Recollections of my year in Vietnam:
"In war, everything is realer than real. The capacity for great violence rises to the surface, but so does a capacity for great compassion," an Army doctor said. "Remember, part of the brutalizing men undergo is necessary to their psychological survival. You can't look war in the face with the kind of emotional responses we use in the states. You would go mad."
Something that I have been wanting to do for quite a while is put down some thoughts, feelings, and remembrances of my year in Vietnam. In a lot of ways, the year I spent in Vietnam was probably the most stressful year of my life. And because of that, much of what I am is a result of the changes that I went through during that twelve and a half month period. Elements of what I think of as my "life philosophy" were developed or shaped in Vietnam. Of course, there are aspects about my personality that were present before Vietnam that my experience in Vietnam just served to reinforce.
While I was in Vietnam, I kept a journal, of sorts. I will be copying from that, from letters that I wrote to my family, and I will also be quoting newspaper articles, etc. that I clipped and saved while I was in Vietnam.
In June of 1967, I graduated from Mercer Island High School, and spent the summer as a YMCA counselor at Camp Orkilla on Orcas Island. It was a very rewarding and fun summer job. Bob Thurber, a good friend from high school, also worked at the camp that summer. In September, I began classes at the University of Washington. I was majoring in Forestry, and also playing in the Husky Marching Band. I had been playing the trumpet since Junior High days, and it seemed very logical to continue on into college. And besides, it was just a lot of fun. Classes at the U.W. were not easy for me. At the end of the first quarter, I was just barely getting by, and my grades were going even lower in the second quarter. One day, my roommate at the Baptist Student Center said, "Steve, I want you to be a witness to what I am going to do." Then he took his draft card out of his wallet and burned it. At that time in my life I still was not very aware of the war in Vietnam, and the action that my roommate had taken seemed strange. But I knew that I would never do anything like that.
As my second quarter at the U.W. continued, I knew that I would probably flunk out if I attended the next quarter, so I began to consider other options. My draft number was such that I was concerned about being drafted, and the idea of going on into the service (enlisting) and then going back to college after that made sense. I knew that I would be older and more mature, and I would probably have a better idea of what I might like to do after three years in the Army. My dad had served in the Navy in WW II, but even as a kid I had always said to myself that I would rather die on land than drown at sea. So I started calling an Army recruiter who showed me how I could enlist for three years as an Army musician, go to the music school in Virginia, and be guaranteed a one year assignment at an Army band in the US. He said that in the music field in the Army, I probably wouldn't even have to go to Vietnam.
Around this same time, there was a weekend that I had come home from school, when I remember looking out the kitchen window and seeing a brown car pull into the Warner's driveway. Two men in uniform got out of the car and walked up to their front door. It was later when I found out that they had come to tell the Warner's that their son, David, had been killed in action in Vietnam. I believe that this took place in February, 1968.
On March 22, 1968 I enlisted for three years in the US Army. This was followed by eight weeks of Basic Combat Training at Fort Lewis, Washington. Several things stand out as highlights of memories from basic training. There was a very strong desire to graduate with my platoon. I did not want to be “recycled” and have to go through any part of basic again. I saw that happen to several guys for various reasons and they were miserable because of it. Basic training was not fun. There was a day of training with our gas masks when I literally wished that I was dead because the pain from the CS gas that I was subjected to was so intense.
Here’s a letter I wrote home to the youth group at Mercer Island Baptist Church while I was in the middle of Basic Training:
April 21, 1968
Dear Young People’s Group,
Well, here it is Sunday again. Thank heaven for Sundays - it’s the only day of the week that my Drill Sergeant isn’t breathing down my back! I find it hard to believe that I’ve been in the Army a month. In some ways it doesn’t seem that long; but in other ways, it seems like a year. The first week was called “zero week” because all we did was take tests, get shots, and get our hair cut (and I do mean cut !). On the first day of April, I started my first week of Basic Combat Training. Tomorrow, I start my fourth week; and after that, I’ll be half-way through!! I am scheduled to graduate on Friday, May 24, 1968. I hope I get a leave then, but I don’t and won’t know for sure until I get my orders two days before I graduate. The first week, we had lots of PT (physical training) and classes in military procedure, justice, courtesy, etc. Next, we had a full week of hand to hand combat training, and bayonet fighting. Starting last Wednesday, we spent all day on a range firing our M-14 rifles. We will continue this for approx. ten days when we will fire for record. We must qualify on this weapon in order to successfully complete Basic. As far as upcoming things are concerned, it looks exciting. Next week we continue firing our rifles and we get a class on hand grenades (we might get to throw one!). We also get our first taste of the obstacle course next Saturday. In a couple of weeks we get C.B.R. (Chemical, Biological, and Radioactive warfare). That’s when we lay on the ground and they throw gas grenades at us. We then have 9 seconds to whip out our gas masks and put them on or we get real sick! After that, we go on bivouac which is a 12 mile forced march. We will spend two nights out in our tents and then come back. All in all, Basic isn’t too bad; it’s bearable. Fortunately, it’s the worst part of my enlistment career, and it’s only eight weeks long, and I’ve got only five weeks left!!! After that, anything else the Army throws at me will be easy.
Well, I had better close now; I’m running out of room on this card.
So long for now.
Another recollection from basic training is of a class that my platoon attended in which we were instructed in methods and techniques of silent killing. Our instructor had obviously just returned from Vietnam very recently, and he had done the things he was teaching us to do. The strange thing about the class was the way he made the killing seem like such a logical and natural thing to be doing. He had everyone, including me, laughing so hard we were rolling in the aisles. It was bizarre, but it was a lot like the time I went to the base theater to see the movie, “The Green Berets”. The place was packed with GI's, and every time someone was killed in the movie, the audience would just erupt into the loudest roar I have ever heard. I finished Basic training on time, graduating with my platoon. I also managed to keep a pretty low profile in basic training; my drill Sergeant still didn't even know my name at the end of the eight weeks. That's a fact that I was actually kind of proud of. The only time I can remember getting into a little trouble happened during a class that was being taught outside. I was supposed to be watching the drill instructor, but my attention kept being drawn to the big jet transport planes that were landing at McChord air base. My drill Sergeant was walking behind me when he noticed my eyes were following that big jet instead of watching the instructor like they should have been. He got right up next to my ear and started yelling at me. Then he noticed that I had neglected to shave my face that morning. Well, he really jumped on me then. He made me stand in front of everyone and dry shave my face with an old razor that he just happened to carry around for just such an occasion. Basic Training: Learning how to be part of a team and take orders from superiors; learning how to throw a grenade, fire a rifle; getting my body into the best physical condition it had ever been in; learning what to do and how to behave in good times and dire circumstances; learning how to depend on the guy next to me and never let him down. At any rate, I made it through Basic Combat Training, and then got orders to report to the School of Music in Virginia.
On June 8, 1968, I reported to the Armed Forces School of Music in Little Creek, Virginia. Little Creek is a Naval Amphibious base near Norfolk, VA. Brainwashed may be too strong of a word, but by this time the Army was definitely influencing the way I was thinking about what it was that I wanted to do next in my military career. Shortly after arriving at the School of Music, I made an appointment to see the Commanding Officer. At this meeting I told him that I wanted out of the music program entirely; that I wanted to go into the Infantry, and I wanted to do it right then. He listened politely to me but said that he wouldn't allow me to make that kind of a change at that time. He wanted me to honor my commitment to the music program of the Army, and if at the end of my schooling I still wanted to change my military occupational specialty and go into the infantry, he would be happy to oblige me.
The School of Music was one of the longest schools a GI could attend in the Army. It was supposed to take six months. I was there for eight months. My report date happened to fall a few days after a class had begun, so I was given two or three weeks of leave and told to report back later and start with the next class.
My instinct was to head home. That leave break was in the summer of 1968. I got a plane ticket and headed home to Mercer Island. By this time two of my best friends had gone into the military. Bob Thurber joined the Marines, and Mark Williams enlisted in the Army. Mark and Marci Warner were dating seriously, so I was the friend who helped sneak Marci onto the base at Fort Lewis so she and Mark could spend some time together in the midst of his Basic Combat Training experience.
After spending some time at home, I headed back to Virginia. With a few extra days remaining before starting Music School, I took a Greyhound bus up to Washington DC for a weekend. That trip made a lasting impression on me. I stayed in the downtown YMCA and saw a lot of the sights including the eternal flame at John F Kennedy’s grave and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery. This weekend also happened in the midst of civil rights and anti-war demonstrations in and around the Capital.
The reason for the second extra month of music school was that at the trumpet performance final exam in December, I got too nervous and didn't pass. I had to stay an extra month and retake the test.
From July, 1968 through January, 1969, music was my life. Every day, I had marching band, concert band, jazz band, smaller group ensembles, private lessons, individual practice time, and music theory classes. And then in the evenings we would take turns cleaning our band building and our barracks building. This was a very intense and enjoyable experience. I learned a lot about music and playing my trumpet. There was some free time in Virginia, and I was able to see some of the surrounding areas. One weekend, I drove down to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina with some guys to see the sight where the Wright Brothers did their first flight. I got to see Dionne Warwick, live, in concert in Norfolk, Virginia. One of my classmates had his private pilot’s license, so a group of guys went in together and rented a single engine airplane for the afternoon. Now this was interesting—the ”East Coast Surfing Championship”, live, from Virginia Beach. Woo Hoo! Those waves must have been at least 10-12 inches high. I attended a Southern Baptist church in Norfolk, and the eight months that I was away from home passed very quickly.
The next phase of my Army life came with orders to report to the 433rd Army Band on February 10, 1969. This band was stationed at Fort Irwin, California, which is located about thirty-five miles outside of Barstow at the end of a two lane road. It really was out in the middle of nowhere, in the Mojave Desert. During World War II it was an internment camp for Japanese prisoners. Finally, I was in a real Army band doing what I had been trained to do. We played at a lot of concerts, parades in the surrounding towns, ceremonial functions at other military posts as well as our own. There were band members who had been to Vietnam, and others who were getting their orders to go to Vietnam. One of my bandmasters had just returned from a year as bandmaster of the 101st Airborne Division (Screaming Eagles) Band. There was a lot of talk in the band about Vietnam. Probably the saddest and most depressing part of my job as an Army bandsman was playing at all of the funerals. Because I was a trumpet player, I was put in with a color guard. We traveled all over southern California doing funerals. Some of the funerals were for older retired servicemen who had just died of old age. But most of our jobs were for young Army men who had just been killed in action in Vietnam. These were very sad circumstances, and many times the sound of the trumpet playing Taps would cause family members to weep loudly. I can still remember one funeral in particular where the serviceman had been very young and he had gotten married just before going to Vietnam. I was standing fairly close to the funeral party, and when I started to play, the young widow became hysterical. After that funeral, I always made a point of standing a much greater distance from the families. Playing Taps at funerals or memorial services was something that I had to do for all of my time in the Army, even in Vietnam, and it never got any easier.
Shortly after arriving at Fort Irwin, probably in February or March, 1969, I put in a request for voluntary assignment to Vietnam. After nearly four months of seeing other bandsmen getting orders for Vietnam, many of them not wanting to go at all, and not hearing anything on my voluntary request to go over there, I was getting very frustrated and angry. So during our annual IG (Inspector General) inspection in July, I complained in writing and in person to someone who had the authority to do something about my situation. The Lt. Colonel who gave us our inspection was able to finally get the ball rolling and my orders for Vietnam were in my hands in about six weeks.
Following are a few letters I sent home that were from the summer—1969 time frame, while stationed at Ft. Irwin, California.
30 June 69
Hello. Did the Cannons arrive? I got the owner card & Warranty certificate last Friday. I had my car serviced in Barstow a week ago.
Not too much happening here at Ft. Irwin. The first weekend I was back, I drove to the ocean at Santa Maria. I spent that Saturday driving south on the coast highway towards LA I drove through Hollywood & Beverly Hills, and I took the tour of Universal City (movies) that afternoon. I spent Sat. night in Griffith Park in LA & drove back to Barstow Sunday morning.
I was here at Ft. Irwin for the “Pre - I.G.” inspection in March, and now the “I.G.” inspection is coming up on July 14th. We are already starting to prepare for it. Basically, what it boils down to is very little free time for the next two weeks. On Thursday, the 17th of July, the band is having an all-day party (a yearly event); then we get Fri, Sat, and Sunday off as a three-day pass. That Thurs. afternoon, Dave Holmes (the guy I drove up to Portland with) and I plan on going to Sequoia, camping for the weekend.
The band is really big now. When I got back from leave, there were 9 new guys here. Seven of them are either National Guard or Enlisted Reserve, and will be here only four months for M.O.S. (occupation) training. Another new guy just came in this morning, from the school & one more is expected on the 16th. When I got here the band was about 28 strong; now we have 44!
I’m enclosing with this letter a money order for $96.43. That is $66.43 for the car payment and $30 to go towards my insurance. The car payment is due the 6th of July.
Must close now & go over to the photo lab. I took pictures for that rock band last Friday night; I sure hope they come out!!
15 July 69
News flash from Ft. Irwin: I’m going to Vietnam.
We had our annual Inspector General inspection yesterday afternoon. The I.G. was a Lieutenant Colonel. (The band got a superior rating.) After the inspection, the I.G. made himself available to anyone who had a grievance or complaint, so I filled out a form listing the details about my grievance (filled up a whole page), and had a talk with him. He agreed with me that somebody on this post wasn’t doing his job. The I.G. is a very powerful man in the Army; he’s from 6th Army headquarters at the Presidio (near San Francisco), and he can put a whole post in misery for a year. He called the Post I.G. (Major Durant) who came over immediately; had him start working on my “case” that afternoon.
This morning, I got a call from post Personnel saying that they couldn’t assign me to the 266th Army Band at Long Binh directly from here, but they could assign me to a Special Troops company (replacement company) at Long Binh, where I will stay until I get orders to a specific band (maybe the 266th). This evening, Howie (our company clerk), came over and told me that Mr. Hensley (my Commanding Officer) went over to post Personnel this afternoon and got a “confirmation of orders” for me to the Special Troops Co. at Long Binh. I guess it’s not “maybe” anymore, but more like “definite” as definite can be in the Army. They told me this morning that I should have my orders within three weeks (the first week in August). I think that P.O.R. training and out-processing from Ft. Irwin takes about two and a half or three weeks, so that means I will be home for a 30 day leave around the last week in August, and I will be in Vietnam by the end of September. (But with the later development this afternoon, everything might be moved up a week or two.)
That’s the way things stand as of this moment. I am happy and feel very good about the whole thing. I will call you, as soon as I hear something more definite, as soon as I get my orders, or in a week or so, whichever comes first.
31 July 69
Just a note. I had a lot of fun in San Diego last weekend. Gloria’s aunt put me in their camper for the night. We saw the San Diego zoo (world’s largest), and Balboa Park among other things. I met Jon, Glo’s boyfriend (almost fiancee); he went sightseeing with us. He sure does remind me of Bob! I got back to Ft. Irwin at 3:30 AM Monday morning - had to go on duty at 6:30 AM!!
No Vietnam orders yet. I called Major Durant yesterday & he said I should have had them by now. He’s checking into the situation. I got a letter from Dept. of the Army yesterday afternoon. They said they couldn’t assign me to the 266th, but they could use me in the 25th Inf. Div. band at Cu Chi (near Saigon). I think this letter was a result of my original 10-49, and not a result of my seeing the I.G. At any rate, I’m still going, but everything might be put back three or four weeks…?
Wow, is it ever hot?!? (115 - 120 degrees plus high humidity equals misery!!) It sure was nice in LA & San Diego (75 - 80 degrees).
Am enclosing money order for $104.68. ($66.43 - car, $30.00 - insurance, and $8.25 - telephone bill.)
My orders required me to report to the US Army Overseas Replacement Station, Oakland Army Base, not later than 1200 hrs., on October 12, 1969. Before reporting, though, I went home for thirty days of leave. While I was at home, my sister Susan was born on September 22, 1969. That was a very neat thing to happen to my family. Another thing that I did while I was home on leave was go running a lot. And then there was saying good-bye to family and friends. That was difficult. I remember telling two or three people that I wanted to go to Vietnam and find out what it felt like to kill someone. That desire is fairly common to troops before heading into a war zone. By the time I reported to Oakland in October, I was having a lot of mixed up emotions about going over to Vietnam. I wanted to go, but a year seemed like such a long time. And there was the whole thing about the war protesters who were constantly making noise right outside the fence that surrounded the Replacement Station in Oakland.
The airplane that took me to Vietnam was a chartered Flying Tigers Airline jet, complete with stewardesses. We refueled in Honolulu; a ninety minute stop where we were allowed off the plane into a guarded and fenced in area of the terminal. Then on to Wake Island; a speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, followed by a short stop at Clark Air Base near Manila; and finally landing at Bien Hoa Air Base just outside of Saigon.
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