Reflections from a Vietnam War Veteran, an essay by Jim Boyd (as read at the Grand Marais Art Colony's 2023 Readers & Writers Festival)Nov 20, 2023 09:05AM ● By Content Editor
Main photo: Jim Boyd. All photos provided by Jim Boyd
By Jim Boyd - November 20, 2023
Editor's note: The following essay forms a piece of Jim's larger writings on the Vietnam War. He prepared this to read at the Grand Marais Art Colony's 2023 Readers & Writers Festival in early November, and offered to share it with readers of Boreal Community Media. This essay reflects Boyd's own experience in the Army and is not intended to offend anyone. He salutes the service of all. If you're interested in reaching out to Jim about this piece, you can email him at: [email protected].
When I left the Army in 1972, I resolved not to be one of those old veterans for whom war service – Vietnam in my case – forms the scaffolding of their identity. And yet here we are …
It’s been 55 years, but still, I can see their faces. There were 50 of them, young men drafted into the Army, gathered at Ft. Lewis, Washington, for basic training, August to October 1968.
I picture them posing for our unit photo, sitting in rows on a riser outside our barracks – a World War II era white, two-story wooden structure with rows of tall windows on each floor.
Dusty olive drab fatigues drape bodies stripped of fat by two months of long days filled with hard physical labor. Some, especially the big guys, wear their helmets with a John Wayne-ish rake. Beside them stands our drill instructor, a big, dour Black man named Sgt. Abner. My eyes are drawn to a small, scrawny, very brown Hispanic boy, still so clearly a boy. His name is Frankie, and he has on his default face-splitting grin. He is so open, so trusting, so lacking in guile, an endearing soul. I think of his mother, surely responsible for building with love and care the good nature her son wears. And now she has handed him over to the United States Army, her precious offering.
For the moment, and ultimately for a lifetime, he was my concern, as were the others. In the photo, I sat at the middle of the front row, wearing ersatz sergeant stripes pinned to my fatigues. I led this crew, assigned to guide them through basic training. I had no clue. I got the job after all the big guys failed. Tallest guy lasted three days, boom, replaced; next tallest, two days, boom; next tallest, a day. Then me, chosen only because a student id in my wallet revealed I already had graduated college while most of the others were just out of high school.
With me in charge, we struggled through the eight weeks of running and pushups, long hikes and being told we were dirty, rotten scumsuckers -- that was the clean version -- as the Army sought to remold our bodies and rewire our brains from individuals who asked why into a collective that responded instantly to any command.
The members of the platoon grew to dislike me with intensity. They saw me as a traitor. But they came also to trust me, as we progressed from much punished worst to celebrated first platoon in our company.
After basic training, Frankie and his mates headed for eight weeks of advanced infantry training, then directly to Vietnam. They would go as 11 bravos, which meant as combat infantry soldiers, ground pounders we called them.
That 11-bravo future was what I sought to avoid by enlisting, which entitled me to sign up for more training, the longer the better. Languages were the longest. I asked for Russian or Chinese and got 47 weeks of Vietnamese. But what the hell, that gave the U.S. another year to find a way out. And ensured I would not go as an 11 bravo.
Nixon and Kissinger failed me, so when the Vietnamese class was over, I signed up for the next longest – six months of training in the art of spying and serving as an agent handler.
Meanwhile, most of my basic training guys were trying hard to survive jungle warfare.
My eventual flight to Vietnam stopped to refuel in Hawaii. There I ran into one of the men from my basic training platoon. He was coming home as I was going. He told me that at least half the members of my platoon, including Sgt. Abner and skinny Frankie, were dead. I don’t recall his explanation for how he knew this, if he had served with them, but his story was convincing. I had nothing to say; the impact of this news overwhelmed speech. I thought of Frankie’s mother and then all the other mothers, and the enormity of their loss. Their sons were beyond suffering; they were not.
By the time I arrived in Vietnam, June of 1970, a month after Kent State, it seemed we might not be winning the “American War,” as the Vietnamese call it.
The rationale for American involvement in Vietnam was to keep the country from serving as a handmaiden for the Maoist Chinese and spreading communism through all of Southeast Asia. That was never going to happen; the Vietnamese hated the Chinese, had for many centuries.
I lived in a small provincial capital called Song Be, north of Saigon about 100 miles, near Cambodia. I worked as an Army case officer/agent handler running a net of aboriginal Montagnard agents along the border and into Cambodia. Montagnard – Mountain dwellers in French – were of Polynesian ancestry, very dark and often very tall. They were seriously oppressed by the Vietnamese, both north and south. They liked Americans.
My ID cards said I was a State Department officer assigned to the local U.S. Agency for International Development team. My real work was collecting and distributing information from my Montagnards.
My uniform was Levis and blue work shirts. My issued weapon was a useless, snub-nosed .38 revolver, the equivalent of throwing rocks. Normally I had a camera bag over my shoulder and frequently was taken for a Life Magazine photographer.
The ag advisor on our USAID team was a Pennsylvanian named Barney. Heck of a nice fellow with an aw-shucks attitude that really did mark him as a farmer.
One rainy, windy afternoon, U. S. Army officers came looking for him. They wanted him to fly to a remote, forward outpost and evaluate a paddy rice they had discovered. They wanted to know when it would ripen, and how much it would produce.
Barney invited me to go along. We flew through gusty wind in a small helicopter that looked for all the world like an overgrown dragonfly. It was a hell of a ride.
When we arrived at the outpost, I stayed behind while Barney went on in the dragonfly to see the paddy rice. I spent my time roaming the outpost. It was, without a doubt, the most miserable, godforsaken place I’ve ever visited. A pig would not have felt comfortable there. The outpost, about a city block, had been bulldozed clean of jungle. It was wall-to-wall deep squishy mud. Most of the guys lived in simple holes that had been dug into the muck, fortified with sandbags. Tarps hung over rudimentary structures made of long tree trunks and branches, supplied some protection from the weather
While I was waiting for Barney to return, a larger helicopter arrived. It carried a couple of senior officers, mail and supplies for the men. The copter also disgorged a guitar player and his amp. The guitar guy set up and started singing tunes of the day as the troops gathered. Ride, Captain, Ride.
It was surreal: These young men in this hot, humid, muddy hellhole in the jungle listening as tunes then popular in the states blasted out of the guitarist’s amp. I asked myself:
Why are these men here, so far from home, at their country’s behest, risking their lives, their health, their sanity, in a war that so obviously should not have been.
The officers knew why they were there: to conduct a medal ceremony. Half a dozen members of the unit received medals, mostly bronze stars. The soldiers made bedraggled look good. Their uniforms needed serious cleaning and time with an iron. The troops made a half-hearted effort to stand at attention. They didn’t seem to give much of a shit for the entire proceeding. And yet they obviously had courage and soldierly skill: Their bronze stars were earned the hard way, in combat.
I began to understand what this war would demand of me as I sat in a quiet briefing toward the end of my tour.
On the very northeast edge of our province was an area known as Bu Gia Map, a major rear supply area for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Any time Americans ventured into it, they got into a vicious firefight with enemy troops.
On this day, Bu Gia Map came up at our morning briefing. By this time, I understood that everyone – including our local American commanders – knew we were biding time, holding on, playing defense, until Nixon and Kissinger could find a way to extract us from Vietnam that did not involve losing face.
As the briefing began, subdued officers from the Army infantry unit told us a six-man Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (we called them Lurp teams) had been dropped by helicopter
into Bu Gia Map the evening before. The patrol was made up entirely of enlisted men, under the command of a sergeant. The team’s mission had been to set up a listening post. They were told to gather intelligence and avoid contact with enemy units at all costs, because there was nothing anyone would be able to do for them.
That caution loomed large over the night. Contact with the enemy WAS made. In Song Be they could hear the battle unfold on the radio. The sense of helplessness grew oppressive as the firefight developed and the entire LURP team was wiped out. Six young American men — sons, brothers, boyfriends, husbands from American families waiting at home — alive in the evening, dead in the morning, killed in a war that was a profound mistake.
I came away from that briefing grief-stricken. This madness made no sense. I thought of the dead guys from my basic training platoon. I thought of Sgt. Abner, Frankie and, again, of Frankie’s mother. I grieved for all the troops our country had committed to this insanity.
I began building an enduring, expanding anger.
But life paid no notice. It went on its inexorable way, as it does.
One bright, sunny day, my roommate Jim and I borrowed a Jeep and went for an exploratory drive through the area surrounding Song Be. It was a safe time, so we ventured further than usual.
As we drove, we came on the remains of a burned-out Montagnard hamlet. Some time ago, the homes had been reduced to piles of ash.
Still standing in front of many burned-out homes were the 3-foot-tall earthen jugs the Montagnards used to hold rice wine. Each jug was said to have a snake at the bottom. The Montagnards drank the wine through long, slender cane tubes. It was considered an honor to be invited to join them.
One of the jugs was particularly handsome. When we’d finished exploring, Jim and I loaded it into the back of our Jeep and headed home.
I grew nervous about taking the jug but said nothing. As we drove away, the few Montagnards we encountered watched us for a long, long time. Of course, Americans in a Jeep were rare out there. Or perhaps it was the jug.
When we put the jug on display outside our trailer, someone mentioned that the hamlet had been attacked and burned by the VC.
Years later, I did an extended Internet search for the hamlet and its story.
The hamlet was called Dak Son, home to about 800 Montagnard refugees. They’d recently abandoned the jungles, where they had been slaves to the Viet Cong, farming and transporting goods along local spurs of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Their absence put a crink in VC operations, and the VC wanted them back. The Montagnards refused.
The VC attacked at midnight, catching the unarmed residents of Dak Son at sleep; the men were away, leaving mostly women, children and old men. The VC showered the hamlet with machine gun fire, mortars and rockets. Then 60 VC armed with flamethrowers ran yelling and screaming into the hamlet, sending streams of fire into the houses.
Time Magazine called it “the worst atrocity yet committed in the Viet Nam war” and described the “long ugly belches of flame (that) lashed out from every direction, garishly illuminating the refugee hamlet and searing and scorching everything in their path. The shrieking refugees still inside their houses were incinerated.”
I’ve seen photos; you don’t want to.
Three years later, two callow Americans carried away one of the wine jugs, disturbing what I came to see was a memorial of sorts to the victims of the Dak Son massacre. I have no idea just how deeply the Montagnards felt about this, but I felt mortified that we had trespassed on this scarred but peaceful place and carried a piece of it away.
As I served in Vietnam and saw what the war did, to the Vietnamese people (more than 3 million killed), to the Montagnard people (as at Dak Son) and to American soldiers (as in Bu Gia Map), I came to see the war as truly Apocalypse Now.