Concord Oral History Program
Interviewed by Renee Garrelick
My first recollection is that I vaguely remember living on Willow Street which is in Concord adjacent to the Emerson Playground. About the age of four, 1950, I remember moving to West Concord. My father purchased a home on Pleasant Street near where the Thoreau School was to be built. It may have actually been under construction at that point. When we did move to West Concord in 1950, I do have quite a bit of recollection of living on Pleasant Street which is a short walk from West Concord center.
Some of the things that stick out in my mind, some of which are no longer with us, are the old Yankee trader, which is currently where the West Concord Shopping Plaza is. It was an old barn where a gentlemen used to sell antiques and penny candy. I remember going down there quite often as a youngster. Actually the basic West Concord center has not changed a great deal. I always remember going to the West Concord Supermarket quite a bit as a youngster. The trips to the playground for baseball, etc. Rideout Playground was very close, within walking distance. Most of the kids would walk down there and certainly get involved in recreation department programs and play baseball and whatever other activities they had. Pleasant Street in West Concord was a nice, quiet, central neighborhood with a good group of kids, that basically participated and stayed right in that neighborhood.
A lot of the development had not occurred in West Concord at that point. Thoreau Hills hadn't really begun and I can actually as a youngster remember the ranches at the end of Prairie Street being built, so construction was just starting to begin in West Concord proper. The houses around there were kind of an interesting homogeneous community where everybody knew each other. Even though I went to Rose Hawthorne, most of the kids walked over to Thoreau School in that particular neighborhood. Most of my friends and my sisters and I went to Rose Hawthorne since it had just opened in the early '50s. Being of rather strong Irish Catholic background and upbringing when the Cardinal decided to open the school, we all and I think most of the Catholic families in this town really were quite appreciative and jumped right on the bandwagon and shipped all the kids down there. I remember going in the old school, the old house which was on the front portion, which used to house the convent for the nuns and now houses Welch Foods. I remember going to school there for a few months and then transferring into the new building which was quite an undertaking for the Archbishop at that time and later Cardinal Cushing. It was one of the prime examples of new construction in that era and it really went over quite well in Concord.
Most of my neighbors and I would hop on the bus at Thoreau School as we had an arrangement in those days, and I think it probably still continues but under different circumstances and legislation, where they had to take care of the other so called schools in town and we used to take the public school buses at a later hour. They would pick us up because as I recollect Rose Hawthorne might have started at 9:00 and we didn't get out until about 3:30 where the public school got out maybe an hour earlier.
I think probably at that point Irish Catholics had begun to assimilate into the community. Bob Sheehan who was very well known in West Concord, and whose father had been a selectman, was running for his first term as a selectman in the mid '50s. I think he served nine years on the Board followed by John Collins and my father. They all were elected to the Board of Selectman so there were a lot of West Concordians who were certainly involved at that point in local town politics whether it was the Board of Selectman or Planning Board, etc. There were a lot of active Irish Catholics so to speak and I think they were doing a good job and wanted to be active. It wasn't just something they wanted to do for a while. It was not like they had been kept out of it but you had to have a forerunner and Bob Sheehan's father was the first one but then there may have been a little lapse in there and then there was a good string of Irish Catholics that were definitely involved and helpful in local politics.
My ethnic senses don't really recall whether there were a lot of Irish Catholics living in West Concord as a youngster, but yes, thinking of going to Our Lady's Church in West Concord certainly it was predominantly Irish and Italian as I look back on the people you would see in church.
My grandparents to the best of my recollection on my mother's side came over from Lincoln and lived on Brooks Street behind the depot, the so called "depot gang." I can recall my mother saying things like that over the years and they used to have reunions and parties. My father's side arrived sometime in the 1880s and my grandfather was born on Grant Street which is also right behind the railroad station. They later moved down to Lexington Road and lived there for several years and then during the depression, my grandfather bought the house on Stow Street which my Aunt Barbara still lives in so that's been in the family for about 55 years and hopefully we can keep it there for a while.
My maternal grandfather's name was Moynihan, and my paternal grandparents were James J. Loughlin and Josephine Blanchard Loughlin, whose family the Blanchards lived also on Lexington Road. They were all fairly well entrenched in Concord in the late 1800s.
There always existed I believe a Concord-West Concord rivalry and I guess I may have been oblivious to some degree having gone to Rose Hawthorne and having my own little circle of people we played with. Getting to high school was a long awaited day for me because Rose Hawthorne didn't have any sports and being rather athletically inclined and having played Little League and other sports in town I was quite excited when I did get to the high school. As a matter of fact in 1960 when I started at Concord-Carlisle, it was the year the new regional high school opened. We were the first class, the class of '64, to start and finish there for their four full years. That was kind of a monumental thing that always stuck in my mind.
As far as the Concord-West Concord thing, it certainly did exist. I guess I was oblivious to it because I did play a lot of sports, football, hockey, baseball, and the people I hung around with and played sports with were from all parts of town and I don't ever remember prejudices such as "Gee, you come from West Concord". They may have existed, I'm sure they did, I guess I would probably have to say I was never hurt by them where some people were, you know you come from the other side of the tracks. I just never really confronted that issue as much. Although, I know some of my sisters did later on and maybe they were not as into the mainstream and things like that made people more aware. My four sisters came after me and I've heard them make mention of it more than I've ever really thought it existed. Actually when it dawned on me even more was when I came back here in 1974 and got into the real estate business, I found that the Concord-West Concord situation probably existed more at that level than I ever noticed in my younger years. But I certainly see it even today and I've noticed in my twelve years in the real estate business that there is a certain Concord-West Concord situation that it doesn't only exist within the town, but people who call in on real estate ads will say "Well, if it's in West Concord, I don't think I want to live there." I always chuckle because you know after living up there for some 40 odd years I happen to think of it as where an awful lot of nice normal people live and it's where the average person real estate-wise and price-wise can afford to live in a community where it is as diverse as it is. You have to have that mix and I think that's appropriate.
I'm sure it was perceived as a factory part or working class part of town but I don't totally recollect that. My mother did work for Concord Woodworking which was a thriving operation for many years. She was John Damon's secretary after all the kids went off to school in probably the mid to late '50s and she worked for them probably 25-30 years. You had manufacturing down there behind the block of stores on Commonwealth Avenue. Some of the other factories had started to disappear. The current Damondale Mill which has been recently renovated, when I was growing up was always known as the Apple Storage, which was basically out of business. A lot of that industry had started to fade in the '50s and '60s when I was growing up.
The element and the stigma may have existed but I never really noticed it that much. It certainly was portrayed more in many people's minds as a blue collar, mill-type section of the town, from the railroad days of Concord Junction. That didn't exist when I was growing up but I'm sure that it still existed in many people's minds. It didn't exist in my mind because my father was a well educated man but he was not making the greatest of salaries and he had to move to West Concord so he could afford a house. I think he paid $5000 or $6000 for the house on Pleasant Street in 1950-51 when he bought it from Charlie Comeau, who was doing a lot of real estate in West Concord in those days. West Concord was where he could afford to stay in the town. To some degree being in the real estate business has shown me that that situation still exists in the '80s. A lot of the young people who want to stay in Concord certainly probably end up buying smaller or older homes in West Concord that used to be inhabited by the people that worked at the mills. But it's a different educated buyer of the '80s just like my father was in the '50s and that's what has created this natural progression of people that moved into West Concord and started with blue collar types which was great to create diversity, and it just continued to grow and I think it's healthy for the town.
In the old days prior to us going to six precincts which is new to a lot of the old timers, I had as a youngster, my father in politics and had the Bob Sheehans, John Damons, John Collins, John Finigans around my house. In the old days it was precinct one versus precinct two which is the Concord versus West Concord scenario again. I believe West Concord certainly should have one or two or even three selectmen, I think obviously every section of town back then when it was precinct one versus two always felt West Concord should have at least one representative. For many years they had two and we now have two again. Over the years it slipped back to one for various reasons, due to resignations and election results. There are no written rules but I think it's appropriate that West Concord certainly have someone that has empathy for the situations there because it is a different center and a different way of life to some degree. It's appropriate that they have at least one representative if not two. Although I think anyone could represent the town as a whole and that's the whole objective whether you live on Monument Street or Pleasant Street or Conantum. If you're elected to the Board of Selectmen, you're supposed to represent the whole town not one interest group. But you have a soft part in your heart for West Concord I suppose if you live in West Concord just like you might if you live in Concord Center. I think that's appropriate.
I think we are blessed that many native Concordians as I tend to call them, local yokels, some people call them townies, but I think it's good that the John Marabellos and the previous names I mentioned have been involved in local politics. I can't say that it will always continue but I think that it's a good perspective to have people who have a long history in the town and it helps get the diversity and background information on issues. I would always hope that one, two or maybe all five if they happen to have roots in the town are willing to serve. I think it's a plus, but I can't say that it will always be that way as the town changes. It is changing and there are less and less so called townies and that will obviously continue. The local people will be in the minority as time goes on but I would hope that as long as someone exists it would continue whether it is my kids or someone else's kids, they technically even if they're born in 1987 and if they live here fifty years, they are going to be called local yokels, townies or whatever so we would hope that we could keep those people in town and they could certainly could be encouraged to participate in town government. It has had a good tradition of local people staying involved and I think one of the things that makes Concord a unique town is that we don't have people in town a short period trying to control the town, not that there is anything wrong with that, but I think before running for office it's good to have a good background and feel for the town. Many people have waited fifteen or twenty years before they have decided to get involved in town politics, whether it be a major committee or run for selectman, I think it's good to have that background.
Bob Sheehan was quite a colorful character and anyone who is older than I am can certainly repeat some of his colorful characteristics when he went through high school and all the way up to being elected to the Board of Selectmen. He was a unique character; he was a hard working guy, had a great sense of humor and he would come over to my house all the time. He used to have a so called route that he used to take every Sunday morning. I think he used to go to nine o'clock mass and he'd stop after church at Peter Mandrioli's and then to my father's house and then to Jimmy Condon's then to Jim McMullens and then home. His wife would always be trailing right behind him with the phone calls trying to find out where he was and he occasionally would have even a quick snifter as he would call it on Sunday morning at ten o'clock. If you asked him, he'd certainly take a drink on this Sunday route. This was after he was on the Board of Selectmen and at the end of his political career. Bob was someone you could really put the moniker on and in those days he was a real so-called mayor. He was a colorful character but you could not dislike him, I mean he was a hard-nosed businessman, just a jolly type guy that you enjoyed being around. He was great for the town. It was a sad day when he wasn't feeling well and he moved to the Cape and unfortunately passed away a few years ago. But he was one of the last real characters in my judgment.
I remember him specifically and I remember other people coming to the house and talking politics, i.e. who was going to run for Selectman and how we were going to get someone elected or whatever. You know, I'd be upstairs trying to go to sleep and they'd be having their meetings downstairs. I was old enough at some points for some of these things to sink in. John Finigan was another one who used to pop around to the house once a month after 11:30 mass with all his little kids who are younger than I am. He'd send the kids out in the yard to play and he and my father would have to have a half hour chat or political discussion. It was a closely knit group of guys like that that my father was involved with. They were always around the house or at parties together. It was good experience for me to see how things evolved.
My father was a very bright, educated man who was extremely dedicated to his work at Liberty Mutual. Matter of fact, I used to kid he and my aunt, who just retired, that I broke all the rules of the family since they both worked for one company their whole working life, Barbara at Concord National Bank now Harvard Trust and my dad at Liberty Mutual. I think they both worked over 45 years at the same company which is unheard of today. Their dedication was incredible. I worked at Liberty Mutual for 18 months with my father which was a good experience. In fact my grandfather, my father and I all worked at Liberty Mutualbut obviously not together. It was a unique situation. My father had a tough life to some degree. He always used to tell me "Gee, I should have been a football coach and a teacher, it's a lot easier on you, you don't have to commute into Boston all the time. He used to get on that train every morning in West Concord and I can remember meeting him coming up the street at 6:05 every night walking home from the train. He had a hard life going in and out of Boston. I think it takes its toll over the years when you go in there for 45 years. He used to do a lot of traveling at the end of his job but he always found time for things like the Recreation Commission, the Finance Committee and then he ran for the Board of Selectmen in 1967. I was away at college when he was a selectman so I wasn't as close to the situation which is one thing I kind of regret now that I'm a selectman. But I was back and forth enough to get dribs and drabs of it. He spent probably a good fifteen years in town government, and I think he was always thought of as a very ethical, honest, fair type of person when he served on the Board of Selectmen. At least that's what people have told me after the fact. Hopefully I can live up to that reputation. He was hard working, dedicated, loved Concord and enjoyed being involved in town politics and doing what he could for the town. My grandfather did also. He was an Assessor for many years after he retired. Barbara has also been involved quite a bit in town politics, so I guess it's in the blood.
My father never really commented a great deal to me about the Board of Selectmen. He had a couple of testy votes as I've had in my first two years. But the one he always commented on to me was when there was a protest back in the late '60s, probably in 1969-70 when I was in Vietnam and he was chairman at the time. Local and national peace groups wanted the US to get out of Vietnam and they came to the Board of Selectmen with a petition to write to the President relating to our Vietnam involvement. My father had to cast the deciding vote which was very difficult for him since I was in Vietnam. He voted not to support any petition and that the town of Concord should stay out of national politics at that point. He always told me later it was a very tough decision and it was a 3-2 vote and that he had to cast the deciding vote. If he had cast anything other than what he did after he told me, I probably would have been very angry with him. It was a difficult position for him.
When I went to college in 1965 at the University of Massachusetts, Vietnam was still quiet. College life was fun, different, and unique. By the time 1967-68 rolled around, the year I graduated, Vietnam was headed in full flight to complete American involvement. I was probably headed there and as all young males did than, you stayed in college since exemptions were a big issue. I had joined ROTC when I was a freshman. The year before I went to UMass all state schools were made mandatory for ROTC and I think my first year they removed it but my father being an old navy officer said, "Hey, you can do nothing wrong by joining ROTC. If you are going into the military, you might as well go in as an officer." He thought ROTC would be the right thing to do so I did join it for the first two years. Then you have to make a decision because as a Junior you go on active duty and get paid and have enlisted status.
So I made a decision as a Junior to go into ROTC full time, as Vietnam was escalating I certainly knew that I was going to have some commitment unless I got every break in the book to avoid it. I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1968 in Military Intelligence which at the time was kind of ironic because all the previous years you used to talk to the seniors that everyone wanted to get into Military Intelligence because it had this great aura of secrecy, etc. and of world travel about it. Usually no one ever got it and all of a sudden, my senior year fifteen guys applied and we all got it. It didn't dawn on us at the time, why we got it, but the United States involvement in Vietnam obviously had something to do with it. The program I ended up with was taking all young Second Lieutenant Military Intelligence types and putting them into the Phoenix program. This program dealt with the Vietcong infrastructure. The South Vietnamese and American governments felt that the only way to win the war was to root out the local political and military-type organizations in South Vietnam, which was the underground Vietcong so to speak. That was the rude awakening I got when I went on active duty.
I went on active duty in November 1968 and went to Fort Gordon, GA for my combat school. All intelligence officers had to go through combat school. So I went to Signal school, then the following spring I went to Fort Holabird for Military Intelligence training of six weeks. I think exactly six months to the date I went on active duty, I was on a plane en route to South Vietnam. It was kind of a rude awakening because most people usually had a year before you went to that situation. As I say, they were rushing a lot of Military Intelligence officers over for this program to work in the districts.
In April 1969 I was on a plane from Travis Air Force Base to Vietnam. A 24 hour flight which you never forget, stacked in a 707 with as many soldiers as they can get in there. It was very crowded and everybody is very anxious. I think we stopped in Japan to refuel and rolled onto the tarmac in Tan Son Nhut Airport about 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. on April 20, 1969. You know you've watched Vietnam for four years on television just like everyone else and all of sudden you're there. It's not Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather out in the boonies, it's reality. Two machine-gunned jeeps pull up along side of the 707 which is your last feeling of reality, an American made airplane. They taxi into Tan Son Nhut, probably an international airport but it's certainly not anything you'd write home about as an international airport. You get off the plane and it's only 7:00 a.m. in the morning and the humidity and the heat hit you, it's probably 90 degrees already. Saigon is in the region of the southeast monsoon. They have showers every day early in the morning at that time of the year. It was oppressively hot and we were still in our fatigues from the States; that's when it hits you, that first blast of tropical heat. Soldiers are walking around carrying M-16s and jeeps have loaded machine guns. They put you on an air-conditioned military bus which is ironic after you've hit the intense heat. The bus has screens all along the windows to protect you from grenade attack and you're heading off to the barracks where you're going to live for the first few days to get suited up and get your gear to go off to your assignment. You don't know where you're going to be assigned at this point. You drive through the city of Saigon, which is an immense city. The overpopulation, the crowding, the sewage in the streets, the smell that hits you that I can still, I think anyone that's been to Vietnam will never forget the smell in Vietnam, it's just there. It's probably the same in any poverty stricken country of which Vietnam certainly was right up there at that time and probably still is today. There were standing pools of water in the streets, sewage, and overcrowding. The Honda motorbikes that people are putt-putting around in, you hear that noise constantly. Sometimes you can't tell that noise in some areas from the rifle fire because it sounds like machine gun fire coming from these little Hondas. That is the basic mode of transportation for most of the Vietnamese, only the wealthy would have any kind of reasonable car.
You drive from Tan Son Nhut to the barracks where we would be processed. To some degree it's like being in a very poor New York City. The crowds are awesome, the buildings are high-rise buildings but not like New York City. You come to an intersection and it's incredible, it's a free-for-all, there's absolutely no orderly manner how to proceed. If four streets come into one or into a rotary, it's hooray for me and the hell with everyone else. So it's quite a trip from Tan Son Nhut. Having been hit with the first steps of reality of being there, then you see the people, the way of life, the smells, it's an unique first hour, is all I can say. I'll always remember that. Once I got to the barracks I remember going and getting our uniforms and being asked whether I wanted a .45. As an officer you had the option whether you wanted a pistol or an M16. I said I think I'll take the M16, I think I can put out more fire power with that if I get in trouble. So you get all your gear and you're there two or three days when you get your orders.
Vietnam was broken into four Corps and I'm in Saigon which is in IV Corps. I was being shipped to "1 corps" or "I corps" as it was called which is in DaNang so I had a three or four hour plane ride. Fortunately I went over to Vietnam with four guys that I had gone through Fort Gordon and Fort Holabird with and two of them went down to "IV corps" and I didn't see them until we left. A good friend of mine from New Jersey and I were both assigned to "I corps" so we headed up to DaNang on a C130, combat loaded. Once you're in the country you don't have any more nice plush seats and seat belts, they just open the back end of the C130 and they combat load you. You sit on the floor for three hours on the plane and hope no one shoots a bullet up through the bottom of the plane because you know where it would get you. We landed in DaNang and once again DaNang is a big city. In the cities and even out in the country but definitely in the cities you see a great deal of French influence. The streets, believe it or not, are wide and well treed with a lot of French influence in the architecture in the way the cities were developed. DaNang is not as big as Saigon but it's a city that is, as Saigon was, somewhat away from the war. Except for the TET offensive most of the cities were insulated from combat. Many of the Americans in the cities had support type jobs or 9-to-5 jobs. There were support people for the combat troops. You had to have finance, administration, supply, transportation, division and corps type headquarters in the cities. It always struck me that when we got to DaNang we were treated first class. We ended up in some nice fancy billets with air conditioners in an old home that had been renovated.
Of course, I was starting to figure out that I was in a special program at that point. The program I mentioned previously was an intelligence program and it was under the control of OSA. I don't remember what it stood for but OSA was the CIA cover name in Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia. The Phoenix program was developed by the CIA and that's what I was in. My friend Charlie and I went to see the director in DaNang and he informed us that since we weren't married that, we were expendable and he was sending us out to a couple of the hot districts to be advisers to the Vietnamese intelligence officers. Charlie and I were real pleased about that. We headed back to the Officers Club and immediately had a couple of pops and dwelled on how we were going to survive this particular ordeal. After a few hours, we got over that. When it was still under OSA, we were treated like royalty in DaNang. We took a small plane down to Quang Ngai which is the next step down. We were going down from the Corps level which is in DaNang to the Province level at Quang Ngai city, which was about a 45 minute flight south from DaNang.
We land in Quang Ngai City which is much cruder, smaller, and back to all kinds of rudimentary forms of how people live. You start to see houses made out of rolled up cardboard boxes and Coke cans. It's not anything like DaNang or Saigon, so we've now hit the third level. There's a MACV compound, which is Military Assistance Command Vietnam which was what I had been assigned to. Team 2 had its headquarters at Quang Ngai and that was where I was assigned. I spent about two days there just to get in touch with the intelligence people at province headquarters. I reported to an American captain. I'm getting down to the level where I know who I'm dealing with, this is going to be the Captain that I report to weekly or monthly, whatever the situation is. I spent a couple of nights there. Most of the people in MACV are senior people, so as a 2nd Lt. I took a lot of ribbing the first night at dinner, there were a lot of Colonels, Lt. Colonels, and Majors and Captains. I'm not six months in the Army and I'm 72 hours in Vietnam and petrified. Captain Upton, who was my first immediate superior there, was outstanding. He took me under his wing for a couple of days and pointed me in the right directions. I'll always remember the first night going to bed there, he said "Now if we get attacked, this is the way they are going to come from." I said, "That's great, I'd like to know where they're coming from!" and he told me what to do. Whatever, it was without incident. Quang Ngai is big enough and with an Armoured Division nearby and enough American troops that it's still not a place that often gets attacked. Vietcong were very smart, they only attacked when they knew they could do damage and win something. So Quang Ngai was still somewhat insulated.
Finally after a couple of days there, reality sets in when they ship me to Team 17 which is Binh Son District which is probably a good 25-30 minutes north of Quang Ngai. I'm going to be in Quang Ngai Province and Binh Son District. I'm going to where I'm going to live for a year. It's taken me about a week to get there. As you drive out there, you go over the big bridge, this is Route 1 which travels north and south through all of Vietnam. Some of its paved like Route 2 and other parts are just dirt. We hit the dirt road a couple of miles out of Quang Ngai. The road is nothing but dirt and pot holes and the countryside on both sides is just rice paddies. You're finally in the reality of what you've seen on TV for three or four years.
Unfortunately, the day I drove to Binh Son I'll always remember some poor South Vietnamese had been ambushed by Vietcong the night before. He was laying in the rice paddie with a couple of the Vietcong that they had captured. They threw their bodies out there on the side of the road and just left them there for a couple of days as evidence. That was a nice pleasant experience to see your first enemy and dead bodies within the first week. I suppose you have to see it and you have to get used to it.
Binh Son District was just a little community, a hundred yards of stores on both sides and rivers on both sides of it. It was very poor, totally a farming and fishing community. District Headquarters is there with a Vietnamese Major in charge. There is an American Major who is his counterpart and about 15 to 17 American military assistance command types that deal with everything from combat issues to intelligence to supply and medical. The Advisors help the people with some of our programs. We have two or three medics. It's a full team that is supposed to back up the local people. Once again mostly senior military people. We did have a couple of other groups with us which was fortunate for us. We had a Seabee group with us for a couple of months. They were rebuilding the bridge which the Vietcong would blow up every time they rebuilt it. We would continually rebuild it and we had a Seabee team there for a couple of months, which was good because the Navy gets treated a lot of better than the Army. They used to get ice cream, steaks and a few more things that we didn't get. We always had a Marine CAP team which had about 10-12 marines who used to go out and sleep in the hamlets with the people. They would deal with civic action programs and they'd come back and forth to the district. There might have been fifty or sixty hamlets in Binh Son district. Most of them had to be visited by helicopter. There are a few around Binh Son that you could walk to but most were only accessible by helicopter. The Marine CAP Teams would come back and forth, so we might have anywhere from 10-15 Marines commanded by a Marine Gunnery Sergeant in the compound. Most of the time, there might have been 25 Americans and a couple of hundred South Vietnamese in the compound. We were dealing in MACV with the Regional and Popular forces, their National Police Field Force and Provincial Reconnaissance Units. The major ARVN military divisions used advisers from Quang Ngai. Our advisory team was set up to deal with the local popular regional force people that lived in the area and were similar to our national guard. They lived there and they protected their own villages.
The District Chief in my district had the cutest kids in the world. He must have had eight or nine kids and anyone that has been to Vietnam has to realize that they don't know what diapers or pampers are. The kids get toilet trained by not wearing bottoms for about three years. Everyone just goes to the bathroom in the rice fields; it's just a whole different way of life. The District Chief's kids were the cutest kids and they were always hanging around the Americans for candy and Coke. That existed whether you were in Saigon or Binh Son. The little kids you could not dislike. You couldn't always trust them, the district chief's kids you could trust, but you couldn't trust the kids if you were out in a village. That was one of the problems, you never knew who was who in some of these small villages.
But our District Chief was a former Viet Minh which I think was the forerunner of the Vietcong. He was a wise and hard nosed soldier. He was a very small man, as most Vietnamese are, but he was one tough cookie. You couldn't fool around with him and his people didn't fool around with him. I saw the district chief many times, if a sergeant or even an officer did the wrong thing, he'd give them a backhand right across the face. I mean in the American military you just don't do that. Once again different customs. Many of the senior Vietnamese officers that we were affiliated with spoke French. My counterpart who was a Vietnamese 2nd Lt. did not speak French. I took four years at good old Concord-Carlisle so occasionally I could talk in French to them. Not very well, they were better at it than I was.
One of the problems that I always had with the district chief, even though he was a good soldier and he ran a good district, was the corruption. I never saw it in person but you could just tell that something was going on around there. The foodstuffs that would come in would not reach the people. In many cases his district was probably better off than a lot. In many of the districts my counterparts would tell me the corruption was insane. It was ridiculous. There was not much you could do about it only because the district chief would take his portion, but he would get enough out to the people to make it look good. In some cases I don't think any of it got out to the people. That was the real tragedy.
We were there for only one year. We knew we had a one-year commitment so once you're there, you're first couple of weeks are not much fun. You're really trying to acclimate yourself, taking showers from water pumped from the river, which was where the Vietnamese defecate. They throw everything in the river; they don't have any understanding of those issues. We had to pump our water from the river to bathe in, so you never got clean. For about a year you are constantly peeling dirt off of you. We did have one luxury in the fact that we were right in the middle of the American Division Headquarters which was maybe 10-15 miles north of us at Chu Lai. This was a major American base with airfields and total support. That was where we would get our mail. They had a bakery there where we could get fresh bread occasionally if we bribed the sergeant on duty. The usual bribe would be an AK47 or some souvenir we could obtain. We had to give them some war momentos to get some good deals going. We let the sergeants take care of that, they had good rapport with a lot of supply people at Chu Lai. As advisers we were dependent upon the MACV system but it was really a poor system to supply the advisory team. We were fortunate that we ended up near Chu Lai and a major American division so we were a little better off than maybe someone who was out in the boondocks and had to depend on the MACV supply which was a little slower. We had that luxury and we would go to Chu Lai probably a couple times of day. We would rotate who would go up there to get mail and do what we have to do. But closer to us was the 198th Light Infantry Brigade, which was an oversized brigade. It was headquarters for 5000 or 6000 and even closer to us was the 46th battalion of the 198th so we had American units around us quite a bit, which was good. It made you feel a little more secure, because we lived with the Vietnamese at night. We rolled up our doors, we threw the barbed wire out and the Vietnamese guarded the perimeters but we didn't totally trust the Vietnamese. Even though they were friendlies, we still put out our own guards and we had our own situation where we rotated the sergeant or lieutenant or whoever on a couple-of-hour shift every night on guard.
I was awakened many times at three in the morning to go on guard duty. We all did it whether you were a Lieutenant or a Sergeant. We did it as security because we weren't always sure if the Vietnamese were totally guarding the compound. As a matter of fact, right before I got there to this district, they had been attacked quite heavily and they killed about 40 Vietcong on the perimeters. I found out later after I got home that they got attacked again right after I left. The year I was there we were mortared a few times but we never had a ground attack. As a matter of fact, I'll never forget it as long as I live, one night the day after we got mortared they hit the mess hall with a mortar round. This shows you what you were dealing with and the antiquated materials that the Vietcong were using, we had two guys on guard on the roof and they heard something clunk next to them. They didn't think anything of it. The next day we went up on the roof and there was a mortar round that didn't go off and it was like five feet from them. I mean they would have been blown away. The next day we found two or three more rounds around the compound that hadn't gone off. Several had but several hadn't. The Vietcong would store a lot of their ammunition underground in moist areas and they would not detonate properly.
I didn't know the language and that was one of my regrets. I had an interpreter assigned to me, who was very good. He was a young, good looking Vietnamese. I don't think he was in the military but he knew English very well. The one problem with dealing with the Vietnamese through a Vietnamese interpreter was they didn't always tell you the exact interpretation. I saw that once because we had a little confrontation between my MACV team and one of the sergeants and the district chief to the point where the District Chief had some of his body guards turn their weapons on the Americans. It was a very tense moment and our Major went up and locked and loaded the 50 caliber machine gun on top of the bunker. It was Americans versus South Vietnamese over foolishness. We had a feisty young sergeant who did the wrong thing, said the wrong thing, whatever and he was wrong and the Vietnamese got upset. They are very proud people and you just had to treat them sometimes with kid gloves. To reconcile that whole issue, the Province Chief came out to meet with our major. There were several of us in the meeting. A lot of it was in Vietnamese, I didn't know what they were saying but if the Vietnamese ever want to give us credit, we had a lot of Americans who knew Vietnamese that we didn't tell them knew it. We had a Marine in the meeting who was listening to this whole thing but played 'mickey the dunce.' He came out and told our Major afterwards, their interpreter told you one thing now I'll tell you the real true story.
Language training would have been something helpful to me but the only people who really went to language training were the enlisted men. They went to language school in Texas and it took almost 6 to 9 months of training. Unfortunately, most of the officers only had a two year commitment so they couldn't ship them off to language school for close to a year, but a lot of the enlisted men with three and four-year commitments had gone to language school. So it was a disadvantage in my job but I did have an interpreter and it worked out all right.
As to any tension or edginess because you didn't know who you could trust, that's the difference in being in a line unit who were out traypsing through the fields, through the boonies, through the rice paddies constantly, those guys were on pins and needles constantly. We used to go out on operations so I know how they felt. We'd go out with ten Americans and a hundred Vietnamese. I'll never forget the first time I got shot at probably a month or two after I was there, we were just going down a road and all of sudden someone started firing at us. There had been some mining on the road the night before so we were going out to clear out an area with the Vietnamese. You don't believe it until it happens but the first thing I did, you think you're going to dive for cover, but I charged forward as everyone else did. The first time maybe is more that you're not used to it and stupidity, probably the next time I would dive for cover as I did. In a line unit you have this constant fear because they're out there trying to find the enemy and they're dealing with booby traps and a hidden enemy. We were dealing with a defensive posture. A mining situation, yes the roads would get mined occasionally, but Route 1 was hard to mine because it was paved. If you were out on operation generally we would walk in the rice paddies because the Vietcong still had to live off the land too so they didn't mine the rice paddies, they only mined the roads.
Actually after a couple of months you get down to a routine and to some degree it gets boring because in MACV, the Vietnamese were almost on a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday situation. Many times they would just roll it up and they weren't going to do anything on Saturday and Sunday. Some of the officers would go down to the officers' club in Quang Ngai which was air conditioned and watch a show or go get a hamburger and have a drink. That's the real ironic thing in all of Vietnam because you know there were guys out there in line units who were living in horrible conditions for 30 or 60 days. They'd get air lifted back for a hot meal and clean up for a week and then they would go back out. You had people living in air conditioned billets in Saigon and living the 'life of Riley'. You had people like myself who were halfway in between. I wasn't living in the greatest place but I wasn't being shot at every day. Every night we would worry whether we would get hit but that was not as bad as going out on operations. I was in the middle, certainly not in the worse situation and certainly not the best. It was a good situation because I got to see everything at the bottom line level and dealing with the Vietnamese people whom I got to know.
They're basically good, hard-working people. I just don't know with the poverty level and being farming and fishing type communities whether democracy was the right government for them. Maybe countries at that poverty level might be just as well off under communism as they would be under democracy. I hate to admit that but I really don't think if you went back there today that many things would have changed from when we were there. We may have corrupted them to some degree with some of the things they saw we had and how easy it was for us to get them. A poor country especially out where I was in the boondocks is not going to exist any differently under the Americans or under Ho Chi Minh's regime. The irony is that 55,000 Americans died fighting for that principle, which I believe was correct but unfortunately I'm not sure the South Vietnamese people ever had the total will or initiative that many of the Americans did. I think many did but I'm not sure they all did, and I happened to be in a good area with good South Vietnamese leadership but the overall situation was obviously not good. Once we tried to deAmericanize the war and get the South Vietnamese to run the show, they just didn't have the tools. Either that or they didn't have the total commitment to really battle the North Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese definitely had a commitment, and I'm sure that wars will continue to go on in Southeast Asia, they have been going on for years and they may continue. It just appears to be a way of life.
The other thing that is so different between the American and Asian mentality, we used to always comment on it, is that Americans hold human life in total regard. When an American gets killed, it really blows peoples minds for a couple of days. When a Vietnamese was killed, they dealt with human life different than we did. There would be crying and there would be sadness but it wasn't the end of the world. They would all go on about their chores and of course, life was going to continue. Of course, they've seen death and poverty for so many years. The American way of life was totally foreign to them. I'm sure it is the same today as it was in 1969 and '70 there. I mean what's going to change. If they put up a forty story hotel in Binh Son, no way. I can envision the bunker we used to live in as somebody's house and the rice field out to the east of it is still being farmed and the people that are there are just 20 years older and just under a different government. I don't think they probably changed their way of life one iota. There may be more oppression, I don't know, they're under a communistic regime but I always wondered whether it would be worthwhile. Someday someone will probably run trips back there for some people who would really like to go back. I'm not sure many people will but you think about it sometimes and you wonder what is it like today, twenty years later. Maybe it is better.
Whether we accomplished what we set out to do, Americans always gauge wars by winning and we didn't win that one so we didn't accomplish what we set out to do. I think we created some good there. I think we helped with medical supplies and a lot of good things we probably did to help people. Unfortunately, when we left it was probably all for naught because it couldn't be continued and they don't have doctors and hospitals, and we were trying to get them up to that speed.
The actual program that I was involved with, the Phoenix program which was the official name for it was designed to rout out cadre behind the scenes who were of the Vietcong, counterparts to the South Vietnamese. The Vietcong technically had an underground government. I would constantly get intelligence reports from my counterpart, the national police force and the provincial reconnaissance units who were the two arms we utilized to go out and find these people. They were not easy to find. A lot of times you got low level people who were not really worth the effort and had no intelligence of value. While I was there, I think we routed out two or three people that we would consider at the district or the province level. If you ever got anyone at the province or the corps level, that would be a significant find. You were certain those people would be shipped off to higher headquarters to be interviewed for location of headquarters and troop movements. I must admit we didn't come up with a great deal of high level people. They may not have existed in that district. My district had two or three Vietcong companies which was more of a combative area than I think a governmental area. They did have some low level government people. We did pick up one district level person as I recollect. We found him and he was wounded. I remember I got a call on Saturday afternoon and we had to get a helicopter to go out and pick this guy up and interrogate him. The South Vietnamese did some things that were not totally humanitarian but that's how they did it. They would bring someone up to one of these field telephones and run a little juice through them to get them to talk. They would interrogate him and we would just be there as witnesses. This particular guy, they got enough out of him and since he was wounded and needed some medical help, they finally just put him in prison which happened to be outside our compound. About a month later, we found out that the Vietcong went in and shot this guy. The mortaring was just a side show to take our attention away from what they were really up to that night, they broke into the prison to shoot him. So whether he knew more than what we ever got out of him, the Vietcong took good care of him themselves.
But most of the people we found were basically low level. I did have a fund that I could pay out money for intelligence information which I would occasionally use. I'll never forget my interpreter requesting so much money a month on the side for him to do other things. His name was Wun and he came up to me and said "You going to pay me like Lieutenant King?" and I said "For what?" He said, "Lieutenant King always pay me this?" I said, "That's for intelligence information. You bring me intelligence information, you get the money." That's probably a true Loughlin trait back to my father that I was not going to be paying some guy for nothing. He was getting paid on a regular job by the ARVNS and he wanted this little side job from our intelligence fund. So I cut that out. That probably didn't enamour me with him but he was very fair and good to me for the year that I was there. I know I did the right thing but he probably didn't like me for a few weeks since I cut off part of his cash.
We used that fund and Vietnamese sources for intelligence, I don't think our district was as heavily government oriented as military because we had two American battalions roaming around in the area along with a lot of Marines. It was a fairly active military area. In my district was the Batangan Peninsula which was a disaster for American units going down there. As a matter of fact, when I was there, several marines were killed with mines and it was an area that was totally infested with mines. It was a beautiful peninsula, the couple of times I was down there. You could go down to the beach and it was right out on the sparkling South China Sea but all the land around it was just a death valley with mines everywhere. Just northwest of that was the My Lai hamlets where Lt. Calley got into the massacre of civilians.
The whole of my district was along Route 1 and Binh Son district was a no man's land. When you went out a mile either way east and west, and especially east toward the ocean, it was really no man's land. A couple of times I went out on operations and that's where the American line troops would be and they'd be out there for weeks on end hunting the Vietcong. They'd get picked off, a couple guys shot and wounded, someone step on a mine and lose a foot, so the mental situation out in that area was tough. I certainly don't endorse what happened at My Lai but I can totally understand what happened when these young eighteen/twenty-year-olds are out there with M16s and their buddies are getting picked off, everyone's the enemy out there as far as they're concerned. Anyone that lives out there is probably the enemy. Then there are no men around, you've got to assume everyone is probably a Vietcong or Vietcong sympathizer. I presume what happened that day is that everyone just snapped. When you take an eighteen-year old who's been in combat and he sees a couple of his buddies maimed, wounded or killed, at some point their frustration level overcomes them. It's unfortunate that Lt. Calley or the officers didn't stop it but maybe they were not capable of stopping such actions. It's unfortunate but I can understand how it happened because I was in that area enough times and it was hostile territory as simple as that.
Age-wise I was still very young, I was 23, and I certainly was not a combat hardened veteran but after a few months everyone is the same over there. You're happy to see other Americans. We always had liaison people from the American Division. Lieutenants who might have been out in the field for six months and then come back to base camp because officers would only stay in the field six months. We'd get a lot of the 5/46th company commander/platoon leader types who would come to us as a liaison to their battalion and live with us for their last six months. These guys would tell us stories about life in the boonies. These were the lieutenants and captains that have survived six months out in the field without getting shot or wounded. They could tell some pretty nasty stories about life out there. The kids you had to feel bad for were the young PFCs and sergeants, lance corporals who are out there in the boondocks; they're basically out there ten or eleven months. They don't get the six month reprieve like the officers so it was a tough, tough situation for a lot of those youngsters out there.
As I said at the MACV team, we only had senior type people, we had a few PFCs, radio operators, but most of them were senior NCOs and they had a specialized field. Our job was to advise the people and be a liaison and help in certain areas. Combat was not our first role, although there were two other lieutenants that were combat advisers that did go out on operations with the South Vietnamese.
It was a very interesting and unique experience without a doubt. It's the longest one year that you'll ever think of, but I look back and I can remember counting the days down. I didn't take my R & R until almost nine months had gone by because I figured if I took it at six, I'd still have six more to go so I thought I would wait nine months, then I'd only have 90 days to go. In fact I was in Hawaii on New Year's Eve. I left DaNang on New Year's Eve and got to Hawaii on New Year's Eve. I gained six hours in time. The first thing, I'll never forget stepping off the plane in Hawaii and going to my hotel, was how clean everything was there. Due to the dirt and the filth in Vietnam, the first thing I did was run into the shower. The streets were so clean in Hawaii and it was quite a shock after you've been in Vietnam for a while.
Ironically and sadly, Vietnam in some areas is a beautiful country. When you looked to the west of where I was, there were beautiful mountains. Vung Tau where I went for a week, it's the old Cap St. Jacques, was a French resort. It's very beautiful. Some of the most beautiful beaches anywhere. There was a lot of natural beauty to the country unfortunately I have slides and pictures of when you fly around in a helicopter, the amount of shells that have been dropped, created pock marks all over the rice paddies and the landscape. When you're up in the air, it isn't as pretty because you can tell that a war went on there. There's a hell of a lot of steel left in the ground, I wouldn't even venture to guess what would be left of some of the jungles and mountains where they used to drop the B52s. The B52s would come in at night and just unload out in the jungles. We could see them. We were quite a ways away and we used to listen to the B52 strikes called arc lights. We could hear them, that's how big they were and they were probably 75 miles west of us. Thank God we had air power. I have empathy for World War II veterans who had to fight against air power. We had total control of the skies which made Vietnam another unique situation. It was a war by day and at night you pulled in and maintained defenses. You had nothing to worry about as far as air power, we controlled the skies at night. It was just a very unique war that hopefully we will never see again.
When I was leaving, the war was phasing down in April 1970, we'd gone from a high of 800 or 900,000 men down to 300,000 and counting. They were moving a lot of people out of Chu Lai. They were moving them by whole units. An engineer battalion might go out together. MACV didn't because we were all on individual duty but it was definitely a deal where you counted your days. As the war was phasing down, not so much in my particular situation, but in the line units, the young kids out there doing a lot of the dirty work, wanted to be the last person who was killed over there. It was a tough, tough time because no one wanted to go out on operations but the senior officers would certainly have to do their job and plan operations. It was getting awfully hard at the platoon and company level to really get the guys to go out there with the chance to get blown away when they know we're leaving here. So there was a very bad mentality as the war phased down but no one wanted to go out and really be aggressive any more. The Vietcong knew that and they were backing off and just picking and choosing their spots. There were no major battles the last couple of years. We were pulling a lot of our big units back anyway into safer areas and letting the Vietnamese go out and do more work. So it was once again another unique end to the war the way it phased down. It was deAmericanized and I guess the term they used was Vietnamization of the war, and it obviously didn't work. Because it didn't take long once we were completely out of there with our combat troops for the North Vietnamese to overrun most of the South Vietnamese units. Not only were the Americans phasing out but so were the Koreans and Australians near us. All our allies were all phasing out at the same time. The South Vietnamese had all our equipment but they didn't have the real commitment, and that's not to criticize all South Vietnamese soldiers because they certainly had their good people. But the commitment on the part of the North Vietnamese was greater - they were hungrier is the bottom line.