Medium 9781574411331

Combat Chaplain: A Thirty-Year Vietnam Battle

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Chaplain James D. Johnson broke all the rules to be with his men. He chose to accompany them, unarmed, on their daily combat operations, a decision made against the recommendations of his superiors. During what would be the final days for some, he offered his ministry not from a pulpit but on the battlefields—in hot landing zones and rice paddies, in hospitals, aboard ship, and knee-deep in mud. He even found time for baptisms in the muddy Mekong River."You've never really lived until you've almost died," writes Johnson, one of the youngest army chaplains at the time. Through his compelling narration, he takes us into the hearts of frightened young boys and the minds of experienced men. In Combat Chaplain, we live for eight and one-half months with Johnson as he serves in the field with a small unit numbering 350 men. The physical price can be counted with numbers—ninety-six killed and over nine hundred wounded. Only those who paid it can understand the spiritual and psychological price, in a war that raised many difficult moral issues. "It placed my soul in the lost and found department for awhile," Johnson writes.Also provided here is an in-depth look at the "Mobile Riverine Operations," a rare joint effort in which the U.S. Army and Navy combined forces. Johnson describes the workings of the flotilla and the complexity of having these two military branches in combat operations.This is one man's chronicle of Vietnam and the aftermath of war, of his coming to terms with his posttraumatic "demons," and his need for healing and cleansing which led him to revisit Vietnam twenty-eight years later. Veterans of the Vietnam war and other wars, their family members, pastors, chaplains, mental health workers, and anyone who has experienced trauma will find this story of interest."This work . . . has raw insights into the visceral experience of combat and the psychic damage it does which are rarely seen, and almost never from this particular point of view."—Ted Gittinger, Director, Special Projects, Lyndon B. Johnson Library and coeditor of International Perspectives on Vietnam"This is a very powerful true story, unique in its personal close-up of infantry and Riverine warfare, and the terrible human price paid by one battalion during eight months of the controversial Vietnam War. He shows that even men of God can come to despise the enemy for the evil that they do, while acknowledging that they, too, are God's creations. Chaplain Johnson's book should be required reading by national leaders before they consider whether to commit our troops to combat."—James P. Maloney, Major General, USA, Retired"A dynamic true story of love, anxiety, fear, and the pathos of war. This is a superlative work and one which ought to rivet the minds and hearts of all who read it."—Patrick J. Hessian, Major General, USA (Ret) Former Chief of Chaplains“Chaplain Johnson’s book should be required reading by national leaders before they consider whether to commit our troops to combat.”—James P. Maloney, Major General, USA, Retired“Be prepared to shed a few tears as Johnson reveals the damage that sustained combat can inflict on a person's psyche. His willingness to share these deeply personal thoughts will be therapeutic to any combat veteran who still suffers from his Vietnam experiences.”—Vietnam Magazine“His descriptions of war's physical and 'emotional fatigue,' and anger at its gruesome results, evoke at times those of the best combat memoirs like E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed.”—On Point

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Introduction - Back to the Real World

ePub

TUESDAY, JUNE 25, 1968: The huge Boeing 707 rolls from the tarmac to the end of the runway. Movement seems to be at a snail's pace. “Could one last mortar get us now?” I wonder. The plane makes a wide turn onto the end of the runway. I try to will the pilot to gun the engines so we can leave this dirty, dangerous place called Vietnam. We sit on the end of the runway for what seems like an eternity. The thrust of the engines begins to move us forward. Not until the plane's nose lifts do I believe we're finally going home. One hundred and seventy-five GI's let out wild cheers. The tour in hell is finally finished. We're on the way back to a world of hot dogs, mom, and apple pie. It's a relief to know I'm leaving the nightmare behind.

By the time we reach 10,000 feet, I'm reflecting on my first eight and one-half months in this miserable land. I had hoped to serve with an infantry battalion, and, indeed I had. My mind races back. I once again feel the terror of being shot at for the first time, in an open pineapple field. I remember the all day and into the night ambush at Snoopy's nose with over 100 casualties; being the first person to jump on board another troop boat after it was hit by a B-40 rocket; leaving an entire twenty-nine man platoon wounded or dead except two. I recall landing by chopper, under fire, in a hot landing zone; being trapped behind a small rice paddy dike by a Viet Cong machine gunner as he blasts away, bullets showering me with mud as they explode into the dike. I remember pulling a lieutenant to safety after he's shot in an alley way; crawling through the mud under fire in the Jungle of Death; having an incoming artillery round explode five feet away, severely injuring my shoulder in the midst of that terrible fire fight that took the life of one of my best friends. And loading scores and scores of wounded soldiers on medevac choppers; sending many dead bodies from the field for the beginning of their last sad journey home.

 

Chapter 1 - Acclamation and a Decision—June 28–August l8, l967

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WEDNESDAY, JUNE 28, 1967: What have I gotten myself into? Suddenly, I feel terribly, devastatingly alone. A part of me wants to turn around and return home. That's impossible. I'm over the Pacific with 175 other GIs heading to Vietnam. My mind is a blur as my thoughts hopscotch to so many events of the past few days.

I can still see my ten-month-old son, Grey, waving goodbye to me Sunday morning. I know he couldn't understand what was happening as I left to go to the airport. I was about to burst, not knowing if I'd ever see him again.

“Don't cry anymore, mommy,” two and one-half year old Kellie had said to my wife, Barbara, in the Charlotte, North Carolina terminal. I can still see my daughter wiping her mother's tears as final goodbyes were spoken. The last thing I saw as I looked out the plane window was Barbara, Kellie and my parents all waving.

The whine of the engines seem to be telling me I must be crazy to leave my wonderful family and go to war. I feel sick to my stomach. After all, I did volunteer for this tour.

 

Chapter 2 - Mobile Riverine Force and Snoopy's Nose—August 19–September 26, 1967

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SATURDAY, AUGUST 19, 1967: The Mobile Riverine Force base is anchored at the junction of the Soi Rap and Vam Co Dong Rivers south of Saigon. Our area of operation will be about twenty miles away northwest of Ben Luc.

At our pre operation briefing, we're told that over two hundred Viet Cong from the 506th Local Force Battalion have been spotted in a one by two mile area. That's exactly where Alpha Company is to operate. Since I'm going out with them, this gets my immediate attention.

Having decided that my position during combat operations will be in the field with the troops, the Alpha Company commander has asked if I'll go with his company. He's relatively new to the battalion having arrived two weeks after me. In fact, all the company commanders have arrived since I have.

This company commander is yet to lead his company in a real fight. He's a huge man and claims to have played football for a year with one of the professional NFL teams. I played football at Wake Forest and, had I not had a career-ending shoulder injury, would have been drafted by the Chicago Bears. Therefore, football is a natural link between us.

 

Chapter 3 - Ben Tre and a Hot a Landing Zone—September 27–November 2, 1967

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WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 1967: We leave at 1:00 A.M. on another operation. It's a very dark night with no moon. I'm riding on the aid boat. No one sleeps because of what happened at Snoopy's Nose twelve days ago. Plus, we're heading to the Ben Tre Canal where the VC are known to be heavily fortified.

We get to the canal at daybreak. Artillery proceeds us. All guns on the boats are manned and pointed directly at the banks. If the VC ambush us, it won't take but about two seconds to return fire.

The now dreaded event occurs again. Sounds of heavy weapons break the early-morning boredom. Two ATCs are hit just to our front. We're told that both boats have several casualties.

We move quickly out of the VC kill zone and pull alongside the first boat and tie up to it. I jump over and find a dead sailor full of shell fragments. A round has gone directly into the coxswain's area, blowing the man up. Blood and bits of flesh are scattered all over the boat. We find an eyeball under the .50 caliber machine gun mount. It's no different in the well deck; a round went off in there also. A sailor is hurt very badly but he will survive.

 

Chapter 4 - Bad Luck Tony and my Tho Orphanage—November 3–December 31, 1967

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FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 1967: Paul, my former assistant, has rotated back to the real world and a new Paul (Cherkas) is now my assistant. He's from Rhode Island and I already like him a lot. I tease Paul about Rhode Island, saying it is neither a road nor an island.

Today is adjustment day for everyone. Now that we're all back in Dong Tam, most of the troops are new enough that on arrival they went directly to the boats, and thus are not very familiar with Dong Tam. The rest of us are rather like high school guys who've been away at college for a while and now are back home for the summer.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 1967: At 3:00 A.M., the mortar siren goes off indicating that we're under a mortar attack. The siren is a new addition. In July, everyone just yelled as we ran to the bunkers. Unfortunately, the siren goes off about three minutes after we're in the bunkers. This is mortar attack number eight that I've been in since my arrival. Tonight we receive thirty-nine rounds.

 

Chapter 5 - R&R and a Massacre—January 1–19, 1968

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MONDAY JANUARY 1, 1968: Happy New Year! Big deal, I think, until I realize it is 1968, the year I go home; I hope. I celebrate with an early breakfast of C-rations, wishing it were hot biscuits, gravy, fried eggs, and grits, instead of this funny looking stuff. Hot chow is scheduled for lunch. I don't have much hope for it, either. I know it won't be collard greens, cornbread, black-eyed peas and persimmon pudding.

I have a service at Bravo Company. Gun fire is heard about a mile away. I cross the canal in a Boston whale boat to Alpha Company. I make my rounds and joke about having stayed up so late for the New Year's Eve party last night.

I set up for the service in a small yard of a hooch within our perimeter. Just as most of the guys are arriving, I accidentally step off a small dike and slide down into the water. As everyone is laughing, I yell, “Happy New Year.” So much for staying dry today.

As I begin the service, I again joke, telling the guys I have just baptized myself. During the first prayer of the service, the King's chopper lifts off about seventy-five meters away. I stop the service briefly because of the noise. Suddenly, a sniper opens fire. I'm the only one standing, and when the first shot whizzes by, I drop. The sniper fire is returned in a “mad minute” when everyone on the perimeter opens fire in the direction of the sniper.

 

Chapter 6 - Vinh Long and Tet—January 20–February 2, 1968

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SATURDAY, JANUARY 20, 1968: Tomorrow we move back aboard the ships. My new home will be the “Apple,” or more correctly, the APL. It's not nearly as comfortable as the Colleton.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 21, 1968: Today is moving day! What a mess! No one knows where anyone is supposed to be. I finally find the area where the officers berths are located and decide to just pick a bunk. I take a top one. I have much less room than I did on the Colleton. I have no desk, not to mention an office and I only have a tiny locker. I can't even find a private place to make a tape to Barbara. Everyone is complaining. Joe Jenkins, bunked just below me, compares our situation to that of sardines in a can.

All in all, morale is beginning to sag. No one is happy about the move. Some of the soldiers are already beginning to complain about a few of the shipboard navy trying to “boss” them around. I decide I'd better keep tabs on this because some sailors just might get “abused” if they don't cool their arrogance.

 

Chapter 7 - Death on all Sides and “Keep your Head Down!”February 6–March 6, 1968

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TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 1968: Bravo Company moves out again this morning. Intelligence says that many VC have moved out of Vinh Long southwest and Bravo Company's job is to attempt to interdict them. The other companies are to stand by to assist should they contact the VC.

Then the call comes. Bravo Company and the boats have just been ambushed! The rest of the battalion is to move out immediately. I'm still on the pontoon. I run upstairs and get my field gear.

We had hoped for at least three days rest.

Chip, the twenty year old commander of Echo Company, seems particularly vulnerable since their battle two nights ago when Ron was killed. Chip's a nice kid. But, that's exactly what he is, a kid. A captain this young is almost unheard of. He enlisted, went to officer candidate school, was commissioned and has been promoted to captain. He's still wet behind the ears, yet, he's responsible for the lives of 100 soldiers in combat.

Morale is low. I decide to go out with Echo Company. Most of these guys have been in country only a few weeks. Yet, they've already seen significant combat, more than enough to last a lifetime.

 

Chapter 8 - A Different War and a Missing Body—March 7–June 25, 1968

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THURSDAY, MARCH 7, 1968: Division HQ is only a forty-five minute chopper ride from Dong Tam, yet the contrast between the two is like the difference between caviar and peanut butter. The Bear Cat war is not fought with bullets, booby traps, rockets and mortars. This war consists of reports and inspections. Except for location, Bear Cat is like stateside duty.

I'm assigned to HHC and Band of the Division Support Command. I'll have special duty at the “Reliable Academy,” a training center for newly arrived troops. I quickly learn that staff meetings aren't about the war I just left but are about things like guard duty at the NCO Club and life guards at the service club pool. DISCOM has troops involved in diverse jobs and locations with supply, signal, maintenance, transportation, aviation and medical.

I have a nice office in the chapel, located about fifty meters from my hooch, the HQ and the mess hall. After a week, my transition is complete.

Shortly after I arrive at Bear Cat, I become a “two digit midget.” This means I have less than 100 days until DEROS. It feels good.

 

Chapter 9 - Home and Demons Awaken—June 26, 1968–March 1, 1996

ePub

TUESDAY, JUNE 25, 1968: Perhaps it was due to nervousness, excitement, anxiety, or who knows what, but I literally did not sleep at all last night at the 90th Replacement Battalion at Long Binh. Processing for my flight home at Bien Hoa Air Base was heavenly.

After more processing at Travis Air Force Base, I leave by army bus to the San Francisco airport where I fly directly to El Paso, Texas, arriving there just before dark. My plans have been to stop in El Paso, sign in, get my name on the post housing list, sign out immediately on leave and go home to North Carolina. Then, when my leave is over and I report back for duty at Ft Bliss, maybe housing for my family will be available.

My sponsor meets me at the airport. I can't sign up for housing until tomorrow morning when the office reopens. I call Barbara. It's hard to believe that tomorrow, I'll be home!

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 26, 1968: I go to the housing office, do the brief paperwork, sign out and return to the airport to catch my flight to North Carolina.

 

Chapter 10 - Going Back! and Miracles—March 2, 1996–Present

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In December of 1995 I put a note in my annual Christmas letter telling my friends that Barbara and I were going back to Vietnam. I receive a call from John Iannucci, who tells me he can't believe I'm going back. I tell him I certainly am, and ask if he would be interested in going along.

“I'm not sure. If I went back with you, do you think we could find that battle site in Vinh Long?” John is referring to the terrible battle where the Vietnamese civilians were executed and burned on February 4, 1968. I'm excited that John is thinking about going back with me.

“We could try. The itinerary says we're to stop overnight in Vinh Long. Are you serious about going?”

He admits he has been thinking about it off and on for about six months. After we talk, John decides the trip is worth taking. He and his wife, also Barbara, will accompany us.

I still marvel at how the trip became a reality. On the way to Louisville, Kentucky for a Mobile Riverine Force reunion in June 1995, Barbara and I had decided we'd return to Vietnam. We knew a representative from Vietnam Tours would be at the reunion and we could talk to him about cost, a major factor.

 

Epilogue - At Frank's Grave and my Parade

ePub

Teresa Pina has traveled again to Fayetteville from her home in Houston, Texas. Barbara and I are taking her out to dinner tonight. It is two days before Christmas, 1996.

During dinner, she mentions her plans to go to Frank's grave. I had always assumed Frank was buried at Arlington or some other national cemetery. During the conversation, she tells me that Frank is buried right here in Fayetteville in a large private cemetery directly across the street from the Veteran's Administration Medical Center. I've driven by this cemetery hundreds of times and have even conducted funerals here. But, until now, I never knew Frank was buried here.

She asks if I'd be able to go to the cemetery with her. I'm honored and delighted.

On Christmas Eve I meet Teresa, we have lunch, stop at a florist to buy some flowers, and drive into the cemetery. It's a gray windy day. We walk the short distance from the street to her father's grave. His plain military headstone states name, rank, date of birth and death. We place the flowers. I'm wondering what Teresa is feeling and apparently, she's wondering the same about me.

 

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