Letters from Viet Nam, 1969-1970

Rog base training photoMy brother Roger Clausen was an Army 101st Airborne door-gunner on a Huey helicopter stationed at Quang Tri near the border between North and South Vietnam, the so-called “demilitarized zone”. His helicopter was named “Death on Call” and they were called a lot. Rog sent me, his kid brother, these letters trying to school me on what the Army was really like and then, in the later letters, urging me not to come to Vietnam. Our father, Charles Clausen, was a B-17 Bomber co-pilot in WWII, so I suppose we both felt a responsibility to serve our country and do our part. These five letters begin with Army Basic Training at Ft. Lewis, Washington. I have never shared them with anyone and even as I begin I am debating whether to sensor certain parts. They were private and never meant to be politically correct. Rog got drafted (a two-year hitch) early in 1969, was given the opportunity to enlist (a three-year hitch) with the inducement of being able to choose the best Army specialty he was qualified for. He chose the longest school: Aircraft Armament Repair, 26 weeks. After completion he was immediately sent to Vietnam.

Der Phil (civilian!) Time goes by so damn fast it’s almost meaningless. It seems hard to believe that it’s been a year since we saw each other, but I guess it’s true. Now as for your questions Rog letters 1about the army: We consider civilians some sort of mythical god, because nobody remembers what one looks like. Everybody here runs around baldheaded in look-alike green fatigues. We get haircuts once a week. A very short butch. You’re right about Army women being a sore sight.  Same goes for lifers, (that is, people who reenlist) they just couldn’t make it back on the block. “The Block” is Army slang for civilization. Anyhow, that’s the only way I can account for so many of them being pricks!

This letter may be a little dull, but I’m gonna tell you just exactly what the army is all about. To begin with, don’t believe anything bad you’ve been told about the Army. It’s not bad at all. It’s four times worse! The Army sucks! It reeks. Get the picture? There, now I feel much better. You probably think I started Basic (training) a day or two after I was sworn in. Not so. I was sworn in April 9 (a day of infamy) Basic didn’t start until 2 weeks ago yesterday. In other words, tomorrow is the beginning of my 4th week, even though I’ve been here over a month. Each day drags so much it feels like two. Anyway, the rest of the time was spent processing in. The first 3 weeks of Basic have been hell. The hardest part to bear is the constant harassment. I’ll have to see you personally before I can describe how bad it is. I don’t think I can write anything foul enough to describe it. I’m a very patient person with a very low burning point compared to many here, but I’ve come so close to busting this one officer & NCO (non-commissioned officer) that it was almost beyond my willpower to control myself. I know you don’t like being pushed around, ’cause I’ve seen how pissed off you get sometimes. Before you join or get drafted you’d better develop the control of a regular martyr. No joke. Before I explain any farther about this farce, I must clarify some points. Since I came here, Fort Lewis has been on a strict meningitis program. That’s why we didn’t get sent to Ord (Ft. Ord, California). It’s almost an epidemic down there. But it’s bad enough up here. This takes further explanation, so attend closely. There are 55 men in a platoon. There are 4 platoons in a company (220 men). Three companies in a battalion (660 men) and 4 battalions in a brigade (2640 men). Now I can continue. When we arrived here we had 4 platoons. Now there are three. The survivors were dispersed to be re-cycled. In other words, over 30 men died from meningitis. Some of them lived next door. One lived in my barracks. Guess I was lucky. So anyway, because of this they can’t make us run in the company area, or for punishment, or give us unscheduled Phys. Ed. So we don’t have to run to the mess hall or latrine, but they make up for it in other ways. For instance, if one man does something wrong the whole platoon is punished. Like this one dude who was late for company formation. The whole bleeding company had to do pushups until they dropped. But they can’t do this is the company area or they’d get in trouble. They wait until we’re out in the field on a training exercise when the Captain ain’t around. This happens about four times a week. Ask Dad how many pushups he could do with full field gear on. One time, after bayonet practice, they gave us two hours of P.T. and a five mile forced march. Why? Because we weren’t yelling “Kill” loud enough to satisfy them. Chickenshit stuff like that can damn near kill you off. Or make you go A.W.O.L. (absence without leave). Then if you look tired they say, “What’s wrong with you pussies? You outta shape? Maybe you need some more!” And sometimes they give it to us. But enough of that. Just remember you have to put up with that sort of shit about 16 hours a day. Might as well tell you the whole schedule while I’m at it. You don’t have to get up ’til 5:00 A.M. But that only leaves you 20 minutes ’til formation. So we get up at four so we can shave, shit, shine boots & make our beds.

Well, it’s Monday night now. Man, have we been through hell today. We had the privilege to go through the Gas Chamber. You get to walk in wearing your gas mask, just to make sure it doesn’t leak. Then you have to take it off. This is tear gas (C.N.) I’m referring to. The tears flow down your face like a river, & they sting so bad you can hardly see. Your throat is so irritated you don’t know what to do. Then you have to walk around singing “Jingle Bells” until they think you’ve had enough. I’m not lying to ya brother. But the best was yet to come. Ten minutes later we were crawling through a cloud of smoke on our stomachs & minus masks. Then they added Tear gas II (C.S.) Before I continue, let me explain. After this was over, I hated their guts. But it was good necessary practice. We had two hours of class before “testing” & if you did what they told you, you didn’t get hurt. But it was still a bitch. Okay, to continue. We were crawling on the sand with rifles, helmets & full field gear under & past barbed wire. Then they throw the C.S. grenades at us. No warning. The only way you know it’s in the air is when it hits you. But you’ll know it. It’s sharp & acrid. It’s three times as powerful as C.N. & induces vomiting. Takes effect in 9 seconds. After you smell it, you have 9 seconds to roll over on your back, unfasten & remove your helmet, lay it & your rifle on top of you (to prevent contamination), open mask carrier, pull it out, put it on, clear it & check it. By the time you open your mask carrier you’re crying, coughing, choking, gagging & the snot begins to run down your face. That’s clearing out your sinuses the hard way, right? It may sound impossible, but you can do it because I did. You know what was sickening? Watching the guys who didn’t make it in time. First their masks filled up with snot & puke, then they ripped them off & puked all over themselves & everything. Some of ’em were covered with snot & vomit from head to foot. Why? Because they panicked. You do not breathe after you smell the gas. Some guys panicked and tried to run from it, but were thrown back in bodily. Sickening. But they were the minority. About 95% kept their cool & made it. I know you could do it. Another affect is irritated skin & eyes. It goes away in 10-15 minutes if you don’t rub them. If you do you could cause serious damage to your eyes. After that we had to go on a 10 mile forced march in the mountains. That was rough. Seemed to be straight up & down. Got my first view of Puget Sound. Beautiful!! Hadn’t seen anything that pretty in a long time. Made it all worthwhile, in a way. Very refreshing. We also have a good view of Mt. Rainier from here.

If this hasn’t destroyed any of your illusions about the army, I don’t know what will. Any time you want, I can get you 50 signed affidavits supporting my claims. That’s just from my barracks. Now, as to the reason I signed up for another year (three years instead of two). The school, of course. Why do I want 26 weeks of brain cramming? It will keep me from getting my ass shot off in Viet Nam. In other words, there is no way in hell I’ll have to go Infantry (I hope). I’ve probably missed half the questions you asked, but this is the general idea. If you think of any other questions, fire away. But right now I gotta sign off, or I’ll never get this sent. Gotta shake it for now, Bro. Appreciate your writing, send more soon. Yours Muddily, Rog. What, Me Worry? Hooze Yer Hootie?

(I will try to enter Letter Two from Nam, tomorrow)

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