Bill French

I will forever be grateful for a telephone call I received from Ray Warner in the spring of 2010 encouraging me to attend the Charlie Company reunion in Branson Missouri.  Ray’s call was the first conversation with a 1/22nd soldier since I left Vietnam in June 1968.  Had he not called me I would not have come to the reunion.  Attendance at the reunion, and the one to follow provided the opportunity to be in the presence of the best of America’s citizen soldiers.   Being somewhat of a “base camp commando” I considered it an honor just to be in the same room with these true American heroes and to listen to them connect the dots of experiences long past.  The people that attend the reunion are the true “boots on the ground” soldiers and I treasure every moment of the reunions.   Meeting family members and friends of these soldiers is a valued blessing.

So how did a kid from Iowa end up in Vietnam?  My destiny was to graduate from college and return to Fairfield Iowa to teach math.  Well, obviously that never happened.  When I enrolled in college the military was the furthest thing from my mind.  I never really knew anyone who had been in the military other than an aunt who was a nurse in WWII and an uncle who was in the infantry.  They did not say much about it.  In college, the first two years of ROTC were mandatory. I found the classes interesting and the military instructors to be fascinating.  I had not known people who had been the places they had been and done the things they had done.  One of the ROTC instructors name is on THE WALL.  By my junior year Southeast Asia was in the news and it was obvious that some type of military service was in my future, so I elected to sign up for the last two years of ROTC to receive an officer commission upon graduation.  To the surprise of some of my professors I actually graduated on time and was commissioned in the Medical Service Corps in June 1966.   At that time I signed up for the last two years of ROTC the prediction was that to serve in Vietnam you would have to be at least a Captain and be in a combat arm.  Well that obviously did not happen quite that way as I spent my first anniversary in graduation from college in Vietnam with the 1/22 Infantry as a Second Lieutenant Medical Platoon Leader.

I arrived in Vietnam the first week of June 1967 on a commercial charter aircraft.  Except for the fact that everyone was in a military uniform, the plane could have been headed to any foreign destination for pleasure or business.  The stewardesses (they were called that then) were dressed in their customary uniforms and the pilots kept us informed of the flight information.  Similarities to a pleasure flight ended there.  When the plane landed in Vietnam it looked like the wing tip was practically touching the barbed wire running along the runway.  When the door of the plane opened the anticipated blast of hot humid air I had heard so much was anything but that. It was surprisingly cool! Waiting on the runway was the muddiest group of GI’s I had even seen, emitting the unforgettable ammonia smell of days old human sweat.  As soon as we were off the plane they clamored on and the plane immediately took off. The look on the stewardess’s faces was something to behold.  Obviously there had been a change in plans.

Things seemed a little strange. I was on orders to go to one of the Surgical or Evacuation hospitals and was supposed to land in Saigon.  I had received a letter on Medical Command Letterhead informing me that I was to bring stateside fatigues and civilian clothes as I would not be issued the combat jungle uniform.  The letter also informed me that the hospitals had recreational facilities, to include tennis courts.  So, based on this information, I showed up with a set of matched luggage, and of course, a tennis racket.  For some reason the plane was diverted from Saigon to Pleiku with a resulting change of orders from the 44th Medical Brigade to the 4th Infantry Division.  I sometimes still hear “Hey Lieutenant, what are you going to do with that tennis racket??” ringing in my ears.    Still have the tennis racket and have yet not learned how to play tennis.

All junior officers were put through an orientation course upon arrival to the 4th Infantry Division.  This covered in about three days what you should have learned in basic about small arms if you were paying attention.  One of the training stations was throwing hand grenades.  I had just finished this station and had moved on to the next training station which was a lecture on the importance of safety.  During the middle of the safety lecture an NCO came running to our group yelling that there were injured soldiers in the grenade pit. Evidently a grenade was dropped in the pit.  The NCO in charge, who was due to DEROS in a couple days, tried to pick it up and throw it when it exploded, killing him instantly.  All six of the other soldiers in the pit were severely injured and probably died.  There were no medical supplies available and no radio to call for a dust off chopper.  Helmets were passed and filled with combat dressings and belts for tourniquets. THERE WAS NO MORPHINE. Some of us still had white T-Shirts and used them to spell out “HELP” on the ground to attract the attention of choppers flying overhead.  After an eternity a chopper finally arrived and I was introduced to the sound of the Huey while loading muddy, blood soaked soldiers onto a chopper.   I was angered about things that happened in Vietnam and this was definitely one of them.  The training set up was totally wrong, with 5-6 people throwing grenades from a single pit. I had been in country less than a week and already saw people die!  In war people get hurt, but there is no excuse for sloppy training and not being prepared to provide immediate care, whatever the source of injury.  I vowed that I would do everything in my power to not let something like this happen on my watch in Vietnam.

Being a Medical Service Corp officer in an infantry battalion is a unique experience in that you are the only person in the battalion with that specialty.  One of the greatest challenges was convincing the combat arms officers what you were actually supposed to be doing. On more than one occasion it was suggested that I be the Recon Platoon Leader!  Even a greater challenge was educating them that it was really not a good idea to put the medic, who was supposed to be supporting an entire platoon, in a two man listening post. The medical platoon was a part of the Battalion Headquarters Company.  As the Medical Platoon leader it was my responsibility to assist the Battalion Surgeon (doctor) in attaching medics to the platoons and company headquarters; obtaining supplies for the medics; operating aid stations in the fire bases, brigade trains areas and the base camp.  Fortunately I had received additional training as a Battalions Surgeon’s Assistant right after officer basic.  It provided additional training in combat first aid, diagnosing of diseases unique to Vietnam and decision making in when and how to call for a Dust Off chopper.  It also provided additional training in medical logistics, but I will talk more about this later.  As it turns out I actually got to use this training, which would not have been of much use in a hospital. At full strength there where about 40 medics in the medical platoon spread out with five companies and the numerous aid stations.  Although I did not meet all of the medics face to face, I certainly heard if they were doing a good job and 99% of the time the information back from all of the battalion companies was that “Doc was the best”.

So let’s talk about medical logistics in Vietnam.  The first thing I learned was to not believe all of what was taught in the Medical Field Service School at Fort Sam Houston.  The second thing I learned was that there were a lot of medical supplies in Vietnam; they were just not necessarily in the right place.  It was a matter of finding out where they were and what you had to trade for what you could not get through the Division Medical Supply Office.  Although these people tried to supply what you needed, they frequently responded with a “Due Out” notice.  Fortunately some of the best, shall we say,”Creative scroungers” were the medics in the base camp aid station.  If they could not get it from the Division Medical Supply people they went on their own to other aid stations in base camp or the medical battalion units to get what was needed. I learned early not to ask a lot of questions. I did some pretty good trading myself.

Getting medical supplies was not necessarily the end of the challenge.  Getting it to the medics was not always easy. White adhesive tape was a particularly hard item to get enough of.  It was needed to reinforce combat dressings and for a variety of bandage applications.  On one occasion twenty-five rolls were obtained and sent to the fire base to go out to the platoon medics. Unfortunately they were appropriated by a Battalion Headquarters officer to outline the Regulars motto on the LZ before I could send them out to the medics. Did I mention earlier that there were some angering moments!

Yet another challenge was getting the equipment the medics actually needed.  The Army has a document called a TO&E (Table of Organization and Equipment).  This document lists the equipment that a particular unit is authorized.  If it is not on the list, you don’t get it.  One of the items sorely needed in the Aid Stations was an “Ambu-Bag”.  This is a device to help a person breathe.  It consists of a mask which goes over the nose and mouth and a bag which is squeezed to force air into the lungs. These were not on our TO&E so we did not have any.  It took some creative procurement by trading things we did have, but I probably should not specifically identify, to get a couple.  Another item we sorely needed was a small refrigerator to preserve immunizations.  The stateside refrigerator that came over with the Battalion had received one too many mortar fragments and no longer worked.  Although we were not authorized a refrigerator, by now the property book officer realized that we no longer accepted  that answer, so he agreed to order one.   He only wanted to know how many cubic feet it should be.  He ordered exactly the size I said.  Well, when it showed up in the Brigade Trains area it was in the back of a duce and a half, and took about a squad to unload.  It was really heavy and had walls about a foot thick. It was a laboratory refrigerator designed to freeze tissue samples so they could be thinly sliced for viewing under a microscope.  It froze a test sample six pack solid in a matter of minutes.  It went back on the truck it came one.  Next time I was in base camp I bought a small refrigerator at the PX.

Giving a shotAs I mentioned earlier, compared to the men of Charlie Company, I was a “base camp commando” I probably spent less than half my time in a firebase, with the rest divided among the Brigade Trains and the Base Camp.  I actually preferred the firebase with the battery of artillery; the crew served weapons of the weapons platoon and fully trained infantry providing security.  The most helpless I felt was in base camp.  When there was incoming all you could do was dive into a poorly constructed bunker and wait until it was over.  I remember my last night in Vietnam.  I had turned in all my equipment.  All I had was the uniform I was to wear home.  That night base camp was attacked.  I headed for the bunker with just my boots on.  I was darned if I was going to get my going home uniform dirty.

I also had the experience of often not being where the action was.  On more than one occasion the fire base got hit between the time I left and I arrived at where ever I was going.  For some reason people wanted me to stay where I was!  Yes, I got shot at, but it was nothing like the men of the 1/22nd infantry companies experienced.

So what do I remember most from Vietnam?

  1. The brave, courageous people in Vietnam.  People who did amazing things under tough circumstances.  Many of them were drafted into the military; others were there because it was their profession.
  2. I remember Bill Zimmerman returning to his platoon. This was the greatest example of personal leadership I witnessed in 28 years in the military.
  3. I remember medics volunteering to go back out to platoons when the medic was wounded or killed. They had been there before and knew what was going to happen.  Bud Roach was one of them. He volunteering to go back to Charlie Company during the battle of Chu Moor after Charlie Shyab was evacuated.  He had already done his time in the field. He was the man for the job and he took on the responsibility.
  4. I remember the medical platoon receiving a care package from the family of one of the medics who was KIA. It meant a lot to us.  It was around Christmas.
  5. I remember that many of the medics were conscientious objectors and did not carry weapons. They honored their beliefs while serving their country.  They are good people and every bit a soldier as those that did carry a weapon.
  6. I remember men coming into the firebase after weeks in the field, their uniforms in shreds, their bodies covered with jungle rot.  I know it must have hurt when we scrapped and washed off the jungle rot, but they did not show it.  And here we were ready to stick needles in their arms!  I would not have blamed them if they punched me out.
  7. I remember being told that I was a father for the first time by one of the medics who heard it on the company radio.  I think it was Charlie Shyab who told me.  I never did hear from the Red Cross. My son was born February 18, 1968.  It was during TET.
  8. I remember the endless casualties coming through the aid station, particularly during the TET offensive, and the heroic efforts made to save them. Some did not make it.  I can still hear the sound the zipper on a body bag makes.
  9. Being at the Firebase, I spent a lot of time in the Battalion Tactical Operations Center (TOC). I remember being in the (TOC) when plans were made to move unit symbols on the map from one hill top to another, knowing what it was going to cost the men ordered to do it.  There was a lot of turnover on the Battalion Command Staff so senior officers could get field time on their records.   I sometimes wonder if they all understood what it took by the men that were represented by those unit symbols to move those symbols around that map.
  10. My next assignment after Vietnam was to Fitzsimons Army Center in Aurora Colorado.  There were over 1200 beds in the hospital, most of them filled by Vietnam injured and sick. Here I daily witnessed the struggle and determination of hundreds of wounded soldiers to recover. I remember the soldier who lost most of the function of his arms explaining to his buddies during lunch how he was able to tie a necktie.  He would close one end of it in the dresser draw and step back to tighten the knot.  I remember a Lieutenant who was in my squad in basic training and was in Vietnam the same time as I who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam.  He came to our friend’s wedding in dress uniform and was able to walk into the chapel, seat himself, get up from his seat and walk out of the chapel without assistance.  It took a while, but he did it, and no one was impatient waiting on him to do it.
  11. I remember the medical staff, many of whom had volunteered or had been drafted out of their medical practices who dedicated their skills to the wounded and sick soldiers.  I remember the occupational therapist that taught multiple amputees to ride horses and snow ski to regain a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
  12. I remember after returning from Vietnam being a “Survivor Assistance Officer”.  This duty entailed personally notifying parents of two Vietnam casualties, presenting the folded flag to the parents during the military funeral and helping them through the maze of “benefits” of being a surviving NOK. One of the soldiers was KIA; the other was simply in the area of a “fragging” incident.  It was the third child the parents had lost and he was the oldest.  I do not know how you could have been a Survivor Assistance Officer if you had not been to Vietnam.  The families were desperate for some meaning in their sons’ deaths.  The one comforting thing I could tell them was that they were with people that cared about them when they died, that they did not die alone.
  13. I spent a total of 28 years in the military and now receive a retirement check every month.  I am one of the lucky ones. I truly appreciate the opportunity to have experienced the people I met over the years. There is not a day goes by I don’t think of the soldiers of the 1/22nd Infantry Battalion.  They taught me the true meaning of courage.

3 thoughts on “Bill French

  1. Bill,

    I have just ready your fascinating story. Thank you for sharing and thank you for your service. I am the site administrator for the BCompany4thInfantry.net website. Garry and Kathy Root’s son. I am told that we will be meeting you in Tampa this year.

    You all have a nice site here, very informative and very well done,
    Steve Root

  2. I wanted to say that I really enjoyed your article you wrote. My Father Richard Vinet a canadian soldier who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army 40th medical brigade I believe in 66/67. It was nice to hear your experiences as my father has not spoke much of his time in Vietnam over my life. He is still very involved though in the U.S legion honour guard and with other veteran organizations also with assisting fallen soldiers from the Vietnam war receive proper burial markers. I really felt the need to write this to thank you for expressing your experiences kinda helps me try to make sense of what my father whom i consider a hero went through probably something i should not even try to imagine also what all you brave young men had to endure Thank you for you time today
    Roger Vinet

  3. Thank you grandpa you really thought me more about your experience in Vietnam and I have learned so much more about you thank you. Very well written.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s