War in Vietnam - Clint Whitmer's Perspective

[Clint Whitmet served in the 3rd Platoon, B Co., 1st Bn 6th Inf, from September 1968 to
October 1969.  Here is his story in his own words....]
  In the spring of 1968, the Viet Nam war interrupted my college and my water well drilling, as well as my farming for the folks.  My draft deferment for college had expired, and since my brother Boone had turned 18, I was no longer elgible for a hardship deferment for family reasons.  On March 23, 1968, I was drafted into the U.S. Army at Butte, MT.  I was sent to Ft. Lewis, WA, for basic training.  After preliminary testing, I was offered OCS, which I refused.  Menginitis was a problem at the Ft. Lewis during my stay there, so all passes were denied during the first 4 weeks of the 8 week basic training course. 

  After standing the 6 week khaki inspection, I went on sick call because I was coughing up blood.  The Command Sergeant-Major said that if I came right back to the unit, I was in big trouble.  Running a high fever, I was diagnosed as having URI or Upper Respiratory Infection and admitted to Madigan General Hospital.  My situation was not improving the second day, when a medic brought in another Doctor to diagnose me.  I was immediately transferred to an isolation ward where I took cold showers to keep my body temperature down and then just  rested.  As I could not eat whole food, I lost 20 pounds in the time I was in the hospital before going home to Montana for a week.  I was diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, an allergic reaction for which they had no cause.  

  Returning to basic training from Montana, I had to pass a G-3 test and the PT test, which I did.  This meant I would not have to finish my remaining 2 weeks of basic training, and would instead be sent to AIT training for Combat Medic at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas.

  AIT medical training was a 10 week course in emergency medical procedures for prevention of disease, emergency medical treatment, and evacuation of wounded military personell.  We learned to give shots, clear the airway, stop the bleeding, lift the stretcher, call for a medevac, and counseling the patient.  We suspected Viet Nam was our destination, but most of us didn't want to believe we'd end up there.  In our final week of AIT, we were all taken to the rifle range and given emergency qualification with the M-16, as we were trained with the M-14 at Ft. Lewis.  When that happened, the reality of the situation sunk in.  We were going.  Orders for our next duty station showed 90% of our group with orders for Viet Nam.

  We were given a month's leave before reporting to Oakland, California.  I flew from San Antonio to Love Field at Dallas and on to Albuquerque to meet Dad and Mom who were visiting Wayne and Betsy.  Dad enjoyed the New Mexico State Fair Rodeo.  Glen Campbell, the featured headliner, had just finished the film 'True Grit.'   I was glad to have time as a civilian with a chance to see my family and visit Old Albuquerque again.  I then drove with the family back to Montana, vacationing with them in Yellowstone Park and enjoying the sights there.  Soon, it was early September and time to go.

  I flew Frontier Convair turboprop from Wolf Point to Billings to Jackson Hole to Salt Lake City.  There I boarded Continental to San Francisco where I stayed overnight.  The next day we were bused across the Oakland Bay Bridge for processing.  I flew  Saturn Airways from Oakland to Hawaii to Guam to Manila to Saigon.  We were bused through Saigon to Tan Son Naut where we received our duty station.  Mine was Chu Lai "up north."  Soon we boarded a C-130 and headed north.  The pilot came on the intercom and said "If the red light comes on, put your head between your legs."  Only the bottom door of the cargo bay was closed, and looking out at Viet Nam, I was struck by the rich green vegetation of the jungle.  Soon we were very high, and then it seemed we were falling out of the sky as we descended to land at Pleiku.  After dropping off "new boots,"  we were  airborne once more.  After a brief flight, we landed on the chain mail runway of An Khe.  Here, soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Division were sleeping on the red earth, obviously very tired from their recent manouvers.  Flying on, we finally arrived at MAG 12 and MAG 13, the Marine air base, at ChuLai.  Here were concrete runways 5 miles long and 3 runways wide.  Phantoms were kicking in the afterburner to take off, and a lone Phantom was trying to land, only to kick in the afterburner and head out over the South China Sea.
  The headquarters for the Americal Division, a reactivated WWII unit with the Southern Cross on its patch, were located here.  There were Navy docks with refrigerated containers guarded 24 hours a day,  MAG 12 and MAG 13 (Marine Air Groups) were headquartered here.  Marine aircraft included light bombers, fighters, and spotter planes. Army presence included Huey and Cobra helicopter gunships, Chinook helicopter units including the "flying boxcars" and a second unit, Huey units of "Minutemen" and at least one other unit, "LOCH" spotter helicopters, and the Americal Division infantry units, division medical hospital, attached armored units, engineer units, attached Airborne units, and artillery units. 

  We were taken to the Combat Center of the the Americal Division where we were assigned our unit and given a refresher on gas mask procedures which included going through the agony of CS gas one more time before being shipped to our units.  I was assigned to the 1/6 198th Infantry Brigade, Bravo Company, 3rd Platoon.  I was told, "these guys are the worst platoon in the company, so good luck."  

  The mission of the 198th Infantry Brigade and the 3rd platoon was to stop rocket attacks on the Division Headquarters at Chu Lai.  The 198th had previously been in Dragon Valley, a hell hole they had literally been run out of with a high loss of life.  Kleedorfer used to tell us how they could not start a fire for fear of being found.  Charlie would fire indiscriminately into the bush trying to find the hiding G.I.'s.  I was very glad that I was not involved in that operation.   
  In the war I was in, the doors of the Hueys were never closed.  There were no stretchers in our company.  Ponchos were used for stretchers.  We medics were required to sign for our morphine.  We also carried Demerol, Darvon 35's, APC's, daily and weekly malaria pills, insect bite pills, and I made it a point to carry penicillin as well.  

   I had been trained to treat trauma injuries at Ft Sam Houston. But in Viet Nam I found myself making sure each soldier got his malaria pills (he had to sign off on a check sheet) and treating infections caused by the scratches resulting from the constant travel in the jungle to set up ambushes in an attempt to intercept the enemy.  These infections required cleaning the wound with a q-tip dipped in hydrogen peroxide.  If it was serious, Bacitracin salve and covering with a gauze bandage was necessary. 
  Treating physical ailments was the medics job.  But we also encountered ailments of another nature.  I did not receive training in the proper response to a soldier who asked as I was treating his scratches, "Doc, what am I gonna do?  I have been in Viet Nam 10 months and my wife is 5 months pregnant." 
  Viet Nam was a war, where people fought and died.  The stigma of this war is that it is the first war America lost.  For many Americans, this is an unacceptable fact, inescapable as that fact may be. 

   I hadn't been with the 3rd platoon too long when one night on radio watch, in came the words, "this is the New Jersey 68, over."  It was nice to know that the world's largest destroyer was sitting out there for us.
  There were times that we'd be moving out during the day.  When we moved out, there was a point man, M-79 man, M-60 man and ammo bearer, another rifle man, the platoon leader, RTO, medic, and similar arrangement to the last man.  We walked 5 paces apart.  We were moving out below Hill 76 when I heard a bang.  Then "Medic!"  When I got there, it was Whitaker, shot in the stomach below his flak jacket by a sniper.  We called for a medevac, and I administered mouth to mouth to keep him alive to the Dust-Off.  He died on the way in to the hospital.

  Our routine became one of setting ambushes at night, moving two and three times, and then sleeping during the day at a day logger position.  If we were close to a stream, we would wash up, write letters, and cook our c-rations.  The resupply helicopter would bring water in 5 gallon cans and hot chow in mermite containers, and the extraction bird would pick up these containers and take them back to LZ Bayonet.  The overlay containing the coordinates for sites of the nights ambushes would be given to us separately by the Command Chopper at dusk.  
  At LZ Spanky was a dog which received special consideration.  Our resupply choppers were loaded here at this LZ in Bayonet.  Spanky was the soldier who loaded the choppers.  One day a water can fell out of the chopper and killed Spanky.  Spanky the dog was super special from that day forward.

  After 6 months with the 3rd platoon, I was assigned to the Mortar Platoon on Hill 270.  Here I was the company medic and answered directly to the Company Commander Captain Jessup.  One day we were all out getting some sun, when we heard artillery shells coming in on us.  I reached a bunker in time to hear a thud and turning to look, saw a sizzling piece of schrapnel embedded in the timber above me.  We knew Charlie didn't have anything like that in the area, so it had to be our own.  The FO called down to Fat City where the rounds originated for a check-fire.  Sure enough, the sensors had been tripped, and so an automatic response of a burst of five rounds of 105 howitzer was sent.  The problem was only 3 rounds cleared the hill 270 we were on.  Heads rolled at the artillery unit for that one.

  The first time B Company went out west, we got pinned down on a high spot that was surrounded on three sides by rice paddys.  When I say pinned down, I mean we were taking sniper fire and mortar rounds.  Our foxholes were depressions from a previous raid of 500 pound American bombs.  When that first mortar round exploded, we all hit our foxholes.  I looked out to see a wisp of rising black smoke.   I shouted to Sgt Fairchild, "What the hell is that?"  He said, "Smoke from their mortar round.  Keep your head down!" Our mortar platoon was National Guard from the Midwest, and this was their first trial by fire.  "Give me coordinates," shouted the gunner.  After making the necessary sighting adjustments, an 82 mm round was dropped in the tube.  "Now, wait!  See where it lands.  Damn, they fired at us again.  New coordinates!"  After making adjustments, another round was fired.  That time, no more rounds came back from Charlie.   

  On that foray out west, we suffered casualties.  When the Medivac arrived, we were a hot LZ taking sniper fire with a circle of open trees just large enough for the chopper to set down in.  I said  "OK, let's get these wounded on board.  Grab that poncho with that soldier, get him on board."  So we got the wounded on board, gave the chopper pilot the high sign, and he was off.  We finally packed up and backed out of that position and got out of there.

  After going to the Mortar Platoon, we had another operation in the same area.  We were headed back to the CA pick-up point for transport to the rear, when a sniper pinned down the whole company.  The E-7 said, "we are going to do this by the book.  We are going to make an on-line assault across the paddy.  Now, I need a fire team.  You and you, and you, Doc, pointing at me, and me thinking, "Oh, Shit!"  Now I want the company to lay down a field of fire to hold off the sniper as we cross the rice paddy.  OK, let's go."  The sun was high overhead as we stepped out from our cover and proceeded to walk 5 paces apart into the open rice paddy.  With the field of fire, the sniper wasn't shooting at us, but when we got to the other side, the company had to stop firing, and then he started shooting at us.  Hearing the bullets just miss me, I fired back at the unseen foe.  Soon it was quiet, and we called to the rest of the company to move out.  We made it to the CA point without further incident.

      I was short, with about a month to go, when sappers came through the wire at Brigade.  It was a very dark night (I dreaded the new moon).  Our doctor at the Batallion Aid Station said, "Come on Whitmer, there's no doctor at Brigade and they have casualties, so you have to drive me there."  Since we were in a combat situation, I had to drive with lights out to the Brigade aid station.  (Batallion and Brigade were in the same perimeter, about a kilometer apart.)   When we got to Brigade, there was a soldier on a stretcher with his arm lying next to him.  We administered emergency first aid and called for a medevac.  At that point the sapper explosions had stopped, and order was restored.  

  When we were going on an operation to the mountains, the locals would say, "You go mountains G.I.?"  At the time they asked us, we could not even confirm it as we did not know.  Then the resupply helicopters would arrive with a weeks rations for each soldier, and the CC bird would drop off our orders for the mountains.  How the locals knew, I'll never know.

   Sgt. Fairchild, Tai, and I went knocking on doors in the VC vil.  Arriving at a small brick house, we knocked on the door.  A young Vietnamese woman answered the knock.  Seeing us, she spit on the ground, and said something in Vietnamese.  After entering the house, pointing to a photo, Tai said, "Him, I know him. Marine G.I. kill him 2 years ago."  With that we abruptly left.  I realized then that it would be tough to give a people democracy when we were killing them to do it.  Killing family members did not endear us to the local population.   
  One night we had an ambush set up below Hill 76.  Kozak was on guard duty.  Suddenly, a trip flare goes off.  Thinking it is the first one, Charlie goes back only to trip the first flare of the ambush.  Kozak has fired a burst from the 60, but has stepped on the belt and so has only a few rounds.  Charlie dived into the paddy and low-crawled out of there to get away clean.  My assistant medic, Scott Chenoweth, found an NVA pith helmet in the paddy.  

   When our 3rd platoon finally got bridge duty, it was an eagerly awaited event.  Not only did we not have to move out every night, but we were on Hiway 1, with traffic and people.  Soon a barber came, and we all got haircuts.  Trucks from our unit at LZ Bayonet came with clean fatigues and underwear and socks.
    Visiting with Uncl Jeff, a WWII veteran, I told him that on our arrival in Viet Nam, we were told the goals of our duties there.  It was made clear that we would spend only one year there, and would be going home after that.  Uncle Jeff in tears said that in Germany, a fellow G.I. told him, "you know, Whitmer, the only way we can get home is to go through these Germans."  They were there for the duration, however long it took.

     Soon after I arrived at the 3rd platoon, Sgt. Russ Fairchild took over as platoon leader.  He was a graduate of Penn state, and an E-6 out of leadership school.  We would follow Russ through hell as he had it together.  We formed a fast friendship.  Most of the G.I.'s weren't too friendly, but Russ and I got on fine. 

     On occasion in Viet Nam, we had a lieutenant for platoon leader.  It seemed there were not enough lieutenants in the army to have one with every platoon at all times.  This meant Sgt Fairchild was our platoon leader most of the time.  
     Viet Nam is a dense jungle with razor-sharp elephant grass six feet tall and all kind of stickered ferns and other plants.  There were also plenty of scorpions, centipedes, and leeches.  Leeches were the worst.  They would attach themselves right above your boot where the legging of your trousers met your boot.  You couldn't feel them, but could only look down at the blood streaming down your boot and see the leech.  More sinister yet was when they attached to your testicles and you looked down and saw your crotch and pants front red with blood.  The most effective way to remove them was with a lighter.  The flame would cause them to relax their bite and fall off. 

     C-rations were the staple of our diet.  They provided breakfast with their coffee,scrambled eggs and crackers, lunch with their cheese and chocolate to supplement the hot chow, and supper with beanie weenies, hot choclate, and pound cake along with the canned peaches, pears, and apricots.  The pound cake was eminently preferable to the canned pudding bread, and pears first, peaches second and apricots a distant third in fruit preference.  
         The local village An Tan was off limits to us.  We were not allowed to stop there for any reason and I never did.  Some of the guys did.  The Army didn't want us killed while off-duty.

     I was never consciously scared in Viet Nam.  Sure, I didn't like making an on-line assault across the rice paddy, and didn't want to get shot by the sniper that killed Whitaker.  But I believed that as a medic I had a responsibility to the men to be alert and healthy and ready at all times to aid them.  I had a job to do.  We all had to work together to ensure that after one year we would be alive to go home.