01 - Hearing And Going


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SUMMARY: Vietnam veterans reflect on first hearing about a place called Vietnam and then describe their first days in the war.

TEASER — Roger Helle: He started screaming, and he said, “Some of you are going to end up in a rice paddy in Vietnam.” And as a senior in high school I thought, “Where’s Vietnam, and why would I want to be in a rice paddy?”

INTRO — Kent C. Williamson: Prior to the war, Vietnam was a country that many Americans didn’t need to think much about. And after the war it became a country that many Americans wanted to forget. But for those who served and fought in Vietnam the war was a life altering event. Welcome to the By War & By God Podcast, I’m your host Kent Williamson. This podcast is a companion series to the award-winning documentary film By War & By God. This show is a place where we can go deeper into the stories than the film allows. Over this season you will hear the amazing accounts of people who’s lives were forever changed by the Vietnam war. You’ll hear stories of heroism, and stories of tragedy… stories of reconciliation, and you’ll learn about a magnetic force that tugged and pulled and eventually drew these soldiers, medics, machine-gunners and crewman back to Vietnam to serve some of the poorest of the poor of that beautiful land.

In this episode Hearing & Going they’ll tell of first learning about a country called Vietnam as well as about their very first day on the ground in-country. But before we start allow me to tell you about Big Heaven Cafe. Big Heaven Cafe is a simple web store with a handful of films to buy, including the documentary By War & By God, so if you haven’t seen the film, or if you need to pick up a copy for a friend, an uncle, or a veteran that you know, please click your way to Big Heaven Cafe dot com. That’s Big Heaven Cafe dot com and use the coupon code “podcast” to save five glorious bucks on the film. Oh, and by the way… 20% of all sales of By War & By God from Big Heaven Cafe go to Vets With A Mission, the non-profit that since 1989 has taken nearly 1400 Vietnam Veterans back to Vietnam for healing and reconciliation. Alright, let’s get on with it.

Kent C. Williamson: When did you first learn about Vietnam?

Roger Helle: When I was a senior in high school I went to an inner city school…

Kent C. Williamson: This is Roger Helle…

Roger Helle: …and I remember one of the teachers one day – and I think in social studies. These unruly kids in this class, he would start screaming, and he said, “Some of you are going to end up in a rice paddy in Vietnam.” And as a senior in high school I thought, “Where’s Vietnam, and why would I want to be in a rice paddy?” But you know my brother and I joined the Marine Corps actually before we graduated. So we went right from high school graduation to Marine Corps boot camp. And we got the boot camp ’65. The Marine Corps had just been involved for a few months in Vietnam, but it was pretty evident to us in basic training that we were going to go. And just in case we were not picked, I think my brother and I both volunteered to go Vietnam while we were in infantry training right after boot camp.

Phil Carney: My first recollection is just watching the news as a kid, in the early and mid-sixties, as I would have probably been in junior high…

Kent C. Williamson: This is Phil Carney…

Phil Carney: …It wasn’t a real big topic as far as school or anything at that time. So I think my first recollection was just watching it on some of the early news programs.

News Clip: These marines on patrol made contact with the elusive enemy when the Viet Cong struck in a variation of his favorite tactic; a surprise attack from the shadows. (see link above)

Bob Peragallo: I was stationed at a boot camp in Quantico Virginia in schools demonstration troops…

Kent C. Williamson: This is Bob Peragallo…

Bob Peragallo: …and one day there was a broadcast on the television about Vietnam, and that marines had landed there. And I had no idea that there was such a place called Vietnam, but I knew that marines had landed.

Kent C. Williamson: Tell me about your first memory of hearing about a war in Vietnam…

Steve Scott: I grew up reading a lot of Kipling and wanting some adventure.

Kent C. Williamson: This is Steve Scott…

Steve Scott: I think the first time I heard about Vietnam was in boot camp in the Marine Corps. I joined the Marine Corps before I was any way familiar with geopolitics or anything that was going on at the time, but the drill instructors inured us to the fact that, “We’re all gonna go to Vietnam.” All through high school I wanted to join the Navy. And I wanted to sign in right after high school. I was seventeen, my mother wouldn’t sign, I was really friends with the recruiter in town. That was back in the old days where all the recruiters were in the post office, in the basement, lined up with their desks. And finally I went to college for a year and half, played bridge, chased girls, quit college, went to California, grooved out. Was just about to be drafted, went back and said, “I’m gonna join up before they draft me.” So I went back to the post office, and the Navy recruiter had left. And he was squared-away guy, really liked him, but he was replaced by this old chief who weighed three hundred pounds and chain smoked Lucky Strikes. His desk was a mess he – really, I just walked over there and down at the end, the other end of the post office, was this gentleman in dress blues. His desk was spit-shined and on it was one piece of paper and one pencil. He said, “Son, come on over here. If you sign up with me, I’m gonna send you to Paris Island.” All I heard was “Paris”. He said, “When you get there, there’s gonna be a swimming pool, a golf course, and a battalion of women marines.” Now, he didn’t lie, but he sort of dodged around the truth. I was so naive that when I had to go – and I was living in New Jersey. I had to go to White Hall Station in New York for my physical to sign up and to leave that I bought a suit ’cause I figured if I looked better when I got to boot camp, they were gonna treat me better. Big mistake, big mistake. So that’s how I joined the marine corp. But I did, I was young. I didn’t have any direction, I wanted some adventure, I wanted to see the world. And the marine corps provides you with a modicum of adventure.

Kent C. Williamson: When did you first learn about a place called Vietnam?

Pat Cameron: Well that goes way back…

Kent C. Williamson: This is Pat Cameron…

Pat Cameron: I’m 65 now and I was just getting out of high school when I was… 1967. The war was going on but I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to it at the time. When I decided I wasn’t going to stay in college, and knew that my draft number was going to be kind of high, I decided I was going to pick out the service branch. And that’s when I really, kind of really – knew a little bit more about the war. I really wasn’t too much into the political arena. I just wasn’t involved in that. But I did know that when I decided that I was going to join the Navy, I had to decide what I wanted to do, and that’s when I decided to get into the medical field.

Kent C. Williamson: Do you remember when you first learned about a country called Vietnam?

Walt Griffin: I didn’t really know much about it until about around ’64 and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution…

Kent C. Williamson: This is Walt Griffin…

Walt Griffin: …and I watched the famous Johnson speech.

Archival Footage — President Lyndon B. Johnson: My fellow Americans: As President and Commander in Chief, it is my duty to the American people to report that renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply.

Walt Griffin: …and then, around that time a lot of my classmates that were ahead me – a couple of years – were going into the service and they were going to Vietnam.

Chuck Ward: I was in high school, I went to a private Catholic High School in East St Lewis, Illinois.

Kent C. Williamson: Here’s Chuck Ward…

Chuck Ward: I was a sophomore in high school. The school year was over and I had a D average. On the first day of school, the next term – which was September, my junior year. A priest by the name of Father Barry Jones brought together the dozen or so students that weren’t doing very well in school. And he sat us down and told us how important it was to improve our grades and all this because there was this thing called the Vietnam War. And already, some of the classmates from that high school had come home – killed in that war. And this was 1965. That’s how I learned about the Vietnam War.

Kent C. Williamson: So did you enlist? Did you get drafted? Tell us that part of the story, but first…

BREAK — Kent C. Williamson: We would love to hear some of your stories about the first time you learned about the Vietnam war or even about your first day in Vietnam. What was your experience like? We might even share some of these on the show. Record your story, we’d love to hear you tell it, or if you prefer typing… go for it. Either way, send it to me at Kent at By War AND By God dot com that’s Kent… K E N T at By War AND By God dot com. I’ll look forward to learning about your experiences.

Kent C. Williamson: So did you enlist? Did you get drafted? Tell us that part of the story…

Chuck Ward: I had graduated from that high school and gone to college. But I made the mistake of spending a lot of time at college instead of in college, and I lost my 2-S deferment that May. And I was on academic probation, but I was allowed to come back in September, so May to September – no big deal. Well, it turned out to be a big deal, especially to the US Government. So, my 2-S deferment was taken away, I was reclassified 1A, which meant I was eligible for the draft. And within weeks, I was invited to take a physical. And within a couple of weeks, I took that physical, and I passed that physical. And I was going to be drafted into the armed forces in the July draft call, 1968. My father was army infantry during World War II in the Pacific – was wounded in the Philippines, and he beat into my head growing up, “Son, whatever you do, don’t go into the infantry.” He didn’t want me to go into the infantry or the marines or the army, because he knew what war really was like. I didn’t appreciate that, but he did. Always had an interest in airplanes, aircraft. I didn’t want to join the air force, I really wanted to join the marines, but I just didn’t have the courage to do it. I didn’t think I could hack it, I could make it. So 5 guys from my high school, we all went down to recruiting stations. In those days it was separate recruiting stations, not just one. And all of us that day joined – we volunteered. We joined the marines, the army and the navy. And two of us joined the Navy, I was one of them. Three joined the marines and one joined the army.

Archival Footage – Navy Commercial: The United States Navy… Today’s Navy… It may have a place for you!

Cal Dunham: I was in high school, and it was beginning to ramp up in 1965…

Kent C. Williamson: Cal Dunham tells of his experience…

Cal Dunham: …and then in 1967, I found myself with the set of papers that said I was now going to be joining the army. And Vietnam was very much into the news, and by 1968 I found myself in Vietnam.

SEGUE — Kent C. Williamson: There’s a big difference between learning about Vietnam or learning about a war there and actually going to Vietnam to participate in that war. The Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army (the communists) were attempting to takeover South Vietnam and American forces were sent to try and stop the spread of communism. But what is it like to arrive in a country you’ve only heard about to fight war over conflicting ideological principles. Most of these guys were 18 or 19 years old when they were swept out of bootcamp and landed in Vietnam… Toto… we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Bob Peragallo: My name is Bob Peragallo, I was a Sargent E5 while I was in Vietnam with the US Marines, my serial number is 2095587. My first day in Vietnam. I went over to Vietnam by ship, and I was a replacement to the original marines that landed that I read about when I was in Quantico, Virginia. And we landed, had to go down the side of the ship in nets, loaded onto the landing craft, and actually went ashore on the beach. And then we loaded on trucks, and they drove us to the Da Nang air base. And from there they processed us and sent us out to marine units. And I was assigned to the first battalion ninth marines. And that night we were at the base at Marble Mountain, and they issued me a rifle that I’d never fired, they issued me all of my 782 gear…

DROP IN Kent C. Williamson: 782 gear – also called “deuce” gear included a pack, a canteen, a poncho, an ammo pouch, etc. that marines used when in the field. The number 782 refers to the Department of Defense form number signed when the gear was issued.

Bob Peragallo: …they issued me all of my 782 gear. And that night I went on my first real live combat ambush. And my experience – to sum it all up was I was completely dazed and confused, but I survived.

Kent C. Williamson: Tell us about that first mission…

Bob Peragallo: Well my MOS was a machine gunner…

DROP IN — Kent C. Williamson: MOS means Military Occupational Specialty… it’s a system for categorizing career fields in the marines.

Bob Peragallo: My MOS was a machine gunner, and they seem to have had enough of those. So I was the new guy so they made me what is called tail end Charlie. So I was the last guy in the column. And as far as I was concerned my concept was that we were gonna be shot at immediately. Had no idea what was going on, I had no orientation, the early days of Vietnam we didn’t go through two week orientation to get used to the climate or anything. That night I was on patrol, and all of a sudden I was responsible for the whole security of the patrol, and it was a rude awakening to what happened. We did not make any contact that night, we sat up all night long in an ambush and we’re supposed to sleep for one hour and then be awake for an hour with your buddy and I didn’t sleep at all.

Roger Helle: My name is Roger Helle, Sergeant, US. Marine Corps. Retired, 2146819. My very first day as a marine in Vietnam was kind of interesting. We were on a float battalion and we made some raids up and down the Vietnam coast in what was the upper part of South Vietnam. And it was a few weeks later we came ashore and began building a perimeter around an airfield that the marine corps was building in the northern part of South Vietnam. Probably maybe an hour’s drive, an hour and a half drive from the DMZ…

DROP IN — Kent C. Williamson: The DMZ was a demilitarized zone that divided North and South Vietnam and was the result of the first Indochina war. The DMZ was over 100 kilometers long, but just a few kilometers wide. Most of it ran just south of the seventeenth parallel from the border of Laos to the South China Sea.

Roger Helle: …an hour’s drive, an hour and a half drive from the DMZ at a place called Phu Bai. And so, we were perimeter security and we began making patrols around the airfield to make sure that the Viet Cong did not mount any kind of attack to stop the building of the airfield.

DROP IN — Kent C. Williamson: The Vietcong (or VC) were communist guerrillas that fought the South Vietnamese from 1954 to 1975 with the support of the North Vietnamese Army (or NVA). American forces got involved in the 60’s and fought against the VC and the NVA until Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell in April of 1975.

Steve Scott: Steven Scott, United States Marine Corp Corporal 2169769. My first day, they drop you off a plane, they open up the door, it’s a hundred and fifty degrees. You’ve seen that in a million movies. I went through that, and I was immediately rushed up to another plane, put on the C130 and sent North. So it was all a crazy a time. I thought I was gonna get shot right on the first day. But, they sent me to a unit I picked up with a unit, and went out on operation.

Kent C. Williamson: Tell me about that first operation…

Steve Scott: I’ll tell you straight up front that I’m uncomfortable talking about combat experience but… I was with second battalion, seventh marines. The structure of that is four rifle companies, it’s a maneuver battalion. Company Headquarters, Company, and four Rifle Battalions. My job was as a radio operator was with a – they’re called the TACP, tactical air control party. It was this squad of radio operators divided up into teams of three. You carried radios, your job with forward air control team. Your job was to go with one of the rifle companies and use your radios to call in air support. Air strikes, resupply, and Medevacs. So you’re with the infantry doing that. I was right up rushed up to what was Operation Prairie 1…

DROP IN — Kent C. Williamson: Operation Prairie 1 sought to eliminate North Vietnamese forces just south of the DMZ. It lasted from August 3rd, 1966 to January 31st, 1967 and resulted in nearly 1400 enemy soldiers killed and the deaths of 239 Americans.

Steve Scott: What was Operation Prairie 1. And when I got there, and I’m green and I didn’t know what to do. I was pretty well trained on my job, but had never been with a unit in combat. And the platoon sergeant said, “Don’t worry, you’re a new guy, I’m putting you with two experienced guys on the fact team. They’ll take care of you.” So first day walkin’ up the trail we got into it. And there was a lot of firing going on, there were snipers in the trees and all that kind of stuff. And the guy in front of me got shot, the guy behind me got shot. And I’m standing there, the Gunnery Sergeant looks at me and I said, “Okay Gunney, now who’s gonna take care of me?” So I thought that was kind of, you know, Gomer Pyle-ish. And immediately I went to the ground, had a big, heavy radio on my back. And I remember being on my back with my rifle shootin’ up into trees, kickin’ and movin’ along the ground with my rifle and thinking, “This is just – I’m never gonna last thirteen months.” And I looked up and there’s this Gunnery Sergeant looking down at me saying, “Hmmm, where’d you learn how to do that John Wayne?” And I said, “Oh my god, I’m with the wrong crowd. So that’s my experience of my first patrol.

Walt Griffin: Walter Griffin, Corporal, United States Marine Corps. Serial number 2383903. I was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 26 Marines. And we landed in Da Nang, and what hit me first was the humidity, and these smells I’d never smelled before. It’s the way the Vietnamese eat, the way they cook, the way they live, the way they dispose of waste, and all that. And when I got to the center, they said, “You’ve got to go out to the airstrip and catch a helicopter to the USS Valley Forge.” And so, like a good marine I did that and I went out to the strip and there was a helicopter taking off right when I got there, and it was just about dark. But I was put on this little station where the helicopters – where he guy on the ground controls the helicopters and sends people out to the ship. When he said, “Well that was the last helicopter, you stay here.” I go, “Stay here?” He’s, “Yeah here, until morning.” So I’m now on this Da Nang airstrip all by myself, and like a good marine just out of training, I stayed on that airstrip all night. And not knowing anybody, not knowing what to do, and in the middle of the night we had a mortar attack. And so there I am, I was in a bunker and I said “I’m going to die in my first day In Vietnam and nobody’s going to know who I am.” And I lived through the night of course, and next morning I got on a helicopter and went out to the USS Valley Forge.

Chuck Ward: Chuck Ward, petty officer, second class. B549649. My Vietnam experience was a little bit different than the Air Force people, a lot different than the marines or the soldiers. While I went over there 3 times and the only time in country was in Da Nang, which was a relatively safe base. A huge airbase, primarily Air Force, but also Navy and Marines in that area. So my in country experience was limited to that air base. I didn’t go really out into the boonies or anything. I was – most of my time was on an aircraft carrier. I was operations and intelligence, yeoman, maintenance administration. I did some flying over the beach. So my experience was a little different. I think the heat was a big thing. It was really hot out there off the coast of Vietnam on the carrier. Inside the carrier, the first time I went to Vietnam, we didn’t have air conditioning and of course the soldiers and marines didn’t have air conditioning. But being inside that aircraft carrier, no air conditioning – big, huge steel monolith. I mean, it was really hot. And the humidity was brutal, and I used to think – I’d go up on a flight deck to get into the air when a carrier turned into the wind. And I thought about those poor soldiers and marines that were about 15 miles offshore, what they were going through, because I had it a heck of a lot better than they did.

Pat Cameron: Pat Cameron, 3rd Class Corpsman – San Diego, California, Naval Hospital Balboa. That particular night we got in there about 4 in the morning, we had incoming. We had some stuff – we had some shells coming – that were going off. And I had no clue if they were coming to – gonna get us or that – but most of them were far off. It wasn’t like they were coming into us, but I could hear them going off. And then, of course, I woke up the next morning – didn’t sleep very good. And then I started seeing what some of the guys looked like. It was a – I was in another world. I started seeing things, and the Commander took me to the hospital. We got set up. And we had some free time and the Commander took me throughout the hospital and saw some things that to this day bothers me. We went to the areas where they were bringing them in and saw the body bags. I don’t think I’d been around death that much either, until then. Yeah, I think that’s just some of the stuff that -still back in the back of my brain. You’ve asked – this question you’ve asked is an interesting question because I really hadn’t dwelled on that – thinking about the first day I was there. But it was a – it was tough, but when we started working I got I seemed to get better. The first trip, it was a lot to absorb for a 19-year old. But I didn’t do – I wasn’t in foot in the rice patties. But I did lose a lot of – I lost some of my corps buddies that I went to school with. In fact, while I was there the 2nd time I went over – I had lost one 2 weeks prior to me getting there, that was stationed there, that was kind of tough.

CLOSE & CREDITS — Kent C. Williamson: Thanks for listening to this episode of the By War & By God Podcast from Paladin Pictures. Next time we’ll hear about their best (and worst) days in Vietnam. Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast so you won’t miss an episode. You can learn more about the podcast and the film at By War And By God dot com. That’s By War And By God dot com. Also, remember to use the coupon code “podcast” at Big Heaven Cafe dot com to save 5 glorious bucks on your copy of By War & By God. Oh, and if you have Amazon Prime you can watch the film for FREE, yes you hear that right… for free.

You can find me on Facebook. Just search for Kent C. Williamson and while you’re there go ahead and search for By War & By God and follow us. If you’d rather email me, please send your comments to Kent@ByWarAndByGod.com. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

Special thanks this week to Jennifer Cuddeback, Jacqueline Thornburg, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Library for use of the LBJ soundbites.

The By War & By God Podcast is written and produced by me Kent C. Williamson. Sound Design and Finishing by Ashby Wratchford. Our Audio Engineer for today’s program is Mister Steve Carpenter. The By War & By God theme music was composed by the extremely talented Will Musser.

Special thanks to the Paladin Team which includes Leslie Wood, Steve Carpenter, Dan Fellows, Steve Lessick, and Ashby Wratchford. Thanks also to my brother Brad who was the Director of Photography on the film and helped record the interviews you heard in this episode.

Paladin Pictures is committed to the creation of redemptive entertainment and thought-provoking cultural critique. Learn more about us at Paladin Pictures dot com. That’s Paladin P-A-L-A-D-I-N Pictures dot com.

By War & by God is produced at the Paladin studio in the amazingly wonderful, beautiful little town of Charlottesville, Virginia.

Oh, and thanks also to our Veterans… those who returned… and especially those who didn’t. Like my wife’s Uncle Floyd. Thank you!

EPISODE 01 – Hearing & Going

PLAYERS: Bob Peragallo, Cal Dunham, Roger Helle, Steve Scott, Walt Griffin, Phil Carney, Pat Cameron, Chuck Ward, and your host, Kent C. Williamson



BigHeavenCafe.com – Save $5 on the the film with coupon code “Podcast”

US Marines vs Vietcong in Vietnam “Contact (Ambush)” 1966 USMC

Lyndon Johnson – Report on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Email Kent

Navy Recruitment Film


14 episodes available. A new episode about every 9 days averaging 24 mins duration .