4:44 | It was a turbulent time to come of age in the 1960's. Rollie Sterrett majored in political science because of all the history unfolding around him and he was attracted to the military because he craved adventure.
Keywords : Harold Rollie Sterrett Wilkes-Barre PA North Haven CT USS Nevada (BB-36) Colgate University Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC)
Rollie Sterrett was vaguely aware of the war in Vietnam, which was really just beginning. At the Air Intelligence Training Center, he learned photo interpretation using photos from the Cuban missile crisis. Upon graduation, the entire class was informed they were all going to Vietnam
When Rollie Sterrett got to Vietnam, he initially had to squeeze with seven others into a Saigon hotel room while they waited for assignment. He was assigned to the Directorate of Targets at 7th Air Force HQ, where he learned the intricate inter-service politics at play in the air war. He also soon shared the frustration with the micro-management of the war coming from the White House.
The air war over Vietnam was highly politicized. President Johnson was concerned that China could enter the war, the way they did in Korea. This led to every target requiring approval from the White House itself. Air Force intelligence officer Rollie Sterrett says this led to missed opportunities to easily destroy enemy capabilities.
Bomb damage assessments were important to the generals guiding the war in Vietnam. Photo interpreter Rollie Sterrett was trained to determine if targets had been destroyed and this led to his assignment as the 7th Air Force briefing officer to Gen. William Westmoreland, who was in command of all forces in Vietnam. The other briefers were flag officers, but he was just a lowly 2nd Lieutenant.
Each service was responsible for a certain part of the air war in Vietnam and the inter-service politics caused a lot of stress, recalls Air Force intelligence officer Rollie Sterrett. He was the Air Force's briefing officer for Gen. William Westmoreland's daily briefings. The famous general and the young lieutenant took a liking to each other.
As a young lieutenant, Rollie Sterrett's assignment put him in daily contact with Gen. William Westmoreland. He was overwhelmed by the man, at first, but a friendly, respectful relationship grew over time. He observed that the general was hampered by the extreme political restraints of the war and that he was undeserving of his treatment by the US news media.
If an air unit failed to take out the target in a strike over North Vietnam, the same unit was obligated to return and finish the job. Rollie Sterrett was only a Lieutenant as he elbowed his way through pilots, who were colonels, to get to a table full of photographs. He was a photo interpreter and Gen. Wesmoreland's briefing officer. They gave way. (Warning: strong language.)
The rules of engagement in Vietnam were frustrating, and the fact that it took 36 hours to get a target approved by the White House and precious few of them were approved, meant that we were fighting the war with our arms tied. That is the observation of Rollie Sterrett, who was there trying to get targets approved.
Air Force photo interpreter and briefing officer Rollie Sterrett was fortunate to not experience any of the disrespect that many returning veterans had to face. He attributes this to going straight to an intense military environment right away, Strategic Air Command headquarters.
After his Vietnam tour, Air Force photo interpreter Rollie Sterrett was transferred to the Strategic Air Command and assigned to the photo reconnaissance wing. He soon caught the eye of the new SAC commander and became the daily briefing officer for SAC with an emphasis on B-52 operations in Vietnam.
During his time at the Strategic Air Command, Rollie Sterrett had to give private briefings to a Navy Admiral who wasn't allowed in the general briefings due to arcane inter-service politics. The first question from the admiral forced Rollie to make a delicate choice, but he chose well.
At the time, Rollie Sterrett thought you had to be a pilot to advance in his specialty in the Air Force intelligence community. That turned out not to be the case, but he had no regrets leaving the service for a successful private life.
Rollie Sterrett describes the daily life in the Strategic Air Command's underground command facility. His job started at midnight, preparing the morning briefing for all strategic matters worldwide.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.