The Vietnam War in Nelson DeMille


Did you go right into action after you made it to Vietnam in November 1967?
Pretty much. We expected that – as long as it took to get people sorted out. I was at Long Binh, north of Saigon, maybe three or four days waiting for orders. Nobody knew where they were going. You could wind up down in the delta. You could wind up in the DMZ. I wound up with the 1st Cav. All the units were good, but this was a particularly good one, if you don’t mind helicopters.
I went to the base camp, Landing Zone English, by helicopter, and from there, to the cav. I hadn’t been assigned to my brigade or unit level yet, and that took about a day. I was supposed to go out, but the day I was supposed to go out, someone came to me and said, “We can’t get you out because the company is in contact right now, and it’s not a good time for you to jump in.”
My question was, “What happened to the last platoon leader?” He apparently had been wounded but not badly.
I could hear the firefight on the radio. It wasn’t a major engagement, but they were being shot at. And the wounded were coming back. This wasn’t a war movie anymore. This was holy sh*t. The next morning, I went out on a chopper and met everybody.
There was no orientation period, even for incoming junior officers?
They had different ways of doing it. Somebody told me later that during that period, some officers were going out with a company that wasn’t going to be their own, so they could go through whatever they had to go through, whether it be acclimation to the climate or radio procedure. They put you in a company for two weeks or less. Then they put you in your company, so you didn’t look like you were still pissing stateside water, as they said. You needed to look like you knew what you were doing. If nothing else, you should be a little grubby, like you had been out in the field already. They didn’t do that with me. They put me right out there, and I took over a platoon.
How did you make that transition?
I had a good platoon sergeant who knew his business. We came to terms right away. I said, “Sergeant, you’re running this platoon for the next two or three weeks. I am going to listen and watch.”
He said, “It might be longer than that, lieutenant.”
I said, “No, two or three weeks.”
We got along fine. That was in the Bong Son area, in the south. That was November and December. After the new year, we did move up to the DMZ, and that’s where I stayed the rest of the time I was there. We were not too far from Quang Tri City. The base camp was Landing Zone Betty, which was an old French fort, and then we had another forward base camp, LZ Sharon. Our area of operation was south of the DMZ. North of us were the 3rd Marines. So we had that corridor between Hue, Phu Bai, Quang Tri City, going to Khe Sanh. It was an inhospitable place to be, in terms of everything. Climate – it was almost like a real winter. That January before the Tet Offensive, temperatures dropped in the night into the 40s and 50s, and we had tropical clothing. It was raining. It was miserable.
When did you see your first serious combat?
It really wasn’t until the Tet Offensive, the end of January. Then it really lit up. After that, it was the A Shau Valley, where I saw the heaviest combat, more than the Tet Offensive for my unit anyway. Then at Khe Sanh we saw combat. My heaviest combat was the A Shau Valley. Why? I have no idea. This was a place where we lost about a third of the company, killed or wounded. It was a bad place, an area heavily controlled by the North Vietnamese regulars.
They had tanks – light amphibious tanks. We got attacked by two tanks. They came out of the jungle, from nowhere. One of our guys took out one of the tanks with a light anti-tank weapon. He put a round through the turret. The other tank backed out. (The enemy) had much better equipment and numbers than usual. They had a lot of numbers. We had nothing.
We had air-assaulted into the valley by helicopter to set up camp. So, we were like making a beachhead …  sort of like a Normandy thing.
We got shot at from the beginning. Helicopters were going down around me. I was totally frightened. That was the only time I was frightened in Vietnam, really frightened. In a helicopter, you don’t have your feet on the ground, you know? Helicopters were getting hit by 57mm anti-aircraft (rounds). These things were exploding. I wanted to get on the ground. I don’t care who is shooting at me on the ground. I don’t want to be up in the air. You can’t do anything up there.
Did your helicopter get hit at all?
No, but the helicopters around me got hit. We lost four or five helicopters going in. The pilot put it down right away. I don’t know if he landed where we were supposed to land, but he got us on the ground as soon as he could, and we fanned out. We were under fire from the beginning. It was like 20 days of almost constant combat. We got shot at almost every day. And for seven long days, we were in constant contact.
Why were the North Vietnamese so protective of that area?
We had uncovered a base camp, and there was evidence that there had been American POWs in there. We don’t know if it was actually true. There was evidence – evidence meaning we saw American military equipment, and the intelligence people said they were there, and there were cages, actual cages, where they definitely kept prisoners, but probably South Vietnamese. We didn’t know.
Was the rescue of POWs part of the mission?
No, it wasn’t part of the mission, but when we found these things, all of a sudden the intelligence people were saying, “There could be Americans here.” So, now we were motivated.
We fought at this base camp, and we fought into the hills. Then we found a second set of cages, abandoned cages, in the jungle. It was kind of an ad hoc POW camp. We never knew if it was Americans because the South Vietnamese soldiers had a lot of our stuff at the time. Just because it was left behind didn’t mean it was American.
And you never found out?
We couldn’t capture anyone. We tried to capture some bad guys to find out if there were Americans there, but we never captured anybody. It was a fight that went on for about seven days, in and around this base camp. That’s where we lost a third of the company, but we were motivated because we figured there were Americans around there somewhere. Finally, we got jet fighters with napalm. That was also the first time we used CS gas, and almost nobody had their gas masks – the gas masks you are supposed to carry but nobody carried. We used the pouches to carry c-rations. Then they started firing CS gas. It was a battle. It was a battle in the traditional sense.
Finally, they disappeared, like they always did. Usually, they disappeared in a day, but this was seven days. They were not disappearing so fast. We couldn’t understand why they were hanging in there, either. They were taking a beating. As we moved forward, we did find other cages.
We thought maybe it was some kind of big command headquarters of the North Vietnamese. They had control of the valley since ’54 when the French Foreign Legion left. This was now ’68. They had been in control of this valley, kind of a remote valley that emptied out into Laos, for 14 years. There were very few Americans in there except long-range patrol guys, maybe Special Forces. This was a whole different kind of thing. We were used to operating on the coast or in the highlands. There were no civilians there at all. It was a war zone.
Why was the valley so important to the enemy?
This was where they came into the main part of Vietnam, down the mountains and through the jungles. It was a big terminal for the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We found tens of thousands of gallons of gasoline in big 55-gallon drums. We found Russian-made trucks. It was a supply terminal, so to speak. They had Russian-made trucks that had originally been designed by the Ford Motor Co. for the Russians back in the ‘30s. They were copies of the Ford ’36 deuce-and-a-half truck that the Russians were still producing and sending to the North Vietnamese. We found anti-aircraft quad 50-caliber machine guns. There was a lot of stuff in the valley. We definitely emptied it out by the time we left. We took everything.
This was nearly 50 years ago, and the memory remains vivid for you.
It kind of burns into your mind. Your perceptions are heightened all the time. You are not daydreaming. You are totally focused on what is going on.
Your involvement in the A Shau Valley battle earned you the Bronze Star. What about other medals?
I had three slight wounds. Each one of them could have been a Purple Heart, but I wasn’t that into that. You didn’t think of that. I was hit three times, not bad. Shrapnel twice. And one time, I was in this village, and this big bamboo building blew up. A big piece of wall came toward me, and I burnt my hand. And I got blown out of a bunk when I was on my way to R&R. A mortar came in and hit the mess hall next door. When this thing blew, I fell down onto the floor. I never got hit, but I’m in my skivvies, it’s like 3 o’clock in the morning, and I’m crawling across the concrete floor to the bunker outside. My elbows and knees are all bloody and skinned. Just abrasions.
In the bunker, somebody asked, “Anybody remember to bring a pack of cigarettes?”
Yeah, somebody had cigarettes. It was no big deal.
Then I realized I’ve got to get out of here the next morning. I’ve got to put a uniform on. I had to get to the aid station that night.
The guy at the aid station says, “I’ve got good news for you. You’re not fit for duty for a week.”
I said, “This is not good news.” There was another outfit coming in. I said, “I’m going out.”
So he taped me up, I put my khakis on and got out. I went up to Hong Kong. This was April of ’68, and I did get out. What a bummer to think that you’re not going to go on your seven-day R&R because you got hit in the R&R barracks.
How aware were you about events in the United States while you were deployed?
We didn’t get a lot of news in country. We only heard news. You could read the Army Times, but most of us didn’t bother. You got a lot of news from new troops coming in, but it was spotty. It wasn’t like you were totally caught up with the news cycle.
But there were some people, even at that age, who were news addicts, really into it. I remember one guy from New York whose father used to mail him The New York Times, not every day, and it would arrive a week and a half late. Everybody would share it. In a strange way, you didn’t really care.
You heard about the Martin Luther King assassination and the riots. This was all pretty heavy stuff. But when you’re front-line infantry, you are the news. You’ve got your own problems. We didn’t even realize the extent of the Tet Offensive until a month after it happened. We knew militarily it was huge. We didn’t realize the impact it had. How would you know how it was being reported? It was very misunderstood. I thought we won, but apparently we didn’t. We actually kicked their butts, killed a lot of them.
Describe the Tet Offensive from your perspective during the war.
We had gotten a warning that there was something big happening. We understood that. In the weeks before, we saw thousands of people on the roads. These were the Vietnamese coming home to their villages for the holiday. There were obviously infiltrators. The intelligence was not good, but it wasn’t terrible, either.
Many of the South Vietnamese commanders had canceled leave, which was tough to do – kind of like canceling leave on Christmas and New Years. It was a tough decision.
They didn’t all cancel leave, and in some places, these people went home. A good percentage of the South Vietnamese military was back in rural areas, totally separated from what was happening.
We were on 100-percent alert. We were in sight of the coast, so we could see the city of Quang Tri. We couldn’t see Hue, but we could see Quang Tri. They thought because it was the first night of Tet, it was fireworks or skyrockets, or something else. It wasn’t fireworks.
Quang Tri City was being overrun, and LZ Betty, the old French fort at the edge of the city, was vulnerable because it didn’t have modern defenses – just an old fort with walls. The American defenses were barbed wire, land mines, bunkers made out of sandbags, not  very easily penetrated.
Brigade headquarters, which was LZ Betty, maybe had 100 personnel, 150 tops. Cooks and clerks and paymasters, mostly. But it held. It came close to getting overrun, and that would have been a tremendous loss, to have the nerve center of the brigade overrun and everybody in there killed or wounded or captured. It managed to hold on.
I was in a better place. I was outside the city. I was with an infantry company dug into the hills where we could see what was happening on the coast. All the attacks were taking place on the coast. We actually escaped the first night of the Tet Offensive because we were not where the attacks were taking place. There was a lot of confusion. Nobody knew what to do first.
The next morning, we wanted to make sure that our two base camps, Sharon and Betty, were reinforced. We tried to clear the highway because the highway was under enemy control. Everything was happening. The Hue-Phu Bai Airport was taken over by the bad guys. The most famous battle was the Battle of Hue, where the Marines were stuck in the city. That went on for 30 days. But within a couple of weeks, we had cleared out the Quang Tri area, and we were back in control. The Marines – mostly Marines, but some 1st Cav guys – were down in the Hue area, and that went on, block by block. We could have gone there if they had needed us, but they didn’t need us, as it turned out. Nobody knew how to react at the time.
How difficult was it not knowing what you were going to be asked to do next?
You had no idea what you were getting into. There was a sense of unreality, in a foreign country, with people shooting at you, with no point of reference anymore. It’s hard to believe what you were seeing. Dead bodies on the road and people just passing by them. It’s a shock. But if you’re 24 years old, and you’re an officer, and you’re educated, you can deal with it better than some of the 17 and 18-year-old kids could deal with it.