A US Service Member Recounts His Year in Vietnam

Personnel destined to return to the United States wait at the Bien Hoa Air Terminal, Vietnam, for a flight home.
Personnel destined to return to the United States wait at the Bien Hoa Air Terminal, Vietnam, for a National Airlines flight home, Feb. 15, 1968. (National Archives photo)

Excerpted from "I Was A Kid When I Was A Kid," copyright 1997 Tom Fowler

Tom Fowler arrived in Hoa Air Base (near Saigon) around noon on April 12, 1969, and arrived back in the U.S. on March 31, 1970.

The group I was with left Travis Air Force Base, near Oakland, CA, around 3:00AM on April 10. While waiting to leave, a plane arrived with a group of soldiers returning from South Vietnam. A deeply tanned fellow came up to me and said, "Going to 'Nam?" I said, "Yes."

He handed me a 10 and a five cent military scrip, (no regular U.S. currency was allowed in Vietnam or other parts of Southeast Asia because of Chinese black marketers), and walked away before I could reply. I thought he was being a smart aleck and perhaps he was, but I was glad I had that 15 cents after we arrived "over there," as I was thirsty for a cold drink and had no other scrip in my pocket!

After stopovers in Hawaii and the Philippines, we arrived in South Vietnam around the time stated previously. However, when returning home almost a year later, we took off from Cam Ranh Bay at 12:00PM, March 31, and, after a stopover in Japan, arrived back in the United States at Fort Lewis, Washington, at 11:45AM, March 31. There is a 14 hour time difference between South Vietnam and Central Standard Time here in the United States.

Even though I realized this, it was somewhat surrealistic to travel 10,000 miles and arrive, by the clock, 15 minutes before leaving! I was in the Tokyo airport for an hour and a half. It was enough time to buy two Japanese silk prints that are hanging in my bedroom to this day.

But, back to my arrival. As our plane taxied into Bien Hoa Airbase, my first impressions of what would be my "home" for the next year came quickly. I observed, from my window seat, Vietnamese civilians walking and bicycling unhurriedly around the airport terminal.

It seemed odd to me that things could seem so peaceful, so normal, in a land ravaged by war. I thought, If things are like this, what am I doing here? This thought stayed with me as we departed the plane after taxiing to a stop. However, this line of reasoning left me quickly as I walked through the side door of the airplane and the first rush of tropical air hit my face.

Although it was partially overcast, the air was hot as a blast furnace. If you have ever stood outside a home or building by an air-conditioning unit that is blowing hot air on your face, then you can imagine what my first experience with tropical heat was like. Only, in my case, the air was not moving, just unbelievably hot, and it would take several days for me to get used to it.

Indeed, my first week in country, while I was in transit to my permanent unit and getting processed in, I pulled KP duty in the officer's mess hall in Bien Hoa. It's a good thing I was 19 years old and fresh from several months of rigorous training, otherwise, I would not have made it.

(A few weeks later, the 299th Engineer Battalion, the unit I was assigned to, moved into a place known as Bong Son. Bong Son is a few miles inland from the South China Sea, in approximately the middle of what was South Vietnam. The day we arrived there was miserably hot, with the full brunt of the tropical sun bearing down on us. Somebody had a thermometer and told us it read 118 degrees. Nobody asked if he took this measurement in the shade. Nobody cared. Hot is hot!).

I spent my first few days in country getting used to the heat and attempting to get suntanned without developing a painful sunburn, something which was not as easy to do as you would think. In Vietnam, the sun burns hotter and brighter than in North America, and a person with pale skin can over-expose to the sun's rays very quickly.

I experienced sunburn, but not as seriously as several of my peers. (I was surprised to learn that even the darkest skinned black soldiers could experience sunburn). The standard uniform over there at that time was jungle fatigues, which were loose fitting military green trousers & shirt, with the sleeves rolled up past the elbows. This baggy, but comfortable, uniform was designed to dissipate heat, and the jungle fatigue uniform was as comfortable as anything could be in that climate.

However, riding in the back of an open-ended five ton truck en route to my permanent unit in Kon Tum caused me to develop the dreaded sunburn on my arms and neck, as it didn't take the tropical sun long to burn my lily white skin, even though I thought I was paying attention to what I was doing.

The next day, we continued our ride, again in the back of the open-ended truck, and this time I rolled my sleeves completely down and wore my collar up as far as I could get it. However, I had torn my sleeve on a sharp edge shortly after it was issued to me, and I was unaware that a 1" x 1 1/2" spot on my left arm was once again exposed to the sun.

I got a secondary burn on this small spot and, were it larger, would have created a serious problem for me. It was my first lesson in what would be a very important concept in a war zone: Pay attention to the small things.

My first few weeks were spent in Kon Tum, a place where the French had located years earlier. When I arrived there, one of the first stories I heard from the "old-timers," (GI's who had anywhere from one month to several years in country), was of a nearby minefield which had been abandoned by the French before being defeated by North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap's elite troops.

History repeats, as, not long before I arrived, some South Vietnamese Regulars, (Regular Army of South Vietnam, similar to our Regular Army of the United States, of which I was a member), had gotten overrun by NVA (North Vietnamese Army), had panicked and retreated hastily on foot through this old minefield. You probably can guess the rest.

Another item of interest was the day I received my field gear from the 299th supply warehouse. I was issued a brand new M16 rifle, steel pot, canteen, flak jacket, and various other items needed for field duty. What makes this notable is what happened to the man in front of me in line.

There were half a dozen of us "newbies" receiving our gear. The rifles were new, but the other items were not. Among the gear the poor fellow in front of me received was a used flak jacket with blood on it. The poor guy got very agitated and the supply sergeant had to help calm him down.

Not long after I arrived in Kon Tum, I got to use the flak jacket that was assigned to me. One night, the air raid siren went off, which meant incoming rounds were detected. Soon, we would be under attack. It's amazing how quickly one's mind focuses when danger is imminent, and the fear I felt was the most intense I had ever felt until that time. Funny thing about fear, it either paralyzes you or prompts you to quick action. (I knew spit and polish "crack" troops who were useless in an emergency, and slovenly, alcoholic marginal soldiers who were at their best when the chips were down. Go figure). On this occasion, I was ready for action, but, not having been through this before, did not know what to do. As it turned out, it was a false alarm and things quickly returned to normal. The experience was a good one, though, as I and the other newbies got our first taste of what the war really was without anyone getting hurt.

As stated earlier, I was in Kon Tum only a few weeks. In May, I was selected for an advance party to go to Bong Son and build a base camp. This was several weeks of hot, grueling work. However, the base camp we were to build was already partially established; we were there to add to it. The group that was already there were members of the Army's elite 173rd Airborne Brigade. They pretty much stayed to themselves, but from what I observed of them, they were very professional, no-nonsense soldiers.

From May through August, we pretty much stayed behind the perimeter of our base camp and built it up, with one notable exception. Highway One, which ran the length of South Vietnam close to the South China seacoast, was nothing more than a two lane blacktop road. However, it was a vitally important transportation artery for the US and South Vietnamese forces and may as well have been an American interstate highway, judging by the high priority of maintenance placed upon on it.

In the hottest part of the summer, our squad was selected to repair potholes in a 30 mile stretch of this road which ran close to our base camp. We used jackhammers, tar, and hot asphalt.

I've always maintained that this was the hardest work I have ever done in my life. Hot asphalt at our feet and the summer sun above us caused me to lose weight off of an already lean body. For those of you who have seen "Cool Hand Luke," the 1967 film starring Paul Newman as the prisoner on a southern chain gang, then you can understand what this duty was like. Only, we didn't wear chains. We didn't need to. If any of us were to go AWOL, where would we go?

When at base camp, we ate our meals in our mess hall over on the 173rd side of the base camp, or compound, as we usually called it. The trash area sat directly off the road leading to the front gate, and one day I was riding in the back of a truck as we headed out to our job site.

As we rolled toward the gate, I saw several Vietnamese boys literally crawling through 55 gallon drums of used fry grease, looking for any solid food residue they could. They looked up at us and smiled, their hair and faces filthy with rancid fry grease. The image of these starving, desperate children haunts me to this day. I mentioned the perimeter earlier.

My military occupational specialty was combat demolitions. (I made E-5 NCO rank by passing the promotion board test in this field before returning to the States). While I was in Vietnam, I set up many different kinds of mines and booby traps along the various perimeters we would set up at the sites we worked at. Dad once asked, "Did any of the mines you set up ever kill anybody?" I truthfully told him that I did not know. He replied, "That's probably just as well."

The hardest part of my tour began in late August when our platoon headed for the field to build a bridge. The plan was to get this bridge, a two lane, medium size bridge spanning a small river, built before the monsoon rains would commence in the middle October. We did not make it. For one reason or another, (materials did not arrive on time, lack of manpower, or, the reason I have always felt was the main factor: The powers that

be were way short in their estimation of how long it would take to erect this bridge) we fell short of our estimated time of completion. The bridge was only partially complete by the time the rains hit.

And, hit they did. Tropical monsoon rain is not like rain in most areas of North America. I was constantly reminded during that fall of 1969 of the biblical story of Noah and the great flood. We were camped out on a dry rice paddy close to the bridge site living in tents and sleeping on cots. During the dry season, this was not too bad.

However, the consistency of the soil in the rice paddy was such that, when water mixed with it, it changed from a very hard, brick-like surface and became a filthy (Vietnamese fertilize their rice paddies with human excrement), smelly soup-like substance that was very sticky. Often you would be walking along on what you thought was solid ground, and the next step you took would sink your foot a foot or more into the ground.

Before I continue, let me relate a short human interest story. Around our campsite, a small Vietnamese boy began hanging around and did odd jobs for soda pop and candy. He was friendly, always had a smile on his face, and we all liked him. I would guess that he was around 10 years old.

One day, another boy showed up offering to do similar errands, providing competition to our original young friend. I was taking a break just before noon when I heard a blood-curdling yell. The boy we knew well had taken a knife and sliced a several-inch gash in the second boy's leg, deep enough to where the boy's calf muscle was projecting out of the skin. Our medic quickly sewed him up, and we sent both boys away for good.

This was another lesson to me in how desperately poor and downtrodden most Vietnamese civilians were, particularly the ones in the remote locations I was stationed at. Pretty young girls, as young as 11 or 12, would sell their bodies, and young boys such as the one we knew were willing to knife their rivals over a roll of Life Savers or package of chewing gum. To this day, I think of this often and am grateful that I and my loved ones live in the Land of Plenty.

Most of us on the bridge project quickly contracted jungle rot, a fungus that causes painful boil-like sores on the infected areas of your skin. At the same time as I was battling jungle rot, I contracted a severe case of dysentery and also fought ringworm underneath my left armpit.

I lost 25 pounds in a little over 30 days and continued to work all day on the bridge project and stay up half the night on guard duty. I feel that, had this gone on much longer, I would not be here now relating this story to you.

But, the Lord walked with me, and fate intervened on my behalf. A soldier in one of our battalion commander's other companies had to have a leg amputated because of jungle rot, and the commander was having to answer to the soldier's congressman.

It was well known by then that my left leg was swollen to twice its normal size, and that I was seriously ill with dysentery as well. In the middle of November, I was sent back to our company area at the base camp to pull day guard and visit the medic's tent everyday.

One morning during the monsoon season, before I was sent back to base camp, heavy rains in the mountains overnight caused the section of river we were working at to flood us out by noon. We had to pack up what we could of our gear and head back to base camp.

We stayed there a couple of nights cleaning equipment and regrouping before heading back out to the bridge site. When we arrived back at the site in the middle of the afternoon, we spent until dark getting everything set back up. Too late our squad leader, a sergeant first class who had spent all of his time in the States and Europe, realized we were back in the field with only 700 rounds of ammunition for the whole squad. If we had been attacked that night, we would have been wiped out. Needless to say, that was a long night for all of us. The Lord truly was with me and the rest of us that night.

My personal problems began to ease around the first of the year. Proper rest and the medication the medics prescribed caused me to slowly, but surely, regain my health and strength. By Christmas day, I was feeling better and was able to keep solid food down, plus my leg was healing and I could lace my boot over it.

A USO show came to our base camp that day and I got to watch it. The emcee told us it was 94 degrees and not to expect a white Christmas. Two interesting events from around this time. On New Year's Eve, I was on guard duty about 10:00 P.M. when I sniffed CS gas. Hurriedly, I put on my gas mask and scanned the perimeter looking for VC. I saw none. Turned out to be our guys celebrating New Year's a little early. (A few weeks later, I would be gassed again, this time by South Vietnamese regulars, who fired in gas canisters on our location in error.)

Not too long after this, we awoke one night to the sounds of heavy machine gunfire. I was not on guard duty, so I headed to the porthole "window" in our semi-underground bunker. I fired, or tried to fire, a test shot to see if my M-16 was working properly. It was not. It had jammed, as the M-16 often did.

In the dark, I took the rifle apart, cleaned it and put it back together. This time, the test shot fired properly. Fortunately, the firefight, such as it was, did not last long and nobody inside our company area was hurt. However, this experience gave me a firm understanding of why you are required to disassemble and reassemble a rifle blindfolded in basic training.

After the first of the year, 1970, I began to see the end of my tour looming over the horizon. On Jan. 1, 1970, I calculated that I had approximately 100 days, or so, left in country. I was supposed to go home April 9. In January, I was feeling much better and took R & R (rest and recuperation) in Sydney, Australia.

All GI's serving in a war zone were eligible for a seven-day leave to one of several destinations you could choose. (It did not count against your annual 30 days paid leave.) I was a 20-year-old young man then and I imagined myself doing a lot of partying during the week I was there. What I wound up doing was getting a lot of sleep and eating decent food for the first time in months.

I called home a couple of times and took several hot baths with fragrance soap, which I had trouble finding. I kept looking for a drugstore. It took me almost half a day to realize that the many "chemist" shops I passed were what I knew as drugstores back in the States!

I almost got run over by a car whizzing down the left side of the road one afternoon while out sightseeing in downtown Sydney. In Australia, like Great Britain, automobiles travel the left side of the road, and the driver sits on the right side of the vehicle. I bought an Australian boomerang. It, like the Japanese oil prints, resides on display in my home to this day. It is mounted above the door to my closet.

Soon after returning to Vietnam relaxed and refreshed, I found out that our squad had been hit by mortars out on the job site one afternoon. Several of the guys were wounded, and our squad leader was in the hospital in Qui Nhon. Had I not been on R&R, most likely I would have wound up injured and in the hospital, also.

January was the time of Tet. (Older readers will remember the famous Tet Offensive in 1968, which, for all practical purposes, cost the Johnson administration whatever will it had to fight this war to the finish.) One evening, just before dark, the alarm sounded and we all headed to our assigned rifle ports. One soldier in our squad, who stayed high on marijuana and other addictive chemical substances most of the time, refused to don his gear and go to the window.

This being the time of year that it was and considering the fact that enemy activity in the area had been fairly heavy during this time, the alarm caused most of us no small degree of concern. This night was particularly scary, as the enemy usually struck in the dark of late night or early morning.

I am not ashamed to admit that I was as scared then as I had ever been or have been since. But, the stoned soldier, who I will call Richard, wasn't helping our cause. I thought to myself, What the hell. I may get killed tonight, but it won't be because Richard will not get off of his rear end. Forcefully, I told him to get up off of his rear end, get to the window, or I was going to personally kick his behind all over the place. He snickered at me, but did as I suggested.

A friend of mine whispered to me to be careful with this fellow, that he was crazy and may try to harm me later. I thanked him for his concern, but pointed out that later we may not have to worry about Richard or anything else! However, once again, the Lord was with us, and the firefight turned out to be nothing more than a couple of snipers disturbing our evening.

The incident with Richard was the only time in my life that I have ever seriously threatened another human being with bodily harm.

Also, around this time, one evening North Vietnamese guerrilla soldiers fired mortar rounds into the 173rd side of the base camp, hitting and wounding about 70 troops who were watching the nightly outdoor movie that Special Services provided. (A case could be made that it was not wise to have a heavy concentration of troops around a brightly lit screen after dark.) I have had a lifelong love affair with motion pictures and, when not in the field or on guard duty, was usually down in the 173rd area watching whatever happened to be playing on that particular night. But, on this night, the Lord's presence was with me, as I was in our semi-underground living bunker, writing a letter home, when the mortars hit.

Sometime in February or March, I passed the promotion exam and was promoted to specialist fifth class, which, in practical terms, meant that I would not have to pull KP or CQ (charge of quarters). The CQ is in charge of his/her company area on weekends and off hours. The CQ runner does the CQ's leg and gofer work.

I was reassigned back to the States. By February, the monsoon was over and my time in Vietnam just about was. February and March were months of small, un-noteworthy projects, which was fine by me after the bridge fiasco and the health problems it fostered for me. The bridge, by the way, was destroyed by the VC shortly after it was completed in early January.

On March 20th, I found out, much to my elation, that I would receive a several day "drop." A drop was shortening of soldier's year's tour, and mine was shortened from April 9 to March 31. I hurriedly sent a letter home to Dad and Mom, informing them of the good news. When I arrived home on April 1, Mom informed me that they had received the message in the mail only that morning!

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