What are your initials?
What is your birth year?
How old are you?
That makes me 79.
What branch of the United States Armed Forces did you serve in?
Army. I was drafted in the Army.
Can you tell me any specific memories you have from your childhood? You would’ve been elementary-school aged during WWII.
In school, we were trained to get under the desks in case there was an atomic attack. Almost everyone my age remembers that. Everybody goes to school- you’re young people, and you’ve got these little desks, and you’re trained to get underneath that and cover up. If you’re a direct hit, you’re gone anyway. That was my memory of that- WWII. My father’s [family] was actually from Switzerland, not Germany. [My last name] is very common name in Switzerland. They made my father- because he had a German name, and spoke Swiss-German- check in in Vancouver, just like the Japanese. That was an early memory.
I [was] on the street- not on the street in a bad way, I’m just a happy guy. My buddies and I, we’d play ball in the street and then go home and study. An interesting story is- I think I’m a sophomore in high school, and something happened, so my buddy and I were going to run away. So, we got this canned food, and a siphon-hole to siphon gas, and away we went, to the coast. After four days, it’s time to go back, and my buddy says, “My dad’s just going to beat the hell out of me.” I go to school the next day, and I say, “Gary, what happened?” “My dad took me down to the basement and he just beat the hell out of me.” He turns to me and says, “What happened to you?” “My mother didn’t even know I was gone.” I don’t say that in a bad way, but I would spend two or three nights with my buddies, and we’d play ball at his house. I was [basically] raised in a commune. I have no bad tapes about my childhood. I just had a nice little happy place. My mother was married six times, but to the same guy twice, who worked at the dams. So, I lived all around Oregon- the Dalles dam, the Detroit dam, Sweet Home [and] Gates, Oregon.
Did/what were your expectations of war after being drafted?
No. I became a flight surgeon [and became] in charge of the helicopter people who go in- I chose that, which was not a good choice because of all the wounded people. When I’m an intern, all the sudden, your fellow doctor says, “I got mail from Lyndon Johnson”, the mail is, “Greetings, you’re in the Army.” He might have had a couple kids, and everyone says, “Oh, no, they’re drafting interns!” Then everybody tries to get in the national guard, but they closed the national guard retroactively. If I got a letter in January, they’d closed it in November. So, who gets in the national guard? Politicians’ sons, not common people like me, so you’re stuck. A week later, there’s no place to go, and you get your letter- “Greetings, you’re a captain in the Army.” That was a shocker to me. Were you in medical school then? No, I’d graduated from Oregon, and now I [was] doing an internship. That was a quick turnaround. Well, they needed doctors in.
What was your family and friends reactions to the draft?
I didn’t have much of a family. I got my buddies, and of course, they reacted, but they were all getting drafted too.
Do you remember your first days in service?
It kept getting worse for me; first, you’re drafted, and you go to Fort Dix- that’s in New Jersey, and not a very good place- then I go to San Antonio for training. What was it like? Like I said, a lot of the doctors were not healthy, so we’re marching, and they’re clanging with their braces and wheezing, and stuff like that. They have this thing called an infiltration course; you’re supposed to crawl through this barbed wire, and they shoot over the top of you. I am really fit, so there’s thirty doctors in this foxhole, and they say, “Go!” So, I crawl through, and they’re shooting over my head, and you’re [going] through the barbed wire and stuff, and I get to the end, and nobody’s there! I said, “Oh, no, I went the wrong way.” But all these people have maladies, so they’re behind me, and so about 15 minutes later they all start rolling in. I was very fit there; they didn’t care about the doctors that serve.
And then in Vietnam, it’s kind of a shock- it depends which unit you go to. I went to the 1st Air Cav, which is Army. 1st Air Cav is out of someplace South. I had the unfortunate [task]- I was reconnaissance. I think somehow, they kind of targeted me, and said, “This guy’s pretty fit, let’s put him up there in the front lines.” As a Colonel, at night, they’d say, “Okay, we’re going to go to Hill 405, because we think there are 300 Viet Cong on 405.” So, we’re going to send in a platoon, which is 12 people. Of course, dumb doctor I am, I say, “Colonel, if you really think there are 400 Viet Cong on this mountain, why are you sending in 12 people?” Sure enough, about once a month, they were right, and so now we got our 12 people and 405 Viet Cong. Now, we have to go in and reenforce them, and that’s where helicopters go in and kick off ammunition. They had their buddies, and it was buddy system. It’s a pretty gruesome deal, and it certainly affected me. They would go anyplace in the jungle. It’s just a FUBAR situation.
Do you recall your trainers or instructors? Their expectations of you?
There’s two disciplines- number one is people drafted like me. Then, there’s regular Army. If you watch M*A*S*H, you get that the Colonels are always regular Army. Regular Army means that you’re in there for life. If you’re not regular Army, like me, you don’t give a shit. You just tell it the way it is. You say, “Excuse me, Colonel, if you really think there are 400 Viet Cong, why are you sending 12 people?” You don’t care about being promoted, or anything like that. Then, of course, you’re never reprimanded, because they don’t want to loose a doctor- what are they going to do, put me in a stockade or something? Did you have a higher authority because you were a doctor? I was a captain. Right away, I was a captain, but that’s worthless- I don’t even know how to salute.
What was your job or assignment there? Did it change over time?
My job was to take the wounded out of the jungle, and evacuate them. Sometimes, we’d get mortared at night, so I’d tell the Colonel the night before, “If we get mortared tonight, all casualties go to the mess tent.” They’d go to the mess tent, and of course [when] you’d get mortared at night, it was a SNAFU. [If] we get mortared at night, now we don’t know if the helicopters have holes, because you can’t see, so you can’t fly out at night, so everybody’s got to stay there. We have to take all the wounded to the mess tent, and wait until morning to see what’s there. There’s stuff all over the place, and young people crying. It’s a terrible experience.
Tell me about any specific memories or experiences that stand out.
The problem is that the medics aren’t educated; I would promote a medic, and then I’d go out in the field or something and come back [to find] your medic was caught drinking or something, so he’d get demoted. There’s all kinds of things. Did you see anything particularly outstanding in terms of wounded people? No, but at night, there is a triage. Every war has a triage. It’s an interesting story- I dig a foxhole, because I’m afraid of getting mortared. The helicopters, they land on this type of metal that’s called PSP. Whenever we went to a new place, I’d dig this hole, in case you got mortared at night, and I’d get some metal from the helicopter place so I could take a direct hit and survive. There’s this thing called a doppler effect- if the mortar’s over there, it’s low. So, you can tell when it comes in, it goes, boom, boom. boom, boom– and the higher the pitch, it’s right on you. I was there, and for some reason, that night, I’d said, “I think I’ll sleep North-South instead of South-North, so I turned around. At night, I hear this mortar coming in with the doppler effect. I start crawling- you’re never supposed to stand up- and I turned around and hit my tent post. I’m going this way, but I thought my foxhole was that way. So, the mortar’s on top of me, and hit the tent next to me, and it was demolished there. I can’t get in my foxhole, and everybody’s yelling and running around, [smelling] sulfur from the bombs and stuff, saying, “Doc, Doc, come here!”. They go to this one tent, and there’s no triage there; it was a direct hit, body parts all over the place.
Do you know the song Imagine by John Lennon? Yes. Have you seen American Sniper? Yes. Have you seen the Deerhunter? No, but I’ve been also watching the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary. I couldn’t watch the Vietnam thing, because I have a friend who is a psychiatrist. She defined what PTSD is; the definition of PTSD is something that’s life-threatening to you, and you have afterthoughts about it. I flew right through Vietnam. [There’s] a picture of me- I’m 26 years old. Now here I am, 53 years later. I was drafted into the Army- I’m a doctor; if you look at the picture, I’m a non-combatant, so I don’t carry a gun. There’s all kinds of things called Catch-22. The Catch-22 is if you look at that picture- number one, I don’t have a gun, but number two, I have captain’s stripes on, but they’re blacked out. It’s a Catch-22- why would they black that out? I would like to have a caduceus on there so they don’t shoot me, but they black it out so they don’t know I’m an officer. I want a big red cross or something on it, so they don’t shoot. Another Catch-22 is that when I’m in Vietnam, as I have 10 medics who are all killed and wounded, and the doctor who replaces me gets killed later. That’s 12 of us, and I’m the only one of us who’s not killed or wounded. [In Vietnam, you think you see] the Red Cross helicopter [come] to pick up the wounded- not so. The directive of the Army is that the Red Cross isn’t supposed to go where there is hazardous fire. Well, who gets wounded where there is hazardous fire? So, my unit- I would be on the floor of the helicopter, and I would kick off ammunition and take in wounded, and then we would come to the Red Cross. So again, the Catch-22; the Viet Cong doesn’t know that I’m a doctor taking off wounded, so they would shoot me, and thus they shoot the doctor that replaced me. SNAFU and FUBAR is the whole situation.
The reason why I think you should see the Deerhunter- [soldiers in the movie] had a brotherhood thing, just like [when] people enlisted together. [When] you put them together in the Army, they were dynamite. They’d go in the jungle, they’d go everywhere. The problem was, when one of them got killed or wounded- the other one was worthless, and wouldn’t go anywhere. They’d come to me, as a doctor, and say, “Tom doesn’t want to go out in the jungle, because he lost his buddy Brad.” That was called the buddy-system. If you watch the Deerhunter, that’s what that’s about- these coalminers from Pittsburgh- I think there were three or four of them, and one of them gets captured. Once one of them went down, all this stuff comes to the port.
What was the weather like? I’ve heard of WWII soldiers getting trench foot because of the foxholes.
They were in the trench holes with mud and everything like that. We were very mobile. We could fly out in a helicopter and get new socks whenever we wanted to. Do you remember anything specific about the now-infamous jungle? I’ll tell you another true story- my unit, the 1st Air Cav, is stationed here, and to the South of us is the 101st Airborne, and to the North of us is the ROK (Republic of Korea). The Koreans were tough. But, to the East of us, was the Air Force. They had nothing. We were their protection. So, you’d get an oil barrel for people to defecate in, and you’d light it for sterile technique. The Air Force had an oil barrel, and so this Air Force guy got up at night to go to the bathroom, and he was bit by a snake. There was poisonous snakes over there- bamboo vipers, rustle vipers, cobra. They come running over to me two hours later- “Doc, Doc, there’s an Air Force guy!” By the time I got over there, he’s dead. So, what snake bit him? Well, it’s night, so you don’t know, because there’s different antivenom for different snakes. He was dead. After that, I told all my soldiers, “If you see a snake, I want you to kill it and put it in a bottle, so if someone gets bit, you say, ‘What did the snake look like?'”
Then, I was an entrepreneur, so I talked my commanding officer into going to Thailand, Bangkok, to get antivemon for all these snakes. I got an R&R in Bangkok getting antivemon stuff. If they give you lemons, you make lemonade. What about the heat? Heat wasn’t a problem. It’s moldering heat, and we’re always out in the jungle at night- I was very skinny over there, [and] you loose weight. Korean beer was a nickel, and there was nothing else to do, except have a beer at night and try to survive.
What were the most trying and difficult moments of service?
The biggest trying moments was that my heart wasn’t in this war. I was drafted, you know. There’s always a trying moment, whether it’s taking care of this buddy’s system or psychologically, you know- stuff like that.
Another story- now, I’m out of the Army in one week, because two years has gone by. When I leave Vietnam, I’m out of the Army, and I haven’t seen one of my kids, because they were born when I was over there. So, I’m out of the Army. They bring me back from the field, because this doctor replaced me, and so I’m one week until I come home and sign out, and see my child. Then, the Colonel comes, and he says, “Doc. The replacement got killed. You’ve got to go back to the front lines.” I say, “Listen. I’ve been over here, I’m all screwed up, and it’s one week until I get to go home. I’m really in no shape to go back up there.” He says, “You gotta go back up there.” But, there’s a trick to that. There’s such thing called a congressional letter. A congressional letter is- let’s say a mother has a child, a man, and he’s over there. She writes to Senator Wayne Morse and says, “My son’s over there, and he’s anemic, and he’s not doing well, would you please have him checked?” So Senator Morse contacts my commander and says, “See Mr. Johnson. He’s anemic.” So I look up Mr. Johnson, and of course, he’s not anemic, he’s six-foot-two and he’s a hunk. I say, “I’ve got a congressional letter here to see how you’re doing,”- “Oh, that’s just my mom.” So, I write back to Senator Wayne Morse to say, “Mr. Johnson’s just fine.” So I know about congressional letters- that’s my job, [but] I’ve got this thing where the Colonel’s gonna send me back to the front lines. I know how the Army works, so I go over and get my typewriter, and I say, “Dear Senator Wayne Morse…I’ve fought for my country, I’ve served well, and in one week I have an honorable discharge. I’m all screwed up- they tried to kill me over here- I really can’t go back to front lines.” I type up this letter, and I take one letter over to the travel officer, one to the finance, and one to the commanding officer. Then, I go over to the officer’s club and I have a beer. I tell my buddies, “In a couple minutes, someone’s going to come over here and ask me to go home, because they don’t want a congressional letter on their record.” So the Colonel comes in and says, “Doc, have you sent that letter off yet?” And I say, “No, sir.” “Do you have the original?” “Yes, sir.” “Give me that original and you’ll have a plane ticket. You’re out of here tomorrow.” You got to know the system.
What were the best memories of service?
We were out in the jungle, so we didn’t have much Nancy Sinatra- “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’.” I think Bob Hope came over there a couple times.
You have comrades, of course- you’re in this together. You’re in this buddy system together. You’re either alive, or you’re killed. You always talk about that- you got to follow command. Even though the doctors were drafted, you still have to follow command and do what they asked. I [have] lots of memories like that.
Were you awarded any medals or citations? What for?
I was awarded a medal for combat assault. You have combat support- that’s the people who are shooting, and I’m combat assault, where they’re shooting at me. There was another episode where they wanted to give me a medal, and I was in a bad humor- I said, “I don’t want your medal. I want out of here alive.”
Were you injured during the war?
No, I was healthy as a horse. You had to take malaria pills, [and] they’re dropping Agent Orange on us. Did you ever treat any patients affected by Agent Orange? No, but you hear about it afterwords, [because] of the aftereffects. They’re dropping Agent Orange to defoliate- imagine that. Defoliate the countryside- not good for our ecology.
How did you stay in touch with your friends and family?
Letters arrived- you have mail call. The Army was very good about that- mail all the time. It’s just like the Middle East now. Of course, they have Skype now, but mail call. The Middle East isn’t any better than Vietnam.
What was the food like?
I never had Vietnamese food, because I was always in the field, [and] I never went to Saigon. They have rations- the rations come in a green box. In the box is Camel cigarettes that are green – so they can’t see them. We had rations everyday, but the best rations was weenies and beans. [With] the rations, you could never tell what was in there. I broke the code [by taking] whatever weenies and beans were- A4605229 something- and the bad stuff was something other. I always ate weenies and beans over there- I never had Vietnamese food. To this day, I’ve never had Vietnamese food. Never made it to Saigon- no restaurants. C- rations…
Did you feel stress or pressure about the war and its effects?
I guess I’m a survivor, so I don’t have any bad tapes, but I have this residual when a helicopter goes over- I know that’s a fight-or-flight reaction. I guess I was strong enough, with my communal living, to bond with the other soldiers and get by. That was my buddies, because I didn’t have family.
Did you have a lot of free time?
Oh, yeah- some days, you don’t do anything. Played a lot of bridge with the pilots, but that was another FUBAR thing, too- you played bridge with the pilots, and they’re captains, also. We’re laughing, and having beer at night, and it was quiet times there, but they’re always talking like, “I’d never fly in bad weather.” Then, all the sudden, I’d get a call one night, and the captain so-and-so, my buddy, he’s out there, disoriented, and the weather’s coming in. Pretty soon, he crashes into a hill. So, what happens? The next day I gotta go out and find him. That’s another Catch-22 thing. When a helicopter pilot crashes, they burn. When you burn, the muscles contract, so you’re up like a meatball. [But], you have to put them in a [body bag] like a hotdog to evacuate them- I was always mad about that, that Catch-22- why don’t you give me a round bag to put the body in, not an elongated bag? All those things bother me now, the whole idea.
How did you entertain yourself? How did others?
Time flies. You walk over there- I hooked up a deal [with] the cans you get to go to the bathroom. I got a clean one, and so I put water up there, and I had my little gas thing, so I heated [it] up and had a warm shower once in a while. It’d drip on me. By the time you’d take a shower, mail call would be here, and what’s happening? You’d go to a conference that night- what are you going to do tomorrow? Time flies when you’re isolated like that, and get in routines.
Are there any people you met that you specifically remember? Did you keep in touch with any of these people? If so, for how long?
No, I haven’t stayed in touch with any of them. Some people have reunions.
I know you mentioned leaving service via congressional letter. How did you feel about going home?
When I’m coming home, I’m going through Fort Lewis up in Tacoma. Again, when I’m out of the Army, I’m out of the Army. I haven’t seen my son. So, I faked all [this] medical stuff- fake hearing, stuff like that- I didn’t want to spend two days up in Fort Lewis. I wrote all my medical stuff, and came back through Tacoma, and I said, “Here I am. I’m out of the Army.” I’m down in a matter of hours, reunited with my family. How was that? It was good. Very good. They have R&R, so I did meet my other son, in Hawaii.
On the Vietnam memorial in Portland’s Washington Park:
It’s a very solemn place, just by definition. It’s an energy there- you walk up that spiral, and I’m remembering my year. It’s a very solemn place- it’s like a cemetery, I guess.
What was your job or career after the war?
I became an orthopedic surgeon, and returned to my hometown in 1971. I’ve been here, and I’m still working orthopedics- I do medical regional work now. I’m very proud of my education, because I’m self-educated. What I’m doing now is- when I was in medical school, there was no tram. I go up the tram, 50 years later, and I get this brochure about medical students. The average debt of a medical student is $200,000. I got through medical school with no debt, because I slept in my car- again, no sour grapes- I was just the happiest guy you’ve ever seen. In the cafeteria line, half a hamburger would come by, and I’d put that out as dinner. I ate like a king. Now, the average debt is $200,000- I said, “That’s not right.” So I bought this house by the medical school, and now I have three medical students living there. I’m trying to get another house- I want to [house] up to 20 medical students. I saw them graduate, and I cried the whole time, to see them all motivated and appreciative.
I play handball. [There are] all these veterans with PTSD, [who are] having trouble with adapting to it, and they are amputees. A good way out of it is exercise, and then family ties. I’m thinking about having these amputee veterans play handball or racquetball. One arm or one leg- handball is a real fraternity-like [sport]. If there’s one handball player [somewhere], I could say, “Why don’t you come stay with me for three months?”, and get to know the guy. Now, there’s a problem involved in that, [like] American Sniper- he befriended people, and then he got shot.
How did your military service affect how you think about wars today?
If you read the lyrics to John Lennon’s imagine- ‘Imagine there’s no country, no religion, too. Nothing to live or die for.’ I’m not musical, but I’m learning the piano just to play that, by route memory. That’s just my thoughts. John Lennon says it all. That’s where I am now- I would never serve again, because they’re not being truthful with me, starting stuff like that. We got Donald Trump, and he’s talking about how we’re going to nuke North Korea. Here’s my thoughts: you get 5 neutral countries- Finland, Costa Rica, etc- and they send over ships with food. You tell Kim Jong-un, “We have 5 ships off your coast with food for your people. You can come out and expect them, and see there’s no arms there, no tricks, just food.” So, Kim Jong-un’s gonna do two things. First, he’s gonna take the food- that’s a show of peace- or, he’s going to say, “No.” If he says no, the ships go to China, they unload the food. Now, we have another 5 countries coming over and saying, “Kim Jong-un, now we’re going to have 5 other countries: Canada, Australia, Estonia- and they’re bringing ships full of food.” Now, he’s got two choices again. He didn’t take the last one. You keep doing that, ad infinitum, no matter what- the whole idea is that he knows that the world is trying to help his people. That would be my solution that I’d like to talk to Donald Trump about. I think it would work. It’s a very passive, Gandhi- type thing to do. The answer isn’t war. If we invade them, they can fire a thousand artillery to Seoul in a minute. My other thought is that you send Ivanka Trump over to live in North Korea, so he knows we’re not going to nuke them. If we nuke them, we nuke Ivanka. They used to do that- the Russians and the French would marry someone and send them over to England so they would have peace. It’s a strange solution.
There’s an article in the Economist about wars. The whole idea is that- China has 600 nuclear warheads, Russia has 4,000, at least, and we have 7,000 or something- why do we need 7,000 atomic bombs?
I’m an Oregonian. Milwaukee High School, born in Portland. My mother was married six times- I have no bad tapes about that, I was just a happy little kid from Milwaukee. I self-educated myself, and when I was drafted in the Army at 26, I had one child, and another child was born while I was over there. My brother deferred from the Army- he’s not a doctor and didn’t have any children. They were taking doctors, just randomly, so when I go to training camp, one doctor beside me, who was marching with me, had one eye, and the doctor behind me was wheezing because he’s got one lung- the whole idea is that they don’t care what your physical condition is. I was quite fit then, so I served my Army. My thoughts are that I wouldn’t do it again- I’d go to Canada or something like that, like Muhammed Ali. I just think it’s terrible. In my opinion, the whole idea is that old people make war, and who dies? These young medics, and guys like me- 26 year old kids. That’s who dies over there. So, let’s flash-forward to today. What’s happening? Well, we’re taking merchandise from Vietnam- that all continues. Are they our enemy now? No. Should they have been our enemy then? You’d have to know that the Senator then was Senator Wayne Morse. They had some bombing of a ship in Tonkin, which started the war. At the start of the war, they had all the Senators [vote]- Wayne Morse [and one other were the only ones] who voted against the war. Here, we start this war; if you look at history, they always try to make the enemy not very attractive to you. If you go back into Germany- the Germans are krauts- “Let’s kill the krauts!” The Vietnamese were the Viet Cong. The Koreans were the Gooks. They always give you a name. To this day, what are they doing- they are going after the Arabs. It’s not a very romantic story that civilization paints, in reference to that. Here I am; I’ve learned a lot, because I’ve survived war, but I still [remember]. If a helicopter comes over, if the blades are changing [to] go in for landing- that’s where we got killed, the tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk– it’s been 50 years, and I have PTSD. I’m not all freaked out about it, and I’ve lived with that.
Has serving in the military affected any decision making today?
My philosophy now [is that] there’s no reason to be angry at anybody, at anything. Someone could kick me in the leg and I’d say, “I wish you hadn’t have done that.” I just have no anger or judgement of anybody, because I’m just lucky to be alive. I’m living on borrowed time.
What do you think the general public should know about war?
John Lennon. Listen to John Lennon everyday. Like Forrest Gump! Another good movie is ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’. But, if you take Forrest Gump- he hauled another guy out, the amputee- [Lieutenant Dan]- and he’s mad. Meanwhile, Forrest Gump never got mad at anybody. He says, “It happens.” He says, “Stupid is as stupid does.” Eventually, the amputee- they’ve got the shrimp boat, and they rebuild- that’s exactly what I’m talking about. That’s my interpretation to it.
Has living in Portland now shaped your veteran experience?
Have you found adequate resources and connections in Portland?
I’d never go [to the VA hospital], because the system isn’t very good. I volunteer to treat there, but I wouldn’t go there, simply because the system’s not good.
How did your service affect your life?
Well, it’s a big thing for a 26 year old. It turns you in that direction. You’re proud of your country, not of war. You accept dire situations. It happens, like Forrest Gump.
Author’s Note: This project was recently featured in Portland’s Street Roots Newspaper. Read the article here: http://news.streetroots.org/2017/11/10/these-veterans-have-lived-something-extraordinary-portland-student-listens-shares
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>.