Steve A. (who asked his last name not be used) owns a paving company in New Jersey. Below is the story he told to the Editor of East Coast Stories about his time as a U.S. soldier in the Vietnam War.
Day Zero – The plane ride to the war.
It was not like today’s Army. Despite multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, the American Army of today is a professional fighting force with good morale composed of volunteers.
That was not us. Many years ago I was on a transport plane which was taking a lot of other soldiers like me to the war in Vietnam. None of us wanted to be there. We had all been drafted into an Army we did not want to be in and were heading to a war we did not want to fight. By that point the war had been going on for a very long time and there seemed to be no end in site. You can’t imagine how bad morale was in the Army at that time. In addition to the tension of the war, there were a lot of racial problems in the Army. There was no feeling of togetherness at all. The only feeling anyone had was how do I get out of this alive.
The only people on the plane who were volunteers were the officers, but they did not look like they wanted to be there any more than the rest of us. I was sitting in the front row. On one side of me was a baby-faced Lieutenant fresh out of ROTC, who was a few years younger than me. On the other side was a skinny Private with glasses who looked like he should be checking books behind the counter of your local library.
About an hour before we landed the sniper rumor started. The rumor was that the V.C. had stationed an expert sniper in the jungle near the airstrip where we were to land. In order to crush U.S. spirit, the sniper would kill the first man who stepped off each troop plane that landed at the airbase.
All these years later I can look back and realize what an idiotic rumor it was. The Army would not let a sniper just continue to pick off the first soldier from plane after plane. And if that ever did happen it would have been on every T.V. station and in every newspaper in America.
On the plane ride, however, the sniper rumor got stronger and stronger and we really came to believe it. Some psychologist would have a field day calling it a case of mass hysteria. The officers should have put a stop to it but they just sat there and said nothing as the troops got themselves into a panic. Oh, that is something else I should mention about the Army officers then versus today’s professional army. When I was in the Army a lot of our officers were really really bad.
So by the time the plane landed, every man on the plane (including the officers) was convinced that the first man to step off the plane would be killed by a V.C. sniper. The plane rolled to a stop and the ground crew opened the door. Bright sunlight and heat poured into the plane. None of us moved.
The entire planeload of men just sat there in complete silence and no one got up.
At least 5 minutes passed and no one budged or spoke. Then the silence was broken when a huge Sergeant stepped in from the outside and yelled, “What the Hell is going on! Why the Hell didn’t anyone get off the plane?”
The librarian Private next to me spoke up in a squeaky voice and explained that we were all told that a sniper would kill the first man off the plane.
The Sergeant laughed loudly and said. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard! The first man is not going to get shot. Watch!”
And with that, the Sergeant took his massive arms and grabbed the baby-faced ROTC Lieutenant sitting next to me. The Sergeant picked up the Lieutenant and threw him out the door of the plane. There was no gunshot. The Lieutenant was bruised and embarrassed, but no sniper killed him.
With that we all stood up and I stepped out into the blinding sunlight to begin my war.
I learned three things that day that I would keep repeating to myself during my time in Vietnam. The first was not to believe every idiotic rumor. The second was that Sergeants are the ones who actually run the Army. The the third and most important thing, was that I might actually survive the war.
Editors note: This is the first of a 4 part series about Steve’s time in Vietnam.