David Porrell heard about our project from Ed Rigney. WHS ‘61. He now lives in Michigan and was kind enough to send in his responses to a series of questions and e-mail them to us. He graduated from Wayland High School in 1961, the first class to graduate from the “new” High School. (the same high school as the one now in use.) He joined the Navy after high school and recounts his experiences below.
Q: When were you born?
Mr. Porrell: July 2, 1943
Q: Could you describe where you grew up? What was your childhood like? Siblings? What did your parents do for work? Was your father in W.W.II?
Mr. Porrell: I was born in Dorchester, MA and at 3 years old moved to Worcester, Ma. In June of 1953, a tornado destroyed our home and our family moved to Wayland in 1954. I am the oldest six children, 5 boys and 1 girl. We had a great childhood although exciting at times as we survived a tornado in 1953 and three or four hurricanes from 1954-1957. My dad worked for a number of years for the Wayland Town Crier and my mom worked at Jordan Marsh. My dad was a Navy veteran of WW II and was wounded at sea in the North Atlantic.
Q: When were you in high school? What were those days like?
Mr. Porrell: I attended High School at Wayland from 1957-1961, being a member of the first class to graduate from the “new” high school in 1961. It was a tremendous time to live in Wayland. The academic and athletic programs were outstanding and we were fortunate to be a part great school system.
Q: As a teenager, how aware were you of world events?
Mr. Porrell: My awareness of current world events was a result of the two teachers in the social studies department. Mr. Scotland and Mrs. Champagne. They were adamant the WHS students were informed of world events and their impact on our lives.
Q: When did you first hear about the Cold War? Did you fear/dislike communists?
Mr. Porrell: I first heard the term “Cold War” in one of my social studies classes and many of our assignments dealt with the threat of communism and the Soviet Union and how it could affect our way of life. I think it would be safer to say I feared and disliked the idea of communism.
Q: What do you recall about the general state of the country as you came of age?
Mr. Porrell: We were always taught and most of us firmly believed that the U.S. was the best country on Earth. All in all the decade of the 50’s was a great time to come of age. Drugs and the negative influence they have today on our culture were practically non-existent when I grew up.
Q: What if anything, do you remember about the Korean War? President Eisenhower?
Mr. Porrell: I recall reading some about the Korean War and President Eisenhower and seeing a few things on television during the 50’s. Most of my information came from classes in high school, which emphasized that the North Korean communists tried to overthrow the free country of South Korea.
Q: How did you view John F. Kennedy?
Mr. Porrell: When Kennedy ran for the presidency, we were all excited and supportive. He certainly had charisma the media loved him! After he won the election in November, 1960 and returned to Boston, a number of us seniors from the Class of 61 went into Boston and joined hundreds of thousands of others cheering Kennedy’s motorcade.
Q: What were your plans upon graduating from high school?
Mr. Porrell: My plans upon graduation from Wayland High School in 1961 were to attend Michigan State University to become a teacher and coach.
Q: When did you first hear about the conflict in Vietnam? Did you worry about how it might impact your future? Why/why not?
Mr. Porrell: I first heard about the conflict in Vietman in 1963 in college when Kennedy began sending more American advisors and troops to stem the flow of communist pressure from North Vietnam. At the time, I did not feel it would impact my life very much, despite the fact that I was enrolled in Michigan State’s Army ROTC program. I felt the conflict was a fairly minor one a long way away and was one of many the U.S. had been involved in since WW II.
Q: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave LBJ war powers to dramatically escalate troop levels. When did you learn about the controversy regarding the truthful nature of the attack on the USS Maddox? How did this impact you?
Mr. Porrell: I believe I first learned of it in 1967-68 and I was on active duty in Germany with little time to swell on the fine points of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
Q: How did you get involved in the service? What was your experience like joining the armed forces? Were you drafted or did you volunteer? When was this?
Mr. Porrell: In the fall of 1961, I enrolled at Michigan State University, which is a land grant college. At that time it was required by law that all able bodied male students be enrolled in the ROTC program for 2 years. I selected the Army ROTC program over the Air Force. After my 2 year, commitment, I decided to stay in the ROTC all 4 years, as I might very well get drafted anyway. When I graduated from MSU in 1965, I was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the regular Army as I had been selected as a Distinguished Military Graduate.
Q: Describe what it was like in basic training. Where was it and what did you do there? Describe the transformation from civilian to soldier.
Mr. Porrell: Michigan State ROTC cadets did their basic training at FT. Riley, Kansas with the 1st Infantry Division, a unit I was later to serve with in Vietnam. During the summer of 1964, I reported to Ft. Riley for 12 weeks of basic infantry training which included a great deal of physical exercise, training in small unit infantry tactics, marching and qualification with various individual small arms and crew served automatic weapons. It was a very rigorous experience both physically and emotionally, and to be honest I loved it. I always enjoyed team sports and what better team to play for than the U.S. Army. I felt that way in 1964 and still feel that way in 2007! For me, it was not a difficult transition from civilian to military because I grew up in an era that respected and honored the sacrifices made by our fathers and uncles during WW II, and most of us wanted that generation to be as proud of us as we were of them.
Q: What was it like saying goodbye to friends and loved ones?
Mr. Porrell: I graduated from Michigan State in 1965, but went right on to a year of graduate school. As a result, I did not go on to active duty until early 1967. By that time I was married and being an officer with a four year active duty commitment, My wife was able to go with me to my first assignment in West Germany.
Q: Describe what it was like leaving the United States; where did you go and how? What do your recall going through your mind?
Mr. Porrell: I was assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 14th Armored Cavalry regiment in the beautiful Bavarian town of Bad Kissingen. We were both very excited about my orders as half of my class at field artillery school from Ft. Sill were sent to Vietnam.
Q: What was it like when you arrived in Vietnam? Where were you and how did you make the transition to what must have been a strange new place?
Mr. Porrell: Three weeks before Christmas of 1968, I received order to go to Vietnam. On the way from Germany to Michigan, where I would leave my wife and our 8 month old son with her parents, we made a stop in Wayland to visit with my family. I had not seen my family since 1967, when we left for Germany. Saying good-bye to my parents and brothers and sister was very difficult considering it was not guaranteed that we would see each other again. Soldiers were sent to war on an individual basis and not as a part of a unit. Because Vietnam had become an unpopular war, we were lucky if we did not suffer the abuse of the “anti-war crowd. When I arrived in Vietnam in late March of 1969, my first impression was of the stifling heat and humidity! I was not in Germany any more! The first few days in country were spent waiting for assignment to our individuals units. For me, it was the 23rdField Artillery Group located west of Saigon near a village called Phu Loi. I realized quickly that it was a war zone when the bus transporting us had steel bars for windows and we were accompanied by heavily armed infantry units. To make matters worse, hardly any of us spoke Vietnamese and because of the nature of the conflict it was very difficult to tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys.”
Q: Broadly speaking, what did you think you were there for?
Mr. Porrell: At the time, I felt we were in Vietnam to prevent the communist North from taking over the South. It was that simple!
Q: Did you believe in the “domino theory”, that once one nation falls to communism the neighboring ones will as well? Why did/didn’t you believe in this?
Mr. Porrell: I did believe in the “domino theory” at the time and considering what was going on in the world then, it was a convincing argument.
Q: The NVA and VC fought hard against the US forces. Did you see them primarily as communists seeking to spread their political system or nationalists seeking to get rid of a foreign presence? Explain.
Mr. Porrell: I did see them primarily as communists seeking to spread their political system. For me, the proof of this opinion lies in the wholesale slaughter and terror the North inflicted on the South after the Americans left. The political cleansing resulted in more than 1 million deaths in the South as a means to re-educate the population in the benefits of communism. A fact that Senator Kennedy and many other liberals deny to this day.
Q: What did you do in Vietnam? What were your responsibilities/jobs?
Mr. Porrell: My first job was a temporary assignment as an adjunct to the 23rd Artillery Group until a major came in to assume the position. After a period of approximately three months, I spent the rest of my year’s tour being assigned to various positions such as an artillery aerial observer, fire direction officer and battery executive officer. I was promoted to Captain within a few weeks upon my arrival in country and I took my turn along with the other combat arms officers in leading small units on night ambush patrols, generating artillery support as a forward observer to infantry units and as a aerial observer in single wing aircraft and helicopters.
Q: How did you pass the time? Did you count the days until your departure?
Mr. Porrell: My time in Vietnam seemed to go on forever and everyone counted the 365 days on a calendar, looking forward to the time we would return to the “world.” Army troops in Vietnam served a year in country and knowing when you were scheduled to go home seemed to make time slow down as it was constantly on our minds.
Q: What was the hardest part of combat?
Mr. Porrell: The hardest part of combat, besides dealing with the fear of being injured or killed, was the fear of not being able to measure up to the task at hand and letting down your buddies or your troops.
Q: What were “search and destroy” missions like?
Mr. Porrell: Search and destroy missions were conducted by infantry units sweeping certain areas to engage and kill the enemy. By 1969, the Viet Cong were no longer an effective enemy force, but the North Vietnamese Army troops were dedicated and well trained. Large sized NVA units rarely attempted to confront U.S. units directly by 1969 as American firepower and combat air support were formidable. In my experience, NVA units of battalion size or less tried to attack isolated U.S. posts such as artillery fire support bases and then retreat back to safe havens in Cambodia or Laos.
Q: How did fear play into your state of mind?
Mr. Porrell: Seeing fellow soldiers injured and killed in combat was a gut-wrenching experience, but you had to continue to believe it will not happen to you. As I recall, you think more about these things after you left Vietnam rather than when you were there. You did not want to jinx yourself by dwelling on it at the time.
Q: How did you feel about the enemy combatants?
Mr. Porrell: The NVA troops were disciplined, well trained and highly motivated. American forces respected the NVA and their ability to endure hardship and heavy losses.
Q: Did you see anyone get injured or killed? How did this impact you?
Mr. Porrell: Yes. Again, you tried not to dwell on it, but you felt the loss.
Q: How did battle change you? What do you think about in battle?
Mr. Porrell: I don’t think being in combat changed me very much. Being an artillery officer, I certainly did not see as much action as the infantry did. Again, when in action things happen so fast you don’t have much time to think about things, you just rely on your training and instincts.
Q: How did you distinguish the VC from non-VC?
Mr. Porrell: As I indicated earlier, after the Tet Offensive in 1968, the VC were no longer a formidable combat force. The NVA troops were good fighter, however, and they wore uniforms and fought in traditional combat units like most armies.
Q: How was the morale of the troops when you were there?
Mr. Porrell: The morale of the troops I served with in 1969 was excellent in my opinion. Perhaps this was not the case in the rear echelon units, but the units in contact with the on a regular basis had good overall morale.
Q: During Johnson’s term (1963-1968) he greatly escalated American troop levels to 520,000 by 1967/8. Did you think we were doing enough to win the war? To your average soldier, what would winning the war look like?
Mr. Porrell: When I served in Vietnam, the overall U.S. troop strength excelled 500,000 and we felt strongly that it was enough to get the job done. In fact were believed we were getting the job done when we were given the opportunity to do it. When you couldn’t pursue the enemy into Cambodia and Laos or into their home country of North Vietnam for political reasons, it was impossible to win a decisive victory. To win any war, you have got to destroy the homeland of the enemy by military force or destroy the will of the enemy’s homeland through political means. We all know how effective our fellow countrymen in the U.S. were in aiding the North Vietnamese in a war they had not and could not win on the battlefield!
Q: What was “leave” like? Did you go to Saigon to have a good time or what were the options?
Mr. Porrell: As I was married, I met my wife for R&R in Hawaii. The leave lasted five days and it was great! Going back to Nam was tough, but I only had 4 months left in my 12 month tour of duty.
Q: The Civil Rights Movement was front-page news at home. As far as you could tell, how did racial differences play out among the troops? Was there any tension? Why/why not?
Mr. Porrell: I didn’t recall notice much in the way of racial tension during my tour in Vietnam.
Q: As of 1967 opposition to the war increased reaching its height by 1969/1970. How did you perceive anti-war protesters? How did they impact the troops?
Mr. Porrell: My impression of the anti-war protesters was that they were a bunch of idiots. People like Jane Fonda should have been tried for treason and the people that went to Canada shouldn’t have been allowed to return. Almost all of my military colleagues felt the same way. It is heartwarming today, to see the support our troops receive from their fellow countrymen, no matter what their political feelings about the war in Iraq. Vietnam veterans did not receive the respect they were due at the time and thee abuse we received from many of our fellow Americans will never be forgotten or forgiven.
Q: What were Vietnamese people like? How did your view of the Vietnamese change over the months that you served?
Mr. Porrell: The Vietnamese were a very stoic and reserved people as I recall. Their nation had been in constant turmoil since before WW II and I often got the impression that they would like nothing better than for everyone, Americans and North Vietnamese alike to leave their country and let them be. My impression did not change throughout my tour in country.
Q: What did you make of the famous Tet Offensive in 1968?
Mr. Porrell: At the time, it was misrepresented by the American press as a military defeat for the U.S. History showed it was just the opposite. The media was certainly successful in convincing the American public it was time to cut and run. They are doing the same today in Iraq.
Q: The My Lai massacre in 1968 is often seen as the classic example of the problems with the American presence and our tactics. How did you learn of this and what impact did it have on your views of the war?
Mr. Porrell: I very much resent this particular question. The My Lai massacre was not a classic example of problems with the American presence and tactics. It was an example of terrible leadership by a very young officer and young soldiers and over reaction to a stressful combat situation. Unfortunately, such tragedies happen in war and always will.
Q: When Nixon was elected in 1968 he promised “peace with honor” and to gradually turn the war over to the South Vietnamese ARVN forces. Did this seem like a good strategy? What were your views on Nixon’s war plans?
Mr. Porrell: Nixon’s strategy made sense to me. Isn’t that basically what our media and liberal politician’s want today in Iraq? The mistake Nixon made was waiting until 1973 to bomb the hell out of North Vietnam. When he did, the North came to the peace table within a week.
Q: The shootings of Kent State students at a May 1970 demonstration received a great deal of press coverage. What did you make of these college kids’ actions?
Mr. Porrell: Like most college kids, they got carried away with their emotions and were easily manipulated by others. The National Guard troops, however, totally over reacted resulting in the unspeakable tragedy.
Q: What was it like when you knew you were coming home? How did it feel to be on the jet taking you back to the USA?
Mr. Porrell: I was overjoyed and thankful to be going home to my wife and infant son. It was a feeling I will always remember and cherish.
Q: Upon their return many vets described being labeled “baby killers” and were generally disrespected for serving in Vietnam. Did you experience any of these reactions? How did you respond/cope with this?
Mr. Porrell: I personally did not experience any negative reactions. Like millions of my fellow veterans, we came home alone, with little fanfare to get on with our lives.
Q: What was it like seeing your family and friends again? How did you relate? How much had changed since you last saw the USA?
Mr. Porrell: It was great being reunited with my family and overall the transition was a smooth one.
Q: Have you been to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall? What was that experience like?
Mr. Porrell: I have been to the Wall a number of times and the experience is always an emotional one. To think of the sacrifice those folks made on behalf of the American people at a time when they not only received minimal support and often abuse and ridicule makes me feel even more proud of them. The Vietnam War will go down as a defeat for the American military, when the facts are that the American military never lost in ballet to the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong. The American people lost their will to win and the 58,00 killed and the hundreds of thousand of wounded paid the price.
Q: How did you react to the role that Vietnam played in the presidential campaign in 2004? (Kerry and swiftboats; Bush and his unaccounted time with the National Guard)
Mr. Porrell: Both Kerry and Bush took advantage of their positions in life during this period like many others. It amazes me today how many people I have net over the years who did all thy could to avoid military service during this period can come up lame and self-serving excuses as to why they did not serve.
Q: As you’ve reflected on the war over the years, how do you view it differently than when you were a young man?
Mr. Porrell: My feelings today are not much different than they were in the 60’s. Our military mission was to protect the nation from communism and I think we did an outstanding job, both in Europe and in Vietnam. Now if we could just protect ourselves from each other.
Q: We are a nation at war. Do you see any parallels between what you see/read in the news and our years in Vietnam? Explain.
Mr. Porrell: There are some similarities in the insurgent nature of the Iraq conflict with the VC in Vietnam. The religious and ethnic factions in Iraq are totally different, however, than the communist/non communist tension of the 60’s.
Q: What are the lessons you learned in Vietnam?
Mr. Porrell: Go to war to win or don’t go at all.
Q: What are the lessons the nation learned or should have learned from this conflict?
Mr. Porrell: Go to war to win or don’t go to war at all. It looks like Iraq might be proof we haven’t learned that lesson yet!