Partial Transcript: Interviewer: You went through high school on the North Side of Chicago.
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about his high school career, including switching schools in his senior year. He talks about meeting his wife and making plans to go to college.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: Did you have any thoughts on what you wanted to study or what you were going to do after school?
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about going to Northern Illinois University in 1964 as a physical education major. He discusses dropping out of college and becoming a firefighter.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: So tell me about being drafted. Did you see it coming?
Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses being drafted for Vietnam and initially being given a year's deferment as a firefighter. He talks about receiving a second draft notice and having to go. He talks about his knowledge of the war.
Partial Transcript: Johnson: I had to go to Chicago, and like the first day of anything, it’s a real headache, a real nightmare.
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about undergoing physical and mental testing before being assigned to infantry. He discusses his feelings, expectations and preparation for going to war.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: Can you tell me a little bit more about basic training? Was it all physical preparation?
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about his experience of basic training at Fort Benning (Georgia). He talks about learning the importance of team work and discusses building relationships with his fellow recruits.
Map Coordinates: 32.391, -84.822
Partial Transcript: Johnson: And at the end of advanced infantry training, you could go home, and you got your orders.
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about being flown home to Chicago by his brother who was in the Marine Corps. He talks about spending time with family, his girlfriend, and friends before going to Vietnam.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: Fort Lewis is where you had to report to?
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about leaving from Washington and flying to Vietnam. He talks about his initial impressions of the country including the weather and being flown to Pleiku in the Central Highlands.
Keywords: Cam Ranh (Vietnam); Fort Lewis (WA); Mount Rainier; Pleiku (Vietnam)
Map Coordinates: 13.971, 108.015
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: This is the second file of the interview with Darryl Johnson, on March 18, 2015. We’ll just pick up where we left off.
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about his temporary stay in Pleiku before being flown in a helicopter to join his unit in a remote area. He discusses waste burning duty and the different ways they made sleeping accommodations.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: So tell me more about what it means to be a forward observer. You’re attached to a company and what do you do?
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about the role of a forward observer in the unit which included calculating enemy positions and calling in support. He talks about being mentored and the risks if calculations were wrong.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: Does a forward observer work by themselves then, it sounds like?
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about the challenge of working with radio operators and what he did on his downtime as well as the quality of food. He talks about his friendship with a fellow forward observer and the changing role of a forward observer during the year's tour.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: Tell me about some of the first kind of conflicts you found yourself in.
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about some combat experiences and the role that the forward observer had in them. He talks about killing a Vietnamese soldier and discovering family pictures in the soldier's wallet, and the lasting impact that has had on him.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: With those villages, did you have any interactions with the local folks there?
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about their interactions with the Degar or Montagnard people who live in the Central Highlands. He talks about the fear of reprisals by Viet Cong if they worked with United States troops and the beauty of the highlands.
Partial Transcript: Johnson: And then there were the areas that we were in that were defoliated, that was difficult.
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about missions in areas that had been defoliated by Agent Orange and feeling more secure there. He talks about not knowing the toxicity and not knowing if it has caused any long term health problems.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: Do you want to tell me about a few of these things that you wrote down here?
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about a friendship with an African-American soldier from St. Louis (Missouri) and the issue of race relations within the Army itself. He discusses the poor behavior of troops on R&R and being attacked while on base camp.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: Were you ever able, or did you ever—well, we’ll stick with that. Were you ever able to report that man had chased you, or just any of your concerns, to an officer or anybody higher up?
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about reporting an incident of racial violence and the general behavior of troops in Vietnam.
Partial Transcript: Johnson: As soon as people, as soon as villagers, would hear a convoy coming through, they would come out to the roadway
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about an incident on a convoy when soldiers were throwing cans at Vietnamese children and physically fighting with a fellow soldier in response to this behavior.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: Obviously, I mean it still affects you to a certain degree, but while you were there, did you have any coping mechanisms for dealing with that, those issues, or for kind of having trauma from combat?
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about different ways he had to cope with being in Vietnam including humor and putting himself in situations where he was in control.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: Did you have any other close calls while you were out there on patrol?
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about a mission into an area known as Death Valley, near Chu Moor Mountain, and a visit from a rabbi the night before a planned attack. He talks about going into combat and the rabbi supporting the troops as they fought.
Map Coordinates: 14.466, 107.633
Partial Transcript: Johnson: But then, when I was in Fire Direction Control, Neil, who had been my radio operator and now the forward observer for that Company,
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about being stationed at Fire Direction Control further south and his role there. He talks about only learning about the Secret War in Laos, and the Hmong soldiers, after he returned to the United States.
Partial Transcript: Interviewer: You also have a note that says the perfect mustache.
Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about growing a mustache in the field and being required to shave it off before he went on R&R. The interview is concluded.
See link below to connect to Session 2 of Johnson's interview.
[Session 1 of 2]
BROOKS: Today is Wednesday, March 18, 2015. This is an interview with DarrylJohnson, who served with the Army during the Vietnam War, 1968 to 1970. The interview is being conducted at the Madison Central Library. The interviewer is Ellen Brooks, and the interview is being recorded for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum Oral History Program. So, we're just going to start at the beginning--if you can tell me where and when you were born.
JOHNSON: I was born in Chicago, Illinois, on March 1, 1945. I was the youngestof three--two sisters and a brother. Good family, parents both at home and we lived on the North Side of Chicago, in a nice neighborhood. We owned our home. I 00:01:00was the youngest, and my sister, Abby, was eleven months older than me. My older brother and sister were like ten years ahead of us. My mom had a couple miscarriages in the between time. So it was like two sets of kids, and so we always looked up to the older brother and sister for a lot of advice and guidance, and of course they always looked to us as their personal slaves.
Just talking about the early years, my mom was an at-home mom, and my dad workeda lot, full-time, and then one or two part-time jobs. It was a very nice neighborhood, I love that neighborhood. We almost were a minority in that it was 00:02:00pretty much a Jewish neighborhood. There was Jews and Gentiles, and my playmates were kind of diverse, but it was pretty lily-white and a nice, secure neighborhood. We did a lot of--it was the type of neighborhood where there would be a dozen kids out every morning, looking for each other, to see what we were going to do and play.
I was a product of a mixed marriage, in that my dad was a Baptist and my mom wasCatholic, and that just hangs with me forever, because that, at that time, was considered a mixed marriage. My dad had to promise that we would be raised as Catholics, and get a Catholic education, and so we all went, all the way through 00:03:00high school, in parochial schools. That was a good education, though it sheltered me, in retrospect. I think about all my friends who were products of parochial--of public schools rather and thought of myself as being kind of naïve in that regard, which was okay. It's okay if kids, even today, grow up a little bit sheltered and find out things a little bit later--it doesn't hurt them. But I was pretty naïve.
BROOKS: And what did your dad do?
JOHNSON: My dad worked for Railway Express, and he would go into homes orbusinesses and estimate how much space it would take to move from one location to another, and then give those people an estimate of the cost. He did that for 00:04:00Railway Express, and then later, North American Van Lines. He had a heart attack, a severe heart attack, when he was fifty--early fifties, and at that time, I just recall him being in the hospital for a long time. It might have been a couple of months, I don't know, but it was a long time, and I remember that it meant that at home--it was just my sister and I that were at home at that time--and we had to be quiet. He and I no longer could throw the ball around, or I never played ball with him, and yet, I'm a great baseball player today. I play, and I know that he would have loved to have played when he was a senior, but at the time there was no senior this and that. You had a heart 00:05:00attack at fifty and it meant that you take it easy, you don't get excited, you don't have--salt is something that, you know, and so I had a bland diet as a teenager. He and I didn't do a lot of stuff after that, and so, and he never worked full-time after that, he had to work part-time.
So there was a role reversal in the family. My mom had to go back to work, andshe became a very strong figure in our lives. So that was-- he worked part-time for North American Van Lines. He had another heart attach when he was like sixty-something, but took good care of himself and what he ate, and he always talked to us about being active and things like that. He made it to seventy-six, 00:06:00so he was a good role model for me.
BROOKS: You would have been pretty young, but do you remember anything about theKorean War, hearing anything about it?
JOHNSON: My brother in-law was in the Navy, in Korea, after the war. No, thedetails of the Korean War, as a youth, all the movies were World War II movies. The John Wayne movies and others who did World War II movies, that we followed as kids. We just had a big appetite for those kind of movies, my buddy friends and myself, and there wasn't a whole lot of Korean War stuff. The Korean War has become sort of a forgotten, or a silent or not much about it, but as youth, we 00:07:00knew that, well, that was a war that we didn't win. That was a war that ended in a stalemate, and there's North and South Korean, and the South Koreans are our buddies. So, I mean, we had kind of a naïve view of what was going on, but we were very tuned-in to the advance of communism and the fact that communism was, it seem like right around the corner.
In grade school, we used to have air-raid drills, and fire drills, but we had asmany air-raid drills, because of the fear that we--you know, that Russia could send rockets or attack us at any time. It was a genuine fear, and what would we do if we were the only two people left on earth at the end of a nuclear attach. 00:08:00You know, we went on, having these long discussions about that kind of stuff. Communism would cause us to deny our religion--otherwise we'd be killed, you know, what would you do? Would you do that, would you say you're not Catholic, or are you willing to get executed? And so, there was a lot of propaganda and a lot of fear going on when you mentioned the Korean War. We had air-raid shelters. There were people on the block that had bunkers in their backyard that they had built and stocked, in the event of a nuclear attack. So I mean, I 00:09:00remember that stuff pretty good.
BROOKS: So, you went through high school on the North Side of Chicago, and thenwhat was next for you?
JOHNSON: Well, I should mention, I went to Catholic school at DePaul Academy,but I, ah, just in the evolution of--I made three and a half years and found that I was out of place. I always was put in the comparison with my brother, ten years older, who graduated and went to University of Illinois, or IIT--Illinois Institute of Technology--and graduated as an engineer, and then a Marine pilot. So this was supposed to be my destiny too, but I didn't feel it then, so halfway through my senior year at DePaul, I became kind of rebellious. I wasn't kicked 00:10:00out of school, but they thought I shouldn't be going there any more. I finished up at Roosevelt High School, which was in my neighborhood. It used to take me an hour to get to DePaul, and an hour back home. I'd leave, dark in the morning, and get home dark at night. And now I was at Roosevelt to finish.
So it took me four and a half years to get out of high school, because of therequirements, but that's where I sort of found a little bit of identity there, because all of a sudden there were girls sitting next to me. Oh, my God, how do I deal with that? Because I hadn't had, since fourth grade, there was no girls, and all of a sudden I was kind of popular, because I wasn't Jewish, and 00:11:00Roosevelt was pretty heavily Jewish, and so girls were asking me out. That's where I met Judy and ah, we've been--eventually we got married and things like that. But, so, graduated from Roosevelt, but that--I was having a real identity crises. After that, because Judy was going to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, I was going to go to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. I went there in nineteen-sixty-- the fall of '64.
BROOKS: You would have been nineteen?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I might have almost been twenty, because I worked for a little00:12:00while. College was at my own expense. My parents were willing to send me to a junior college in Chicagoland, but because I wanted to go away--and I wanted to be near Judy--it was all at my own expense, so I worked while I was in school and before. So, the fall semester, it might have been '64, yeah, nineteen, yeah. Boy, you're good at math.
BROOKS: Well, not usually, but I think I nailed that one. So, did you have anythoughts on what you wanted to study or what you were going to do after school?
JOHNSON: I thought that I would be a physical education major, was my firstmajor. I love everything about sports, I played all sports. My problem, again, 00:13:00being a naïve kid, and with an identity crisis, I didn't stick it out to play high school sports, and because I was at DePaul for a little while, I was on their football team, but then senior year, I had to go to Roosevelt, they were all set. So I didn't play--didn't graduate playing football, baseball, or any of the sports I really loved, so when I got to Northern, I tried out for football and didn't make it as a freshman. Tried out for baseball, didn't make it as a freshman. Always looked at everybody--yet I was as good as them, I can say that now. I was good as any of the other kids going there, but I didn't feel it, and I didn't think I was as good as them. If I was in a room full of other people for any, for any kind of activity, sports or academics, I would always be 00:14:00looking around saying, "Some of these people are much better than me." I didn't have a lot of confidence, except when I was around Judy or in classes with her, then I felt confident, but on my own, I was not self-directed very well.
BROOKS: So you started the courses to be a physical education--
JOHNSON: Physical education--I thought I'd be a coach at some point. That wenton for a year and a half, and I just felt that unless I played sports at the college level, I would not be a good coach. It's a little true, but not true. You look at some of the world's best coaches today--they were mediocre, at best, 00:15:00some of them, at the sports that they coach. But at the time, that's the way I felt, and so I switched out of physical education and became a management major. My brother-in-law, Ernie, was someone I looked up to greatly and spent a lot of time with, and he was a management major at DePaul University and I thought, "I'll follow in his footsteps." So I studied management for a while, but I just really wasn't attentive, you know. I was more--I would never miss an intramural sporting event, but I could miss a class now and then, or a lot. And so I was 00:16:00always flirting with academic probation, for the next two years, and some classes I liked, but then I realized that I don't think I like business either, and I ran out of money.
About halfway through my junior year, walked out of--stopped going to classes,and tried to find a job in DeKalb. I walked down the street, into a foundry that said help wanted, and they said, "Sure, we could use you." I worked a foundry job for three days and was spitting black, dirty phlegm, at the end of the day, on the way home, but making decent money, and I'm wondering, "Oh gosh, maybe I 00:17:00should get back in school." But I wanted to have some money. I was walking home one day, with a guy from the foundry, and he said, "What are you doing here?" I said, "I'm working, it's a decent job with decent pay," and he said, "Look at me. How old do you think I am?" I said, "Well, you're fifty." He said, "No, I'm thirty-eight," and he said, "You're going to look like me if you keep working here." Because, you know, the environment at a foundry is not pleasant. It's dusty, dirty, tough work, fast work, piecework. I learned what piecework was about, you know, you get paid based on the number of pieces you complete, that are accepted.
And so, that only lasted three days, and again, I'm thinking I'm a loser, but00:18:00after I walked home, on the way home was the DeKalb Fire Station and I just walked in and I said, "Are there any jobs open here? I've always thought of myself as being a fireman." And one of the firefighters said, "Well, you're in luck. The chief is right over there." He just happened to be visiting from his office, which was not in the fire station. "He's right over there and last night, the city council just approved three new positions, you ought to talk to him." So, I said, "Excuse me," and I talked to the chief, and he saw that I had three years of college education, and was pretty big and strong, and he said, "Take the test," and I did. I did well, and I got hired as a fireman. That was a 00:19:00real big boost to my confidence and a real wonderful two years that I worked there, before I got drafted.
BROOKS: And what was Judy doing, what was her track in that time?
JOHNSON: What was I, what?
BROOKS: What was Judy doing during that time?
JOHNSON: She was in school, and she was on track--she was a home economics majorat the time--that's what it was called. She also was cook for her sorority house. So, she always did the right things in her class activities and her studying, and so she was doing that, and she was supportive of me in terms of 00:20:00dropping out of school. She always told me that, you know, you could be hanging on the backend of a garbage truck, picking up garbage, and she'd be happy with me, as long as I'm happy with my job. So that was always comforting, to hear that from her. I needed encouragement, but this firefighting, the camaraderie of working on a fire department. I saved some lives, I worked on the ambulance--that was one of my duties as part of the rescue team, and that I grew up a lot during those two years. Of all the jobs I've had, that ranks number two.
BROOKS: So tell me about being drafted--did you see it coming?00:21:00
JOHNSON: I think a lot of people then, rationalized well. There was no lotterysystem in 1967, '68--it didn't come about until later. All you were doing was running the risk of being drafted, and of course, following the news a little bit, I knew that President Johnson had really upped the number of people that he wanted in Vietnam, to three hundred and fifty thousand, then four hundred, then a half a million, then almost six hundred thousand, in Vietnam. So you knew that oh, you could get the letter any time, but I thought as a fireman, that maybe I 00:22:00might be insulated from it.
I got my first draft notice from Chicago, saying that I have to report. I gaveit to the chief and said, "I don't want to go," and he said, "Well, we just stuck a little over six months of training into you and we don't want you to go either. Let me see what I can do." He said, "You don't have to worry about it for now." But then within--about a year after that, then it really did go over five hundred thousand in Vietnam, and the Draft Board in Chicago sent me a second draft notice. I took it to the chief, hoping that he, once again, would save me. I was a good fireman and had good relations with everybody on my shift and other shifts that I worked, and so he wanted to keep me, but when he got the 00:23:00second letter, he reached down in his desk, pulled out a box--that I recognize now but didn't then, it was purple. He opened it up and there was a Purple Heart, and he said, "Most of us here who are older than you did our job, and you're just going to have to go now and do yours." I remember asking him, I mean, "You don't expect me to come back with a Purple Heart do you?" He said, "No, just do your job," but he wasn't going to intercede and so, damn it, that was it, I had to go.
I didn't want to go. I never considered alternatives to going, like running toCanada. Basically, my point of view at that time was that those people, the people that were going to Canada, and it was starting to happen, I thought were 00:24:00traitors, I thought should never come home, back to America, were a disservice to the country. People who protested, and protesting was starting heavily then, especially in the Ivy League schools, and then in Madison too, was sort of a Midwest hubbub of activity and awareness, but we looked at it as unpatriotic--"How could they?"
My dad had been in World War II, my grandpa in World War I. My mom told me thatI had great, great grandpas that were in the Civil War, we dated back to them. My dad came up to me and he said, "You're going and you're coming home too," and 00:25:00that always--just a little sentence or two from him always made me feel confident that, well that's exactly what will happen, is I'll come home and do my service. That was the feeling at the time. I really didn't know anything about Vietnam. I, like so many college kids at the time, college-age kids, even though I was a fireman, I was very apathetic in terms of--if there was nobody in my family that was involved, then I didn't even bother to check the news daily. It's only when all of a sudden your number is called, that you become very aware.
I was just willing to follow orders and listen and do what I was told, I mean00:26:00that's basically how I was brought up all through grade school and high school--you don't talk, you listen, you know? "You're to be seen and not heard," was the stuff that we were told, and so I was a good candidate for being drafted and being a good soldier, because I could take it all in and do it.
BROOKS: So this is what, March, I think?
BROOKS: March of '68. You got the notice and then what happens next?
JOHNSON: I had to go to Chicago, and like the first day of anything, it's a realheadache, a real nightmare. The whole induction, the lining up for the physical, 00:27:00the talk amongst everybody about well, you know, "If you say the wrong thing, they might not take you. If you pretend you're gay", and gay was not a term that was used, "if you pretend you're queer, maybe--no, I can't do that, I can't pretend anything other than what I am." But it was very nerve-racking, a hundred guys in a line, all stripped down naked, bend over for the prostate exam. It was very demeaning and shots and stuff, but that's how an army has to be. We were told there's a reason for everything, and so just obey orders, because there's a reason for everything, and I believed that.
The first day--big headache, but it was over with and I answered all the00:28:00questions right. "What kind of person are you?" "Well, I love being outside, athletic stuff." "What did you do when you were--" "I used to climb trees and things." "Are you good with cooking?" "No." "How's your academics going?" "Well, I like academics, but I really like getting outside and hiking and everything." Infantry, boom. I was told that I would report to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training in a couple weeks, so I was able to go home for a couple weeks, put my things in order and get ready to go for basic.
BROOKS: And how did Judy feel about you leaving?00:29:00
JOHNSON: Her dad had served in World War II. I'm doing a piece on her dad rightnow, an art piece. He walked across France and was in the Battle of the Bulge--walked across France, opened a concentration camp with bolt-cutters that they had, and liberated that, and while he never spoke about that much, Judy knew about his service. And so I felt different than what anybody would feel today, or perhaps some then--I felt like I had a job to do, that the people of 00:30:00South Vietnam wanted the chance to have self-determination too and democracy, and that we needed to make the world safe for democracy, that that was our job. And that if it meant dying for that cause, I was willing to do it--not hoping but willing to do it. And plus I was arrogant enough to think that once I get over there, we're going to kick ass and the war will be over in months. Now that there's been all kinds of money, and equipment and resources are going to Vietnam, that certainly, we're going to win it. 00:31:00
You know, we had enough slanted, biased news coming our way, telling us that wewould, and the fact is, we never did lose a major confrontation in Vietnam, it's just the will of the people that couldn't sustain us. At the time, up until '67, '68, most of the American public was behind the war in Vietnam, was very much for it. I like to make comparisons between that and Iraq. After 9/11, everybody was for that war, but then after, after a while, after a year, the American public tends to start thinking "No, it's taking too much time and too much 00:32:00money, too many dead bodies." Anyway, so my thinking at the time, and Judy's also, was that I would go, I'd come back, I'd be a good soldier and we'd help contribute to winning the war.
BROOKS: So you go home and you get ready to go to Fort Benning. What are yourexpectations at that point, about training and deployment?
JOHNSON: I heard a movie came out right at that time. It was a John Wayne movieand it was called The Green Berets--nothing but propaganda. Very little accuracy to what was going on in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, or most anywhere else in Vietnam. It was like a World War II movie form, placed over the Vietnam 00:33:00conflict, and let's make John Wayne--and anyway, I watched that and I thought that, some of my expectations were that "If I go to Vietnam, there's going to be booby traps everywhere, that this guy, Charlie, the Vietnamese are little people, not too smart. If I was in a room with five of them and one of me that would be about even." Just so much arrogance that was going, that was in our society at the time--"Couldn't be defeated, I'll never die." But I knew that basic training would be tough and that it would be physically grueling. I was in great shape. Plus, I used to tease my mom that "Now, I'm finally going to get 00:34:00some good food." because my mom was a lousy cook, and I said, "I'm going in the Army to get some decent food." I always teased her about that.
I was not really prepared for the reality of basic training, wasn't prepared forVietnam, the reality of it, and the strength of the enemy that I was going to be facing. You know, I didn't even spell Vietnam right, that's how little prepared we were. I didn't know anything about the culture of Vietnam, the geography of Vietnam. I thought it would be like World War II--jungle, fighting in the Pacific, when Vietnam really is, yeah, there's a lot of jungle, but the Central 00:35:00Highlands are not--it's jungle, but it's a higher elevation jungle. The southern part of Vietnam, with the beautiful rice paddies, is very different. I wasn't ready for any of that. Today, I think we've learned lessons from Vietnam, are that we prepare our men and women to know something about the culture, the language, and the terrain and the history, and none of that existed at that time, we had to learn that.
BROOKS: When you got over there?
BROOKS: Can you tell me a little bit more about basic training? Was it allphysical preparation?
JOHNSON: I ate up the physicality of it, though they tear you down, no matterhow strong you are, and fit you are, they tear you down and build you back up in a lot of different ways. Physically they do it, emotionally they do it, you 00:36:00know, your hair is gone and everything about you. I went in with a lot of guys from Chicago--most of them were South Side. I didn't know one person that I was drafted with--it would have been nice if I did. And all these guys, you know, people have an influence on you, based upon what you see in front of you, and appearance, and when it's all shaved off and you're all put in the same clothes, well, wow, you look a whole lot more equal to one another. Being in a bunk, next to a black person, for the first time in my life, I had to learn and figure out who were good people and who weren't. But I ate up the physical part of it. It 00:37:00was brutal, but I was pretty strong.
It was demeaning--not to me though, because I could take it, and so nobody wasin my face very often, putting me down or telling me I was stupid, but I saw a lot of other people that way. I learned a valuable lesson in life, a huge lesson in life that I use, you know, you're only as strong as your weakest link. If there's somebody that you're in a crucial situation with, whether it be at war or trying to figure out a problem at work, the weakest person that's working on that project needs attention, needs help. You're only as strong as your weakest link. The other thing that I heard from somebody--probably a drill sergeant--was 00:38:00you're only as fast as your slowest person. And so if there was somebody slow out there, we had to get them across the finish line, if our unit was going to qualify. You were timed for this and that, running the mile. Those guys that were getting shamed and who came in way out of shape, fat, and could not run a quarter mile, let alone a mile, we found ways to get them motivated, either through intimidation or through encouragement. Those were big lessons to learn, and so right away, I think the Army was preparing us for infantry and combat duty, in trying to realize that there was problems that you, by yourself, cannot 00:39:00handle. You need a team. I never shot a weapon before, and in the Army, I became-- I was-- my hand-eye coordination, my eyesight was terrific, and so qualifying for rifle, .45 pistol, shotgun, no problem. I actually enjoyed those days, taking target practice and stuff, it was fun.
BROOKS: Did you have any memorable drill sergeants or instructors for anything?
JOHNSON: When you first get off the bus, I don't know if they do it, they can'tpossibly do it the way they did it then. All the drill sergeants would be lined up as you get off the bus and you arrive. Right away they're screaming at you to get off the bus, and "You're lower than whale shit, and you're nothing. You're 00:40:00going to be writing home to your momma tonight and crying, and we're not going to be happy until one of you guys goes into your barracks crying and puking, or whatever." And so intimidating, my drill sergeant was that way, but yet, I saw another guy who seemed to be more encouraging, and I wished he was my drill sergeant. But I needed, and I, to this day, when I was working on it, I always refer to, I need a little drill sergeant looking over my shoulder, to tell me what to do, even if it's intimidating, just keep me straight.
Again, the Army says there's everything for a purpose, and I think that there isno room, at that time, for a troop to get off the bus and say, "Why do I have to 00:41:00do that?" There's no room for that. You do it or someone's going to beat you into doing it, or you'll be deprived of food or something. It's very intimidating--people call it demeaning. I didn't view it as demeaning, but I could see where people thought of it, that type of experience as being demeaning, especially if it was focused on them for some reason. I pity the guy who got drafted who had a learning disability, who might have been dyslexic, or who, for some physical reason, could not--a breathing disorder that wasn't diagnosed or whatever. Those guys were picked on and couldn't do better--they were doing their best. So, you learned that it was a little survival of the fittest. 00:42:00
BROOKS: You mentioned you didn't go to training with anyone you knew. Did youkind of form relationships while you were there and get close to some people there?
JOHNSON: I got close to some of the Chicago guys--they were all South Siders, sowe would tease back and forth about, "Oh, sorry you were born on the South Side," that type of thing, you know, and high school--what our high schools did, and theirs. I got kind of close to them, but I was very shy. I was not an extrovert--I was a huge introvert, but you can't survive if you don't socialize in some way. I started making friends and communicating--made friends with some of the southern boys. There was a lot of guys at Fort Benning that were from 00:43:00Georgia and the South, and even though their accent was so heavy, and I'll tell you, for the first time in your life, when all of a sudden you're talking to a black guy from the South, who has this huge southern drawl, it's like a different language. It's something you get used to and you get to love and appreciate, but at first it's very startling. Basic brought us together and got us to become some real close friends there.
One of the lessons in Vietnam, again, was that a lot of my friends later on thatI met, that were Marines, were Marines together in the same units from basic training, all through their advanced training, all through their experience, 00:44:00wherever they were stationed, whereas at the time in Vietnam, so many were being brought together, so many being trained, and then we were scattered to different locations for advanced infantry training, and then scattered. A lot of us, most of us, went to Vietnam, but we never served--we never got to stay together much, only a few of us did. Most of us were scattered elsewhere, and I think that was really, a losing strategy in Vietnam, in that in the Army, units sometimes were not real close from basic training on, and so it was always getting to know somebody new.
In Vietnam, the forward observer--when I got to Vietnam, I became a forward00:45:00observer, and the guy who trained me was leaving to go home in a month. That kind of thing--I could be getting ahead of myself a little bit, but I mean, in school, when I talked about Vietnam and why we lost, it was like equating it with the Green Bay Packers drafting Aaron Rodgers, finding out that he's just an awesome quarterback, one of the best, but keeping him for one year, and every year, going to a new quarterback. How successful would the Packers be with that kind of arrangement? That's the way we were fighting Vietnam and it was a losing strategy, doing it that way, whereas again, my dad spent three and a half years, but when he came home, the job was done, and he didn't come home until the job 00:46:00was done. We didn't realize that at the time, but later on, I realized that that was one of the reasons that we lost.
BROOKS: Basic training, were you ever able to get off the base at all? Were youever able to have some free time?
JOHNSON: There was one time, we got off base and we went into Columbus, Georgia,I think it was, for a weekend. I have very little memory about it. I know everybody was antsy to get in trouble, but I didn't. I had a few beers, watched a movie and got back. That's the only time I remember getting out of, getting off base; one weekend. It was an eight-week basic training. I got sick and 00:47:00almost had to be what's called recycled. Recycled meant that you had to start from square one again. Recycled basic people were looked down upon, and so I had to get better, but I was sicker than I had ever been in my life. I don't know what hit me, but I got out of that hospital, I got back, and I was just able to finish basic.
And actually was, again, my ratings were--they made me a platoon leader. So, Ihad some leadership already, even with that setback, but so I mean really, there wasn't much time for getting out of town or getting a little mini-vacation, 00:48:00because I think the Army knew what was needed. They had to get you to advanced infantry training and get you over to Vietnam.
BROOKS: Tell me about advanced infantry training.
JOHNSON: I went-- I should tell you, between--no, that's right. I had a littlebit of time. I think I went home and saw Judy graduate from college, and then back to South Carolina. I just don't remember doing it, but South Carolina was where I went for advanced infantry training and there, they realized they had me specialized in--I was in Eleven Bravo. MOS was military occupation--your MOS was 00:49:00infantry, but 11C was infantry mortars, and so I was trained for indirect fire. These mortars were something that could fire high explosive stuff a pretty long distance. And also, because the way they were set up, they were mobile--you could actually carry them, it didn't need to be trucked, which was a perfect weapon in Vietnam, because in the Central Highlands, there was no roads. I was trained on mortars, and then during the course of that training they realized that maybe I could do more than that--I could be out where the mortars dropped their explosives and be a forward observer--depth perception, ability to read a map. I was a little older than most of the guys drafted, by a year, and I was 00:50:00kind of calm. Part of that was because I was an introvert and didn't show much emotion, and so they decided I should be a forward observer. So I spent, that was another eight weeks, of doing that.
BROOKS: And that was Fort Bragg, or somewhere else in South Carolina?
JOHNSON: No. [pause]
BROOKS: We can look it up later. I was just wondering.
JOHNSON: Yeah, we could, or it will come to me. Advanced infantry, it was lessdemeaning. I need to probably mention that the barracks were a whole lot newer 00:51:00and nicer, and we had bunk beds and partitions between, and so it was nice. The guy below me, I walked in, and he said, "I won't be here long because I'm queer." I said, "That doesn't bother me, as long as you don't mess with me," and he said, "I'm really trying to get out of this thing." I don't know if he was acting or not, but his eyebrows were shaved and penciled in, he wore makeup--he was doing everything he can to get out. That was an experience, because guys beat him, and I stopped the beatings a couple times, because I thought the guy was a nice guy, and he respected me by not making me a part of his issue. I 00:52:00protected him a little bit, but he did get out. Anyway, that was that part.
Judy, after graduation, and a girlfriend, came to visit me at my new--threemonths before I got drafted, I bought a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda, convertible, midnight-blue metallic with white racer stripes. That was a very tough car, a sharp car--it became her car. And so she got in it with a friend of hers, Judy Coin [sp??], and they drove to South Carolina, and they toured all the way from Boston, down the coast, and they came to see me, and I thought that was really exciting. I was on guard duty the night she got there, and so I got to see her through a fence for five minutes, but that was really cool. 00:53:00
At the end of advanced infantry training, you could go home, and you got yourorders. I remember being outside the barracks and getting my orders, Vietnam--not unexpected. I was hoping for Germany, but Vietnam, and so to go home, my brother, who was a Marine pilot, said, "I'm picking you up." He was stationed somewhere in the States, and he flew a Navy T-28-- small aircraft, a trainer plane--into that fort in South Carolina, and flew in to pick me up. All my buddies that had gone through advanced training, were waiting for the jumbo jets to come and pick them up, and he lands on this, just, "skid, skid, skid, 00:54:00skid," on the big, long airstrip, comes around. I have to get into the flight outfit. People are mistaking me for an officer and they're saluting me. I get in this plane behind him and we fly out of South Carolina. That was an experience. I flew a small aircraft all the way to Chicago, with him, and that was special because for the ten years before that, I seldom saw my brother, he was stationed here and there, and so that was special. That was advanced training, and then I was home for a couple of weeks, before I had to get on a plane to go to Fort Lewis.
BROOKS: How did you spend that time at home?00:55:00
JOHNSON: I stayed at my folks' house, on the North Side. Judy was home, and soit was pretty much, day and night, spending time with her. I saw some friends from high school a couple times. Just relaxing and spending time with my dad, just watching television with him, because that became a big part of his life, and that was it--it was not real eventful. Judy and I talked about what life was going to be like when we get back. Should we get married? Should we get engaged now? We thought "No, we shouldn't." There was the problem of her being a 00:56:00Methodist and me being Catholic, and what are we going to do about that if we get married. So we spent a lot of time talking about this and that. As it turned out, while was in Vietnam, she approached my mom and said, "Would you sponsor me if I took Catholic education and converted to Catholicism?" Well, that made her my mom's favorite daughter in-law, although she never played favorites, but I 00:57:00could tell. I mean, it was just a wonderful thing that she did this on her own, and I found out about it while I was in Vietnam, and it was neat to know. I mean we don't--we're not really active religiously anymore, but at the time it was huge, and a big commitment. Anyway, she must have been thinking about that, and that was it, until it was time to take off.
BROOKS: And Fort Lewis where you had to report to?
JOHNSON: Fort Lewis is in Washington. We were there only a few days, but Iremember seeing the mountain, the snow-covered peak that's up there. You can see it from Fort Lewis almost, and just I remember saying, I loved to get back to this state, it's just a beautiful state. We were there, just being warehoused 00:58:00for a little while, until we got on a plane to go to Vietnam, and that was, I think a nonstop flight. I don't know if it was eighteen to twenty-one hours, or whatever, on a plane-- whooh, that was a long ride.
BROOKS: Who did you go over with?
JOHNSON: I don't know any of them.
BROOKS: Were you formed into a unit by then?
BROOKS: Or, just they were sending individuals?
JOHNSON: Everybody had their individual orders, to report to--the plane flewinto Cam Ranh Bay, I think most planes flew in there. Cam Ranh Bay was on the Pacific Coast, and it was a huge installation, fortified and so forth, and so all planes flew in there, and from there you took smaller planes to wherever in 00:59:00Vietnam you were stationed. I got into Cam Ranh Bay, probably spent, and just remember getting off the plane and just sucking in the air and going "Oh my God, is it hot." And it's not so much the temperature as the humidity in Vietnam. I was not prepared--I didn't know what monsoons meant, but there's summer and winter months, and there's a dry and wet season. The wet season was longer than the dry season, but it just seems like it's humid all the time. During the winter months, it's raining every day at some point, and dry monsoons, it might rain now and then.
We were in Cam Ranh Bay for just a couple days, and then we were flown to01:00:00Pleiku, which is the Central Highlands, some of us were. I actually had linked up with a couple guys from Chicago that I remembered from basic, that "Oh, you turned out to be a mortar also, or are you going to be a forward observer also? Yeah?" And we went to Pleiku, which was in the Central Highlands, again, almost a city. Pleiku was a spot of a number of battles in '66 and '67, but those battles were won and now Pleiku was a pretty established place, heavily fortified. Every now and then they'd get rocket attacks and stuff, but we were there until--we went from there, almost to the border, where I spent nine months with units, patrolling along the border.
BROOKS: And when was it that you went over? Was it like the summer of '68?01:01:00
BROOKS: August, okay.
JOHNSON: I think it was August, yeah.
BROOKS: Right before you left, what were the general thoughts about the war?What was the general, you know, thinking and emotions?
JOHNSON: Yeah. I was aware that stuff was happening in the Ivy League Schools,the protest movement. All I cared about was Judy, and as long as I had her attention I was comforted, but you know, since I got back and while I was there, I suddenly became--you know, I had a lot of feelings of aloneness because all of a sudden this fraternity that I was in, at Northern, for almost three years, 01:02:00nobody wrote me. They could care less, they weren't there, they didn't have to go--they had their deferment. Even the firemen at the fire department, they gave me a really cool lighter as a going away present, but they didn't write. I just was off on my own, and because I was again, an introvert, I'm fine with that. I could take care of things on my own, but still, it was--I think an introvert loves to hear from people, but sometimes it isn't face-to-face. I didn't think it bothered me then, but I was aware of it. 01:03:00
I was aware that the country was starting to be at odds over the issue ofVietnam, the length of time, whether escalating the war was the right thing. That's about all I knew. I didn't know that the president of South Vietnam had-- that there was all kinds of controversy involved in his leadership: corruptness, murder of rivals and things like that. I wasn't aware of any of that, yet freedom of the press--at the time--allowed reporters and people such as 01:04:00yourself, to be right out in the field with the troops, interviewing and taking pictures, and things like that. They stopped doing that, and it wasn't done in some of our recent conflicts, because of the problems that resulted in Vietnam--the My Lai atrocity, and some other things. But at the time it was there, so I mean, it was there, but yet we were--not everything was coming out way as far as what was really happening in Vietnam. The reports were biased, we close to wining it all the time. I felt that our weaponry was superior, that the American soldier was the most advanced soldier, that had resources at their 01:05:00disposal that the enemy didn't, and so I felt comforted in that.
BROOKS: Do you want to take a break right now, before we kind of get into theheavier stuff?
BROOKS: Does that sound good?
BROOKS: All right, let's stop this.
BROOKS: This is the second file of the interview with Darryl Johnson, on March18, 2015, so we'll just pick up where we left off. You were in Pleiku for a few days, it sounded like, and then you moved into your first station maybe?
JOHNSON: Yes. I was going to be in the 4th Infantry Division, which was in theCentral Highlands. It's considered, like II Corps at the time, and Central Highlands are hilly. I was told that it would be a little bit like the 01:06:00Appalachians, in that--a very old mountain range that didn't have majestic peaks and snowcapped mountains and things, but just a lot of hills and a lot of high hills. It turned out that there was some places that we stayed at, that were fourteen, eighteen-hundred feet above sea level, and some of the smallest hills were just a hundred feet or two hundred feet above sea level.
So, we're going to Pleiku, and landed in Pleiku, in a large helicopter, aChinook, got off, and was there, in barracks type situation, still not really 01:07:00knowing. I was there for a couple of days, eating hot chow. Got my first assignment, of having to steer the ship, in large concentrations of, you know, where there was several--a company is about a hundred to 120 men at the time. If you had a couple companies somewhere, usually we were at a base that was established, well fortified, and going to be there for a while, and Pleiku had been there for a couple years. To take care of normal functions, you would dig holes in the ground and put big barrels in there, and build a wooden platform over it, and you did your business there. And out of the back of the wooden 01:08:00structures, there would be a flap. You would open the flap, pull the barrel out, put a bunch of diesel fuel or gas in there, and then burn it, and then it would be all set for the next guys. "Well, did I really come here for that?" That was the only time I had to do that though, because in the boonies, in the Central Highlands, you basically didn't have toilets, and you buried whatever you did. So, I mean, that's the thing I remember about Pleiku, other than later in my tour, I went back to Pleiku and was attacked in Pleiku. Up to that point, that's 01:09:00all I remember.
Then I was put on a Huey helicopter, and flown to my unit--I was going to bepart of the 1st of the 22nd. I got there and it was at a location that was close to the border, the Cambodian border, in a company that was on this hill, so it was pretty well fortified, and I met the fellow that was going to teach me how to be a forward observer--he was the current forward observer. There were five companies in a battalion, and four of them usually were what you called line troops. These are the guys that are going to go out on patrol, and then a 01:10:00Headquarters Company. I was part of Headquarters Company, assigned to one of these four companies, to be a forward observer, and so I was with Charlie Company the first time. Alpha, Beta, Charlie and Delta Company. And so I was Charlie Company for a couple of months. My forward observer that I learned everything from was Tom Davidson, and again, I remember it being--you know, I always tell the people the first day is the toughest, to the extent that you don't know what's going on, you've got to listen to everything, you hope you don't forget anything. It was pretty overwhelming the first day, but we were in a secure area, and I just knew, without any kind of training, I knew that I had to start reading maps that were topographical maps, which were not street maps, 01:11:00and that I was going to have to judge distances and things like that, and so over the first--Tom was just a wonderful guy, and I hooched with him and Doc Kelly [sp??], who was a medic. Doc Kelly was a wonderful guy too, and it was a great combination of personalities.
BROOKS: Can you explain what you mean by hooched?
JOHNSON: Your hooch out in the boonies, there's a couple of different designs,but sometimes you would just--most every soldier carried a poncho in South Vietnam, it was a very lightweight thing that shed water but yet was light and could block the sun. If you had a poncho and I had a poncho, we'd make a tent, 01:12:00we'd string them up at the middle and make a tent, and just lay under the tent--you could do it that way. More advanced-- and that was your hooch, you called it. Sometimes, I remember, I have pictures, that guys made them into teepees. They did like three guys, and they made them round, and they got poles, and they made a teepee.
Most of the time you would dig a hole about three to four-feet deep in theground, if you could dig, if the ground was workable, and you would dig a hole, three feet deep, and then at the very bottom of the hole, the length of the hole would be four-feet deep, but then you would have like a platform that was just two-feet deep, and that's what you laid on, or you sat on it and had your feet 01:13:00down in the--and that way, you would be in the ground a little bit, like dug in, in case we were attacked or had a rocket attack. You'd put your ponchos over the top of that, to keep the rain or the sun off, and that was your hooch. Most of the year, that's the way we--if we were going to be somewhere for a week or two, that's what we would do, we'd dig in. Sometimes, we were provided sandbags, and you'd dig the dirt out of there and put it in the sandbags, and you'd have a wall that was way up there, and that was nice and you felt safe and secure.
Other times during the year, I didn't have a hooch, and you just slept on theground. I'd say about a third of the time I was there, you just stopped and you 01:14:00slept, and that was it. Guys who were in a more secure area, like in Pleiku the city, type of thing, you would have a bed or a cot or something. Out here, some guys, if it was pretty secure, they slept on air mattresses. You'd blow them up, and you'd sleep on an air mattress, and hope you don't get a leak. Way out in the boonies, when you traveled with patrols, small patrols--and about a third of the time I was with seven or eight people, just traveling along the border, looking for any kind of activity we could find--there, you didn't use the air mattresses, we didn't even take them with us, because they make too much noise. When you turn or roll on an air mattress, it makes a noise, and you wanted to be absolutely silent. But, there, we had our mattresses and we built our hooch. 01:15:00
BROOKS: Tell me more about what it means to be a forward observer. You'reattached to a company and what do you do?
JOHNSON: A forward observer's job is to know where you are, know where indirectsupporting fire is. Indirect supporting fire are artillery pieces, mortar pieces, or if there was a base, or if you can get airstrikes--indirect fire. A platoon, company, or just a small patrol, it was one of the huge advantages we had in fighting in Vietnam, is that we had indirect fire almost everywhere we went--the enemy didn't, not all the time. The enemy transported their rockets or 01:16:00things like that, or mortars. They had small mortars that they would just carry on their shoulders--we had bigger pieces. And so in the Central Highlands, they struggled to get control over the Central Highlands, the U.S., the Army, for a couple of years.
The Tet Offensive, in 1968, I missed. I was very lucky, I got there in August,and the Tet Offensive was going on from the beginning of the year up until then. But after the Tet Offensive, the Central Highlands, the 4th Infantry Division, had good control over it, to where we had artillery and mortar on tops of the higher hills, almost everywhere. Any patrol, along the border or back inland more, was in range of artillery, and a forward observer would know where that's 01:17:00at, and would know how to operate a radio, to be able to give directions or locations under code--because you didn't want the enemy to know where you were at, so you gave everything in code. The codes were changed now and then, so I was given codes every week or more, and then I learned to use the code to give locations of where I am and where my target is. I had to be able to visually be able to estimate distance in a jungle very accurately and if you didn't, you could be hitting the wrong people. I did this by using a compass, measuring 01:18:00distance between known hilltops and where I am. If I had two known hilltops, that on the map said these were the tallest hilltops, there it is, over there, and here's the direction, via compass. I could intersect them, and that's where I was. I could do that very well, and then I could estimate how far the enemy was, and I could call to a location that had artillery pieces, and if those artillery pieces were over here--if I was here, and the enemy was there, the artillery had to be here or here. They could not, they will not fire over friendly troops.
BROOKS: They had to be to the side.
JOHNSON: I could do that and I could get explosive rounds on that target, andgenerally, I could do it within three minutes. If we had guys that got in trouble or were ambushed or whatever, I could get a wall of fire in front of 01:19:00them, so that the enemy couldn't get at them, sometimes. Three minutes was a long time, I could do it that quick, no matter what I was doing. So, I felt that's what I was beginning to learn from Tom. Usually, the forward observer's job, when he was with a company of people, occupying a hilltop, would say this company needs to be protected, so you put pre-planned targets. If there was a trail over here, between a village that passed over here, you'd put a target on that trail, so that if at night you were attacked, that was a known target, you'd plot it. Some day, you'd go out there and you just fire until you hit the trail, and you say "Okay, mark it there" and at the back of the guns, they would mark that as a target--your target one. And then a target over here--target two, 01:20:00down in the valley, a target over here by the creek--three. And you'd surround yourself with known targets, and so if you were attacked, you'd call the guns and say, "Fire mission, over. Locate target three, from target three, drop five-zero, left five-zero, fifty yards." and you'd start firing there. If it was right on target right away, you'd fire for effect, and that's kind of what we did, is manage indirect fire.
That's how it went with artillery and mortars. If it was an airstrike and youhad jets, or we had some propeller planes that were very well-armed, you would locate the enemy's position and yours, and you would locate the airstrike to fly 01:21:00this way and that way, so that they weren't, again, flying over your position but over them, and you would tell them whether they needed to bring it in closer, closer, closer. Sometimes we brought it in almost on top of ourselves, but it was very tricky and could get very dangerous if you didn't call it in right. The worst thing a forward observer wanted to do was kill one of your own troops because of a miscalculation on your part. The best thing you wanted to do was be able to have fire at a spot quick. That's what I did all day long, plotted targets, measured. I kept my radio in working order. It weighed almost 01:22:00thirty pounds--it was a big, honking thing, the batteries were ten pounds each, and you had to carry an extra battery, just like you do.
BROOKS: Yeah. Got to be prepared.
JOHNSON: What else for forward observers? Usually traveled with--some units hadan artillery forward observer, who was an officer, like a lieutenant or even a captain, and these guys were supposed to know everything. You would hooch together. I was a little bit apart from the guys who were on the line--the guys on the line were the guys carrying machineguns, M-16s, shotguns, and they were our line troopers. I'd stay in a little bit different location and work on my maps, but yet, I always wanted to be with those line guys, because they were 01:23:00protecting me. If we did the job right, I wouldn't be firing an M-16 at the enemy, I'd be getting the airstrike on them, and they would be firing and keeping the enemy off of me. So that's the way it's supposed to work.
There were periods where you were busy with preparation, there were periodswhere it was incredibly boring and there was periods that just were, the shit was hitting the fan. So, I had time, almost every day, to write letters. About two thirds of the time, I was with a company or larger size. The adrenaline was 01:24:00flowing the third of the time when I was out, just with seven or eight people, on long-range reconnaissance patrols, and that was exciting, but it was hairy. That's when I felt that I was most well-used, and why I felt that I was as good as it got, in terms of being a forward observer, because we never lost a guy.
BROOKS: Does a forward observer work by themselves then, it sounds like?
JOHNSON: You are on your own. You usually have a radio operator with you.
BROOKS: Okay that's--
JOHNSON: He's right on your hip and you get the radio while you're working yourcompass and map, keep the radios right there, not to be separated. But a lot of times the radio operators that were sent to me couldn't handle it and had to be sent back for one reason or another--they just couldn't take the pressure, they 01:25:00didn't have good radio communication skills. I don't know why they sent them to me in the first place. But generally, they just, fear was too much of a factor for them and they had to be sent back. I'd say most of the time, I had to carry my own radio, which you know, I complained and bitched and moaned about it all the time to headquarters, but in a way, I always felt as though I felt a little bit more macho. The line troopers respected me, I got respect.You are off on your own, but when things were quiet and peaceful, you'd want to be talking and shooting the bull with the guys on the line, and eating with them and things 01:26:00like that. But there were just times--I mean they're cleaning their weapons, I've got to be cleaning my map.
BROOKS: So tell me, is there anything else about Tom Davidson, anything else youlearned from him that you can share?
JOHNSON: A couple of things. He was engaged also. He was a nice guy, willing todo stuff for me. He sent me things after he left. I thought he prepared me as well as anybody could have. I was there for almost three months with Tom, and we talked about his St. Louis and my Chicago. We read books when there was time and we now and then experimented with food, to make things a little bit more lively. 01:27:00He would get things from his fiancé, I'd get things from Judy. I'd get packets of dry Kool-Aid and Kool-Aid and warm, in--you know, in water, a canteen of water, tasted pretty good. Nothing ever got cool. He got chili powder, and so we separated C-Rations, beans, and some other C-Rations, and we put chili powder, and we made like chili one night, and that was exciting, because you ate pretty much one of ten choices, and very often you only had one of two or three choices, a helicopter would come in. If you were on a small patrol, you carried enough food with you to last a week, and nobody saw you or picked you up until it was time to come back. But when you're with a larger group, helicopters would come in and re-supply you all the time, sometimes with hot food--hot chow--and 01:28:00that was good, but often it was just C-Rations. You had limited choices, so you found humor in almost everything.
Tom found a way of laughing about almost anything. Leeches on our legs, rot onour faces, would happen, you'd get these little infections, that the medic would come and look and say, "Oh, that scab looks pretty good, leave that one there, that one you've got to scrape off, and re-scab it up, and we'll take a look at it in two days." You had this crotch-rot and foot-rot, and you'd laugh--he taught me how to laugh about anything. Someone's got it worse somewhere. So, he 01:29:00was my age but yet, he had been there, so he gave me everything he learned in his almost six months being a forward observer. One of the things I struggled with after I left was never getting in touch with him, never, trying to--and other people I was with, I just never got back in touch. Maybe some day, maybe when I'm eighty, we'll get in touch, I don't know, but he was, I think, had a lot to do with me making it there, through the year.
BROOKS: And did he leave just because his tour was up?
JOHNSON: Usually, you were a forward observer for six months out of your twelve,and then the next six months, they bring you into a base camp, where the guns 01:30:00are stationed at, and you are part of what's called the Fire Direction Center. The forward observers radio you and you give the instructions to the guns, as to how the guns should be aimed, and that was all numbers and degrees from whatever stake they were aiming at. That was a much more secure, in a bunker type thing towards the rear, and those guns were firing, supporting the forward observer and patrols that were out deep in the jungle. Usually, you were six months out there, and then you'd come in and you'd get an R&R out of country. There were 01:31:00several places to choose from. He went to Hawaii to meet his fiancé and then came back to Fire Direction Control, and spent his next five months there. He was the one I was on the phone with a lot of times, after I was out there. I was forward observer. I couldn't come in to the direction control center ten months, and so I was out there a lot longer than most, because at the time, they needed a good forward observer out there, and some of the other had made mistakes, some of the other got killed. So I was out there longer than usual. Because of that, you might get promotions. I was promoted a specialist and then a sergeant, and 01:32:00usually, for someone in the Army for only one year, to be a sergeant already, that was pretty good. That was your tour. The six to nine months, ten months in my case, out in the field, that was the part that was way different than Chicago.
BROOKS: Tell me about some of the first kind of conflicts you found yourself in.
JOHNSON: Lucky enough to where the first one, I was not with this platoon, andthey were a couple of kilometers from us. I just was listening to the radio and 01:33:00hearing that they had come under attack and they needed everything available, because they felt as though they were being outmatched, overrun. And so I just listened to it on the radio, how this forward observer handled it--that was good. I could just imagine what they were going through, because the enemy was on top of them almost. He was calling in artillery, and so that memory included a thing called, it was a Gatling gun--well, I'll think of it. It was this plane that was outfitted with Gatling guns that could fire an incredible amount of 01:34:00fire in a very short period of time. I could see this plane banking, and hearing the guns and seeing the tracers from the guns, and all it sounded like was a purr, "puuuurrrrrrr." You didn't hear individual bullets being fired, it was just a purr, and then listening to him saying, "That's close, that's close, bring it a little closer." That went on most of the night and it was done in a few hours. Puff the Magic Dragon was what we called, I want to--and there was 01:35:00another term for it, "Puff the Magic Dragon--bring him in."
BROOKS: Is the name of the plane, that's what you called it?
JOHNSON: Called it Puff the Magic Dragon, and there was another name for it too,but it was outfitted with these brand new Gatling guns that could fire--if it made a pass over a football field and just passed one, it would put a bullet in every square foot of that football field, so anything that was there was going to get shot. So if you had Puff in the area, and you could draw it in on the target. That was a problem though, was getting it right on the target, having the ability to estimate the right distance. So, I listened to that, and then it wasn't more than a week later that I was on patrol with Company C. It was a platoon, so it was about twenty guys, and they saw something in the distance, 01:36:00and I saw the movement, and they fired. Nobody was close to it but they knew what it was, just listening, and they were putting fire there and fire came in return. I remember a bullet striking a tree, it was like right there, and whoa, that got my attention, and I just was able to plot a target, get the fire out there, and it was artillery fire that just kind of blew up that whole--and I fired for effect, and it all was quiet. We patrolled down there, we didn't spot anything. There was no blood trails or anything, so it was like "Oh, darn, we 01:37:00must not have got anything." I was looking for something, you know, that I could hang my hat on, but that was it.
The next mission was closer yet. Again, this time was just with a squad of sevenpeople, and we were traveling in very dense foliage, very hard to see. There was what we called elephant grass. Elephant grass would be as high as this, eight to ten feet tall, and I mean, I would not see him through the elephant grass. I could see the grass moving--if he was moving--and I would not be able to see twenty feet in front of me through this elephant grass. We were moving through the elephant grass and our point person got shot in the foot and was screaming, 01:38:00and everybody was panicking--not really though, I mean they were just so good. They moved right out and spread out and attacked where the fire was coming from, and we were firing. I laid down, with my back to a tree, and I started figuring exactly where we were, and I was calling fire mission, and there was this movement right over here and it was coming right at me. I took my M-16 and shot and it stopped, and I called in, finished the fire mission. It was like so many things that guys could remember about Vietnam, it was over, like in minutes. You had small, small things, in the Central Highlands. The enemy, I think was trying 01:39:00to probe and see where we were at. We were probing, trying to see where they were at, and sometimes it just was unavoidable, you came in contact.
After that was over, we were quiet and we were all looking. The guy was--we hadhis foot under control. He lost his foot, but it was kind of dangling at the time and we stopped the bleeding, he was going to be okay. We have to make sure--we have to get back to a comfortable landing, an area that we could be extracted. Our position had been compromised--we had to get out of there. There's only seven us, who knows, there could be a hundred of them out there somewhere. I'm calling in for an extraction--we knew a place about eight hundred meters over there, that would be a good clearing--but first we had to make sure out here, where we had been attacked from, was secured. To do that, we just all 01:40:00lined up and we moved out, to see if we could draw fire. We went only about ten feet, nothing, went another ten feet, nothing, and then I like tripped over this thing. I thought it was a log and it was a body. And so I'm pretty sure it was what I had fired at right out here, because everybody else was over there. At first, it was like jubilation, like "We got one, I killed a gook." and that we're okay, we're going to be able to get out of here, and let's take him and bring him back to the base, and it's like bringing home our kill.
The chopper said it was going to be about five minutes out, and so we started01:41:00going through his stuff and took his weapon. I have a picture where I'm holding his AK-47 and comparing it with the M-16. I'm going through his stuff and he has papers I couldn't understand, but he had a wallet, and I realized this wallet looks just like mine--the guy is human. I opened it and he's got--it's just like my wallet. In the meantime, I had dug in his other pocket, and here's his rations, which was a ball of rice wrapped in endless pieces of like plastic 01:42:00wrap, and I'm going, "This is what this guy eats? I've done a whole lot better than him." I dig into his wallet, I open it up, and snap open the picture part, and there's a picture of him in like dress uniform--this guy was sharp. I'm looking and I'm going, "He's not as small as I thought all Vietnamese are either." I turned the page, and it was a picture of he and his wife and two kids, and I didn't know what to do. It was like--I had to kill him, but why did I have to find this, you know. That bothered me for a long time, the image of, 01:43:00of eliminating a family. Why did it have to be me? And so that bothered me, but I realized that, you know, if I hadn't killed him, he'd have killed me for sure. I rationalized it, but it just never left me. That was my first kill and it happened pretty quick, pretty soon. Later on, other things weren't as dramatic, but it happened several times, but not like that.
That's the way it went, little patrols like that, for quite some time, and somebig patrols. Lots of times you just never saw anything, lots of times you would just travel and then get to your--you always had a predetermined place that you wanted to wind up at. So, once you got there, you would call it in, and so they 01:44:00know where you were at. Lots of times we would see nothing in the Central Highlands--until the Tet Offensive of '68--was fairly secure. I mean the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were always moving in and around, but never got any until they mounted the Tet Offensive. Villages always felt fairly safe. Many times, our missions were to surround and inspect villages, or just be in the area of villages.
BROOKS: With those villages, did you have any interactions with the local folks there?
JOHNSON: Yeah. I always liked being near the villages, that were the Montagnard01:45:00villages. Montagnards were ancient people who had been doing things the same way for thousands of years, and they were farmers. They would have their village, for part of the monsoons, it would be here, and there would be buildings that would last for a number of years, and then they had villages that were out where they planted rice and other crops, that they would sort of, I suppose, stay for just a few days, and then come back to the main village. I liked being near them. The Montagnards didn't necessarily want to recognize us, because as soon as we left, the Viet Cong would come back and punish them, if they showed any kind of favoritism to us. Sometimes we stayed near but did not interact with 01:46:00them much, but they knew we were there. Everybody knew where American troops were, we were so noisy. I mean, as quiet as we tried--only when I was with a small, small, small patrol, did I feel like we were really quiet and could sneak up on anything. Those villages were nice--the Montagnards, also sometimes, if they felt that they were in opposition to communists, we would outfit them. Their troops got training and we felt that they were good to be around, and could fight as good as us.
The ARVN troops, Republic of Vietnam troops, we didn't trust. We didn't think01:47:00that they had their heart in it. Most of those guys came from the city. I realized that Vietnam was more than just the Central Highlands. There was Saigon and Hue, and the cities, the urban areas were one thing. The Montagnards and the central highlands and the border areas, were completely rural, agricultural. I liked being with the Montagnards, they fought well. They were fighting to protect their own village, so they fought with everything they had. And, we interacted with them at times. There was a bridge over a river once, and we had to go over that bridge, and we swapped stuff, and I sent things homes--a dress 01:48:00that could never fit my wife, but it was cute and I sent it home. Not a dress--it was the pants and the top that Vietnamese women would wear-- and it's just cute. That was good.
Later on, there was a time we were protecting a village and the kids came andplayed with us all the time, and we'd make a ball and we'd throw the ball around. We never had the typical Vietnam War movie stuff, where the kid would strap himself with a bomb and blow himself up. That never happened, I never saw that--that's kind of Hollywood. It happened but not often enough to make it part 01:49:00of so many movies. These kids played with us and we were with that village for a couple of weeks, and then we had to be taken somewhere else. I was on the phone wondering why, "Well, someone else is going to relieve you there, we need your unit over here." "Why not just keep our unit here and have them go there?" I argued but it didn't work, we'd gone, and that village got overrun, completely destroyed, burned, and it's just a huge amount of guilt, because those people showed affection for us and we showed affection for them, and most of them were killed. I wondered about the little kids. So, there was a lot of guilt with that, but that was the only village, big problem that we ever had. 01:50:00
I remember one time, going into a village, and the village elder, old guy, whitehair, coming out to me and being nice. This is maybe the first village that we had surrounded, and now we were going to search, to see if there's any sign of Viet Cong activity in the village, or a cachet of weapons or anything. And so while the guys are searching, we're being respectful, and he's bringing me this bottle and in it is sloshing around, a bunch of stuff on the bottom. My radio operator--who, at the time, knew a little bit about it--he said, "Keep a smile on your face and drink it." I said okay, and it was rice wine, and there was 01:51:00stuff on the bottom, and I thanked him, and I took it and I took a shot, and it just burned and the taste was horrible, but I kept the smile on my face and he said, "Now take a second shot." "Nooo". I did, and he seemed so pleased that I did, and so I offered him some C-Rations, and he was happy about that good trade. I just remember that as being okay, there's our diplomacy in action. So, but I said to some of these guys, at the time I was a sergeant and I said, "You have to go over there and check that hooch out there, especially under the hooch, it looks like someone could dig--and you, go over there." One of the guys 01:52:00who had been on the line for a long time came up to me and said, "Do you know what you're doing?" I said, "Yeah, I'm telling them to check things out.' He says, "No, don't ever point. If you're going to point, you point like this."
BROOKS: With your palm up.
JOHNSON: Palm up. He said, "Don't point your finger, that's like giving them thebird." But I wasn't pointing at one of them, so I was okay with that--if I was pointing at one of the villagers like that, that would be very disrespectful. The same thing with taking pictures. If I wanted to take a picture of the old guy, I would have to ask permission, and in most of the cases, they did not want their picture taken. If somebody who was at all attached or familiar with the Viet Cong, they could report that, and the elders were the most susceptible to be threatened, killed, tortured, than anybody. So those were villages. The 01:53:00beauty of Vietnam is in that Central Highlands, I think, in that there's just so much. Most everything there, for kilometer after kilometer after kilometer, is just foot paths, and beautiful vegetation. In the winter, rivers, streams and waterfalls are everywhere, and in the dry monsoons, there's rivers, but not--the streams dry up, so do the waterfalls a little bit, but the vegetation is just gorgeous. I appreciated it then, but I'd love to see it again. And then there were the areas that we were in that were defoliated, that was difficult. Defoliated areas, I felt more secure in, because you could see, and if you could 01:54:00see them before they see you, you have the advantage. If you could see them and they see you at the same time but they're at a distance, you had the advantage, because you had indirect fire, to get on top of them. We were defoliating a lot of areas, and I thought it was a big advantage. I didn't know that they were toxic, that Agent Orange--I didn't even know what Agent Orange was.
Soon after coming home from Vietnam, when I heard about Agent Orange, I knewthat I was in it. I got tested, but I don't know if it has ever had any effect on me. Who would know? They asked if it had an effect on my sex life. I didn't 01:55:00have a sex life, how would I know? Did it affect my mental cognition? I never was a deep thinker, how would I know? So it was like how do you know. But as it's turned out, I don't have any cancers or things that other people have. Our daughter seemed to be healthy--she has health issues now. I don't know if that's because of Agent Orange. I don't know, but the areas that were defoliated now, I mean that stays in the soil for so long, that I wish we hadn't done it. I feel a certain guilt in what our country was doing with some of our weaponry and things like defoliants, and napalm and things, that to me--I wish we had never used them. 01:56:00
BROOKS: Do you know anything about what the strategy was in terms of what wasdefoliated and where?
JOHNSON: There were areas that had been sort of like sanctuaries, you know youcould send troops in. In the Central Highlands, they defoliated a lot of areas where the North Vietnamese had come across the border, because they could move along Cambodia and Laos, with impunity, and then come into anywhere they wanted to, and then they would bury caches of materials and supplies. They built underground tunnel systems that were used as hospitals, and headquarters and operating, and they were very hard to spot and detect. For a couple of years, 01:57:00there was a lot of battling back and forth in those areas, for control, and meanwhile, all these villages and thousands of people living in villages, were either "Is it the U.S., or is it the North Vietnamese? Is it the Viet Cong, is it--who?" And they're stuck in the middle, and you'd like to have control over that area. Once we did beat back the Tet Offensive of '67, we had control, and I think defoliation was going on then, in about 25 percent of the areas of the Central Highland, and sure enough, we didn't have a whole lot of problems in those areas after that. I think that was a strategy, is to eliminate the cover 01:58:00that the NVA could have in taking lots of time to bury and dig tunnel systems.
BROOKS: What did a defoliated area look like when you got there?
JOHNSON: All the leaves off of trees. Sometimes it was areas that were bothbombed and defoliated, so some of the pictures I have, the trees are sort of scarred from fire--that's not defoliation. Basically, just a lot of gray trees with nothing on them, and so now, all of a sudden your vision is so much--you could see so much further into forest--jungle. Much of the Central Highlands and 01:59:00Vietnam has got a triple canopy--you have low-growing bushes and shrubs that are ten feet tall. Then you had short trees that are twenty to a hundred feet tall, and then you had the canopy of trees over the top of that, that were maybe a couple of hundred feet tall. Well, from the air, because we had air superiority, you'd take pictures and stuff and all you see is vegetation. If you got rid of the top and the middle vegetation, there still was this lower vegetation that people can move around in and bury things. The defoliation took care of all of it and it was eerie walking through it, eerie, but we felt secure and we didn't know it was toxic. Of course, we weren't eating the ground or anything, but you're inhaling the stuff. It was creepy, yeah. I don't--you felt more secure 02:00:00walking on trails when the areas were defoliated, so you can get to places quicker, by staying on a trail, whereas when it wasn't defoliated, you wanted to stay off the trails, because that's where ambushes could occur, that's where booby-traps could be placed. We would much rather take much more time getting from point A to B, and stay off trails, than on trails.
BROOKS: Do you want to tell me about a few of these things that you wrote downhere? Well, you had mentioned Doc Kelly before. Did you want to talk about him at all any more?
JOHNSON: He's a black guy and I lived with him, and joked with him and ate with02:01:00him. He taught me what St. Louis was like, growing up in a similar neighborhood in St. Louis as I lived in, in Chicago. I just thought--I saw Doc Kelly, I never saw him carrying a weapon. He just was so committed to being a medic and a good one, that even in a firefight, he would expose himself, running from one person to another, and as far as I know he made it, but for those three months that I was there, I just thought that he had, he was fearless. Yet, when we would get back to base and we would talk, I could tell he had fears and he had emotions, 02:02:00but he would be fearless and just, he did not hesitate to move out there. You know, he would tend to an enemy trooper too, and he didn't wear a big white helmet with a red cross on it or anything, he looked like a regular troop. I just admired him for that and just, that's, that's my memory of him.
BROOKS: Probably not the best segue, but right above that, on your things toinclude you have "Race fight".
BROOKS: Is that a specific incident?
JOHNSON: You spent a number of months training, then you spend a couple ofmonths in the field with all these guys--black and white. You know what's going 02:03:00on at home, that the Civil Rights Act has been passed now, but there's demonstrations in a lot of cities for voting rights and things like that. I mean, our source of news is a small paper called the Stars and Stripes that the Army produces. I think it might have had a little bias to it-- maybe a big bias--but everything you read in there glowed of how well we were doing, and that there's no problems at home, though they did have articles about demonstrations, and these people on campus that are being brought from one campus to another, just to stir things up. But there was no talk of the race 02:04:00relations in the United States--it was just the protest movement--but you knew it was going on. And here we are, out in the field, I felt as close to Hispanic guys, were becoming fairly large numbers in the service at the time, and black guys, a lot of them, and I had no trouble.
Then I go back to base camp, to Pleiku, for just a few days, because I have toget a new rifle, my rifle was destroyed. I'm back in Pleiku, and in these barracks, these redneck guys from Louisiana, started picking on a couple black guys--I thought they were picking on them. The black guys were standing up to 02:05:00them, not backing off, and the Louisiana boys--who had numbers--certainly weren't backing down. Words led to shoves, shoves led to fists, fists led to knives, and I'm going "Holy shit, I just killed a guy a few weeks earlier, and now my own guys, and there's knives?" That, that was very difficult to deal with. I just wanted to get out of there. I'd rather be up along the border, where I knew I had control of my own environment. I had no control.
And so there were fights, and usually it was guys who were in base camp foralmost a whole year, and lonely for home probably, and they get together and 02:06:00form little groups with guys like them, and so there was the Southern boys and the black boys. The cities, or the base camps, they weren't segregated, but there was some race problems going on there, and I just found it disgusting. "What are we doing in Vietnam if we can't take care of our own situation--racial situation?" Okay, so it was for the first time in my life, I had to try and break up a fight--which I felt like I had to do--and I'd just see knives flashing here and there. Fortunately, these guys realized I was there trying to break it up, because I could have got stabbed real easy, and help break it up. 02:07:00
Then it happened twice, and then I went to a movie, and outside the movie, Istart walking towards the barracks I was in, and this was a couple months later, when I was going to my R&R. I come out of a movie, heading back, and a guy is following me, and there's nobody around, everybody else went that way, and I'm going this way. He's following me and he pulls out a knife, I could see it, and I start running, and he starts running, and he's as close to me as you are, and he's not saying anything, he's just coming after me with this knife. Why me? I just got speed that I never knew I had, and he could never get any closer than you were, but I mean the knife seemed like it was--and I had dreams about a 02:08:00knife being--you know, it's getting closer, closer. I just outran him. I had dreams where I could fly and get away. But I just found that so--"Why, you know, after being in the field, am I fighting to survive right in my own base camp?" I don't know what he was after, but I just bolted into a barracks breathless, and these guys who didn't know me from Adam, said, "What the hell are you doing here?" And I said, "This guy is chasing me." "Well, stay as long as you want." I went back and I mean, I was tiptoeing, looking everywhere, and I was just very paranoid. But that, that was a crazy, crazy experience.
Bad things were happening that to me were disgusting. I didn't get an in-country02:09:00R&R. Most troops, after about six months, would go to Saigon, and you could blow off steam in Saigon. Well, it became just guys acting out whenever they went there, shacking up with prostitutes, gambling, getting in fights and stuff like that. They had to end it in '68, and I'm kind of glad I didn't get to go. But those kind of experiences were, to me, they were sickening, you know, if you're fighting a war. I know atrocities occurred in World War II far worse than Vietnam, but they were never reported because there was no reporters there, or 02:10:00if they were, they weren't right on the frontline. I know rape and things like that occurred far more often in World War II than Vietnam, but it's just that it got me thinking that our mission is not pure, that we're going to lose this thing, and I have no control over it. Now, instead of fighting for victory, I'm fighting just to survive--that's a big difference. You can't win when all your troops are thinking that way. I felt guilty about that. If someone was going to ask me to go somewhere voluntarily, I'd have to think about it, think it over real strong. I wouldn't just volunteer for the good of the cause, no way. 02:11:00
BROOKS: Were you ever able, or did you ever--well, we'll stick with that. Wereyou ever able to report that man had chased you, or just any of your concerns, to an officer or anybody higher up?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Where the guy chased me, I was leaving on a helicopter the nextmorning, so I don't think I reported it, but the racial thing, I wrote a report on it, what I saw, and the guys that I thought were responsible, and so beyond that, I don't know how they were disciplined or anything, because I was out of there and gone. It was a tough situation for any army to keep a lid on things like that, especially when you have six hundred thousand people there and the six hundred thousand is changing over so fast. It had to be very difficult. I 02:12:00think sometimes officers--my impression is that they wouldn't want to be bothered with it anyway.
BROOKS: Did you talk amongst the other troops ever? Was there any kind of outletfor you to kind of express your frustration?
JOHNSON: The other guys, the southern boys that were in the units I was with,all were disgusted by it too, and they couldn't believe it. "That's not the way it is down home by us, you know, we're getting along just fine." In retrospect, at the time, I probably thought it was happening all over base camp, in every base camp it was happening, and in retrospect, it might have just been an 02:13:00incident that I was close to, that just affected me for a long time because it was so surprising. I think it was happening a lot, and now today, it's still a problem--race and women in the service today. Those that are dealing with PTSD, women, in many cases, it's because of rape, or abuse of some sort. The military has always had a special situation in our culture, of dealing with issues that we don't see in our neighborhoods. I both admire, but yet criticize, because 02:14:00people should know what the right thing is to do, and not have to be forced. Those kinds of things disgust me, the way we handled ourselves amongst ourselves sometimes, and then sometimes we showed brutality to the Vietnamese people, you know we're in their country and yet, we're throwing things at them and mistreating them. There was an incident where I was on a truck, a convoy. Most of the time, I was on helicopters, going from one--but one time we were on a truck convoy and I'm just fascinated by this, because we're on a dirt--it's called a highway but it's a dirt road, that leads through the Central Highlands. We were going through villages, and I'm seeing permanent concrete block 02:15:00structures and I'm fascinated by this, and village life--[disconnects microphone]. Whoops.
BROOKS: I've gotcha.
JOHNSON: The microphone came off. Thank you.
BROOKS: There you go.
JOHNSON: As soon as people, as soon as villagers, would hear a convoy comingthrough, they would come out to the roadway and they would either offer something in trade, like cold drinks, and they'd be cold--very popular, to get a cold Pepsi--and in exchange, you give them some of your C-Rations, or money. You'd be doing that when the convoy would slow at an intersection or something 02:16:00and you could hand it down. Other little ones would be out there begging, just offering their hands, and you'd take a can of peaches in juice--which you might not want to get rid of that, but okay--or crackers, or something, and you'd just extend your hand over the side and the little kid would grab it [pause]. Guys took this as an opportunity to fling hockey-puck sized cans at little kids, and when you get them, "I got a head shot," and just plink them. You know, I'm doing this and I see a truck ahead of us, these guys started flinging things, and a woman got hit, and a kid, and it's like, "Hey, hey!" I'm hollering at them, for 02:17:00them to stop, and they're just laughing, and then guys on our truck start doing it too--not everybody, but just a few. It was the first time in my life that I stood up to a guy, and this guy was huge, and I stood up to him and said, "Stop it, you have to stop it." "Are you going to stop me?" type of thing, and I said, "I will." He flings it and I wrestle with him. He beat the crap out of me. I wasn't hurt real bad, but it felt like I got the crap beat out of me. But, the other guys on the truck realized what was going on, and we're fighting in the middle of this truck, and both of us are more wrestling and nobody can really get a punch, but I'm punching him in the gut and he's hitting me on the face, from about here, and so nobody's doing much damage, but we were yelling. 02:18:00Meanwhile, these guys pull us off of each other and order is restored, and he wanted to, you know, because he's so big, he wanted to go start flinging things at people again, but the other guys said hey, cut it out, and I felt like I stopped him.
There's a book that was out at the time, called The Ugly American, which I don'tknow if I ever read the whole thing, but it talked about how arrogant we are--were--and I don't think we're much different today. I think we're still pretty arrogant around the world, and that's just an example--you can't win the hearts and minds of people by doing stuff like that. There was the race stuff that we talked about, but that was happening all the time on convoys, and I 02:19:00don't know how officers wouldn't stand up to their men and stop it, like right now. If I saw that happen, I'm afraid I'd have to--I'd shoot a guy, rather than let him do it, because I think he's just as much the enemy. But anyway, that was my experience and it bothered me, I had dreams about it.
BROOKS: Obviously, I mean it still affects you to a certain degree, but whileyou were there, did you have any coping mechanisms for dealing with that, those issues, or for kind of having trauma from combat? Did you have anything that helped you cope?
JOHNSON: I think I did, without knowing or thinking that I need a copingmechanism. I think I did. You found humor in everything, you laughed about it. There was a saying we used, you know, "It don't mean nothing." We would use it 02:20:00all the time, "It don't mean nothing. That little fight back at Pleiku the other day, that don't mean nothing. We're here now, you and me, and you'll watch me, I'll watch you. It don't mean nothing." And so you'd shrug things off with sarcasm, which I wasn't very good at. In the seventies, people were really cool if they could be ultra-sarcastic, they were really cool, and I could never get it. I wouldn't understand their sarcasm and I didn't try it, and so I always hated sarcastic people--I didn't like it. So, you dealt with things with humor or sarcasm. I would write, and my coping mechanism was just getting letters. Thank god we had a pretty good turnover time, twelve to fourteen days, in 02:21:00letters, and even out in the boonies, we could get our mail within a few days. I think that was my coping mechanism, because that was my attachment to what we called the world--the world really is back there, this is not the world, this is 'Nam. So, to be attached to the world and keep your sanity, you had to get mail. I pity the guys that weren't getting mail, or who were getting it and then all of a sudden someone cut them off--they would have a real tough time, because you felt real alone. There was no emails, there was no texting, there was nothing, there was just mail, and if you didn't have that what did you have? I coped that way.
I coped knowing that some of the people that I--Neil, the fellow who became my02:22:00radio operator and who I trained to be a forward observer, and Tom Davidson and Doc--I could always go back to them and know that they were good people, and most of the guys on the line that were good people. Whenever I even what was said, I went with what was called LRRP missions--Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols. Most of those guys were Rangers--they were trained to be Airborne Rangers. They weren't Green Berets, but these were guys who could do stuff, and I was with them because they needed eyes and a map, and the indirect fire. These guys--if they knew what I could do and they saw me do what I could--I had respect. That was my coping mechanism, was when I had some sort of control. But 02:23:00in a race riot or being chased or whatever, no control, and so to cope, I have to have control. To this day, I have to know where things are at, and I have to know--and if we're going to plan an event, I don't have to be the one that plans it, but I have to know. Don't make it a surprise, because I have to know the details. So, it translates into a lot of things. So that's how I coped, I think, is just by feeling like I was in control, and I felt like I was in control when I was out there, not in the secure base camp area supposedly.
BROOKS: Yeah, that's interesting.
JOHNSON: To me that was sin city. Out there, I could be in control.
BROOKS: Did you have any other close calls while you were out there on patrol?02:24:00
JOHNSON: There's a place called the Death Valley, where towards the end of myforward observing days, we were taken by helicopter, to this area, and it was near Chu Moor Mountain, and there had been a lot of fighting going on in Chu Moor over the years, and now it's happening again, for control. We had four companies, that's four hundred people, in different locations near Chu Moor, and every time, every day, one company would try to advance down into this valley, 02:25:00called Death Valley, which came down from Chu Moor, and a stream flowed down through it. Every day, a company would advance into the valley and they would get no more than twenty, thirty minutes into the valley and there would be firepower on them that was intense, and it would stop them. We'd call in artillery and airstrikes, and the next day B Company goes down, same thing. C Company goes down the next day, same thing. Tomorrow is our day, we're going. "Shit." So we go and I remember that--because A Company, B Company and C Company, it was almost like going through the alphabet--had the three days 02:26:00before us. I called and I said, "Is there a way that some"--because we were on this hilltop, and we were having no encounters there. It was all down in the valley--"could I get a chaplain to come out, say mass?" The guys had not seen a chaplain, most of them, since they've been in-country. "Is there a chance that we could do that?" "We'll see what we can do," was the response.
And we get a bird and get some mail, and out pops this guy that looks like SantaClaus--he's as wide as he is tall. Well, you know he's not a ground trooper, he's the chaplain--he's got the chaplain bars. Awesome, because you know, tomorrow, we're going down into the valley and it's been bad news, a couple guys 02:27:00have died. It's not like we're losing hundreds of people, but every time we've gone down there someone's got it, and came back, and we're going tomorrow. He said, "I'll try my best to put something together. I have to tell you though, I'm a rabbi. Are there any good Jewish boys in the group?" There was only a couple, but he said, "I do a real good Christian service," and it was just a wonderful thing, what he did, quoting the scripture and things [pause]. He said he wanted to come with us, and he made it, and he was real agile for a fat guy, 02:28:00real agile--he just had something about him.
We went into that valley and it started and we said--our mission was to try andjust get beyond where everybody else had gone, and so we were and we were making progress, and then all of a sudden the fire got more intense and the guy next to me, his ear was just about blown off, and he's screaming, and I'm telling him to shut up and keep going and stay with me, you're all right. This rabbi-- [pause] he's hollering encouragement to everybody and just like a medic would do, he's 02:29:00bouncing from guy to guy and telling them, "You'll be okay." I don't know what his message was the night before but he said, "Just remember what we talked about the night before." I think he quoted scripture about, you know, maybe going into the Valley of Death. And he just was so strong--that surprised me. We went as far, until their firepower equaled ours, and we stayed there, we didn't go back, and we felt good about that. We stayed there and they stopped and we stopped, and the next day was--and the rabbi stayed with us, and he made fun of 02:30:00the food we ate. He said, "Is this kosher?" [laughs] "I don't think so, rabbi, it's pork and beans." And he said, "Well, I'll eat the beans." He probably violated everything, but he didn't care. [pause] You're only as strong as your weakest link, and I thought he was going to hold us back, but he didn't, and we stayed there.
The next day we had what was called a "mad minute," where before you advance,02:31:00you don't know what's out there. The jungle was so thick, this was not a defoliated area, that I just called in artillery and mortar fire, I had both, and just walked it from right to left and left to right as the rounds were falling, and that ended, and then everybody in their position stood and fired a minute, just a mad minute, out there. It seemed like an awful waste of ammunition, but if there was something that was out there, it wasn't, and then we advanced, and we went all day, humping the boonies. It was North Vietnamese, not Viet Cong, but North Vietnamese, and they just left. So, we got a chance to 02:32:00occupy Chu Moor Mountain again for a few days, and then we left it to be reoccupied by the NVA, I suppose, because we were needed somewhere else. But that's kind of how it went a little bit sometimes. You wondered, why are we going up this place if we're just going to leave it? It wasn't like World War II, where you're advancing, you take turf, and you advance and you take turf. Vietnam was too spread out, it was like fighting for California. The border was so long that they could come from almost anywhere, so you were always going from one place to another. That was a hairy situation there. Guys got hurt, some got killed, but it wasn't anybody I knew or anybody in the--I never lost anybody on 02:33:00a patrol that I was on, but this was a large unit thing, and just the memory of that rabbi bouncing around, just is special.
BROOKS: Do you know what happened to him?
JOHNSON: No. He went back, I mean he was only with us a little over a fullday--the night, and that day--and then he was back. I'm sure they were telling him to get his ass back there, because he was going to get himself shot, and I'm surprised he wasn't because things were flying all over the place. I know that towards the end, that I was going to be going on my R&R soon, and seeing Judy in Hawaii--just like Tom Davidson--and that I would be going into Fire Direction 02:34:00Control, a much more secure environment, pretty soon, but this was something that we had to do. The other thing about it is somewhere during the time of day, when I was calling in a fire mission, I have no idea where it came from, but this tree just splintered, that I was leaning against. I always liked to lean against a tree and do this, and I looked up and it was a bullet hole, right there, and it was like--
BROOKS: Right above your head.
JOHNSON: Right above me, and I'm going, that was pretty close. That's theclosest a bullet ever got to me. So I mean, other people saw so much more than I 02:35:00did, but when it's that close, you know it could have easily gotten me. That was the last recall that I have, of contact. Contact after that was when I got back from my R&R, I had to go back in the field again. I thought I was going back in the Fire Direction Control Center, but no, they needed me for a little while, but it really was just some patrols, and we saw nothing, and so that was a nice way to end my in-the-field duty.
But then, when I was in Fire Direction Control, Neil, who had been my radiooperator and now the forward observer for that Company, calls in one day and they're getting hit, and he's calling in coordinates and things like that, and 02:36:00we're sending fire out there, and he shot himself up, and a bunch of guys, because he called it in too close and it landed amongst the troops. That was difficult, hearing that over the radio, and feeling that, was it something I did, that caused them to panic and miscalculate, and call it in too close? It didn't have to be that close, you know. You try to get-- if the enemy is out there, you try to get a wall of fire within a hundred yards of yourself, if it has to be that close. It doesn't have to come in much further than that because if it does, then it's shrapnel and stuff is going to be coming in towards you, as well as the enemy. They weren't that close--the enemy wasn't that close--but 02:37:00he just miscalculated and he said, "Drop, five-zero," and five-zero meant it dropped on them. That was tough. He was hurt and I never heard from him since. Otherwise, my last two months in Fire Direction Control was, ah, it was pretty easy living really. We did our job of responding to people who had fire missions, but I had it pretty easy after that, ate good.
JOHNSON: Had a nice air mattress to sleep on.02:38:00
BROOKS: Where were you stationed then?
JOHNSON: Well, we still moved here and there, from one hilltop to another, itseemed, but it was near Dak To--a place called Dak To. On a map of Vietnam, the Central Highlands, we were, you know, Kontum was to the north, Pleiku in the middle, Dak To towards the south, and we were anywhere between those areas and out to the west, where the border was. That pretty well describes the year that 02:39:00I was in Vietnam. What I didn't know, coming at the time, across that border--which was only a couple kilometers from us all the time--I don't know that we were ever in Cambodia. After I left, I know Nixon sent troops into Cambodia, and bombed, inside Cambodia, the Ho Chi Minh trail. What I didn't know, while I was there patrolling the border, was on the other side of the border, in Laos and Cambodia, were the Hmong, who were fighting the secret war, and that later on, you know, 25 percent of the students in my classroom were Hmong. I was reunited with many of their parents, or grandparents, who had fought along the Ho Chi Minh trail and lost everything. Everything, they lost, 02:40:00and came here, and that was mostly a good thing for me, to come across them and be able to teach their kids. I would have liked to have known that then--I would have liked to have known what they were doing.
BROOKS: At the time.
BROOKS: Yeah. You wrote something about Christmas and a visit from the Donut Dollies.
JOHNSON: Yeah. We were on a hilltop, it was pretty secure. The patrols that wehad sent from that hilltop were patrols that I was on all the time. It seemed like we were there for several weeks, and those patrols occasionally encountered the enemy, but the hilltop itself was pretty safe, and it was lots of wire and bunkers and things. It got to be Christmastime and we said--and we were very 02:41:00close to the border--and we said, "Is there any way that we can get some hot chow, just a hot meal on Christmas would be nice. Forget about turkey and gravy, just a hot meal, and do you think so?" Traditionally, Christmastime was a fairly safe period, the North Vietnamese would back off, and that was true. So, the report came in, "We've got some chow for you." "All right!"
We're all wondering what this is going to be, and the birds come in and land,and the food in the heating units coming off, unloading, unloading, and here's 02:42:00these girls on the plane, in kind of blue-gray dresses, "We're Donut Dollies," we're called. Today, I think that would probably be a little disrespectful, but "We're Red Cross volunteers." Well, forget the food, we want to talk to the girls, and it turns out the food is bologna sandwiches. We had bologna sandwiches on Christmas, but they brought Monopoly, a game where you guess the capital of the states, and everybody knew their own capital, but they struggled with everybody else's.
They sat with us on the bunkers and had us laughing and playing games, and itwas sad to see them go when it was getting dark out, "You've got to go?" They 02:43:00sang songs. One had a guitar and could play songs and it was really nice. Asked them what they did back in--because they were in base camp most of the time--most of them said they never had been out in the field so far. We let them look through our binoculars and things like that, at the countryside, and pointed out things and stuff, and it was just really, really nice. Everything was well supervised, so nobody got out of hand with the girls, because we, I think probably thought that "Well, maybe they'll come and see us again." [laughs] That was just a nice little Christmas. You could actually pick up, on 02:44:00our transistor radio, somehow they were re-broadcasting football games from the States, and I think the NFL might have played--if it wasn't on Christmas Day, the NFL might have had a game the day after or something--and so we listened to a football game. It was a nice little interruption, and then it was back to reality right after that. The Donut Dollies, I just felt that they were brave to come out there, even though we knew it was safe. Still, to leave home and go all the way to--I mean these women--most of them had college degrees--could be working in the States. What are they doing volunteering for the Red Cross? And they looked nice. There was nothing wrong with them--they were nice to look at. 02:45:00It was just a neat experience. That was my first exposure to Red Cross volunteers. I volunteer for the Red Cross now a lot myself. I'm trying to think of anything else that happened. Oh, they had a translator with them, because they were asking us the capitals of states and stuff, and one of our scout teams was a Vietnamese guy, who stood about this tall.
BROOKS: He was short.
JOHNSON: He was short, real short, and he looked like he was just out of gradeschool, and he could translate English to Vietnamese real easy, so he would tell us what this and that meant. He was translating Vietnamese to the women and they 02:46:00found that pretty interesting, and so they went back knowing what boocoo dinky dau meant, which means "You're crazy." So they could point and say, you boocoo dinky dau. I think that's what it means. It means that you're off, you're really--you're crazy, boocoo dinky dau. It's sort of French and Vietnamese. French and Vietnamese was kind of a mixture of language at times. So, that was that.
BROOKS: You also have a note that says the perfect moustache. That's intriguing.
JOHNSON: When I went out in the field, I started growing a moustache, andbecause there was no first sergeant or anybody out there, and the officers that were out there, didn't want to put demands on guys in terms of--I mean, just try 02:47:00to keep clean and healthy. This is not like okay, break out your best uniform--you had one uniform. I had one T-shirt. I abandoned the T-shirt after a few weeks, because we weren't near water to get it clean, so I just, that was the end of that. I had two pair of socks. I only wanted to carry one pair, the pair I wore. The other pair I left, because I wanted to be fast and move. Underwear--I didn't have any. Oh, so I mean nobody was--officers are in--there wasn't that regimentation in the field, but "Keep clean when you can and stay healthy, you're no good to us when you're sick." So, I started growing a 02:48:00moustache and I mean, it was bushy and it was out to here and I started twirling it, to where I could get these loops in there, and I was pretty proud of that thing, and it just kept growing. I never trimmed it, and so it became kind of my--"Go see the guy with the moustache." So, I grew a moustache and I don't ever recall trimming it. I must have, because I wouldn't have been able to eat. That went on for like nine months, and I didn't need wax or anything. I just would twist it and it would be there. I go in for my R&R, after being out there for almost ten months, on the phone with headquarters. They see all the fire 02:49:00missions I had, and the talk, and the first sergeant is back at base camp He's the one that's--
[interruption; phone rings]
JOHNSON: We'll let that go. It won't do that for long. I don't think I canrescue it, sorry.
BROOKS: No, it's okay.
JOHNSON: I should have turned it off.
BROOKS: It happens all the time.
JOHNSON: There. So, I'm excited about going on R&R and getting a hot shower anda hot meal, and two days from now, I'll be on a bird to Hawaii. I'm excited, I'm going to see Judy, and out of respect to her folks and all our traditions and everything, she's got one room and I've got another room in the hotel in Hawaii, 02:50:00but we were going to see each other and I'm excited. I get on the bird to go back to base camp and I'm thinking that captain, whoever he was, is going to be almost saluting me, because of the fine work I've done out there as a forward observer. There wasn't one platoon or company that went on patrol, that wasn't asking me to be the forward observer on whatever missions they had, and I didn't mind going. The first sergeant, back in base camp--he's wearing a starched uniform and a clean uniform every day and everything--and I'll see the first sergeant and I'll thank him for all the mail that he's been getting to me, and sorry about the nasty reports. When I didn't get mail, I was angry. That was my 02:51:00coping mechanism, and if I didn't get mail when I was back at a company-size thing, "What happened to it?" I would get angry and I'd get on my radio, and someone would say, you're not supposed to be reporting this stuff on the radio, and I'd say, "Well, I've got to carry my own fucking radio. I don't have a radio operator, I'm on it. You find my mail, I got to have my mail." Okay.
Well, I'm going to thank him for looking into this thing over the ten months. Iget off the bird, he looks at me and he says, "Get it off." Not, "Hello, how are you" or whatever. He said, "Get it off." What? My moustache. He said, "The next time I see you, that thing is gone, or you can decide to go back to where you are and not go to Hawaii." What? So, I had to shave it, and I thought that was a 02:52:00little unfair. I don't think he ever, you know. So, base camp was not my favorite place to be. I just didn't get respect. I wanted respect.
BROOKS: Do you think Judy would have liked the moustache?
JOHNSON: She probably thought it would be a little too radical, probably toobushy, too nasty. I would have cut it gladly for her. [laughs]
BROOKS: You just didn't want him to tell you.
JOHNSON: And I still had it, I mean I just trimmed it down, I didn't shave itoff. So, I trimmed it down and that was satisfactory with him, and then when I 02:53:00came back from R&R, I started growing it again, and oddly enough, when I came out of country, came back to the States and landed in Chicago, I think it was O'Hare, that's the first thing my dad said, "What are you doing with that thing?" Not, "Hi son, how are you?"
JOHNSON: "What are you doing with that thing?"
BROOKS: Comments on your facial hair.
JOHNSON: I don't know why that was. It must have looked pretty ridiculous, I guess.
BROOKS: Do you have pictures of you with it?
JOHNSON: Yeah. The couple pictures I have, I had been out for almost two weeks,I'd say, and so I was totally unshaven, and dirty and nasty, and the moustache doesn't show up too well, because I was pretty hairy. But, yeah, yeah. I must 02:54:00have trimmed it, because it never got much more than that.
BROOKS: They stop growing at a certain point don't they, sometimes?
JOHNSON: Maybe that's what was happening.
BROOKS: Maybe. I don't know.
JOHNSON: It could have been.
BROOKS: I guess I don't know a lot about facial hair.
JOHNSON: I mean, they'll grow down, but out, maybe you're right. But it was my thing.
BROOKS: Yeah, you've got to have a thing. It might have been a coping mechanismas well.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I think it was.
BROOKS: Having memorable facial hair. Well, if you don't mind, we can probablycut it off here for today, so then that way, when we meet up again, we can start talking about your transition back to home, and kind of everything that's happened to you since. Does that make sense?
BROOKS: Maybe then, we can think about if there's anything else we didn't coverwhile you were in country.
JOHNSON: All right.
BROOKS: Does that sound good?
JOHNSON: Yeah, good.
BROOKS: Okay, great. I'm going to turn this off now, thanks.