TGB: “April 4th- 50 years ago, I think, when Martin Luther King was killed. On that day, I was in Vietnam.”

What is your birth year?

I was born in 1947.

How old are you?

I am 70 years old today; I’ll be 71 [in] May.

What branch of the United States Armed Forces did you serve in?

In my opinion, there’s only one branch, and that’s the United States Marine Corps. 

What was your rank?

I was a corporal. I became a corporal in 9 months, and after the 9 months, I became what they used to refer to as a shitbird- I stopped working as hard, started playing more.

Where did you serve?

I served some time in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, I served some time at Camp Hamilton, in California, and I served 13 months in Vietnam.

Where were you born?

I was born in Portland, Oregon. 

What are your parent’s names?

My mother’s name was Marjorie, and my father’s name was Rufus.

Do you have any siblings?

I have one sister.

What schools did you attend?

I went to Boise Elementary School, and I attended Benson Polytechnic High School. I graduated from there. Then, I attended Portland Community College, and then I went from there to Portland State, and I graduated from Portland State.

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

{Laughs} One memory I have from my childhood was my mom and my great-grandma, downtown, riding on the bus. So, we go out to get off the back of the bus, the doors open, my mom stepped off, [but] my grandmother didn’t move up, so the doors close, and the bus driver took off with me and my grandma. I think the police finally picked us up and took us back to my mom. That was kinda weird, because my great-grandma’s memory wasn’t too sharp. She was just ridin’, lookin’. 

I like to ask about the social movements happening during childhood; you grew up during the era of the Civil Rights movement. 

When it first started, I used to ask, “Why do we have to go through this? Through something that should be our natural rights? Why are we fighting to vote?” I can remember, in 1956, going to Arkansas to visit my grandparents and my aunts. That must have been very different from Portland. Oh, it was very different! I remember seeing the [drinking fountains’] signs. One would say ‘White Men and Women’, and another fountain would say ‘Colored’, or ‘Colored Only’. One time, I drunk from the white fountain. I just had to do it, and my dad saw me. Oh, he got mad. He said, “Don’t come down here to Arkansas and start any shit. There’s things down here that you can’t do, that you’ve done in Portland.” That made me ask, “Why not?” I definitely remember the trip to Arkansas. That was like an eye-opener. It pissed me off. I went to school with the kids down there, for a week, and it was an all-black school. It was just different. When I got there, to the school, I asked the kids, “Where are the white students?” They go, “Oh, they got their own school.” I [said], “Oh, okay.” 

Tell me about high school.

I loved high school. I participated in sports- football, wrestling, and track- and I went to Benson, which at that time was an all-boys school. There were no girls going to Benson. I remember my first day- I was in typing class or something- and I’m looking outside, and outside of Benson they had this rail-fence thing. It was all these girls out there. So I asked somebody, “Hey, what are all them girls doing out there?” He goes, “Hey, you’re a Benson guy! Girls are considered cool if they have a Benson guy.” I go, “Damn.” My mom sent me to Benson because my 8th grade teacher told [her] that I was becoming too interested in girls! He felt that I should go to Benson, where there were no girls. So my mom told me, “You’re going to Benson.” You had to have a certain grade average or some kind of crap to get in, [so] I wound up going to Benson. One of the neat things about going to Benson was that we had friends who were going to Grant, friends that went to Jefferson. We would always have them put us on the guest list for their dances. We went to everybody’s dances, and one of the things we’d done was- all the guys in my little group, we made sure they knew how to dance. If you didn’t, we held dance lessons, to teach them how to dance. You’d gotta be able to dance! That way, we got invited to a whole lot of parties, because they knew the guys from Benson would dance. We made sure everybody could dance. It was a great time; I had no responsibilities, I didn’t have to work for anything, my mom and dad- especially my mom- provided everything that I needed; some of the things my dad didn’t feel I needed, my mom provided them anyway! It was a good time. 

Were you drafted, part of ROTC, or did you enlist?

I was drafted. I said, “I’m not going to go where they want me to go.” They were drafting me into the Army. In order to not go into the Army, I had to go into another branch of service, and I had to be gone by my draft date, which was September 6th. The Navy had a two year waiting list, for people to go in, and Air Force had a two year waiting list- everybody was trying to run and get into the Navy and Air Force, because they felt it was safer. Me and myself- I just knew I was going to go to Vietnam. I could feel it. I figured, “If I’m going to go to Vietnam, I want to go with some crazy fools. So, I’ll go in the Marine Corps.” It worked out well, because I went to Vietnam, and I came back home to Portland. Do you remember your draft number? Hell no. I told my mom, “If a letter come in for me from the draft folks, don’t open that letter. want to open that letter.” I was working at Western Electric then, so I’d been out looking at cars, and I’d spotted two cars that I was interested in. They were both 1958 Chevrolet Impalas; one was a beautiful yellow, one was all black. My dad was supposed to pick me up at school to go and look at these cars. I was standing outside, and my dad’s not there. I call my mom’s house, and nobody answered. So, I call my wife-to-be’s house, and her sister answers the phone. She goes, “I hear you got drafted!” I said, “What?” [She said], “Your Momma called over here and told Flora you got drafted!” I was pissed, and my Momma told me, “Any mail that comes to my house, I have the right to open.” I was mad. It must’ve been a shock to find out that way. It was a shock, and [I thought], “Well, there goes the car. Not going to get a car- I’m getting drafted!” That was a crazy day. 

What year were you drafted?

1966.

The Vietnam war had been going on for a few years, then. Did you have any expectations or ideas of what you were getting into? 

To go to Vietnam, and to survive and come back home. Then, when I got into service, and got to Vietnam, you learned right away that we were not going to win that war. It wasn’t set up, or designed, for us to win. We would go, we would fight [and] take a hill, we’d leave that hill, go back to another hill, and then we’d wind up going back to the hill we’d been to one or two times before. There was no holding of ground; you’d just go and fight. All the officers and generals- the only thing they were interested in was body counts. How many people did we kill? That’s all they wanted to know, to tell the press back in America how many we’d killed. “We lost two, but we killed a hundred and two.” Well, what about those two we lost?

I also learned that war is not good for anybody, except the undertaker. It’s not good for anybody; the guy who was my best man when I got married got killed in Vietnam. That guy had a great future. He played the saxophone, and he was writing and arranging music for a lot of groups, and he was good at it! This dude was going to be very successful, playing the horn. And [then] he went to Vietnam and got killed. 

How old were you when you were drafted?

I was 18 or 19. Young. Oh, hell yeah. 

What was your family and friends reactions to your drafting?

Well, everyone was getting drafted back then, anyway. They were worried for me, because I’d already had some friends who had died in Vietnam, a couple friends who had died over there. They knew that Vietnam was a serious thing. One of my friends came back, and he completely lost his mind. [He] had a mental break while he was in Vietnam, so they sent him home. They were real worried. My mom called me one day, and she said, “Come here son, I want to talk to you.” I said, “What?” She says, “Well, you’re home, you’re partying, you’re going out and enjoying yourself- are you thinking about what lies ahead for you?” I said, “Okay, mom, you’re trying to ask me if I think about Vietnam. I think about it- it’s there, I’m going there- I’m not worried about it. I think you’re trynna ask me if I think I’m going to get killed. I won’t die in Vietnam, I’ve been told that. A little voice told me, ‘I won’t die, but I will get wounded’. I will return home. So, I might as well enjoy myself as much as I can.” She looked at me and said, “Oh. I just wanted to know if you’d thought about it.” I said, “Mom, the Marine Corps has prepared me very, very well for Vietnam. I’ll go, and do my time, and come home.” I know my mom- my mom probably didn’t sleep a single night while I was gone. My sister told me, “We used to get mad at you, when you were in Vietnam.” I said, “Why? What’d I do?” She said, “Mom and Dad would have fixed a great meal, and we’d all sit down at the table, getting ready to eat and enjoy this meal, and all the sudden, Momma would start crying. She’d say, “I was just thinking about [him], in Vietnam.” My sister said, “That happened a lot! It ruined our meal!” I said, “Hey, it wasn’t my fault! Mom loves me!” 

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

{Laughs}. I went to bootcamp. We flew down to San Diego; when we got to San Diego, a screaming and yelling sergeant came and picked the whole group up and had us in a formation. He was telling us to get tighter, get tighter- you was pushing the person in front of you, and the person in back of you is pushing you, and he’s walking around with his elbow- “I said tighter! Tighter, bitches, tighter!” I go, “Wow.” Then, they took us to the barracks, and they said, “When you get off this bus, we want to see everyone off at once and standing on the yellow footprints.” So, we all try to get through the door at the same time, and they made us stand on these yellow footprints. There was a board, up above on the building, painted in what I think is called military code, and it had ten or twelve items. We had to start remembering that that night. You had to learn that code; I can’t remember it now, but I did know it very well back then. They had us stand on them yellow footprints for what seemed like four or five hours. Then, they took us to these open barracks, and told us we could go to sleep. Seemed like I’d just closed my eyes- what they’d done was open the doors of the barracks, and they threw this garbage can through the barracks. All you could hear was this garbage can bouncing, and clanking, and they were screaming, “Get up! Get up! Get up! Just get up!” You jump out of bed, and it’s hard to find your shoes and clothes, because they were screaming at you- the next thing they’d done was take us to the barbershop, for us all to get our hair cut off. That was in the days of the Beatles, so most of the white guys had Beatle haircuts. They picked this one dude out- he had this long, wavy hair- and said, “You’re gonna be first.” He sat in the chair, they put the clippers at the back of his neck, and just brought it up to the front. Hair fell, and he had a tear falling. They cut all of our hair, and they took us to the shower. Open face shower, so everybody was in the shower, and they had a guy come in, and he starts yelling, “Get out! Get out!” It was eighty of us, running to get out of there, with wet feet on wet floor. I fell, and I go, “Damnit, I’m not gonna be the only one on the floor.” So I start tripping people. {Laughs} The next morning, they were waking us up, and I said, “God, what the hell have I gotten myself into this time?” But there ain’t no way out. So, I got up and got dressed, and I went through the process of bootcamp. I loved the Marine Corps- it was fun. I had a lot of fun in the Marine Corps.

Do you recall your trainers or instructors? 

Oh, I remember my three drill sergeants. The top guy was Gunnery Sergeant Phoenix, then there was Staff Sergeant Bumgarner, and Sergeant Hullem. Sergeant Hullem was a little, stocky guy, but he could look mean as all hell. They always sent him to pick up the new platoon, because they knew he was going to put the fear of God into them. Did they have high expectations of you? Oh, yeah. We had high expectations of ourselves! How did you cope or manage with these expectations? They told us when we left Portland that we would go through bootcamp, and that there would be eighty people in our platoon. They told us [that] of those eighty people in our platoon, eight people would be meritoriously promoted to Private First Class. I said, “Okay, I’m going to be one of those people that’s promoted.” And, it turned out, I was one of those people that got promoted out of bootcamp. My PT scores were high, I loved being in charge of people, and I fit right in there, at the bootcamp. I felt real bad for some of the dumb guys that was in the bootcamp, because they got picked on. They rode them hard. I didn’t get picked on that much, because I was able to do, exceed, at everything they said. It worked out okay. 

Where exactly did you go in Vietnam?

I was on a battalion landing team aboard Navy ships. We would go off the ships, either by helicopter or by mike boats, and we referred to our battalion as ‘Rental Battalion’- wherever things were bad at, that’s where they’d send Second Battalion Marines. We rode in like the calvary. 

What was the weather like?

One day, we walked up on this hill- the corpsman, they carried the thermometers. I think it was like 135°. Then, it was told to us that we were on the wrong damn hill! We had to walk down, go to the right hill, and walk back up. That heat would seem so hot, it just swarmed around your head. Just hot stuff. Then, they had the monsoon, which was the rainy season, the season I hated. You couldn’t stay dry. I was smoking then, so you’d take your wallet and your cigarettes, and you’d wrap them in plastic. Put a lot of plastic around it, then put it in your pocket, to try and keep them dry. One day- we’d been out for maybe twenty-five days or so- I was running out of cigarettes. I had one cigarette left, but it was raining, so no sense in smoking it in the rain. They told us to sit down and take a ten minute break; we sit down, and it stopped raining, and the sun came out. I go, “Oh, boy, I’m going to enjoy this last cigarette.” I took the cigarette out, put it in my mouth, lit it- as soon as a lit in, the rain [started]. It broke it off at the filter! All I had in my mouth was the filter! The cigarette was on the ground, getting soaked. I go like, “What did I do to deserve that?” I hated the monsoon. You know how if you are in too much water, your skin starts to wrinkle and stuff? That happened a lot during the monsoon. Your feet would be wet; it’s terrible to have your feet wet for days. We always carried an extra pair of socks, but shit, no use in putting on another pair of socks just for them to get wet! A lot of people got jungle rot. I never got it, but a lot of people got [it]. It’d just be little sores, crawling all over your legs. It was [nasty], but then again, with jungle rot, you could get out of the field- they’d send you to the rear. In Vietnam, some guys whose jungle rot was starting to heal up? They’d get with another guy whose jungle rot was real bad, and they’d be scraping off the bad jungle rot and putting it on their jungle rot, because they didn’t want their jungle rot to heal up. When it healed up, they’d go back to the field. In Vietnam, you done everything you could to get out of the field, if you had a chance to get out of the field. Vietnam was all about survival. All about survival- just survive it, and get back home, because we knew we were never gonna win in Vietnam. 

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

When I first got there, I was a grunt. My job was to go out on patrols, set up ambushes, set up listening posts. I walked point, in Vietnam. That’s a risky job. Yeah, it is. A lot of times, that’s the first person to get shot. I got an M14, which is a very good, trustworthy rifle, and I got a machete. Now, with that machete, [I was] cutting the trails. I go like, “This is stupid. I’m not sneaking up on anybody, they hear me down here chopping this crap!” Then, a few months later, you go back to that same area- everything’s dead. They had sprayed it with Agent Orange. Did you have any experiences with Agent Orange? Yeah. Well, shit, we didn’t know what it was until years later. Frantz Oil Filter used to have this saying, “Pay me now or pay me later.” I look at Agent Orange and say, “Agent Orange- pay me now or pay me later.” Okay, it paid me now, because it made it possible for me to see, and seeing was very important. It got me later, with prostate cancer. It got me from 19 to 70 years old. Doesn’t the VA face a lot about Agent Orange? Yeah. A lot of the claims we do is that. [Author’s Note: TGB works with a program that helps specifically veterans and soldiers.] Throughout history, the things the government has chosen to do- they’ve done some crazy stuff. Stuff that doesn’t affect them. 

Were there casualties in your unit?

I witnessed some casualties while I was in Vietnam. God, I think about my third or fourth day in Vietnam, we were getting ready to go out, and this one guy didn’t have any clean utilities to wear. I let him borrow a set of mine, and he was wearing those. That night, we got Sapper Suicide Squads- these dudes, they knew that they were going to die, and they were gonna try to blow our ass up. That day, we were the command post for the battalion. We told our officers, “When these helicopters come in, don’t y’all be saluting people getting off! They know if you salute somebody, it’s a boss. Don’t do that shit!” They kept doing it! That night, we had these dudes- they crawled up and through the wires we had set up, got through the boobie traps we had set up, got up to the command post, and started throwing these satchel charges. [My boss] was firing his rifle, and they threw a satchel charge that got him, that killed him. I think we lost three people that night, maybe a few more injured. The next day, we went on patrol- you go on patrol, [and] we were really on our toes. We knew they were there, they were watching us. We wanted to get them.

[I] was walking point one day; they told me we’d have a meeting of where we were going, before we leave. “You’re gonna go down this hill, [and] you’re gonna come across this stream. When you get to the other side of this stream, be real careful. It’s a known minefield.” I go, “Damn. Here I am. I’m going to walk through a known minefield.” And what’d I do? I walked through it. I was praying, though. Oh, God, was I praying. I’m walking through this minefield; I’m walking, I’m looking, I’m not seeing nothing- I think I saw one boobie trap, but the guy come up and took that apart- and I’m going, “There are no mines out here!” Then, all the sudden, about the twelfth person back, I heard, “BOOM!” I felt bad, because I missed that one. I start praying again- “You and me God, right?” {Laughs} My mom wrote me one time; she says, “Don’t forget to say your prayers.” I wrote her back, I said, “Momma, there’s not a person in Vietnam that forgets to say their prayers.” You know the other thing that’s funny? I never once heard anybody yell “Dad”, or “Father”. But, I head them yell, “Momma”. I’m going, “Boy, even in combat, dudes yell Momma!” 

In Vietnam, I was in an area called I-corps that started in Da Nang, and went North, all the way to the DMZ. I worked out of places [like] Phu Bai, Đông Hưng, all those type of bases- at times, I worked out of those. LB worked out of Da Nang; he told me he’d go all over by himself- nobody would bother him. If we killed a water buffalo, which happened a lot in Vietnam, or if we killed a civilian, somebody would go out to the family and pay them compensation. That was LB’s job. 

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

April 4th- 50 years ago, I think, when Martin Luther King was killed. On that day, I was in Vietnam. What was that like? I hated America. I got up that morning- they had people on guard posts, and I’d be out checking them, and we had a boat down there- and I said, “Hey, I’m going to go to the boat and ride in the water, smoke me some hash, enjoy this day.” I’m heading down, and this other black guy told me, “They killed that Uncle Tom motherfucker.” I said, “What Uncle Tom motherfucker?” He said, “Martin Luther King.” I said, “They killed King?” He goes, “Yeah, they killed that motherfucker. I’m glad.” I said, “You better get the fuck out of my face right now, because if you don’t, I’m going to hurt you. Don’t ever talk to me again.” He left. So, I headed down to the beach- now, I’m definitely going to get in that boat and go for a ride, because now I’m pissed off- and I’m going, “I’m over here in this strange country, not helping anybody, and back home, they’re letting my leaders get killed. What the hell is going on?” I get down to the sand, and I see this white friend of mine, and he’s running and falling and stumbling, getting up and running, and he spotted me and comes running, [yelling]. I said, “What’s going on, man?” “There’s about fifty of your brothers, down on the beach. They had a formation, and they’re beating the shit out of everything white.” I said, “Oh, hell! Now I gotta go and stop this shit!” I walk down to the beach, and go, “Hold it, you guys. Everybody stop right here. Now, you guys come down the beach for your R&R. You guys know my job down here is to maintain the peace. I can’t let you do what you want to do. If I didn’t have this job, I’d be with you, doing what you want to do. But, I got this job. Under no conditions will I ever go back to the field, so I can’t let you guys continue this. Anybody that tries to continue? I’ll have to arrest you, or have you arrested. What I suggest, is that we go down to the beerhall, and we start drinking beer and talking.” So, that’s what we done- we all marched down there, and everything was peaceful. We had a battalion of Korean Marines stationed down on the beach farther down from us. This one was real big, and we called him Kong, because we’d never seen a Korean that big. He come up to me, and he was crying, and he says, “Corporal, me and [my] Korean brothers come up to tell you that we’re sorry for Martin Luther King getting killed.” I go, “Damn, you guys know who he is?” He goes, “Oh, yeah.” I said, “Well, thank you. Come on in and let’s drink beer.” So, we kept everything under control. We’d always have a show in the evening- they would have groups come down and sing, and show movies and stuff- so the stage show was going on. Now, by this time, everybody was half-drunk. A lot of people were getting mad, and upset. This one black guy, he was going something, and the MP’s grabbed him. He was down on the ground, and scuffling with him, and they had a dog with them. They let the dog go and bite the guy. When that happened, I go, “Oh, shit!” Now I’m seeing signs of Alabama. Like Bull Connor. Yeah. They’re putting the dogs on us. I went up, and told the Lieutenant, “Everybody’s getting drunk. We gotta close the beach. We gotta shut it down, send everybody away.” We announce [that] China Beach is closed. We closed the beach down, and had a lot of guys get in this big truck we had, and we drove them down to Camp Tin Shaw, [had them] take flights and boats back to their units. We down there, people are unloading their stuff, and these rockets start coming in. This guy looks at me, and goes, “What are we supposed to do?” “We’re supposed to get the hell of this truck, so I can get out of here and go and find your bunker!” Everybody got off the truck, and we headed back to our unit, and I’m going like, “That’s a trip. The NVA, they know the Americans are fighting amongst themselves.” That was probably my most memorable day of Vietnam- when King got killed. I was put in a position where I had to stop what was going on, when I didn’t really want to stop what was going on. I done my job, and I did what I was supposed to do. I went back, and knew that hey, I wasn’t going back to the field.

I was a Marine Corps grunt. I was infantry. And all infantry do is fight- that’s what they train you to do. I got wounded in November, and I went to the hospital- I think I was gone for like three months before I came back to Vietnam. This guy told me, “I’m going to look at your record book, and I’ll give you some good duty.” He looked at my record book; in six months, I’d been on thirteen major operations. He come back, and he says, “You’ve been on all these operations?” I said, “Yeah?” He says, “Gunnery Sergeant Phoenix and Staff Sergeant Bumgarner? I know them! If you were a Gunnery Sergeant Phoenix recruit, you’re a good recruit. How would you like to go and spend the rest of your time down at China Beach?” I said, “You’re talking to me?” “Yeah, you!” I said, “How long would I stay there?” “Well, you’ll stay there either until you rotate, or you fuck up and they send you away.” I said, “I won’t fuck it up.” I was going, “This is great. I don’t have to go out and fight anymore.” The fighting part- they had search and destroy missions. On a search and destroy mission, they would drop pamphlets, saying, “The Marines are coming through on such-and-such date, anyone left here, as the enemy, will be dealt with.” All you would see would be women, kids, and old, old, men. You didn’t see any young ones- they were gone. So, we’d round the people up, and we’d burn their hooches, burn their whole village down. I’d go, “This is terrible. How would I feel if someone started burning down my mom’s house, my grandmother’s house?” That’s what we were doing, we were burning down these people’s homes! But, that was search-and-destroy. At night, we’d have all the [village] people in the center of our compound. The next morning, helicopters would come in and pick them up, and they’d be relocated somewhere else. The last night they said, “We’re sending all the people out tonight, because the choppers are coming in early in the morning.” I said, “Uh-oh. We’re in trouble tonight, boys. You know, we haven’t seen any young men, but you damn well know that they’re out there, watching us. They know. They know that we sent all their family in. They know that tonight, they’re going to hit our ass.” And they did. We survived it. When Martin Luther King got killed, that was probably my most controversial, disturbing day of my life, period. It still effects me today.

One night, we’re sitting down there, just doing nothing, letting the day go by, and it was during one of the Vietnamese holidays. Somebody from the NVA went into this one village, not too far from us. They threw these satchel charges, an explosive thing. They tell us to load up in the truck, [that] we’re all going down to the security area, and see what we can do to help. Well, we got there. There were all these people- legs and arms blown off, legs and arms with all the meat blown off, just the bone still connected. I was with this one [guy] we called ‘Doc’. All the sudden, Doc goes, “Come here!” I go over, and say, “What?” “Hold this leg.” It’s a leg that didn’t have any meat on it, so I held it. There’s these big knives called Ka-Bar knives, so he starts whacking on this leg to cut it off. We must’ve done that for maybe two hours. We’d cut the arms and legs off, carry the people, put them on the back of the big truck we had. Then, after we had gotten done with all the people, the truck left to rush them down to the hospital. You were performing amputations? Yeah! I was chopping the legs off! It was amputations. It sounded like… chopping wood. I’m sure you’ll never forget that. Oh, no. Every time you hear a ‘whack’, it was like it had an echo. We done that, and then we went back to our area. You know what I done? I went and took a shower, and then I went down to Camp Tin Shaw, for what they call midrats. Midrats is that you can go out there and eat dinner or whatever. After all that, I wanted to eat! I go like, “What has Vietnam done to me? I can hold legs while they are being chopped off, and then I go out and I eat!” I think it was me and this one other guy, we went to eat- everybody else was “Eugh, I can’t eat!” Hey, well, that’s life. But we got word back from the doctors, thanking us. They said we helped them; they could get to work on saving the people’s lives, because they didn’t have to worry about chopping off the limbs- we’d already done that. You know, I’ve never referred to it as an amputation, but that’s what it was! {Laughs} I’ve performed many amputations, and I’m not a doctor! Those people, they’re all in shock anyway. Were they conscious, while you were doing this? Oh, yeah, they were looking at us. They were looking at us, but they knew we were trying to help them. They knew that. I’m going like, “Screw war. War is hell. Nobody wins. Nobody wins.” The warriors come back, and they’re suffering from PTSD- some come back with drug addictions, screwed up for the rest of their lives. I had a client, a young man, who had been deployed to Afghanistan three times. I know his mom and dad, and I was working on a case for him. At the time, he was hospitalized, because he had threatened to kill himself. He finally got better and got out; I talked to him on the phone. Two or three days later, he killed himself. His mom and dad are real good friends with my son, and my daughter-in-law. His mom called [my son], and says, “We want you [and your father] to come to the house.” My wife called me, and she said, “Are you dressed? He’s on his way to pick you up, because [your client] killed himself. His mom and dad want you to come down to the house.” I thought, “Oh, shit.” We went down to the house, and expressed our condolences, and just sat there in their presence, while they were mourning. There’s nothing you can tell a person, when something like that happens, other than, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry you have to go through this.” At the same time, I’m pissed, because this is another young man that was sent off to war, to come back with major problems. Survived the war, but killed himself. Survived a war three times, a year each time; survived all of that, came back, got discharged, and then killed himself. Is suicide prevention part of the work that you do? The Veteran’s Administration has a suicide hotline. That was the first client we’ve had that killed themselves, which rocked my world. We went to this training not too long ago; we’re talking, and I started telling about [this client] killing themselves again. I looked at the room, I turned around, and asked, “How many of you have had a client kill themselves?” I looked back, and almost everybody had their hand up! I go, “Wow. Wow.” And that’s just people in the four county area. That’s a lot of people. As they say, that’s war. I feel bad for the young guys today that are in the National Guard and stuff, because they can be called up and deployed. They can be deployed three and four and five times. In my opinion, nobody should go through combat more than twice. A person gets through twice, and survive, give them a get-out-of-jail card, don’t send them back. You’re pushing their love. If you go three times, and survive, your mind is going to be screwed up. You’ll never be the same again; even one time, you’re never the same again. We used to get new guys into our unit; I’d look at them, and then if we got into a firefight or something, I’d look at them after they’d survived a firefight. You look at them, and they all look as if they’ve aged five years. Then, they’ve got that look, like, “This shit is for real.” One day, we were in Guam, in the hospital. We were all sitting up, talking and laughing- talking about when we got wounded, and what we done when we got wounded, how we acted. This one guy was sitting at another table, and he gets up and comes over and goes, “Excuse me. You see, I just have to ask. You guys are over here talking about when they got shot, and you’re all laughing while talking about it! Why? How can you laugh, and talk about it?” I told him, “Man, there’s this saying. It’s called getting away. Getting away means you survived. You got away from the danger. That’s why we’re laughing and talking- because we got away. All of us got away.” You do some funny, crazy things when you’re in combat. Your reaction to some things is really funny, to the point where you can’t help but laugh. 

What were the most trying and difficult moments of service?

[MLK dying] was one of the most difficult moments of my life. Then, Robert Kennedy got killed. I’m going, “Hell! All the people that gives me hope for America is getting killed! America’s not taking care of them.” It pissed me off.

What were the best memories of service?

{Laughs} The very best memory was 1968, August. This pilot on the plane announced, “You have just left Vietnam airspace.” The whole plane- we just start screaming. Up until that moment, you’re still going, “I’m still in Vietnam. Shit can still happen!” But when we got out of the airspace, you go, “Hey, I’m going home.” That was the best moment in service, to know that I had survived. I saw some things that no one should ever have to see, but I saw it, I survived it, and I was going home to get my Momma. First place I went when I went home. I took a cab; I didn’t want anyone at the airport to meet me. I got in late at night, anyway. I took a cab to my Momma’s house, gave my mom a hug, gave my Dad a drink. “Boy, you want a drink?” My mom said, “He looks like he doesn’t need a drink.” I said, “No, Dad, but I brought you a drink.” I had six bottles of liquor and set it on the table; “What do you want to drink, Dad? I’m home.” Then, I left there, and I went over to my wife’s mother’s house, because she was there. We were talking, and having a good time, and she goes, “Why did you go to your mom’s house first?” Were you married by that point? Yeah, I was married. I told her why I went to my mom’s house first. “Because that’s my Momma! That’s why I went to her house first! My Momma will always be my Momma. You might not always be my wife!” And, it turned out that she wasn’t always my wife. I picked right. Always go see Momma. I can feel her presence now, at times. I say, “Hey, my mom is one of them angels I have up there, that’s looking out for me.” Sometimes, certain things happen in my favor, and my wife will tell me, “That’s your mom.” That’s my mom; still walking with me.  

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

{Laughs} When I got home from Vietnam, people knew I had been injured. Young ladies, I would just ask them, “Do you want to see my scar?” They’d go, “Yeah!” My scar is right on my ass. We got mortar fire one night, so they kind of suckered me in. I had an M79, because I was a squad leader, and I said, “I’m going to try and drop some firepower on the mortar, see if I can get them off our butts.” I fired two rounds, the guys around me were getting ready to load a third round. They had another mortar tube down, away from me, just sitting there, waiting on some kind of signal from us. They saw the flash from my M79, and he dropped his first round down to the left of us. We got shrapnel. I told everyone, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” I [knew] that more rounds were going to follow that. What they’d do- you’d overshoot, then you’d undershoot, then you’d cut in half, and you should be on your target. We got up and got the hell out of there; I ran until my leg gave out, and then I fell and laid there. So you’re lying on the floor of the jungle, at night, injured. What were you thinking? I waited for my people to come and get me. I’m thinking, “Damn! These motherfuckers shot me!” That’s what I was thinking. {Laughs} Another thing I thought- “It’s so weird- whoever shot me, I don’t know him, and he don’t know me.” That’s what we’re doing though, we’re trying to kill each other. We don’t know each other, but we’re trying to kill each other! But,that’s a good place to get shot. There are no vital organs, just muscle and fat. There are worse places to get hit. 

Did you feel that being a person of color affected your service in Vietnam, or the way that you were treated?

In the Marine Corps, in the field, nobody had color. You’re just another person. We didn’t do the color thing. The only time color really came up was when King got killed. This one guy asked me, “If we were back in the States, would you be fighting white people and burning stuff like the other people are doing?” I said, “I probably would.” He said, “Wow.” But, I said, “You know what? We don’t need to think about what’s going on, back in the States. All we need to think about is what’s going on right here, in Vietnam. All we gotta think about is how we survive, [how] to get back to the United States.” 

How did you stay in touch with your friends and family?

Letters.

What was the food like?

C-rations. They’re supposed to be better now, than what we had. It’s designed to last. We carried- everybody carried- a bottle of hot sauce, tabasco, and dry onions. You’d put that in the food, [to make it better]. They had these little bread things in a can, little round [things] kind of like a biscuit. We’d take them, cut a hole in the center, and you had jelly that came in your C-rations- you’d take your jelly, stuff it down in the hole, and you’d light one of the heat tabs and put the bread [on it]. The jelly would start bubbling and getting into the bread, and we called it a donut. It wasn’t bad at all. One time, I remember being about to throw away some food, like, “I don’t like this, I don’t have to keep taking this shit.” I had this bag of water; not everybody walked around with a bag of water, but we were getting resupplied. The helicopters that came to our hill had water, so they were throwing water off, and we were going, “This is too much! It’s too much water!” The dude screams, “We’re low on fuel,”- they had to wait for the clouds to clear- “We gotta throw this shit off and get as light as possible so we can fly back.” So all the water came to our hill- all the food went to other people’s hills. They had to stock as much food as they could carry, and with all the other food, they had to poke holes in the cans, so it’d rod. You don’t want the enemy to come along and go, “Hey, they left us a good meal!” So, after that day, I swore to myself that I [would] never again throw away any C-rations. We got hungry that day; we were starving. We finally come down [and] this truck picked us up. We were ridin’, and I’m seeing these other trucks, so I’m yelling, “Hey, you got any C-rations on the back of that truck?” This one guy, he go, “Yeah! You want a case?” So I got off and got it; it was 12 C-rations in a case, and there were 13 people on the truck. What we’d do with the C-rations- we’d turn them upside-down, so nobody could see what it was, and people would just grab a box. If we left it right-side up, they could just take what they wanted. With my onions, and my hot sauce, you could fix up anything good. I swore I’d never throw any away. I’m on my truck, letting people get a box of C-rations. A few nights before that we were out; when we set up, you’d take your poncho, and you’d take two poncho liners and make a little tent. People would get in there and sleep. You save one poncho that’s out on guard duty, so they could wear it and be warm. They had this little tent thing made; they’d used this guy Ferguson’s poncho to stay dry. Well, Ferguson had the first duty watch. When he was getting replaced by this guy named Gaston, Gaston said, “Okay, give me your poncho liner.” Ferguson goes, “No! I’m going to use this to stay warm!” He didn’t let Gaston use it, so Gaston sat out there just getting soaked. I’m sitting there; I am pissed, but they weren’t in my squad or anything, so I really didn’t have that much to do with them. [So] I’m passing out the C-rations, and I’m down to the last box- there are two guys, both going, “Here! Here!” I’m looking, and I go, “Ferguson, a couple nights ago, you took your poncho liner and wouldn’t let Gaston use it, so him and another guy got soaked. You had your poncho liner inside the tent they had built with their poncho liners, staying dry. If I was them, I would’ve torn down the tent and gotten my poncho liner. The thing here that we do is [that] we all work together. That’s what it’s all about; we work together to survive this. Now, you don’t know how to do that, so you don’t get this last C-ration.” I gave it to the other guy; I said, “Bet not one of you motherfuckers give him anything.” Everybody was sitting there, eating; Ferguson was looking, starving. We went on down the road a little farther, and saw this other truck. I go, “Hey, man! Got any C-rations on that truck?” I went and got another case; came back to my truck and the truck in front of us were yelling, “Why don’t you share those with us?” I said, “Ferguson. You think you learned your lesson? You think you rate one of these C-rations?” He said, “Yeah. I’m sorry what for I done.” I said, “Tell Gaston and the other dudes who got wet! Tell them you’re sorry!” I said, “Ferguson, you get your pick of a C-ration.” I left them right-side up. I said, “Any one you want.” He looked like, “Is he really going to do this, or is he going to close the box at the last minute?” He got one, and this big smile came to his face. We never had another problem with Ferguson after that. He was a team player. It seems like you’re a good leader. I’m a good survivor, is what it is. With the C-rations I had left, they jumped off their truck and came and got them. 

There was this little Vietnamese kid who had a can of C-rations; one little can. I didn’t know what the hell it was, and he was talking to me and smiling, and I said, “Come here! Let me see that!” I snatched it from him, and I ate it! What I’d done- it was beef slices, and there’d be four slices in a can- I cut them into fourths. Everybody on our truck got one little piece. One little bite was better than no bites. I did share with the people on the truck; I go, “Look at me! I’m snatching food from a baby! This is war!” 

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

Yeah, I did. I hated what I was doing. I discovered that all the Vietnamese people wanted to do was live, and survive. They didn’t care what the government was, they just wanted to survive and grow their rice and get by. We were over there, trying to force democracy down their throats. 

Did you have a lot of free time?

Very little free time, because you’re basically always on patrol. When you come back, you get a little bit of free time, so we’d play cards. We’d sit down and talk; somebody would start playing some music or something like that. 

Did you keep in touch with any of these people? If so, for how long?

I don’t have any friends that I’ve stayed in touch with. I thought I would, but shit. You get back home, you start your life- you try to forget about all that. 

Why, or when, did your service end?

I got out of the service in April 1969. I got out six months early. The Marine Corps had some 40,000 people that they couldn’t afford to pay. If you had been to Vietnam once, you qualified to get an early out, up to a year. I took it. I was home on liberty; I took some leave, and one of my friends called me from down at the base. He told me what was going on; he said, “Man, you better get back here so you can fill out your shit!” I said, “Hey, I’m going to finish this leave I’m on now!” When I went back, I signed the papers to get out. 

Did you have a family after the war? How did the war affect your marriage or your children?

It definitely effected both. I have two daughters. It affected the marriage because I come back- I was a different person. I was pretty heavy into alcohol; when I go back, and look at pictures at family dinners or family functions, I just look like I’m loaded to all hell. And I probably was! It was rough on my wife, because I had changed so much, and she hadn’t been a part of those changes. One time, I told her, I said, “Look. I have nightmares. If I have a nightmare, whatever you do, don’t touch me.” I said, “Get up, go stand by the wall away from me, and call me, but don’t touch me.” But, I’m having a nightmare; she’s the wife, she’s going to do what a wife is going to do- try to grab me and give me some comfort. She done that, and when I woke up, I was on top of her. I’d straddled her, and I had both hands around her throat. Her face was like, “Oh my god.” I look down, and I said, “Flora. I’m sorry. That’s why I told you not to touch me.” After that, she didn’t touch me anymore. When I got out of service and got back home, we were staying at her mom’s house; they would send her youngest sister up to wake me up. They’d tell her, “Call him, don’t touch him no, but call him.” She’d stand by the wall, and she’d call me, and I’d wake up. I was a different person when I got back. I’m probably still a different person. One of the things I got lucky was, after I got a divorce, I met this lady that I’m married to now. She asked me, “What was Vietnam like?” I go, “What?” “What was Vietnam like?” I said, “You don’t want to know.” She goes, “Yes, I do.” I go, “Damn.” She was the first lady, or person, who ever asked me that. When I got back, I started talking about Vietnam, and my mom told me, “Oh, baby, don’t talk about that. That’s behind you. Don’t talk about that.” I’m thinking to myself, “It’s not behind me! It’s all in my head!” But she asked me what it was like! So, we talked. We’ve been together now forty years. She helps me deal with a lot of stuff; if I come home and I’m all screwed up, she’ll spank me on the ass and piece me back together, and send me back out there to go get ’em. Good lady. You need that in your life; at least I do. 

What was your job or career after the war?

I went back to my job; I was working at Western Electric. I enrolled in college, started going to school. Then, I got a part-time job on the switchboard, working at KATU, Channel 2. I went from the switchboard to the newsroom. That’s all I wanted to do anyway, some form of news. I figured it would be newspapers, but it turns out it was television. I worked at Channel 2 and TV news for ten years, and I worked at KGW at TV news for four years. After that, I went on my VA disability, and I’ve been on that ever since. I started doing claims for people [since] 1990. You’ve clearly been doing great work here. Yeah. We help a lot of people. We take veterans, walk them through whatever they need, get them into the VA system, the VA medical system- we get them disability. You take a vet that has no money coming in, and you get them disability. In a little less than two years, we had 1,278 clients; we brought in $13.5 million- that’s dollars that go right back into the neighborhood, the community. Dollars that people take and they spend, right there in their neighborhood. That’s a lot of money. It’s done by an office of five people who are all volunteers. We’ve helped a lot of people. I think it helps us all deal with our PTSD, to be helping other people. We all grew up together; we all met each other in first or second grade. I’ve known [LB] since about third grade. We didn’t know we were [in Vietnam] at the same time. [The draft] came through North and Northeast Portland, where all the black people used to live; they took everybody black who was eligible for the draft. They just cleaned out the neighborhood, and we all went to different parts of the country. Then, we all came back, and were like, “Wow, they drafted you, too! You went too?” Did taking all the young black men from the community destabilize it? They took us away, and we came back. A lot of fools came back. We came back with a different attitude. This one friend asked me one time, “Why did all you guys come back from Vietnam crazy?” I told him, “Man, we’re not crazy! We just don’t take any shit. We went, and we survived combat, and we’re not going to come back and let somebody hurt us over a humbug. That’s what it is; we’re not crazy. Maybe on the edge of being a little dangerous at times, but we’re not crazy.” Veterans talk to veterans. You can almost look at a person’s face, and know if they’re a combat veteran or not. You get that feeling.  

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

I’m against all of it. I hate it; I hate what I see young people having to do nowadays. I hate, more than anything, that they’re sending some of these young ones back three, four, five times. To me, that’s so unfair. If you know anything, you know damn well that after the third time, this person is trashed. Then, you bring them back, and you expect them to go and be okay. Well, shit. You send them to combat three or four times- they can’t be okay. Some of them come back, and they can deal with it, but some come back and they can’t deal with it. A lot of them come back and participate in vet groups and things, where they go and they’re around another veterans that do the same things. You feel comfortable when you’re around people who have gone through the same thing, because you know that you both suffered some of the same things. It’s pleasant to be around them. A person who goes through combat, you know that if stuff goes down, they are there with you. 

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

I learned that nobody should go to war. War is not good for anybody. I say instead of war, have everybody cook a big dish of food, and everybody show up and settle all the food down, and everybody sit down and eat and talk. Don’t go grabbing guns, and go trying to kill somebody you don’t know, and [who] doesn’t know you. When you do that, you’re not doing it because of something you believe in! It’s something higher up that’s tellin’ you that this is what you gotta do. 

Do you believe that you’ve helped found an adequate resource and connection for veterans in Portland?

If a veteran comes in with some kind of need, we’re gonna look up to where we can send that veteran. To let them know what resources are out there, be it medical, housing, or whatever. We are an organization that has a lot of contacts.  

How did your service affect your life?

I was spoiled. My mom spoiled me, spoiled me good. {Laughs} I’m a Momma’s boy, and I think Momma’s boys make good husbands. The military brought me away from me being so spoiled; made me realize that at times, there is things you’re used to, but they’re not going to be available to you. So, what do you do in those times? How do you react? The Marine Corps taught me how to handle it. Sometimes, you just go, “Hey, it’s not there. I’ll just wait until I get somewhere where it is.” I think the Marine Corps made me a better person. I’ve always been a caring person, but I think the Marine Corps make me care even a little bit more. It makes me more willing to help people, and that’s something I enjoy. I enjoyed my time in the Marine Corps- it was good for me. Military is not good for all people. For people that have a little bit of wee smarts, it’s okay for them. For people that have no smarts- they’re in a world of trouble. {Laughs} Not a good option, because they’re going to get picked on; they asked this dude one time if he liked his drilling instructor. “Private Shay, do you like your drilling instructor?” He goes, “Yes, sir, I like my drilling instructor.” “Well, Private Shay, you know what liking leads to? Liking leads to loving, and loving leads to fucking. Do you want to fuck your drill instructor?” He goes, “No, sir! No, sir!” “Oh, you wouldn’t fuck the drill instructor?” They got him going back and forth. He couldn’t win either way, but he had to try and say stuff that was positive, that showed he liked the drill instructor. I’m going, “Poor Private Shay!” It was horrible, but they must have done this to him for twenty minutes! Private Shay was from Missouri- there were some forty-some people in our platoon that were from Missouri- farmers and stuff. Was that a culture shock, to be around people from a different place? It was nice. You get to meet all these people. They go, “Private Shay, you’re a fucking farmer! Private Shay, how do you feel about being a farmer?” He says, “Well, sir, the way I look at it, if it wasn’t for us farmers, you people wouldn’t have anything to eat!” {Laughs} We couldn’t laugh, but we all, inside, were like, “Right on, Shay! You right about that one!” Even the drill instructor laughed. He said, “Well, Private Shay, you got a point there.” 

In combat, you develop bonds with people; you get very close to people. You will never, ever, be able to get that close with anyone out of the military. The bonds that I’ve created with people when I was in the military- it’s like you’re just one object, combined. You can’t find those kinds of bonds, outside the military. You can’t find them in a marriage, or in friendships- you just can’t find them. In the military, you have those bonds. Now, time goes by- you can’t remember the names of the people you had the bonds with- but you know that you had those very close bonds. 

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img_3206.jpgAuthor’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>.

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