Vietnam, how could this small Indochina country that I never heard of in any of my high school history classes come to affect my life and millions of other lives throughout the world? This strange country so far away from my world had it’s beginning in the same timeframe as the beginnings of Christianity, over 2,000 years ago.

Vietnam's country is an "S" shaped landmass, slithering like a two-headed snake in the heart of Indochina. One of the snakeheads is located in the North Country centered in the city of Hanoi. The other end with its head in the South, has its power center in the city of Saigon. These two heads are connected by a spinal cord of twisting mountain ranges. This connecting backbone is eighty per cent jungle and deep bush that offers a geographical protection to both the Western Vietnam border and the Eastern Cambodia border. It runs from the North and South along its' twelve thousand miles of snake-like body. The South China Sea protects its coastline along the Eastern Shore line.

I recall when I first arrived in Vietnam. Several planeloads of other military personnel and I were marched into a briefing room to hear a lecture on Vietnam's history and culture. The instructor was a 1st Lieutenant information officer. He described Vietnam as two baskets of rice at opposite ends of a bamboo pole, carried on the back of a peasant farmer. The baskets of rice represent the two deltas of Vietnam (two snakes head's one at each end). The Red River in the north and the Mekong River in the south of the country form them. The bamboo pole is represented by the mountain range with its' high peaks and its' vast jungles and undergrowth.

The instructor pointed out that rice was the major factor for the civil wars that plagued the country for over 2,000 years. The northern basket was the industrial power and the southern basket was the agricultural power. Each pulled against the other in attempting to try and control the other country.

In that lecture, the instructor gave the party line of course, claiming that the North took advantage of the South and repressed them in any manner possible. I had heard similar stories from my Southern friends in Mississippi who explained the Civil War of the United States in the same power struggle terms.

Our instructor stressed the party line of former presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and President Nixon. He hammered home that the United States and its allies were in Vietnam to prevent a hostile takeover by Ho Chi Minh and the evil empire of Hanoi, which was aligned with communist Russia. He spent a great deal of time describing the domino theory. That was the political idea that smaller countries were lined up like a wall of dominoes. If one were pushed over, all of them would fall in a chain reaction. He stressed the point that the area of Indochina was a line of nations like dominos. If the United States allowed one to fall toward the communists then all the others countries would fall with it. Our reason for being in Vietnam was to prevent the United States from losing the global domino game. I remember thinking to myself as I looked over the sea of young faces, some who had not even began to shave, I’m here only because you have to be here.

The instructor failed to mention the problem the French had with Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh. How in 1954 the French lost their war with Hanoi at Dienbienphu in spite of their military might and assistance with finances from the United States.

Most of the participants in that information briefing had little or no idea who the players were in the Vietnam conflict.  They certainly had no idea what was causing them to have to sit there and listen to a Second Lieutenant tell them why it was necessary for them to leave their families. Why should they have to be the ones risking their lives to keep the dominoes from falling across the world?

No one asked: "Who is Ho Chi Minh?” (North Vietnam’s president, and for the most part, its spiritual leader.) No one asked: "What was the Vietminh?” (North Vietnam) No one asked: "Who is Vo Nguyen Giap?” (The General in command of North Vietnam Army.) Not one participant asked: "Who is Ngo Dinh Diem?” (He was a South Vietnam leader). Not one participating asked: "What did the Gulf of Tonkin have to do with the war?" (It was President Johnson's excuse for the United States Army buildup in South Vietnam.)

The list of questions could go on and on. In retrospect, most of the troops I met in Vietnam were like me. They did not know about the background of the war that they were asked and commanded to fight. They did not know enough about the political situation to even ask questions. They were there in Vietnam relying on blind faith. Their country said, “go,” and  like thousands over the years have done for our country, they went.

On my way out of the lecture briefing on the history and culture of Vietnam, I began to reflect on my own reasons for joining the Army and becoming an Army Chaplain.

Early in January 1966, I was a pastoring my first full-time church. I was paid the salary of one hundred dollars a week and provided a parsonage for my family. The church was located in the suburbs of Fresno, California and was named the Calwa First Baptist Church of Calwa, California.

Calwa was a two-hundred member church set in the suburbs of blue color workers on the South Side of Fresno. The church ministered to an aging sub-division of first time homeowners. Its growth and potential was at a stand still. The once-young families were aging or moving out to larger homes to accommodate their growing families.

I was starting to wake up to the world around me. I had finished seminary; I had my first son and my first full time pastorate. I was a hopeful minister on my way into my calling from God.

The year of hope for the United States offensive in the Republic of South Vietnam was 1966. General Westmoreland had placed the American Army forces in Vietnam on the offensive for the first time. On New Year's Day, the 173rd Airborne Brigade rolled into the plains of Reeds, just South of Saigon. They were the first American forces to operate west of the Oriental River, taking over the Bao Trai airstrip.

One of America’s staunchest allies, the Australians, sent the First Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment into the battle. They took their position on the East Side of the Oriental River. The river was therefore cut off from the use by the Viet Cong who had used the river freely for some time in their invading the South through that passageway.

In mid January 1966, the allied forces began what was known as their search and destroy missions between Chu Lai and Qui Nhon by both the Marines and 1st Cavalry Divisions. They uncovered heavy enemy concentrations of Viet Cong in the area. They were, for the first time taking the war to the VC.

My third year as pastor of the Calwa Church began in 1966. I had no idea what this entire hubbub going on in Vietnam would mean to me. I preached to my congregation twice on Sunday and once in the middle of the week. I was aware that several families of my parishioners had children drafted who were serving somewhere in Vietnam. We had prayer for them on a regular basis in our Sunday services and in our prayer meetings on Wednesday evenings.

The newspaper reported in late January or early February that after six weeks of hard fighting the enemy was finally on the run. The United States was winning the war. The VC had left 2,389 bodies behind. America and its allies were harassing the enemy day and night on the ground and in the air. The headlines in the newspaper were filled with hope for an early victory in the war.

In late February, one of my church families received a telegram stating that their son was missing in action in Vietnam. The war had come to Calwa, to the First Baptist Church, to someone I knew and had to minister to. The newspapers played down the fact that Americans were losing lives in the war. A few war protesters were out there somewhere. Every once in a while the TV would show a college student burning his draft card before running off to Canada.

In February 1966, the press and news stations made a big deal out of President Johnson’s flying to Honolulu to hold a military conference. He met with South Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Cao Ky and his military advisors. There he pledged continued support to South Vietnam, as long as it maintained a democratic effort. It was at this meeting that Johnson told the Vietnamese, "It was time to nail the coonskins to the wall."

General Westmoreland, feeling that victory was at hand, knew what it would take to nail those coonskins. He requested additional troops be sent to mop up the coons. He wanted the President to request thirty-one more combat battalions, bringing the total American troop strength to 429,000. He did not get his request in full, but the American troop involvement in the war soared to 385,000. I did not know at the time, but I would be one of those additional new troops.

In March of 1966, I received a letter in the mail from the Sixth Army Chaplains Office in the Presidio of San Francisco. The Staff Chaplain was requesting that I consider applying for a commission in the Army Chaplaincy Corps. He pointed out the spiritual needs of our 385,000 men serving in the Vietnam War and how they were keeping that country from falling into godless communist control.

The letter read like a draft notice to me. It pointed out my qualifications. I was of the right age to receive a commission. I had over two years experience pastoring churches. I was a seminary graduate. My denomination had given them my name; thus assuring an endorsement would be forthcoming. My wife joked that one of my deacons must have suggested my name to the Sixth Army. It did indeed read like a draft notice. The only way Chaplains entered the Armed Forces was by volunteering.

Two days after the letter arrived, I received a large packet of enlistment forms from the Chief of Chaplains in Washington D.C, requesting that I fill them out immediately so they could be quickly processed. My wife and I looked over the stack of forms. They were almost overwhelming with so much paper work to be filled out. I put them in a folder and took them over to my office and laid them on my desk.

A week or so later, on a Fresno hot and humid day as I was going home for lunch, I grabbed the folder from the desk and took it on to the parsonage. As I entered the kitchen through the back door, I commented to my wife that since we had the parking lot black topped it burned my feet coming home for lunch. I threw the file on the kitchen table. Gwen, my dear wife, was doing the ironing and watching the news on TV. The attic humidifier fan was cranked up full strength. I sat down at the table. "What should I do about these forms?" I asked. Continuing to iron and watching the news, she said, "Send them in, or burn your draft card, I guess." That was it. We filled the forms out, and sent them to the Chaplains’ office. I remember thinking; maybe I won't pass the physical. My back kept me from playing football in high school.

Two weeks later I received a telegram from the Department of the Army, Chaplains branch. It was written in some sort of military code or jargon. I wasn't sure what it said. Was I in the Army or not? I took the telegram to the Army recruiter in Fresno. The Captain looked it over, stuck out his hand and said, "Congratulations, you are now a First Lieutenant in the United States Chaplains Army Corps." Then he added. "If you pass your physical."

He escorted me right to the military enlistment center where I was given a military physical on the spot. I kept thinking, I wonder if my back will keep me out? The exam is funny now. The doctor checked to see if I was breathing and passed me back to the recruiter who said, "Chaplain, you are to report to Chaplain’s Officers’ basic course sometime in October. I called your branch and you will receive orders in two weeks.”

Four years later, in January 1970, I finally arrived in Vietnam. What is to follow, is a record of that experience gleaned from diaries, and copies of letters I sent to a mentor chaplain friend, Chaplain (LTC) Jim Miller, who was stationed in Okinawa.

I hope someday my two boys will sit down and read this effort of love for them and for my country. I truly entered the military relying on blind faith and my God.


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