Lawrence Black is from Sudbury, Massachusetts.
Born in the early 1940’s, he served in the United States Army
Signal Corps in the Vietnam War during the 1960’s. Mr. Black grew
up in a small town in New Hampshire, and was attending Northeastern
University when he signed up for the R.O.T.C. In the Signal Corps. He
was an officer, training his men and preparing them for what they would
face over in Vietnam.
Mr. Black was stationed in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive
in 1968. Although he and the men in his unit were not what would be
considered traditional frontline grunts, they saw an enormous amount
of action and were in constant danger. Miraculously, everyone from the
unit survived the war, though they all became well acquainted with the
death that was occurring all around them. Mr. Black’s bravery
earned him a bronze star. Upon his return to the United States, he was
shocked to find so many anti-war demonstrations. He received no fanfare,
even from his family members, but he moved on. During his life since
the war, he has worked for NASA and other companies. His views on the
war have remained unchanged throughout the years, and he doesn’t
have any apparent regrets about the time he spent in Vietnam or what
he did over there. Although he admits that many things about the war
were unfortunate and definitely should have been better handled, he
maintains that the blame that the American public placed on the soldiers
didn’t belong there, regardless of the atrocious actions
taken by the soldiers involved in the My Lai massacre.
Q: Now Mr. Black, when were you born?
Mr. Black: 1943.
Q: And can you describe where you grew up, what your childhood was like,
anything like that?
Mr. Black: Sure. I grew up in a small town in southern New Hampshire.
It was the old fashioned kind of a town with families. Basically, it
was a place of small farms; a very rural area, with a couple industries
in town; they were kind of small. Of course, my relatives lived in the
same town. As time went on, and the country rolled and spread out, and
you start to see that people get more dispersed, much like today. I
have a sister that still lives there, but that’s probably the
last relative who still lives in that town. Back then you tend to see
more people, not traveling around, and so forth. And basically, even
during the summers I would work for my uncle on his farm. While I was
in high school I would work in the factory at nights; it was a furniture
finishing place… made cabinets, all that kind of stuff. And then
it came time to go onto college, and so I went to a college in Boston,
Northeastern University, and that’s when things started to change,
because obviously it was in a metropolitan area. But while I was in
college, I also went into ROTC. At the time there was still a draft.
And ROTC was a way in which you basically volunteer to go in the army,
or in the service, but after you’re done, out of school, it at
least guarantees that you get through college. So basically I took ROTC,
and that meant that when I got out of college, I had to go in.
Q: What was your motivation to do that?
Mr. Black: To go in the service?
Mr. Black: Well, the first thing was that you realize that Vietnam
was brutal, and that meant that with the draft in place, it meant that
if you went to college and got drafted when you were in college, you
basically had interrupted college time, but if you took ROTC then you
didn’t, and also you go in as an officer; and you also get paid
a little bit when you go through college. Now I did work my way through
college because that’s one of the things Northeastern has, is
Co-op. At that time you could actually earn enough money to push yourself
through so that’s what I did. But, before I graduated I had to
report to Fort Devins for some kind of a training. It was a pre-officer
training that took place before you actually graduated, and actually,
you were given your commission at that time. And later in the fall was
when I actually went into the service, but I reported to Fort Gordon
in Georgia, which is the main school for a Signal Corps officer to train
before they get deployed and, I was originally scheduled to be deployed
to Korea. However, before I graduated from the officer’s basic
school the army realized that they had some new equipment they had bought,
that they had no training courses for, and so what they did was they
took a look at all the people they had in the officer’s basics
school at the time. For every week there’s a whole new class going
on. So they took every electrical engineer. I graduated as an electrical
engineer; that was in the course and pulled them all aside and said,
‘You’re going to go to Vietnam’, So basically we had
to go to, I can’t remember the Fort in North Carolina, if you
know where it is that’s where it was. I’ll think of it-
Fort Bryn! That’s what it was Fort Bryn. And there we were forming
up a unit that had to go there. We had to train all the enlisted men
and everything and how to work with his equipment, even though we had
no equipment to work with in the states because it was shipped directly
from a manufacturer in Vietnam, which was an interesting concept. When
you get there, you have to learn all the stuff and there’s no
special manuals, no training courses or anything like that. You just
have the maintenance manuals that are supplied with the equipment. And
since the army at the time would have been the only customer, you can
imagine at the time that it wasn’t exactly a commercial product.
Q: When did you first hear about the Cold War and communism and the
spread of communism? Did you fear communists or dislike them?
Mr. Black: Well, Russia would have been considered the primary source.
China wasn’t considered as significant at the time. Today you
might look at it a different way, unfortunately because of some of this,
what’s going on. But it was real. It would have been during the
time that I was growing up. But even Sputnik was put up; I would have
probably been in High School at the time. So, there were some more politically
activated, at least the impression was trying to influence each other
across the ocean with threats. However, the Cold War went on for a very
long time, and even after I got out of the service, I basically worked
for the part of the industry that built the equipment to make sure we
kept them at bay, no matter what. And so we had gone from one significant
defensive and offensive system development to another.
Q: So as a teenager would you say that you were politically involved,
either as an activist or a free thinker?
Mr. Black: No. Why? Well, you’re talking about a different time.
The demonstrations of the late 60’s and early 70’s were
something that had never been seen before. I came back from Vietnam;
I didn’t know what was going on either. The catch is that when
you’re overseas, you’re in a foreign country, there’s
nothing in your language except what the army or what the government
presents to you. So, we had T.V., sort of; it was military T.V. Things
like the temperature, the weather, you never heard about those because
that’s actually important information from a fighting standpoint
so you don’t want to send it to the enemy or anything, so that
all your news and everything is pretty well laundered. And so actually,
eventually I found out what had happened was more from some other movies
that came out later in time about the Kennedy’s or something,
and we’d go through that period and say, ‘Wow! I didn’t
even know that had happened.’ Well, because you were totally blocked
off. Communication wasn’t what it is like today, there were no
cell phones; if you wanted to call somebody, I know my parents had sent
out a locator through the Red Cross to try to see where I was over there.
They just wanted to hear from me. So I did call them one night, but
I had to go through military equipment that I went through, I don’t
know what, and when they finally made the contact at the other end,
it’s like talking to somebody at the end of the longest hose you
ever heard. So when we were all done, I don’t even know if they
understood what I said, but at least they had heard from me, and that
was about the quality of what it was worth. So you’d have to go
back to those times to reflect on it. So you didn’t get these
demonstrations, and in the country, a demonstration isn’t much
if it’s only one person. You don’t get big crowds in a country
town. We’d have little crowds, and nobody cares. And you don’t
find a kind of disruptive behavior that you find in the cities. You
get a big enough concentration of alike thinkers that they could get
more momentum than there thoughts were.
Q: Now, when you were told you were going to Vietnam with your classmates,
what did you know about Vietnam before you were told that you were going
there? Did you have any idea about what to expect?
Mr. Black: I figured it was a jungle. I don’t know. Yeah, you
Q: So there wasn’t a lot of information available about Vietnam,
or their history, or their culture in the United States?
Mr. Black: Well, there was… from a standpoint of the dynamics
of the country itself. I’d have gone to some talks downtown; it
must have been a little college downtown… Harvard. Some talks
on Vietnam, but it gave you the historical evolution which included
significant religious involvement. There was a lot of religion going
on, as well as France and so forth. Traumatic aspects you know. But
you don’t really know what it is down on the ground, and when
you go into training, such as at Fort Devins there, they would have
training for preparation both of asia, and what to do if you get captured,
and all those kinds of things, including getting tortured, here before
you can go over there. So you’re basically set up to know that
you don’t want to get caught.
Q: So what was you’re training like and was it difficult to transfer
and transform into a soldier from a civilian?
Mr. Black: Well, I would have gone on the normal route. I went in through
ROTC, which is in a college atmosphere. So you don’t really get
any simulation stuff there. We had the basic training program at F.D.
and then at Fort Gordon. But still, the first thing is I was in the
signal corps, and in the signal corps, we’re not the guys that
pound the beat everyday. You know, we’re not the ground coverers.
So, your emphasis is more on the job. On the other hand, when we went
to Fort Bryn, they were training up a union. So although we hadn’t
received any training in it, we were reading like mad because we had
to have all these courses on how to train guys on how to handle ambushes,
convoys, all this kind of stuff that we never even had the training
for. So you’re reading the training manuals and the next day you’re
teaching it to the guys, and of course the guys, they don’t understand,
the enlisted men sort of exist, and a lot of them were in there because…
I don’t know why. And so, they kind of don’t have a great
attitude yet. I mean, some of them were fantastic. I found that the
draftees who tried to make the best of what was in there were some of
the best people you’re ever going to find, and again, whatever
happened over in Vietnam, it explains some of that too, but there were
the ones that didn’t also, and they were sort of the draggers
all the way. Well, the thing about a unit is that you’re dependent
on every person that’s in your unit. I mean, if somebody sees
something, then they don’t alert everybody else, or they don’t
take the quickest defense to it, everybody pays for it. It’s the
same thing as today when you see these bombers. If somebody was more
alert and saw them, half the damage wouldn’t actually take place.
But anyway, as far as how to handle grenades and land on the back of
a truck when you’re in a convoy, you had to teach them to realize
that if somebody doesn’t act fast, and act fast to get rid of
that thing, everybody’s going to go. So, maybe that one person
stands a chance of getting hurt or maimed or something, but at least
he saved his buddies. Well you had to build a team out there. So, if
some clown sits there and goes to sleep in the middle of class when
you’re teaching him how to do these things, you’re going
to get out there someday and that guy isn’t going to know what
in the world to do. So, that’s when I would sort of ride them
up and down, make sure they didn’t fall asleep in class or anything.
But that’s a life and death class, and if that guy doesn’t
get it and you get over there and you’re dependent on him and
he doesn’t know what to do, you’re in hell.
Q I’m just curious, was there a lot of comradeship between the
soldiers, or was it sort of like, “I’m from this place,
you’re from that place,” and did they eventually become
Mr. Black: Yes. That’s what was going on. When we were training
them we were training the unit as a whole, but we’re part of the
enemy too. It’s just that somebody gets stuck with that part of
it. So, we had a very odd unit, we had an awful lot of equipment because
we were meant to be distributed amongst permanent organizations when
we got to Vietnam. It didn’t work out that way, and so we had
to be able to handle all sorts of things that were supposed to be handled
for us. When we got to Vietnam, even the clothes were different. See
over here, they’re more cotton, the fatigues, but over there they
couldn’t be cotton because we had guys who weren’t issued
any clothes here, they had to get them over there, and, we didn’t
have a supply place over there so, as we’re trying to get clothes
for the guys, some of them, their clothes actually rotted off of them
before they had clothes. It’s so humid and it’s a very different
environment over there. I used to have a fresh uniform everyday. But
by the end of the day, I would have a “V” formed around,
because it’s so hot. And, if you’re from the Northeast,
you just never really adapt to the hot temperature. I didn’t really
down south either, but it was worse over there. And one day it must
have gotten down to 50, but it’s so hot over there all the time
that we had pulled out our winter jackets that were meant for Alaska
in order to stay warm. I mean, you do get sort of acclimated when you
were over there. But yes, we were building up comradeship; that was
our whole intention; that’s why if that guy wanted to go to sleep,
if you don’t do something about it or get rid of him, you’re
going to have a problem when you get over there as a unit. So we actually
built our unit up from the scratch right there in Fort Bryn. And then
we took them directly to Vietnam.
Q: Now when you left the country, what was that like? When you left
your family and your friends?
Mr. Black: Again that was probably a little different. I graduated
from a college after I was already in. Things were rotating pretty fast,
but I did go to school down south, so that meant that there’s
actually a few months before I went to Vietnam, so that’s time
for them to get used to the fact that you’re going to be gone,
but you’re also not there anyway. I mean, that’s Georgia
and that’s New Hampshire. You sort of knew that was going to happen
anyway because that was the times. There was war going on. By being
in the ROTC, you wouldn’t get out. Actually about a year before
I graduated, there were some people trying to get out of that commitment,
and so they tightened up the legal things, of course some guys actually
slipped through and you get those kinds of things happening. It gets
close to someone’s life or something. But if you look at it as
a duty to your country, you don’t look at it as a threat…
you do wonder if you’re going to come back…
Q: So, did you think that you were specifically there to justify your
country? Or did you have different motives in actually going to Vietnam?
Mr. Black: Just to serve the country.
Q: Did you know what the country was there for, specifically or broadly?
Mr. Black: Well, that was the one interesting thing at the time. The
President… the government itself wasn’t really conveying
their purpose to do it. So, it meant that the officers had to convey
their purpose for being there for the government. And, there was no
official ‘this is what you’re supposed to tell them’
sort of thing. They weren’t telling the American public and that’s
part of why a lot of the people didn’t know what was going on.
It wasn’t being clear as to what their motives were. The other
conflict, which is probably part of why the war ended the way it did,
is that we never really were at war. It was considered a police section.
Unfortunately, the police, they ran. That meant that if they saw a target
they could not take a target at the time. They got to get approval from
Washington before they could intervene. By that time, there were plenty
of times for things to get compromised, the whole scene changes, and
it’s too late. It’s like trying to fight the war with your
hands tied, if you said you were going to beat them out of there but
you couldn’t. What are you going to do? So I think it is an issue,
but I don’t think that we had that much trouble conveying it to
the men. It’s just like if you hear words back from those people
that are in Iraq right now. There will be some of them that don’t
know what we’re there for, but most of them know quite well what
they’re there for. It’s going to be a mixture of service
to the country and service to the ideals of the country and the goals
to the country, but basically if you’re in the military, at that
point in time that’s who you work for.
Q: So, you said that you were an officer. And just a clarifying question,
what is the Army Signal Corps, and what did they do?
Mr. Black: They’re responsible for all the communications. Our
particular unit handled both microwave and troposphere communications,
which was for long-range communications across the country. Basically
when you go into the country, there is no infrastructure. Obviously
you’d have security issues and all that kind of stuff, and encryptions
and all those different requirements. So, our particular unit was actually
responsible for all the long-range communications in the northern half
of South Vietnam. And, we had another unit that formed up beside us
in Fort Bryn as well that was responsible for the southern half of South
Vietnam, and they used primarily microwaves there and we used primarily
tropo in the north. It had more to do with the hilly versus flat. Tropo,
you shoot up and back down so you could shoot over mountains with it,
but with microwaves you can’t shoot through a mountain and so
there were just more challenges mixed in with the terrains. But the
signal corps handled all the stuff back to the states. So basically
in “Caisson”, which is one of the northern most mountain
tops in South Vietnam, we had a tropo unit there. But that was responsible
for the major link to most southern parts of Northern Vietnam. And so
all the units would use that as their way to communicate back down to
the major city, and we were responsible for keeping those secure; that
was one of the first ones that we actually deployed. We went over there
as a whole unit, and the first people we deployed were to replace a
whole unit blown out in a hole up in Caisson, so there were bodies and
a lot of other stuff we had to clean up. We had things, like, I had
a letter that came back from somebody who died who had a unit there
that wasn’t a part of our unit at all. But what they wanted was
the camera that he had bought a few weeks before. I mean, everything
was blown to smithereens, and these people were looking for another
camera. It just seemed… you feel horrible. It was a strange emphasis
in the way people think is important; I mean, someone died.
Q: So, did fear play into your state of mind at all? Did it affect you
during your job? Was it really a big factor?
Mr. Black: No, no. There’s not too much you can do about it.
It’s your job, that’s where you are. I wasn’t stupid,
but, I have a bronze star. Basically, I had… when you’re
in the Signal Corps, you’re not really at the frontline; not the
real frontline. You’re not fighting hand-to-hand combat. You’re
taking mortar rounds and rockets and everything all night long; you’re
taking sniper shots; and we had people in Hue—Hue got overrun
in ’68—and we had one unit there. Our site there was like
a postage stamp. It might have been the size of three of these rooms.;
that was the whole compound. It was in a neighborhood that was all French,
where the old French had been in Hue, but they were really Vietnamese.
When it got overrun by the Vietcong during that part of the Tet Offensive,
we had eight people at that site, and basically we maintained our operation
the whole time, but by the end it was underground. So, when they were
out overrunning everything else, several of the other units that got
overcome, their people had escaped into where our place was. Well now,
we had no way of supporting them, except that we had what’s called
a “service channel” which was on our equipment. It was this
multi-channeled system where we would be down in Da Nang and up in Hue,
and we could talk back and forth on the service channel, so that meant
they could at least stay mentally alert and realize that there are people
still out there, because basically there’s this whole war going
on on top of them. And, we normally had a requirement to have, I forget,
it was seven or ten days worth of C-rations. These are the kinds that
were in a box. So, it was over two weeks, they had twice as many people
in that hole, and they went and they would take one can. Usually you
had, like, three cans of stuff for a meal. They were just trying to
get a can and they would just ration that out. I was trying to get supplies
to them. Well, no unit could go in there, and I wanted them to fly over
and just drop C-rations on them. And it was almost two weeks before
I could get a Marine helicopter to fly over and drop sea rations on
their site. And they made it through, but there were no other support
people left to even come in and rescue them, and all they really needed
was the food.
Q: Would you mind if I take a scan of that?
Mr. Black: Okay. This is just a plaque that they gave me as I was leaving.
You know how you leave a job and people give gifts or something? Well,
this was just a tradition there within our unit. As we left, we’d
get a plaque. It’s a map of South Vietnam. And this one (motions
to a framed certificate) you may not be interested in, but I graduated
first in my class with the officers.
Mr. Black: So even though we weren’t in hand-to-hand combat,
we sort of were right in the middle of it all. Our main base was in
Da Nang. We were on the end of the airport, and basically, at night
the rockets would come in, and they’d just march them up and down
trying to hit something, and when they finally could, well they’d
use it again another night. So you’d end up having to work all
day, then there’d be a red alert around 11 or 12 o’clock
at night, and you’d have to stay up all night in the bunkers,
then you’d go back to work the next day. So this would go on for
days, and that’s the game they were playing, where they’d
get you tired enough that they could do something. During the Tet Offensive,
since we were on the end, when they were trying to overrun Da Nang,
the planes would come in and they’d be striking the troops down
on the ground, right? But as they would come up, some of the rounds
would just keep on flying. Well from where we were situated at the end
of the airport, we were living in tents. They weren’t ordinary
tents, they were tents with plywood sides, but still, we didn’t
have real buildings and our equipment was stored in huge metal containers.
So, as these planes came up, all you’d hear is this clinking because
the rounds would be hitting the containers right beside our tent, but
we didn’t lose anybody; but a few days later when we picked up
all these Vietnamese bodies, they had a helipad down in the corner of
the airport, and there were bodies piled 50-60 feet high, just all stacked
up, and as you drove by where the rivers were, you’d see…
the Vietnamese were kind of little, but not when they had been on the
water for a week. I mean, they were huge and they’d be floating
down on the river. They came pretty close to several of our sites, but
the one in Hue was the worst because we couldn’t get food to them
or anything, and I think we must have been the only unit left there
at the end. But eventually, of course, things turned out all right there.
Q: Obviously the Tet [Offensive] came as a shock to everyone…
Mr. Black: Well, the fact that it was a concentrated effort did because
previously, everything had been more random, from what it would appear.
And, then there was new stuff every night, you know, rocket attacks,
but they didn’t come and shoot at us, they were trying to wear
Q: How did your unit prepare for that? Were there different precautions
that you had to take?
Mr. Black: Yeah, we had to get in the bunkers every night! Basically,
sandbags and all that kind of stuff, entrenchments… we spent the
night in a hole. The tent was great afterwards!
Q: That’s all stuff you would have prepared before you went out
[to Vietnam], when you were learning what to do in case of an attack.
So you would think back to then, to learning what you’d have to
do to protect yourself. And that turned out all right?
Mr. Black: Yeah, I’m here. There isn’t a lot you can do.
There were basically just bunkers; the perimeter would have had wire
and stuff around it. We’d have guards at the perimeter to keep
an eye out if anyone had gotten in, but when there are rockets, there’s
not much you can do for it because those are shot in. It’s just
like, you can go tropo and shoot up over the mountains, well they shoot
up over the fences and everything and they just start landing them in
your back yard. You don’t know where they’re going to land,
and they don’t either, really. They dig a hole, fire, and when
they figure out where [the rocket] landed, they know if that’s
going to be a good [place to fire from] later. Different kind of mind
Q Were there a lot of casualties in the attacks?
Mr. Black: On our part?
Mr. Black: No, no… well, for our unit there weren’t. I
didn’t realize before I looked at the map yesterday and I see
that My Lai wasn’t that far from away Da Nang. It’s just
like when I went to school in Boston I didn’t have a car, so I
used the subway. I never knew where all those places were, I just knew
the names of the destinations, and that they would take you to such-and-such
a place, and I knew which stores were there. So later, when you have
a car and you come by for other reasons, you realize what the relationship
was with all those places. Similarly, in Vietnam, it’s not something
you try to figure out from day to day. You just have to deal with not
knowing where you are, and you’re not there as a tourist.
Q: But did you always know where you were in relationship to the country,
or with another country?
Mr. Black: Well, no. When I was in Que Sahn in ’68, the year
of the Tet Offensive, I would have been the only outside officer most
of those people had seen. I had to go up there for our unit because
I had to report a survey that had to do with lost equipment and that
kind of stuff. The first time I landed there, they went to show me around,
but Que Sahn is a kind of funny place, ‘cause it’s like
a hill. Well, it’s a mountain. But it’s like a peak, and
so what they had was a landing strip that was made out of metal slats.
So they would land on that, but because the rockets would come in as
soon as they’d landed, the trick was to land, never cut the engines,
then they’d tell you to jump, then they would hit the engines
and take off, so they never really stayed there. The first plane I took
up there… now the way you’d get around in Vietnam was you’d
go to an airport, ask if a plane was going somewhere, and you never
knew what you were getting onto or anything. I mean, sometimes there
would even be cows on these planes or something! But anyway… because
you didn’t drive to these places; that would be stupid, so you’d
hook a [plane] ride. So, the ride I got onto there was an ammunition
run, so what they had done was they’d up filled one of these planes
right there with these huge crates of ammunition, and I’m the
only passenger. I’m in there between the crates and they yelled
at me ahead of time, they said, “Here’s what we’re
going to do. We’re going to drop down, and as soon as we touch
ground, we’re going to yell to you, ‘You’d better
jump!’ because right behind, we’re going to kick these things
off and hit the engines.” Well, what happens is when the engines
start, the cargo rolls off, so all the ammunition rolls right behind
you, so there’s no two ways about this mess. Well I think this
one made it off, but the next one I came up on, the rockets did come
in, and they hit a piece of the rudder in the back, so they had to go
and park that plane at the end, and it never took off again. So anyways,
then you just had to run. They went to show me around, and they were
mostly Marines. We were the only Army people there because we were providing
their communications and while they were showing me the different entrenchments,
there were noises, and while those guys were used to what the sounds
were like at their site, I didn’t hear what they were talking
about. And so, this round comes in, lands to the ground not too far
away, and I was run over by all six of the Marines. I was between them
and the entrance to this hole in the ground where the equipment was
and everything. They completely trampled me, and then they were so apologetic
afterwards, and I was so thankful that at least I hadn’t taken
the flak! So we go through that one easy enough. But you’re the
officer, and they feel real bad about something like that. So you get
a lot of those kinds of memories. I was kind of glad that they were
on their toes even if I’d missed it.
Q: Back at home, the Civil Rights Movement was front-page news. As far
as you could tell, how did racial differences play out among troops
Mr. Black: There really weren’t any. Well, I mean there was black
and white and everything in between, but it wasn’t like there
was segregation but it’s a part of what your question was earlier;
how do you build a team? And if that team isn’t a team, then somebody’s
in the wrong place. In my unit, in the Signal Corps, it was a little
different because most of the people had already gone through training
of some sort anyway, and so we may have only had 15% minorities as opposed
to 60% in some of the other branches. We also tended to have shorter
people instead of tall people. I don’t know why, but taller people
are figured for more physical things than short guys; I don’t
know, but there are some trends that are slightly different between
units because of what they’re doing, and in ours, everybody had
to go to school of some sort or they couldn’t have even been in
the unit whether it was military or otherwise. So, there is just different
kinds of motivations, but in ours we just didn’t see segregation.
I didn’t see any.
Q: Speaking of other issues back at home, did you hear any news about
anti-war protests, and if so, how did they affect you personally, as
well as your troops?
Mr. Black: Didn’t hear a word; not ‘til I got back. That’s
what was so… they were burning banks, I mean, all sorts of stupid
stuff. What do you burn a bank for? But anyway, I was just, I got back
and I couldn’t believe what had changed.
Q: Didn’t hear anything? No newspapers, no…
Mr. Black: Where would I get a newspaper? Well, what I mentioned earlier
about the TVs… we had TV, but it was AFCA, or whatever it was
called, and shortwave radio. But usually, you listened to the Armed
Forces’ shortwave radio, you weren’t really looking for
the American news, and besides that, the English would have been…
So no, I didn’t. That’s why I said earlier, when I got back,
actually there were some movies about Kennedy and stuff that would have
gone through that time period as part of their history, and you realize
just what was going on when you weren’t here.
Q: So when did you actually arrive in Vietnam? What year was it?
Mr. Black: Well, it was ’67, but it would have been July or August.
And then I got back ’68 probably in the June time; June or July.
It has to do with the fact that I left from the East Coast, because
I had to take the whole unit’s equipment over from the East Coast.
So I took another enlisted man with me who had also been responsible
for a lot of the equipment preparation, because we were the most qualified
to keep an eye on both of the ship people, because they weren’t
the Military people; they were Merchant Marines who took us through
the Panama Canal. That was interesting. And Japan. They were using things
called Liberty Ships, which were actually from the World Wars, and the
one that we were on, I can’t remember the name of it, but it had
already been sunk once before. When you’re going over, first you
get onto this boat, you know you’re headed to Vietnam, and some
of the things that hold up the substructure have been rusted through
so far, you wonder if there’s enough metal in there to hold it
together, But we got there.
Q: When you got back, how did you perceive all the anti-war protests,
everything that you missed, all the news?
Mr. Black: Well… first of all, it’s hard to understand.
You hadn’t seen anything leading up to it. Also, if your mindset…
You don’t remember that your friends typically had also been similarly
minded even before-hand, because in preparation to go over there, all
you see is other military guys anyway, and they’re not into the
same kind of free-thought stuff. So you’re going back to the ‘60’s,
the late ‘60’s, the hippies and all that kind of stuff and
that culture wasn’t exactly endorsed by the non-hippies anyway,
so they were looked at as being “those-guys.” I mean, some
people have enough money and time that they don’t care so it didn’t
have much of an impact on them. When I got back, basically, because
of all the demonstrations and everything, nobody’s being welcomed
back. You’re family’s glad that you made it back safe, but
that’s about all you’re ever going to hear. Even my medals
arrived months after I’d been back in the States. I had a job.
They had to catch up to me because I wasn’t where I grew up. So,
it’s like almost no fanfare. I just got this thing in the mail.
Q: So that must have been difficult having no supporters.
Mr. Black: Well, you just move on. I was getting out on purpose to
get out and get a real job, and that’s what I did. So you had
your own objectives at the time, because basically that’s career
you had put off until after you got out of the service.
Q: Did your views change after you left, or even during the time you
were about to leave, about the war and why the U.S. was [there]?
Mr. Black: Only from the standpoint that it would be the same as the
concerns for “If you have a purpose to fight a war, you need to
fight a war and move on. And if you don’t, and if all you’re
going to do is hold somebody’s hand, then there must be a less
painful way to do it.” But I don’t… I just think that
it should have been conducted more crisply. But, I can’t go finding
fault with… When you’re talking about a country, you’re
talking about a lot of people and to get the inertia of a country moving
in any one direction can take years. So even the person’s hands
are tied for an awful lot of stuff. It wouldn’t matter what he
wanted to do. He can’t do it if he can’t get the support,
and that takes time to do as well. So I just think that it was very
unfortunate, the way it ended. I think that it was one of those things
where you do it or you don’t, or leave.
Q: When you got back, did you learn about the My Lai massacre of 1968?
Mr. Black: Yes.
Q: Was that soon after you got back, or did you learn about that later?
Mr. Black: You know, I can’t remember, but I do remember the
trials and I thought that it was a very unfortunate thing that had occurred.
On the other hand… I wouldn’t know how to explain this to
you… but if you go to an exercise where there are rounds going
off at night, airbursts, things hitting the ground, and people running
everywhere, and just noise and running and shouting and all this kind
of stuff, and it’s dark except for all these bursts, basically
you’re going to become entirely disoriented in that kind of environment
to the point where you don’t know what to do or where to go because
everything is happening everywhere. Right? It’s good when the
enemy is there and you’re looking straight at him and you can
decide what to do, run in one direction or the other, or do something
about him, but when they’re all around you, what do you do? And,
you can’t tell where they really are because things are going
off here or there. Well, I don’t know how well this relates to
My Lai, but what I’m getting at is if you get into some kind of
situation, it’s just like if you’re, I don’t know,
I’ve never been to one, but at a rock concert or something, and
you’re in the middle of the whole thing, and some clown yells
“Fire!” and 7,000 people die what do you think those surviving
people are doing? Basically, a bunch of them killed a bunch of other
people; stepped all over them! So I’m just saying that I don’t
know the particulars here, but the guys could have been conditioned
in some strange way. But you can also take a look at those guys in Iraq
in that prison.
Q: Abu Ghraib.
Mr. Black: There’s actually no excuse for that. There were some
weaknesses in the minds of the people who were involved as to where
their allegiances were, or what’s okay. And you can say maybe
it’s a reflection of our society, but I think it was more than
that; I think that the people were sick, or had weaknesses that would
have occurred in times when everybody would serve. I don’t know
if they wanted to, but they would. There was a difference. You were
willing to go as opposed to thinking “I just can’t wait
to go!” There is a big difference. I wasn’t in the “I
can’t wait to go,” category but I was willing to go, and
if you’re going to commit yourself to something, you do it, so
those people have something wrong in their background. I don’t
think they can use that for their defense because they were in the military,
but I think in the old days, they would have been drummed out. Basically,
it was any strange behavior, they had doctors that could take care of
giving you a reason to get out, and that way you didn’t take them
with you because that’s trouble. Again, you’ve got to have
that team; if they’re not prepared, if they’re not part
of the solution, then they’re part of the problem. They’re
baggage; you can’t take them with you because they’re going
to cost somebody their life and in this case, it cost a country its
reputation. So, I thought it was very disturbing what happened in My
Lai, but I couldn’t identify with it. It wasn’t something
in their training, as far as the training I would have gone through,
that would have allowed that to happen.
Q: So with all of that considered, it didn’t really impact your
view on the war as a whole? You saw it as more of this tragic thing
that happened, but what can you do?
Mr. Black: I would have viewed it as an isolated incident. I can’t
say that it was or it wasn’t, because I never saw anything like
it and the people that I had that worked for me, we were all leaders
in our unit, and we lost nobody, and we had people in, well I just told
you a few stories, some pretty hot spots. So, what really happened is
that when you see a lot of tragedies, they had nothing to do with the
war. They’re stupid mistakes, foolishness, people who went to
the wrong place, did the wrong thing, they went somewhere and their
mind functioned improperly, and even if you look at Iraq, you’re
going to find out that there’s a reasonable percentage of those
things, the guys were really… it was their own fault. It isn’t
like one or two people, there’s a reasonable percentage of them
out there. And think about it here; if they were here, there’d
be so many of them dying in car accidents. But similarly, every day
life goes on wherever you are.
Q: Did you get to know the Vietnamese people at all, and if so, what
were they like?
Mr. Black: Uh, yes and no. In Hue, our site was right in the neighborhood,
so we would talk to the people in the street, and they had a French
background there, and I knew a little bit of French—not too good—but
I could talk with them, and of course they would do their best to talk
in some English, so between our languages we could understand each other…
And that’s what you’ll find in almost all countries; that
most people will try to give you their best English, no matter how bad
it might be, so you could at least understand what they’re trying
to tell you, and usually they’re trying to tell you something
anyway. They were friendly people. They weren’t the bravest people,
but if you lived in their environment of war for centuries, I suppose
that you might have that mindset. We called their policemen… I
don’t remember what we called them, something to the effect that
they weren’t very brave people. One night, a red alert had come
in. I was in Da Nang; they had blocked most of the roads out, so I was
trying to get help before things got worse, and one of them stopped
me, made me get out of my vehicle, took me over to where a rocket had
landed on the ground and wanted to make sure I took a good look at it.
I wanted to go report it and have them send somebody over, but I’m
not going to do anything with it, you’ve got to be crazy to touch
those things; you‘ve got to be trained to do that, and we weren’t
trained to dismantle a rocket, and it hadn’t gone off. So, their
society is different. The amount of value they place in life is different;
we had been instructed to watch out for them throwing kids under our
trucks and everything. Now, Da Nang was a big city, so I used to take
a 2 ½ ton truck instead of a Jeep, because a 2 ½ ton truck
is really big and makes lots of noise, and they would get out of the
way because they’d ride bikes and walk on the streets and pay
no attention. If you drove a Jeep, you could actually put your foot
out on the ground and let the Jeep run over it, and the worst that happens
is a little broken bone. Well, I had an instance where a kid, maybe
early 20s or something, fell down on his bike. I had nothing to do with
it, but I was driving a Jeep because I was close to a compound. A Vietnamese
soldier grabbed the kid by his arm, dragged him over, and tried to burn
his arm on the exhaust of my vehicle so he could claim that he had been
in an accident. Well, this could have become a major incident for me,
but this big Marine comes along, U.S. Marine… (smacks table with
hand) He grabbed the guy and pulled both of them away and yelled at
them. I don’t know if he knew some Vietnamese or what, but whatever
it was, they understood him, and they left. So, I didn’t ever
hear about it, but otherwise, it would have become an investigation,
because then the guy’s trying to get insurance money; so there’s
some opportunity among some of the people. But once you talked with
them, and once you said that you work with and for the military, they
were very friendly.
Q: In 1968, when Nixon was elected, he promised “Peace with Honor”
and that was to gradually turn the war over to the South Vietnamese
ARVN. Did that seem like a good idea to you?
Mr. Black: Good theory; it’s going to be the same problem in
Iraq. In the end, you may be able to change the… If you know what
the two or three forces are, you may be able to change the balances
in the scale, but if you expect not to have to stay there for the rest
of however long, they have got to settle their differences, and about
all you can do is be an agent in the resolution of their society. I
mean, you could split them up into different countries I guess, but
that’s not usually considered a solution either. Usually what
happens is they’ve intermingled enough that now they insist on
their solutions like Palestine or Israel. So, I don’t know…
but I know how it worked out.
Q: So I know that you weren’t personally involved in the demonstrations,
and you weren’t for them, but do you recall the shootings at Kent
State in 1970?
Mr. Black: Yes.
Q: So what did you make of them? What did you make of the kids who were
Mr. Black: Didn’t understand what they were up to. It has to
be a little different if you’ve already placed your life on the
line on the issue to begin with, so maybe these idealistic thoughts…
it was basically people getting excited about things they didn’t
know about but they think they know. Keeping a balance isn’t always
easy, and many people are guilty of making mistakes, and when they’re
deadly, it’s worse.
Q: Have you been to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall?
Mr. Black: Yes.
Q: What was that like for you to go there?
Mr. Black: I went there a year or two after it was put up; I took my
kids there so they could see Washington. Seeing as none of our people
died there, I didn’t have to look for names of people that I knew.
On the other hand, it did mean that that many people died there. I was,
I guess, glad that I came back, but I just was just impressed with how
many people didn’t, and when you hear about the towers in New
York City, and you find out that in one day they wiped out more than
ever got wiped out in Vietnam, well it puts that in perspective. Then,
when you look at how many people were lost in Iraq compared to World
War II, I mean you’re talking millions there, and you’re
talking a few thousand here, So for people who appreciate what actually
has happened in history, I don’t think you find that in people’s
education today. I don’t think they realize how much has been
given up in the past to get to where we are now, and how painful it
has been to get here, and to preserve what we do have. I mean if you
look at the stats not over too long, you’re talking about unbelievable
numbers of people who are gone; our people as well, not just Europeans;
the numbers today completely pale in comparison. That doesn’t
justify what happened, but it should put into perspective how painful
history has been.
Q: So would you say that after you’ve been reflecting over the
years what the Vietnam war meant to you and to the country, your views
have changed from when you were actually fighting to now?
Mr. Black: No. No, I didn’t kid myself in the first place. I
thought that it was ironic that it was up to the servicemen to justify
to the troops why they were there as opposed to the president making
a conscious effort not only to the troops, but to the public as well.
This president [Bush] is doing more of it, but he’s in a tougher
culture now, but he does attempt to communicate the reasons. Granted,
people may have disagreements as to the correlation of incidents to
the action that was actually taken. In other words, people say, “Well,
those guys (the 9/11 hijackers) didn’t come from that country
(Iraq) anyway! They came from Saudi Arabia and other places.”
In other words, you have to look at the real bigger picture, and the
media has a lot to do with shaping what people think, in both directions,
and of course, unless you polarize people, you can’t get a dispute,
so there’s nothing interesting, so they tend to overdo it and
they say, “Well, it’s because of this only!” Well,
you did that, and that was a justification, and guess what, in the end
they found out it wasn’t there; or they get to the weapons of
mass destruction, but they didn’t find any, but that doesn’t
mean they weren’t there, it means they didn’t find any.
I mean, people have to be careful about how black and white they think
they see both the issues and what we’ve done and what happened.
Q: How did you react the role that Vietnam played in the 2004 presidential
Mr. Black: Well, I guess it was good that both of them were doing something
at the time! I don’t know what to say; there was Kerry who looked
like he was trying to get his purple heart as opposed to somebody else
who gets it the hard way. It looked like he was trying to get enough
on his scores so he could get one, because apparently it wasn’t
a significant wound or whatever had been done. On the other hand, he
was there and he served his country. What I didn’t like was his
demonstration afterwards. It’s like these generals right now.
It’s one thing to have an opinion. It’s something else to
campaign and make something into something beyond an opinion; to make
it as if it’s the truth, and it may not be. It’s an opinion.
I find that damaging to the country as a whole, but again that wasn’t
your question, your question was about the campaign. And then there’s
the fact that president had only served in the National Guard, but if
people looked at who’s actually fighting the war in Iraq right
now, they’d find that it is the National Guard. So I’m not
sure that a lot of people would have understood the point that was trying
to be made there because it is true that historically the National Guard
was a place to avoid the draft, in other words if they went there, they
were safe and would have stayed home. But, you need those people too
so I wouldn’t have looked at it as a negative on President Bush’s
part. I think both of them were serving, but people do have to take
a look at it from another entire level to appreciate the fact that if
the situation were different, either one of them could have been called
to do something more significant than they did. I think Kerry got out
early because of his last… whatever he had. He got out of there
sooner, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that he was willing
Q: So overall, what do you think the lessons that you learned in Vietnam
Mr. Black: Personally, or for the country?
Q: Both. You can touch on both.
Mr. Black: What you’ll find is that the people who come back
will either be the strongest people you’ve ever met, or the most
damaged people you’ve ever met. You hear of all the homeless people,
and some of those guys were in Vietnam; it did something to them. Now
maybe it was there to begin with, I don’t know, but I do know
afterwards there was something wrong, and they must have been good enough
to go over and do their job. But then there’s the people who actually
get injured, maimed, and there’s going to be more of them in Iraq;
in the old days, you just died, but now you live to recover from your
injuries. There are significant differences in emphasis, just like how
they were so worried about not having armor on their vehicles; we never
had any armor on our vehicles, but it became an issue, and I don’t
know, somehow, it became an issue. I think it’s probably good,
but it isn’t like people should be surprised today. It’s
been there since the beginning of time. So, I think somebody should
have made an issue out of it, but they’ve got to be careful of
what issue they’re making, and saying “These people are
so stupid that they didn’t do this,” when in reality, unless
someone raises their awareness to it or it becomes a significant issue…
The biggest part was that we… what do they call these things…
they were some kind of explosive…
Q Smart bombs?
Mr. Black: No, they were just the ones that people blow up in the streets
all over Iraq. They’re amateur stuff, but they’re taking
people out all the time.
Q Dirty bombs?
Mr. Black: No, dirty bombs are atomic bombs.
Q: Land mines?
Mr. Black: No, land mines are… they’re bad, but these are
home-made things, And the fact that people strap them to themselves,
that’s not something you would ever see before. Well, maybe you
would have, but not in these kinds of quantities. You only see that
in the Middle-East. It has something to do with their culture. Now they’re
over here starting to take out people with bombs. The lessons learned…
well that’s one of them. The ones that come out healthy mentally?
You’re not going to find any stronger people. And there’s
never going to be more maturity than you’ll find in those people.
The previous generations have always had wars, and the people who have
participated in them… that’s the culture, the mindset, and
the maturity. Because we’ve really been at peace for so long,
the new generations don’t even mature until their thirties as
opposed to their late teens. . . It’s just a different mindset. People
don’t look at it as having to make up their mind by this time,
or they have to be doing something by this point. School is something
that people go on and do forever, I mean people get many degrees now,
change their discipline, and may be up to 35, 40 before they get out
Q: Do you find that a good thing, or is it just a change?
Mr. Black: Well if you live long enough, it’s probably good,
but if you don’t, it was a lot of time. For the country, I still
feel that it’s part of what’s going on in the background
in the debate on Iraq is to worry that it’s going to become another
Vietnam. I think that you can never be sure of the outcome, but when
you go into it, you’ve got to know how to get out of it before
you go into it, even if you’re wrong. You should just admit you’re
wrong and figure out what the next step is. But that’s something
that, the way we’ve worked with our polarized politics in recent
years, gets hard for people to admit they’re wrong, because basically
it’s hard to keep their agenda together if they say a piece of
it was flawed. They handled this one with a lot more autonomy as far
as in the field. Like in Vietnam, if they saw a target, they couldn’t
hit it until it was approved back in Washington, so you lost 24 hours
right away; and communications wasn’t the same back then as it
is today. So, I think there’s a lot more of that activity that’s
going into place. But, when they’re trying to migrate the military
as to how they organize everything, that’s a major cultural shift
within the Armed Forces, and it’s something they shouldn’t
try to pull off when starting a war. They should have done it ahead
of time, and they would have had less disagreement. I think what’s
going on with some of these generals now is “What’s the
right way to do things?” Because in their time frame, or whatever
their reference point is, it might have been right to do it this, way
and the thought process of today would be to do it another way, but
you’re going to get this mix of ideas, and you’ve got to
keep them on one track, especially when they represent the government.
So, I think you can never be too cautious when going to war, but I think
also that something has to… the President has a roll in education
for the whole country from the standpoint of making sure that the awareness
of what is going on, is… if you keep it too private, you don’t
get support. If you keep it too public… I don’t know if
you can actually do that if you’re sticking to the information
as opposed to what the plans are, you’re going to be planning
things that aren’t happening, but the remaining information is
something that if you keep it too secret, then it’s too hard motivate
people and bring the country together in responding to it. This one
actually is more of a danger to the United States than Vietnam would
have been because in Vietnam, we were dealing with other powers, but
here, it’s related to the attack that happened to our country.
Whether you say it’s direct or indirect is another issue, but
the correlation is there, and if you understand the real complexity
of the interrelationship of all those countries, then you’d understand
why it’s hard to put the story together too as to what ought to
be done about it, and there’d still be differences of opinion
after it’s all over. But, the good part about the way we decided
to resolve Vietnam was that it was polar because there was no clean
way to resolve it. We had gotten into something that really had no ending
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Mr. Black: Well I would say, “If you get the chance, try it,”
but I don’t think I’ll say that. I think that any country
needs a strong military, but they need it to be not their objective
to have a strong military, but what the responsibilities are for them.
Potentially, what may happen with Homeland Defense is we’d give
them a peacetime task as well that has several ways of helping in both
keeping them responsive to, in fact if you look at what they have to
do in Iraq, a lot of it has to do with restructuring the country over
there, and if they were doing that here, guess what? We’d even
do a better job there. We’d be organized to do it. So I think
that we need to migrate what the military is responsible for, and realize
that it isn’t just killing people. That wasn’t the goal
in the first place, that’s all that we were prepared to do man-to-man,
or otherwise you just fly your equipment over there and let them do
it, let the rich guys steal all the good stuff, right? And only a little
bit of it gets to the people who really need it. So that would probably
be a more effective way to utilize the military and make it more of
a career, and also keep it more human to the public, because I think
now if you looked at them you’d say, “How many people actually
know what the military does?” There’s fewer people in it.
You probably don’t… well maybe you know somebody who’s
in the military. Do you know someone in the military?
Q: Not currently serving, no.
Q: I know one, but…
Q:I know one person in the military.
Mr. Black: But in the old days, everybody would have known someone,
and they would have had family members in it, and it would be more of
a personal thing. You’d identify with what was going on, but now
it’s like watching something on TV. “Huh, we won a war again!”
And we just look at it quite differently. No matter what side you’re
on, the bulk of the country isn’t actually involved.