Listen to a Vietnam Veteran Describe the Reality of Deploying to Vietnam for the First Time

Returning Fire: Marines from A Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines fire from a house window during a search and clear mission in the Battle of Hue. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Bruce A. Atwell)

"It became obvious that the enemy was the very people in these villages around us," W.D. Ehrhart told filmmaker David Hoffman in 1990. "They were the enemy, or at least, the enemy was out there somewhere and we couldn't tell one from another."

W.D. Ehrhart is today a poet, writer and speaker in suburban Philadelphia, popularly known as a "Vietnam War poet." He enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from high school in 1966 and deployed to South Vietnam for 13 months. His interview was one of 180 filmed by Hoffman for the television series "Making Sense of the Sixties."

"When I got to Vietnam, I literally expected to be welcomed with open arms by the people of Vietnam," Ehrhart said. "I had in my head the black and white newsreels I had seen on the Walter Cronkite '20th Century' show of American troops rolling through France and being showered with wine and flowers and kisses."

Instead, the 18-year-old Ehrhart was disappointed when he was picked up by a jeep to drive the 20 miles to where his battalion was located. There was no one standing along the roadside waving or throwing flowers. 

"That was a little perplexing," he said. 

Ehrhart deployed with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, from early February 1967 to late February 1968, where he served with distinction. He came home with a Purple Heart, a Navy Combat Action Ribbon and two Presidential Unit Citations, along with the National Defense Service Medal and a number of medals from the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam. His realization about the enemy came on his third day in-country.

"Day after day, our patrols went out," Ehrhart said, "And we ran into snipers and mines, and snipers and mines, and snipers and mines. I saw four armed enemy soldiers during the first eight months I was in Vietnam, and yet our battalion, during that same period of time, sustained 75 mining and sniping incidents per month, over half of them resulting in casualties.

"This is for a unit of about a thousand men," he continued. "But there was no one to fight back at. You begin to think these people are the enemy. They're all the enemy."

The 1/1 Marines first deployed to Da Nang, South Vietnam, in 1965 and remained in the country until 1971. They saw action at Con Thien, Hue and Khe Sanh, among other important places in Vietnam War history. When Ehrhart arrived in Vietnam in February 1967, they were fighting in Quảng Trị province, south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). 

Ehrhart and the Marines were involved in a  far-reaching search and destroy mission that sought to eliminate the North Vietnamese presence south of the DMZ. The operation lasted just one month, but the 1st Marines were then permanently fighting in the I Corps tactical zone, where search and destroy missions looking for Viet Cong infiltrators and weapons were the norm. 

"The funny thing about Vietnam is that I was getting Time magazine every week," Ehrhart recalled. "I could read about my war, even as I sat in the middle of it. ... I could look around and see that I don't know what war they're talking about, but that's not what's going on here."

Toward the end of his time deployed to South Vietnam in 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. It was one of the largest North Vietnamese campaigns of the war, involving more than 80,000 enemy troops attacking more than 100 targets across South Vietnam. 

Although most of the attacks failed and targets captured by the communists were quickly recaptured by the Americans and South Vietnamese, the ancient imperial capital of Hue fell during the offensive. As South Vietnam's third-largest city, the effort to retake it began immediately. Ehrhart and the 1/1 Marines were part of that effort.

Over the course of a month, American soldiers and Marines fought alongside South Vietnamese troops to clear the city in a house-by-house street fight. It was in the middle of the pivotal battle for Hue that Ehrhart received his orders to go home.

"I had been in the city for two-and-a-half, three weeks," Ehrhart remembered. "We were in the middle of a low-key firefight, exchanging fire with some guys across the street. A jeep comes hauling up the street and whips into this compound where we were, and [a lieutenant] says, 'Ehrhart, your orders are in. Let's go.'"

He took off his gear, distributed it to the other men in his unit and hopped in the jeep. The last he saw of those guys, they were laying down cover fire so he and the lieutenant could drive to a nearby landing zone, where a helicopter was waiting for them. 

"We came in at night at this place called Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, and then I was free to go," Ehrhart said. "I had a month of leave before I had to report to another duty station... I got a taxi, and there I was. My first view of the United States, I could hardly wait ... and it was absolute, impenetrable fog."

For more personal stories from veterans, check out filmmaker David Hoffman's YouTube channel, which is filled with interviews and recollections of Vietnam veterans, World War II veterans, pioneer aviators and more.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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