Friday, June 4, 2010
Veteran Chuck Bagnaschi recalls Vietnam experiences
It is an honor to speak to you today, Memorial Day 2010. Memorial Day is a time we Americans set aside to reaffirm our core values by remembering our men and women in uniform, especially the ones who sacrificed their lives in service to our country. It is their sacrifices that give us the lives and freedoms we hold dear. Its roots go back to the Civil War when grieving wives, mothers, sisters and daughters decorated the graves of their own fallen to give honor and express their continuing love.
I’m a Vietnam veteran and until now have not said much about my experiences and feelings from that war forty years ago. This morning, I will do my best to share memories and feelings from that time, so you will know why Memorial Day is important to me.
I grew up in Braintree, Massachusetts and attended Northeastern University where I joined the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps, or ROTC. After graduation I would serve in the Army for two years.
I completed my undergraduate studies in 1964, and after a summer of military training, was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. In 1964 the Vietnam conflict was escalating and scenes of that distant guerilla war appeared in the nightly television news. It was hard for us to grasp the true significance of this action and our involvement was portrayed as an advisory role, assisting the Army of South Vietnam. President Kennedy had been assassinated the fall of my senior year, and now Lyndon Johnson was continuing a policy that was gradually committing more troops to the war. In 1964, we had a draft to supply to the military the personnel it needed. The draft was a form of lottery where winning was considered unlucky. On your 18th birthday, you became eligible for the draft. College students were given deferments as long as they stayed in college. On campuses across the country, the War was becoming more and more unpopular and graduating or flunking out often led to induction in the military. For ROTC cadets, the draft was not our worry, because we knew we would serve.
Today, things are different; our military is all-volunteer and the prospect of being inducted into the military and going to Iraq or Afghanistan does not concern most of us. Less than one-half of one percent of our population has served in Afghanistan or Iraq. For those who are part of our volunteer forces, many have seen two or three combat tours. Currently, the Afghanistan war, at 104 months, is the longest in our nation’s history.
I elected to go to graduate school, delaying my service for two years. At the end of my final graduate semester, in 1966, I received my orders by telegram, instructing me to report to Fort Gordon, Georgia for Signal Corps branch training, and then go to the Lexington, Kentucky, Blue Grass Army Depot, an electronics R&D center. This was a great assignment for a new Electrical Engineering graduate. I was 23 years old and eager to put my newly acquired skills to work.
By 1966, the Vietnam conflict was expanding and anti-war sentiment here at home was increasing. At the time, many resisted the draft. Some, out of personal convictions against war and some, out of fear, left the country to avoid military service; many moved to Canada.
At Fort Gordon, the majority of my fellow officers were just out of college. Most expected to go to Vietnam soon. Throughout the weeks of our training, Vietnam was often discussed. Our instructors, some of whom had already been to Vietnam, did all they could to prepare us for what might be ahead. Two weeks before completing training, my orders were changed. Now, I would stay at Fort Gordon for six additional weeks training in avionics maintenance; I would then go to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to organize a newly constituted unit designated the 4th Signal Detachment. Avionics signal detachments maintained and repaired Army aircraft electronics. I would be the Detachment Commander, an impressive title for a 2nd Lieutenant. In reality, I was in command of one of the smallest units in the entire Army: 12 men. The 4th Signal would be attached to the new 188th Assault Helicopter Company and be its avionics maintenance section. At this point, there was no question, I was going to Vietnam!
Assault helicopter companies provided air-mobility to our infantry, flying them into and out of combat areas. Each had 31 Bell, “Huey” helicopters, 23 D-model troop carriers, and eight B-model Gunships. I arrived at Fort Campbell in November. The 188th and 4th Signal were just beginning to come together with new arrivals showing up every day. Most were young, inexperienced pilots, right out of flight school. During the following five months of intensive training, many lasting friendships were formed. My closest friends were Dave Bush and his high school sweetheart wife Ruth, both from Kenosha, Wisconson. After high school, Dave enlisted in the Army, attended flight school, Officer Candidate School, and aircraft maintenance training. We lived off-base in the Valley View trailer park. Ruth found a job on base and Dave wanted her to have their car for commuting. Every morning at 6:30, I would pick Dave up for the ride to our company barracks for our morning meeting; afterwards, we would drive several miles to the airfield where we shared adjacent offices in a maintenance hanger. My car was a little two–seat TR-4 roadster. We had a simple arrangement for use of the car - whoever needed to use it would take it. At lunch time we would pick up Ruth, and the three of us would squeeze in to head off for lunch. It wasn’t long when one of our senior officers, seeing the car running around base with different drivers, asked me – “who owns that car anyway” – you or Dave? Dave and I have reverted to our past, and drive Z-roadsters.
By the end of April 1967, our training completed, the 188th and 4th Signal were ready to deploy to Vietnam. Crews flew our helicopters to Oakland California. There, they were partially disassembled, and loaded below deck on a small Korean-era aircraft carrier, the Kula Gulf. All but nine of us flew from Fort Campbell to Vietnam, arriving early to set up our company area and wait for our aircraft. I was one of the nine left behind, to escort our aircraft on the Kula Gulf. On an early May evening, we sailed from Oakland past Alcatraz, the Golden Gate and out to open ocean; as we sailed past these landmarks, we were apprehensive as we tried to imagine what was ahead.
There were five officers and four enlisted men in our group. Aboard ship, I shared a bunk room with Bruce Wright, a warrant officer pilot from New Mexico. John Spearman, Henry Cauthen and Major Boyd Morrow were the other officers in our group. The slow trip across the Pacific was a time for reflection and long conversations. One evening as we sailed under the stars, Major Morrow, a senior officer, seeing that I was worried, reassured me, telling me that things would not be all that bad. After 12 days at sea, the Kula Gulf anchored in Vung Tau Harbor. Vung Tau is about 70 km east of Saigon at the mouth of the Saigon River. All of us stood on deck straining to get our first look at the Vietnam shoreline. We reassembled our helicopters and one by one flew them off the deck to shore. It was not until we arrived in Vung Tau, that we learned our companies’ location was the village of Dau Tieng, situated north-west of Saigon. At Dau Tieng, there was a Michelin-owned rubber plantation which would become our company compound.
That afternoon we drove from Vung Tau to Saigon where we stayed overnight. Saigon, with busy crowded streets filled with people, bikes and motor scooters, was sensory overload. It was exciting and did not seem at all ominous. The next morning we drove to Tan Son Nhut airport and boarded helicopters for the 40-mile trip to Dau Tieng, our home for the foreseeable future. Leaving the airport at Saigon there was so much to absorb as we looked down on the landscape for the first time. We flew over villages surrounded by rice fields and irrigation ditches. The landscape was dotted with bomb craters that had filled with muddy water. Soon we were over dense forest which thinned out as we approached Dau Tieng village. We landed on a small airfield originally built by the French plantation owners. Adjacent to the runway there was a med-evac field hospital, several plantation buildings, and beyond, stands of rubber trees. At Dau Tieng there were also an infantry base camp and artillery emplacements. The 188th had set up in tents, situated among rows of rubber trees. The entire area was surrounded by barbed wire perimeter. Directly outside of the perimeter on two sides was Dau Tieng Village.
Dau Tieng was remote and isolated. The two roads out of Dau Tieng were subject to sniper fire and land mines, so were open only to armed convoys in the daytime.
The day I arrived, my friend Dave Bush was the acting “Security Officer,” and after dinner he suggested we walk the fortified perimeter to check our bunkers. It was a quiet evening, and as the sun set, we stopped to check each bunker. The last bunker was directly in back of our company area. After checking that bunker, we started to walk away and had gone about fifty yards when the bunker exploded, from a direct artillery shell hit. Three guards inside died. Another was thrown about 50 feet, and survived his injuries. Suddenly there was chaos as we tried to get to the injured. Within the hour, it began to rain and soon the rain became a heavy downpour flooding the entire area.
I was terrified, and I wondered that if this were my first day, what would the rest of the year be like? This was the absolute low point for me and fortunately the days that followed would prove a lot better.
Our company was one of three assault helicopter companies assigned to the 269th Aviation Battalion. We operated in war zones C&D, which included combat areas referred to as the Parrot’s Beak, the Fish Hook, the Hobo and Boi Loi Woods and the Iron Triangle.
From July through December of 1967, the 269th earned the distinction of repeatedly flying more combat hours, conducting more combat assaults (CA), hauling more troops, cargo and med-evacs than any other combat aviation battalion at that time in the war.
In July the188th moved north to Tui Hoa for a temporary assignment supporting Korean troops. Although not always remembered, other countries sent their military to aid the South Vietnamese. Over the course that year, the 188th flew Australian, Korean and American troops. Tui Hoa was situated on the coast in sight of the ocean and its beautiful beaches. We were housed in relatively comfortable semi-permanent buildings and the climate near the ocean was more agreeable than Dau Tieng. Our three month stay at Tui Hoa should have been our best assignment, but it was marred by a tragic event that was absolutely the low point for all of us. On July 31st, two of our aircraft flying night reconnaissance collided, killing all eight crewmen. At the time I was in Cui Chi on business. It was early morning when word quickly spread that the 188th had a “mid-air”. I listened to the victim’s names as they came over the radio. It was difficult to come to terms with what had just happened. This tragedy was hard for all of us. Morale was at an all-time low. Afterwards, I experienced recurring memories of the last time I had seen each of these men. Henry Cauthen was with us on the Kula Gulf. Jim Poggemeyer was a friend at Fort Campbell. Another was Bob Wallace, who several weeks earlier, had asked me to take a Polaroid picture of him so he could take it with a photo of his infant son to local artist who would make a painting of him holding his son. After Bob’s death we retrieved the painting and sent it to his widow. Five years ago, Bob’s son, then in the military, posted a note in a 188th newsletter asking if anyone had any photos of his father. Going through my slides, I found Bob’s photo and sent it to him.
We returned to Dau Tieng as the rainy season began, but despite the weather, we conducted daily operations. On October 13, in the early morning darkness, Major Morrow, who had tried to reassure me enroute on the Kula Gulf, crashed while test flying an aircraft. He was taken to hospital where he died later that morning. I was given the responsibility to gather his personal effects to return to his wife, Jeanne. It was then I learned that he was scheduled for leave to meet his wife in Hawaii. I have never forgotten this man. I worked with him at Fort Campbell, shared meals with him on ship and flew in the back seat of his helicopter on many occasions. During that first year in Vietnam, 23 individuals from our company lost their lives. Today I remember them and honor their memory.
January 28 marked the start of the 1968 Lunar New Year known as Tet. Late that evening, we came under heavy rocket fire. The North Vietnamese Army was attacking virtually every city and military target in South Vietnam. Dau Tieng was no exception, and came under heavy mortar and rocket fire. Until Tet, the American public was assured the war was being won. Tet challenged this premise and raised further doubts at home about the war.
After Tet, the 188th was reassigned to LZ Sally, a small remote artillery base north of the city of Hue. Life at Sally was very basic. We set up a company area in tents on a grassy slope.
At LZ Sally I was nearing the end of my year and my replacement had arrived. This gave me time to try other things. Our flight surgeon had decided to build a medical bunker and needed reinforcing beams to hold up the sandbagged roof. We went to work cutting up the track from a nearby railroad line with plastic explosives molded into shaped charges.
In 1995, after a reunion at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC, my ex-Commanding Officer told me he remembers the day at Sally when he thought we were under attack. He went outside to see me and Lyle Parker, our flight surgeon, blowing up the Hanoi/Saigon rail line! Lyle Parker also attended that reunion and to my delight he is still a bit wild and crazy.
We all looked forward to the day we could return home and continue life as we knew it before coming to Vietnam. Going home under any circumstances could be difficult for some; people and relationships change and life doesn’t always continue where it left off. What we soldiers didn’t foresee was the degree of social unrest and how strong anti-war sentiment had become in the spring of 1968. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The war was unpopular, young people were angry, and there were protests everywhere. Returning veterans, having participated in an unpopular war, were often treated badly. They would seldom talk openly about their experiences. The horrific, unlawful Mai Li massacre in 1968, when hundreds of innocent civilians, mostly women, children and elderly, were murdered made us all ashamed. It took almost 20 years for our country to begin to put those days into perspective, and for us Vietnam Veterans to begin to open up and discuss our past. Many of us still question the justification for our involvement, and are still uncomfortable with what we witnessed. War can bring out the best and the worst in us, and it is hard to justify, under any circumstances, the brutality of conflict.
In 1984, the Vietnam Memorial Wall on the Mall between the Washington Memorial and Lincoln Memorial was dedicated to those who died in the Vietnam War. The beautifully designed monument fashioned out of polished granite slabs is elegant and tranquil. There are 58,195 names of our fallen engraved in the polished granite. Every day, flowers, notes and remembrances of all types are placed at the wall in loving remembrance. Today, it has become one of the most visited memorials in our capital, and a solemn place for quiet reflection and remembrance.
Coming home, I was subject to an occasional cruel or thoughtless accusation – I let these go unanswered. What I prefer to remember was an experience I had on the way home. – I was transferring planes in Chicago and having a few hours wait, I stopped to have a sandwich and a beer. As I sat on a stool, the person sitting next to me turned and said, “I want to buy you a beer, because you deserve it.” Today, more than forty years later, I remember that simple gesture. Today, when you see someone in uniform, take time to acknowledge his or her presence and if you have the chance, don’t hesitate to say thank you. These men and women make up only one half of one percent of our population and it is too easy to forget the significance of what they endure to serve our country. When you hear of a fatality, this is not a number or a sound bite to fill the nightly news; it is about someone like you and me. It is about hopes and aspirations cut short, grieving families, children losing parents and enormous personal sacrifice. This is the day we remember our men and women in uniform and those who have given their lives so we can live a good life in the best country in the world. We owe it to our fallen, and those who serve now, to honor and keep this tradition of Memorial Day. Today Carlisle preserves this tradition – here we see people of all ages who have come together to participate and remember. I thank you all for keeping our proud tradition.
In 2005, I returned to Vietnam with my good friend Dave Bush and Charlie Sabin, my brother in law, whose tours of duty also began in May 1967. The three of us were together in 1967 and ’68 and now we could retrace our journey of almost 40 years ago.
Our first stop was Saigon – now Ho Chi Min City. Saigon retains much of its original character, but new construction is everywhere and construction cranes dot the skyline. I visited streets, public buildings and parks I remember from 1967. Children still play in the parks and fountains where they played back then. People of all ages were friendly and helpful to us. There were no instances when we were treated badly. The Vietnamese have moved on and live in the present. As we traveled outside the city, land that in May of 1967 was rice fields has now developed industrial parks, private homes and apartment buildings We went on to visit cities on the coast, including Nah Trang, Hue, Hoi An and Danang. Hue was in ruins the last time I was there. Now it is rebuilt and has regained much of its charm.
Hanoi, like Saigon, is growing rapidly. Again, we found our hosts friendly and accommodating. We stayed at the luxurious new Hanoi Hilton, and visited the infamous prison known during the war as the Hanoi Hilton where American prisoners were held.
Visiting Vietnam with old friends who shared a common experience was gratifying. In many ways, Vietnam is a better place than it was in 1967. There is little evidence of the terrible destruction brought on by the war. The country has developed a manufacturing infrastructure and exports furniture, textiles and electronics. Its agriculture thrives, and the country has become a net exporter of food.
As I think about the Vietnam War forty years ago, I’m struck by the similarities of our protracted involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons learned from that war forty years ago should be relevant today as we seek a solution to end these conflicts and bring everyone home safely. No one can fully communicate the experience of war, and I don’t pretend to understand what today’s military contends with, but I do know they deserve our gratitude and respect for their service.
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