6:31 | After being drafted in 1962, Tal Centers became an artillery surveyor, responsible for siting batteries and establishing ground coordinates. A three year posting to Cold War Europe gave way to the inevitable when he received orders for Vietnam.
Keywords : Tal Centers Kentucky Fort Leonard Wood Missouri artillery surveyor math Fort Benning Airborne Jump School Europe USNS General Maurice Rose (T-AP-126) Wurzburg Germany Kitzengen Germany Vietnam Fort Sill Artillery Board of Research and Development
The smell hit him as soon as he stepped off the plane in Saigon. A nauseating smell that never went away, the smell of Vietnam. Tal Centers was trained as an artillery surveyor and once he got in country, he was attached to the 1st Cavalry Air Mobile Division. The first job? Set up base camp at An Khe.
He began as an artillery surveyor, but the rotation system in Vietnam meant that Tal Centers moved from job to job, all of them meant for someone with a higher rank. Eventually, he became a forward observer, one of the most dangerous jobs in any war.
Not long after arriving in Vietnam, Tal Centers was attached to the 5th Special Forces Group as a forward observer. They had to venture into Cambodia to retrieve the bodies of some men who had been captured and mutilated, a sight he could not forget.
As a forward observer, Tal Centers would sometimes go up in a small helicopter for aerial spotting. On one such mission, a high caliber round from an enemy machine gun brought down the aircraft. He saw red, then he went unconscious.
When he wasn't busy on a mission or building something at base camp, Tal Centers would volunteer as a door gunner on a Huey. Normally, he was a forward observer and he directed fire in an incident depicted in the movie "We Were Soldiers." He usually worked with a radio operator and he remembers one who didn't make it back.
During his time in Vietnam, attached to the 1st Cavalry, artillery surveyor and forward observer Tal Centers was engaged all over the length and breadth of the country, always moving by air. His good artillery spotting earned him a Bronze Star, but here he recalls a funny incident that happened back at base camp.
It was regrettable, but villages were leveled by his artillery rounds. Tal Centers knew that civilians were killed, but he also knew that the enemy looked the same as the innocents. That was the way it was in Vietnam. After being attached to the 1st Cavalry Air Mobile Division for a year, he returned to the same desk at Fort Sill he'd been using before the tour.
Willard Womack was a pilot in the Army but everyone in the Army has other duties and his was supply. As supply officer, he had a first row seat to the spectacle of Army bureaucracy and reveals how the last scene of Indiana Jones just might be true, that there are stacks of things around the world lost in paperwork. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
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.
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.)
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.
Army pilot Willard Womack's job was to support a helicopter company in his spotter plane, usually from above the action. He tells how he came to be just 300 feet off the ground the only time he took a round in the plane. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
Sailing from Okinawa to Vietnam on an LST was miserable for Willard Womack, thanks to the bobbing of the landing craft on the waves and the diesel exhaust in his air vent. Once in country, he was surprised how behind the times everything was. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
As Marine Captain Ron Christmas fought to regain the city of Hue, he found the enemy adept at concealment and surprise. Every soldier in a spider hole was armed with a rifle and a RPG launcher. He also encountered a nun with an AK-47. His action during this time earned him the Navy Cross.
He'd always wanted to fly, so when Don Chapman found out that the Navy would accept cadets with two years of college, he left engineering school in his third year and enlisted. He made his way through flight schools and aircraft until he was flying the fast jet fighters.
After flight school, Willard Womack was sent to a tiny detachment with no planes. It's purpose was to set up and run combat air fields. The unit was sent to Okinawa to run an airfield there where a helicopter company was based. That company went off on a training mission to the Philippines and didn't come back. Womack and his unit soon followed to a place most had never heard of, Vietnam. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
It was all business aboard the USS Constellation in the Gulf of Tonkin, with around the clock operations. F-4 pilot Don Chapman was also the scheduling officer and he was always looking for a little sleep. At least the accommodations were luxurious compared to the bush.
After receiving his pilot's license through Army ROTC, Willard Womack was committed to Army flight school. There he met an instructor who reminded him of someone and he made it the top of his class. Flying came naturally to him, it seemed. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
Navy F-4 pilot Don Chapman had to stand two hour watches in his cockpit, waiting for word to go when needed. When he was in action, the rules of engagement really grated on him and, from his experience, hindered the progress of the war.
Wherever there are weapons, there is always the potential for accidents. Army pilot Willard Womack recalls several times when carelessness caused trouble during his tour in Vietnam. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
Navy F-4 pilot Don Chapman explains why medals are a sore subject with him. What were they worth when you were encouraged to write yourself up to receive them? He does have a warm appreciation for the Navy, which taught him the skills to make a good living after his service.
There was not much for Willard Womack to do at the Soc Trang air field early in the war. He flew small observation planes to support a helicopter unit and he was the supply officer. The unit had an exotic pet, which supplied some laughs, and there were nightly movies. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
Navy F-4 pilot Don Chapman was carrier based in the Gulf of Tonkin. His missions were all carried out over North Vietnam. Photo escort was his favorite mission because you could fly really fast. He saw a lot of tracers, but was never hit. He never got one of those MIG's he chased, either.
The plane was a Cessna Bird Dog and Willard Womack flew it in support of a helicopter company, frequently on evacuation missions. The troops were all Vietnamese, and when the unit's flight surgeon found out what their doctors were actually doing at the evacuation hospital, they stopped flying the rescue missions for them. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
Army pilot Willard Womack explains how his Air Medals are no big deal because they were automatic with the number of combat missions flown. And in a guerrilla war like Vietnam, every flight was a combat mission. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
The USS Constellation carried an entire air wing with fighters, attack aircraft and all the support aircraft needed to carry out missions over North Vietnam. F-4 pilot Don Chapman describes the action when one of his fellow pilots was shot down right at the waters edge and nearby villagers came out shooting.
It was all advisors when Willard Womack went to Vietnam. The Army pilot was part of the early effort to help the South resist the insurgency. The rules for the advisors were very stringent and often stymied the progress of the war. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
In Vietnam, Army pilot Willard Womack visited Saigon several times, usually because he was ferrying someone around but he had a few occasions to get out and see the place. He remembers a wild ride in a pedicab in the chaotic traffic. This was way more exciting than his duty, which was mostly ferrying people around in a Cessna. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)