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My time in Vietnam

By Ernie Williamson

The Bulletin


Every time I watch the Ken Burns series on Vietnam, I feel like sharing my memories.

Until now, I have not followed through. I figured nobody wanted to hear old war stories that really are not war stories.

But I am not getting any younger. So here goes.

My memories are non-combat anecdotes involving this 22-year-old draftee who, like 70 percent of American soldiers sent to Vietnam, was fortunate to be assigned a support job.

It was hard not to feel guilty about my assignment as an Army correspondent.

While soldiers my age were fighting and dying in steamy jungles, I spent most of my time behind a typewriter in an air-conditioned office at Army Headquarters in Long Binh.

There was a snack bar down the hall, mail was delivered every day, and for $30 a month - or a bottle of Cognac - a mamasan would do your laundry and clean your quarters.

At night, we played volleyball, watched movies, and went to the enlisted men’s club where we guzzled Carling Black Label and listened to Vietnamese groups sing songs like “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish.

At Long Binh, you often had to remind yourself that a war was raging. But there was. And although I never saw combat, I do have memories. Here are some:


I arrived in Vietnam at Bien Hoa Air Base. As we deplaned with our new fatigues, clean shaves, and Army haircuts, we were greeted by other soldiers with longer hair, well-worn uniforms, and souvenirs.

They were going home on the plane we arrived in. They could not resist taunting us.

“You guys are going to hate it here,” they yelled.

“You are going to die.”

“Watch out for the Two-Step Viper. “

There was no such thing, but the snake with venom so lethal it killed within two steps became a jungle legend.

I admit to being shaken by what I was hearing and vowed not to taunt “newbies” when my time was up.

A year later as I was waiting for the “Freedom Bird” to go home, I could not help myself.

“Watch out for that Two-Step Viper,” I shouted to our replacements.


On that first day we were taken to an orientation area for assignments.

Fortunately, I was assigned to the aforementioned Army Headquarters with all its amenities. I breathed easier, realizing I was assigned to a secure headquarters, not a DMZ firebase. How did I get so fortunate?

I was told a sergeant major at Army Headquarters was a University of Missouri graduate and he culled resumes looking for Missouri journalism grads.

He selected this Missouri graduate. Missouri graduate Bill Brown, the now-retired Astros television announcer, also was in the office. What a break!


John Sexton was captured by the Viet Cong on August 12, 1969, and spent two years as a captive before being released.

Despite the press clamoring for interviews, the military restricted press access until Sexton was debriefed.

I was selected to interview him in the hospital and to write an Army-approved press release.

It was supposed to be hush-hush, but an ABC reporter was already at the hospital when we arrived. We told him he could not see Sexton, and I proceeded with the interview.

The reporter was still hanging around when I was done. To lure him away from the area, we offered him a ride home.

As we left hospital grounds, a car full of the ABC reporter’s press colleagues drove by. The ABC reporter could not resist.

Pretending he had a scoop, he picked up a film canister and waved it so his competitors could see it and yelled “I got an exclusive interview, and you guys are too late.”

Our office spent the rest of the day assuring media outlets that the ABC prankster did not interview Sexton.


I accompanied an Army civic action team to a village that was just down the road from an Army fuel depot.

The village was peaceful by day, but at night harassing gunfire was directed at the depot from the village.

A village elder told the civic action engineers that a nearby river flooded the village every monsoon season.

Within weeks, the engineers had built dikes to protect the village.

The flooding stopped. And so did the shooting.

NEXT WEEK: Meeting the boss.

(Contact Ernie at Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516). 


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