoughts and thinking before speaking was a great start. Over time, this control would change what we think and how we think. Real change would be gradual, but as the dam of ignorance begins to leak, a river of understanding can develop.
This story began as a simple tale about Frank Smith and myself. Its purpose was to chronicle our time together in Vietnam and the friendship that has lasted for a lifetime. Frank was a career soldier. He was a 36-year-old black Army Captain from South Carolina, and I was a 24-year-old white Army Lieutenant from Georgia – even though I was an officer, it was not my intention to make it a career.
My view of our actions and experiences was clear. We were the good guys. We did the right things and worked together to accomplish our missions and protect the lives of our soldiers at the same time. This worked well for me and I could have easily finished my story and moved on. However, I’ve heard “The Devil is in the detail” and I would need more time.
As I researched dates and places, I encountered ghosts from those days almost forty years ago. People I could now reach out and touch due to new technology. Websites with names and email addresses were accessible with the touch of a key or the click of a mouse. I could have taken the easy way out and wrote my story as I remembered it, but there were too many memories buried and missing. I was certain that with the internet, I could turn over those rocks and find what I’m seeking. Soon, I discovered former soldiers with memories much different than mine. Their memories included mistakes made by their leaders which had cost the lives of their friends. They also cited instances of gross unfairness and undeserved punishment.
Stepping back and looking objectively at the recorded incidents were distressing. Which memories were correct? What could I write that would represent the whole truth? I struggled with this question while continuing to write my story. In the end, I was satisfied that we were both correct and both wrong. Our memories were skewed – based upon our positions within the unit. Ultimately, looking back, there were no bad guys among us. We all had flaws and failures, but we did the best of what our country had asked of us. In retrospect, we cared for one-another and tried to protect everyone as best we could. We shared a common enemy in death and united our efforts to defeat him. Sometimes we succeeded. Sometimes we failed. It is in this construct that my tale will be told.
The long journey from home to Vietnam was a strange one and occurred in stages. First, leaving my wife and young daughter was a terribly emotional experience for me. I left them at home with my parents because I believed it would be easier on everyone. It wasn’t easy, and don’t think I could explain that feeling to anyone who hadn’t experienced something similar. Inside, I wanted to double over, fall to the ground, and moan loudly in agony. On the outside, I had to show that I was the ‘rock’ for the sake of my family. But as the plane departed from the Chattanooga airport, I started to cry. My chest spasmed and redness spread across my contorted face. I was a man and refused to show emotion, but the tears came. Luckily, I had a window seat and turned to the window, hoping my fellow passengers were too absorbed with settling in to notice me. This was the only time I would shed tears for many more years to come. An emotional numbness gradually set in over the next year, which would stay with me for almost a decade.
It was a typically hot, humid day, and my uniform, although summer weight, stuck to my body. I welcomed the coolness of the cabin as I boarded the plane and searched for my seat. Now, however, I was chilled and emotionally exhausted. I asked the stewardess for a pillow and blanket. I slept the sleep of a grief-stricken person. This sleep provides the comfort of oblivion. I didn’t sleep long, but it was enough to refresh my mind and focus my thoughts on the future.
Changing planes in Atlanta, I met another lieutenant who was en route to Vietnam. We shared the trip as far as San Francisco and Travis Air Force Base. Without realizing it, I was already beginning to avoid personal relationships and didn’t remember anything about my companion. I don’t remember his face, his branch, or his hometown. I don’t remember what we talked about or for that matter when during the trip we parted company. Only that we agreed to spend twenty-four hours in San Francisco, see the Pacific, rent a car and drive to Travis Air Force Base together.
It was August and the ‘Dog Days’ back in Georgia, San Francisco was chilly and damp. In contrast, Daytona Beach was a hot, bright day, and the water always looked invitingly cool. In San Francisco, it was about sixty degrees and overcast, beaches were deserted, and the Pacific was ice cold on my bare feet as I walked along. I couldn’t come to California from Georgia and not touch the Pacific Ocean. Due to the dreary weather, we elected to spend our last twenty-four hours of freedom in a nearby bar drinking.
We stayed at a cheap motel for the night and made our way to Travis the next day across the Golden Gate Bridge and through the rolling hills.
Somewhere along the way, we picked up two young women hitching with an eight-year-old girl. They were dressed in what I had seen on TV as “hippies”. All I knew about much of the world was what I had seen on TV. They wore the flowing skirts of the pioneer days, which reached the ground, and gathered long sleeve blouses – generally called “peasant blouses”, with colorful beads decorating their otherwise drab outfits. All had long and straight hair, appearing oily and a little on the dirty side, as did their clothing. Even the little girl was dressed in this manner.
I noticed as we traveled through the rolling hills that the terrain was devoid of trees for the most part. Except for the size and altitude of the hills, it reminded me a great deal of parts of Oklahoma and Kansas where I had trained for the last two years. I guessed this was the result of unrelenting weather and wildfires. Nothing requiring years of growth to mature would stand a chance there.
When we dropped them off at an old unpainted farmhouse in the hills, the first thing they did, even before we could pull away, was to strip the little girl naked and send her off to play. There were several other young adults of both sexes sitting on the ground just outside of a weathered old red barn that stood next to the house. We saw no other children and nobody seemed to pay any attention to our arrival or the little nude girl. Lethargy seemed to be the order of the day for this particular group. We were in uniform, and they didn’t spit on us or call us names as we expected from reading the paper that day. They simply smiled, thanked us for the ride, and wished us luck.
The flight from Travis Air Force Base to Guam was long and uneventful. Twelve hours in an airplane seat is a miserable experience under any circumstances. You can only sleep so long and after a while, there is no comfortable position. I was aboard a civilian aircraft with young, attractive, and attentive stewardesses.
Getting off the plane in Guam was like walking into a steam bath fully clothed. The air was almost too thick to breathe. I guessed this is what it was like in Vietnam and would have to get used to this climate. I was right.
When leaving Guam, I noticed that the flight crew had changed. They were still attentive to our needs, but obviously older and needed more makeup to project the “fly me” persona associated with their profession. These gals were the veterans of the profession. They were capable of dealing with almost any situation and they probably received hazardous duty pay dealing with those soldiers they served juice and soft drinks.
Coming out of the clouds over Saigon, it was obvious what had aged them. The terrain was almost a solid carpet of bomb craters – many extending into the runway were filled with fresh dirt and a layer of asphalt. I got off the plane filled with anxiety, not knowing if I should run or walk. I saw the crew was calm, so I pretended, too.
It was August 15th, 1969, and I was an old man of twenty-four in a war where most participants were still teenagers. Walking from the plane to a small building that doubled as a terminal, we passed those soldiers going in the opposite direction – on the way home. Most of them filed toward the 727 in an upbeat mood, joking about the “Freedom Bird” (the plane) and going back to “The World”(the US of A). Unknowingly, they had been talking about this day for exactly one year and the fact that they were finally going home made them as giddy as a teenager kissing his first girl. These expressions were new and meaningless to a “Cherry” (me – the new guy). That would surely change during the next twelve months.
I said “most filed toward the 727”, because some soldiers rode to their plane in shiny metal boxes which were loaded into a nearby military transport. These soldiers would land in California and then to Dover, Delaware, where their flag-draped coffins are met by a somber Honor Guard in a converted hangar. From there the bodies traveled with a military escort to their hometowns and loved ones. Then, finally laid to rest in family plots across the nation; honor guards fired off a 21-gun salute and a bugler played “Taps”.
At the 25th Infantry Division Replacement Depot, a large metal building with sandbags at the doors, we were divided up into flights and eventually loaded onto CH47 (Chinook) helicopters for the trip to Cu Chi. I soon ran into an old friend who had just arrived himself, Darryl Webb.
Darryl and I had been together through Basic Training, Advanced Individual Training and Officer Candidate School (Class 510-68, Fort Sill, Oklahoma) where we were later assigned to 24th Division Artillery at Fort Riley, Kansas. Darryl was in a different battalion, but we spent much of our free time together. He was much smarter than me and much more conscientious.
He held an engineering degree from the University of Illinois and was all business. Me, on the other hand, had a propensity to goof off with the troops when I got the chance and always looked for that chance. He was almost immediately rewarded for his positive military attributes and I took the long route through the next six months.
Together with several other new Lieutenants, we reported to the Division Artillery S1 (personnel) in Cu Chi. This was one of those times when our fate would be determined by the luck of the draw. Darryl went to Charlie Battery of the 2nd Battalion, 77th Artillery and I was to go to Bravo in the same Battalion. We were both assigned as Forward Observers with infantry companies of the 2nd Battalion of the 27th Infantry Regiment (Wolfhounds). We didn’t see each other again for the next six months. I later learned that he spent two months online as a FO and was moved to the battery as Executive Officer. My draw sent me to Bravo Company, which was currently operating with the Navy up and down the Vam Co Dong River. On the map, it was Song Vam Co Dong. “ Song” means river in Vietnamese.
“Online” is a military term that generally denotes being at the forward edge of the battle area. It is also construed to mean being with the operational elements of a military unit. Simply put, it’s “where the rubber meets the road”. In a linear war, if a soldier is “offline” he is many miles away from the fighting. In Viet Nam the war was circular. It was possible to be “offline” and be in the same place geographically as someone who was “online”. You could come “offline” simply by having a piece of paper assigning you to a different duty position. For example, if you were an Artillery officer assigned as a Forward Observer to an Infantry company located at a “firebase”, you could come “offline” simply by being reassigned as a Fire Direction Officer with the Artillery battery located at the firebase. A “firebase” was a position occupied by the Artillery to provide supporting fires to the area within its’ range. There was also an infantry platoon or company to provide security. There were some subtle differences. Fire Direction Officers didn’t leave the firebase to go on sweeps with the Infantry. Forward Observers did.
Forward Observer is the most dangerous job in an artillery unit. If I had wanted to be an infantryman, I would have enlisted for that job. Somebody forgot to tell me about this when they recruited me and that somebody had a name. His name was Master Sergeant Vern Webber. He was the friendly neighborhood recruiter in Dalton, Georgia. Sergeant Webber was an Artillery Captain in the Second World War. Vern was about forty-five, heavy set, and clearly an alcoholic. After work each day he would make the rounds of all the veterans clubs. By the end of his day, he looked like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Master Sergeant Webber told me about how Artillery was always behind the front lines. He evidentially did not understand the nature of a counterinsurgency war, where there are no front lines. As I said, he also forgot to mention that Artillery Lieutenants were regularly assigned to the Infantry as Forward Observers and their life expectancy in combat was extremely short. He was not given to telling falsehoods though. He reassured my wife and family by telling them that according to statistics, I would be safer in Vietnam compared to driving a car at home. As if to prove his point, Master Sergeant Vern Webber was killed in a car accident two weeks after I left for Vietnam. I’m sure alcohol was a factor.
The complete and utter disorientation began after landing in Long Bien. First, they put me in a Chinook (CH 47) helicopter, flew me to someplace called CuChi, then loaded me onto a UH 1 Huey helicopter without a map or any sense of direction. I became focused entirely on my immediate surroundings. If I couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist. This was my world.
My senses were completely overwhelmed with smells and sights I had never dreamed existed. Swamps and canals passed beneath the speeding helicopter. The stench of rotting vegetation filled the air and the fear of what lies ahead filled my mind. At fifteen hundred feet, the unpleasant smells disappeared. The air was warm as it whipped across my face in the open cargo area of the helicopter. Eventually, I’d gain enough confidence to sit on the floor with my feet on the skids while flying from place to place. But for now, I was securely belted into the fold-down seat that was firmly attached to the back wall of the open bay. The sky was completely clear and blue. This would not always be the case, as August was part of the wet season. It rained daily and the lowlands were always flooded.
Below, I saw people working knee-deep in the rice paddies – often behind a huge beast with massive horns. Small canoe-like boats filled the canals and rivers. Naked children played on the banks. I was on my way to a place called the Sugar Mill. I didn’t know a single person in the chopper and there wouldn’t be a familiar face to greet me.
On the banks of a wide river stood a large complex of concrete buildings. A single pier once extended into the river, but now there was only concrete piling sticking up several feet out in the river. The main building stood three stories high with a flat roof and large factory style windows. I could see some soldiers in various stages of casual dress loafing about on the roof; a long radio antenna rose up from one corner, the barrel of a 50-caliber machine gun poked out from another covering the approach.
During the first ten months of my military career, I had never witnessed soldiers wearing anything but a complete uniform outside of the barracks; these guys were in cutoffs and flip-flops with no shirts, some even manning perimeter gun positions. It’ll be interesting, I thought, to meet the officer in charge of this bunch. Not that I was a gung-ho kind of guy. As mentioned previously, I was pretty laid back, but this level of relaxation seemed extreme, even to me.
The helicopter slowed as it approached and hovered over an open area downstream from the factory, it was the only one clear of debris. The areas surrounding the compound were filled with trash and rusted equipment – even an old rusty Citroen automobile. A soldier with a radio on his back and wearing goggles was positioned beneath us and talking to the pilot. First, the pilot lowered his cargo to the ground, the net slinging below the helicopter held a two-day supply of food and ammunition for the infantry company. In the midst of the swirling dust created by the helicopter blades, another soldier worked on disconnecting the cable from the net. He then held onto the hook while the pilot maneuvered the helicopter far enough from the cargo to set down.
Just prior to boarding in Cu Chi, a supply clerk handed me a PRC 25 radio. The prick twenty-five, as it was called, was mounted to an aluminum backpack and would be my primary means of communication during my stay with the Wolfhounds. As I exited the helicopter, I remember the radio and found a way to carry it in one hand while dragging my duffle bag with the other and slinging my M16 rifle across my back.
From the ground, the factory looked much larger and the surrounding area much nastier. Decades of trash had been allowed to accumulate since the mill had closed. Much of the trash was obviously left by the thousands of U.S. soldiers that had rotated through this place while conducting operations in the area. I found a path through the refuse. Looking back, I saw the helicopter was airborne again and now hovering over an empty 500-gallon water bladder, the helicopter will transport it to the rear to be refilled and brought back another day.
I entered the factory and saw cots scattered throughout the first floor in small groups, soldiers were sleeping, talking and playing cards. They laughed and cut up with each other in a manner that seemed inappropriate for a combat zone. The building was at least a hundred yards long with steel beams and supports evenly spaced out every fifty feet. At the far end, I could see a young soldier tending to a stack of radios, another soldier lay stretched out on a cot next to the radios. He sat up as I approached and then took a few steps in my direction with an outstretched hand – I noticed two black bars on each lapel, “Welcome aboard Andy”. That was it. Captain Frank Smith, the company commander, has already given me a nickname. It was a common nickname for someone with the last name of Anderson, and I wasn’t particularly fond of it.
I found out later that Captain Smith only gave nicknames to his Forward Observers. His infantry lieutenants had call signs of “One-six”, “two-six” and “three-six” named after each platoon. The fourth platoon had a lieutenant, but he stayed in the rear to handle re-supply – I would never know his name or for that matter ever care what it was. Captain Smith was “Six” or the “Old Man” when addressed outside of earshot, but Captain Smith or “Sir” when addressed by a subordinate.
Thank you, brother, for sharing a piece of your manuscript! I enjoyed it and feel you have a talent for telling a story. Please reconsider and spend some time polishing your tome and then try self-publishing – even if it’s only for your grandchildren. It has potential! Thank you, sir, for your service! Welcome Home!
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Should you have a question or comment about this article, then scroll down to the comment section below to leave your response.
If you want to learn more about the Vietnam War and its Warriors, then subscribe to this blog and get notified by email or your feed reader every time a new story, picture, video or changes occur on this website – the button is located at the top right of this page.
I’ve also created a poll to help identify my website audience – before leaving, can you please click HERE and choose the one item best describing you. Thank you in advance!