5:48 | Bruce D'Agostino's most vivid memory of Vietnam is leaving. Instead of waiting on a commercial flight, he hopped a military plane to his home base in Japan. Climbing aboard in darkness, he was startled when the lights came on and revealed the plane's cargo. His life was changed during that flight.
Told he was at the top of the list to be drafted, Bruce D'Agostino enlisted in the Air Force to get some electronics training. Based in Japan with a communications squadron, he sought an assignment in Vietnam because he didn't feel right sitting there while a war was going on. He was already a crack shot, thanks to a Marine sniper.
Bruce D'Agostino took a temporary duty assignment in Saigon repairing teletype machines. The Air Force technician and his crew worked long days so they could have some free time. He used his to become a photographer, inserting himself into both government functions and battlefields. At the latter he learned firsthand the vagaries of the rules of engagement.
Bruce D'Agostino had many contacts with civilians in Vietnam, but was wary of anyone he didn't know well. You never knew who could be the enemy. Warned to watch out for unwitting children carrying possible booby traps, he found himself in exactly that situation when a little boy ran up with something in his hand.
His uncle was a veteran, so Bruce D'Agostino corresponded with him while in Vietnam, feeling he would understand what he was going through. The disgust began to build as he witnessed the nonchalant treatment of the remains of dead soldiers and read the ridiculous undercounts of casualties by the top brass. His top secret clearance gave him access to material which convinced him that they had no intention of winning the war.
Mentioning that he served in Vietnam would clear the area around him in a bar, remembers Bruce D'Agostino. The World War II vets weren't much better, and told him that Vietnam wasn't a real war. Korean War vets were more understanding, but no one, not even his father, wanted to talk about Vietnam.
Bruce D'Agostino did well in business following his service in Vietnam. One thing he didn't do was have much contact with fellow veterans, but that changed in 1987 when he met a POW/MIA activist at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He began loosening red tape, and eventually made back channel contact with the Vietnamese government.
It was difficult readjusting to civilian life after being in a war zone, says Bruce D'Agostino. No one knows what you went through over there. He reflects on his growing involvement in veterans' issues and points out that the Vietnam war had a very high volunteer rate, men who felt that they couldn't do less than their fathers and uncles did.
He considered it a day at the office, but on that day, helicopter pilot Roger Cox helped save an infantry platoon's bacon, landed in the middle of a fire fight in an attempted rescue, exhausted all his ammo trying to keep the men on the ground safe, and got shot down just for good measure.
It was the first large scale B-52 strike over North Vietnam and F-4 Pilot Carl Scheidegg was flying one of the hundreds of planes assembling in the night sky. There were terrific storms and little visibility as he searched for the tanker at the rendezvous. Suddenly it appeared out of the clouds coming straight for him on a collision course.
The river boats were patrolling in narrow canals and rivers, searching for infiltrating NVA troops. Galen Hoover was in the second boat, trailing a boat that was supposed to be mine sweeping. That was the last thing he remembered about that day.
Normally, a door gunner would not fly his last month in country, but Steve Long finagled his way into the air. In his other job in the avionics shop, he had a run-in with the new officer in charge. He got a little satisfaction the night after he got his orders home.
Tony Coalson's helicopter unit flew all of II Corps, a fourth of the entire country, unlike dedicated combat units, which only flew in their little slice of Vietnam. He recalls his first combat related mission, in which he delivered an assessment team right in the middle of one of the biggest battles of the war. Part 1 of 2.
When Galen Hoover woke up in a hospital with a bandaged head and a broken hand, he had no idea what happened or how he got there. The guys from his unit came to see him and he finally heard the tale of that fateful patrol on the canal that day.
The day Jack Jeter was wounded was the third day of serious firefights. His commanding officer, Captain Barry McCaffrey, was wounded on the first day and the temporary replacement had his own ideas about how to proceed. That led the unit right into big trouble. Part 1 of 3. (Caution: strong language.)
When helicopter pilot Tony Coalson was on the ground during the Battle of Dak To, he was astounded at the numbers of American dead. Some of the casualties were from a terrible friendly fire incident. He remembers watching a C-130 full of wounded men just barely survive takeoff. When he returned to his base, he had a solemn observation for his roommate. Part 2 of 2.
Living full time with his Vietnamese crew meant that Galen Hoover ate what they ate. His first night on the river, they served him a dish that was so good, he requested it regularly, even after he found out what it was. The crew knew he was really green, so the boat captain thought he would mess with the new advisor a little.
The bullet barely missed wrecking his knee. Jack Jeter was in for some hospital time before he could go home. Once he did, he was amazed at the blase attitude of his friends about Vietnam. Part 3 of 3. (Caution: strong language.)
His tour of duty was a real tour. F-4 pilot Carl Scheidegg spent time at many different air bases in Vietnam and Thailand. When he had a chance to go to China Beach and saw the perfect sand, he had a vision of the future. The Vietnamese had a lovely country and he will never forget the civilian he met who told him what the people in the South were fighting for.
Vietnamization was underway and, soon, Galen Hoover was sleeping away the long flight home. He landed in San Francisco and was glad to be back in the States, but as he left the plane, here came the peace protestors. What happened next haunts him still.
Carl Scheidegg would watch the MiGs take off at Yen Bai, but he wasn't allowed to attack the base. He had to wait until they came up and challenged him. This was just one of the frustrating things about Vietnam on his mind, including the fact that we had them beat before we walked away.
Steve Long was on a bus headed to Marine boot camp when he encountered his first DI, barking orders. He thought he was getting a plum job while marching, but road guard turned out to be not so good. He did enjoy meeting recruits from a wide variety of backgrounds, which was new to him.
Coming home from Vietnam was a difficult experience. Jesse Groves was perplexed by the apathy and outright abuse. He suppressed his memories and moved on. Once later wars made service respectable again, and once he began to reconnect with his comrades, he could feel proud of his service.
It started 45 minutes out from Da Nang with a sobering announcement from the pilot. Then there was the oven-like climate, the surprise machine gun fire, the ribbing from the old-timers. Steve Long was definitely in Vietnam.
There was little contact up by the DMZ so the 1st Air Cavalry was moved south near the Cambodian border. Plenty of action there. The first day, Jerry Gast's platoon set off on a 500 meter sweep in front of the perimeter and ran into a trail. The ambitious lieutenant decided they would follow it. Bad idea.
“I was out of it for days,” recalls Dennis Haines, He had a head wound and would only regain full consciousness after he was evacuated to a hospital in Japan, where he learned the left side of his body was paralyzed.
Steve Long was on the ground overnight at An Hoa when the base came under mortar fire. He recalls the selfless action of his hosts there, who protected the visiting Huey crew as best they could. He lost a good friend in another incident, made more tragic by the unusual circumstances.
As the American advisor argued with his Vietnamese counterpart over the radio, Willard Womack, an Army pilot stuck in transit, could hear the frustration mounting. The battle of Ap Bac could not be won with these tactics. Eventually, the evacuation was made and, weeks later, several of the aviators involved hitched a ride to Saigon for a night of carousing. Pt 2 of 3. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
Upon leading the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, Myron Harrington had to help conduct an attack on the citadel in Hue City, Vietnam. This is the story of how he and his men charged the tower, which took longer to accomplish than expected.
Willard Womack gives his account of the Battle of Ap Bac, a significant turning point in the Vietnam War. It begins with him hitching a flight to Saigon to pick up the pay for his outfit. Detoured on his way back to his base, he saw a group of men listening intently to a firefight on a radio. Part 1 of 3. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
Willard Womack was nervously awaiting the news of what happened to the helicopter carrying some of his friends who had just participated in the Battle of Ap Bac, a crucial turning point early in the war. They had come though that unscathed but were now missing. Decades later, he received an email that brought the memories flooding back. Part 3 of 3. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
After the column was devastated by an NVA ambush, wounded Americans were scattered in the darkness. After his captain heard one such group calling for help on the radio, Freddie Owens joined a patrol to find them, guided by a gunshot every few minutes. Once there, medic Daniel Torres volunteered to stay with those who couldn't move and protected them through the night with medicine and a machine gun.
There were 87 men on some high ground surrounded by Viet Cong and Marine helicopter pilot Bill Cunningham had a problem. There was only room for one ship at a time to land in the tiny landing zone they had hacked out of the bush. It would be one at a time so he spiraled down for the first load. Then he felt like a sledgehammer hit his leg.
In a letter home, Tommy Clack expressed his worry that something bad was going to happen and it did when his unit engaged the NVA near the Cambodian border. He saw the enemy soldier stand and fire the RPG that changed his life forever.
They were hunkered down after fierce fighting when the call came from "Ghost 4-6." It was a group of wounded men who had pulled themselves together after the ill fated march to LZ Albany and were lost in the dark. George Forrest sent a patrol to find them, and in an incredible act of bravery, medic Daniel Torres stayed through the night with them and saved many men. Captain Forrest still had to write a gut-wrenching letter to the mother of a missing soldier. Part 3 of 4.
The RPG that severed Joe McDonald’s foot didn’t kill him. The machine gun fire that hit him as he still tried to help others didn’t kill him. The grenade taped to his hand might have killed him if the VC had found his hiding place.