Editor's note: This is one in a series of articles that focus on the experiences of Rim Country Vietnam veterans in preparation for the arrival in June of the Tribute Wall incised with the names of those who died there. In response to the Roundup's call for the stories of local veterans, Mr. McMillion offered the following account.
vietnam veteran -- special to the roundup
As part of President Johnson's effort to boost the American fighting force I was drafted into the Army in June, 1966, and within three hours after joining my unit somewhere west of the central highland city of Pleiku, Vietnam on January 3, 1967, I saw my first dead American soldier.
I didn't want to be in Vietnam, of course. Like many graduates at the time, I struggled with the idea of fighting in a country that, until a few years earlier, few Americans had even heard of.
After all, we were the first combat generation to have grown up in front of the "boob tube." War was something we watched on the Eight O'clock Movie...then went to bed.
My generation wanted to listen to "Sounds of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkle, not the sounds of machine guns and bombs. Just out of high school, we had ideas of pursuing the American dream. For many, that meant going to college. For others it was landing a job, getting married and starting a family.
Emotionally, seeing that first dead American soldier gave me quite a shock, but there would be more shocks to come.
The unit that I was assigned to, fought the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) that were infiltrating down the Ho-Chi-Minh trail that ran along the Cambodian border and then into South Vietnam. One of the most isolated areas of the country, our maps showed a few small Montagnard villages, no roads, and only a handful of trails.
jungle covered mountains
There were no rice paddies in this area. Instead, it was a region of jungle covered mountains and low-lying river valleys.
Diverse in wildlife, much of it dangerous, we frequently encountered non-venomous pythons and highly poisonous kraits, bamboo vipers and cobras. There were mosquitoes that carried malaria, leeches that walked on land, and poisonous black and yellow spiders (not tarantulas) as big as your hand.
We lost one man when he was bitten by a king cobra.
Another time we had a tiger running loose within our perimeter. Sleeping on the bare ground, I awoke at twilight with black and orange stripes 18 inches from my face as the cat stepped over the top of me, its attention was on a dog we had with us. I still get the "willies" whenever I see a tiger on television.
For the most part, however, days in the jungle were routine.
A new foxhole every night
We would get up in the morning, fill in our foxholes, draw on our backpacks, then patrol all day. Miles from the night before, we would set up just before dark, dig new fox holes, then take turns keeping guard. There was no fire building, no using flashlights and no smoking after dark.
Our meals were generally C-rations. Drinking water usually came from streams and was purified with iodine tablets. Clean uniforms, due every two weeks, were often weeks late.
On February 14, we got letters and valentines from home flown out to us.
The next morning we were informed that we, B-company, would be making a combat air assault to reinforce C-company that was being attacked by a large NVA force 20 kilometers to the north near the Cambodian jungle.
All the lift choppers took hits getting us in, and two were shot down. One chopper crashed right between our perimeter and the NVA positions and just kept running with a high-pitched whine...like chalk being scrapped across a blackboard, only about a thousand times louder.
Americans and the NVA temporarily stopped shooting at each other and joined forces shooting at the chopper's engine until the ungodly noise was silenced.
We were fighting a North Vietnamese battalion reinforced with a heavy weapons company, five companies against our two American companies. Things didn't look good.
Late afternoon brought a lull in the fighting. Had the enemy withdrawn? We didn't know.
B-company was ambushed
The company's third platoon was sent out to recon the area. Within minutes it was ambushed and the rest of B-company was ordered to go out and link up with it.
Meanwhile, the NVA's heavy weapons company had moved to within 30 meters of the perimeter and were attacking C-company with AK-47 automatic rifles, both light and heavy (.51 caliber) machine guns, and B-40 rockets.
Air strikes directed against the enemy showered our troops with shrapnel and debris. We came close to being overrun, but by nightfall what was left of the enemy withdrew, and we gathered up our dead and wounded by the light of aerial flares.
We lost a lot of men that day. Though a lot of medals were later handed out, the bravery of one man has always stuck in my mind.
Private Louis Willett, with most of his squad wounded, drew fire away from his own men allowing them to withdraw, by charging the enemy. Repeatedly wounded, he ran from one enemy position to another until he himself was killed. For his actions, he received the nation's highest award -- the Medal of Honor.
It was three more weeks before the fighting was over in that area.
On March 16, we made another combat air assault into a "Hot" LZ (landing zone). Again, the choppers took hits. The chopper I was on was hit numerous times. A dozen feet from the ground, a huge explosion ripped off its tail and rear rotor. Myself and others jumped off. Those still on board perished when the chopper crashed into the tree line.
On the ground, the two guys on my left and the guy on my right were hit. Two of them died. Many others were killed and wounded. I took shrapnel in the arm, hand, leg and side, but was otherwise O.K.
The next two months were comparatively quiet, but many of the men were suffering from jungle rot, ringworm and malaria.
In June we lost many men when their one-year tour of duty was over. Green replacements took the place of seasoned veterans.
On the sixth of July, I was "dusted off" (medevaced) out of the jungle after falling about 50 feet. Unable to move my legs, the medics feared my back was broken. It, however, was only sprained, with three injured discs.)
In the hospital, I worried for the company. A premonition that something big was about to happen haunted me.
On July 12 1967, my company of 76 men (B-company, 1st Battalion of the 12th Infantry Regiment) walked into an ambush by an estimated 1,000 North Vietnamese soldiers in the Drang River Valley. This was the same area where a unit of the seventh cavalry (made into a movie staring Mel Gibson...We Were Soldiers) had fought a year and a half earlier. Quickly overrun, half of the 76 men were killed outright. The rest were wounded and seven were taken prisoner.
The wounded survivors soon joined me in the hospital. One of my best friends was in the bed across from mine.
Shot and having serious shrapnel wounds over most of his body, including his legs and one lung, he had come up to a NVA soldier only 15 feet away. For some reason, he had not been spotted by any of the enemy who were busy going over American dead, executing wounded and tying up prisoners. Using his one good arm, he slowly drug himself through the jungle until, some hours later, he was found by American reinforcements.
Of the seven Americans that had been taken prisoner, two died in captivity and are still listed as missing in action. The other five were released six years later at the same time as Sen. John McCain.
Finding myself back in the field two weeks later, I vowed never to get close to anyone for the rest of my tour in Vietnam. Emotionally, it was too hard when friends were killed or wounded.
The next months went by with more patrols and more firefights.
By mid-November the enemy started attacking in force all up and down the Cambodian and Laotian border areas. This was a ploy by the communists to draw American forces away from the big cities in preparation for the 1968 Tet offensive that would come two months later.
My unit was temporarily attached to the 173rd Airborne to take a hill west of Dak-to known as Hill 875.
One morning I awoke to a single gunshot. Nearby stood an American soldier. Our eyes met for a moment, then he collapsed, felled by the sniper's bullet.
That evening, we were attacked with 122 mm rockets, and my hand was crushed by a bunker log. The next morning I was flown to the rear along with two friends, both in body bags.
Eight days later, my one-year tour of duty in Vietnam over, and I left for the United States.
Coming home brought mixed emotions. I was happy to have made it, but hated leaving my companions behind.
Back on American soil the political climate concerning the war had changed considerably. Vietnam veterans were often met with scorn upon their return home. Many were called baby killers. Others were spit on. Some were no longer welcomed by high school friends.
Because of the hostility, many vets (including myself) avoided talking about Vietnam. Many still do.
But the men that went to Vietnam did so because they had put their sense of duty to friends, family and country before themselves.
Many of them opposed the war, yet didn't burn their draft cards. Many of them had to give up their pursuit of college, yet didn't ask for a deferment. Many of them feared being killed, yet didn't run to Canada.
They put their dreams of a future on hold and when duty called...they went. Many of those men never made it back alive to follow their dreams.
Soon the Vietnam Memorial "Moving Wall," also known as the Tribute wall, will be coming to Payson. I've seen it several times. Its reflective black surface with the more than 58,000 names has a mystical quality that seems to transport a person back in time.
People often come away with a changed outlook, not only about the Vietnam War, but about life in general.
I would encourage everyone to see The Tribute Wall when it comes. Not only is it a rewarding experience, but by visiting it, we really do pay tribute to those men who gave up their lives...and their dreams...so many years ago.