Specialist 5th Class John Leone
151st Transportation Detachment, 71st Assault Helicopter Co.
The ’50s were days of apprehension, atomic bombs, and the Red scare. At school, we practiced air raid drills. Newspapers carried the latest casualty count from Korea. We saw short newsreels on what to do in case of a nuclear attack from Russia (“when you see the flash, hide under your desks. If you’re outdoors, hide under a piece of cardboard or any doors that may be on the ground”). We were afraid and, not to mention, curious as to where the newscasters thought we would find doors laying around on the ground.
We watched television shows like I Led Three Lives with Herb Carlson playing Herb Philbrick, citizen, counter-spy, and Communist. We watched live television with the McCarthy Communist hearings. In the ’60s, we had the Cuban missile crisis, 13 days of biting our nails, waiting for war with Russia to break out. We watched the Kennedy assassination and burial.
On August 3rd, 1964, my friends and I were working on our very important summer tans down by the pool. Louie Ciano came by to tell us we wouldn’t be around next summer. The Vietnamese had attacked one of our ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam. We were all going to war. None of us had ever heard of Vietnam.
In short order, we registered for the draft, graduated high school, were drafted and had sergeants screaming in our faces. In basic training, we crawled in the mud under barbed wire while some idiot fired live machine guns over our heads.
After basic, I was sent to AIT at Fort Rucker, Alabama. I was trained as a UH-1 Helicopter Repairer, MOS 67N20. Many soldiers with this MOS became crew chiefs or door gunners. After completion of this school, I received orders to go to Vietnam.
I was part of the 187th Assault Helicopter Company and received orders to report to Sharpe Army Depot, Lathrop, California on 22 February 1967. We accompanied the helicopters and equipment onboard an ancient wooden deck aircraft carrier named the Kula Gulf. We left California on March 4th and arrived at Vung Tau on the 23rd. After a short stay at Bien Hoa, I was reassigned to the 501st Aviation Battalion, 71st Assault Helicopter Company as a crew chief. I proceeded up north to Chu Lai to join my unit. When I arrived the commanding officer told me he had more crew chiefs than he knew what to do with and assigned me to the 151st Transportation Detachment, the maintenance arm of the 71st.
When I was only a couple weeks away from my DEROS (Date Eligible for Return from Over Seas, one of the military’s thousands of acronyms), I was standing on the hood of a deuce and a half replacing a tail rotor late at night. A Huey landed not too far down the flight line, and apparently, the gunner dropped his M-60 or another gun, and it went off accidentally. It was a tracer round, and I saw the red trail near my line of vision. I hurried to get off the truck thinking it was hostile fire. My foot caught the barrier around the blinkers and made me fall headfirst to the macadam. I cut a vein over my eye and fractured my wrist. No real glory here, just my clumsiness.
The doctors gave me one day to settle my affairs and pack up my gear to be sent home. My thumb had to be immobilized to let the wrist heal. This was a three-to-four month process. So I was going home a little early. I objected at the time. I wanted to go to Hong Kong on R&R and be there for the Chinese New Year which started on January 30th, the same day as the Vietnamese New Year, called Tet. Not to mention the fact that a few GI’s in my company owed me money.
On January 24th, 1968 I was sent to another base to await orders to go home. I can’t remember exactly which one. On January 30th, my orders came through, and I was hustled onto a UH1D Huey helicopter for a quick trip to Tan Son Nhut Airport. I no sooner had gotten off the Huey than I immediately boarded a Hercules C-130 for a trip to the Philippines. I managed to get a seat under a light and started reading one of the two Ian Fleming books I brought with me. The C-130 was called the meat wagon because all the passengers were wounded. The first aboard were the stretcher cases. They resided more toward the nose of the plane. The rear section consisted of us, the ambulatory, the walking wounded.
We landed at Clark around 7:30 in the evening ate at the mess hall and retired for the night. The next morning, on the way to breakfast, I picked up the military paper, Stars and Stripes. The headline glared at me: “TET OFFENSIVE HITS CITIES IN VIETNAM.” The news about the Tet Offensive was relatively sparse as it was still early on. I found out later there were some casualties back at Chu Lai. Also, Cu Chi was hit quite hard as was Saigon, home of Tan Son Nhut Airport. I’d apparently missed the action by minutes. My stomach churned, and I worried about the friends I’d left behind. Accompanying these images was a thought that maybe, just maybe, if I hadn’t gotten injured, possibly I could have prevented one of them from getting hurt or killed. All part of the subconscious guilt that we tend to carry with us through life, justified or not.
After breakfast we were back on another Hercules, heading to Japan this time. For two weeks I was in a hospital ward facing a wall of windows looking out at Mount Fujiyama in the distance. I was in the company of many poor GIs who lost a limb or multiple limbs. They all seemed to bear up over these losses much better than I ever could. So many of them were in good spirits, doing different exercises, learning how to cope, how to do the menial things we take for granted, keeping a positive attitude. I moped around feeling guilty that all I had was a crack in one of my bones.
To this day, many decades later, I still get uncomfortable and have terrible recurring memories whenever I see an amputee. To me, that was the real hell of war. That’s part of the nightmares I still have.
Then, on February 15th we were going to be allowed to go off base, came the news that we were to be sent home. Due to the Tet Offensive in Nam, the beds were needed, and all passes were canceled.
We boarded the plane for the flight home. A Sergeant paced back and forth as we took our seats. In a voice louder than necessary, he reeled off safety measures and instructed us to stay seated. He explained that the seats facing the rear were for our protection in case of a crash. Then the Sergeant went on to say the flight would be to Maguire Air Force Base with a brief stop in Juneau and Dover, an 18-hour flight.
Mixed feelings filled my brain. Years later there would be television shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, shows talking about how great and fun those years of the ’50s and ’60s were. But that wasn’t necessarily how it was, at least not the way I remembered.
As miles sped by, I recalled reading in letters from home that many were against the war. Nothing to that effect was mentioned in our newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. That paper usually told us how we were winning against the Vietnamese and how the participants at the peace treaty in Paris continued to argue for months on end over the shape of the meeting table.
What would homecoming be like? Would people greet our plane at Maguire? A 40-piece marching band? Television newsmen shoving microphones in our faces?
Probably not. America didn’t look upon Vietnam as a war. It was similar to the previous conflict in Korea in the ’50s. No homecoming parades or kisses at Times Square, but it sure would be nice to finally get home. The entire time in Vietnam, there was a constant ache in my heart. It never went away. It was homesickness. No remedy, no amount of Ba Mi Ba 33 beer could make it go away, no pills, no girls downtown, nothing. But now, after a year of being away and the thought of being home in less than 24 hours, it started to finally subside.
The flight was long, monotonous and smooth sailing. We stopped in Alaska for refueling. Some girls came aboard in parkas bearing hot cocoa for us, even though we were relatively warm in the plane. We stared at these cocoa-carrying angels, their faces outlined by the parka fur, snowflakes melting quickly on their coats. Most of us had scarcely seen an American girl in almost a year. We all fell in love for a few brief moments. Then they were gone, and we were airborne once again. The hours passed slowly between cat naps as we all lost track of time.
There was a quick stop in Dover, then onto Maguire. We were greeted not by a marching band, but a thick, blinding snowstorm.
We were hustled onto a deuce and a half truck to go over to Walson Army Hospital at nearby Fort Dix. As most of us were still in jungle fatigues, the driver gave us a few blankets so we wouldn’t freeze en route. As snowflakes swirled in our faces on the ride, I shivered and shook and wished I was back in a country with the 100-degree plus days. The heat was uncomfortable but the cold hurts.
It was two days before my parents could get through the snowstorm to visit. I was allowed home the following day on a three-day pass. My sister was ten; my little brother was four. It was great to see them even though my sister complained that our little brother had a habit of peeing in her shoes in the closet. Once again, I questioned that maybe I should have stayed overseas. No one had ever peed in my boots in Nam, but we did check every day for scorpions before putting them on.
Then I was off to visit my girlfriend. I hadn’t called her purposely, planning to show up and surprise her. It certainly was a surprise, to say the least. Between calls from her boyfriend (whom I was unaware of), I was the victim of loud rants on why she hadn’t heard from me in over a month. Apparently, the mail from Japan was not as efficient as from Vietnam. I left her house confused, wondering what happened to my girlfriend of three years who had written to me regularly of her undying love and promises of waiting forever.
I then went down to the different hangouts of my youth to get re-associated with any friends who weren’t yet drafted, away at college or had run off to Canada. The few who were around greeted me friendly enough and asked me where I’d been hiding. Invariably, when I told them, they’d get that “caught in the headlights” look. Typically, they started stammering and checked their watches. Time to go!
The media and our politicians had done a fine job of turning everyone against the Vietnamese conflict. No one wanted us over there. My response, eventually, was not to even mention my involvement. When asked where I’d been my response was “Well, been around. How about you?”
The bias hung around for quite a while. Years later, in the mid-70’s, I took a course at Mercer County College. I raised my hand when the Dean asked if any Vietnam veterans were in the class. Quite noticeably, the preppy older man on my left, decked out in a black beret and matching elbow patches on his sport coat, moved his chair away from me. Not to be outdone, the lady to the right of me did the same. We vets were pariahs, social outcasts.
Years later, I talked with one of my old GI buddies. He told me he did three tours in Nam. In explanation, he said, “I came home and didn’t like what I saw. America was not the same.” I knew exactly what he meant.
When being discharged from the service, I was offered a healthy bonus to re-enlist. If done within 90 days, I’d receive $8,000 and a promotion to Specialist 6th Class. I don’t believe I slept for the next 89 nights. But I did not re-enlist. To this day, I ‘m unsure if I made the right decision.
We suffered through the fall of Vietnam when Congress pulled the plug on the war funds, the Watergate scandal and the fall of our Embassy in Iran. These were long, sad, dreary years for America. I remember feeling very sad when I watched Saigon fall in 1975. I wondered what it was all about.
I have been lucky. No Agent Orange issues. I have some dreams off and on over the years, primarily about amputees, still get them, probably more now with all the Afghan and Iraq war veterans sporting their artificial arms and legs. Reminders everywhere. But I am going to the VA about that.
I have been to the World War II Memorial but refuse to go over that mound to the Wall.
When Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1981, America seemed to bounce back. We all became Patriots again! I and millions of others became proud once more that I’d served my country. American flag sales went through the roof and the negativity of past years melted away. It just felt good.
In spite of that depressing homecoming, I am glad to have had the privilege of serving this great country. God Bless America. I did miss out on some adventure after they transferred me into maintenance from helicopter crew chief. The flip side of the coin is that possibly I would not have come back or have come back with a limb missing. I’m proud to have served but was never certain that Vietnam was a war we should have had. We certainly messed that country up and caused the deaths of untold numbers of Vietnamese.