I was born and raised in Wilson, North Carolina – a town which was once known as the tobacco capital of the world. I graduated high school in 1967 and my first job was at a furniture factory six miles down the road. I started in September and got a pink slip on December 22nd. The very next day I got my draft notice. I knew what had happened – my employer was in cahoots with the local draft office and by letting me go before I was drafted, my employer was not responsible for employing me when I returned from war. But that was the south back then. I read right through it but I wasn’t surprised by it.
I wasn’t distraught that I was drafted because as far back as the 11th grade I’d had a premonition that I would go to Vietnam and come back unharmed. It wasn't about being brave, I was just sure I would make it back.
I reported to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for six weeks of basic training. The most difficult thing about basic training was the racism. The northern whites and the southern blacks were okay. But the northern blacks and southern whites were like gasoline and fire. The town I was raised in had a large Ku Klux Plan presence. The KKK used to tell us point blank that if they saw us demonstrating or complaining they’d lynch us. The other southern blacks and I couldn't see all the racism because that’s how we grew up. That’s all we knew. But the northern ones could see it and wouldn’t stand for it.
After basic training we were sectioned off into specific fields: radio operator, cook, infantry…whatever. I was selected for infantry and sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana for AIT (Advanced Infantry Training). After AIT I flew to Vietnam. Our plane was a commercial airline – US Airlines or something – but it was filled with hundreds of soldiers. I knew a lot of soldiers weren’t coming back – it’s not a war if nobody gets killed.
All told it was an eighteen hour trip. I spent almost the whole time praying that I would be one of the soldiers that survived. When we got to Vietnam the plane circled the base. As we flew around we could see fire fights and explosions in the neighboring jungles. The Viet Cong were engaging us so close to our base that we could actually see the fighting from the plane.
I got into Vietnam the first week of June and was stationed at Bien Hoa, which is a town not too far from Saigon. We went through a three day orientation. The instructor said, “Look at the guy to your left. Now look to the guy at your right. One of the men you just looked at isn’t gonna make it back. Pay attention during the orientation and maybe you’ll be the one that lives.”
My first comrades got killed in August after I had been there for three months. We were out on patrol and came upon an abandoned village. Usually the Viet Cong took all Vietnamese boys older than eleven so when you came upon a village there were only women, young kids and old men. But this village was empty and had a lot of underground bunkers. Normally you’d think underground tunnels were for the Viet Cong, but in reality the civilians needed them for protection too. We didn’t know if the tunnels were for civilians or the Viet Cong. We set up a perimeter around the village and debated about what we should do.
Eventually three soldiers decided that it was a Viet Cong base and that they would go back and throw grenades into the bunkers. They threw grenades once. Then a second time. The third time the Viet Cong were waiting for them and killed two of the soldiers. The Private First Class survived but he was shaking like leaves on a tree. We went back into the village to get the two dead soldiers. It was my first experience carrying a dead soldier but it wasn’t my last. After that everyone realized that these were not war games – people could die.
After that death was pretty routine. We’d go out on patrol and someone would die. Then we’d go on a different patrol and someone else would die. A person would be there one minute and the next minute they’d be gone. I knew I could die at any minute and that’s the mentality I had the entire eleven and a half months I was on patrol…
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