Published November 5, 2019
Vignettes from Vietnam: A personal account by a ‘Remington Raider’
By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin
I had lots of stories when I returned home from Vietnam.
The problem: Nobody wanted to hear them. America was tired of war.
It’s not that I have any personal stories of heroism or trauma. I wasn’t among the valiant young men fighting in the jungles or piloting the helicopters.
I was a draftee based safely at Army headquarters in Long Binh as a combat correspondent. That sounds scary, but the job was light on combat and heavy on public relations.
I was what the “grunts” in the field called a “Remington Raider,” a soldier who fought from behind a typewriter.
Every month, however, I was required to go into the field on a story. I traveled as far north as Khe Sanh and the DMZ and as far south as the Mekong Delta.
You didn’t ask for them, but in honor of Veterans Day, here are some Vietnam vignettes. My own stories don’t do justice to the bravery and sacrifices of others or the almost 60,000 Americans who died in the war, but the stories have been gnawing to get out of me for almost 50 years.
EVERYDAY HEROES: Helicopter pilots in Pleiku formed what the Army euphemistically called Pink Teams, but everybody else called Hunt and Kill Teams.
Each team consisted of a small scout helicopter and an attack helicopter. The scout helicopter would fly along treetops looking for the enemy, almost daring them to fire. The attack helicopter would stay in the distance until the enemy was spotted or opened fire on the smaller helicopter. The attack helicopter would then swoop in and unload on the enemy.
I was always amazed at the bravery of the young men in the scout planes. They were sitting ducks but treated each dangerous day like they were working a normal job stateside.
I was there one afternoon for a ceremony for a pilot who had been killed. The crews that night had dinner, watched a movie and went to bed. The next morning, they were back in the sky. Just another day at the office.
TO THE RESCUE: There was one helicopter pilot I never met, but only heard his voice. I was in a communications bunker on a firebase listening to pleas for help over the radio from South Vietnamese soldiers. They were on a mountain top surrounded by North Vietnamese and running out of ammunition.
South Vietnamese helicopter pilots claimed it was too dangerous for a resupply mission. After a few cuss words, an American pilot volunteered. He flew through heavy enemy fire and safely delivered the needed ammo.
PACIFICATION: Not all battles were on the battlefield. I visited a small army depot in Binh Dinh Province. The American in charge had been complaining that each night the depot would draw harassing enemy fire from the village across the road.
He said the villagers were friendly enough during daylight, but, out of fear, they would let North Vietnamese or Viet Cong soldiers into the village at night.
The village had another problem. Located on a river, it flooded during monsoon season. The American depot commander called in a pacification team that built levees to harness the river. The attacks from the village stopped immediately.
THE POW: John Sexton spent two years in captivity before he walked out of the jungles in 1971. After his debriefing, the Army assigned me to interview him in a secure room at the hospital on Long Binh.
According to Sexton, his platoon ran into a battalion of North Vietnamese. He was injured and played dead. A hand grenade landed near him, and he was captured when he cried out in pain.
He was kept in a bamboo cage for about a year. He escaped briefly, was recaptured and finally released. He was awarded the Silver Star.
THE GENERAL: I interviewed Gen. William Westmoreland in a nice villa in Da Nang. He had been commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam for much of the war, but was Army chief of staff when I interviewed him. The interview was unremarkable. A Specialist 4 doesn’t ask the Army chief of staff tough questions.
Westmoreland sat in front of a bar with shelves full of liquor. My photographer snapped pictures. I could see the general’s aide was uncomfortable with the background. Sure enough, as we left, the aide asked my photographer for his film. He didn’t want the troops seeing the general with all that booze.
I was what was called “short” at the time of the interview. In other words, I didn’t have much time left to serve in Vietnam if everything went smoothly. The aide got the film back.
CLASSIFIED: My boss asked me to deliver a document to the other side of the base. It was marked “Confidential.” I couldn’t resist peeking. It was a Washington Post article previewing football’s Game of the Century between Oklahoma and Nebraska. I am sure glad the North Vietnamese didn’t get their hands on that.
CLASS ACT: I spent a week helping CBS correspondent Bob Simon on a story. One night we ended up on a base where the commanding officer invited Simon to dine at the officers’ club.
Being an enlisted man, I wasn’t allowed in. When Simon found out, he turned down the officer’s invitation and joined me for dinner in the club for enlisted men.
Simon, of course, went on to become a regular on 60 Minutes. He died in a Manhattan car accident in 2015.
THE DRAFT: The first time I ever saw my dad cry was when he took me to the airport for my journey to Vietnam.
As a college student, I had argued against the draft and the war. My dad, a World War II veteran, had supported the war.
I must admit I wonder how many recent conflicts would have been avoided if all parents knew that their son or daughter may be sent off to war.
FINAL THOUGHT: On Veterans Day, fly your flag and thank any veterans you may know. And take the time to listen to their stories; it may do both of you some good.
(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at email@example.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)