On May 7th, 1954, the French surrendered the Valley of Dien Bien Phu to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, bringing an end to French controlled Indochina (Rotondi.) In the aftermath, Vietnam split into two sectors at the 17th parallel. The North, controlled by the communist Viet Minh, established their capital at Hanoi. Ngo Dinh Diem, a former minister of the French-colonial administration, had fled in 1933 but returned to Saigon to rule South Vietnam in 1954, backed by the United States.
The introduction of Communism to Vietnam greatly concerned Washington. The American government feared that if Vietnam fell to communism, other countries in Asia would quickly follow. With Russia influencing many of the new communist states, Washington wanted to ensure that the spread of communism was stopped. However, Diem proved to be a biased and ineffective leader which ultimately led to his assassination in November 1963. By this point, 16,000 U.S. Military personnel were in Vietnam and around 200 had been killed (Ray.) Due to the political instability of the country, 12 different governments would replace Diem between 1963 and 1965 (Rotondi.)
The controversial Gulf of Tonkin incident marked the formal entrance of the United States into the Vietnam War. The United States would remain officially involved in the intense, bloody conflict until March 29, 1973, when the last U.S. Military unit left Vietnam. By the end of the American involvement, over 58,000 American troops had been killed (Ray.)
The soldiers involved in this conflict were often silenced after their return to the United States due to strong anti-war protests. Often times, returning soldiers were treated poorly and their service ignored due to the unpopularity of the war. Despite this, each and every returning soldier carried with him a tale of resilience, bravery, and commitment to their country. Many soldiers were able to write about their experiences in Vietnam. The Vietnam War Veterans Survey Collection housed at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center details many of these stories and contains their memoirs.
Presented here are some of their memories and the experiences they faced in the diverse environment of Vietnam.
“The jungle was heavy. In some areas we could only make 5-6 kilometers in a day.”- Sergeant J. Fred Waterman, describing III Corps. Sergeant Waterman later reflected in his memoir “My Story” that they “all had fungus such as ring worm and jungle rot… immersion foot was common. Leeches and mosquitoes were always after us.”
“The operational terrain was mostly flat to hilly, with old French rubber and banana plantations interspersed between rainforests… The rest of the jungle was plenty thick and made travel very difficult. There were a few trails, but they were generally considered too hazardous to follow.” – Robert F. Julian, an artillery battle clerk, describing the vicinity of Xuan Loc, Vietnam in his memoir “My Story.” Julian would also reflect that “… there was plenty of wildlife in the jungle. I saw monkeys, parrots, deer, wild boar, and even a leopard.”
We never had hot meals. We ate C-rations and freeze dried LRRP rations exclusively.” – Sergeant J. Fred Waterman, describing life in the jungle of III Corps in his memoir “My Story.”
American soldiers in Vietnam also experienced various “typical” combat days based on their location within the country.
“For 7 months we patrolled, conducted night and day ambush operations, and conducted air assault operations.”- Captain Shaun C. Hills describing operations in the A Shau Valley, Vietnam.
“When we were not on patrol, we provided security for firebases. At firebases, we patrolled, manned the bunker line. During the day there were always work details such as filling sandbags, building bunkers, laying wire, etc.”- Sergeant J. Fred Waterman, describing a ‘typical’ day in the field with Company C of the 4th Battalion, 12th Infantry.
“Was in a night mortar attack… jumped into bunker with C/O. I was up to armpits in water and swimming rats.”- Captain Harold F. Kushner described his ‘baptism of fire’ while with the 119th Battalion of the 1st Cavalry in Vietnam.
“Breakfast with VN counterpart, visiting operational units, visiting wounded…”- Lieutenant Colonel Richard Miller describing a typical day in Vietnam with his Vietnamese counterpart.
“There were no typical days during combat operations.”- Gunnery Sergeant Arthur M. Johns, United States Marine Corps
“Sometimes I would have to sit on the ground, put my rucksack on, and then have someone pull me up… I carried a M-16 assault rifle with 20-25 magazines (18 rounds per magazine) in bandoliers and a spare 200-300 rounds in my rucksack… I carried a helmet and boonie hat and rotated wearing each… Attached to me somewhere were two hand grenades, two smoke grenades, and a flare or two. I wore a larger knife (another necessity) to clear away a sleeping area at night.” – Robert F. Julian, in his memoir “My Story” on the gear he carried while in the field.
Though the Vietnam War raged on, there were always a few “stand downs” that provided the American soldiers with a break from the intense and rough environment of the field. In times of war, exhausted combat units, requiring time to rest and recover, were removed from the battlefields to a place of relative security and safety. At secure base camp areas, troops were able to take care of personal hygiene, get clean uniforms, enjoy warm meals, receive medical and dental care, mail and receive letters, and enjoy the camaraderie of friends in a safe environment. Stand downs afforded battle-weary soldiers the opportunity to renew their spirit, health and overall sense of well-being.
Lieutenant Colonel John R. Howard would later reflect that he received news from the Army Times and Vietnam magazines and that “Drinking was plentiful when we were in Base Camp at An Khe…”
“Stand downs at Long Binh were ultimate… We would grill steaks, and all the cold beer and drinks in the world would be iced down for us. At night, we’d string up a white sheet and watch outdoor movies. Usually we watched a John Wayne movie, and everybody would really get into it.” Robert F. Julian, in his memoir “My Story,” reflected.
Throughout the conflict, soldiers could not maintain reliable contact with the outside world. Oftentimes, the men were not aware of the events taking place back home, including the anti-Vietnam protests.
“I wasn’t exposed to any- only what the enemy showed me. Before capture, it was ‘67 and media coverage seemed fair and balanced.” -Colonel Harold F. Kushner, who was captured by the VietCong in December 1967 and released in March 1973. Kusher had no knowledge of the protests in the United States until he was captured.
“Limited knowledge due to operations in the boonies. When I returned to CONUS (continental US) I was appalled by treatment received.” – Captain Shaun C. Hills on his knowledge of the U.S. protests while overseas in Vietnam.
Despite the hardships faced in Vietnam, these memoirs serve as reminders of our soldier’s resilience, loyalty, and drive to serve the United States. Roger Borroel, in his memoir “Vietnam: 1968-1969: Color Photos 101st Airborne Division” noted to the audience, “For what is the worth of a young man in this hostile world without some adventure and risk?”
written by Willow Young – Education Intern
References (Vietnam War Veterans Survey Collection)
Borroel, Roger. “Vietnam: 1968-1969: Color Photos 101st Airborne Division.” Memoir.
Hills, Shaun C. Box 1/Folder 4
Howard, John R. Box 1/Folder 2
Johns, Arthur M. Box 2/Folder 44
Julian, Robert F. Box 2/Folder
Julian, Robert F. “My Story.” Memoir.
Kushner, Harold F. Box 2/Folder 41
Miller, Richard D. Box 2/Folder 71
Waterman, J. Fred Box 3/Folder 88
Waterman, J. Fred. “My Story.” Memoir.
Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “6 Events That Laid the Groundwork for the Vietnam War.” History.com, 8 June 2022, https://www.history.com/news/vietnam-war-origins-events. Accessed 9 Mar. 2023.
Ray, Michael. “Vietnam War Timeline.” Britannica, 2023, https://www.britannica.com/list/vietnam-war-timeline. Accessed 14 Mar. 2023.