“Hey, Tom! Speaking of M14 rifles, I’m just watching Tom Cruise in “Born on the 4th of July”…an Oliver Stone look at the disgraceful treatment Vietnam vets faced on their return. The Cruise character was supposed to have been born in 1946…so a peer of yours, I guess.
Did you have to take any guff when you got home from Germany with your buzz cut?”
I missed that film when it came out, but I chanced upon it about ten years later. I think it was a good film that encapsulated that period of American history.
I did not have to take any guff nor did I sport a buzzcut. The authorities let the short-timers grow their hair so we didn’t look like neo-Nazis when we got home. But neither did we get any victory parades or welcome home parties.
When my term was up, I hopped a train at the Fulda Bahnhof, with one other guy from my unit. We transferred to Frankfurt Airport and a Boeing 707, which took us to NYC. From there we parted ways, and I took a train to Philly. I’d been hoofing around in my Class A (full dress) uniform, lugging a duffle bag containing all my earthly belongings. It’s hard to blend in with a crowd of evening commuters like that. Across the aisle sat an attractive young woman. I decided to introduce myself and she graciously invited me to sit beside her. She seemed quite quite interested in my story, and I was thrilled to be chatting with this nice-looking woman who spoke such perfect English on my first night back. It turned out she was just recently married, but we had such fine conversation as the miles rolled by, each of us speaking quite candidly about the things we valued, and of our hopes for the future. She had tears in her eyes when it was time for us to part.
I got home, gave my mom a big hug and went to sleep in my own bed, in my old room, for the first time in three years. The next morning I got up and dressed in some of my old civilian clothes, and took a stroll around my old neighborhood. Not too much had changed, except for the fashions being shown in the shop windows. They had changed from ‘Ivy League’ to ‘Mod’.
There was a difference between the situation facing men born in 1944 and those born in 1946. In 1962, the US was facing the full might of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Volunteering to go the The Wall and fight Monolithic Communist Domination was considered a Good Thing to do. President Kennedy was our leader, and we hung on his every word. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”
Every young person wanted to get involved. If you didn’t fancy the idea of killing Communists, you had other options. Many of the kids from my class joined the ‘Peace Corps’ to go abroad and help others less fortunate. We all felt we were doing our bit to make the world a better place. We felt we had a ‘noble cause’.
Very few men were getting drafted during the winter of 1962. I enlisted, as did many of my high school classmates.
It was in June of ‘63, at the Armor School in Ft. Knox when one of our old sargeants and I were chatting over some beers, that he told me the next war would not be fought in Europe, but in Asia. I was skeptical, but he was quite emphatic: “By 1967 we’ll be fighting the Vietnamese.” The WHO?? I’d never even heard of them! Of course I’d read about Dien Bien Phu and the Foreign Legion in ‘French Indo-China’, but I thought that had been settled a long time ago.
He told me about the Viet Cong. I thought they sounded like some primitive jungle tribe running around in loin cloths, armed with blow-pipes, and banging on drums. (“Well, what type of tanks have they got?”). I really thought the old sarge was living in the past. I was not interested in jungle warfare. I’d seen all those movies about the war in the Pacific, and I hated the thought of all those bugs and leeches. Nope, I was heading for Europe, possibly because I’d had two years of high school German classes, and I was not about to let that go to waste in some fetid swamp on the wrong side of the world.
It was not until the autumn of 1965 when our Recruiting Sargent from Regimental Headquarters came asking for volunteers to serve in Vietnam. He was promising big promotions and huge pay increases if we would just sign up for six more years.
SIX years?? I tried to imagine life as a tanker in that quagmire, and it did not look very appealing. Besides, what was wrong with enemy we already had?
In October I was sent on ‘TDY’ to Frankfurt to study the latest trends in tactical nuclear weapons. Let’s just say it was a ‘learning experience’.
When I returned from ‘Nuke School’ in December, 47 men out of our company of 200 were gone. They actually went off to fight in Vietnam.
It felt like a pall had fallen over the base, like they’d all been Germans, sent off to Stalingrad, never to be seen again.
The Army also had plans for those of us who chose to remain behind. We were to become part of a new NATO force being trained to use nuclear bombs to halt an expected Soviet invasion.
JFK had been dead for over a year, and the thrill had gone out of ‘army life’ for me.
I felt like I had no direction, no purpose. I didn’t know what I would do next.
I just wanted to go home.