INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS JOHNSON
Conducted September 21, 2012
Veterans History Project
MR. MIGLIORE: Today is September 21st, 2012. We’re here today to interview Chris Johnson, Vietnam veteran. Conducting the interview is Patrick Migliore. Lisa Migliore Black is our court reporter/videographer.
Mr. Johnson, please share your story with us.
MR. JOHNSON: Yes. My name is Chris Johnson. I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but until I was about 15 years old, I actually lived in a small town down around Mammoth Cave called Brownsville, Kentucky.
When I was 15 years old, we moved to Louisville, where I’ve been most of the time since then. So I graduated from Waggener High School, 1967, and went to school for a year or so trying to dodge the draft, but they caught up with me.
And in 1968 I was drafted, sent to Fort Knox, where I did basic AIT, and I was fortunate enough to get to go to what they called the nickname Shake & Bake school, but actually it’s noncommissioned officers candidate course. I went through that. And ultimately, after 11 months in the Army, which is pretty fast, I was elevated to the rank of E5, which is a sergeant.
After graduating from the academy, I went to – back – I stayed at Fort Knox, and they assigned me to an AIT unit where I was an instructor for, oh, probably a month or two. And then in April of 1969, my orders were to depart for Vietnam.
I’ll back up and say one thing. I forgot to mention that my MOS was – after graduating was an 11D40, which was an E5, and it’s an armored reconnaissance intelligence specialist, but actually I was what they called a track commander. I had a — a tank, and then I had guys underneath me.
So after I left Fort Knox, I — I went to Vietnam. I landed in Làng Bên – no, I take it back. I landed in Cam Ranh Bay, stayed there for like a day or two, and then I was sent north to Chu Lai. And at that time, it was the division headquarters for the Americal Division.
From there I was assigned to F Troop – believe it or not, F Troop 17th Cav. We were the 196 Light Infantry Brigade in the Americal Division. I arrived – oh, gosh – sometime early May of 1969, and not knowing what to expect, as most of them didn’t, I was definitely surprised.
I was sent to LZ Baldy, which is north of Chu Lai and then south of Da Nang, and there I was assigned to the first platoon, F Troop 17 Cav. I was a track commander on Track 13, is what the civilians say, but in the Army it was Track 13.
So I was track commander. I was in charge a driver, observer, and two machine gunners, whereupon I was sent out on my first mission – actually, the day before my first mission we were sent out in the field. We were headed out west towards the Cambodian border, and we went out close to another LZ called Ross. And we went out with the purpose of test firing weapons because the next day we were leaving on a mission, and that was actually my first mission.
But when we got out to the open area where we were going to test fire, we got on line, straight across on line. I happened to be on the farthest end on the left, and we moved forward. And when we did, we came to a rice paddy dike, and the rice paddy dike was actually extremely high where I was, and then it kind of tapered off down to the right.
And I looked over at it, and I told my driver – I said, “It’s too high. We can’t make this.” He said – I said, “You know, we — we just can’t do it.”
He said, “Oh, I’ve been over them before. No problem. Been over them before.”
I said, “No, I think we need to go down to the right and go over.”
Well, at that point in time, I was looking – I kind of stood up a little bit in the TC hatch, and when I — I actually just rolled up a little bit. And he went over the dike, and it threw me out into the rice paddy dike, and I landed on my neck and my shoulder.
And I immediately got up and ran because I thought the track was going to turn over on top of me, which luckily it didn’t. But when they got it settled down and back out into the rice paddy, I got back up on the track. And when I went to test fire the weapons, when I went to cock the 50, I couldn’t do it. One of the other guys had – machine gunners was put in there so we would test fire the weapons.
Well, I went back to the base camp. They sent me to the aid station. The aid station immediately checked me out and sent me to Da Nang, where I was diagnosed with a separated collarbone and shoulder bone and was out of commission for several weeks.
Actually, I was at Da Nang Hospital, and then they sent me south to Cam Ranh Bay to the convalescence hospital, where I spent several weeks healing. And then I ended up going back to my unit, and I began doing my normal duties, which was – we went on various missions which was just, you know, intelligence-type information. NVA had been seen in this area or that area; so we would go out and check it out. And F Troop 17 Cav was a total stand-alone unit. It wasn’t like some of the other units.
For example, the 1st Cav, they have their own artillery. They have their own helicopters. They have their own support. Well, we didn’t. We were stand-alone, and we had to depend on anybody to help us, artillery-wise or whoever was close to us. So most of the time it was people from the base camp was who we’d call back to when we needed help.
So we’d go out and check out, oh, areas where they thought there were NVA. Sometimes there were; sometimes there weren’t.
We were also assigned a lot of times to go out and support infantry units as well as what they call popular forces, which was a group of ragtag Vietnamese, for that matter, with M16s. And then they had another group called the regular forces, which is virtually the same thing, and we had to support them also.
So we would go out, for example, and take some of the PFs or the RFs and drop them off on one side of a wooded area, and then where – and we knew there was a village inside that area. So we’d drop them off, go around to the other side, and wait for them to come out and see if they flushed anything out.
But the majority of the time they came out laughing and carrying on, and they had chickens that they had stolen and rice that they had stolen, and virtually nothing was accomplished at that point. So that’s just one of the instances.
But the majority of the time when we worked with the Americans, the 4th, the 31st, 2nd and 21st, there was really action, and that was numerous times where we did that.
I can remember one other case where we had to be security for a convoy, and it had a couple of deuce and a halves full of refugees – Cambodian refugees, and we were security. So we went out – right out to the Tam- – to the Cambodian border, and they went on in, and we dropped them off, and we were coming back.
Well, as we were coming back, we were caught in an ambush. And when that occurs, the best thing to do is just to fly right on through it, but this guy didn’t do it. So we hollered — he came back across the radios, and he says, “Herringbone left.” So that means the first track is left, the next one right, left, right, so you’re not shooting at each other.
So I was actually back a line, and I was to the right; so I started taking fire. And I could actually hear – I mean, just about feel the bullets going across right over my head, and that was quite an experience the first time.
So I had a .50 caliber machine gun, and I unloaded it. I don’t know if I killed anybody, but I sure shot back at them because I was being shot at. So I actually – the – the barrel on the .50 caliber was red hot, and the tracers were just falling like right in front of me. So my – it wasn’t doing any good.
The rifling had gotten so shot, it expanded and it allowed the bullets and tracers to just drop in front of you. So with that, I grabbed a – what do you call it — grenade launcher and put a grenade in it. And I thought, I’ll get somebody, you know?
So I go “boop,” and it goes “krr-krr” right over my head. It hit a tree limb. And the machine gunners on the back said, “That’s enough for you, bud.” So I said okay. I just sunk down in the TC hatch, and I said that’s enough for me today because I couldn’t do any good, but that was one of the kind of funnier instances.
MR. MIGLIORE: Do you remember the date of that first ambush you encountered?
MR. JOHNSON: Oh, my goodness. It had to be probably late June sometime, maybe into July, because I had just gotten back from — from the hospital. That was one of the – probably the second or third mission we went out on.
Probably the most memorable situation, though, was November 18th, 1969, and we were out on – right in the sand of – white sand right beside the South China Sea. We had a mission out there. And here again we were working with some infantry guys trying to seek out the enemy. And, you know, based on intelligence reports, we would go to the different areas.
So there were three platoons out there at — at one point, all three, the first, second, third platoon. I was first platoon. The second and third platoon was also there. But there’s – something came up, and the second and third platoon had to go to another part. They had to go down south towards Tam Ky or somewhere for another mission, and they left us out alone out around the South China Sea doing this one mission with – with our CO who was there.
And November the 17th, we did what we normally do. We moved to kind of a higher ground, and then we would take the tracks and, like, circle the wagons. It was circle tracks. And typically we would stop and do the circle thing. And then we would actually take fence posts, like eight-foot fence posts, and about halfway back on each side of the track you’d put two, and then towards the front, you’d put two, and then another one in the front, and then take cyclone fence and strap it around that. And the reason for that was to ignite an RPG before it would hit your vehicle. It would hit the – the fence and ignite before it hit the vehicle. So we had all – everything all set up.
And every night you have to rotate pulling guard. Somebody has to sit on top of the track, has to be on the lookout, and then has to monitor the radio. And they do what they call sit reps, and they go all the way around talking to all the tracks and, “What’s a sit rep?” “What’s – what’s your situation?”
So for the whole night I sat there doing my guard duty, and I just noticed that, you know, it was so nice. It was pretty. It was quiet. It was a full moon and nothing but white sand and palm trees. Like, you know, this is not too bad, you know. This is like vacation, but actually it wasn’t.
So nothing happened of any significance that night. But the next morning, we had broken up the — the logger, and we had got in line to take off, and the object is the lead track cuts a trail. Each track behind him stays in those tracks.
So what had happened was is — and you never usually – if you have tracks that you see that you – somebody has been in before, you don’t – you know, stay away. Don’t — don’t get in them.
So what happened was is the morning of the 18th of November, probably 8:30 in the morning, we started out, and the lead track was going back towards where we came in. And on the left side of this little berm like, the left side were the tracks where we came in.
And so the lieutenant opted to move to the right, and his driver, whom I still know very well, he said, “Don’t do this. Don’t — don’t — don’t go to the right. Go to the left of those old tracks,” but he said no.
So we proceeded probably not even a quarter of a mile, and I was the fifth track in line. I was — actually, at that point in time I was on 18, which is the mortar track. I had an 81 millimeter mortar tube in the back, and it was mortar ammunition on both sides, illumination rounds, high-explosive rounds and –
MR. MIGLIORE: How many tracks are in this convoy?
MR. JOHNSON: Typically, there’s about 10.
MR. MIGLIORE: Okay.
MR. JOHNSON: 10 to 12. It depends on at the time how many are functioning, to tell you the truth. But I think at that point in time there was probably — probably about eight.
And we started to move. And typically if – if there’s going to be a mine ignite, it typically would happen on maybe the first, second, or third vehicle. Well, for some reason, it could have been command detonated or it could have been a pressure-type detonation.
But anyhow, as we moved forward, I was the fifth one in line and boom; I hit a land mine, and it – probably a 400-pound bomb, I guess, but it actually took the vehicle and put a hole that big right underneath the driver’s seat (indicating). He was killed instantly.
Myself, I don’t know how far I was thrown out, landed in the sand, here again on my neck and my shoulder, but – nothing there, but I was – I had cuts in my face and my – I was burnt. My arms were burnt. Fortunately, no bones were broken or anything.
But after that – after hitting the ground, I don’t remember anything. I just know that I was trying to get back to the vehicle to see if everybody was all right. And I got right back to the vehicle when the medic just put me on the ground and he said, “Let me take care of you and get you out of here.”
So come to find out there was another guy that was one of the infantry guys that was killed in the same vehicle, and my two machine gunners – I still remember them to this day — Charles Ramsey and – oh, geez – Mellgren, Larry Mellgren, and they were on the ground, and they were just completely black, and so was I from the smoke from the bomb itself.
And they had – a dustoff chopper came out and picked us up and took us back into the base camp to the aid station. And from there I was sent again – with the other two guys, we were sent to Da Nang and in the hospital in Da Nang. And I — I had some teeth that were knocked out too; so I had to have a root canal done on one.
So I was there for a few days in Da Nang. And I don’t know. Some general or colonel or somebody came in and gave us all a Purple Heart, which, you know, that and a dollar and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee, you know. But anyhow, we got the Purple Hearts.
And then I had to go back down to Cam Ranh Bay, to the same thing, go through the convalescence hospital, and I was there for – I don’t know how long. I was back on the base camp sometime late December, right before Christmas.
And the CO that we had, his name was Kline S. Harrison, and I still talk to him today. As a matter of fact, we’ve been to three reunions together, and it’s great. But at that point in time, he was the CO, and there was – the first sergeant was Walter Copeland, first sergeant.
And when I got back to the base camp, I thought well, you know, tomorrow’s another day. I’m going to start back on my same routine. But the next morning they called me to the orderly room, Captain Harrison and First Sergeant Copeland. And they called me in and they said, “Well, we didn’t think you’d be back, number one.”
I said, “Well, yeah, I’m back. I’m ready to go.”
He says, “Well, you’re not going back to the field.” He says, “We’re going to put you in charge of the ammunition dump.”
So to this day I’m extremely thankful to those guys who – who took me out of the field and put me in an operation where I was little bit safer, but it also – when the unit would get into a firefight, whether it was all three platoons, one or two platoons, I — I would have to make sure that they got ammunition out to — to the vehicle so they could participate in the fight, you know.
So that in itself, especially on February the 20th, 1970, that was one day that I’m never going to forget because I was all day long taking ammunition to the helipad and putting it on there.
And the guys out in the field were with the 2nd or the 21st, and they got into a fight. And there was a small — I guess they said it might have been even part of a battalion of Vietnamese that they ran into in an ambush. And the CO that was out there at the time, this was his second mission, and he really didn’t know too much. But ultimately what happened was — is 13 F Troopers were killed that day, which is – this sounds like a score of a ball game or something, but we’ve got 13 dead, and there were two other units that had 13 dead in another firefight. So we’re like seventh among the instances where we – where they lost people; so I won’t forget that, by any stretch, but…
I stayed at the base camp. And then I — came my time to go. And fortunately I got on a plane at Chu Lai, and I went to Saigon, and I flew back to Fort Lewis, Washington.
A couple of days after being there and getting checked out, I flew back into Louisville, and this was in May of ’70. And I consider myself fortunate in the fact that I came home. And when I did, it was 2:00 in the morning; so I didn’t catch any of the guff that most of the other guys were catching at the airport. It was virtually empty.
So when I got home, I immediately took my uniform off, and it’s been that way ever since. So that’s my story at this point. If there’s any questions or anything I need to address, that’s fine.
MR. MIGLIORE: No, there really isn’t. Just recap for me real quick, the departure date and arrival date back to Louisville, what span of time was that altogether?
MR. JOHNSON: Two days.
MR. MIGLIORE: No. I mean – I’m sorry. When you left for Vietnam and when you returned.
MR. JOHNSON: Oh, when I was left?
MR. MIGLIORE: Yes.
MR. JOHNSON: It was 11 months, 11 days, 11 minutes –
MR. MIGLIORE: Really?
MR. JOHNSON: — 11 seconds. Yeah, you counted down to the — to the very last day.
And what’s interesting is when you’re – when you’re with a unit and you get to the point where you know you only have like a month or so left, at that point you can claim that you’re a short-timer, you know, and you make a short-timer stick, which is nothing more than a piece of a Jeep antenna with a .50 caliber shell cut in half and stuck on both ends, wrapped it with tape and put a cord on it, you know, and you walk around with your short-timer stick and say “short,” you know.
MR. MIGLIORE: And what does that signify to the other people?
MR. JOHNSON: That signifies that I’ve only got about two or three weeks left. So that was one way of expressing the fact that you’re going to be gone, you know?
MR. MIGLIORE: Right.
MR. JOHNSON: But it doesn’t – it didn’t work that way all the time. You know, some of the guys were short-timers, and they didn’t make it back either. So you just never know. And that’s – you know, that’s one thing about the – that conflict, is that you — you never ever had — you couldn’t let your guard down. You had to — you had to be on guard 24/7, every day, because mortar shells or snipers or whatever, you know, could — could come in and get you.
There’s one story that I’ll — I’ll share with you that — that happened to us with — with our CO — is that we – on the base camp, you would have civilians come in, and they would do things like clean their bunkers, the hooches they called them, or they would have a barber or they’d have somebody in charge of the laundry to take care of your clothing.
So the barber was – unbeknownst to us, he was an NVA. And one day they were watching him and what he was doing is he was actually – he was walking off steps to different areas, which – and he’d count the steps from this point so he could give them back to the people so they could have a target during the night to drop — drop mortars in on us.
So the CO got wind of that, and needless – I’ll just say this: The barber was put out of commission after they found out what he was doing. So, you know, it — it was a situation where you couldn’t – you couldn’t trust anybody.
The — the people you can trust were the people that were with you. And to this day, when I get together with the guys that I was there with, it’s — it’s like we were never apart. The — the camaraderie, the security, the good times, the bad times are just like they were yesterday.
MR. MIGLIORE: I was going to ask you about that. Since the war, how have you stayed in contact with people? Are you parts of any organizations or anything like that that helps you stay in contact?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I’ve taken it upon myself to be the F Troop searcher, I guess you’d say. Within the last couple of years, I’ve found about 250 of the guys that were in our unit.
MR. MIGLIORE: How many were total in the unit?
MR. JOHNSON: You – you – I couldn’t tell you because of the way – the way the war went was, you know, people were going and coming all the time. It was never like that in any other war. I mean, the second World War, you were there until it was over. In Vietnam, you’d have like a year and you’d leave. So it was a constant turnover.
And the only thing I have are — are rosters from each year, and I use that to try to find guys. And the way I do it is I use a couple of websites. Military USA, I go to that and put the guy’s name in, and it pops up and gives me the guy’s name, and then it gives me their rank and information, his MOS. It tells me when he was drafted or when he joined, when he was discharged, and then it will tell the state that they’re from.
So I take that, I go to another website, and I put their name in and their approximate age and the state and then hit it, and all the names will come up, and then it’s like a process of elimination. You can look at the guys that are in their sixties probably, and that’s typically who it is.
So like I say, I’ve been able to find at least 250 guys, and we’ve had three reunions now, and it’s – I’m already looking forward to next year. But next year is going to be really different in that the whole brigade will be together. So that — that consists of, like, you know, headquarters and MPs and – everything that’s on the base camp will be there, which will be way over a thousand people or guys probably.
MR. MIGLIORE: Where is that going to take place?
MR. JOHNSON: Washington, D.C., and I’m really looking forward to that because I get an opportunity to go to the wall. I’ve never been. So I’ll go to the wall.
And what’s really, really going to be good about this is that I’m going to be able to take my two sons with me when I go, and it’s – that’s going to be great. I — I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I have a good feeling what’ll happen, but it’s going to be really emotional.
But these reunions that I’ve gone to have been kind of a healing thing, you know. You can talk to people who understand and were there, and they know what happened, and they know what you felt and all of that.
As far as dealing with the issues that I’ve had over the years — the PTSD and things of that nature, the way I dealt with them because of the time – the — the Vietnam soldiers, when they got back, they weren’t respected too well, spit on, cursed at, whatever. Like I say, I was lucky. I didn’t experience that, but there’s a lot of guys who did.
But knowing what happened and what could possibly happen, I just elected to put it in the back of my skull, I guess, and — and just not even acknowledge it. I wouldn’t – I didn’t want anybody to know I had been there. Because invariably you say – I mean, “Were you in Vietnam?” “Yeah, yeah, I was in Vietnam.” “Oh, you’re one of those baby killers, huh? You’re one of those murderers.”
I’m sorry. You know, I don’t need that. So it – you just stick it in a compartment and you leave it. And up until about four years ago, I didn’t deal with it at all, and now I deal with it by talking about it. I can relive it with my buddies and know that it’s okay because they are in the same situation I was.
I go through – I go to the vet center for therapy every week. I volunteer at the hospital. I’m up there on Wednesdays every week, and then every other Tuesday we’re there.
And the – the council that I’m with, which is Veterans Voices of Kentuckiana Mental Health Consumer Council, our goal is to be there for veterans, especially when it’s something to do with mental problems. We — we put up two tables every Wednesday at the hospital. We’re there from 8:00 to 11:00, and the — the two tables are just covered with information for soldiers, how to deal with mental issues, and that’s really rewarding in itself.
Plus, I have the opportunity to go up to the seventh floor for the — 7 North is where they have the lockdown for substance abuse guys and other issues, violence or whatever. I go up there, and it’s really rewarding to be able to go back and sit with those guys and let them ask me any question that they want and help them with any situation that they have at the time, or they may want information on how to get something when they get out.
So I — I try to take care of it one way or the other. Either I can answer it then, or I’ll take my card – we’ve got cards, and we just put checkmarks on what they want. And then either myself or Richard Hayes, who is the chairman of the council, will get the answer, and we’ll go back up and tell the guy, “Here’s what you need. Here’s where you’ve got to go. Here’s what you’ve got to do.” And it’s really rewarding in doing that.
MR. MIGLIORE: It sounds like it’s the same kind of caretaking that you would have had in Vietnam.
MR. JOHNSON: That’s right.
MR. MIGLIORE: You just — it’s just the — the service to each other doesn’t stop.
MR. JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah. Whether it’s guys who were in your unit or guys that are down at the vet center with me who are totally in different areas, you know, there’s a — there’s a bond there with all of us because we were in a situation that we virtually all knew about and we — we all experienced; so – but when – it’s even better when you’re with some of the guys who were right there with you.
There’s guys who were — when I hit the mine that day, my CO, he – Captain Harrison, he still talks about it and various other guys talk about it. And, you know, it – I think when you — when you release this kind of information that it becomes less of an impact. Each time you talk about it, it becomes a little easier to talk about it.
But there’s a lot of guys out there who are not of that opinion, you know. I’m sure there’s guys that would never do what I’m doing right now. So I think that’s unfortunate because there would be a lot of stories that’ll go untold; so…
MR. MIGLIORE: Okay. I — I don’t have any more questions for you.
(THERE WAS A RECESS.)
MS. BLACK: Can you describe daily life in Vietnam between action?
MR. JOHNSON: When we were on base camp, it was a typically routine-type day, where you get up, go to chow – go to the formation, go to chow, and then, you know, your main responsibility was to make sure that your equipment was in condition immediately to take off at any time.
So we spent a lot of time doing maintenance on vehicles, a lot of time doing maintenance on weapons just to make sure everything was going to be ready when we got ready to go out. And the thing about it was we weren’t back there that long. I mean, when we would leave, we could conceivably be out for a month or more.
And the — the way we would be able to stay out is – people say, “Well, you know, you’re out there. These things are running on diesel fuel. How do you get fuel?”
I said, well, they have — the big Chinook helicopters bring out what they call a blivet, which is I don’t know how gallons. It’s a huge rubber blivet, and they would take it – the Chinook would come over and set it down on the back of one of the tracks. And they would take the nozzle and fill up their track. Then they would go around and fill up everybody else’s track. So we could stay out for an extended period of time.
So most of the time we were in the field, and that consisted of following a planned — for the day — following a plan for the day, which is part of the mission, and, you know – and here again, everything comes in from intelligence reports. And the goal is to get from this point to this point and see what happens. If you take incoming fire or you try to find the enemy – you would go from one point to the next point that – that – during that day.
And then the next day it was virtually a — a repeat. You know, it’s just the fact that there was a lot of different terrain and obstacles. You get stuck in rice paddy dikes and throw a track, and, you know, it made you virtually a sitting duck at that point. Nobody else could move. You can’t go off and leave a guy by himself or a track by himself. So we’d have to repair it and then take off again, and that slows you down. And you don’t get to where you’re supposed to be; so you had to stop and finish up the next day.
So it was – it’s virtually a routine-type thing, you know, unless you run into something. Then it really, you know, messes up your whole day, so to speak. But that pretty much encapsulates what you do. It’s just – it was repetitive every day. And, you know, it was one of those deals where you just couldn’t let your guard down.
And the other thing is — is — the way I felt about it was – you know, a lot of guys used stuff to – to kind of evade the situation, so to speak, and I always felt that if I did that, then I would be putting myself in jeopardy. So I didn’t resort to some of the recreational drugs and so forth that the other guys would; so…
MS. BLACK: Was drug use pervasive in Vietnam?
MR. JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, I’m — I’m going to say from the standpoint of primarily marijuana. I mean, you — you could get it. I mean, the little kids are out on the highway selling it, you know. I mean, they could be three, four years old. “Hey, GI, I got dinky-dau weed number one.” I said, “Okay. Not for me.”
But they also would be on the side of the highway or side of the roads, and they would actually have Jack Daniel’s bourbon and stuff that they got their hands on through some GIs or somebody. They get ahold of this and they’d take it out and they sell it out on the — on the side of the road; so…
And then there were situations too where I don’t – I don’t recall it ever happening in my unit, but I understand that there was a lot of the medics would who just take morphine and give it out like it was candy. So that’s one of the other issues they had to deal with. And they had speed and — there was a lot of – there was a lot of it there, but I elected to it leave alone.
MS. BLACK: What about interaction with the local people? How much of that occurred and –
MR. JOHNSON: Oh, that was – you know, you – we really didn’t make friends with them a lot, but, I mean, when we — when we would go through a village or something – I hate to say this, but it really would piss me off because the — the kids and the mommasons and poppasons are standing on the side of the road, and you’d go through the village, and they – they – “Hey, GI, give me food. Give me something. Give me food. Give me – give me” – what do you call it – “Give me LRPs. Give me C-Rations.”
I’d just get so tired of it, you know. So it kind of got the best of me one day. We were going through a village, you know, and there’s people up and down the roads hollering, “Give me food. Give me this. Give me that.”
And there was a mommason standing on the side of the road. And just real briefly I’ll tell you what she looked like. I guess she’s about 5’5″, maybe weighed – maybe weighed a hundred pounds. But when she smiled, her teeth are black, and that is because they chew this thing called betel nut, and they think it’s attractive because their teeth are black.
So I’m going through the village, and I see the mommason. And she’s, “Hey, hey, give me — GI, give me this. Give me that.” So I had a can of beans and franks in my hand, and I just ripped it. I cut it loose and cracked her right in the face.
So, I mean, it’s just – it just — it’d just get to you, you know? You had to let that off — some steam. So I really wasn’t too proud of that, but then again, I did some relief, you know.
But as far getting close to the – to the locals, you know, there’s some instances where one mission I – we were sent on, just the 1st platoon – we went down to Tam Ky – the city of Tam Ky. It’s about 15 miles south of where we were, and there was an airstrip down there, and we had to secure that.
So all we did was sit for like five days, and, you know, the little kids come around. You know, you’re sitting there, and there’s concertina wire all around, and the kids come over and — and they’ll talk to you and try to sell you something, you know. And you could get to interface with some of them at that point.
But by and large, we didn’t – you know, they weren’t too friendly towards us, and we weren’t towards them, I guess. If you think about it, they really didn’t want us there anyhow.
MS. BLACK: How do you think – or can you compare the person you were before the war compared to the person you were after the war?
MR. JOHNSON: Yeah. I think before I went to Vietnam I was probably a little more calm. I was a little less rigid, you know. I had never experienced anything like I did over there, and, you know, what — what it really does to — what it did to me and I know several other guys – and my wife will be the one to attest to this – is that, you know, when you experience a guy that you’ve met and known for maybe a week or two weeks and then one days he’s gone, they don’t give you time to grieve. I mean, it’s, “Mr. Johnson, I understand. Chris, we ain’t got time to — to grieve about this. We need to move on.”
So you become really callous to death, and, you know, to this day my wife would say, “Man, you’re really hard.”
I say, “Well, Sharon, if you’ve seen it day in, day in, day in, day in, and day out, then, you know, it becomes old hat, and you – you’re just not that sympathetic.”
So that’s one thing for sure. Plus, the fact that coming back to the situation that we came back to, you know, you try to compartmentalize things. And one of them is I tried to hold my anger back, and it just didn’t work. My temper was extremely volatile, I guess, and I would say things and do things that I wasn’t really proud of, and it’s – it wasn’t good.
My — my sons will attest to it, that I got to them a little bit every now and then, but I wasn’t too proud of that either.
As far as sometimes, too, I think one of the things that’s really affected me too is doing things by sequence, by numbers, so to speak. You know, you go dmp, dmp, dmp, dmp. You know, before you could just do anything. But after being in the Army, you know, there’s certain ways you do things.
And, you know, when — when you get drafted and you go in the Army, you know, the whole deal is to — to take a guy like me and just tear them completely down and then build them back up the way they want you, and, you know, do the military thing, and, you know, hey, pretend – protect your country, kill whoever gets in the way.
So, yeah, it definitely changed me in that regard, because, you know, you come out of a situation where it’s really strict and regimented to where you’re totally free, you know, and you really don’t – you really don’t have a lot of help from the military to get you back into society safely.
So, you know, it’s hard to deal with coming back and then, you know, you go back and you say, “Well, I want my job back.” And they say, “Well, I’m sorry. You don’t have your job anymore,” you know, so…
That wasn’t my case, but I know a lot of guys who did. So, you know, the stigma that goes along with – or went along with – it’s not as bad anymore – but the stigma that went along with the Vietnam veteran was terrible.
You know, I’ll give you an example. This is one issue – on the council, we had a situation where we had to meet with the higher-ups at the hospital. And we’re sitting in that room, and we’re discussing the situation that we want to try to get the hospital to do, which was to be able to put up some murals.
And we were talking, and one of the women, she’s like an assistant to the director or something, and she was talking, and she said, “Yeah, some of those crazy Vietnam veterans, you know.”
And with that, I said, “Hold it. Time out.” I said, “I am one of those crazy Vietnam vets.”
And she says, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
You know, so I’m telling you, you know, the stigma is still there, folks, I mean, to this day – to live with that. But I’ve come to the point where, you know, it’s like water off a duck’s back. And it doesn’t happen as much, not nearly as much as it used to because the stigma is not quite as prevalent maybe.
And that now, on occasion, if I’ve got my hat on, somebody will come up to me and shake my hand and say, “Thank you for your service.” And that — that means a lot. Just that, that’s all you’ve got to do. And every chance I get, that’s what I’ll do.
So, yeah, it changed me, but — I went through a divorce, and in hindsight, that’s probably one of the better things that’s happened to me because I met the wife that I have now, and we’re totally content; so…
MS. BLACK: How long have you been married?
MR. JOHNSON: 23 years the first time [sic] and 13 the first time; so, yeah.
I kind of think they’ve got it the wrong way — is that, you know, old farts like me, you know, we ought to be the guys that they send over there to fight these guys. We’ve got the experience, and, you know, I’m on the back side, folks. I’m going down. So what the hell, you know? I can go over there and kick some ass and — and have a good time. And if I get killed, who gives a shit, you know? I mean, my family.
But, I mean, truthfully, it’s a shame the way they do things now and sending people over there in these situations three, four, five times, and they come back, and they can’t adjust.
And, as we all know, suicide is really prevalent in the — in the Army right now – or in the military, I should say. So we could stop that, the old guys, you know? We wouldn’t – who cares, you know? I – I’d go back in a heartbeat. I mean, probably I’d have been a good candidate to stay in, really, but at the time, I thought, “Ah, you’ve got to get out. You’ve got to chase girls. You’ve got to have a drink. And you’ve got to get a car.” You know, so that’s what I did.
But, yes, yes, definitely in a heartbeat, I’d go again and enjoy the hell out of it.
MS. BLACK: Well, Mr. Johnson, thank you for your service to our country. Thank you for conducting this interview. I appreciate it.
MR. MIGLIORE: Yes. Thank you —
MR. JOHNSON: No problem.
MR. MIGLIORE: — for your service.
MR. JOHNSON: Thank you.