Veteran: Dennis John Norgaard
Writer: Dennis John Norgaard
Show: Vol. 1
I started my career in the army in February 1969 when I was 18 years old. I enlisted about two months before I was going to get drafted. I took my Basic Training in Fort Ord, California, and then was trained as cannoneer for the 105 and 155 pallisers at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I got out of there in June 1969 and spent one month of leave at home in Harlan, Iowa, before I left for Vietnam from Oakland, California. There was a lot of dissent toward the Vietnam War in the country at that time.
I remember people being lined up behind the fence and throwing cans and chanting anti-war rhetoric at us while we were waiting to leave. As we were getting on the plane, the returning soldiers coming off said to us, “You poor suckers. You’re going to be over there burning shit. You don’t know what you’re getting into.” I got into Vietnam after a 24-hour flight and went to Ben Wah, which is in the southern part of the country. I spent a day or two there before I was shipped to small firebase, LZ Professional, in the Central Highlands.
I got on the firebase, and it was probably about the size of a football field. I spent about three or four days there. I thought I was going to be assigned to a cannoneer job when I got there but instead got picked to go with the forward observer unit. I carried a radio and was attached to Company B, 46th Infantry (1-46), 196th Light Infantry Brigade. There were four companies there, and we all took turns going off the firebase
for 20 to 30 days at a time on search and patrol missions. As a radiotelephone operator, my job was basically to call in and direct artillery fire for the infantry company, and at night I would set defensive targets around the perimeter where we slept. The jungle was a really harsh environment. The terrain was triple canopy jungle and always really hard to see. If you got more than four feet away from the guy ahead of you, you were usually lost. We didn’t have GPS–we used compasses–so usually two or three times during the day I would have to shoot white phosphorous rounds a couple hundred meters in the air to figure out where we were.
We only had old French maps, and the jungle was so thick it completely threw off any sense of direction. The temperature would get to around 110 or 115 degrees in the summertime with high humidity, and then there would be monsoons when the temperature would drop to 55 or 60 degrees with as much as two feet of rain in 24 hours. We walked for 8 to 10 hours a day, but never more than 8 or 10 kilometers a day because of the terrain. We usually went about 100 yards an hour, cutting a path with a machete because trails meant booby traps. Our bodies really got a beating from the moisture, and our feet and clothes rarely got dry. During monsoon season, I could see the small bones in the top of my feet from where the skin had just rotted off of them. It was pretty common to eat penicillin all the time to prevent infection from jungle rot or cuts from elephant grass or whatever else you came across.
Pretty much the only people that lived out there were the “mountain yard” or Hmong people, who were usually pretty friendly to American soldiers. I remember the first time being out, just stopping and hearing the buzz of mosquitoes and watching the land leeches crawl toward us. They were all out to eat you. Everything out there was. There were tigers, bears, cobras, pythons, banana snakes, bamboo vipers, and lots of monkeys and deer.
The sounds at night were just unreal when everything was quiet. When a tiger would roar or a monkey would scream, it would send shivers up your spine. Sometimes at night you could see really well, but other times you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face it was so dark.
You couldn’t ever get a lot of sleep. We would usually hump about 10 hours a day, then get about two hours of sleep, then two or three hours of guard or radio watch, then two hours of sleep, and then it was radio watch or guard duty again and then you were up again for another 10- hour hump. You only got between two to four hours of sleep at night at
most, and it usually wasn’t good sleep. If you had a firefight at night it was pure chaos because it was so dark. My first day out in the jungle, I remember we got into some fire. I watched M-16 machine guns cut a couple of Viet Cong down with stomach and head shots, and I saw what bullets really do to the human body. And there were a lot of booby traps. I always seemed to be lucky wherever I went, either ahead or behind the traps. One kind, a punji pit, was a covered pit with sharpened bamboo sticks that they usually urinated or defecated on so that when they punctured skin you were instantly infected. I watched two guys about five feet behind me hit one. They were screaming when we pulled them off. It definitely wasn’t pleasant. There were also a lot of hand grenade injuries. They would detonate a hand grenade that we left behind or some kind of a mortar round. One time two guys ahead of me stepped on a 105 round, which was about a 150-pound round. When we got up to them, all that was left of them was enough to put them in a sandwich-sized Ziploc bag. It just kind of vaporized them. There was a lot of sniper fire and small fire fights that would usually last from 10 to 30 minutes. Chopper pilots were always nearby. They dealt in tight spots, places you just couldn’t believe. Those guys were something, and they saved a lot of lives.
During one mission, we were operating out of the lower A Shau Valley, south of where Khe Sahn had been fought about a year or so earlier. There were a lot of old trucks and old ordinance, but the jungle had already started to reclaim the land. As part of the forward observer unit, two of us would be sent off into the jungle with binoculars and a radio to see if we could set up targets or find any movement. A lieutenant and I had been sitting for an hour or two, glassing an open spot by a trail through the jungle. It was daytime, but in triple-layer canopy jungle, where the light seldom hits the ground, it was hard to tell.
I remember seeing hundreds and hundreds of North Vietnamese regulars that were going up this trail– women, men, everybody– just a lot of traffic. They were hauling a lot of ordinance, and after a hundred or so of them went by, I spotted a guy with blond hair. He was about my size, 6’3” or 6’4” and in fairly good shape; a lot bigger than the Vietnamese regulars. He had on an old set of fatigues that looked like they were kind of battered from extensive jungle use. They had his hands tethered behind his back with a leather piece of rope and a leather strap tied around his neck, and they were leading him up the trail.
He was apparently a prisoner of war, and I imagine they were taking him up North into the hills somewhere or to a P.O.W. camp. Getting caught by those guys definitely wasn’t good. They were masters of torture. I only got a glimpse of him for about 20 or 30 yards through the jungle canopy in the clearing where they were going up the trail, but I sure felt sorry for him. I remember asking the lieutenant if I could call in some artillery fire to try to disrupt the flow of the North Vietnamese and give this guy a chance, but they wouldn’t let us do any fire and said were just there to observe. I can still remember the sight of him going up the trail. He just looked hopeless with the tether around his neck and his hands behind his back. I always wonder if he lived or died or whatever happened to him.
After seven months of humping in the jungle, I was transferred to LZ Mary Ann, a firebase on top of a hill in the middle of the jungle. I was there for roughly seven months working in a firebase command. We had our little skirmishes on the fire base–there was always something trying to come through the wire at night or somebody trying to breach the security–but it was definitely better than being out in the jungle. It wasn’t great, but it was better.
I left that firebase in September 1970. The tour of duty was 12 months, but I extended for two months and got a five-month early out, which meant when we got back to the States I got to go right home. When I got home I couldn’t wait to get the uniform off. There was a still a lot of anti-war dissent, and it wasn’t a popular time to be a soldier. I told my mother burn that thing when I got done taking it off. I didn’t want to see it again.
A few months after I got back, I remember reading in the newspaper about LZ Mary Ann being overrun by Viet Cong sappers that killed 30 American soldiers and wounded many more. I guess my timing was good or I might have still been there and been one of them. I was just really lucky. After I got home I stayed in a state of drunken or drug induced stupor for probably too long. I was trying to forget all the bad things about the jungle. There are sounds and smells that you never forget–some of it stays with you a lifetime. I know my dad, who fought in World War II, still has memories about things too and talks about it in his sleep. Certain sounds and smells sometimes still trigger that stuff.
The mind doesn’t forget things like that. It’s always stored up there and sometimes it comes back when it shouldn’t.