Tom Becka: Hello and welcome to TomBecka.com, where everyone’s exceptional and everyone has a story to tell and this is a story of a generation. This is a story of a young man. A young man who at the age of 18 found out he was going to drafted and shipped overseas to fight in Vietnam. Instead of being drafted, he went and enlisted in the marines and fought. Yes, this is a story of a generation.
This is a story of a time in American history unlike any other time. A time of protest. A time of great cultural change in this society. A time when people really started to question the government and wonder why we were fighting a war in Vietnam. We were told it was to stop the spread of evil communism and that we had to do it. We did it for a number of years and countless lives were lost.
It was a difficult time in American history and a time that quite honestly many people didn’t talk about for long, long time. It was a time that, well, if you knew a Vietnam vet, you might say something like, “Thank you for your service.” You might say something like, “Well, that’s interesting,” or you might call them a name and walk away.
But very few people have actually sat down and have talked to a Vietnam vet to find out what was going through their mind, what was going through their head at the time they were doing what they were doing. Now granted, every Vietnam vet story is different, but this is a story of a man that went and fought for the Marines. After all this time, he’s starting to talk about it. He’s talking about it here. I’m TomBecka.com.
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Tom: Now I’ve known you for a lot of years, more than I care to imagine. Yet, in the last year, maybe year and a half or so, you’ve talked an awful lot about your Vietnam experiences. Well, you never used to bring it up. You never used to talk about your time in Vietnam. Then lately, like the last year or so, it seems like it’s more important to you. Is it?
Dennis: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. When I came home from Vietnam in 1970, I just wanted to put it behind me. We’ve talked before about people’s attitude towards the war back then, and I certainly had an attitude about the war back then, too, because I had been in Vietnam. I saw that it wasn’t the great war movie that I thought it was going to be when I got there.
When I came home, people were not appreciative of us. In fact, they put me on an airplane and flew us into San Diego, and I had just come off the hospital ship. I believe it was called The Repose at that time, a US Navy hospital ship.
They flew us into San Diego, and before we got off the plane, these really nice ladies came on and said, “Put these clothes on.” We said, “Why should we put these clothes on?” They said, “Just put these clothes on.” We were instructed to wear these clothes. They were very nondescript blue golf jackets with t-shirts and tan pants.
We wore whatever shoes we had on, but then we found out later that it was so people wouldn’t disrespect us as combat veterans when we walked through the airports and walked through the terminals where we were.
Tom: That’s for real? That really happened?
Dennis: Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ve heard this same story from other people, other Vietnam vets, where they would fly into Stockton, California. That was the home of Westpac. They would fly into Westpac, and they would give them clothes to wear when they got off the airplane.
Tom: Now, you see, because I always figured myself it would be a thing where it’s like, yeah, one or two idiots do something. Those one or two idiots, you think about it and say, “OK, whatever,” but it was so prevalent they actually went and made you change your clothes.
Dennis: Yeah, yeah. They wanted us not to have troubles. I told you earlier that I was once in uniform, and this was after I came home from Vietnam. I was in uniform. It was in San Diego, and I was in an airport. I wasn’t spit upon, but I was vilified, certainly vilified by people in the airport who’d give you dirty looks and would make these comments under their breath to you like baby killer and murderer. “Yeah. Well, fine. Great.”
Tom: “Yeah. Well, fine. Great”?
Dennis: [laughs] Well, fine. Great.
Tom: Now, people could call you names, but that doesn’t necessarily that that’s how you see yourself. Did you see yourself as a baby killer? How did you see yourself coming back home from Vietnam?
Dennis: I saw myself coming home as a Marine officer. It was as simple as that, proud of what I did and would do it again. To this day, I’d go again, yeah.
Tom: Let’s talk about you going in the first place.
Tom: OK? This is a whole different time. For people that are listening that are kids, they don’t understand what it was like. I was the first year where they didn’t draft. I had to register with the draft. They actually did the numbers and stuff, but when the time came, I didn’t have to go. It was never really a choice for me, but as a young kid growing up, I was a paper boy.
I would read the headlines every day about Vietnam and the number of casualties and stuff like that. I would see the protests, the rock songs, and the discussion about Vietnam. I wasn’t sure what I would’ve done if I was drafted. Would I have run away to Canada? Would I have gone? I honestly to this day don’t know what I would’ve done had I had that decision? You enlisted, right?
Dennis: I did.
Dennis: Basically, I came in to the auditorium where I was going to school in Long Beach College in Long Beach. There were row of recruiters at separate tables out in front of the theater department. The marines were the ones that were on that table.
There was an old gunnery sergeant had his stash “No gun here.” “You get over here.” OK. I was going either. Here I am with long here. I probably just smoke the joint in the parking lot. I was, “Yeah?” He was like, “What’s your name?” I was like, “Oh, Hailey.” “Oh, OK. I got you on my list right here.” OK. What’s that list? She’s going to be drafted that on the marines.
I went, “What?” “Yeah, you know they were grafted in the marines because they can’t fill the quota like they need to. At this point, they are drafting you in the marines. We are probably going to put you in here for two years and they’ll put you right into Vietnam. You’ll probably die.” “What?”
Tom: That’s what he said?
Dennis: Yeah. Basically is, “You’ll probably die.” I was like “Wait. Let’s talk about this.” As we get to talk he said, “You know, you have associates degree. I can guarantee you placement in a program of your choice here in the Marine Corps. You can go to the War Program. You can have the right skill set.”
Tom: Were they actually drafting the marines?
Dennis: Yeah. I bet they were. Yeah.
Tom: He had on the list your name and said, “You were right here.”
Dennis: Yeah. We had draft numbers. My draft number was very prophetic because it was a Beatles’ song number nine. You know…
Tom: You know where you’re going and say, “Hey, we can just take you, or you can come voluntarily” and he said, “What do you do? What kind of work do you do?” At that time I was working on airports, I was filling up helicopters with gas, hanging around, getting flights out over to Carolina with the pilots. We’re just jerking around at that time.
He said, “We will have you take a test. You take a military placement test and, of course, they will show you things like how you skid off of a Bell 47 G helicopter or what this is.” That’s the trail road or that’s the G the main road or assembly.
They will show you pictures of weapons. “Do you know what this is?” That’s tough. A sub-machine gun, you identify these things.
Tom: You know all those stuff in college?
Dennis: Yeah, I know all these stuff from growing up. We played army when I was a kid. We watched Combat with Vic Morrow.
Tom: I watched all of those too. We played army and have the little green army medal and all that sort of…I couldn’t identify the riffles. I was “Bang. You were dead.”
Dennis: That’s my childhood growing up around people that were hunters and outdoorsmen. These guys are all been in World War II. They are my uncles and my older cousins. They have been to Word War II. They made it plain to me. Here’s an M1 Garand riffle. Here’s an M30 tankers carbine.
I was very well versed in things. After I took all these tests they said, “Look. You are going to be assigned to the War Officer Training Program after you graduate from Booth Camp. Every marine, officer or not, still go to the same training, Basic Boot Camp. For nine weeks, you go to pure hell in San Diego.
I went to Camp San Onofre in Camp Pendleton’s Basic Infantry Training School where you go and learn. At that point, they will tell you yours MOS, or Military Occupation Specialty will be this.
They came around and everybody sit there. It’s like the movie Full Metal Jacket, the day I was reading and everything. You know, “Becker, 3371. You are going to be a cook.” Then he comes to me, “Hailey, 1112-A. You are also training airborne weapons operations? Well, good luck to you.” He was like, “Hey, airborne weapons operation…Oh…Yeah.”
Tom: You were the only one…you were the, just like the same school? You’re on basic training. You don’t even know.
Dennis: Oh, sure. That’s nine weeks to pure hell and then another three weeks of Basic Infantry. You’re a gang, hold, and cook, get in charge of marine because they were training marines to go to Vietnam infantry. To go to Vietnam and fight like they did. You’re in there. You develop that mindset.
Tom: What was the mood like with the other soldiers because the draft was going on? The war was not necessarily all that popular back then. What was the mood of the other people in your basic training?
Dennis: We all became marines. We all became killers. We are all marines. You don’t differentiate. You become a marine. That was it’s all about. They tear you apart and they build you up to be a marine.
When you come out after nine weeks you look on. The marine recruits had graduation day. You’re looking on a marine that do not hesitate to do whatever he’s told to do. As simple as that.
Tom: OK, so now you’re told to go to Vietnam.
Dennis: Well, no, I was told then to go become a warrant officer. So I went to Quantico, Virginia, and I took a 13 week course there and became a warrant officer. Then I went to Cherry Point, North Carolina and learned about helicopters and airborne weapons operations. M62 machine guns and M79s, and 50 cals, and Gatling guns and Puff, which was what my specialty was, it was a Gatling gun basically. Eight barrels that rotated and fired up to 3,000 rounds a minute.
So 7.62, it wasn’t a 50 cal, it was a 7.62, which all NATO rounds. All the guns were the same caliber back during Vietnam so you could use, if one of your buddies in the Army dropped his rifle and you needed a weapon, you could pick it up and use your ammunition in it.
Tom: If I was talking about any other piece of machinery, a car, a boat, would you have all the details the way that you just had with that equipment, your gun and everything and your ammunition. In other words, are you a stickler for detail on all that stuff or after all these years that stuff was just so ingrained in you that you can’t forget it?
Dennis: I’m a stickler for detail to a degree, but yeah, that stuff’s ingrained in me, and you don’t forget it. You never do. You know, it’s like little things, when I see something.
My wife asked me, “What is the glowing bullets coming out of that weapon?” I said, “Well, every fifth round is a tracer round, and Americans used red tracers, and the Vietnamese used green tracers.” You just know these little things like that. How do you make a tracer round? Well, they’re dipped in phosphorous.
What’s Willy Peter? These things still stick in my mind, you know? Willy Peter was something I dreaded. I dreaded it more than anything in Vietnam. It was white phosphorous, because once it got on you, it burned, and it didn’t burn until it was underwater. The way they would take it off of you if you got it, was they would put your arm or leg in the tank of water and they would turn the lights off and they could see the white phosphorous under water. I was so scared of that, even though we had nothing to do with it. [laughs]
Tom: OK, let’s talk here. Again, you’re a young kid. You’re what, you’re 18 years old, right? 18, 19 years old, right? You’re young?
Dennis: Yeah, I’m 20.
Tom: OK, you’re 20 at the time. As a 20-year-old, you know you’re going to be drafted.
Tom: Now you’re enlisted.
Tom: Again, around you, the other 18, 19, 20-year-olds are thinking, “What are we going to war for?” This is the Woodstock era, and things like that. Was anything in your mind like that? Was there any self-doubt? Or did you just…
Dennis: Absolutely. Absolutely. I was part of that society, too. Just as much as I became part of the Marine society, I was part of the hippie society. My goals were to go through college, find a nice job acting somewhere, maybe live in a commune, make love with as many women as I possibly could, smoke the best marijuana I could get my hands on, get myself a nice Volkswagen van, surf a little bit, learn to play the guitar.
In fact, I had a roommate. Wanted to tell you about him. His name was Lee Waddell. Lee got drafted at the same time I enlisted, and Lee said, “I’m not going.” And I said, “What are you going to do?” He said, “Well, I’m not going.” And he said, “I’m not going to run away, but I’m not going.”
On the day that they swore him in, he had to go down to the draft center, and they’d give you an oath. They’d say, “Raise your right hand,” and Lee came home that afternoon. I was like, “What happened”? He goes, “Well, I had to go to jail for a couple of hours.” I go, “So tell me.” When they swore him in, Lee refused to raise his right hand and took a step back. They swore everybody else in, but they gave him five, six, seven chances.
People, at first, were nice about it, but then they started berating him and yelling at him. He still refused, and the FBI came in and arrested him and put him in a cell within their office for a few hours and let him go. Then he had to go to court.
Maybe six months later, he wrote me that he had gone to court and that rather than to prosecute him and put him in jail, they were going to make him work at Value Village. Value Village was a thrift store that had a connection to the veterans somehow, and he had to go work at the thrift store for free. He had to do that, basically, for 18 months. So he, too, served in his own way.
Tom: But he didn’t go to…?
Dennis: No, he didn’t go.
Tom: You’re living these two lives basically, the hippie life and at the same time, now you’re the Marines, and you’re going to Vietnam.
Dennis: Yeah, yeah, you bet.
Tom: Any way to describe what was going through your head? Once you started on that flight over there, any way to describe what you’re thinking?
Dennis: Oh, I was scared to death. You hear everything from all the old salts, the guys who’ve been there and come back, and they’d tell you, of course, the worst possible stories they can. They affect a young person. They affect older people, too. You’re hearing these stories, and you can’t help but be scared when you’re going there.
You’re like, “Oh my God! I know I’m going to be in the air.” But you think about the flying telephone poles, that’s what they called the air to ground missiles, and you think about, just so many things you think about. “Oh my God, this really is a dangerous situation I’m getting into.”
It all came home to me when we landed. We landed in Saigon, and we flew into Da Nang, which is the Marine distribution base, and when we got off the airplane in Saigon, we had to go from one part of the Saigon airport to another.
We got on this bus, and the bus had chain link fence welded to the outside of the windows. One of the guys said to the gunnery sergeant, who was the master of the bus, he said, “Hey, Gunny, what’s these windows all plugged up for? So we don’t jump off”? He looked at him and said, “No, asshole, it’s so nobody can throw a grenade in through the window.”
That was really a sobering moment for me, and I went, “Oh my God! They throw hand grenades into windows here.” Yeah, then you knew why they had chain link fence welded to the outside of the bus on the windows. That’s the kind of war that was.
Tom: So you’re there and you’re doing it.
Dennis: I’m there. Yeah, I’m there.
Dennis: I get to Chu Lai. I’m in Chu Lai the first day that I get there. There’s no messing around. I get to Saigon, go to Da Nang, and then take another helicopter to Chu Lai. I get there, and I’m out on the airfield, and it’s just all these helicopters. I took pictures.
My first day, I have the pictures of me looking over the airfield, and I thought they were very artistic pictures at the time, when I was framing them. But they were just from the little brownie camera I had. I’m taking pictures of these nonsensical placement of airplanes, DC3s and CH48 helicopters and a couple of Hueys.
The Cobras weren’t in there yet. The Cobras were just starting to transition in, the two place helicopters. I’m there immediately, and the next day, I’m in the air. There’s no screwing around. I’m in the air the next day.
Tom: You’re there, and you’re fighting. How long were you in ‘Nam?
Dennis: I was in there 13 months. The Marines went for 13 months. Everybody else, the Army, Air Force, and Navy, Coast Guard, went for 12 months. The Marines went for one year and one month.
Tom: Just because they’re Marines?
Dennis: I never really had the answer to why they went for one year and one month. I always thought, yeah, just because we’re bad asses and we can do that. ”
Tom: Go back to the recruiting sergeant that you have, OK? Nobody else was in the marine table. The marine guy looked at you and says, “Yeah. You’re a number nine.”
Tom: I assume that’s the same information that all the other recruiters had. I assume that the navy and the army all have the same information. Did you ever think, “Well, OK. I hear your offer. Let me see what the other people had to offer.”?
Dennis: No. I was…
Tom: You just, “I want to be a marine.”
Dennis: No. I was sold from the moment he said, “Hey. Tell you what we can do for you kid.” I was like, “Really?” I was sold the moment he opened his mouth. Recruiters used to take guilt the day they came to the same corps.
The reasons why recruiters where out there was not doing their military duty. He was out there to catch guys that doubted the draft — guys that have not registered for the draft because they have the list right there. They would sat out there and it was also a recruitment too because they didn’t recruit everybody on the spot. They certainly tried their best.
Tom: I know. When I get out of high school I get the word but it ended. They were not drafting anymore. I went to high school. I want to talk to a recruiter because you’re 18 trying to figure out what you’ll do.
Tom: I don’t think the war is over. Maybe I’ll sign up now. I talked to the guy and said, “I want to be in radio.” The recruiter said, “OK. You want to be in radio? You know what they are going to do? You think you are going to get arm forces radio? No. You won’t get that. What they are going to do is they are going to bag all that antenna on your back and send you at the front of the line.”
When I heard that I was like, “You know what? I’ll get back to you.” I didn’t hear the same front row…there’s a better word here, the same romance that you had with becoming a marine.
Dennis: Becoming a marine never said…there’s some personal there. My father who is in the navy and my uncles are all in the army. When I initially told them that I’m thinking about going into marines, their comment was not, “Way to go. Good for you.” Their comment was, “You’d never make it. They’ll eat you up and spit you up. You don’t have what it takes to be a marine.”
Dennis: I was like, “I guess we’ll find out about that and wait.” You know I did. I love grabbing all their face. When I came home before I went to Vietnam I was a 20-year old torn off officer with shiny bars on your collars and your dress blues. Oh, Tom I was…Please get out. I love rubbing it to their face.
You could see it. Every one of them is hanged dog. “How are you doing?” By the end of the visit, it was like “Good for you. We’re behind you 100 percent.”
Tom: OK. Now your mom and your father and you saw people die and you killed people too, right?
Dennis: Yeah. I picked up tons of people. I picked up tons of bodies.
Tom: Where they American and Vietnamese?
Dennis: We didn’t pick up the Vietnamese. The South Vietnamese, we did, but not the NBA. We left them out there. I was thinking about that incident. You said you want to do this podcast. I thought about it.
I thought how to dehumanize the actual killing situation? We didn’t refer to North Vietnamese as humans. They were dinks. They were gooks. They were slants. They were little black bunnies. They were everything except human beings.
Everybody else was human beings but we were fighting against this enemy that had no name other than NBA gook, dink. You know Charlie? It’s just the way to dehumanize the situation. Somehow it makes palatable that you are killing someone, but on the other hand, it’s palatable because if you don’t kill them, they are going to kill you.
That’s the bottom line. I was never in hand to hand combat. I was never 50 yards away with somebody with the riffle. I came over villages with machine guns and blew the hell out of everything, their livestock, their pigs, their water buffaloes, their bicycles, their huts. Was there residual damages? I’m actually sure there was. That weapon was nothing to mess around with.
That was our job. We were clearing the way for everybody else to come in. Some of the pictures that I have that — you have asked me a little while ago, following last year have I talked about it? I didn’t ever before.
I put it aside out of my mind. I have nothing to talk to anybody because they wouldn’t understand it. When I first met you, do we have the relationship we had today if I said it to the press club and said, “Hi, Tom. One time when I was in Chile…”
Dennis: No. There was no reason. It was years and years ago. When I came home I have to hand these pictures of Vietnam. Me and Vietnam, things I did. My brother had those pictures. I threw them away. I thought I threw them years ago. My father retrieved them from the garbage can. When my father passed away my brother had them.
This marvelous electronic age we’re living. He scanned them all in the computer, and about a year ago, I got an email from my brother, which is unusual because we don’t communicate a whole lot. When I opened the email, it had an attachment. I opened it. I was taken back 40 years one click of a button. There were all the pictures.
Everything…From the day that I arrived there I am in Da Nang, on the runway taking pictures of indiscriminate airplanes. The next pictures are of the actual helicopter that I was going to fly in an actual airplane. They started out as DC3. We were the last ones to have the DC3-C 47s. They were still World War II airplanes we were using in Vietnam at that time.
There were airborne weapons operations. There were also the stock carriers or supply carriers. The next pictures I opened up were of a landing zone were I’d come in outside of a Long Binh. We landed. We all come in mass. It’s like the movie Apocalypse now. There are 15-20 helicopters coming in.
We came in first because we got the weapons and we are preparing the hill and all the things. We were firing and setting up a perimeter. We came in. We sat down because we also have the extra ammunition on board. Right in front of us, another helicopter sat down. It’s an older Sikorsky. I think it was called 864. The pilot said we were high up above than this one. We were sitting there.
The dinks threw a mortar in and they hit this helicopter and just blew it the hell out of it. Killed all these marines, blew the hell out of it. That particular one also had ammunition on it. When it went, it had a bunch of RPGs or rocket propelled grenades on it which hit other helicopters. The first picture is when we first landed. Everything is idyllic, marines on their helicopters. The elephant grasses waved in.
The next picture is about an hour after it all happened after they were all ready to leave us. I can get a picture of this. I took a picture of it and you wouldn’t believe it. It’s carnage. It’s just black. Everything in the idyllic petrel scene in Vietnam is now an inferno. It’s just pure hell. I looked at those pictures and I went, “Oh my God. I did it. ”
I started looking at the other pictures. I remember one day, we had a record buddy account. We went out and we pulled in an army or platoon that got massacred. I think we had 30 bodies that day. We stacked them like hoard in the helicopter. We flew back at the base. The army detail would come out and load him. The funeral detail would come out in the coffins and put them in there. They would take them into the hangars.
In this picture, it’s me and another guy and we got these big black bags. There’s something heavy in them. Obviously, there were just body parts. We hope that it was the same person and put it into a bag and carried off. The pictures brought it all home.
The final picture that put me over the edge was a Christmas day of 1969. It was 1970. I don’t recall which. It’s everybody in my air wings then outside their tents. Everybody, we’re all there.
I looked at myself. I am so young. I am so young in that picture, but everybody else was so young at that picture too. I looked at some of them and I remember their names. A guy named Corporal Cagier from Ohio. I don’t know why I remembered him. He used to run down the flight line. He had been an actor in college. He just has done Oklahoma. The last show he did was Oklahoma.
There is a great scene were all the cowboys are riding on their horses. They are not riding. They just bow legged and do it in a desert. He was riding up and down the flight line with his imaginary horse. He would kick the side of the helicopter, “I’m sorry but that horse got away from me.” He was so funny. Little things like that is what you remember most of all.
When I got those pictures, it all opened up the wound if you will. I don’t know if it’s a wound or not. I’ve been going to the Veteran’s Hospital for some medical care, which is a very good place to go if you’re a veteran. Do not hesitate to go there and get enrolled in the program. They take care of you. They’ll take care of you 100 percent. There’s no ifs or buts. No one’s going to ask you who your insurance company is. They are going to take care whatever problems you got, physical or mental.
I am part of this program that has for Agent Orange people. They were like me who had been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. In that program, I started that in California in 2006 with 100 people in the program. I didn’t know the 100 people. I was just one of the groups of 100.
Dennis: Here in 2013, there are four of us left in that program. The other ones all died. I’m really the youngest one in the program at 62. Some of the guys are in their ’70s. You can put that they die because of their age. There are other things but it’s freaky.
I guess the point that I’m trying to make is when I was at the Veterans Station we want to do some testing and they did some psychological testing. They said, “You’ve got PTSD.”I was amazed. I said, “No.” They said, “No. No. you have it. You definitely have it.” Maybe I do. I don’t know. Maybe I had a long time memory. Maybe it came about because of the pictures. I don’t know.
The reason why I want to talk about it more is because it’s important to talk about it. Perhaps someone will learn something from this conversation. It will learn how to protect themselves in the same situation or they’ll learn how not to get into that situation.
Tom: Let’s talk about this a little, because this past Christmas, I was in Indianapolis. We were on the train going downtown out to our hotel. On the subway, there was a Vietnam veteran. It was Christmastime. He was sitting there at the back. In his mind, he’s still fighting the war. He was just saying to nobody particular, “There’s no general.”
Talking about it, he was making a gun sign. He showed his dog tags. He asked me if I had served and stuff. In his mind he was still fighting the war.
There are stories of a number of homeless veterans from Vietnam. It’s tragic with some of these people. They come home when they can’t assume to be back in the society.
On the other hand, you had a pretty good life, two great kids and a lovely wife. You had a pretty good life. Why do you think you were able to come back and be able to live this good life even they are…Do you know about post battle stress disorder? When you are able to put behind you…why do you think you were able to do this that other soldiers were never able to move on.
Dennis: I took it off like a bad coat. I did. When I came home, I took it off, lay it down and I didn’t do a lot of it anymore. I think that’s the bottom line. It was over. I was home. I was going to make the best of being home. Once I leave there, no more.
I saw that for so many other marines. The guys have been twice to Vietnam. They weren’t like us. They come in. In my first tour these guys would come back and they’d already done a tour. As soon as they arrived we realized [laughs] one of these things is not like the other. [laughs] That was them. I said. “No. Uh-huh.”
Look at Bob Kerrey. Bob Kerrey, a Medal of Honor winner, lost a leg. If anybody’s got something to be bitter about, Bob’s got something to be bitter about. Did he waste his life? I don’t think so, no. No.
Tom: I find that interesting though. Evidently we all react to big-life events differently. We all handle trauma differently and that, but I always find it interesting where people like you, friends that I knew that went to Vietnam, how they were able to have good lives. Other people just could never get beyond it and were always still living there and had left their minds back in Da Nang.
Dennis: During the early ’70s, actually it was the mid-’70s, when I first came to Nebraska, I got associated with the Nebraska Vietnam Veterans Board. Bob Kerrey was a member. Jim Davis at one point was a member. James Martin Davis was a member, and there were some other guys that were members, too, quite prominent in society now.
Our job was to sit there and make sure that health care and financial care was distributed equitably to veterans who applied for it. One of the things that used to just rail me were the guys who came in and said, “I need money because I was in Vietnam. That’s why I beat my wife, and that’s why I had sex with my step-daughter.”
Well, wait. We were all in Vietnam. We didn’t beat our wife, and we didn’t have sex with our stepdaughter. Maybe the ramifications of their PTSD or their time in Vietnam caused them to do that, but we were not very understanding about that kind of stuff.
We always thought we managed to go ahead with life. Why can’t they? It never interfered in our decision to give money or to give whatever to somebody, but it was one thing. You were always tormented. Another thing that used to tear me up was guys who would wear their badge proudly of Vietnam. They would walk around with Purple Hearts on their coats. They would have Purple Heart license plates.
You go to the veteran’s hospital, you’ll see them there every day. Guys who are still in the military in their mind. They’re like the guy you said you saw. These guys are still there [laughs] in their mind. They’re wearing all their ribbons. They’re wearing these coats, and they’re [growls] . Let it go. Let it go.
Tom: You never joined a VFW or American Legion or anything like that, did you?
Dennis: No, no. No, never had. No, I joined the Fleet Marine Force for a while, which was to do with retired and discharged marines, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I’ve never been a joiner for civic organizations like that. [laughs] Once I had an employer who told me, “The only way you’re going to keep working here is to become a Mason.” I went, “Ha, OK.” [laughs]
I became a Mason, but after I left I didn’t continue being a Mason because I wasn’t a joiner. It wasn’t something that I looked forward to doing.
Tom: Were you not a joiner prior to going to Vietnam, or was this something that you maybe became different after you had spent that time overseas?
Dennis: Yeah, I became different after I came home from Vietnam definitely. I definitely became different. When I first came home from Vietnam, I slept on the roof of my parents’ house for three months. I wouldn’t sleep on the ground. I wouldn’t sleep inside. I was so used to sleeping inside my helicopter that I wouldn’t sleep [laughs] in normal situations.
Yeah, it changed me, but I was never as a kid much of a joiner. I was not involved in school. I wasn’t in choir or band or a lot of those things everybody else was in. I was the independent thinker.
Tom: Let’s talk a little bit about you on the roof. I’m guessing from what I know about you there was more than one reason why you were sleeping on the roof. You’ve got a thing against snakes. The snakes in Vietnam have a lot to do with you, don’t they?
Dennis: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Yeah, definitely. The best snake story I can tell you, we were assigned to fly persimmon bushes from right outside Da Nang. In the hills these multi-guard tribesmen used persimmon in their daily tribal. The army made a deal with them. “We’ll move you off of this hilltop because we want this hilltop for a forward observation post.”
The multi-guard said, “Sure. Great.” They got water buffalo and who knows what else, but our job as the marines guys, it fell on us to help move everything. We were in this big helicopter, the CH-48 twin rotor turbine drive. They got a rear ramp that opens up, and we had the whole thing stacked with persimmon bushes in five-gallon drums, basically in paint buckets.
I’m in the rear operating. Since we weren’t on a weapons missions we had weapons and ammunitions, but my job was to operate the ramp basically at that point. I’m standing in the back, and I’m in a flight suit, got my uniform on, and headphones. We’re flying along about 10,000 foot, and the headphone comes alive. I hear this, “Snake!”
I look up into the cockpit, and I go, “What?” The copilot’s going, “Snake!” He grabs his gun like this, and he starts firing. I think, “This guy’s lost his mind. He’s gone over the edge. Yeah, this is it. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me for what? I don’t know why he called me a snake.” I’m fumbling around looking for something to throw because I don’t have a sidearm at the point.
I look in front of me, and there’s this brown cobra. He’s probably six, seven foot long, wrapped around this bush, but he’s up above the bush and his hood is spread. He’s just swaying back and forth in front of me. I mean literally he’s a foot away from my face. I’m [laughs] looking at this snake, and the copilot comes back on. He goes, “Get out of the way!”
He’s firing trying to hit this snake, but I realize the ramp is closed and he’s hitting this where all the hydraulics are back there. I hit, got this chain or a keypad basically on a big heavy wire chained. I hit the ramp, and the ramp opens up. None of these things are wired down. The pilot puts the helicopter nose high, and all the stuff starts sliding out. That snake just went fwaaa right by my face.
I remember to this day looking out the back of the helicopter and seeing all the persimmon bushes flying down, but right in the middle of the air is this snake. He’s crawling in the air like this going forward. Oh, man. After that in our duty huts, we’d put…that’s a misnomer. In July the huts were basically tents, and we would dig out the foundation maybe four or five foot deep and put the tents up over them.
You had this a deluxe setting there, and then we’d get…my mind is blank what you called it. The pallets. We’d take pallets, and we’d build floors with pallets. We’re sitting on the rack one day. We’re smoking dope and drinking, and I look down. There’s this snake going underneath the pallets. It’s like a three-pallet snake. This thing is it’s three pallets full of snake. Of course, I’m in control now.
I got my little shovel that I had there and started chopping the snake to pieces. After that, yeah, snakes had a lot to do with me sleeping on the roof.
Tom: You mentioned smoking dope. How prevalent was that…
Dennis: Oh, gee.
Tom: I’ve heard the stories, but did the commanders know? Did the people in charge know and they just didn’t care?
Dennis: Everybody knew. Everybody knew. What are you going to do?
Tom: Did smoking dope help you get through Vietnam? That was fine with them?
Dennis: What are you going to do? We had the drinkers, and we had the drug users. As long as you weren’t popping heroin, you could get away with just about anything. When you started doing heroin, that’s when you came up on the radar screen. Oh, we used to buy OJs when we’d go into Saigon.
Dennis: Opium-rolled joints. They’d take joints, and they’d dip them in liquid opium. We’d buy these OJs. Five bucks would get you four or five of these big long cigar-like joints. You’d take them back. You couldn’t smoke one of them. You’d be passed out. You didn’t even know your name. They were so good that it was the best dope I’ve ever had.
They say nowadays, “Oh, marijuana’s 10 times better than it was.” Well, I don’t know about that because the dope we had in Vietnam was so good you couldn’t even remember how to walk. It was that good, but yeah. We smoked and we drank.
Tom: We’re getting towards the end here. What was the best part of being in Vietnam, and what was the worst part about being in Vietnam?
Dennis: The best part of Vietnam was flying over Vietnam on a sunrise or a sunset mission when you had that magic hour when the sky wasn’t blue. It was a teal blue with hints of black and gray on the edges as it started to get darker or started to get lighter. The sun, the positioning of the sun, and how it turned into an orange glow instead of a yellow burning orb in the sky.
The beauty of Vietnam was uncompromising. You could get lost in the beauty of it. Once you saw from the air what it was, you couldn’t imagine. Unlike America, when I’ve flown in America, the fields are square miles. In Vietnam, the fields weren’t square miles. They were whatever they had to do to make it around a group of trees or a rock or whatever.
They might be shaped like dog legs or cat heads. Who knows? But you could see these fields these people had tended for years. That was the great stuff, flying, just flying and enjoying that.
The worst stuff was never knowing who was going to die next. You never talked so much about yourself. You couldn’t get into that mode of saying, “Oh, I’m going to die any moment.” You couldn’t do that. It would kill you. You might as well just shoot yourself because then you were totally useless.
Not knowing who was going to die next and always waiting for that other shoe to drop when that one helicopter wouldn’t come back or that helicopter would come back with damage and you’d say, “What about Williams? What about Corporal Keiger?” [pauses]
Corporal Keiger. He was my favorite, [begins to weep] but when they brought him back, there was the top half of Corporal Keiger and then there was the bottom half of him. I was there, and I took the bottom half. I could only remember him running up and down the [laughs] line with that stupid imaginary horse. Excuse me a minute. That was the worst part, not knowing who was next.
When you left, it was even worse. When you went home, you didn’t feel like you were going home. You felt like you were leaving. You felt like you were escaping, like you were running away, like you should have stayed, but I did my time. I couldn’t stay anymore.
I was wounded. I didn’t get wounded like a [laughs] lot of guys, lucky asses, got wounded in two months. I got [laughs] wounded in the thirteenth month. I was medevaced out to a hospital ship in Cam Ranh Bay. Then from there I was taken into Honolulu and Honolulu to San Diego.
Tom: I didn’t know. You were wounded in Vietnam? I didn’t know.
Dennis: Yeah. Yeah, I was. We came into a landing zone. The army and the marine infantry both used to establish landing zones when we’d have to do a medevac. One of the ways they’d establish it is a perimeter of men with weapons, but they would also take a thing called a Claymore Mine. It’s about the size of your Apple laptop there, and it’s curved like a quarter circle.
The front of it is full of BBs, and the BBs are ball bearings that are about the size of your thumbnail. They’re electronic. They fire. They have C-4 explosives on the back, and you would put these Claymores out with the round shield facing the enemy. In fact, they said right on it, “This side towards enemy.”
We went into the LZ that had been established, and we went in early in the morning. During the night Zappers, or Vietnamese, had come in and turned some of the Claymores around. When we came in, we were getting fire. Someone in the army decided they were going to be helpful and throw out the Claymores and clear the area, but just as we touched down they fired them off.
They came into us, killed our copilot, wounded me, and killed another guy that was outside. I didn’t know who he was. He was an army guy. He was a field army guy. He would give us signals where to land. Stuff would kill him. I got it [laughs] in the ass and I got it in the head. I’ve got a nice scar that goes all the way across the top of my butt cheek. I got another one in my leg right above my right knee, and then I got it here on the forehead.
Tom: But again, no real regrets.
Dennis: Oh, none at all. None at all. Tom, I was 21 years old. I was full of piss and vinegar. I ruled the world, and I was flying for that time in our history state-of-the-art equipment on state-of-the-art equipment. I was smoking the best dope. I was making love to the most beautiful Vietnamese women I could possibly find for hardly no money at all.
Dennis: We had all the comforts of home in many ways. We really did. We had Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola in glass bottles. How the hell can you go wrong? Life is good if you have Coca-Cola in glass bottles.
Tom: What do you think is the misconception of people that are younger generations that don’t know that weren’t alive during that time? They look at you now. What are the misconceptions about a Vietnam vet?
Dennis: That we’re crazy because we’re not. Some of us are crazier than other ones, but we’re not all crazy. Not all of us have the debilitating PTSD. I’ve always thought PTSD was debilitating like, “Oh, my God. A guy sits in a dark room and looks out the curtains once a day,” but it’s not that at all I found out.
We were the cast-away war. We were the ones that were cast away. We were not honored. We were vilified. I know no one in my generation in the mid-’70s and early ’80s that went out of their way to talk about Vietnam with people because it really wasn’t popular. I do give Richard Nixon kudos. He said he would stop the war, and he did. It was not a war. It was a police action.
You have to remember how it started. It started with the Dutch. It didn’t start with the Americans. It started with the Dutch, and then the Dutch couldn’t handle it because they were trying to protect their tin and rubber reserves. Then the French came in and said, “Well, we’ll take over, and we’ll protect the tin.” Well, they couldn’t do it, so they called in the Americans as advisors.
Then all of a sudden, it went from being advisors to a full-fledged war under Lyndon Baines Johnson. He escalated the war. Kennedy wanted to end the war, but Baines Johnson escalated it. Then Nixon finally put an end to it. He said, “That’s it. No, [indecipherable 0:46:19] ” so you have to give him that. Whatever else he was in history, he was responsible for ending that war.
I guess just remember that we’re humans. If somebody’s father or grandfather or uncle doesn’t want to talk about Vietnam, don’t push the button. There’s nothing to hear. If you really want to see what it was like, watch a movie. Watch “Apocalypse Now.” Watch “Full Metal Jacket.” Watch “The Boys in Company C.” You’ll see it all.
Tom: OK, last question. I know that you’ve got a big love of theater and film and everything. What movie about Vietnam is the most realistic movie about Vietnam?
Dennis: Well, boot camp is “Full Metal Jacket.” It is. That is boot camp 100 percent. I would probably think “The Boys in Company C” is pretty close to what it was like. It shows the idiocy of war where people are pulled out of the field to go play soccer games. Yeah, it’s a pretty good movie out. There are so many good war movies.
I think it’s called “My Favorite Year.” It’s about a group of four vets that come home from World War II, and it follows those guys after World War II. You can watch an old black and white movie. Frederic March is in it. You watch that movie, and you’ll see what it’s like to come home.
Tom: Wasn’t “My Favorite Year” about your show of shows, the one that Neil Simon did? Wasn’t that “My Favorite Year”?
Dennis: I don’t know the name of it. I have to look at it. Yeah, look it up. Just ask anybody about it, and they’ll be able to tell you about it. Yeah, I just don’t dwell a lot on it anymore, but in the last year I’ve dwelled more upon it. It’s funny because I could get rid of those pictures with one keystroke, but I keep them. Why?
In fact my screenshot on my computer is me hanging out that door of a helicopter firing away. You can look at it, and you can see these little yellow things. Those are shells firing off in the air. Everything came back to me. That shot was taken by Corporal Keiger. He was in the helicopter next to us.
I was drilling a bunch of people on the ground or a bunch of things on the ground at the time. He took this picture of me, but what really came back is on that I was crossing over to Hueys about that time. On the Hueys, there was a bar that came out right outside the open door of the helicopter, and that bar was where you hooked on that wire with a wheel for the winch to winch things up to the helicopter.
I’m tall, and it was a situation where every time I leaned out the door, bam! I would hit my helmet on that thing. You’d look at my helmet. It’s all scratched and gouged in the front right here, but then if you look at the arm it’s got [laughs] adhesive tape taped down around it. It all came back.
A really telling thing in that picture, they gave us these bulletproof vests. They’re called King Arthurs. They were green vests that you put ceramic plates in. They were very heavy, very uncomfortable, and they were hot. Hardly anybody wore them. If you look at this picture, my King Arthur is under my knee. I’m kneeling on it to get a better shot [laughs] with this machine gun out this door.
I look at that picture, and it’s my screensaver. I thought I should change that because every time I look at it I start going back. I really don’t want to go back. It stays there for now, but it’s a really telling picture. You can see that and go, “Wow. Wow.” It’s all there in black and white. That’s Vietnam. In one picture, that’s Vietnam.
Tom: That’s one man’s story about his time in Vietnam. One thing we did learn from Vietnam is, after that, no matter what, any time our military forces got into action, we never treated the troops badly again. Even if we disagreed with the war, even if we weren’t quite sure why we were doing what we were doing, you never blamed the military men and women that were serving.
Then to all the military men and women that have served this great country over the years, thank you very much for your service. Be safe. Be well.
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