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Community Perspectives: Reflections on Vietnam in 1968

By Harold W. Smith

Harold W. Smith is a participant in the Virginia War Memorial’s Mighty Pen Project and served in the Vietnam War with the U.S. Army. This Memorial Day, Smith has shared three of his writings with the project, saying they are some of his experiences “while in Vietnam in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, the bloodiest year of that undeclared war.”

OBSERVATIONS FROM A CROSSROADS TO WHEREVER

One of the worst things about being in the army was never being allowed to think for yourself. “Just shut up and do what you’re told.” We were told the Army is now your mother, wife, minister, teacher, all knowing master of ceremonies and puppeteer of your life. You are no better than a slave to the boring, mundane, drudgery of repetitious military life. You must repress your personality and conform to being another brick in the wall, another cog in a gear, another spoke in a wheel. I had absolutely no interest in the Army or anything to do with military life. I simply did my job, kept a low profile and spent a lot of time AWOL in my mind. We were never told in advance what our mission was and I think often times we just blundered around until we stumbled onto the enemy or they attacked us. I personally thought the United States should mind its own damn business and let those halfway around the world fight their own battles. I never did buy into the Domino Theory. Anyone who won’t defend their own homeland deserves the consequences of their cowardly or defeatist attitude towards their aggressors. That was my frame of mind when we came to “The Crossroads”.

Harold Smith in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Harold Smith.

     This particular crossroads was in either War Zone D or The Iron Triangle in the Republic of South Vietnam. Our column stopped at the crossroads and the first thing to catch my attention was the skeleton of a burned out filling station. The rusty bullet-riddled smoke blackened sign hanging from a support beam appeared to have once said Texaco. An old papa san (Vietnamese man) had laid a scorched board across two cinder blocks and was selling gas and oil out of green quart bottles that looked like Canada Dry ginger ale bottles with a rag and bamboo stopper. Two large trucks loaded with logs came lumbering through the crossroads raising a cloud of dust as they laboriously continued down the road. I noticed there was a half dozen or so hooch’s with a couple dozen Vietnamese milling around jabbering in their sing song language. Four gooks {Vietnamese men) were squatting around a fire with a large cauldron in the middle. They were smoking pot while a fifth gook chopped up what looked like leeks with a machete and tossed them in the kettle. A mama san was checking a child’s hair for lice and when she found one she would crush it between her teeth and spit it out. 

     A large old bus clanked, clunked and sputtered its way to a stop at the crossroads. I have no idea how many people were on that old bus but they were hanging out windows, standing in the aisle and a dozen or so were perched on top, some holding bamboo cages with bantams imprisoned inside. A few people got off the bus and a few got on. An old mama san (Vietnamese woman) who had gotten off the bus ambled over to the shade of a banana tree, dropped her pajamas and had a bowel movement. She broke a leaf off the banana tree, wiped herself and tottered back to the bus where the younger Vietnamese made a path for her to get back on board.

     A Vietnamese youth came over to our column with a large bunch of bananas. There must have been forty or fifty small bananas in the cluster and they were only four or five inches long. Our TC (track commander) bartered a few cans of C-rations for a dozen. We each ate a couple and they were really sweet. When the gook who was chopping up leeks with his machete reached for a puppy that was waddling by, another youth grabbed it before it went into the cook pot. He brought it over and our driver traded a case of C-rations for the puppy. The little mongrel had a white streak down its side so we decided to call him Tracer like the phosphors rounds from our M-60 machine guns. The driver let the puppy lick his face for a while and then sat him down beside the 50 caliber machine gun turret where he promptly relieved himself. The puppy’s scat was so full of worms I thought the feces was going to crawl right off the side of our ACAV (Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle). 

     An old mama san carrying a large transistor radio decided to serenade us. She was high as a kite from chewing her betel quid. The betel juice had rotted out most of her teeth and her mouth and lips were stained reddish-black. The radio didn’t work and she was dancing in the dust to music only she could hear.

     I don’t know if our fearless leader was lost or was waiting for further orders or what the situation was but we just idled there while the sun beat down on my steel pot (helmet) scrambling my brain. The bus revved its engine and moseyed into the intersection where it scraped a gear and backfired as it made a right turn. The bus just missed colliding with a Lambretta scooter driven by a pimp and his cargo of six prostitutes. The TC motioned with his M-16 for the pimp and his whores to keep right on moving. Peddling along on a bicycle in the dusty wake from the Lambretta was a gook barber. He hopped off his bike and unfolded a portable stool placing it beside our column. He reached into his pouch and held up a straight razor in one hand and a pair of hand clippers in the other. A couple troopers jumped off their ACAV’s and lined up for a haircut.  About half way through the second trooper’s haircut we got orders to mount up and move out. His bad haircut took a lot more than three days to look good.

     A crossroads is more than a place where roads intersect or a center of activity. A crossroads is often a place where important and sometimes vital life changing decisions must be made. The sad thing is that when you are in the military those  decisions are usually made by someone you don’t know and never see. When our column pulled into the intersection we, who were mere cannon fodder, had no idea which way we would go or what the future would be. We were just passing time as we passed through on the next road to wherever!

“ALL YOU GOTTA DO IS ACT NATURALLY”

      The other day I was listening to a classic country  music radio station  when Buck Owens came blaring across the airwaves with “Act Naturally”. That song took me down memory lane to an incident which took place one day in Vietnam where I was a trooper with the 11th Armored Cavalry Blackhorse Regiment. I was with C Troop from March 1968 until March 1969. This was the bloodiest year of the war and my service consisted of four search and destroy missions; each lasting approximately three months. Many strange things happened during that year. 

      We were on one of our endless search and destroy missions driving through newly planted rice paddies demolishing dykes and seedlings when we came upon a hamlet of thatched roof hooch’s. About two hundred yards beyond this hamlet was an island of bamboo, brush and rocks. We dispersed into a horseshoe formation around the hamlet with the opening facing the island of uncultivated growth. I was selected as one of the troopers to dismount our aluminum steeds. We rode Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicles, ACAV’s, rather than horses. We formed into an infantry platoon so we could search the little village for Viet Cong. I switched out my M-79 grenade launcher from a grenade round to a buckshot round for close fighting. I smelled the aroma of fried fish as we entered the hamlet and I thought my ears were playing a trick on me because I could hear Buck Owens singing “All I gotta do is act naturally”. We were miles from any electric poles as I looked around at my fellow troopers to see if they thought anything was out of kilter. Everything became surreal in this dangerous situation as the gooks went about their day acting naturally as if we hadn’t intruded on their noonday meal. Off to my left a mama San was squatting down finger combing a little girls hair. When she found a louse she would crush it between her teeth and spit it out. There were gooks everywhere squatting and milling around eating rice and fish like a colony of anthropoids. To my right among the dozen or so hooch’s was a much larger hooch with a charcoal pit attached to it where the fish were being grilled. A bamboo bar ran the length of the hooch. There was a battery operated portable phonograph at one end of the bar and a couple dozen bottles of warm Saki (Japanese rice beer) at the other end. There was a stack of 78 RPM records in the middle of the bar and standing behind them grinning like the Cheshire cat was a Vietnamese entrepreneur. When Buck Owens finished singing “Act Naturally” the bartender picked up the tone arm and played it again. The only people in the entire village, other than our Kit Carson Scout interpreter, who could speak English were us troopers. 

Harold Smith in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Harold Smith.

      Any male old enough to carry an AK-47 rifle and not so old they couldn’t run was considered suspect. They should either be ARVN (Army Republic Vietnam) or VC (Viet Cong). A young healthy looking male was forced to his knees with an M-16 pointing at his head as he was interrogated. His papers explained he was on leave for a relatives funeral so he was released. The gook chef offered us a fillet of what looked like carp which I declined while the trooper in front of me munched on it enthusiastically. We had a platoon of ARVN working with us who were suppose to be watching our flanks. Since no VC were found we started making our retreat to the sound of The Rolling Stones rocking out “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” from a scratchy old 78 RPM record. There was a large garden between the village and the bamboo island. The ARVN had left their formation and were stealing cucumbers from the garden and chasing chickens. When the chickens ran towards the bamboo island all hell broke loose. The ARVN who weren’t killed ran, clinging to their stolen property and hid behind our ACAVs’. We quickly mounted up, formed a battle line and advanced firing everything we had into the bamboo island as we were met with a hail of enemy bullets and RPGs’ (Rocket Propelled Grenade). A new recruit on the ACAV beside me freaked out and cowered behind the turret refusing to fire his M-60 machine gun. The TC (Track Commander) was firing his 50 caliber machine gun with his left hand while shaking and slapping the new recruit with his right hand trying to make him do his part. My M-60 got so hot it wouldn’t fire and while I poured lubricant on the mechanism and a canteen of water on the barrel to cool it down we got close enough to the VC bunkers for me to lob hand grenades. After we had overrun the enemy position and killed everything that moved the ARVN dragged all the bodies out onto a pile and looted anything of interest from them. 

      We left the ARVN in charge of the bodies and the surrounding village as we formed up into a column and returned to our jungle base camp. That evening, as the sun set, I wrote a quick letter to my wife, and ate a helping of graveyard stew which consisted of any C-ration no one liked and Texas Pete Hot Sauce or whatever condiment you received in a care package from back home. The assortment of unwanted C-rations were dumped together into an empty ammo can and heated with a chunk of C-4 explosives. This concoction was called graveyard stew because if it didn’t kill you, you would live to fight another day!  I then colored in another number on my short timers calendar which was a girl in a bathing suit. I cleaned my weapons and closed my eyes for a little rest before my all to soon turn at guard duty. 

HE’S MORE THAN JUST A NAME ON THE WALL

     Back in 1990 when my son Brian graduated from high school his class went to Washington D. C. on their senior trip. Brian signed his parents up to be chaperons. Brian informed me that I was to be on my best behavior, not embarrass him in front of his friends and bring along plenty of money. Brian’s government class had dwelled on the Vietnam War and the significance of the hippy  happening at Woodstock. After visiting the Capitol, blitzing the Smithsonian and lunch at the Old Post Office mall I was surprised at all the interest the kids had in wanting to visit the Vietnam Memorial. 

     Nearly all of us walked over as a group to see this slab of black marble protruding out of the earth. I didn’t really want to go and as we approached the monolith I was instantly turned off by vendors hawking memorabilia and souvenirs. I viewed the whole thing as sacrilegious and imagined how Jesus must have felt when he cleansed the temple of the money-changers. One of Brian’s classmates whose father had served in Vietnam asked me if I would help her look for the names of two of her dads buddies who had been killed there. The names of all those killed in Vietnam were in large books resembling a telephone book and were mounted on pedestals. We could find only one of the names she was looking for and she ran off to see it. 

Harold Smith in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Harold Smith.

     My wife asked me if there was anyone in particular I wanted to find and I said maybe I should look up Lt. Moak while I was there and pay my respects. I thought I had put Vietnam out of my mind but when I ran my finger down the column of names on that cold slab of black marble and touched my former commanders name I couldn’t control myself and began to cry. To those who didn’t know First Lt. Clifton Pearce Moak personally he was just another name on the wall, but to me, he was a real person who will never be forgotten because his memory is seared in my heart and conscious. I only knew Lt. Moak for about a month but five men living in an Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle, crammed together like sardines in a can, trying to stay alive become close in more ways than one. Lt. Moak was my first commanding officers replacement. He was from Baton Rouge Louisiana and was a real officer and gentleman who had went to college at Virginia Military Institute which is in Lexington Virginia an hour south of my home near Harrisonburg. Lt. Moak was familiar with my home area and would talk about hunting in the Blue Ridge Mountains and cat fishing in the Shenandoah River. He told me the history of the song “Shenandoah” and how it had been sung by American soldiers all over the world ever since “The Great Civil War”. We were both longing for home and as I showed him a picture of my pregnant wife and he showed me a picture of his family he sang every word to that beautiful song as we tried to figure out what in Gods’ name we were doing in a place most Americans had never heard of just a few years before. 

     A few days later I was wounded by shrapnel from a R.P.G. (Rocket Propelled Grenade) and the Red Cross helicopter that was to dust off (evacuate) the wounded was shot down by the N.V.A. (North Vietnamese Army). They used the big red cross emblems on the sides and belly of the chopper for targets’, so much for The Geneva Convention! A few minutes later an F15 jet-fighter which was delivering a payload of napalm was shot down and exploded less than a hundred yards in front of us causing more casualties from burns inflicted by flying debris. The next day we finally secured a LZ (Landing Zone) and I was flown to a field hospital where it was determined that it would be more dangerous removing the chunk of jagged metal lying next to my heart than it would be to leave it and allow gristle to grow around it. After several days in the hospital I requested permission to return to my unit where I figured I would be safer. With the exception of Corporal Klinger the movie “Mash” pretty much defined this army field hospital in Vietnam. 

     When I got back to my unit with my left arm in a sling I was assigned the job of grenadier out of necessity because they were short handed and I could load and fire the M-79 grenade launcher, which resembles a large sawed-off shotgun, with one hand. My platoon was ordered to send out two dismounted (infantry) AP’s (ambush patrols) that night. My arm being in a sling probably saved my life. My good buddy and fellow machine gunner Frank Whitten on the command ACAV (Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle) volunteered to carry my pouch of ammo and Lt. Moak told me to go with Frank and he would get another grenadier. 

     As soon as it was dark enough that we wouldn’t be observed we slipped out of camp to set our AP’s on different trails leading into a village which was suspected of harboring Viet Cong. Just as my AP got settled behind a rice paddy dyke it commenced raining like a milk cow on a cement floor. By midnight the paddy was flooded and only our heads, hands and weapons were above water. I had to rest my chin on my helmet when I got too tired to hold my head up to keep from drowning. We all placed cigarette filters in our ears and nose holes to keep the two inch long leeches that covered our faces from crawling inside our heads. These tropical leeches were as deadly as the Viet Cong if they got inside your body where they would find a blood supply and suck until they swelled up cutting off the flow of blood to your brain causing death. About three AM as we lay there cold and shivery, all shriveled up like a prune, hoping the enemy couldn’t hear our teeth chattering all hell broke loose at the other ambush site. Our AP was ordered to double-time back to camp ASAP because Lt. Moaks’ AP was under a major attack. Since we were a mile away from our armor and were on foot, another platoon mounted up and went to the rescue. There was fierce fighting and as we waited for daylight the reports started coming in over the radio of KIAs’ (Killed In Action).

      At first light we mounted up, formed a battle line and advanced. When we approached the village we were met by enemy fire from a heroin and hashish hyped up NVA soldier with one leg blown off and his intestines hanging out of his side. He was quickly dispatched and we moved on a few yards. Directly in front of our ACAV stood a new pair of US issued jungle boots. (Often times it was hard for the soldiers in the field to get resupplied. Many times badly needed supplies such as clothing, radios, and one time, even a Jeep were stolen by army clerks, officers and other rear-echelon  personal and sold or traded for whores, drugs or maybe a little nest egg for when they got back home). The following may seem sick, weird or absurd under the circumstances but a constant diet of death and destruction desensitizes you. Frank and I had lived through the night, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. We joked about which of us the boots would fit as Frank dismounted and I covered his cautious approach to the new boots making sure they weren’t booby trapped. We were distracted by an old woman screaming at an American Trooper who was in the process of killing her milk cow which had been shot through the jaw  and was continuously bellowing with about a foot of tongue hanging out of its mouth dripping blood. When the private hesitated an officer yelled “Shoot that damn cow and if the bitch doesn’t shut up shoot her too”. All eleven men in that ill-fated ambush patrol had either been killed or wounded and the new officer in charge wanted revenge. 

     When two teenage boys were discovered hiding in a nearby root cellar and refused to come out a few hand grenades were tossed down the hatch and the cellar became their grave. Frank told me to come look at the boots and when I did they were full of feet. The legs had been blown off at the boot tops. Lt. Moak had caught an RPG in the mid section and the explosion had severed both legs while the tough jungle boots had protected his feet. Lt. Moak’s body had already been put in a body bag, tagged and flown off to cold storage pending his family reunion. Frank and I took turns using an entrenching tool to dig a grave under the banana tree where Lt. Moak had fallen. They may have buried most of him in Louisiana but his feet will be firmly planted in Southeast Asia until Judgment Day! Lt. Moak, like the other 58,178 Americans who died in Vietnam were and still are more than just names on the wall to those who knew them personally. Each of the more than a million who died on both sides of that unpopular and undeclared war had someone who knew them personally and loved them.

     My thoughts wondered back to Brian’s senior trip and all those people going to the Vietnam War Memorial. It was easy to distinguish between those tourists who had a personal relationship with someone on the wall from those who were there out of curiosity. I thought about Jesus, who is more than just the name on the wall of some place of worship. For we who know Him personally and put our hope, trust and faith in Him, this isn’t the end of the story. I believe that Lt. Moak’s name is not only on the wall and in the directory of the Vietnam War Memorial but is also in “The Book” that matters most. I sincerely believe that one day Lt. Moak and his feet will be reunited and he will stand before The Throne Of Judgment and in his clear, strong voice sing that old-time Negro spiritual “Golden Slippers” as he dances a little jig of joy for finding his name in the book that matters most!

The Mighty Pen Project offers free college-level creative writing classes for veterans of any age, any service branch. For more information or to register for fall class on Wednesday nights at EMU, visit the project website or contact: Christine Black at (434) 825-3794 or [email protected]; or Spencer White at (540) 421-8243 or [email protected].

You can support veterans telling their stories by attending a public reading by Mighty Pen Project participants on Friday, June 21 at 7pm at: The Gathering Place, 731 Mt. Clinton Pike, Harrisonburg VA  22802.

For more information, contact (434) 825-3794.

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