Stories about enemy attacks, Agent Orange’s long-term effects, Amerasian orphans, and shenanigans that could have come from the pages of a “M-A-S-H” script were related at The Vietnam Experience, presented Thursday evening in Webb Hall at Emporia State University.
The program – formerly named the World War II Roundtable – has become the Veterans Roundtable. It is held annually in conjunction with Veterans Tribute activities in Emporia.
The speakers, all Vietnam War veterans, found Webb Hall packed with people waiting to hear their personal stories.
ESU history professor and CWO3 Christopher Lovett, who served in the military police in Vietnam in 1971 and 1972, welcomed the crowd and introduced moderator Capt. Douglas McGaw, who served in Vietnam in 1969. Speakers, and their military ranks, were Sgt. Maj. Larry Gales and Cpl. Russ Estes. Gales served two tours, in 1965-66 and 1968-69; Estes served in 1968-69.
McGaw gave a brief history of Vietnam, from the 1940s beginnings of its rebellion against French colonialization through 1954, when the Vietnamese defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, in what later became North Vietnam.
“(President) Eisenhower allowed some of our advisers to go over there,” McGaw said. “The first of our advisors to die over there did so in 1959.”
President John F. Kennedy sent over 200 Special Forces troops before he was assassinated in 1963, and the war escalated until, at its peak, about 500,000 U.S. troops were involved, McGaw said. The eventual American death toll was approximately 50,000.
Two members of Larry Gales’ Army Reserve unit, the 1011st, were among those killed.
Gales first had gone to Vietnam in August of 1965, after being drafted in 1965. He landed in Cam Ranh Bay, on the South China Sea side of South Vietnam.
Conditions were exceptionally primitive as the Americans protected and developed the area. Equipment, including tents, did not arrive for about a month. Showers – a rarity – were taken en masse, courtesy of a tank truck that hauled in water. Despite using pills in an attempt to purify water, most of the soldiers suffered from dysentery, he said.
The 2 1/2-ton trucks that had been sent over for the military were ineffective in the sands of Cam Ranh Bay.
“Within a week, there wasn’t any of them running. Their transmissions were gone,” he said.
They harvested and processed coral from the ocean to make into usable roads.
Dehydrated foods and C-rations were almost exclusively on the menu for the soldiers.
“Our first real meal was Thanksgiving,” Gales said.
But Gales said he felt relatively safe in Cam Ranh Bay; it was the 40-mile trips taken regularly away from the base that presented the greatest hazard of Viet Cong attacks.
“Fortunately, in the time I was there, we never lost a troop,” Gales said of his first stint.
His close call came when he caught a ride back to base on a C123 “Bladderbird,” an airplane with a 4,000-gallon bladder that held JP-4, a jet propellant fuel made up of 50/50 blended kerosene and gasoline.
“They didn’t tell us that they were training Thai pilots,” Gales said, relating that the fledgling pilot forgot to drop the landing gear on approach. “We bellied-in. … Sparks were flying.”
And when the plane landed, he and a handful of passengers were sitting on a bladder full of JP4.
Guess what …
By the fall of 1966, Gales was back in the U.S., enrolled in ESU, and dating a coed.
“We were talking about getting married, and guess what,” Gales said. “I got a letter.”
Gales, like other soldiers, had a post-discharge service duty to the Army; he chose to join the Reserve unit here, on May 19, 1967.
“Well, guess what,” he continued. “The 11th of April, the day I was supposed to have gotten out, I reported to Fort Benning, Ga.”
His unit had been activated; he returned to South Vietnam.
Around that time, Russ Estes was sent to Vietnam with the Big Red One out of Fort Riley. Estes served eight months and was hospitalized for nine months after he was injured.
He’d first been stationed at Cu Chi, and mentioned the Iron Triangle, Black Virgin Mountain and Thunder Road as names familiar to some of the veterans in the audience.
“We were always filling sandbags,” he said; explosives and bombings regularly blew holes in the protective bags.
Out of the bunkers
Bunkers dug into the ground provided questionable safety.
“We slept on top of bunkers and on the ground. Wolf rats, scorpions, snakes, were in the bunkers,” Estes said. “The only time we’d get in the bunkers was (during) fighting.”
After battles were ended, they would go out to retrieve weapons and take body counts.
Because of the constant threat of ambush, the soldiers slept two hours and took guard duty two hours; a full night’s sleep did not come until he was in the hospital.
“A lot of people don’t realize, you fight at night,” Estes said. “Vietnam belonged to the Americans all day. At night, it belonged to Charlie,” the nickname for the Viet Cong.
He’d been surprised at the incongruity of helping another nation fight a war, while simultaneously paying a third country for damages caused on the vast Vietnam rubber plantations. Many trees were destroyed not only by the fighting, but by the tanks and heavy machinery maneuvered through the plantations.
“They said that every rubber tree that was damaged, we had to pay $200 to the French government,” Estes said.
Christopher Lovett also had been amazed by the damage that had been inflicted not only on the plantations but throughout the countryside.
“It was like flying over the surface of the moon,” Lovett said, describing the bleakness of entire jungles destroyed.
Attitudes toward children
The Americans had to pay, too, if a military vehicle ran over a Vietnamese child: $5,000 for a girl; $25,000 for a boy.
“They weren’t beyond throwing a child out in front of you and collecting the money,” Gales said. “… It happened on at least three different occasions that I know of.”
Gales’ unit, the 1011th, adopted an orphanage filled with Amerasian children. Many of the Vietnamese shunned the children because of their American-soldier fathers.
“They were outcasts over there,” Gales said. “The Buddhist monks took care of them.”
And, Gales said, generous people in Emporia, Independence, and the surrounding areas took care of the children, too. The soldiers’ wives organized drives to supply the orphanages with what they needed.
“They sent seven truckloads of supplies for those orphans,” Gales said.
After the Tet offensive in 1969, “the whole orphanage vanished, and everybody in it,” he said.
Making the best of it
Hardships and hazards aside, Gales brought home some humorous memories of his service.
“I love ‘M-A-S-H,’” he said of the popular TV show. “There’s more truth to that than what you think.”
In particular, Gales enjoyed a show segment revolving around the heist of a side of frozen beef intended for a general but, through deceit, ended up at the MASH unit. Gales had a similar experience.
A Vietnamese driver had shown him a bill of lading for a truckload of frozen lobster and asked if he was in the right place.
“I said, ‘Yes, this is it,’” Gales said, drawing laughter from the audience. “… We ate lobster tails for two or three days. Some general’s probably still looking for it.”
The anecdote apparently piqued a memory; Gales turned somber and talked about Feb. 24, 1969, when two of the 1011th’s troops were killed in an attack. The unit members were drawn from Emporia and Independence, and one soldier from each town was killed.
Unlike his unit from the first tour of duty, remaining members of 1011th have stayed a cohesive unit.
“We’ve had a reunion every two years,” Gales said.
Numbers are dwindling, however, because many of the veterans have become disabled or died of cancers caused by Agent Orange, an exceptionally destructive herbicide used indiscriminately during the war.
Then, the lingering and deadly effects of Agent Orange had not been revealed. The chemical not only was dropped onto square miles of greenery, the barrels it came in were re-used by the military.
Soldiers took showers with water that had been carried in the barrels; some were fashioned into barbecue grill contraptions; soldiers were exposed to Agent Orange from multiple sources.
“We were one of the highest areas of use of Agent Orange in Vietnam,” Gales said, mentioning the comrades who have died or have become sick as a result. “… Vietnam was a long time ago, but there’s still a lot of people hurting from it today.”
The roundtable was sponsored by the ESU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, ESU Department of Social Sciences, and Lyon County Historical Archives and Museum.
Members of the Veterans Roundtable advisory committee are: Christopher Lovett, chairman, and Cleat Buckbee, Aaron Bura, Sally Holliman, Douglas McGaw, Loren Pennington, Jamie Potter, John Sanderson, and George Walters.