SP/5 Frank Dillon
A Troop, 3/17th Cavalry
F Troop, 4th Cavalry
I joined the Army just a couple of weeks before I would have been drafted. I guess I did it to spite the draft board. Go figure. I reported in February 1971. My eight weeks of basic training was spent at Ft. Leonard Wood, then sixteen weeks of AIT at Ft. Gordon, Georgia. Upon graduation at Ft. Gordon, I was promoted to SP/4 with a MOS of 35M20. After graduation, I received orders for Vietnam. In the words of SFC (Sergeant First Class) Crocker, that thea, that thea, that thea goddamn orders to Vietnam. Rumor had it that SFC Crocker had contracted malaria in Vietnam which caused him to stutter quite a lot. One hell of a great guy. My reaction to receiving the orders was simply “Well shit!!!. Damn it!!”
After thirty days leave my parents drove me to the newly opened Kansas City International Airport. Not a word was spoken until I got out of the car and my Dad said, “Don’t get your feet wet over there.” That was it. On to Ft. Lewis for departure, given a bunk that they roused me out of about midnight, and they herded us into a second floor empty barracks. We slept on the hard floor until about 4 a.m when they loaded us up on Flying Tiger Airlines where I ended up sitting next to an older man who was who was going over for his second tour as a grunt. I didn’t know him well, but his sister was a year older than I, so I knew the family.
It seemed like we were in the air forever. My feet swelled up inside my new jungle boots. We landed in Tokyo to refuel and were allowed off the plane. I thought that was really cool having never been out of the U.S. before. Then we flew on to Cam Ranh Bay arriving in the late evening. I’d never been so dog ass tired in my life. It was my first experience with jet lag. In the middle of the night, I heard the first shot in my Vietnam time. A .45 and there was only one, but wtf? SOB, then I was put on KP the next morning. Pretty sure the cooks felt sorry for us newbies and gave us every break they could. We were all still dog ass tired.
I then flew to Phu Loi for two weeks of in-country training. What a joke that was. I think we shot the M16 and the M60 a few times and that was about it. I learned how to do that in basic training. To this day I fail to see the point in that “training.” I think it was about the second night at Phu Loi when the artillery opened up. Had I been told there was artillery there it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but since I didn’t know, it scared the bejesus out of me. When I learned what it was I was OK.
I was assigned to A Troop, 3/17th Cavalry at Lai Khe. I was Avionics and they were overstaffed, so I spent most of my time hanging out and doing what I could in the Motor Pool. Rats ran amuck on the hooch rafters at night and often would “drop in” on a fella. We kept our bayonets affixed to deter that issue. The mosquitoes were horrid. We slept under a mosquito net but still got upwards of 30 bites in a night. The malaria pills we took weekly gave us the shits.
A Troop, 3/17th stood down in December 1971 or so. I was transferred to F Troop (Air), 4th Cav which was next door at Lai Khe, but we moved to Sanford Army Airfield at Long Binh shortly after that. Long Binh was very secure, but we had a shit load of folks reassigned to us from units standing down. Too many with nothing to do was a problem. Race riots, stabbings, and even a murder occurred there.
April 1st, 1972 began the Easter Offensive. We were ordered up to I Corp. The unit became split 3 ways. Maintenance was at Marble-Asshole Mountain, we staged out of Phu Bai, and the misfits remained at Long Binh. Marble Mountain was a shit hole even without all the incoming. Early June 1972 we evacuated Phu Bai. It got too hazardous for our health. The forward unit began staging out of Tan My. (It’s rather difficult to find Tan My on a map today. It is about 8 miles east of Hue on the coast. It is a peninsula.) I went to Marble Mountain after the Phu Bai evacuation. In July 1972 or so, I was ordered to Tan My. That place was a paradise for a REMF like me.
My Deros date was October 5th, 1972. Four of us flew in a slick down to Tan Son Nhut. I’m guessing that it was about a 5-hour flight. Upon arrival, we were greeted with some smart ass SGT who told us “You boys are going to have to get home the best way you can. There are no flights going out”. I SO wanted to bloody his nose and blacken both of his eyes to get the smirk off of his face. The next day we were told there was a C5A heading back to the states, but we were cautioned that the C5’s usually didn’t get too far before breaking down as it turned out we made it as far as Kadina AFB, Okinawa. Air Force billets filled up and the 4 of us were told to get a room outside the base in a hotel. We did. Crown Hotel, Koza City, Okinawa. The hotel had a small bar. Three of us kept the bar open about 3 hours past closing time by throwing money to the barmaid. The other guy among us had enough sense to go to bed.
The next morning we went to the Kadina AFB terminal and learned that all the others that were on the C5A flight out of Tan Son Nhut had caught a flight out early that morning. The four of us sat in the terminal for hours and hours until we were told there was a C141 morgue flight going to Dover, Delaware. The AF dude that told us said he didn’t know if we wanted to get on it or not, but it was available. I wanted the hell out of there, and I guess the other three did too because we all got on.
There was just one casket on the plane. PFC William Terry. Accidentally killed himself somehow. Saigon, I think. His casket was directly in front of where we had to sit. I think we all knew that could easily have been one of us. It would have been less disconcerting if the casket had been located towards the back some instead of directly in front of us. We looked at it the entire flight. It was not a pleasant view for all those hours.
We flew non-stop to Elmendorf AFB in Alaska. We sat in jump seats and ate the brown bag food the Air Force provided for us. It was cold, and the view in front of us was Willie’s casket. Upon landing at Anchorage, AK my gut was in a turmoil. I was the last one off the C141 because I was in the outhouse with the dry heaves. Guys were outside telling me to get off. American soil??? Too many days I tasted my asshole in my mouth and was sure I wouldn’t make it home alive. I was a REMF. I had it easy compared to a lot of my Brothers. Go figure. Upon landing, the pilot told us we could stay aboard, but he was going to Dover. No one lived near Dover, so the four of us took a cab to the Anchorage Airport and bought our own tickets home.
We caught a flight to Seattle that evening. SeaTac had a military room at the airport with a few bunks in it so we all settled in there until another smart ass Sergeant appeared and spouted off. I said fuck you and went out in the terminal to sleep on whatever. One of the guys came out later and said come on back and get a bunk. I was too pissed off to do that. Fuck, by that time I had slept in less comfortable places than a concrete floor, so it wasn’t a big deal.
The next day I got on a flight to Kansas City. Thick fog forced us to land in Wichita, KS. A dear, dear friend who had written me every day while I was in Vietnam was the only one who knew when I would arrive, but I was able to call her to let her know of the delay. She picked me up at KCI and I finally got home. Mom wasn’t home yet so I took a walk down Main Street of Archie, MO checking it out. There never was much there, but it was kinda home. I recall I was walking down the middle of Main Street when Mom came driving up the street. (Upon reflection I ask myself why the hell I was walking down the middle of the street. There were sidewalks of sorts even back then.)The look on Mom’s face was a mixture of shock and happiness….I guess. Whatever Mom was doing, she canceled, and loaded me up and took me back to the house. That night I went to bed and slept 14 hours straight. Well, except for the moment Mom’s yellow tom cat decided to jump on me. I was back at Lai Khe fending off a rat and that poor cat hit the wall on the other side of the bedroom. I still feel bad about that.
I stayed drunk for my 30 days of leave. I couldn’t hold food down unless I had booze to relax me. My Dear, Dear Friend told me not so long ago, that she didn’t know who was more “shell-shocked” me or my Mother.
I never really felt comfortable back home. I don’t think family and friends knew quite what to make of me, however, I was treated with respect. I never really connected with my family or friends after that. And, I still feel disconnected to this day.
I stayed in the Army until 1978. I was stationed in Mannheim, Germany when Saigon fell. I don’t remember feeling much of anything about. I expected it to happen sooner than it did.
I had problems after I left the Army. I was an alcoholic and workaholic until 2005 when some events occurred putting me “back in the war with a vengeance.” I became too depressed to function and work any longer. I was fired from my job of nearly 30 years in June 2007. I have gotten counseling off and on since the early 90’s.
Five years ago I went to a mini-reunion. It was hard to go. Too much at one time for me and I left a day early. The next year the same thing. The third year I didn’t go (didn’t want to drive that far). Last year it was easy to go and I stayed for the whole thing. I am going again this year. I still have not been to the Wall. Right now I just can’t do it.
Vietnam made my faith in God stronger than it was before. I always figured if a fella didn’t believe in God, he would after getting shot at a few times.
Looking back, I don’t regret going. I do regret that we just abandoned those people when the war was the same as won. It’s almost as if it was all for nothing.