In spring 2000, the Stanley Center partnered with American RadioWorks™ to produce the two-hour radio project Revisiting Vietnam. The show addressed the cultural significance of the Vietnam War, as well as changes inside Vietnam 25 years after the war’s conclusion.
The Vietnam veteran is perhaps the most mythologized figure to emerge from the war. Some three million men and women served in Vietnam. Most are in their 50’s now. Many veterans object to what they consider myths perpetuated about them by the media, but don’t agree on what those myths are.
THE VIETNAM WAR – and the deep divide over its meaning – is seemingly hard-wired into the soul and psyche of America. Duluth, Minnesota, the small Lake Superior port city, is a long way from Saigon. Or, for that matter, from the Pentagon or Berkeley. But Vietnam lives here, too.
“When I walk in here this is like holy ground,” says Durbin Keeney, strolling into the Vietnam War Memorial, a prominent feature in a lakeside park. Dedicated in 1992, the memorial consists of a concrete bunker-like structure – a half-dome with its back to the lake. Across from it, as though taking shelter in the bunker, is a black granite wall reminiscent of the much larger one in Washington D.C.
“The wall has 136 names on it, [including] 5 POW’s…from the 7 counties surrounding this area,” says Keeney. “So we’re real proud of what we’ve put together here. To provide healing for the families, for the community. I’ve come down here in the middle of the night and found guys playing guitars and singing to the wall.”
Durbin Keeney is 51. He’s a big man with red hair and a graying beard. He served in Vietnam in 1970 and ’71 as an Air Force security officer. On this cool spring day, he wears a black jacket and a cap with a visor; both declare him a Vietnam Veteran. So do Durbin’s belt buckle and his license plate. He says his fellow Vietnam veterans are his life now. They are his vocation. Keeney runs a small non-profit group that helps homeless veterans find housing, treatment and other help.
In the basement office of Keeney’s agency, Veterans Outreach North, counselor Earl Nett is on the phone with a troubled vet – trying to get the man into treatment, Keeney explains. “Right, but you’re working through that,” Nett says into the phone. “You’re letting go of the past.”
The vet on the other end of the line may need to let go of the past, but Durbin Keeney says he couldn’t do it. In the 1970’s and ’80s he worked in insurance and other business ventures, trying to forget the war. Everything changed a few years ago, he says, when he finally confronted his own Vietnam memories.
“There were times that I guarded the Blackbird,” Keeney recalls. “And the Blackbird would take off after the Freedom Birds at night; the Freedom Birds took troops home, but the Blackbird was where the soldiers who were killed were taken out.” Even thirty years later, the image brings tears; Keeney reaches into his pocket for a handkerchief. “And the hardest thing that I’ve always dealt with was what we call survivors’ guilt. I made it and somebody else didn’t. I know now why. I believe very firmly that there’s rhymes and reasons why some of us survived and some of us didn’t – because that’s allowed me to do what I’m doing today.”
Now, meet another Duluthian. At 55, Tom Morgan looks the part of the college professor: herringbone jacket and round wire-rim glasses. He teaches Russian language, literature and history – and Peace Studies – at the College of St. Scholastica, a Catholic liberal arts college in Duluth. He’s a native; he graduated from the local University of Minnesota campus before enlisting in the Navy and going to Vietnam in 1968.
The walls of Morgan’s small office are covered with photos, posters and flyers – almost all of them having to do with Russia, Morgan’s academic field. There’s no visible reference to Morgan’s background as a Vietnam GI. “It was definitely an important and defining moment in my life and it has shaped me,” Morgan says, “but I continue to grow and expand and look forward.”
In fact, though, Morgan does carry Vietnam with him. In mide-life he’s become a peace activist of sorts. A couple of years ago he worked to defeat a plan to park a World War Two-era battleships in the Duluth port as a tourist attraction – a project Durbin Keeney actively supported. Morgan objected that the ship would glorify war. He says his antiwar convictions grew straight out of Vietnam.
“I saw people get blown apart. I mean, that would get anybody to question the value of any war. It is the worst possible solution to problems.”
As a young enlistee, Morgan recalls, he “didn’t know what to think about this war” but simply went along. “Because we’re all against Communism, aren’t we? It took awhile for me to understand the futility and hopelessness of that situation. And also what we were doing to Vietnamese society – I mean, we just did violence to that culture.”
Tom Morgan and Durbin Keeney are just two veterans with two very different ways of fitting Vietnam into their lives. Unlike the rest of us who struggle over the meaning of that war, veterans have the added experience – or burden – of watching politicians, the news media and the makers of popular culture tell their story.
One recurring image is that of the violently unbalanced Vietnam vet. The movies have churned out many such veterans; Robert De Niro’s deranged character in “Taxi Driver” is just one of many in the genre.
To be sure, some Vietnam veterans are mentally ill. Some are chemically-addicted and homeless. In the 1980’s the Veterans Administration estimated that 15% of Vietnam theater veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s a significant figure – almost half a million vets. But then 85% of Vietnam vets did not have PTSD. These estimates make perfect sense when you consider that only 15-20% of Vietnam GI’s saw serious combat, according to experts.
Veteran B.G. Burkett, a Dallas stockbroker and author of a book on vets called “Stolen Valor,” says he looked hard at government statistics. He thinks most people will be surprised by what he found: “We had the lowest unemployment rate of any major category. Had the highest per capita income, had the highest educational rate. We had the lowest criminality rates of any group in America. You know, you don’t go through three years of military discipline and then come out and say, boy, I’m gonna go rob a bank or shoot my mother. It didn’t happen, but that was what became the theme in Hollywood.”
Another stock Hollywood character is the gung ho Vietnam fighter turned veteran-with-a-grudge. Like John Rambo. In the first Rambo film the former Green Beret unleashed his fury on a small town in the Pacific Northwest. “You’re goddamn lucky he didn’t kill all of you,” Rambo’s former commanding officer tells the local police chief.
As in Rambo’s case, the grudge held by Vietnam vets in the movies is usually directed toward the antiwar movement and a government that didn’t wage an all-out attack. “I did what I had to do to win, but somebody wouldn’t let us win!” Rambo screams in a climactic speech.
“So the loss of the war is attributed to something that happened on the home-front,” says Jerry Lembcke, a Vietnam veteran and a sociologist at Holy Cross College. “We were sold out by liberals in Congress who wouldn’t fund the war and who wouldn’t approve the military strategy that we needed to win the war, and we were stabbed in the back by the anti-war movement in the streets that demoralized our soldiers in Vietnam and gave aid and comfort to the enemy that we were fighting against.”
Lembcke analyzed media and pop-culture portrayals of Vietnam veterans, and of their coming-home experience, for his recent book, “The Spitting Image.” He says most vets in the movies loathed the antiwar movement and expressed anger that they weren’t allowed to win the war, but that’s not Lembcke’s view. He insists most vets he knows don’t feel that way, either; nor did most of the GI’s he knew in Vietnam. He served as an Army Chaplain’s Assistant in 1969.
In the unit in which Lembcke served as an Army Chaplain’s Assistant, in 1969, “I would say most of the men there couldn’t wait to get home to join the anti-war movement. The prevailing opinion was that the people at home who are protesting the war are right, they’re on the right side of this issue. And we’re on the wrong side.”
There are no firm statistics on how many Vietnam GI’s actively opposed their own war. Most experts say it was far short of a majority. But a Harris Poll commissioned by the VA in 1971 offers partial support for Lembcke’s claim that Vietnam GI’s and the antiwar movement were not bitterly at odds with one another; at least, returning soldiers did not see themselves as under attack by peace activists. Asked to respond to the statement, “Those people at home who oppose the Vietnam war often blame veterans for our involvement there,” 75% of veterans disagreed.
B.G. Burkett did see the antiwar movement as the enemy, and still does. “They energized the other side,” he says today. “I don’t know how anyone could be proud of a movement that put 20 million people under communism.” In contrast to Lembcke’s description of soldiers anxious to go home and protest the war, Burkett says the men in his infantry unit were “gung-ho” – proud and enthusiastic warriors.
One partial reason for such sharp differences in the perceptions of veterans: support for the war back home, and the perceived prospects for victory, declined sharply during the seven years of heavy American involvement in Vietnam. Burkett did his tour one year before Lembcke did, in 1968. “The morale did not really decline until probably mid-’69,” Burkett says. “And then of course by ’70, ’71 it got terrible. Because by that time the peace talks had started, Nixon’s talking peace with honor, and so…you know you’re not there to win a war and the only thing that’s going to happen to you the longer you stay there is you’re going to get killed or wounded.”
Indeed, military leaders themselves recognized a crisis among Vietnam soldiers in the war’s last years. In an article called “The Collapse of the Armed Forces” published in the Armed Forces Journal in June, 1971, Colonel Robert Heinl declared that the army in Vietnam was “dispirited where not near mutinous.”
That’s an apt description of a group of soldiers at Fire Base Pace in South Vietnam in October, 1971. In a report for Pacifica Radio, journalist Richard Boyle went to the base to interview a dozen “grunts” from the First Cavalry Division. The GI’s had been ordered on a nighttime combat mission the previous night. Six of the men had refused to go and several others had objected to the order.
“They’ll have to court-martial the whole company,” one soldier told Boyle. “I say right away they can start typing up my court-martial.”
The GI’s told Boyle they objected not only to what they saw as a suicidal mission but to the war effort itself. Their commanding officer wouldn’t let them wear t-shirts with peace symbols, they complained. “He calls us hypocrites if we wear a peace sign,” one GI said. “[As if] we wanted to come over here and fight. Like we can’t believe in peace, man, because we’re carrying [an M-16] out there.”
Another soldier piped in: “I always did believe in protecting my own country, if it came down to that. But I’m over here fighting a war for a cause that means nothing to me.”
Historians say so-called “combat refusals” became increasingly common in Vietnam after 1969. Soldiers also expressed their opposition to the war in underground newspapers and coffee-house rap sessions. Some wore black armbands in the field. Some went further.
“During the years of 1969 down to 1973, we have the rise of fragging – that is, shooting or hand-grenading your NCO or your officer who orders you out into the field,” says historian Terry Anderson of Texas A & M University. “The US Army itself does not know exactly how many…officers were murdered. But they know at least 600 were murdered, and then they have another 1400 that died mysteriously. Consequently by early 1970, the army [was] at war not with the enemy but with itself.”
Of course, the vast majority of Vietnam GI’s carried out their orders and returned home. Some – especially those who served in the early years of American involvement – were even greeted as heroes, just like those from World War Two or some other “good war.” A Universal Studios newsreel circulated at the end of 1966 shows a large crowd gathered at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio to “give a very special welcome home to some very special people,” as the big-voiced narrator put it. President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Ladybird were there. “The President expresses the gratitude of a grateful nation,” summed up the narrator.
But by the end of the war there was not much sunny talk of a “grateful nation.” The country had lost its first war. Americans were profoundly divided over the conflict and held complicated feelings about its veterans. From the late 1970’s on, politicians, the media and moviemakers dwelled increasingly on the troubles of returning vets, says sociologist Lembcke. “What popular culture did was rewrite the history, rewrite the story of the Vietnam war in many ways as being a story about veterans coming home from the war.”
In other words, the nation’s public soul-searching on Vietnam turned to questions about post-traumatic stress disorder, the lack of welcome-home parades and POW/MIA’s. Lembcke and some others who’ve thought about Vietnam for decades now wish Americans would place more focus on other troubling questions: Why did we send those men and women to Vietnam in the first place? What did we ask them to do on our behalf?
By not thinking too hard about those questions, Americans can preserve a cherished image of their country as one that always stands for liberty and justice in the world, says historian Marilyn Young of New York University: “It’s a lot to give up, when you think about it, to reckon rather closely with the actual history of any country and what it’s done in the world, and what any government has done abroad and to its own people. That’s a lot to come to terms with. And I think people don’t want to give up the simple story. ‘Cause it’s a nicer story. And it always has a happy ending.”
There’s no sign of consensus among Vietnam vets about the meaning of their war. As one veteran in Duluth says: the conversation is still continuing.
Announcer at Woodstock: Ladies and gentlemen…Country Joe…McDonald….
Oh, come on all of you big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again,
Got himself in a terrible jam,
Way down yonder in Vietnam,
Put down your books, pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lot of fun,
And it’s one, two three, what are we fightin for,
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.
The protesters and proponents of US involvement in Vietnam have had three decades to reflect on what they were fighting for.
McDonald: Whoopee! We’re all gonna die.
For the children born during that time and after, the war, and the war at home over Vietnam, is as distant as World War II was for their parents.
Student: When I first got to Berkeley and walked around, I was like, this is where it all happened, this is so cool.
Four students sit on a cement cube at the University of California campus, a cradle of the antiwar movement. As I wait here for a veteran of the movement, these students from the school of public health try to imagine what the campus was like before they were born.
Student 2: The first images that come to my mind are rallies, people standing on podiums, big posters saying “Out of Vietnam,” and flashing images of Kennedy and Nixon and young boys going away. These are things I’ve seen in movies, this is what I’ve seen growing up. Forrest Gump, yeah, movies. I mean, my parents.
Student 3: And I think our generation doesn’t know what war is anymore. We have no conception of what it is to have random people killed anymore.
I hear a voice behind me, turn around. It’s the guy I’ve been waiting for. He smiles at the students.
Rossman: You are all students here? But you didn’t know anything about this place? I didn’t know anything about it.
It’s so striking: deep lines carve into Michael Rossman’s face; the students look suddenly shiny, faces smooth, eyes clear. They consider this man with the gray pony tail.
Rossman: We divided the nation and we expressed the division in a way that was in people’s face.
Later, in an off campus coffee house, we go over some of the history. In 1964, many students returned from Mississippi summer and the civil rights movement. The next year, in Berkeley, Vietnam day and campus-wide teach-ins kicked off years of protest. By 1967, frustration and rage at President Johnson’s policies brought more radical protest. Activists tried to shut down the draft process at the Oakland induction center. Violent conflict filled the streets, and the television screens.
Rossman: It wasn’t polite protest. Thousands of people were getting beat and gassed in the streets. And the numbers increased and then they started shooting the kids dead. From the perspective of those who wanted to persecute the war successfully it fatally divided America’s will. If there had not been an opposition galvanized by the young people then there would not have been the slowly gathering social force that kept them from going out in the madness.
Phil Ochs (Music Lyrics):
It’s always the old who lead us to the wars;
Always the young to fall.
Now look at all we won
With the saber and the gun,
But tell me is it worth it all?
The official history of the antiwar movement reads something like this: the protests in the street helped slow the war, end the war, end the government’s resolve to continue fighting it.
Phil Ochs (Music Lyrics):
Yes I even killed my brother
And so many others
But I ain’t marching any more.
But was it really that effective?
Garfinkle: Anti-war protesters had a higher negative public-favor quotient, according to all the polls, than the John Birch Society and the KKK. Antiwar protesters was the most hated group in American society.
Adam Garfinkle is author of a book examining what he calls the myths of the antiwar movement.
Even people who were very concerned about the wisdom of the war were not prepared to oppose it because of the company that they would be seen to be keeping. People flying the Viet Cong flag, people using obscenity and vulgarity. People doing things that were blatantly anti-patriotic.
Still, by 1968, the protests appeared to be making an impact. In March, in the wake of a strong showing by antiwar presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, President Lyndon Johnson stunned the nation.
President Johnson: I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.
Yet if antiwar protesters took the credit for toppling LBJ – and many say their role was inflated – they would soon be assigned blame for what followed.
Chicago, August, 1968. It had already been perhaps the most divisive year in America since the Civil War – in January, the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive had shattered American illusions about a quick end to the war. Two months later, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Two months after that, Bobby Kennedy was shot down after winning the California Democratic primary and then, at summer’s end, came the Democratic convention.
Announcer at Convention: And so ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to present to this convention the name of Hubert Humphrey as nominee for president of the United States.
Demonstrators: Heil Humphrey! Humphrey’s a fascist pig! Dump the hump, dump the hump!
Journalist: The truck is spraying a gas, the kids are now moving back into the street, they’re fighting and shoving.
The indelible image from Chicago was not Hubert Humphrey accepting the Democratic nomination, nor the efforts to insert an antiwar plank in the party platform. It was the picture of enraged young people coming up against the defenders of law and order. As some youths taunted the police, the cops waded into the crowds, clubbing some demonstrators into unconsciousness.
Journalist: I’m trying to get far enough back so I can see what’s happening, but it’s almost impossible to be able to give you a report as my eyes begin to burn, cough.
A fact-finding commission called it a police riot. Yet, soon, bumper stickers began to appear: We Support Mayor Daley and His Chicago Police. The backlash was in full swing.
Gitlin: No doubt the precipitation of the confrontation in Chicago in August, 1968, had very bad political consequences.
Todd Gitlin, former leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and now a sociology professor at New York University, says the backlash helped elect Richard Nixon. Gitlin believes Hubert Humphrey, as president, would have been under far more pressure within his party to end American involvement quickly.
Gitlin: Among those who bear the blame for that turn of events, the ’68 default, are those militants in the anti-war movement who didn’t vote for Humphrey. I don’t exempt myself. Most people I know, including myself, didn’t vote for president that year. That was a big mistake.
Nixon: And so tonight, to you, the great silent majority, I ask for your support.
During his campaign, Richard Nixon indicated he had a secret plan to end the war. A year after his election, he told America the negotiations in Paris were moving forward. He called for unity.
Nixon: Let us understand, North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.
Nixon’s strategy was to divide domestic dissent from the great political middle. For a time, the message played well.
Gloucester, Massachusetts, on the seacoast north of Boston. Here, like in many American communities, the antiwar movement was made up of middle-class parents who’d grown increasingly alarmed at their country’s behavior. In Gloucester, they were dogged by the radical images of the national movement.
Gabin: We were constantly battling those kinds of images here.
Ellen Gabin has been an activist for 35 years – marching in Selma in 1965, joining an American citizen’s delegation to Cuba last year, and, in the ’60s, organizing against the war.
Gabin: Locally people talked about it and said, “We told you so, look at that. Look at those crazies.” And began putting us in the same camp. So not only were we part of the drug camp, the flower children camp, now we were part of the bombings and the hysteria that was happening. And those things made people afraid to be part of the movement.
Afraid, also, because people knew the government was watching. This was at the height of an extensive US domestic spying campaign, when the FBI, the CIA, the Army, and the National Security Agency infiltrated and kept watch over a vast range of antiwar groups and individuals – from the Yippies and the Weathermen to Dr. Martin Luther King to the Concerned Mothers of Calumet High School. In Chicago alone, of the several thousand demonstrators at the convention, an estimated five hundred of them were government agents, informants, and provocateurs.
Gabin: We were much closer to the McCarthy era than we are now. Joe McCarthy. In a way a lot of us joked about it. But every one of us had a feeling of terror. Even though we were doing perfectly legal things, what our constitution said we could do. But yet there was that element of fear that they could come for us at any time. That’s really how we lived.
But in the conservative core of the town, among the sons and daughters of the fishermen, the call for honor and duty was answered.
Amero: I was in high school during the ’60s, and we knew that our neighborhood friends, once graduated from Gloucester High, were going to Vietnam.
Lucia Amero was born and raised in Gloucester. At Good Harbor Beach, we sit on a dune on a cold, windy April day.
Amero: Close friends, friends you grew up with, next-door neighbors. It just seemed as though neighborhoods were clearing out of all these young guys that we played with, played basketball with, played kick-the-can in the middle of granite street with.
Eleven Gloucester families lost men in Vietnam. Lucia knew ten of them. Sammy Piscatello lived two doors down. And Frank D’amico. And her best friend, Matty Amiro.
Amero: He went into the army, and he didn’t come back.
As 1968 came, and the protests built, Lucia watched. And stayed away.
Amero: I was never a supporter of the war. And I never objected to the war. My stand was to support my brother, to support my cousin. We were brought up at home doing dishes in the kitchen, singing Kate Smith, “God Bless America,” flag waving. My mother would have never thought to keep her son home from Vietnam.
She had friends who demonstrated; friends who went to Canada. But Lucia, who now works with veterans for the city of Gloucester, also recalls how some people reacted to the men who did come home: men like her brother Anthony and her cousin Ricky, who were now ridiculed for wearing their uniforms.
Amero: And to hear people calling them baby killers and hear that on the news; it was very, very difficult, because that was my brother, that was Ricky. They were young guys, and they were family, and I love them, and how could they be doing this to them?
But if the excesses of the anti-war movement turned so many people off, so did the response.
In May, 1970, blood spilled on a college campus in middle America.
Student: People started throwing rocks, and then they started kneeling. We knew they were going to shoot. So we started running.
Student 2: Somebody call for an ambulance? Get another ambulance up here!!! Two more ambulance! There’s people dying up here, get an ambulance up here!!!
The four students shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State in Ohio was, for many, the ultimate sign of the war at home.
Walt Russell: I don’t know why they had live ammunition.
Colonel Walt Russell and his wife Nancy had long been part of the silent majority. But, sitting poolside on a visit with the grandkids in Phoenix, they recall their anguish, watching the country come apart.
Nancy Russell: When those four kids got killed was out of line and inexcusable and it really tore my heart out.
In 1965, Colonel Russell was shot in the head in Vietnam, while on a helicopter mission. He lost part of his brain – and the use of the left side of his body – and spent years in rehab, with Mrs. Russell and his kids at his side. Then he won a seat in the Georgia House. As national disillusionment deepened, and the release of the Pentagon Papers revealed official lies the government had long been telling about Vietnam, the colonel introduced a resolution urging the US to get out of Vietnam. Walt Russell, West Point grad, decorated veteran of Korea and Vietnam, and a man who had little time for protesters, was fed up.
Walt Russell: My feeling was that the internal fight about Vietnam was doing internal damage to the country. It said, “win or withdraw.”
Nancy Russell kept her silence. She resented the kids who avoided service; hated Jane Fonda for going to Hanoi. But she and Colonel Russell, raised in the time of the Good War in Europe, came to believe that Vietnam was not the kind of war their country should fight. Like so many other Americans, Walt and Nancy Russell grew exhausted with war.
Nancy Russell: I was against the war from the get-go. And of course, when Walt got shot, that didn’t make me feel better. I felt my feelings and somebody’s got to get this war over pretty fast.
Fifty-eight thousand deaths were a lot. That little naked girl coming down the road. Horrible pictures, but all that was part of it. Americans don’t think for themselves as doing that. But we did it. It’s so bizarre. Not funny.
I’m Sandy Tolan for NPR news and American RadioWorks.
MICHAEL BARONOWSKI WAS A 19-YEAR-OLD MARINE when he landed in Vietnam in 1966. He brought with him a reel-to-reel tape recorder and used it to record audio letters for his family back in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He was killed in action in 1967. Baronowski’s tapes were discovered in 1997. Baronowski’s friend and fellow platoon-member Tim Duffie discovered the tapes and sent them to Lost & Found Sound and NPR.
Tim Duffie in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in March, 2000: Every death is a tragedy and I don’t buy into any given death was more tragic than the others. OK? But in, in this, of all the 58,000 tragedies, this was one that’s very close to me.
(Young Vietnamese girl singing from tapes)
Mike Baronowski in Vietnam ’66: (sending a letter home to his parents) I don’t know where to begin. There’s so much to tell you about. We’ve been real lucky with the rain so far. It’s rained only about four of the days we’ve been here. And the rest of the time, we’ve been busy every hour, every minute, with setting in and digging in, preparing fields of fire, clearing fields of fire, patrolling, ambushing, standing 50 percent, security at night. Stringing up barbed wire, trip flares and other goodies.
The terrain is majestic. It’s like something out of “Heidi.” The view is magnificent. And just as sinister as it is magnificent. Sinister because this is the perfect terrain, the perfect country for mortar attacks and the VC have made use of it.
Tim: My name is Tim Duffie. At the time I was in Vietnam, I was Corporal, Corporal Tim Duffie, United States Marine Corps, 2199108. Mike at the time, ah, was a Lance Corporal, when we were together in October and November of 1966.
Mike in Vietnam 66: Here’s another man you’ll get to know through the tapes here, if I’m able to hang on to the recorder: Mr. Tim Duffie.
Tim in Vietnam 66: I got to know Mike back in Okinawa. He introduced himself one night.
Tim in 2000: We met in Okinawa in September of 1966. Then we took the USS Iwo Jima from Okinawa down to Vietnam. Then we moved up to what was called Payable Hill, which was located between the rockpile and the razorback, approximately 4 – 5,000 yards of the demilitarized zone in Quongtri Province.
Mike: I have the recorder here, and I’m going to try to keep it elevated off the ground and away from everything here. I’m going to try to keep it up in the air because everything I touch here eats through my skin or bites me, or rots, something. This is, this is something else. The grass will cut you. The mud will rot your skin. This is something else.
Tim: We were in my bunker. And what we would do was during the day, you had some free time if you were not on patrol or on operation, or whatever. So if Mike happened to have his free time while I’m on hole watch, he would come down with his tape recorder and we would tape while I’m on, you know, on hole watch.
Mike: This is the 35-watt voice of Station MOXE, broadcasting to you from the swamps, jungles, boondocks, and infected salad of Fort McCourt, home of the fighting first platoon of Hungry I Company.
Tim: I remember that, taping that comedy session. And we did it in my fighting hole. And I can see him sitting there, doing that, that tape.
Mike: This portion of our programming is brought to you by Twenty-Round-Burst, the candy bar voted best tax waste of the war.
(Harmonica – Marine Corps Hymn)
Tim: Mike had made me go out and buy a harmonica. And he taught — he gave me one lesson, on how to hold my tongue and play one note at a time. But he knew he wanted background music for all this crazy crap, so he made me learn how to “play” the harmonica. And that’s me in the background with the Marine Corps Hymn.
Mike: (harmonica continues) Don’t be one of those unfortunates who suffer tragically from that malady sometimes referred to Viet Cong yellow striped fever. Stupe, stupe, stupefy your friends and maim your enemies, exercise your God-given right to kill or maim at a distance. It’s a great feeling to know that you can wipe out your entire neighborhood. Yes, be the first kid on your block to rule the world. See your Marine Corps recruiter today.
Tim: I really think Mike and I were just such kindred spirits. Ironically, I don’t ever remember us sitting around talking about the potential that one of us would die. You know, we just weren’t sitting there waiting to die.
Mike: I just don’t know what to say. I’m at a total loss for words here. I’m looking out of our window now, a hole in the sandbag wall in the back of the hooch. I’m looking out toward the east, out toward home. A long way from home. Actually, I guess home is closer straight down. It will be great to hear your voices again. I can’t wait to get a tape. Make sure the, that when you send a tape… (fade under)
Dad: Just sitting here listening to your tapes while we had breakfast. Terry, Mom, Cookie and myself came up from Scranton. Sandy was working.
Mom: Hi Mike, trying to straighten up and get ready for Thanksgiving. I’m starting to get Daddy’s lunch or dinner ready, he eats at 12 o’clock.
Terry: Yesterday Mom took me to see Mary Poppins and that was a really good movie and I enjoyed it very much. Take care of yourself and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do as everyone in school says. Bye. Terry.
Cookie: Hi Mike, it’s Cookie. I came in to say a few words. Hello. To brighten your day. so, I’ll see you Mike.
Sandy: I appreciate you sending the money, Mike, but it doesn’t seem right for me to spend your money so I opened an account to put the money in for you when you get home. I wish you could be home for Christmas. That would be the greatest thing in the world.
Mike:: Everybody’s anxious to get home and get back to their families and their girls. But while we’re over here we’re not wasting away thinking about it. We’re glad and proud. This where I belong, I think, more, more so than anyplace else.
Tim: These tapes, I assumed these tapes were long gone. I had never even considered the possibility they’d still be around. But then I met Cookie in ’97 . And I couldn’t believe that she had those tapes. I personally think that what he did with the tape recorder was practice. I think it would have been his portfolio when he came home. he was going in radio when he came home. And he was just going to take that around and play it, and say, see, this is what I can do.
Mike: The rest of the tape here on this side are sounds as I recorded them when they called 100-percent alert, which is pretty rare.
Tim: The attack was officially, I guess, referred to as a probe. So what the NVA were doing is they were looking for a weakness. And that whole battle was taking place 30 yards from Mike and I.
Mike: [whispering] Now the word’s been passed to fix bayonets. The Sarge just came running by, saying let me go get my bayonets. I can get him on this. This started to be a fun tape. I don’t – it’s getting too much like a 12-cent combat comic book now.
[Artillery in background]
Man: Hey Carter? How many of you over there? Three of you? Three of you in that hole? OK. [explosions]
Mike: There’s all kinds of garbage going on. We don’t know whether it’s outgoing or incoming. No word’s passed down like that. The illumination is being kept up. Every once in a while a 60 millimeter mortar mission is called out to our left front, holding on out there. Some of this looks like a nine acre Christmas tree fire. Low peter, high explosive. You can hear the illumination being kept up there. [Boom] Those were heat rounds, high explosives. It’s dark now. We’re waiting for the illumination to go off. There goes the illumination. [laughs] That’s the heaviest thing, a heavy feeling, sitting here in the dark with all that stuff going on.
Sounds of the Enchanted Forest. [boom, boom, etc.] [machine gun fire]
There they go. Jesus! Whoa, that was too close [boom] Air strike [boom, boom, boom] They wiped napalm all over that place. Look at that. [big boom] [singing] You’re in the Pepsi generation.
Tim: I don’t see any, any indication of fear in his voice. But we didn’t know but what we were going to have to grab our rifles and M-14s or hand grenades and have at it. Because if they’d have broken through that point, then we were going to be in an all out hand-to-hand combat. And that very potential; there was no way I could have stood there and did what he did.
Mike: Now it’s dark and quiet. Everything’s been quiet for about 15 minutes now. I was just crouching down in the hole there talking to a hand grenade. I thought it was the microphone, and I realized what I was doing. And the rain is just on time. Now it will rain the rest of the night.
[rain sound fades]
Tim: My memories of how Mike died are: he was walking point, and I was in, in a squad, I was carrying a radio and I was probably five or six people back. And we were moving alongside of a Vietnamese village. And the village was deserted. I heard one shot which we knew was not an M-14. We knew it wasn’t one of ours. And then two more shots, and basically that was the end of it, and somebody shouted, Mike was down. And I ran up through the fence row and I saw Mike laying off to the side on the ground. I moved up beside him and in my memory he was looking at me, and then I had run off and we dealt with the fire-fight. Then they had to set up perimeter security to bring in the medivac helicopters. And so, thinking that Mike was just wounded, I’m sitting under the tree, and I’m kind of smiling to myself. He’s going home now. He’s got the million-dollar wound. And I began to, kind of, in my imagination, I could see myself driving across Interstate 70, driving into Norristown. I pictured a house like I think he would live in. And I pictured myself walking up the sidewalk, and Mike sees me and he comes running out the door, and a big hug, and welcome home, and let’s go to New York City. That was Our Dream.
And periodically I’m looking over my shoulder and I look up, and I see four people, one on each ankle and wrist. Literally, they’ve, they’ve lifted him up like a sack of potatoes, and they’re running across the field, his head was hanging back, bouncing across the, the dirt. And I started to stand up and say, that’s no way to treat a wounded man, and boom, and I knew he wasn’t wounded. I knew he was dead.
[Helicopter Sound – Young girl singing in Vietnamese]
Tim: If you were to take me back to the beginning of it and say, OK, now here’s how it’s going to end, are you sure you want to do this, if I knew, I think I’d still have to say, yeah, I want to do it again. It’s not the war, it’s not the cause, it’s not Vietnam, it’s just the, the kind of love that you get in such a short intense period of time.
Tim: And I think I can go to his grave now. I’ve never done it, and take a copy of the tape and just kind of dig a little hole there and maybe we’ll put one of the, a copy of the broadcast there for him. I don’t know. But I think it’s – I’m going to have to go tell him that it, that it worked. That he’s been on the radio. He made it.
Mike: (Walking in the darkness) Well, that’s my hooch, but what I usually do is to stumble and if I can find my way through the darkness, I come down here and talk to one of the men that’s standing on watch here on the hill. [footsteps] This is one of my ARVN friends down here. His name is Nyen. He’s sitting here with his eyes half closed. The poor guy’s been on watch. How are you doing, Nyen?
Mike: Yeah, fine. You look like you’re about to fall over. He’s just sitting here on the sand bags. Right up on top. He doesn’t care who’s out there. Too tired to care about anything. [Vietnamese]
Mike: [Vietnamese] means “maybe rain”? And he doesn’t think so. I don’t think so either. There are a billion stars visible tonight. Beautiful. No smog or city smoke to cloud up the atmosphere. Almost every night it’s clear, and now more and more nights aren’t clear because the monsoon is fast coming. But those nights that are clear, almost every star that’s visible with the human eye, I guess, is visible. It’s a beautiful sight. The Milky Way and all the constellations. Of course they’re a little bit different because we’re on the other side of the planet looking at them from some weird cockeyed angle, I don’t know. Hey, I’ve got some news for you. I made Meritorious Lance Corporal today. How about that? Proud of me? Wow. Did you see that shooting star, Nyen? Did you see that? Whoosh. There was a big shooting star just now. And [boom]. That was mortars. This is so much easier than writing. I can do it in the dark, of course, which is nice, except that this damn red blinker here is liable to get me zapped. So I’ve got my hand over it. I’m not quite as awake as I should be when I try to tape. But like I said, another better one is on the way, I promise. I just wanted to get this one off to you, while I can, so that you’ll have it, and know that I’m thinking about you. I think about all of you and miss you so much. Every day. You just don’t have any idea, Mom and Dad, Cookie, Sandy and Terry, how good it was to hear your voices again. It was really wonderful. That’s all I can say. What else can I say? It was really great to hear you all again.