In 1967, three young U.S. Army infantrymen serving in Vietnam on an overgrow jungle island south of Saigon laughed together and became the kind of friends only those who’ve been through war really know. They all survived, even though they didn’t know it after being separated during the war.
Until The American Legion’s recent national convention in Reno, Nev., it had been 50 years since Hugh Crooks, Gordon Clapp and Robert Ryan had seen each other. But despite all the years that have passed since their time in Vietnam, the old friends smiled, laughed, joked and reminisced like they were still in their 20s.
As the three men finally met up at the National Convention, they recalled their days and memories together with stories and details that ranged from terrible to hysterically funny.
Ryan and Crooks met at the induction center after being drafted. Ryan inserted himself into a line in front of Crooks because he heard it was the one for training at Fort Ord, Calif., rather than Fort Bliss, Texas. They sat together on the bus and started a salty friendship neither of them knew would continue over 50 years.
After training they were all three stationed with A Company 3/39 of the 9th Infantry Division, Republic of Vietnam on an island known as the French Fort. Crooks was told he was really lucky to be assigned to this duty.
“You are on an island and you are at an old French fort and we called it the Riviera of the Delta because out back there was a beach,” said Crooks, a past National Executive Committeeman for the Department of California. “So when we flew in on the choppers I took one look at it and I said, ‘My God this looks like the Alamo.’ There was actually a moat around this old French fort. But you went out there and there was a dirt road. This fort controlled the shipping on the river to Saigon. The French built many forts in Vietnam when it was their colony, mostly along the borders and the coasts.
“We didn't know where we were going every time. They dropped us down and swept us through until we found somebody. Our job was to make contact.”
Clapp recalled that he could always tell where they were going because from the helicopter you could see where the artillery was hitting, where the gunships were working over.
“Anytime you are not flying is a good time,” Ryan said.
Crooks said he’ll never forget the first time he was going in hot to a hot landing zone. “The door gunners are opening up and you're like 'What are they shooting?' and ‘Why are they shooting?’ And you get down and get off as fast as you can. I'd jump when it was eight feet off the ground. I'm getting out of this thing. They shoot helicopters. I can handle the other stuff.”
Ryan recalls Crooks being the radiotelephone operator, carrying the unit's radio on his back in the field. “If we got a break he'd always come up and talk to me with this big antennae,” Ryan recalled. “I'd say ‘Hugh, get out of here don’t come back.’ I was glad to get rid of him and let him take point.”
Crooks and Clapp were born within a couple days of each other and they celebrated their 21st birthday in Vietnam. Clapp’s mother sent a cake and so they both celebrated their birthdays. “I will never forget that for the rest of my life,” Crooks said. “You remember what you did when you were 21, that is a big thing. We had nothing to drink, but his mom sent him this cake and he shared it with me.”
Clapp proudly described how his mother, a Navy wife, was able to ship a cake to Vietnam without it getting destroyed on the way – she put frosting in a can and a whole pack of candles. “My mother was the best.”
They had many unique stories of their own experiences in the Vietnam War. Crooks talked about his insurance policy being a piece of paper with all of the important frequencies he needed for the radio that he told everyone about. “If I get hit, you better at least bring my helmet back,” Crooks said. “Or you'll be in big trouble.”
They all remembered that Clapp had a small caliber pistol that he’d use to shoot rats in a bunker and scare everyone with the early morning gunfire. They described how rats controlled the bunker and the only way anyone would go in them was during heavy artillery fire. “Gunfire wasn’t enough to make us go in (the bunker),” Clapp said.
These veterans who survived the hardship of war talked candidly about people they knew who didn’t make it back and not knowing if each other had made it back for many years. They were friends in a time and place where things like their race, or where they came from, might have otherwise been an obstacle. These men are not all the same race, but that never mattered to them. There was no color barrier in infantry.
“It’s different when you are at war with someone,” Crooks said. “You don’t look at them the same.”
The conversation went on in typical veteran fashion ranging from sentimental to hilarious. Like all veterans, sometimes it’s hard to wrap your mind around what really went on in war.
“I came back thinking 'Well, we really didn’t have it that bad. We made it out of there,’” Ryan said. “There were a lot of guys you know that were really in combat. The older I get the more I realize, we were in it.”
Both Ryan and Clapp were awarded a Purple Heart.
Clapp spent many years in the hospital trying to recover physically from his injuries. When he returned home his mother didn’t recognize him because the conditions in Japan, where he recovered, were so bad that he diminished physically. So when his mother walked into the hospital at Travis Air Force Base she turned around and left because she did not recognize him.
“Really bad infection just chewed us up,” Clapp said. “I was there for a month trying to (recover). During that kind of war, it was just one injury after another. We were in these open wards with like 50 guys in a ward, and four wards in a big aircraft building in Japan with one nurse per ward and like two orderlies on shift. All they did was give out shots and change diapers or whatever. It was a bad scene. So by the time I got home, I was a mess. (My mom) looked right at me and didn’t know it was me.”
Although Crooks wasn’t hit, he had a few close calls.
After returning from an ambush Ryan asked Crooks if he’d had a bad day because he noticed a bullet fragment stuck in the bandolier he was wearing. “Cleaning my equipment out I realized I had a bullet hole in my radio. And right in the middle of one of my bandoliers is a bullet hole … that is not a good feeling,” Crooks said.
Following the war Clapp moved to South Lake Tahoe, Calif. In 1987, he became a contractor, a career he’s still involved with. Ryan went back to his home in San Luis Obispo, Calif., where he worked in manufacturing as a locksmith and for a community college until he retired after 35 years; he’s a member of Post 66 in San Luis Obispo. Crooks came home to California and went into law enforcement. He was also an administrator for the Museum of Natural History. Besides a past NECman, Crooks is a past Department of California commander and he’s currently on the California Department of Veterans Affairs board.
The three men talked about friends they had lost, or lost contact with, the absurdity of war, the things they saw (pythons they mistook for fallen trees, walking Asian catfish, sharks, big bugs) and the things they endured (mosquitos, jumping from helicopters, hearing bullets ripping by, seeing a rocket coming out of a helicopter, a B-52 bombing wake like a constant earthquake).
“We haven't had a chance to get our stories straight after 50 years,” Clapp said. “It’s coming together.”