What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? was the title of a mid-1960s comedic movie that was set in World War II. The antics in the movie may well be a veil. Who really wants to delve into the reality and horrors of war? Does anyone really want to know what the men who fight experience? The question posed by the film’s title is one that many military brats, including myself, may be hesitant or afraid to ask. For me and other military brats, I suspect, questions linger when a parent leaves home for a tour of duty (deployment) in a war zone.
We know they leave for a war zone. Intellectually, we know it will be a dangerous place and that bad things could happen and, in fact, will happen. But still, a huge information void exists—what are our parents doing, what are they feeling, and do they really need to be there.
During the 1960s, when I was living through my father’s two tours of duty in Vietnam, the evening news, in graphic fashion, brought some of the sights and sounds of war into the American home. Those reports, however, didn’t really answer the question—what was my father doing? When my father returned home, he volunteered small bits and pieces over the years, but not much.
In the late 1990s, my father flew to Washington, D.C., for a reunion. He stayed at my house because I lived in a D.C. suburb. I drove him to the hotel where the reunion was taking place. My plan was to drop him off and return home. But, when I drove up in front of the hotel entrance, there was something in his voice when he asked me to go in and meet these men he had served with years earlier. I did not feel like I could say no, but I didn’t want to go. Logically, I knew that these men had faced horrible things and I didn’t want, or need, to hear about them. While that initial reunion was even worse than I imagined it might be, it started me down the path to meeting the men who served with my father during his second tour of duty in Vietnam that began late in 1968. As their first sergeant, they called my father “Top.” Because he was family to them, they accepted me into their family.
Over the years, these aging Vietnam veterans have shared their stories. Most of these men, the grunts of B2-7, were still in, or barely out of, their teens when they first met my father. Through them, I’ve learned things about my father that I never knew. These men, whom I look upon almost as older brothers, have made this project possible. I’ve learned that my father’s story is indelibly intertwined with their story.
Resistant, reluctant and a bit fearful describes my reaction to the initial prodding to pursue this work. For years, I resisted the men’s subtle nudging and prodding because there was no material, but that was an excuse. The material existed, but not in written form. The material from various perspectives was abundant through the oral “history” as told to me by former soldiers who served with my father. The reluctance and fear existed because my father had worked a lifetime to be anonymous, never accepting of or seeking out any attention to himself. However, his efforts have been thwarted at times because of others who have felt the need to recognize his contributions to keep young men safe and alive in the worst of situations.
Perhaps the greatest prodding came from someone who had been out of my mind for nearly four decades. Our family moved a lot because the Army moves their personnel around from one posting to another. There came a point when I stopped counting all the moves—though the number of residences we had was into the teens by the time my father retired from the Army. Simply put, there are more moves than is normal for any child or family. It is a nomadic experience. One of these many moves was after my father’s first tour of duty in Vietnam (this was before the use of “deployments”). In August 1967, our family of five, at the time, packed up our belongings, piled into a Mercury Comet, a small car, and drove from a small town in northeast Ohio to Ft. Ord, California.
My father took up his duties as the first sergeant of a basic training company at Ft. Ord. We moved into our family quarters, a single-family dwelling, on post shortly before the school year began in 1967.
Basic training is usually about an eight-week cycle to run new recruits, trainees as they may be called, through their initiation into the ways of the Army. Sometime during our time at Ft. Ord, a young drill instructor, Sgt. Fred Hall, became one of the “DIs” running a platoon of recruits in my father’s company. At the time, I was in junior high school and, occasionally, would see Sgt. Hall at our house when my father hosted end-of-cycle parties (at the end of an eight-week cycle of basic training).
Whether it was Sgt. Hall or any of the other DIs, seeing any of them came to an abrupt halt in the fall of 1968 as we moved, yet, again. The war in Vietnam intruded again. The Army’s needs for the war meant moving the family off post to another new location, new school, new faces and all the other things that come with relocation. For my father and the family, it would be another year-long tour of duty in Vietnam. Once a move occurs, whether it is classmates or DIs, everyone is part of the past, and there is no expectation of crossing paths in the future.
My father retired from the Army in early 1971. For nearly a year and a half, the Army was not part of my life. But, in July 1972, I joined the Army and began my own three years of active duty, all of it stateside. On a hot July morning in 1975, I got my final discharge papers, got into my car, drove to the Ft. Bragg commissary parking lot, stripped off my uniform and changed into civilian clothes in my car, and put the Army in the rear-view mirror for good, hoping that all those years would be buried with the intent of never being revisited.
By 2006, my father had been reuniting regularly with some of the former soldiers from his second tour of duty in Vietnam when he was in B2-7. Despite my reluctance, I had met more of the men of B2-7 after that initial introduction in the late 1990s.
The 2006 reunion in Alexandria, Virginia, which was close to my home in Maryland, was different. Before traveling to Alexandria for his reunion in November 2006, my father mentioned that Sgt. Fred Hall, retired from the Palatine, Illinois Park District, would be at the reunion. Sgt. Hall had fulfilled his military obligation and got out of the Army without having to endure a tour in Vietnam, although many of the recruits he trained did end up in Southeast Asia.
It had been thirty-eight years since Fred Hall, a young, very fit and trim DI had made any appearance in my life. Since 2006, however, Fred and I have become regular attendees at reunions of men who served with my father in B2-7. In addition to the reunions in Washington, D.C., we have both become regular attendees at Jerry Gast’s annual summer gathering of men who served with my father. Although neither Sgt. Hall nor I served in Vietnam, we are bound together because of my father. Over time, Sgt. Hall, Fred, began to nudge me, prod me to write something about my father. At reunions, whether in Washington or at Gast’s lakeside cabin, the stories or references of my father came up frequently.
Every summer, at a lakeside cabin, where perhaps ten, a dozen or more B2-7 Vietnam veterans would reunite, they retell old jokes, insult each other as if they are still 20 years old, and remember. Over the years, some of their recollections, outside of earshot of my father, were directed at me about my father. As the years have passed and Fred Hall’s prodding and encouragement continued, it became clear that the time had arrived for this to be undertaken. More importantly, those who served with my father in Vietnam agreed to provide material, making this a possibility. Once the subject was raised, it became clear that they wanted to contribute and they did so very openly.
Ultimately, this work is not about just one soldier. Instead, it is about how a number of men, most barely out of their teens, somehow found themselves in the Army, in Vietnam and in the fog of a war zone. They served, exhibited extreme courage, fought for one another, came home, raised families, and realized that the short time they spent together in their youth under the worst of conditions was a bond that could not be thrust aside and forgotten.
This is a work that attempts to recognize the contributions of all of these men. No one person is truly responsible for their survival. They survived their ordeals because they were willing to die for one another. They were dedicated to keeping each other alive night and day. And, despite the short time they may have spent with each other, the bonds forged in that crucible remain strong to this day. As one summed it up, “I hated the Army but would do anything for the guys.”
There was no intent to set out to answer the question “What did you do in the war, daddy?”. Nevertheless, over a number of years spending some time with those who served in B2-7 with my father, a partial answer to the question flowed forth, albeit, piecemeal. It may also fill a void for the loved ones of these men as their experiences and actions while they served are also included in the following pages and provide glimpses of what they did during the war. While the war may remain controversial, the acts and actions of these men who fought in it were heroic and they are deserving of everyone’s respect.
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