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Interview with Robert Alekna [11/11/2011]

Jennifer Roberts:

Good morning. Today is November 11, 2011. My name is Jennifer Roberts and I'm conducting an oral history interview at Prince Institute in Schaumburg, Illinois with Bob Alekna. Bob, please state your name and address for the record.

Robert Alekna:

Okay. My name is Robert Alekna at 1945 Blackberry Lane, Hoffman Estates, Illinois, 60169.

Jennifer Roberts:

First thing they want us to talk about is the jogging memory. Were you drafted or did you enlist?

Robert Alekna:

I enlisted. I enlisted in 1965. I was in college for two years and didn't do so well so I flunked out and I wound up joining the Army and went to Fort Knox, Kentucky. No. Wait a minute. That's Tennessee. Fort Knox -- Fort Knox, Kentucky. I can't remember now. But anyway went to Fort Knox, did my basic training. Then went to Fort Sam Houston in -- in Texas, for medic training as my next MOS, military occupational skill, completed my medic training. Then got my orders to go to Okinawa. And when I arrived in Okinawa, they said they didn't need medics there at this point and because I had a couple years of college and I wasn't a complete doofus, I had fairly decent math skills and they needed people to handle radar units for 90 hertz missile units that were in Okinawa protecting all the nuclear weapons that they were storing out there in Okinawa at the time. So I became an missile radar operator. And after about 10, 12 months in Okinawa, I decided that there's got to be a better way of serving in the military and decided to apply for officer candidate school and got accepted in officer candidate school, got assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, their infantry training school, and completed that. After I got my lieutenant bars, I was assigned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, spent six months there in a security platoon guarding nuclear training warheads, warheads for nuclear devices. They were training devices so people would come in and train on these things. And I had a security platoon. They guarded the -- these devices. Obviously they were secret, you know, secret things. And then I got my orders for Vietnam and then in 1967 went to Vietnam. I got assigned to A Company first of the Fifth Air Cavalry, Air Mobile Unit. When I got there, we had like a one week, week and-a-half orientation getting acclimatized and learning the tactics of air mobility and then I got assigned my platoon. I went out, got assigned to my platoon there.

Jennifer Roberts:

Which was more difficult, getting acclimatized to just the country itself or getting acclimatized to the aircraft?

Robert Alekna:

Well, the -- obviously when we came off the plane from the United States, I mean you were hit with a blast of heat that was just, just awful. It was always over 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity and it's just -- it was just pretty hot. The -- the training was -- I mean I been in training in the military for a couple years so it was like training is training. You just do it. And getting used to the helicopters and the tactics using helicopters was not that difficult. Just, you know, you have to be quick. I mean you just don't linger. When you're moving, you move. And so the training was fine for those -- for that week and-a-half when we got there. One of the sad things is when you get assigned to your platoon, as a platoon leader, as an officer, this is why you went there, why you did it. You want to lead men in combat and that's one of the things that a lot of young officers want to do. When I got there, one of the sad parts about it is that when I was assigned my platoon it was being reoutfitted. We were back in An Khe in Vietnam, the home of the -- the main base for the First Air Cavalry. And we were assigned -- I was assigned my platoon of 43 men and -- 43 men. After reviewing these -- you know, the men that were there, about one-third, and I'll just do this in rough numbers, about one-third of the men were combat experienced and all the rest were new guys like me just coming into the country. We never trained together. We never did -- I didn't know their names, you know, hardly knew their names, and we were just a bunch of guys thrown together to start combat operations.

Jennifer Roberts:

Seems like it would put you at a disadvantage almost.

Robert Alekna:

It was when you think back upon it. We all had basic infantry training. I mean we all had the formalized training but we never trained as a unit. Not -- today the military, the people that go to Afghanistan and all that, most of those guys are trained together. The units, they rotate units and most of them have -- have worked and trained together which makes a big difference. So our training was on the job. We had went out in the jungles and that's what we -- we had to figure it out while we were out there. You had to rely on the experienced people that were in your unit, and I was thankful I had some pretty good guys. I think I was there in 1967, '68 and at that time a lot of the people who were serving in Vietnam were still pretty dedicated soldiers and were there to try to accomplish a mission and so we did. We did what we had to do.

Jennifer Roberts:

It did -- did it get more difficult as -- the longer you were there?

Robert Alekna:

Yeah. I guess one of the things that you may hear when you -- when you get into country and you're -- you go out into combat situations, if you can survive the first few weeks, you have a real good chance of surviving the rest of your tour. I have to say that as a rifle platoon leader my duty was -- on average I would spend six months as being a rifle platoon leader and then I would be assigned another officer as executive officer or some other duty within Vietnam. After six months as a rifle platoon leader, I only had 17 men left. The --

Jennifer Roberts:

It must be very hard to deal with.

Robert Alekna:

I'm sorry.

Jennifer Roberts:

I --

Robert Alekna:

{Crying} I told myself I would not do this. I would not do this. Fortunately about 15 of the guys rotated back to the United States so that -- that -- so that was good. They got to go back to the United States. The rest of the fellas that made up the difference between those numbers I had I think it was the -- the rest were killed or wounded during that six month period of time. And we never got reoutfitted for that -- for that -- for that period of time. You never got replacement soldiers. So my platoon dwindled down daily and after six months I had like 17 guys left.

Jennifer Roberts:

And -- so when you reoutfit, that's when they kind of combine up who is left?

Robert Alekna:

Yeah. You get more replacements coming in, and we never got the replacements coming in. So we traveled -- we traveled in more smaller units which sounds like it would be harder but it wasn't so bad because now the 17 guys that were left were very experienced guys and we knew what we had to do and could move better and we rearmed ourselves differently so we handled things differently. That was okay. I wound up being a platoon leader for seven months until my replacement came in and then I became executive officer of the company and had other duties that I performed. About a month after I left my platoon, and this is a sad thing, the -- they started getting replacements and my replacement came and they got some other guys coming in. My -- my old platoon got into another fight and seven of the guys got killed and another seven were wounded and they were wounded pretty bad. That was -- that was pretty hard that day. I had -- I was executive officer so I was coming in from another -- another assignment and I came back to what we call our forward rear base and outside -- outside the main tent, the command post tent, was a pile of gear, packs, all kind of stuff just laying there. I knew what it was. I knew it was a battle and I found out it was my guys, my old guys. That was pretty sad. As executive officer, one of my duties was to write letters to families and I did that and basically they were -- the military had letters that would help you out, you know, to write letters but we -- you tried to personalize it and that, you know, the person would be missed and that he was a good contributor to our -- to our -- to our unit. So it was kind of sad, very sad.

Jennifer Roberts:

It sounds very hard to do. Would you say you get smaller, closer knit with these people?

Robert Alekna:

Yeah.

Jennifer Roberts:

And then to have --

Robert Alekna:

Yeah. You're -- when you're in a unit like that, typically when you're out on patrols, the way our unit operated my platoon was -- did a lot of scouting duties. We were out by ourselves a lot and during the day we were out by ourselves but then we come back in the evening to our company and set up a company perimeter at night. It was always in the jungles or in the mountainous areas of Vietnam. This was in the Central Highlands. And the -- but when you're out on patrols, you became -- you watch out for one another. You got to, you know, be careful what you're doing. Day to day -- day to day activities could be everything from totally boring to -- you know, where nothing is happening and, you know, you could go several days and then all of a sudden you walk into something that is just horrifying and -- and you have to deal with it. But there are other days that some strange things happen that are -- that are kind of funny too. And the jungles are full of animals. You got monkeys and different kind of -- we found one mountain lion one time. You got scorpions and leeches and all kind of snakes, things going on. Couple of scorpion stories. One day one of my men was digging into his pack and he got stung in his pack and what it was he dumped it out and it was a scorpion in his pack had crawled in and so we had to medevac him out. I had all my men take -- I had, you know, everybody empty all your stuff out because we were at a place where there were scorpions. We had to watch out for that. Another time I was digging a fox hole and I get down about a foot and-a-half, two feet and I'm chopping away and I pull out some dirt and all of a sudden five or six scorpion. I hit a scorpion nest. And he fell -- and the scorpions fell in around my feet. I jumped out of that hole like crazy. It just was very silly and everybody is laughing at me, you know. So I get back in. I smashed them all up and kept on digging, you know. Another time one of our -- our -- one of our other platoons, a -- we found a cave that was up in the mountains and so we're going to check out the cave and a guy crawled with a pistol. All of a sudden we heard a couple of gunshots. He comes backing out. He's yelling, "I saw something in there. I saw a couple of eyes in there." You know, blah, blah, blah. And so he crawls back in. He gets his courage back up and crawls back in and he drags out a mountain lion. It was sent back to our base camp and they had it skinned and somebody has it on their wall somewhere. I know somebody has got it on their wall. And another kind of silly story. When I got an assignment to take a small unit, small patrol to a spot to do some trail watching that there's -- there was reported activity, enemy activity, and they wanted somebody to watch this trail for a while, big trail. So I said, "Lieutenant Alekna, you go pick out two guys and pick out who you want to go with you." I had two volunteers. Two guys came, said they'd go with me. So we geared ourselves up. The idea is you're there just for trail watching. You're not there to conduct -- you don't want to get in a fight with anybody. You just want to watch and then report in. We had a radio that we reported in. So a helicopter took us out to this location, dropped us out maybe about 1,000 meters away and then we patrolled in, crept into where we wanted to be. We found the spot to hide in. We made a -- we made our hide about 25 meters off the trail. We could still see the trail but we're trying to camouflage ourselves. We cut additional branches and stuff to -- to -- to help with the camouflage. So we're there. We're going to sit in for two days. We're going to be there for two days. And that evening just before dark we hear some noises coming down the trail. Here comes a kid that's probably I'm going to say about 10, 11 years old. He's leading a cow down the trail. Now, obviously we can't do anything, you know. You're just observing and they walk past. A lot of times enemy movements would be lead by civilians going down trails. These are people to help disrupt any other enemy -- Americans that may be in the area. Then they would know that we're there. So we let this kid pass. Just as about ready when he was getting out of sight the cow breaks away from him. Now, here's this little kid and this big cow. He can't hardly handle this. He can't handle it at all. And where do you think the cow goes?

Jennifer Roberts:

Right to you.

Robert Alekna:

Right to us. And we couldn't believe it. You know, what is this cow doing? It's coming right up to our hide, you know, and here it is. It comes up, comes creeping up to our hide and he's munching along the way and he's doing his thing. And the kid comes up. This is not a good situation, you know. We're there in territory that is supposed to be bad territory and we got this person sitting there. I'm watching -- I'm looking at this kid and, Elizabeth, you're about as close to me as the kid was and watching his eyes. He did not make any indication that he saw us. So I'm sitting there watching him. We're camouflaged and didn't see anything. One of my men, I could see him move his rifle a little bit and he's looking at me, and -- and I knew what he meant and I go -- I just shook my head just a little bit. I just no, just very imperceptible. And the kid got control of the cow and the cow and the kid walked away. We had to abandon the site because I couldn't take the chance that we were recognized or that they did see he -- that he did see us there. So we wound up going to another location and -- and rebuilding and sat and got ate by ants all night in another location. So the next day we're thinking about what had happened. Why did that cow come over by us? And the only thing we could think of is that the cow smelled the freshly cut vegetation that we had to help build our hide, you know. And so it was fortunate, I guess it was fortunate that under some condition that kid lived that day. He could have died. And we didn't know who he was or what he was doing and -- but anyway, he was gone. And one of the lingering questions I always had in my mind was did I do the right thing that day 'cause I could have endangered myself and my men by letting him go because he could have went somewhere and told some people he saw us then. We were there and I only had myself and two other guys, you know. It would have been pretty bad.

Jennifer Roberts:

Is it -- sorry. Go ahead.

Robert Alekna:

But anyway, it worked out all right.

Jennifer Roberts:

Is it situations like that or decisions like that, are those the ones that still play on your mind?

Robert Alekna:

Unfortunately in a zone like Vietnam civilians were everywhere. You're constantly in areas where civilians are going to be. And I was in one battle, it lasted for three days. And the first two days we had -- there was an airplane flying over this village with a Vietnamese person on there speaking to the villagers, leave the village. The reason we were there is because another American unit that was patrolling there got ambushed in that village. They suffered casualties. We came in to take care of some business there. We told the villagers for two days to leave the village. A lot of villagers did leave and they were herded and went -- by another unit and went somewhere else. And on the third day we assaulted the village and took it apart. And there were a lot of strange things that happened there too but I mean strange things happen and we -- we -- we eliminated a number of enemy soldiers there and unfortunately there were civilians there too. And my guess is that the civilians were family to the -- to the VC that were in that village. When this was all done, we heard later that an engineer unit came into this area that we had just take -- just took apart and they found vast amounts of money, Vietnamese money, and weapons and they took bulldozers there and starting digging all the trenches and tunnels that were there. My guess, I don't know if it's true or not, my guess is that it was probably a paymaster, Vietnamese, VC had their paymaster there and that's why they were protecting that area so -- so well. And that was my first -- that -- that fight was the first in the first month I was there and the first time I had to fire my weapon in anger.

Jennifer Roberts:

You said you fired your weapon in anger. Is it more -- does that become more the emotion of it or is it --

Robert Alekna:

At the time -- at the time that I -- it was so automatic that I felt nothing. I just did it. And it was -- in the heat -- heat of the moment. I mean enemy troops are running and -- and you fire. But it wasn't the first time. That was the first time and it was -- wouldn't be the last so you just -- you just -- it was just part of the -- the duties. There was -- there was time where we were on a patrol and we're going to set up in an old, abandoned village. I had my platoon, set up to have lunch. So I -- I'm directing my machine -- one of my machine gun teams to set up in a certain location and he was moving to that location and he yells to me, "Two Six, I heard something over here." 26 was my call signal. So I said okay. I walked over with him and all of a sudden we see something running through the overgrown vegetation. Somebody is running through the overgrown vegetation. He goes pow. He fires. I fire, ba, ba, ba, ba, and the person disappears. So we look. We're trying to track where he went. We found some of his tracks. We found a -- the food pack. It's like a big sock. If you can imagine old tube socks packed full of rice and other food in there, the kind of thing the guy wears around his chest. His Ho Chi Minh sandals are laying, he ran out of his shoes, and he disappeared. So I told the machine gunner to sit. I got two other guys. With all this gunfire my men are going nuts because they don't know what's going on. It's kind of overgrown. You can't see a lot. I just told everybody to stay down, don't move, that we had a Charlie in our -- in our perimeter. And anyway, I took two guys, myself, we start following his trail. The ground was kind of damp so we could pick up some of his footprints every so often and then we kind of lost it. Then I told the two guys, "You guys go ahead a little further in that direction. Go like 10, 15 meters. If you don't see nothing, come back. I'll try to backtrack." So I'm going backtracking and I'm walking. And as I'm walking, I see a hand in my peripheral vision sitting in a in brush, somebody sitting there. And -- but I -- I'm had. If this person -- it's not one of my men and if this person has got a weapon, I'm done. I'm had if I turn around. So I kept walking. I walked about ten meters, if that, took about -- my stomach went flip flop. My stomach just flip flopped. I'm like I'm done. And -- but I walked about ten meters and I spun around and hit the ground and pointed my weapon in the direction of where I saw this hand and I started yelling in Vietnamese to the guy lidig, lidig, lidig (phonetic) for him to come out. No movement. So when I did that, my guys are yelling again, "What's going on down there?" You know, everybody is going crazy. I told them, "Stay where you're at. Don't move. I think I got him." So I -- my next move is I ejected a shell out of my Carb 15, my rifle. And obviously any soldier would know what that sound is. And then that person who was in the brush started yelling back and he was a little Vietnamese guy, stood up and he gave himself up and so we captured a suspected VC. If you saw this person, probably not much older than Savannah. Probably 14, 15 years old. That's what I thought. And tied him up. We had our lunch. I reported back to the base camp that we captured a potential suspect here. Suspect. And had our lunch. Some of the guys started playing with the prisoner a little bit. I told them to stop playing around with him and they did. They stopped playing around with him. Took him back, marched him back to our firebase where we were at. We came past a village on the way and villagers saw us leading this guy back to our camp and brought him into camp, called the battalion headquarters. They sent in a helicopter to take this guy away, you know, as a suspected Viet Cong. And about a couple hours after we were back at base camp a woman shows up at the -- at the main gate of the firebase asking for her son who's the guy that we had caught. And we learned this through the interpreter. And we had to tell her he's gone, that he's on a helicopter flying back to who knows where. I don't know where they're going to take him, some intelligent, you know, where they're going to question him. And she didn't want to leave but eventually did shoo her away and finally left but she was devastated. And later we found out that the -- he was a VC. He was on his way to meet his unit in some location and we just happened to intercept him when he was moving. So it's another sad thing that happened, you know.

Jennifer Roberts:

Is it because of the youth all the way around, you guys were so young, the Vietnamese so young, does it make it that much more difficult to deal with because you -- you're --

Robert Alekna:

If you look at some of the photos that I have there, obviously a lot of them are me but then there's pictures of other guys. You got to take a look. I was old compared to my platoon. I was 23 years old as a platoon leader. Most of the guys I had were 19, 18, 19, 17 --

Jennifer Roberts:

Babies.

Robert Alekna:

-- years old. My son's probably not much younger than these guys and he's 15.

Robert Alekna:

You got to think as a 23 year old person leading 40 some men in combat what in the world did I know about doing that even though I had training and stuff? Life experience doesn't prepare you for that. Some of these black and whites give you kind of an indication what some of the terrain looked like.

Jennifer Roberts:

Is there anything you can see?

Robert Alekna:

No, you couldn't. You couldn't see anything. Most of the time it was so dark in the jungles. If it was like 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon, it was dark in some of the parts of the jungle. You couldn't see. So --

Jennifer Roberts:

You're looking at this. It's definitely dark.

Robert Alekna:

Look at these guys. These were members of my platoon, a few of the guys. Look how young they were. Take a look at that. That's pretty sad. It's so sad.

Jennifer Roberts:

They don't look any older than my son. Were most of the -- most of your unit straight out of high school?

Robert Alekna:

A lot of them were. A lot of them didn't go to college. Kids that didn't go to college were drafted and/or joined. And at the time I was there, again pretty much the people that were there were -- either wanted to be and were pretty straight -- straightforward kind of troopers that were there to do their job. I had -- you hear about a lot about the drug culture that occurred in Vietnam. I had a couple guys that did smoke in my platoon. Generally it would have been at base camps where they did it obviously out of my sight because they didn't want to do it with me there. One time a fella was caught smoking while we were out in the field on a night perimeter. We were -- we were in combat territory. And my -- one of my squad leaders came up to me and said, "Hey, I need to give this guy an article 15. Let's go. I want to put him in or jail or whatever. We need to get rid of him" because he was smoking, you know, on duty, on guard duty at night. And I said, "Listen, I can't afford to send him back. We need the bodies out here. You know, I can't lose another man 'cause of that." I said, "You and your squad take care of him." The next day he had bruises on him. That was taking care of business in your own unit.

Jennifer Roberts:

You're not only playing with your life, you're playing with at least you said there's 17 other -- at least 17 other people.

Robert Alekna:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. One of the other -- you know, there's like without getting into fights and stuff there were a lot of silliness that went on. We're on patrol one time and I get orders to -- to go to a potential grave site that was at a base in some hill somewhere that a helicopter, observation helicopter was flying around, thought he spotted some graves, fresh graves. They needed somebody to check them out. I was the closest unit there. So they sent my platoon over so we patrolled over there. We found the site. There was two graves. They looked kind of fresh. No village around. So I said, well, maybe they're -- 'cause they said it might be 'cause there was a battle somewhere and enemy soldiers were killed, drug off and they may have buried them. We had to dig up the graves. Not a pleasant task. And unfortunately I took pictures of some of this. And it was -- I had one guy in my platoon who was like the vampire who just wanted to get into this and dig up these graves and very, very strange. I have a couple pictures that are not very pleasant to look at but it's -- it's -- after -- after we checked it out, I could not -- we did not find any weapons. We had to pull the bodies out of the grave to search underneath 'cause a lot of times weapons were hidden underneath bodies. So we had to do that. And I got so ticked off. I said, "Push everything back in. Let's get out of here." And I says, "We don't want to be arrested for grave desecration here." So we got out of there. Obviously nobody -- nobody bothered us. Other silly stories that -- that occurred was we're on patrol in some mountains and we hadn't fired our weapons in several days. So I said let's -- let's -- we got to shoot up some of our ammunition and give everybody a reason to clean their weapons and all that stuff and practice and just get used to it. Hey, you got a weapon in your hand. You got to know how to use it, remember how to use it. So we're up in the mountains and I had arranged for different groups to fire their weapons and shoot up -- we wound up shooting up the jungle. So I got a call on the radio from my CO. He says, "What's going on up in the mountains? We can hear all the gunfire. What's going on?" I said, "We're test firing weapons. It's no big deal." Okay. No big deal. So we're coming back down. We came across some old huts in the mountains. Well, potential VC might have camped here. We torched them. We burned them. Unfortunately when we burned them, part of the mountains started burning and part of the mountain started burning. My radio comes on again. My RTO comes on. You know, six wants to talk to you. He goes, "Why is the mountain on fire? We see so much smoke and everything up there." I said, "Oh, we" -- "you know, we burned some huts." I didn't realize how bad this was, you know, how awful it looked until we got down off the mountain and looked back. It was enshrouded in smoke and everybody was like, oh, my God, you know. We were worried. Oh, my God, they're going to get me for burning down a mountain. You know, so nobody said anything. It was so silly. You know, obviously there's -- there's times of sadness and times of just goofiness, just total humor. We were in a fight in a place called the Tiger Mountains and this was a two day -- two day deal. Our CO got killed that day and one of my men got killed and another one got wounded. And it's kind of interesting. We got -- we got orders that we're going to be air assaulting into this mountain and that we would be taking a prisoner with us who said that he had -- there was a unit of NVA soldiers on this mountain. So we were assigned to go after them and I was the lead platoon to patrol up the mountain. I would lead the rest of the company up there. And we had a prisoner with us. We had an interpreter with us. And it was just so hot that day. We were in a helicopter, landed. We were just -- anyway, it was just God awful hot. Once we got into the mountains all of a sudden it started raining and it -- it rained real hard and I believe the rain saved our lives that day 'cause when we moved up into the hill up on that mountain, the prisoner we had sat down and he was just petrified and he said, "We're here. We're here in our location." So I sent -- I had a couple of my fire teams move out a little bit to search an area and one of the fire teams ran into some enemy soldiers who were sitting under a tree with ponchos over their head protecting them. They did not know we were there. We were -- I mean we were close, you know, within a few meters. And my troopers opened fire on them and we had to -- we were -- our orders was to hang in there long enough to determine what kind of weaponry was there and, you know, try to determine how many soldiers and stuff like that. And we -- we hung in there for about 10, 15 minutes. We were told to get off the hill and then they start throwing in artillery and air strikes and all this stuff. We got out of there unscathed that first trip up. It was the second trip that I lost a man and could not -- he was lost. We knew he was shot but we could not find him. And it was getting dark out and I was getting orders to get off the hill. Everybody else is off that hill except my platoon and I said I wouldn't leave. I said I wouldn't leave until we found him and we did. We brought him down and the medic got ahold of him and was looking at him. And he goes, "Two Six, I think he's dead." And I bent over, over the trooper. I tried to listen for any air coming out of his mouth, if he's breathing, felt for a pulse and he was gone. So we had to come off the mountain at night that night. And the next morning General Tolson and our battalion commander came out to our unit to see how we were doing. Obviously when we -- we lost your company commander, I lost some guys, another few guys got wounded and they were checking basically our mental frame of mind I think 'cause we had to go, you know, back up. So he came over to my unit and he says, "You guys are going up the hill again today." I said, "Yes, sir." And I said -- I said, "The second platoon is" -- "my platoon is going to lead the way again 'cause we know the way." And so we went up a second -- the next morning we went up again and we found -- we found a lot of equipment, bloody bandages all over the place, not ours but theirs. And, oh, before -- before we went up the hill when we were talking to General Tolson, this was kind of a humorous thing and this was written in a newspaper later, the general asked, you know, "Do you guys need anything," you know. And I turned to my platoon sergeant and I said, "Sergeant Campbell," I said, "what do you think we need?" He goes, "We could use some new uniforms." Typically when you're out in the brush you're out for three, four weeks at a time. You're wearing the same clothes. You don't bathe, shower. You don't -- you have nothing. You're just out grubbing it out for a month and a lot of our uniforms because of you're crawling around in the brush, they're torn. Your perspiring all the time so the sweat on your body turns to salt and the uniform -- you know, everything was -- you get salt deposits on your uniform. It begins to rot. I mean the thing rots like that out there. So one of my men -- my men is standing real close to the general and Campbell says, Sergeant Campbell, "We need knew uniforms" and he goes, "Look at him." And his name was Private VanderWeeks. He turns around. His -- his back of his pants is split from crotch to his belt line wide open. His butt is hanging out. No underwear. You know, and we're all -- you know, you kind of chuckle at it. And one of the members of my platoon, his name is Mark Smith, became an editor for a newspaper in New Hampshire and he used to write little articles about incidents in Vietnam and -- in a newspaper, and he wrote about that particular episode because it was so funny at the time. And anyway we went back up the hill and we patrolled and we found a lot of equipment and some radios. There were some radios that were so big, they were NVA radios, that they left them that could broadcast back to North Vietnam. So it was -- it was a good haul then. Unfortunately we lost some -- some people.

Jennifer Roberts:

When it goes like that, is it considered a positive or a negative?

Robert Alekna:

I don't know. I don't know. There were days I felt good about what we did and other days I just didn't care. Probably as time went on while I was there things got a little darker. I think it's dark for a lot of troopers. You become -- became very callous and sometimes very uncaring and -- but I got to say we didn't do anything we were ashamed of. I was so glad that my platoon --

Jennifer Roberts:

Held standards?

Robert Alekna:

Survived without doing anything we would be ashamed of.

Jennifer Roberts:

That says a lot about your platoon. That says a lot about your platoon.

Robert Alekna:

I think so. I never had a man refuse an order while I was there. And we were scared to death a lot of times. We would have rather been somewhere else but we did our job and that was it.

Jennifer Roberts:

Did you ever wonder why? Like you said they were sending you back up the next day. That would be my --

Robert Alekna:

That was tactics. The enemy was there and you had to go get them. That was our job. That's what we had to do.

Jennifer Roberts:

Is that more the mindset for combat? Is it's -- you don't think the why or it's just it's a job and this is what needs to be done?

Robert Alekna:

Yeah. You're at the task at hand. I think this was another good thing about my platoon. Whenever we went on operations, we talked about what we wanted to do ahead of time. I met with my platoon leaders or, excuse me, my squad leaders and platoon sergeant and we discussed the route we wanted to take. We -- we plotted supporting indirect fires, supporting fires for ourselves to plot things along the route, a march that we were going. So we tried to do the right thing. And once we were out there like I said if -- when something -- I never had a guy refuse an order. If I said go this direction, we went that direction. Stop, we stopped. If we went, we went. We had some good guys, very good.

Jennifer Roberts:

Good leader too.

Robert Alekna:

{Laughter.}

Jennifer Roberts:

If you're not, people begin to question.

Robert Alekna:

I had a very -- I had a very -- I had a very nice thing occur about four years ago, five years ago. One of the guys in my platoon, this was after -- it was after my divorce, was trying to track me down and he said he was trying to look for me for years but the reason he didn't -- wasn't able to do it eventually he found out was he misspelled my name but he finally found -- found my name and called my ex-wife's house and Michelle told him that I wasn't there at the time. She called me at my office and she said a fella named Mark Smith called her and I'm going Mark Smith. Immediately I'm thinking of -- now, this is like 30 some years later and immediately I'm thinking this is an insurance agent or who is it? You know, be somebody for insurance. Well, and then Mark Smith. Oh, my God. That's one of the guys in my platoon. He said he was in your platoon in Vietnam. Oh. I said oh. So I had to go see her that night, that evening anyway, so she gave me his telephone number. So that night when I -- I got back to my apartment, I called him up. He was in New Hampshire. We talked for like two hours on the phone and it was like we didn't skip a beat, you know. And it was like -- and this is the guy who is the writer and editor for a newspaper. And the facts and things that he was put -- putting forth, I said, "How do you remember all this stuff?" You know. He says, "I wrote every day I was there." And I didn't know that. He says, "I wrote things every day." And he wound up sending me -- he said, "I'd like you to do something for me." He wound up -- he said, "I'm thinking about writing a book." He went to Vietnam twice. He said, "I'm thinking about writing a book and I'm writing a chapter on this Tiger Mountain fight" and would I read it and -- and add to it or clear up any -- any facts and stuff. So I said sure, I'd do it. So I get a -- I get -- a week or so later I get a manuscript type thing about the Tiger Mountain. I have to say after 30 it was like, God, it was like yesterday, you know, all the facts, everything was -- was unbelievable. One of the nice things Mark told me that on his second tour in Vietnam he was a sergeant and he had to take over a platoon, became a platoon leader, and he said -- and he wrote this and he said it to me personally. He said he thought of me often and he tried to emulate the things I did when I was his platoon leader. You can't imagine what that meant.

Jennifer Roberts:

It must have been wonderful considering --

Robert Alekna:

That was unbelievable. As 23 years old back then, you don't know what the hell you're doing. It's hard to figure out. And he told me he was trying to do the things I did and emulate the things I did is his words. That's pretty good. I couldn't believe it. 30 some years later.

Jennifer Roberts:

You must have been a very good leader.

Robert Alekna:

You try to do the right things but there were days that you just -- you didn't know. You just didn't know. I had a bunch of good country -- thank God I was raised in the country. I knew how to handle weapons when I was there. My stepfather taught me how to shoot and hunt, read trail signs and stuff like that. That helped out. I had other good country boys that did the same kind of thing. When I was 12 years old, I was out hunting by myself and so familiarity with shooting and looking for trail signs and all of that stuff was inherent. I already had that in me. Unfortunately there were a lot of troopers that came to Vietnam that weren't equipped to do that. Just thought they were taking a walk in the park and it was costly. It was costly. Carelessness, guys not watching out for booby traps. The booby traps were horrible. That caused more casualties than -- than bullets and pretty sad.

Jennifer Roberts:

What kind of stuff would be set up?

Robert Alekna:

There was all kind of stuff that we ran into. One -- one story was we're on patrol. We fell upon a large trail and we figured this was a well used path and we're walking down the path and it might have been about six feet wide. Big enough where carts could -- you know, somebody pulling a cart could go through. We were on the edge of the jungles and while we're moving along I see a palm leaf laying on the side of the trail. No other leaves anywhere. The palm leaf is laying on this trail with the point of the leaf in the direction we're going. I'm looking around. There's no other palm trees close to this trail. And I was about the fourth man back in our patrol and my -- my point men were out about ten meters out and I walked up to them and said, "Let's stop for a minute." I said, "This could be a trail sign here." And the thing that made me think that way is that when I first -- in introductory training we got a little pamphlet of trail signs that the VC used and this was almost one of them. It was like an odd object, could be a stick, it could be something that is sitting -- looks normal but not quite normal. So I said, "Let's stop. Let's look around." So I had my two point men probe the ground in front of them with the bayonets on their rifle and one of the guys had his bayonet slip through the ground. So we probed around and there was an area that was probably almost as big as this -- these two tables here that had mats and bamboo covered all over it but -- but with the sand that was on the trail it looked normal. It almost looked normal. So I had the guys hook -- hook part -- one of the corners of this thing to pull it. I had everybody move away. We were in defensive positions too in case we would be attacked. So I had everybody move away 'cause it might have been booby trapped too, pull the mat away and all this junk falls into a hole that's maybe five, six feet deep and in that hole was all these punji sticks sticking out all over the place in different -- you know, some were two feet high, some were three feet, some were one foot, so anybody falling in that hole would have been impaled I mean just like -- just like that. And so obviously I reported it. We carried C-4 and stuff so we blew the thing up. We searched the area around. We found big bags of rice and big pots, like big pots. I don't know what the heck they call them, big pots, but they're full of rice too. And we threw hand grenades on them and thermite grenades which burns through anything. They're hot metal -- it'll burn an engine block. It'll just shoot metal, burn it up, melt an engine block. We burned up all the rice and reported all that in there too. Any left over rice that was laying around we peed on. We peed on the left over rice. And we're all laughing about it, of course. Other booby traps, my platoon took a pretty heavy blow one night. We set up a perimeter. I was assigned to send an observation post on a small knoll about 25 meters outside of our night defensive position and that night, let's see, it was a fire team. Four guys and my platoon sergeant at the time, Sergeant Craig, asked to go up there with them and I said, "Okay. Go ahead." And so in the middle of the night their radio, and they carried a radio, obviously their weapons, radio and a Starlight Scope. And they spotted some movement across a creek that wasn't too far from us and since it was a free fire zone they directed artillery fire onto what we figured was enemy soldiers. There were people carrying lanterns. We figured they were enemy soldiers out there. And so they -- they put the fire on them. About 2:00 the morning, 3:00 in the morning we heard an explosion on top of the knoll and I tried to call on the radio what was that? Couldn't get a response. And so I got -- I told the captain that I'm going to take a squad, go up on the hill and see what's going on up there. As we're going up, we're met by all the other guys coming back off the hill. They're carrying Sergeant Craig and all the other guys. Everyone was wounded. Evidently we found out what happened was Sergeant Craig had got up -- got up and started walking around on a knoll and he stepped on a land -- on a mine and it was called a bouncing Betty mine which when you step on it, it will fly out of the ground, goes up maybe three feet and then explodes and sends steel pellets in all directions. And all my men were gone. The radio got knocked out. Sergeant Craig was the most seriously wounded. The medic and I worked on him together. The other medics from the other platoons worked on the other guys. They weren't that serious but they were -- they were wounded and Sergeant Craig was just awful. Just -- I mean just awful. And we're trying -- we had to strip him naked to find all the wounds. There wasn't enough bandages in the world to help him out. We called in a medevac. They medevaced the guys out. Sergeant Craig died of his wounds I think within a day and two of the men from the -- two of the men came back and they weren't wounded that serious. The other two guys didn't come back. That was pretty serious. That was bad stuff that night. I walked -- I walked around for two days with Sergeant Craig's blood on my pants. I was soaked, just soaked before I got a new -- another uniform. I couldn't wash up, didn't have a place to wash it out, and I wound up burning the fatigues.

Jennifer Roberts:

I'm not very good with the questions. Some of what you've done I'm not quite sure how to respond to. I mean it's --

Robert Alekna:

Well, there's no reason -- there's really no way -- you can't respond. No need to respond. Those are just stories that happened and it's sad. I mean it's totally sad. It's not unlike what some of the guys are going -- went through in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're going through the same stuff. Thank God they got probably far better training than we did, far better equipment. Yeah.

Jennifer Roberts:

You had guns. You had guns. My cousin was in Iraq and he came back and he had pictures and he was showing me and I'm looking at them and all of a sudden he goes, Jen, look at this one. What's wrong with it? And there's about eight guys on a convoy truck and you can tell that there's like nothing. All this either way. And all of a sudden I realized, I'm like you guys are military. Shouldn't you have some sort of weapon? They give it to us when the fighting starts. And I'm like how is this going to help you?

Robert Alekna:

Yeah. I don't know. Obviously there's -- I don't know what time it is but we got a half hour. What else?

Jennifer Roberts:

Are you all right?

Robert Alekna:

Yeah.

Jennifer Roberts:

You need a break?

Robert Alekna:

No. That's okay. I'm trying to think of some other incidents that --

Jennifer Roberts:

What about you received the Bronze Star?

Robert Alekna:

Yeah.

Jennifer Roberts:

The infantry --

Robert Alekna:

Yeah.

Jennifer Roberts:

Is that for -- do you not -- I mean civilian wise it's a big deal but you personally is it not?

Robert Alekna:

It was for doing a good job. That's all it is. Doing a good job in Vietnam and that's fine. The -- the awards or medals that I have, probably the things I'm most proud of is my CIB, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, and -- well, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, it's a blue badge. It's got a rifle on it. It's rectangular and then it has a wreath around it and it's -- it identifies you as a combat soldier, that you experienced combat. The other one is the Air Medal that I got in the military. You have to have at least 25 combat air assaults to earn an Air Medal and I have far more than 25 air assaults and that one I'm proud of. If -- and First Cav Patch is -- also proud of. After Vietnam was over, the First Air Cavalry was disbanded and became an armored infantry I think is what they call it now. So they changed the -- changed the designation. I don't know what else. The other silliness that -- there were other odd things that happened there that -- that you get involved with and, you know, sometimes you wish you didn't see it. One time we're at a firebase and I get a call that I send a squad out to secure a truck, a military truck, on a road that was just outside of our base. He hit a civilian and they want us to protect the truck until the military police get there. So I went with my squad just to see what was there and I wish I didn't go. It was like a five, six year old kid got run over and it was pretty bad. What happened is is that the way the driver was explaining it is that when the trucks come through these little towns and stuff these kids will -- they want to jump on the truck. Even when it's moving they want to get candy and junk like this. This kid, he fell and he got run over. And when we -- when we got there, he was covered with a plastic. Civilians in the area were starting to come up and the parent comes in. Just awful. Just awful. Pretty sad. I asked -- the MPs finally came and I said, "What do you think is going to happen to the driver?" They said, "Probably the driver won't" -- "probably nothing will happen to him. Probably won't drive for a while. And the kid" -- "the parents of the kid will get some money from the government." But the kid got killed, you know. Another incident was in the village fight that I talked about earlier we're in the battle. My men are on line and we had tanks in front of us and we're going through taking this village apart. And one of my men comes running up to me, he came running off the line and he's crying. He's crying. And he says, "Two Six, I just shot a kid." And I said, "What?" I'm like I'm talking on the radio. I'm talking to the tank guys. I'm talking to my CO. There's all kind of stuff going on. Just a minute before my -- my -- my radio operator pulled me down because I got shot at. A bullet missed my head by a couple inches. And the -- so I was so focused on what I was doing. "What? What happened?" And he said, "I just shot a kid." He was crying. I said, "How? What happened?" He said, "well, the kid blown" -- you know, blown up huts and all this stuff. This kid runs out and he said it surprised him. You got to figure at this time there's -- we're fighting. There's enemy soldiers being killed. There's dead bodies laying around and the soldier shot this kid 'cause he just didn't recognize him. Just saw some movement in front of him and fired and killed him. And I told him, I said, "It was an accident. You didn't know." I said, "You got to get back on line. We need you. Your men, your squad needs you on line." I says, "It was an accident." And -- and he went back. He went back on line. I often thought about that 'cause I didn't really check with the trooper later. His squad leader didn't say anything so you always hope that, you know, the guy could forgive himself for doing -- for doing that. You can't -- you know, from my point, I couldn't take time out there to console the guy. You're in the middle of a fight, you know. And he had to deal with it. And at that time to tell the truth the kid meant nothing. He was just a casualty and we were in a fight. I had to protect my own guys. Sad stuff.

Jennifer Roberts:

You think that's the part that civilians don't understand and get?

Robert Alekna:

A lot of them did not leave that village. They -- for some reason they didn't leave. Most of them did but not all of them. They knew what was coming. There was no doubt. There was no doubt that we were coming through. And for that -- for that three days we were there. Enemy troops were trying to escape during the day and night. They were crawling through rice paddies and stuff and we were picking them off. And -- but we knew eventually we would have to go through that village and tear it all apart. It was pretty large. It was -- as I recall, it was about 500 meters wide like -- like five -- roughly five football fields wide and about 1,000 meters long, kind of kidney shaped. When everything was done -- it was near the beach. It was a fishing village. It was near the beach. When it was all over, we called it the large brown spot on a white beach. It was burning. The smells were horrible. Everything was burning. I mean everything was burning. And we were -- we were using gas, CS gas to throw in the bunkers and tunnels and stuff and gas was in the air. It was nasty. Yeah. But eventually I got -- we re going to close this off. Eventually got -- I got my orders to leave and mixed emotions about leaving because I left men behind that -- my platoon guys, leave them, but we all did that. We all wanted our day to go home so I got my chance to go and I left. I actually tried to extend for Vietnam for another six months but it didn't work out. I tried to go to a place called Long Tau which was like a resort in Vietnam and be a -- like a security officer over there but everybody in the world wanted that job so I didn't get that. But I got on a plane, it was a civilian aircraft, and headed back to the State of Washington. Wait a minute. I think we stopped I think in the Philippines and Hawaii. Never got off the plane. Anyway, wound up in Washington. I was -- I was afraid when we got back that how people in the -- 'cause you heard of stories the soldiers weren't being treated well, blah, blah, blah, but nobody bothered me. I was fine. The guys on the aircraft when we took off, a lot of people cheered, a lot of people were quiet. I was quiet. I don't think I talked to anybody the whole trip back. Got into Washington, flew to Chicago, flew to Terre Haute, Indiana. My brothers picked me up at the -- at the airport. It was late at night. I didn't tell my mom exactly when I was coming home just in case there was any delays or anything. I just didn't want to but I got ahold of my brothers and they -- they came and picked me up. Driving back was in the evening. Driving back through the -- through the country and everything didn't look the same. It was kind of sad 'cause all you could think about was this could be an ambush site. I could set up an ambush here, blah, blah, blah. Only started looking because we're driving through the country. We're in the woods and stuff. It just looked I'm thinking of things in military. And I was on leave for a month. So that was my cooling off time of the -- and thankfully I was in the country because I didn't want a lot of people around. I didn't go out, get myself drunk or anything. Stuck around the house. The -- went fishing. I did have some weapons at home. I took them out, did some target practice but it didn't take too long after that, I think in 1969, around there, was the last time I ever fired a weapon. I just did not feel comfortable firing weapons anymore. And I have nothing against them, you know. I have nothing against them. I think everybody should have one. I think everybody should have one but for me that -- I was done.

Jennifer Roberts:

It was too much -- too much destruction like having --

Robert Alekna:

Yeah. I -- quite frankly I found they were too easy to use. It was too easy. I could fire a weapon. I fired it a number of times when I was there and no second thoughts. And I just -- I don't know. Maybe the smells of the cordite and the sounds. That was enough. There were several incidents after I got home that I -- I didn't have like the nightmares, a lot of nightmares. I had a few dreams that occurred but not many so I think I adjusted fairly well from that standpoint. There are a couple of incidents that occurred that -- that were pretty sad. When I was married, in the middle of the night I had a dream about Vietnam. I was dreaming and obviously I was restless as could be and I lashed out, my arms lashed out and I hit my wife right across the neck. She was sleeping and she jumped up. What's going on? You know. And I was -- I was just so devastated. I just -- I couldn't believe I did that. And she started crying and I told her -- I told her what happened and, you know, later she told me, she says, "I'm not afraid of whatever," you know, blah, blah. "I'm not afraid of this." You know, she said, "Don't worry about it." And -- but after that I said I could never let that happen again so if I -- you know, in the following years we were -- we were married for almost 25 years. That if I ever had -- if I -- if I had dreams or -- or had thoughts about Vietnam, some things came into your mind, I would not go to bed. I would stay up. I would not go to bed for fear of lashing out again and I didn't want that to happen. And it didn't happen again. That was the only time that that happened. Another incident that occurred, and that's why I asked you about Vietnam, my son -- one time we were having dinner. We were at the diner table. My son was about eight, nine years old, maybe a little older than that and he says -- he goes, "Hey, Dad, we were studying" -- "we were talking a little bit about Vietnam in school." He says, "You were over there, right?" I go, "Yeah." And the next sentence out of his mouth just floored me. He says, "Did you shoot anybody?" And I choked up. I couldn't talk. And my wife had the presence of mind to say, "Well, daddy was in a war and sometimes" -- "sometimes people have to shoot, shoot their guns." And I -- I collected myself and I said, "Yeah." I said, "Yeah, I had a weapon." I said, "I shot but I don't know if I ever hit anything" and I just blew it off like that and he was satisfied with that and -- but that was sad.

Jennifer Roberts:

It comes down to the body count as opposed to what the purpose of the war was? The purpose kind of gets lost?

Robert Alekna:

Unfortunately when I was there it was strictly body count. It was never taking territory and occupying territory for any length of time. I can say on air assaults in the unit -- we traveled by helicopter a lot and there were times we may fly into the same place, you know, twice, three times a month, you know. You go through a month. You did your job there and you go on do something different. We were flying all over the place. And so it wasn't about taking territory. It was body count.

Jennifer Roberts:

Does your son know the fact that -- that child only sees war as a body count. That's the first thing that comes to your mind.

Robert Alekna:

Obviously, you know, when -- on television what do you see? People shooting somebody, you know, somebody falling down. You don't have the concept of occupying territory. So I don't know what -- at school what they were talking about but that's how it came to me, you know, at the dinner table that night. Pretty bad. There's other things that occur too. I was at a sales meeting one time and one of my -- one of my sales reps who's also a Vietnam vet, we were in our meeting room and one of the -- our participants is talking and we can hear outside the building a helicopter flying around and, you know, the helicopter is like the icon, synonymous with Vietnam. And I'm sitting there and I'm hearing it but I'm paying attention to the -- to the speaker. And my eyes kind of swing over to -- to Bill Mooney. He was with the First Division. He was looking at me and when he was looking at me, he just rolled his eyes up and I knew what he meant. It just -- things come back.

Jennifer Roberts:

Is that --

Robert Alekna:

But anyway, so after I got back, this is probably the longest I've ever talked about this like this. I think most -- most soldiers too -- I don't know. Maybe I shouldn't speak for others. Guys who were in combat doing stuff like that, there were many times I would just sit in a chair and I'll go through some stuff that I have and tears would come to my eyes. It's like virtually every day something can bring up something that happened 40 years ago, you know, and I think any combat soldier whose -- whose done these kinds of experiences, you just don't forget.

Jennifer Roberts:

Is that the hardest part?

Robert Alekna:

Yeah. It's -- maybe some guys could say they let it go and I can say probably I don't let it consume a lot of my time but it creeps in without you knowing, you know, that something will make you think about it. And like I said, a helicopter flying overhead. I know it's a helicopter for a hospital or something or it's a police helicopter but I -- in my head I'm hearing Vietnam. I know my wife at the time was -- was supportive. She's the one who told me that I should write down things and which I eventually did after we were divorced when I had more time on my hands. I wound up doing it and still working on it but I got like 36 pages, typewritten pages of -- of activities, the good, the bad, the ugly stuff. And she actually read it. She's read this stuff and she says, "You should talk about this more. You should talk about it." And this was my first experience really talking. On occasion you would tell stories with some guys who were there but they were just I mean short in duration and you just didn't cover too many things 'cause you just didn't want to. For some reason this was a little different. I guess it was try it out, see what it was like.

Jennifer Roberts:

So what did you think?

Robert Alekna:

A little more emotional than I thought it would be. Some of it was so sad. But there were a lot of good guys there. A lot of good guys. There's a few guys that I -- you know, around that I -- my activities day to day you meet guys who served in Vietnam. We don't really talk all that much about it but, you know, you express who you were with and when you were there and that's about as far as it goes.

Jennifer Roberts:

So in a way is that a way of putting it behind you?

Robert Alekna:

I guess. Obviously when you sit down and start talking, it does get emotional. I thought -- you know, I thought -- I considered myself a pretty hard nose, tough guy that -- obviously when I was in the military I was -- I had all the training and I did some personal training too. I did some things that -- that -- outside of the military that would help me prepare myself for -- for this kind of experience. Over the years you get soft. You get a little softer. A little more emotions start showing. Not as hard as I used to be.

Jennifer Roberts:

I don't know. I think you have --

Robert Alekna:

My wife would tell me -- she say, "You're probably the most self-disciplined person," you know, she's ever met and I don't know if I'm really that anymore.

Jennifer Roberts:

I would be more worried about it if you weren't emotional about all this.

Robert Alekna:

Yeah. After I got back, I -- I spent another year in the military. I was -- I was stationed at Fort Sheridan here outside of Chicago, got my captain's bars. And after that I -- I completed my obligation and then resigned from the military with about five years in the military, found a job in the Chicago area. I stayed in the Chicago area, did not go back to Indiana where I was inducted and started night school on a GI Bill, completed my bachelor's degree and then continued on for my master's degree, graduated with honors in my masters. So I was pretty proud of that. My -- my wife at the time was in the audience with the big belly with my upcoming son so -- so she was there for that. That was a lot of fun. My mother was there and my uncle. That was a good day for my graduation. And that was for me that -- that GI Bill for education was very valuable to me because it helped me do a lot of things from a little country boy who flunked out of college the first time around to finally getting through the military and coming back and then continuing on with college and graduating and then taking on some responsible jobs and did all right. I can't complain about that. After retirement now I just goof off. How's that?

Jennifer Roberts:

That's perfect.

Robert Alekna:

Good way to finish. Now I just goof off.

Jennifer Roberts:

Thank you.

Robert Alekna:

Thank you. It was okay. Here's some pictures. I have like 200 slides from Vietnam. These were members of my old platoon. Now some of these guys are dead. They died. Ross Wood, Brent, I don't know his first name, Brown, Mark Smith, Jake Shen -- Shendendock or something like that, Thomas, Walison, Joe Sillers, McDowell, Saser, Al Letz, Van Weeks. I forgot his name. That's me. These are me. Obviously some of these are where -- at firebases. This is when I first got there to An Khe. We were just getting -- new platoon. See, I got shiny boots. After that it would be the last time that would happen. You can see what they look like there. That was at a firebase. You could see an artillery piece over there through there. A lot of those were in the Tiger Mountains. This was on patrol. You can see how dirty -- dirty I'm looking here. This was going out on ambush, going on an ambush patrol that night. I was taking out ambush. I had a Fu Manchu mustache, trying to grow it. Didn't shave. That was early -- early. We were patrolling around the village. When I say destroying villages, this is what they looked like. They were mud huts, thatched roofs and obviously when they started -- I mean everything burned. It was just an awful smell. We were at the base of some mountain somewhere. There's a beach area down here. We were out at some fire -- setting up a company perimeter. This -- this was -- I didn't talk about this but I got a special assignment to go out on an ARVN Ranger battalion. Another lieutenant and I had to go on a special assignment to patrol with an ARVN Ranger battalion. It was after I was platoon leader. They said that this would probably be like an R and R for you. Probably be real easy. Well, it turned out to be one of the worse duties I ever had. This was just the beginning of it. We met up with this unit and they were patrolling the borders of Laos and this lieutenant and I are with all these ARVN Rangers and there was another American lieutenant and an RTO. They were forward observers to help support for these guys, only four Americans with these like 200 ARVNs and we didn't want to be around them. We just didn't want to be around them. But we were out there with them for two weeks and got in a couple little scrapes but nothing serious. And then we came back. And we had to come back to MACV headquarters in Pleiku. A helicopter picked us up, flew us in outside the Pleiku compound, dropped us off. Now you got to look at. We were -- you can see I'm pretty well armed here. I got all my gear with me. But we were out for two weeks. No shaves. No washing up. You know, half the time -- some of the time we ate Vietnamese food while we were there so we were really scrubby looking. And so when we came in the Pleiku compound this is like walking into Chicago, you know, there. It's a big -- big area. Fancy, fancy villas for a lot of general staff. Colonels are there, a lot of important people, military guys are there. We didn't know -- we didn't know how to get to where we wanted to so we stopped there. We're asking people how do we get to this location where we're going to sign into our billets. And we're -- we're the only guys walking around with guns. And we are -- you know, and we looked worse than this. We probably -- at the time I looked like -- probably looked like that when we were coming in, you know. And we came across tennis courts where some guys were playing tennis. They had dress white, their tennis whites on. They're Americans playing tennis and we're like amazed. We were stopped, this other lieutenant and I, we stopped and looked at them and they stopped their tennis match to look at us. And we say, "Hey, can you help us? Oh, yeah. You got to go over here," blah, blah, blah. So we did that. We said thanks and we walked away. So we went to the billets and the orderly says you go over here. You can throw your gear and you can take your showers and get a haircut over here and shave, blah, blah, blah. So we're walking and taking off our gear, hand grenades and weapons and bullets are going in this little locker. I remember this to this day. A major comes walking by and he sees us and he goes, "Hey, you know, you guys aren't supposed to have all that stuff in here." And I turned around and I looked at him and I says, "Who's going to take it away from us?" He just walked away. He didn't say a word. He just walked away. And he was probably right 'cause you weren't supposed to have all that explosives in a dormitory, you know. But you know it's like, hey, don't bother me. We just came back from the jungles and you're telling me this. But anyway that was -- and Mark Smith, the editor, he remembers that. You know, I told him that story. He said that is pretty funny. He says, "One day we're going to write about that one." Anyway that's it. You can look at some of these. That was like a town hall. You talk about primitive. One -- I don't know if you're still doing it. We were on patrol and we're up in the mountains. It's next to dark. It's so dark there. It's the midday but it's dark because of the canopy in the jungle. We came across a village. It couldn't have had more than 10, 15 huts and some people were living there. They're up in the mountains. When we walked up to it, I knew we were in a bad area because we found an arrow, arrow pig with two sticks on it. The NVA used these as trail markers, directional marker, so I knew we were in a bad area. We came across this village and I said we got to step these huts out. You know, so we spread out to search them. Women, old men and children were the only people. There were no young -- young guys there and we searched and we didn't find anything, but every kid that was there had distended bellies. Every one of them looked like they were sick, runny noses. The people that -- the old men, women that were there looked like they're on their last leg and -- but, you know, we don't -- we figured this was a -- a VC or a NVA stopping point where they would rest and stop here and had a place to lay down and sleep and then move on. And whenever I think about that, that particular day, that gives me the creeps because I think we were being watched that whole day, you know. With those trail markers there you knew they were in the area. Well, anyway there's all kind of stories. I'm good I guess. I'm done.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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