GER: “You’re trying to concentrate on what’s going on, and the noise is pretty horrific. It’s very disorienting.”

What is your birth year?

1943. 

How old does that make you today?

74.

What branch of the United States armed forces did you serve in?

I was in the Army.

What was your rank?

I was a first lieutenant. 

Where did you serve?

I served in Vietnam, in foreign service. I was in Fort Benning, as well, in Georgia. 

Where were you born?

Vancouver, Washington. 

What are your parent’s names?

Crystal and Louis. 

Do you have any siblings?

I do. I had an older brother and sister, and I have still a younger sister. 

What city did you grow up in?

In Portland.

What schools did you attend?

Beaumont Grade School and Grant High School. 

Can you tell me any specific memories you have from your childhood?

We were a boating family; most of our great memories are from boating, and those experiences, and different trips we took as a family- up and down the river- and that sort of thing. 

Did you play any sports growing up?

I was a track guy at Grant for a couple years. I was a skier- snow skier- so at that time, coaches were dead-set against having people ski and play in their sports program, so I chose skiing. {Laughs} 

Tell me about high school.

Gosh, Grant was a great school at the time. We had a lot of fun. We had great learning, great teachers; Yaw’s was practically next door. It was practically Americana. Truly, Americana. I just don’t see you kids having those same kids of experiences- I just don’t think it’s being allowed anymore. Too bad. 

Were you drafted or did you enlist?

I was drafted. 

On being drafted:

I had just graduated from college, and my wife and I had just moved up to Seattle to start a career in hotel management. Virtually, within probably the end of June, having graduated in May, or some[where] of that nature, I got a letter. I went into the service in September. Do you remember how you felt when you realized you’d been drafted? I was bummed; I wasn’t a protester at the time of any sort, and I wasn’t that involved, one way or the other. I was bummed, because I was trying to start a career, a life. [And I was] newly married, relatively newly married- we were thinking we were going to have some fun in Seattle, do all those things. It was just a downer. Think, “Rats! There’s gonna be two years blown out of my life.” Did you have any expectations for war before being drafted? It really hadn’t been going on a long time; I think it mostly came to the forefront back in ’65- a little bit in ’64, perhaps. I was drafted in ’66, so it really hadn’t been going on a long time, but it had escalated very quickly. Nobody was real interested in going into the service at that time. 

How old were you when you were drafted?

I was 23. 

What was your family and friends’ reactions to your draft?

I think they were all concerned, because of the war. At that particular time, as I said, things were starting to heat up and get some news coverage, so people were becoming aware of it. I think they were just concerned. I don’t recall that anybody broke down, or waved the flag- one way or the other. None of my family had been in the service, so I don’t think any one of us knew what to expect from that. 

Did you pick the service branch you served in, or were you placed?

No, just placed. The draft, as far as I know, was just for the Army. 

Do you remember your first days in service? What was it like?

Yeah. We were shipped up to Fort Lewis up in Tacoma. I was a college graduate at the time, and most everybody else was 18, 19 years old. There was a big gap between us; educationally, culturally, everything. That’s when I made the decision to go into the Officer’s Candidate Program, instead of being just an enlisted man. They shipped me off to New Jersey for my basic training, and all that. It was not a fast track, but a different track, as far as my first training experiences. 

What was your boot camp or training experience like?

You go through basic training, and then advanced training. Basic training is just a lot of harassment. {Laughs} Man, [a] lot of physical activity; they are trying desperately to get you into some physical shape. You’re learning marksmanship, and combat skills. Everybody goes through a[n] infantry program for their initial training before they start going into training for specialties. My recollection is, [we] had three months of basic training at Fort Dix- which is a miserable place- and then we had three months of advanced infantry training. That was also at Fort Dix. Just more of the same; you’re running around, [going on] overnight hikes with backpacks, stimulated infantry drills. All those types of things- battle drills, tactics. Did you excel at those? Yeah, I was athletic coming up, so it wasn’t hard for me. I was strong enough, so I was pretty good at it. 

Do you recall your trainers or instructors? Their expectations of you?

The ones for basic training and advanced infantry training- it’s just a whole mishmash of people. I don’t have any recollection of any of them. They’re all sergeants that are training sergeants; they’re running you through classes every hour. There are people [I] had a connection with once I got to Officer’s Candidate School; you’re there for six months, and you have a training officer who is your platoon leader, basically. You’re with that person for those full six months, and he is the one that is responsible for what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it. I may have been the same age as he was. He was just another guy, except he had rank, and he could yell in my face and I couldn’t yell back. He was a nice guy- a fun, young guy. 

How did you cope or manage with these expectations?

In Officer Candidate School, they clearly have high expectations. You’re always coping with those, and feeling them, and trying to achieve those expectations. They were not only your combat skills, and your training regimens, but it was also your leadership skills, and what responsibly you were taking for [them]. They were really in-your-face, as far as demanding behavior that was exemplary, to just toughing you up, and to humble you. They wanted a team. That’s the way they tried to develop teamwork, at the time. Do you think it worked? Yeah. I do. Particularly at the Officer Candidate School, because everybody was trying to achieve that goal of being an officer, and as far as I know, everybody succeeded. They were also mostly college graduates, so we were all pretty highly motivated people anyway. It certainly developed a sense of teamwork, and camaraderie, and working together- trying to develop that support. 

Where exactly did you go during the war?

I was in Vietnam in what they called “I-Corps”. I think they had four or five corps areas; it started from the North border down- I don’t know how far South it went. The whole country was divided up into sectors. Most of my operations out in the field were in the North, just about five-six-seven miles from the North border. 

What was the weather like?

{Laughs} Well, it was hot. It was humid. We went through monsoon season. It was miserable. Your clothes were wet a good part of the time, and luckily they had clothing that worked pretty well, as far as dissipating the water and keeping you warm, and yet drying out quickly. You finally acclimate, and you just get used to it. It was hot- I couldn’t even tell you, temperature-wise, but I assume it was mostly 80’s or 90’s. Same humidity. Probably like the East Coast. {Laughs} 

Do you recall arriving to your assigned locations? What did you expect?

I came in in Cam Ranh Bay- that was the main entry point for our division. I was then sent out and assigned to a battalion- they were out in the field, at the time, and so I was then ferried out to the landing zone as a fresh, raw recruit, then helicoptered into my company. [I] just got placed right out in the middle of the jungle, first thing. I don’t even remember spending a day or so in the battalion base before they lifted me out, and put me out there with my company. 

What was the jungle like?

It’s just everything that you see on National Geographic or anything like that- it’s just dense. It’s hard to move around in, because [of] the density and the undergrowth. Hilly- where we were was quite hilly, because we were located off of the coast and into the mountains. We were probably 12, 10 miles from the Western border of Vietnam, and 10 miles South of the North-South borderline. That was pretty much in the mountains, and that’s where we operated, and did all of our missions. You’re just walking through all that undergrowth; you’re not on trails or anything, because those were dangerous, so you didn’t do that. You slog through that stuff, and you might get 1,000 yards. Literally, it might take you a whole day to go 1,000 yards- so 10 football fields. You’re also moving 80, 90, 100 people; they’re all being spaced, it’s new territory, [and] you don’t know where the enemy is. You’re always on-guard for that, and you’re moving slowly, and quietly- or, as quietly as you can, with 100 people, through the jungle that has no other sounds in it. {Laughs} Except for animals. It was really, really dense. Big leaves, just like you’d think [there] would be. Big, tall canopy, and then just lots of dense undergrowth. 

What was your job or assignment on location? Did it change over time?

I was an infantry officer, so I was in charge of a platoon of men, and infantry company. We were out in the field- in a combat situation- for 3 weeks out of a month. It did change, because officers were targets- they’d try to get officers out of the field after a 4 to 6 month time frame. I was on the field about 5 months, and then went to a training brigade in a little village that was secure, at the time. Then I became a training officer for some of the younger kids coming out of the field, trying to get promotions to sergeants, and into leadership roles. We were teaching them tactics, and other kinds of things they could use to help in their promotions. 

Did you see any combat at these locations?

I did. When I was in the field, we had firefights. Not a lot- we probably didn’t have more than a dozen firefights in four or five months, while I was there. You didn’t really engage with the enemy very often; our mission was to search and destroy, but it just amounted to basically just covering an area that the battalion was given responsibility for, and trying to interdict any movement through that area, or camps that they may have set up, and destroy those. We were so close to the [Laos] border [that] there was a lot of movement from [the] North, from the North Vietnamese down through our particular area, one of which was called the A Shau Valley. I never got into [it], but my unit did; it was a major, major highway, if you will, for the North Vietnamese supply line. We got a lot of spillover from that valley, and so you never knew when they were going to be moving troops through your area of operation. All the time, you were just kind of searching for them, and trying to find any evidence of movement. You rarely saw them, and probably both sides liked that just fine. Do you remember any fights particularly strongly? I do. There were a couple of them that I have often thought about- not in a bad way; it just comes up in your head. Good men were killed, and you regret that, so those were memorable situations; one of which was a hill that we had gone up four different times, and every time we had gotten into contact with the enemy. It was just one of those futile operations that you may or may not have seen yet- where people talk about [how] they take the same piece of ground over and over again, no rhyme or reason, and nothing is gained by its taking. You’re ordered to go up there, for whatever reason- of course, you’re ordered there because there are enemy there- so, sure enough, we found them, and they found us. Lost a couple of guys on that particular hill, so that was a hard one. 

Can you describe the casualties within your unit?

Sure. It wasn’t a lot- we never got into an engagement or firefight that [was] a days-long kind of thing. Our engagement and firefights- if they lasted five minutes, it would’ve been a long time. We didn’t get in any protracted fight or entrenched tanglement that caused those mass casualties [or] those kinds of things, but every time you’d lose a couple of guys, or [a few] would get wounded- from light wounding to not-so-fun wounding. Out of my platoon, I think I lost two people, and probably each of the other three platoons in the company lost two or three guys while I was there. 

Tell me about any specific memories or experiences that stand out. 

For some reason, we were in a B-52 strike area, where they had laid down a whole barrage of 500-pound bombs. They created big craters, and those craters filled up with water; we all went swimming [and] blew up our air mattresses- those that had them- for an afternoon. Those was one of those silly kinds of times that you have; you’d think you were in the South Sea Islands or something like that, the way we were acting, and having fun. Another time- when you were in the infantry, you were a pretty raw person. We came out of the field- we were being moved down to the IV Core, outside of Saigon, by the Cambodian border. We got our helicopters in to take us out of the field; we got dropped off in someplace [and] were put on a plane with all of our combat gear, and everything else- weapons, ammunition. The whole just got dropped into an airplane and we got down into a big air base. Here we were- just raw, dirty, and thirsty. We had some time off, so the officers in our company hailed down a Jeep, took over, dropped the driver off, went to the Officer’s club, and proceeded to get pretty drunk. {Laughs} We got pretty drunk. It was just funny, because we didn’t have too many controls as to our behavior, both as to flaunting our weapons around, ordering people to get out of the Jeep- that sort of thing. It was just one of those stupid stories, but it happened. Do you remember anything specifically from the field? I guess, taking over that hill three or four times- that was always a memory. I can still see the path, going up and around that particular thing. As to which platoon had to have the point- which meant that you were the first ones up the hill, and the first ones to get hit, if you were going to get hit- they would always rotate platoons, because of that danger. That one was a memory that I’ve always remembered- waiting around, down below. One of the times we went up- in fact, the worst time that they got hit up there- my platoon was expecting a colonel to come flying in for some reason. We stayed down below to secure an air landing space for the colonel, and that night, there was a pretty heavy firefight up on the top of the hill. I only had half of my platoon, because the other half were up there, and that was one of the guys that I lost- because of this colonel. I was really mad. I was really, really angry at that colonel, to think that he’d be coming out here to some sort of a parade or something, and here are these guys with their lives being lost, so he can come look at the damage and puff his chest out. I was only in the field for a few weeks outside of Saigon, and we were in an old rubber plantation. We had some South Vietnamese with us, and we got into a very large underground bunker system that had been built by the Viet Kong. They had domestic pigs up on the surface, so we were able to get a pig and roasted that puppy up. We had a nice pig roast that night. {Laughs} Those were the most prominent field things. 

What were the most trying and difficult moments of service?

Just the firefights, because that was always hard. You’re in an extremely high state of activity, and anxiety. Being a platoon leader- the job was to maintain your cool, organize your guys, direct fire, and do all those things. You’re trying to concentrate on what’s going on, and the noise is pretty horrific. It’s very disorienting. That’s one of the hardest things about the firefights- it’s so disorienting, because of the noise. All the guns going off- you had machine guns, small-arms fire- you sometimes had rockets. If we called in gunships, we would have just an array of rockets from the gunships. [We had] mini-guns that just sounded like a roar- you don’t hear any individual shots being fired. My recollection is, they would fire something like 3,000 rounds a minute. It was just literally a roar coming from the helicopter. Or, you’d have artillery being brought in- when you had artillery being brought in, it was always very close to you. Our artillery guys were crazy. {Laughs} It was just all that concussive noise. 

What were the best memories of service?

In country, I had an opportunity to spend some time in Saigon. It was a fascinating city; something I’d never seen before. I just remember a lot of Vespa’s, and little Honda motorcycles. Everybody was on them, and there were just throngs of people. The first time I went in there- it was shortly after being in the field, where everything is silent, [and then] all the sudden, you’re just surrounded by all these people- it scares you to death. Everybody is an enemy at the point, in your mind. You’re looking all the time. It came to be really cool- had a great zoo, in Saigon, and a lot of fun that way. I went to an air base once, and they had great entertainment- it was a lot of fun. As far as being out of the country, I was in Fort Benning, Georgia, so that wasn’t much. {Laughs}

Were you awarded any medals or citations? What for?

I was. I was awarded two bronze stars for valor, air medal, and other service stuff; combat, infantry men’s badge- which everybody who was in combat got. You had division awards, but I don’t even know what they were. 

Were you injured during the war? How, and any after effects?

I wasn’t injured. I was very fortunate that way. I ducked plenty, I guess- ducked enough. {Laughs} 

What were your friends and family’s reaction to the war?

The war, itself, as I was there in ’69, [was] pretty heated up at that time. That was probably the apex of the fighting there, at the time. Our division was at the forefront of that fighting. They were very concerned here. They weren’t against the war; I don’t think they were until after I got home. I don’t think even I was against the war until I got home. 

How did you stay in touch with them?

Writing. [I] still have quite a few of the [letters], in my big boxes. 

What was the food like?

We were lucky, because we were the first recipients of freeze-dry foods. Oregon Freeze Dry, out of Albany, Oregon, was the first manufacturer, as far as I know, that supplied the Army with the dehydrated food stuff. The 1st cav was really kind of the premier division in Vietnam, I think. I say that because I was in it; we were at the forefront of what was going on- infantry, tactics wise- because we used helicopters for transportation instead of trucks, or vehicles. It made us very mobile, and quick, that way. They just gave us a lot of good stuff; the freeze dry products [was] one of the biggest, because they were very light-weight, and we didn’t have to lug around C- rations. Everybody else, like the Marines, all had C-rations, and those darn things were just brutal, they were so heavy. You ended up throwing half of it anyway, anyway, because they were no good. I mostly lived on peanut butter and jelly and crackers. We would dismantle a claymore mine, and let the C-4 out of the back of it-; C-4 is a real hot burning compound. We’d break it up into chunks, light it up, put our water over it, heat up the water, and have a really hot meal, out in the field. It was really cool. 

Did you feel stress or pressure about the war and its effects?

I was just focused [on what I was doing]. I did not think about the morality, or the rightness or wrongness, of that war, because I was living it. I survived it, and so that’s all you think about. Truly. I really didn’t, and it took me a while, even after I got back, because I then went out of Vietnam into law school. There were about five of us that were Vietnam veterans, and it was just a time of real high protest here. I remember being down at our [student] lounge, and the TV was on, and the guys would be yelling anti-war slogans. Our group of five guys would be sitting in the corner, just being quiet. They didn’t realize, nor did they bother to ask, whether we had been there, or done anything else. I never really formed an opinion about it until I got back. 

Did you do anything special for ‘good luck’ before an assignment?

No, I didn’t. I don’t have any superstitions that way, so I didn’t. {Laughs}

Did you have a lot of free time?

Certainly not in the field, although [when] we were back at battalion headquarters- which was just a blown-out area in the jungle with some sandbag huts- we just felt so secure there that we just kind of laughed, and we had beer. You can relax. 

How did you entertain yourself? How did others?

We went to the Officer’s club- [we] went to a couple of concerts. The Air Force had a good deal, because they brought in entertainment and all that stuff. {Laughs} We were down at an Air Force base- we would go over there every night [to] see the entertainment and drink.

What did you think of your fellow soldiers?

By in large, they were good guys. [I] had some really good rapport with most all of them; we had a couple that we didn’t care for very much, particularly one in the field that we put back in the rear, and I took over his platoon, because he was just not effective at all. They were usually really nice, highly motivated, intelligent, diverse people. It was fun.

Are there any people you met that you specifically remember?

{Laughs} Two, I guess- [one] was my company commander when I was out in the field. The other one was a fellow that I met, and he was from Portland, and [I] turned out to be law partners with him after the whole thing- after 10 or 15 years in the practice. We somehow got worked around. He was in a different company in the same battalion as I, so we had met overseas, and ended up being law partners. I thought that was pretty ironic. Other than that, I have not kept in touch with anybody. There was one guy that I think about- I still even think [that] I should make some effort to find him- he was one of my sergeants, and just a really great guy. A courageous guy, a good sense of humor, a bright, hard worker- just a neat guy. But I never have kept in touch. 

Why, or when, did your service end?

By natural contract. I had to [give] two years as an officer, from commissioning, so that just happened to coincide with the start of law school in August of ’69. 

How did you feel?

I felt good. {Laughs} Real good, at that point. I was sure ready to get out of Vietnam. 

How did you get home? Where did you relocate to?

Just a big air transport, and flew back into Fort Lewis, and my wife met me. 

Did you relocate after the war?

We came down [to Portland], and actually lived with my in-laws the first part of the first year of law school. I went to Salem-Willamette, so we lived here in Oswego, and moved around Tigard. My wife had a job in Forest Grove teaching- the last two years of law school we were in Forest Grove. 

Did you have a family after the war? How did the war affect this?

I did have a family after the service- two boys. I don’t think it impacted me that way; [it] certainly had an impact. You have a kind of come-to-Jesus moment. It certainly impacts your view of life, and what’s important- what’s not important. The frivolous kinds of things became even more frivolous to me, and had no meaning whatsoever. I didn’t tolerate that very well from other people. 

What was your job or career after the war?

Lawyer, and home remodeler now. 

How did your military service affect how you think about wars today?

That war achieves nothing. I just couldn’t say it any clearer. It achieves nothing. Unless you are defending your own country from assault, then there is no reason for us to be there. I see the Iraq and Afghanistan [wars] as totally worthless. They’re the same stupidity that we exhibited for Vietnam. I don’t think they have a rational basis. It would take a lot for me to justify going to war again.  

Has serving in the military affected any decision making today?

I think it helped in leadership, as far as how to set an example, lead by example, and hopefully live up to that example, which we all try to do. I think that would be the first and foremost thing- [how to] be a responsible person, held accountable. 

What do you think the general public should know about war?

That’s a double-edged sword. In my mind, I think everybody should go through a traumatic experience such as that to give their own life some meaning. Give them a stronger moral compass, perhaps. Political compass, I suppose. So that they have some idea of what a real war is like, and what it does to people- which is not a good thing. They just need to know that, I think. 

How has living in Portland now shaped your veteran experience?

I couldn’t say that it has, because we’re not around the military here. If you go back East, there’s military all around you. It’s really a big deal, and it just isn’t here. We have other members of my wife’s extended family that are military people, and it is truly amazing how enmeshed they are in that military culture. We just don’t have any of that out here. I haven’t stayed in touch with veteran’s groups, or any of that kind of thing. 

Have you found adequate resources and connections in Portland?

[I] haven’t even looked. 

How did your service affect your life?

Just that. It certainly made me a more serious person; I don’t tolerate stupidity, and I don’t tolerate the self- imposed ignorance. Hearing people like that start pontificating about things- it makes me not very happy. It made me more serious. It did. 

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GER’s field map from Vietnam

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This interview has been lightly edited for readability. However, to maintain integrity, and to respect the stories of the veteran, content has not been altered from the original transcription. This interview was originally recorded and later transcribed. Questions partially retrieved from: 

“Guidelines.” Veterans History Project. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <www.loc.gov/vets/guidelines.html>.

7 thoughts on “GER: “You’re trying to concentrate on what’s going on, and the noise is pretty horrific. It’s very disorienting.”

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