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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Interview with Tom Nicholson, Vietnam Veteran, Feb. 24, 2002
Green Cove Springs, FL
Interviewer: Kristin Dodek
K.D. So just tell me your name, who you served with, and the length of time you served
T.N. My name is Tom Nicholson, and I served in Vietnam with 3rd Force
Reconnaissance Company, which is 3rd Marine division. I was a Sergeant. That would
have been from April of (19)66 to May of (19)67.
K.D. I just need to get a little background on you, like where you grew up, how you got
involved in the Marines, and by extension, the war.
T.N. I grew up in Miami, Florida and after high school, I went to the University of
Florida for a year, but then I joined the Marine corps, and went to Parris Island (South
Carolina) and went through basic training. I was in for a year, got out, stayed in the
Reserves, and then in 1965 I requested orders to Vietnam to go on active duty, and I did
that from 1965 to 1967 and then came back from active duty and stayed in the reserves
and retired in 1990.
K.D. When leaving for Vietnam did you have an idea of what your job was going to be,
or what your objectives were?
T.N. Yes I did, because I was in a company that formed specifically to go there. They
needed reconnaissance people, long-range reconnaissance, so our training package,
which lasted three or four months, was conducted so it very well prepared us for what we
could expect there. To the extent that training can ever duplicate actual combat.
K.D. What exactly was your job as Team leader of 3rd Force Reconnaissance company?
T.N. A team leader leads a team of four or five men. A reconnaissance platoon is
usually 16 to 18 men, so you had 3 six-man teams. The team leader is of course in
charge of the team and has an assistant team leader. It's your job to... you're told to go
into a specific grid square, or a specific area on a map and conduct either a raid or a
reconnaissance or a prisoner grab, or just an observation position. The team leader
makes liaison with the air assets like the helicopters to make sure you've got a way in
and a way out. We also had to coordinate with artillery and other units. You brief the
pilots, you brief the team, you make sure the team has the right equipment, that the team
has the right people on the team to get the job done, and to be in charge of the team as far
as tactical maneuver when you are in the field, the scheme of maneuver, and to make sure
that you, as they used to say, come back with as many people as you go out with.
K.D. What kind of information did you try to get from any prisoners you captured?
T.N. Well, if we ever got a prisoner, we didn't attempt to get any information out of
them. First of all you had the language problem. If you ever got a prisoner, a wounded
prisoner, or a non-wounded prisoner, the job was to secure them and get them back to the
rear and turn them over to the intelligence people. They had the linguists and so on that
could deal with them. It was important to seize weapons, equipment, and anything else
that could be of value to the intelligence people.
K.D. What was it like negotiating the terrain of the area?
T.N. Well, there's...I think there is a misperception of Vietnam as only rice paddies, and
that type of thing, and jungle, and it certainly is jungle, but it ranges everywhere from
sandy beach along the coast line to rolling hills, and rice paddies, to very high mountains.
It would get extremely cold with what they call triple canopy, three layers of trees that
may go a hundred feet in the air, so you have a very wide variety of the type of terrain.
In the summer, very, very hot...very, very dry, water was a problem, heat exhaustion was
a problem. In what they call the monsoon season, when it cooled off a lot and it just
started raining one day and didn't stop for four months, the terrain was difficult then
because while you had more water then you needed. It's steep mountainous terrain up in I
Corps, up in the north end, and the red clay mud in the area is very slippery and it's hard
to work up the sides of hills and so on because you're slipping and sliding and you're, the
mud gets everywhere and it's just a big problem. So there's just no way. We did train in
Panama which is jungle environment, but it didn't have quite the mountains Vietnam
had. So, I think we were prepared for the terrain, psychologically, we had some
problems with some of gear we had that wasn't suitable for that climate. The heat had a
negative impact on radio battery life, for example.
K.D. So, sometimes, was it just as much an enemy as who you were fighting?
T.N. The weather and the terrain definitely was, and caused a lot of casualties. The heat
exhaustion, people falling, getting hurt. I fell myself and hurt my back. We used dogs a
couple of times. You'd take a dog with you on patrol, with a dog handler, just like you
see a police officer with a K-9. And the purpose of the dog would be to sense the
presence of people other than those in the 5 or 6 man team, just like a sniffer, but sniffing
for people, not for bombs or drugs, and the problem in the summertime is that dogs
demand so much water, and finally the dog ends up being medivaked out of there
because of heat exhaustion. Well, when that happens it compromises the whole team
because now you have to bring a helicopter in to get the dog out, and if the team stays,
then right away you have pinpointed for everybody around, which are hostiles, where the
team is, so the weather affected, it affected everything we did.
K.D. What were the first signs of enemy buildup at Khe Sanh that you saw personally?
T.N. Well, several things. First of all, early when we went in patrol out of Khe Sanh we
didn't see a lot of people. We saw trails through the jungle where people had been
moving, but then over time we began to see more people. Then we began to see people in
larger groups, rather than three or four we began to see squad sized or platoon sized,
which is 15 to say 30 or 40 of them at a time carrying heavy loads, carrying mortar base
plates and mortar tubes, and so on, ammunition. Then we began to find bunkers that they
were beginning to construct. The significance of finding bunkers meant that rather than
just moving through the area, cause Khe Sanh is the extreme north-end of South
Vietnam, so the North Vietnamese as they were infiltrating south all the way down to
Saigon, and that would be like moving from Jacksonville to Miami, would pass through
the area. Well, when they started building bunkers it meant that they weren't just passing
through. They were starting to build up their force in the area that intended to stay there,
and bunker complexes are a place where when they get in the bunkers, that means "you
come find us, you come get us," so it was obvious they were preparing to stay there, to
amass larger numbers, with hospitals and base camps and caves and bunkers and those
kinds of things. So it changed the whole strategy I think. The people that made the
decisions realized that there is a buildup here. That's how we first saw it. When you see
larger numbers of people and it looked like they were staying in the area, and the type of
equipment they had and so on.
K.D. So, before you got there, did they have any idea they were starting to buildup or
was it you going out on these reconnaissance patrols that first noticed it?
T.N. I don't think they were aware of the buildup until we began to report it. When we
first got there, they were not really building up that much in the area. They were, if you
can visualize the country of Vietnam, it is a peninsula like Florida, well it's not, but it is
shaped similar. They were coming down the west side, which is the Laotian border.
They would come out of North Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh trail runs in and out of
Vietnam and Laos down the west side of Vietnam and they would come out of North
Vietnam and infiltrate farther south way down to what they call the delta region down
around Saigon and down south, and bypass this area so there really was no evidence of
any buildup even when we first started patrolling there. We weren't seeing that many
people, small groups now and then, what they call local Vietcong sometimes, which
would be like the local guerillas, the local rebels, not the North Vietnamese army.
Eventually the North Vietnamese army came down, and they're the ones that started
building the bunkers and dragging artillery in and that kind of stuff.
K.D. Once it was realized that they infiltrated the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) did that
change what your objectives were in the area, I mean how did your higher officers
respond to the information coming in?
T.N. Obviously at that point there were a lot of other types of surveillance going on, I
mean aerial photography, different sensing equipment they can use from aircraft and so
on. Not as sophisticated as today but they would take photos and they could drop
sensors, which is, they drop them from planes and they kind of embed themselves into
the ground and they detect movement. And that movement is picked up electronically
somewhere and plotted. So they detected more and more movement in the area, they
could do that. Our response was to try to send out more teams, more patrols to try to
saturate more of an area, and visually verify and engage the enemy.
K.D. How often were the reconnaissance missions carried out?
T.N. Well, there were always teams in the field, and of course we would go out,
sometimes you would only last two or three hours, sometimes you lasted four or five
days. And then when you came back you might be back for a couple of days and then
you would be back out again. I mean, you just kept leap-frogging one another, but you
always tried to have two or three teams in the field in that area up there, with that many
of us. So you tried to keep someone out there all of the time.
K.D. How often did you encounter enemy forces or traces of them, like booby traps or
anything like that?
T.N. Yeah, we made a lot of contact. Well, it changed. In the beginning, we didn't
make that much contact, where you actually got in a firefight, but you would see people.
One of the missions of reconnaissance is to be not seen and not heard, but to gather
intelligence by just setting up observation posts and reporting back what you see. If you
see enemy movement, what direction they are going in, how many are there, how are
they equipped, what kind of uniforms, those kinds of things. If possible you could call
artillery on them or call an air strike, you know, drop bombs on them if you can, rather
than engage them yourself. Obviously sometimes if they are close enough you have to.
Sometimes they engage you first, called an ambush. That happens. I would say we
probably made some kind of contact at least half of the time, maybe two-thirds of the
time. And there were other teams in the area also, Special Forces operated in that area,
and they operated with indigenous people, Vietnamese led by maybe two or three
Americans, in like a forty or fifty man patrol.
K.D. Did you have a certain procedure for how to react when you spotted them or they
ambushed you, or did you just dive to the ground and shoot? [laughs]
T.N. Well, first of all you pray. [laughs] There are several protocols. They are called
immediate action drills. What do you do when you are contacted? And it depends on
whether you are hit from the front or the sides or the rear, that is one of the things you
practiced and rehearsed before you went out on a patrol, particularly if you had a new
man, you rehearsed some things, what do you do if you are hit from the front or the rear
or whatever. How do you halt the patrol, what do you do while you're halted. You go
through all those protocols and action drills and that kind of thing. And again, it
depends on the contact. If we saw them first, and let's say they were a thousand meters
away, you saw some movement, you put the glasses on them, and you could see who
they were and how many, and they weren't coming toward you, you know you had to
shoot at 'em or you were going lose them, you would call artillery or something like that
on them. On the other hand if they were coming up a trail or coming right toward you,
then you would try to set up an ambush, and hopefully they would walk into it and not
detect you until it is too late for them. And sometimes that worked and sometimes it
didn't. The other situation would be if you were moving and they saw you first, you
didn't see them, and they set up an ambush, and the first you knew they were there is
when the firefight actually broke out, and then it becomes a question more of survival
than it does anything else. You know, if you got people hit and you've got to try to get
them out of there and that kind of thing. Sometimes our mission was specific, like a raid
on a suspected POW camp in the jungle.
K.D. Just as an aside, do you think that was one of the problems that occurred in
Vietnam, was that we were so used to fighting, you know, normal warfare, then when
you got to Vietnam and it was a revolutionary type of warfare, contextually based?
T.N. Well, I think that's a good question, and I think that, with the type of unit that we
had, that was our job to be small teams out doing guerilla type warfare. You know, as
you refer to it, the guerilla warfare like Roger's Rangers back in the Revolutionary War.
It was not a place for big mass armies with tanks and those kinds of things, not a Desert
Storm, not a European theatre. The terrain wouldn't allow it, first of all, mountain,
jungle, rice paddies. If you move in those kinds of environments like rice paddies,
you're channelized along the rice paddy dike, you can't drive a tank through the rice
paddy. It'd probably get bogged down. I think as Vietnam was in its early stages, 1962,
63, 64, when we were mostly advisory, we started learning how to fight as guerillas. And
when we committed larger units with tanks and some of that heavy stuff you had to
depend on, they found out early that that just wasn't going to work. And the whole
scheme of how we would fight that war changed over, certainly from 1965 to 1972.
Rather than send out a regiment of 6,000 you set up a lot of patrol bases in different
areas, with smaller groups and you patrol out of those bases. But the problem was,
unlike World War II, World War I, and even Korea, where you went out and seized a
piece of ground, a ridge line let's say, and you held it, and you jumped to the next ridge
line and you seized it and held it. In Vietnam we went out we fought the enemy for
however long it took, a day, two months, and came back, and relinquished that terrain.
And maybe had to go back to the same terrain and take it again, sometime later. We
never held it, we always gave it back up and, you know, it was very frustrating to do that.
K.D. So you are going out on these patrols, and you never know what you are going to
encounter, what kinds of thoughts go through your head before you go out? Praying
T.N. Always. I hope I don't let my buddies down. The old saying is nobody fights in
those conditions for motherhood, and apple pie, and the flag. It's for the person on your
left and your right. I hope I don't let them down, I hope I do what I am supposed to do,
you know, will I hold it together when things happen? But at some point, just like in
sports, you've got butterflies before the kickoff, but once the first shot is fired, once you
make the first tackle, then training becomes instinctive, it just takes over and you don't
think about it that much anymore. There's a lot of detail to try to deal with before you go
in, you know, in terms of getting ready and the people you're responsible for.
K.D. That goes along with the next question. How did you spend your time in the couple
of days you have before you go out on another patrol. Is it spent getting briefings?
T.N. First of all, you come back and sleep. Because, typically on a patrol, you've got
five or six men, at night, you didn't move a lot at night, particularly because of the
terrain, thick and, we did sometimes, but you try not to if you can help it because it is so
thick and you make noise, you can't avoid making noise. So the person who is sitting
and listening has an advantage over the guy that is moving, so you don't sleep much.
You might have, if you have five people, you might have, if you don't feel like contact is
imminent, you'll have one person awake and the other four will be sleeping. So you
sleep a couple of hours, like two to three hours a night. You do that for about four days
plus humping up the hills you are pretty exhausted. So when you get back the first thing
you want to do is try to get cleaned up, if you could find a way to do that, we didn't have
any showers or anything like that, but you would have some way to clean up, rest. We
used to say rearm and re-equip. If you expended a bunch of ammo, you want to reload
your magazines and get ready to go make sure your weapons and everything was in
order, repacked your pack so you're essentially ready to go again. Then you might have
to do, gosh, anything from work around the base camp somewhere, like fill sandbags and
help build bunkers, or you might be training with, you got a new man you are going to
take out next time, so you want to spend a day working with him on all of his immediate
action drills we talked about, or just, sleep. Combat's described as long periods of
boredom interrupted by brief periods of terror.
K.D. Did you spend some time cooking food, or did you have people cook it for you?
T.N. Well, when you are back in the rear and there is nothing to do, cooking, well, all we
had was c-rations a lot of the time, but cooking becomes a big deal. You would all get
together and bring whatever c-rat meal you had and make up the most God awful looking
stuff you've ever saw in your life, you know, everyone dumps everything in a pot when
you get it going. But if you are back in an area where there is a fairly big base, they may
have a little mess hall in a tent. A field mess, you could eat there. Most cases though, if
you're not there though, you are going to eat c-rations. But at least you could heat 'em
up. If you are out on patrol, there's no smoking. You've got to understand that all of
your senses come in to play, and the sense of smell is pretty significant. You can smell a
cigarette a long ways off. Now, you'll see people smoking in Vietnam photos, you
know, a battalion or a company or a 40-50 man unit, somebody might be smoking. But
when you are five people, you do everything you can to be as invisible as possible. You
don't wear cologne when you go out on patrol. You don't smoke a cigarette, and you do
not cook your food. There's no way to cook it. But c-rations came in a can, and you
could open up the can and eat it, just like you would open up a can of beanie-weenie's or
something and eat them, well, c-rations are that way too. So when we got back in the
rear it was like a delicacy to be able to heat it up and dump all the stuff in the pot, and we
had things that people would send us from home, like hot sauce, which became very
valuable. It became like a social event.
K.D. So which did you think was better? Your little pot-luck dinners, or the mess hall?
T.N. Well, I got hooked on c-rations. I loved em.' It was better to go to the
mess hall, I guess. You could get an egg or something there.
K.D. At the time, when you noticed the buildup was going on, and Khe Sanh is now
talked about like it was going to be the next Dien Bien Phu, did you at the time, and the
men around you, suspect that that was what was going on?
T.N. Well, at the time...understand that I was only a Sergeant, and at the time,
Westmoreland [ General William, Commander of United States forces] and President
Johnson [Lyndon B., President of the United States, 1963-1968] weren't talking to me a
lot, so I didn't know what the big guys were really thinking, I only knew what I knew,
what I saw, and what I did. There was a strong feeling by the brass that the reports we
were making, the things we were seeing didn't amount to anything. Nobody ever told us
we were lying, but we kept saying, look, we saw forty men moving carrying heavy
equipment, and behind them came twenty more men. But by the end of the day you've
seen six hundred men moving south along some ridgeline all going to apparently the
same place, and you would report that and when you'd come back they would debrief
you and they'd say, you know, "do you think it was the same people over and over?" or
"are you sure you saw that, or maybe they were local villagers." Well they weren't any
local villagers, the villages had been abandoned. So it was all supposed to be enemy
troops, so I think there was a reluctance on the part of the brass to recognize that there
was a buildup. So they really didn't do much at all. It wasn't really until Khe Sanh
started getting mortar fire and rocket fire, and there was an infantry platoon, these were
all Marines at the time, infantry platoon that went out into one of the areas that we'd been
going into, not a reconnaissance platoon, but an infantry platoon, about forty men went
out into the hill complex we had been going out in, and got ambushed, got hit going up
the mountain side. It was either Hill 881 or 861. They took quite a few casualties and of
course called in medevacs and everybody was really in a big panic, and they threw a
company in, which was say, another 100 men, and they got shot up good, and got
mortared, which was significant, you know, because you don't shoot mortars at five or
six men. When the bad guys, when you start putting forty or fifty or 100 men in the field,
now you've got a big target, so the bad guys start shooting mortars and rockets at you.
So they got shot up pretty good, and after that they threw another company in. And it
just kept on like that, piecemeal, like feeding people into a grinder. Because nobody
wanted to seem to recognize the fact that this is a serious matter, there were a lot of
people out there. We saw hundreds and hundreds of them. But no one wanted to believe
that until they started bringing Marines back in body bags, then they got serious. Then
the buildup of Khe Sanh began with another infantry battalion coming in. At Khe Sanh,
which was a small Special Forces camp, the genesis of Khe Sanh is, of course it was a
coffee and a peanut plantation or something like that. There was a rubber plantation
there that was occupied by a French couple, who were there during Khe Sanh, and even
came to the Khe Sanh combat base a couple of times, and I saw the man there, there was
also a French priest, they were there, and mountain tribesmen were around there, though
most of them got run off. And when the buildup started, the Khe Sanh combat base
which was very small, expanded probably ten-fold. They put a whole regimental
perimeter, and eventually it encompassed 881 and 861 even. They all became part of this
big irregular perimeter, where there was a whole regiment there, about 7,000 marines. So
we knew there were a lot of them out there, the question was what were they going to do?
Were they going to attack Khe Sanh combat base? Were they staging to head for the
coast? Ultimately what happened is the whole area became the staging area to hit to
northern cities like Dong Ha, some of those areas up there, Phu Bai, and so on. So what
began to happen is when we came back off patrol we started building more bunkers,
bunkers to defend our position. We started getting sometimes put on the perimeter at
night, rather than being back in our hooch, our tent, we had to go out and be on the
perimeter at night because they were worried about the ground attack. So things changed
tactically in response to what the enemy did.
K.D. Were you personally involved in any of the hill battles at Khe Sanh?
T.N. Not really in the hill battles. The hill battles were when the infantry went up there,
861, and got shot up, and they weren't going to put a five man team in there when 120
men just couldn't handle it. What they did with us was leap frog us way beyond the hills,
so I was involved in the hill battles only in the sense that we were way out watching the
people that were migrating and infiltrating toward the hills and trying to disrupt their
movement. The hill battles themselves, proper, were done by the grunts. Now we made
some contact on those hills and got involved in some firefights there before the grunts got
there, but no, what they call the hill battles actually began probably in April and I was
only there probably about a month after they started. They don't put recon teams in a
battle like that. Now what happened the very first time a platoon went up there and got
shot up and the word came back and we happened to be in at the time, the team I was on,
we got the word the grunts were in a big firefight, and you could hear the grenades going
off and the automatic weapons firing, it wasn't that far away, it was 1,000 meters away
maybe, 2,000 meters away. They were wanting to load up and send what they call a
reaction force in to help them out and all. All the recon guys, we jumped on a truck, you
know, we were ready to go with 'em and they wouldn't send us out because you don't
use recon assets for that. You know, they don't need to have a bunch of recon people get
out there and get shot up.
K.D. Because you are specially trained and everything?
T.N. That's right, because our more valuable contribution would be that long-range
reconnaissance, so they told us to get off the truck. But it was a rallying to the sound of
K.D. So you were basically there to tell them what was coming?
T.N. That is exactly it. You are the eyes and ears of the infantry. You would be like
J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry were for Robert E. Lee. Same kind of concept.
K.D. The I Corps men were known for their attempts at Pacification. Were you directly
involved in or observe these attempts?
T.N. I wasn't really, other than the fact a couple of times we had corpsmen with us,
Navy corpsmen, a medic. And we went to the Khe Sanh village. We went to a couple of
other villages on a few occasions for him to do what they call a sick call. And they
would go in there with maybe ten of us, armed to protect maybe two of these corpsmen,
and they would go into the village with a South Vietnamese military person who could
speak the language and let them know that the Americans are here and anybody that's
sick or hurt to come forward. And he would, the corpsman, would treat anything from a
gunshot wounds that people may have, probably the same bad guys who were shooting at
us the night before and they got hit and now all of the sudden they're coming in as
peasant farmers and he's having to fix them, to infections, to pinkeye, whooping cough,
TB and everything else. That was one kind of pacification program. The bigger thing
was a thing called CAP, Combined Action Program. Which is a marine infantry squad,
thirteen men, and they would go into a village and provide the protection for a village.
So they would provide perimeter protection for the village, help the villagers dig a well,
build a schoolhouse, set up a little marketplace, try and train the men on infantry tactics
and how to help defend their village. And over a period of time, they may stay there for
six months, try to get the villagers to a point where they're willing to defend their own
little village and take care of themselves, and now they know how to do certain things
like dig a well or this or that kind of thing. We left these Combined Action Platoons out
there a lot; they actually lived with the Vietnamese and ate mostly Vietnamese food and
that type of thing. That was also not a mission that I will be involved in, but Pacification
for us was a non-event because where we went, there would be no friendlies where we
would go. If there was a village out there it had long been abandoned. You know, they
forcibly relocate them, came in and said this village has been moved or the people just
left because there was too much stuff going on.
K.D. So you were really kind of a self-involved unit?
T.N. Self involved?
K.D. As in you focused on what you had to do, and the other things going on around you
didn't really involve what you were trying to do.
T.N. Well, that is probably true of everybody, but yeah, we knew about Pacification and
the CAP platoons and we had to help them with a couple of things now and then, but
basically we did our thing. It was pretty specialized, there were only a small number of
people, and we tried to stay mission focused. You can do all the Pacification you want in
the world, but your primary job is reconnaissance and you can't turn your back on that
part. You can't be off doing something else when they need your eyes and ears.
K.D. How did you come to leave Vietnam before the actual siege? Was your time just
T.N. My time was up, yeah. The way the Marine Corps did it you spent thirteen months
in Vietnam, and they tracked it right to the day, and on the day that ends the thirteenth
month they called it your rotation tour date, and you were sent home. Unless, of course,
if you got wounded before then you could get shipped out, if you had a hardship you
could get shipped out before then, or you could extend, voluntarily stay longer. But you
asked me why I wasn't there for the siege and it was because my time was up.
K.D. What do you think was the motive for the siege?
T.N. The theory is, as it us understood now, the siege of Khe Sanh was a diversion to get
everybody, to get the American military to commit a bunch of people to support Khe
Sanh, therefore lowering the protection on the coastal cities where Tet was to take place,
to take over all the cities. Giap, I think, said he never had intended to take Khe Sanh, he
never intended it to be another Dien Bien Phu, it was just a ploy to draw the Americans
there. That may or may not have been true. He may have intended to take it for political
reasons, but couldn't, but saw an advantage to drawing people there. One of the other
advantages of the siege, just like of Tet, was to influence public opinion in America.
Because when you get in a big battle, even if you win, you are going to get a lot of people
killed, a lot of casualties, and Americans don't like to have casualties. So I think it
helped fuel the anti-war movement.
I think the hill battles were the precursor to the buildup of enemy troops around
Khe Sanh. Why did they have the buildup? Beats me. I think they wanted to take Khe
Sanh. What they wanted was a big victory, and they remembered Dien Bien Phu where
they wiped out the French and chased the French out of the country. They felt like, I
think, that if they could surround Khe Sanh and overrun Khe Sanh and take it, it would
scare the Americans so bad that it would chase them out of there. Public opinion would
say 'bring the boys home' and that kind of thing. I think once they got there, what they
underestimated was the impact of American air power. B-52's, close air support, it was
just devastating. It kept them from grouping and assembling and ever really coming and
pulling off any effective assaults on the base. Couldn't do it. Plus they had a lot of
Marines there waiting for them.
K.D. So you think Giap was just trying to cover his tracks by saying that he wasn't
trying to take Khe Sanh?
T.N. I think so, but I think he probably didn't realize he could attract that much attention
and when it did it was like a gimme for him. He couldn't do what he wanted to do, but it
served another purpose.
K.D. I was going to ask you if you ever questioned your involvement there, but knowing
now how you got involved, I don't know if that would be applicable.
T.N. I was in the reserves, working for a big company, and I wanted to go. I felt like it
was my job to go. If I'm wearing the uniform then I'm supposed to be there. So I went
voluntarily. I never questioned why I was there while I was there, and, but for a few
physical limitations, I'd go today if it happened. Because I felt like it was not my place
to make political decisions. I wasn't trained to do that; I let the politicians do that. My
job is to go do whatever I'm supposed to do in this conflict. I don't tell them what to do,
and one of the problems of Vietnam is that they tried to tell the military what to do, and it
was too much political influence. But I didn't really question it, and I would say that for
the period of time that I was there, through mid 1967, there wasn't anybody that I served
with that were questioning why they were there. They were all gung-ho to be there and
thought they were doing the right thing. A lot of that question in the military, from
people who were there, questioning, "why are we here? we shouldn't be here," was a
reflection of American society as the follow-on troops came. They're just a microcosm
of society. At the time, the country was behind us, pretty much. It began to come apart
K.D. Do you think that the idea that the soldiers questioned their involvement comes
from the images of protests and the burning of draft cards during the war that we see
T.N. I think beginning in 1967, there were a lot of people, and probably more and more
as time went along, were there and didn't want to be there because they came off that
college campus or out of that town where they were subject to all of this anti-stuff. And
they didn't want to be there; a lot of them were draftees. Remember, a draftee goes along
with his life and suddenly gets drafted and he's gone. I mean, plans go down the drain in
a lot of cases, so they're bitter to start with, and then they go over there where they might
be killed, and they're really bitter now. So I think it is really just a reflection of society,
but as far as the impact of draft card burning and those kinds of things had, I think that
the incidents that occurred in this country during Vietnam, the anti-war stuff, was a very
effective tool for the enemy. I think it didn't shorten the war, like they think, like some
of the activists say. I think it prolonged the war. It didn't save lives in my mind, it cost
lives. It could have drug on forever, and they think, "well, we stopped it early because of
our protests." I don't think that is true. I think if we'd been allowed to fight the war the
way it should have been fought, like we fought the Persian Gulf war, just massive power
and win the war, win it now. If we'd been allowed to do that it would have been over
quicker and with less casualties. So I'm not fond of the anti-war movement.
K.D. So we were fighting with one hand tied behind our backs, is that what you are
T.N. I'll give you an example. This is a little war story. We were out on patrol and we
saw some people carrying heavy equipment and were moving along the edge of a tree
line, we could see them clearly, but they were a good ways away, like 600 to 800 yards
away, the type of situation where you call artillery on them. In support of us at the time
was an artillery battery that was a South Vietnamese artillery battery, manned by South
Vietnamese soldiers. Now they have a Marine representative there as a liaison, so when
we call back to request fire we are talking to a Marine that can talk our language, then he
talks to the battery there, to the guns. So we call him, we tell him we've got this target,
people moving on a trail, and they're moving so that within a few minutes they are going
to be out of sight from us, descending over the hill and down the other side. So we need
them to shoot right away. And he comes back and he says in radio code, wait a minute,
he said wait one, which is wait one minute. So we wait and call him up and say, "look,
these people are moving and we've got to shoot right away." He says, "wait one, I'm
having a problem here." Then he comes back and says, "be advised, we cannot fire your
mission because," this battery, whatever they're call sign was, x-ray let's say, "x-ray
battery is involved in a volleyball tournament right now and they don't want to stop
playing volleyball to fire this mission." So he just says check fire, cancel the mission,
that's it. So it was like a lackluster thing. You couldn't get the support you needed. One
other time, we saw people moving, and you couldn't just call directly to the gun and tell
them to shoot, there are people that monitor this radio traffic in what they call a Fire
Support Coordination Center, and they, when they hear you give a grid coordinate, a
location, they look at the map to make sure that you aren't shooting, maybe there's
another friendly unit out there and you don't know it and you see them from a distance
and you think that they are bad guys. Well the FSCC knows it, and they are going to
look to make sure you aren't shooting at your own people. Well we called a mission and
they came back and said, "be advised that those are friendly woodcutters." Woodcutters
are people that went out and cut firewood and gathered it and brought it back. These
woodcutters were carrying rifles, we could see rifles and machine guns. There were no
villages in the area. They were not woodcutters, they were bad guys. But the people that
are trying to clear the mission for you and let you shoot it, have to talk to some
Vietnamese representative there, and they would say there is no enemy in the area, those
would be friendly woodcutters, that's all they are. So we couldn't shoot that mission. It
was just constantly those kind of things. Enemy units would run into a graveyard area
where you have, their grave sites have shrines in them and so on, and you couldn't, you
weren't allowed to fire into that graveyard. Now that changed later on, 1968, 1969, it
didn't matter where they were in. But back in the earlier days, when they ran into those
kinds of areas, you couldn't shoot at them because it would desecrate the graves. They
shot at you, but you couldn't shoot back at them. Those kinds of frustrations that are
political, we didn't want to make the South Vietnamese people mad at us, but the gloves
came off later on.
K.D. How important were the helicopters to what you guys did out there?
T.N. Matter of life or death. If you didn't have them, you might not make it.
Helicopters were the primary means of transport. If you're going in twenty miles, say to
Laos, it didn't matter where you were in Vietnam, if you were going in a long distance
you can't walk, first of all. You could never get to where you want to go before you got
into some kind of an action. The terrain was too tough; it would take you forever. You
couldn't carry all of that gear. There were not road systems were you could be driven out
there. Helicopters were essential to both insertion and extraction of troops, and
particularly for medevacs. If somebody got hit out in the middle of nowhere, you
couldn't carry them out, I mean it would be very difficult to do that, probably impossible.
So helicopters were essential. They were the only way for us to get into enemy territory
K.D. I've heard it said that the helicopter pilots were some of the bravest guys out there,
do you think that's true?
T.N. Oh, I think so, yeah. I think any infantryman that was ever out there loves
helicopter pilots. You hate it when they drop you off and leave, but when it's time to get
out you love 'em when they come get you. Particularly if it's what they call a "hot
zone." If you're receiving fire and these guys come flying in and they're taking shots,
but they are going to come in and get you and get you out of there. They did a
tremendous job, they continue to do a tremendous job to this day, I'm sure.
K.D. After you noticed enemy buildup in the DMZ, why do you think that we didn't
launch a major offensive instead of just waiting?
T.N. Politics. Well, I think that the military at that time, and again, I'm only a Sergeant
right, but the military strategy at the time was to move into North Vietnam, no longer
wait for them to come to us, let's go to North Vietnam and get 'em. Let's blockade
Haiphong harbor and bomb it heavily and put it out of business. Because in Haiphong
harbor they are getting help from the Russians, and the Chinese, and other eastern block
countries. The harbor would be full of their ships. Even our pilots, when they flew there,
couldn't shoot at those ships in the harbor, that would have been a huge international
incident, they couldn't do that. So they're literally watching a Russian ship off-load
equipment, once they put it in a warehouse or something then maybe you could get it, but
you couldn't touch that ship. So the whole theory was to fight that war without inflicting
any damage on North Vietnam, in terms of an invasion, or something like that, we have
these coalitions set up and, I don't know why we didn't do it. But many times I was
along the Ben Hai River which is the border between North and South Vietnam, looking
across the river at North Vietnamese installations, watching them in the morning,
literally, run a flag up a pole, thinking, you know, we could take these guys pretty easy.
But you'd never do that. They never would let you do that. But to answer the question
why we didn't launch a big offensive, there's people today that don't know the answer to
that I think. Basically it was politics.
K.D. Would you have supported it? Looking back now do you think we should have?
T.N. Oh yeah, looking back now I think we should have. Back to my answer to your
question earlier, I think a massive effort earlier would have saved lives and shortened that
war considerably. But I think at that time, late 1967, the government, the President, was
in trouble. You remember that was right before Tet, and after Tet Johnson decided he
wasn't going to run. The President was trying to fight a war, not suffer a lot of
casualties, he was also fighting a war at home, that was the anties that were out there, you
know, now he is trying to appease them because you know they are voters, and he's a
politician and he's got to figure out a way to balance, to keep all these balls in the air and
nobody wanted to make the tough decisions. Which is, if we are going to win this war,
let's win it. Now there were some people in that war that were young at the time, young
Lieutenants and Captains, guys by the name of Shwarzkopf, Colin Powell, and they went
through all of that stuff. And you've probably read that when they had their chance, like
Desert Storm, they said we are never going to let Vietnam happen again. If we are going
to fight this war, we are going to fight to win. So we are going to go in and win this thing
in the first round, we're not going to throw a squad in and let them get chewed up, then
throw a platoon in, then throw a company in. Let's throw a battalion in and stomp these
guys right in the beginning. I think the lessons learned from Vietnam have paid
dividends in the decades since Vietnam. To this day, I think the American people
support big buildup, let's go in and win it rather than, we don't want any more Vietnam,
we don't want any more Somalias.
K.D. Do you think people, as in John Q. Public, are better informed of what is going on
in a war than they were in Vietnam?
T.N. Well, I think today, yeah, people are better informed because there have been a
proliferation of media forums. I mean, there's more television, there's the Internet, I
mean you are seeing it all the time now. Now they are going to have reporters out there
with front line troops, and so on. Yeah I think people are, there's a certain group of
people that are never going to be informed, but generally speaking people are more aware
of it today then they were thirty years ago. They see movies like Saving Private Ryan
and they get all pumped up and all that stuff, and I think the American people of today
say, if we are going to fight, let's fight to win. That's why most Americans, I think,
don't like the idea of their sons and daughters going to some place like Somalia, or
someplace where, well Afghanistan, where you have a lot of this stuff of tribal warfare
that's gone on for generations, for centuries, and the bad guys look just like the good
guys, and sometimes they are the same people. You know, he could be good guy during
the daytime, and bad guy during the night. That's very frustrating, and I think today's
soldier is better trained then we were, certainly has got much better equipment, and got
the support of the people, which is, there is nothing like being out there and realizing the
people at home support you, it's pretty frustrating if you've been in Vietnam ten or
eleven months, or something, and some new guys come into the unit who just graduated
high school, when you were in your first fire fight a year ago, and they'll tell you all of
the stuff that is going on there, you know, draft card burning, guys coming back from
Vietnam and having somebody throw a balloon full of blood on you and call you a baby
killer, when you hear that kind of thing you say, "well, what am I here for?" And that
came later on, 1968, 1969, 1970. I don't see that kind of thing happening today. You've
still got your anti-war types out there, but there will always be that small nucleus of those
people, but I don't think they have influence on the American public. Today I think
Americans are pretty pumped. Remember we have September 11t to rally us, we didn't
have anything. The thing, the incident that started the Vietnam buildup, the Vietnam
War was the Tonkin Gulf incident, which today people say was a bogus staged thing that
never really occurred. That Johnson did it just so he could have a rallying point for the
troops. Was that true or not? I don't know. Not my job to know that, my job is just to go
look for them.
K.D. How much does it bother you when people say that we should have never been in
Vietnam, and that the war was pointless?
T.N. It bothers me very much. It bothers me if people say we should never have been to
Vietnam. If I had to make the choice again, I would have gone, because, again, I wasn't
a politician and I'm not today. I was a military person, and I was trained to go, and it
was time to go and so I went. It bothers me when they say we lost the war in Vietnam,
because if I had my way I would rather be able to say to all of those protesters and all of
those people, you lost the war in Vietnam. I didn't lose it; you lost it, by pulling out the
carpet out from underneath us and not giving us the support and in effect forcing the
President to not even run again. There was no support. We didn't win in the form of a
World War II victory or something like that, and there may never be a victory like that
again. I don't know if there would be or not. It bothers me, yeah.
Conclusion of Interview