By Jerry Eltzroth
CV&T Guest Columnist
I am breaking my hiatus to share a few pictures and some Vietnam information I have stumbled upon during my research. I have scanned into my computer over 300 pictures I brought back from ‘Nam. Each picture has its own story that needs to be written. The pictures help to clarify my memories of those times from 50 years ago.
Our primary mission in South Vietnam was to rid the country of the Communist influence by military force. The documentaries about the Vietnam War usually focus on the blood and guts of the many battles fought over the 10 years of this war. The humanitarian efforts the U.S. provided to the South Vietnamese people seldom were reported. One such effort was the Medevac mission a friend of mine was a part of in 1967.
Jim Sansom was an offset pressman like me in our topographic company. Jim was a good offset pressman and an excellent photographer. I never could acquire the professional looking pictures with my Canon 35mm camera like Jim could with his Minolta. Perhaps it was the ‘eye’ behind the lens and not the camera that affected the picture quality. Jim was very professional in nearly all of his endeavors. The two of us ventured off-base on several occasions to find some local color. We never reported to our company commander where we were going. After donning our ‘civies’, we slung our cameras over our shoulders and walked out the gate of our compound. We hopped into a Lambretta (local 3-wheeled taxi) and headed down the road to find some points of interest. We were not allowed to take our weapons off base unless we were on official Army duty; thus, we had no protection during our ‘monkey business’ ventures. Looking back we were pretty stupid to take such chances. However, the Saigon/Bein Hoa area was relatively safe and we always went during daylight.
Somehow Jim wrangled a transfer to our on-base dental clinic about six months into his tour to work as a dental assistant. I think he was interested in becoming a dentist some day. I saw him again when I had to have a jaw tooth pulled. We never received any dental care unless a tooth hurt so bad that it needed to be extracted. While with this dental unit Jim was able to go on a Medevac mission. Jim gave me a copy of the over 50 pictures he took while on that humanitarian medical mission. Several helicopters from the 12th Aviation Group, who were located at the back door of our company area, flew the members of the medical mission to a couple of villages in the Central Highlands near the Cambodian border. The villagers in the pictures did not look like the Vietnamese people around our Bein Hoa/Long Bihn area. They may have been Montagnards. I have submitted a few of Jim’s excellent pictures with this article.
Letters from Home
I have 6 large volumes of letters I received from home during my brief service to our country while in the U.S. Army. Most of my Army service was performed during my 15 months in Vietnam in 1967-68. I had copied these letters nearly 50 years ago and placed them in spiral bound volumes. Finally I am rereading these letters in my efforts to get all my Vietnam ‘stuff’ into some sort of meaningful arrangement. Four of the six volumes are letters from my girl friend at that time. The other two volumes are letters and cards from mother, father, siblings, other family members, friends, fellow workers from my civilian employer and soldiers I served alongside. I even came across a letter from a 10-year old school girl from Westlake, Ohio. She addressed it to “Dear Serviceman”. As a member of our support troops, or REMF’s, in Vietnam (most support troops had that designation) I had ample time to write. REMF is an unkind designation given to support troops by our men serving on the battlefront. The meaning of REMF cannot be revealed in a newspaper for censorship reasons. Ask a veteran for clarification.
I have read the first volume and the letter writers’ words revealed much about what was taking place in my family and the U.S. during the late 1960’s. Several letters were from my cousin, Butch. He grew up near Dayton, Ohio, but finally settled in Estill County near his family roots, much as what happened to me. The local folks know him better as Earl Stone, or as the American Legion Post #79 members sometimes fondly call him, ‘Killer.’ Butch was in a technical school in Louisville when I entered the Army and began writing to me from there. In one letter Butch told me, “Dad [Wayne Stone] bought me another car, a 1954 DeSoto. Boy, is it ever a jewel.” I doubt if many people today even remember the Chrysler DeSoto cars. It was not long before Butch joined the Navy and served in Vietnam.
Dave Bondor, my close friend from the ‘Hood, wrote to me many times. He was always curious about what my fellow soldiers and I thought about the Vietnam War. I do not remember how I answered him; but, in retrospect I don’t remember us having many thoughts about the ‘why’s’ of the war. Mostly we thought about making it through another day and getting back to the ‘world.’ Dave was comical and his letters still make me laugh. When I told him I was being assigned to the print shop at Ft. Leonard Wood for A.I.T. (Advanced Individual Training) he had this comment, “They put you in the Print Shop! What the hell is the matter with the Army? Why would they do a dumb thing like that? You ARE a printer! You should be in the metal shop or the motor pool. I never heard of that before. I always thought the Army put you where you were least prepared. Oh, well.” His comment about my being in Special Troops was this, “Does that mean you wear purple berets? Is it like ‘F-Troop’?” Those of you who remember the 60’s certainly remember the wacky TV show about an Army Cavalry outfit called F-Troop.
One special Christmas card I received while in basic training was from Charlie and Gussie Thomas. They lived next to my grandparents in Witt Springs. They were the parents of Agnes (Thomas) Moore. The note inside the card read, “Merry Christmas! Hope you can spend Christmas at home. Be a good boy and come back soon. It’s lonesome now since Bill [my grandpa, Bill Dickerson] died. We miss him so. Ruby and Jiggs are fine.—Gussie & Charlie.” Gussie had very good handwriting.
There was a warm, caring lady at The Otterbein Press where I worked as a typesetter. Her name was Hildegard (‘Hilda’) and she was a proofreader in the typesetting department. She sent me many, many letters during my time in Vietnam. Her letters were always long, informative and sincere. She even ran the gauntlet of the other employees in the department and had them add a few comments of encouragement to the tail end of the letter. Hilda also made everyone contribute funds to make sure I got an occasional CARE package. In one of letters she mentioned that her son was in Vietnam. A much later letter revealed that her son had made it home safe and sound. Her words of encouragement mean even more to me now. In reading her letter dated May 5, 1967, I realized that she gave me the most sincere ‘Thank You for Your Service’ I ever received. She wrote, “I realize that you will endure some hardships in your R.V.N. tour, but it will also be one of the greatest experiences of your life. I know it is a worthwhile thing and so do a lot of other people. Most of us back home realize that you are doing not only your duty, but also are making it possible for us to sleep nights. Don’t mistake my feelings of gratitude for flag-waving, paper-mache patriotism. It is just in a very small way, my means of saying thank you!”
Hilda had been through some tough times in her early life in Germany. She was a young lady living with her parents when her family had to escape Germany as Hitler’s SS was rounding up Jews for extermination. After some hardship they made it to the United States. Hilda soon learned our language and customs while becoming a productive citizen of our country. She never quite lost all of her German accent, but it did not matter. She was a special lady. When I returned to my job at Otterbein Press in Dayton, she gave me a big welcome home hug.
I received frequent letters from my mother, but few from my father. My younger brother, Mike, and my sister Terry were still in school, but wrote to me on a regular basis. My older brother, Ben, was serving with the Army in Germany. His letters were few and far between. My mother kept me up-to-date about the family. Mom always seemed tired and disappointed in my father. Mom worked in a bindery doing menial work for little more than minimum wage. Some of her words indicated she was not happy in life, “All your Dad gets done is run up to the Village Tavern, sit here in his chair, drink beer and play with Penny [our pet Dachshund].” In another letter she wrote, “I have been working everyday and doing everything around here. They could all help more, but you know how they are.” In yet another letter Mom wrote, “Your Dad is passed out in his chair and Penny is piled in his lap asleep. I think she gets drunk from smelling his breath… Jerry, that one letter you wrote I didn’t like too well. Honey, don’t add to my worry. I have too much here at home.” I may have described one of our rocket attacks on our compound which caused my mother’s worry. I soon learned to be careful what I wrote in the letters to Mom. My father made my mother, my siblings and me miserable at times because of his alcohol addiction.
The pleasure I enjoyed while reading these letters was tempered somewhat when I realized most of the letter writers have passed away—parents, brother, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and most of the folks I worked with at the Otterbein Press.
Mark Your Calendar
The Vietnam War, a documentary film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novak, premieres Sunday, September 17, at 8 p.m. on PBS (KET). Ken and Lynn had previously worked together to produce a documentary about the Civil War and World War II. More than 80 people were interviewed for the Vietnam documentary including veterans, anti-war protestors and Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict. Ken and Lynn stated, “We’re trying to do as good a job as we can telling the story of Vietnam from every perspective as we can, including as many stories as we can.” Ken added, “For Americans, the 58,000+ names on the Wall is an enormous, tragic loss for our country and it’s unimaginable what those families went through. In Vietnam, there wasn’t a single person I met who didn’t know someone who died in the war. Imagine every American knowing someone who died in the Vietnam War.” This should be an interesting and informative film about the Vietnam War.