We have two special friends and veterans here today, Bill Hardin and Larry Gamble. They were in high school together and I understand there were some twists and turns with the story.
BH: We went to Shelby high school, I was one year after Larry..
So, you knew each other in high school.
LG: Not at first. In August of 1967 I joined the Navy and went to boot camp in January 68. Well, I had a girlfriend.
This girl went to school in Burns and she was Bills age. When I came back from boot camp, she picked me up and we were riding down the road. This was probably February of 68. We came up on the police station and I saw this little blue Volkswagen sitting across the intersection looking at me like I’m an idiot, and I said, who’s that, and of course he, Bill, was also saying, who’s that, because he wanted to know who was in her car.
That was our first meeting of one another. I didn’t know him in school and he didn’t know me. We fought back and forth for several months, and she just played us both right in the middle.
So, you were both dating the same girl.
LG: Oh yeah. Well, the night of my birthday, me and her went out and Bill came to pick her up and her mother said, she’s gone out with Larry.
BH: I had taken her out the night before on her birthday.
LG: Yeah, her birthday was a day before mine. I guess Bill found out then that I was in the Navy, and he was in the process of going in to the Marines, so he went off to boot camp. Truly, I joined the Navy because I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so I go down to get my orders at Charleston at the end of May of 69, and lo and behold, they said, you’re going to Vietnam. I believe I left June the 7th of 69, and ironically Bill didn’t know I was going to Vietnam, and he was going to Vietnam on June 10th.
I had been there almost a week and it’s a Sunday, and I’m in a bulk fuel depot. I work in an office, and I’m going to mail a letter to my girlfriend at the Marine Post Office,
BH: Our girlfriend.
LG: Right, so, I go to drop my letter in and I can see it like it was yesterday, I look over to my left and there’s Bill in the back of the post office. I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me. So, I go back to my barracks and we were stationed from about here to the old courthouse apart, and I said, you’re not going to believe this guys, my biggest enemy in the whole wide world is at the Marine post office. At the end of that day I thought about it, well, I thought, let me go see what I can find out about this guy. So, I go back over there and I ask for him, and they said, he’s off work, and I’ll let Bill pick it up from here.
BH: All of a sudden someone comes into my Hooch which is a place where you stay, and says, hey Hardin, there’s some Navy guy wants to see you, and I’m thinking, I don’t know anyone in the Navy, not half way around the world I don’t, and all a sudden Larry walks in. My worst enemy in the world is standing right in front of me. I didn’t know whether to get up and hug him or slap him. I mean, there’s the guy who had been with my girlfriend. I didn’t know he was dating her at the time. Anyway, we got to talking and of course the subject comes up, have you heard from this girl, Larry said, yes, I hear from her all the time, he said, have you, and I said, yes. We got our letters out and they looked almost identical, except for the name. So, we decided right there it was time to break the ties with her and not have anything else to do with her, and we became really good friends. We were half way around the world and had things in common, Shelby, high school, and this girl, and so we became very good friends.
At Christmas time, Larry got a letter from one of his friends that said, one of you two is going to get a package from Shelby, because this girl is mailing a package to Vietnam. Well, we waited for the package and neither one of us got it. We don’t know where that one went to.
LG: We found out later it went to a guy in the army.
BH: Yeah, the army guy got the package. We saw each other most of the year but Larry got transferred down south somewhere.
LG: After 10 months, I got transferred to Saigon. I was on a YRBM which is a ship without a motor. The only motor it’s got is to turn the back so it can land helicopters. We had two helicopter pads on top of it, and 20 or 30 PBR’s hooked up to it at one time.
PBR’s are patrol boats?
LG: Yeah. There were 3 YRBM’s in the Mekong Delta, I was on number 2 right in the middle. When Nixon ordered us into Cambodia, I was on the second one. I had 2 months left, and here I am 19 years old, scared to death, standing watch on that thing at night, with red tracers going over my head. It wasn’t a funny thing but we survived.
A hooch is a barracks, right?
LG: Well, I had a barracks. My facilities were much nicer than Bills.
BH: Right, he had flushable commodes. Now, when I got over there, Marine, Army or whatever, every branch, and I’m not sure how to say this, but we had a one holer, now your job when first getting in country, is when the Sergeant tells you to go burn the sh*##ers. You pull the can out from the latrine and you dump it into another place and pour diesel fuel on it and burn it. It was a terrible smell but that’s all we had. Everybody used it. We had a guy who had just gotten in country, the Sergeant called his name and said, go burn the sh*##ers. We were out there doing what we were doing, and the next thing we know, we look around and the whole thing is on fire.
The whole toilet?
BH: He poured diesel fuel on the building and burned it down. He didn’t know what the Sergeant meant. It looked like it needed to be burned down. So, we had a whole new latrine built, and we got a five or six holer, a nice one. People would hang out and read mail. But we didn’t have flushable commodes.
LG: We worked basically every day of the ten months before I left, and every night we would go to the movie house to see ‘The Graduate’. I bet we saw ‘The Graduate’ at least fifty times. We saw that movie in a nice tin building.
BH: Over and over. When you went out in the field, this is how the facilities are. The CO’s had a hooch tent, and we had a little lean-to.
BH: I would go out in the bush quite a lot, either by helicopter or track vehicle, and they captured some VC while we were out. They would put mailbags around their heads, so they couldn’t see where they were going. A lot of times they would take them up in a helicopter and they would have urban soldiers, the south Vietnamese soldiers interrogate them. What they would do was try to talk to them and get them to talk. Nobody would say anything. The urban soldiers, they were the ones we were fighting with, they would take the mailbags off a few of them, and they were sitting on the back of a CH46 helicopter, and they would leave two with mailbags still on their heads, and interrogate them. Nobody would say anything but they didn’t know the bags were off anyone else, and when the ones with the bag on their heads didn’t answer, they would pitch them out the back of the helicopter. When they did that, they would turn to the other people without the bags on their head and start asking questions, and they would start talking quite a lot. That was the south Vietnamese doing the interrogating.
Well, I’m sure you guys experienced a ton over there.
BH: We saw quite a bit. Larry was with the bulk fuel which they had these huge tanks of airplane fuel, and it was in the field quite close to where I was. And the Vietnamese would rocket them.
LG: They would put a rocket right in the middle of those things and blow them up.
BH: It would just shake everything around, it was terrible. We got rocketed all the time.
LG: Each barracks had a bunker outside and we had to get in those things at least every other night. They were trying to disrupt the airbase, and nothing much happened to disrupt the base but we did have a lot of fires in those tanks.
You look like a bunch of kids running about out there.
BH: We were. I was eighteen years old.
From the pictures, it looks like a beautiful place.
LG: It is, it’s a beautiful country.
BH: They had really beautiful beaches when you got to see them. They would have concertina wire set up all around the beach.
LG: There was concertina wire everywhere to keep people from coming in on us. We had no liberty in DaNang. We had to stay on base. When I went down south, there was liberty down there. You felt like a king, you could go out on the town and all that.
BH: Yeah, they had concertina wire everywhere.
Was that like barbed wire?
BH: It is barbed razor wire. What we did in the field, each compound had barbed wire, layers of barbed wire wrapped around with razors. They would take beer cans and hook them with little rocks in them, and hang them up all the way around the immediate perimeter where we stayed. Then you would have people on guard that night. It was a free fire zone, and what I mean by that is, if you see anything moving you can shoot, it doesn’t matter, you don’t ask questions you just shoot. If you hear anything in the cans rattling, you just shoot, and the next morning you could go out and find out what it was.
A lot of the time you had the Vietnamese people who were there, they were called sappers, they were basically going on a suicide mission. They would strap explosives on their body, and usually they wouldn’t have any clothes on, and they would put grease all over their body so they could get through the wires as fast as they could to get into our compound and set themselves off. So, when you heard the cans shaking on the barbed wire, you just shoot and don’t worry about what it was until the next morning. Many times, in the bush, they had these little things called Rock Apes, like little monkeys. They would get in there and be shaking the barbed wire and the next morning you would go out and find these little monkeys hanging on the barbed wire.
That had to be nerve wracking the whole time.
BH: The whole thing was because you never knew, also you never knew who was VC. You couldn’t tell them apart, the north and south Vietnamese. The north Vietnamese, the NVA soldiers had uniforms on but the Vietcong they worked among you. We had a general that was on the first Marine Compound and his barber was caught one night carrying rockets, and he was VC. So, you never knew who was who.
LG: We were ninety miles from the DMZ, ninety miles from north Vietnam.
Well, with the times, in the Middle East, we have wars with blurry lines now. It seems after world war two things got a little different.
BH: Yeah, it was a completely different war, a different kind of war. You knew in world war two who you were fighting. In Vietnam, you didn’t have a clue, and you didn’t have a lot of backing from Washington either. The whole thing was political. We didn’t hear a lot of news over there, or a lot of what was going on back home. I remember in July 69, somebody told me there was a man on the moon, I said, really, what have you been smoking. I remember standing there looking up at the moon, and I said, surely there’s nobody up there because I didn’t believe the guy. Who was it, Pat Sajak on that show wheel of fortune, now he was a disc jockey for AFVN radio Vietnam when we were there. So, if we ever got to hear the radio, we would have heard him on there.
Korea may have been in the same category too.
The cold war, communist expansion. You know, keep it at bay, not really committing to the war like you said, identifying the enemy and going at it.
BH: When we came home, the Vietnam veteran was not treated like the world war two veterans at all. As a matter of fact, I landed in San Francisco coming home, had my uniform on. When we landed, there were these people who had flowers and stuff and I thought, this is pretty neat, they’re going to have a ceremony for us. We didn’t know. They had a ceremony all right, they called us every name in the book, they spit on us, it was not a welcome home I can tell you that. I left San Francisco and went to Los Angeles, from LA to Chicago, by the time I got to Chicago, I wanted to take my uniform off. I felt like people were really down on us but I had to go all the way back to Atlanta to get in, and then go to Charlotte. We were not given any sort of welcome home. So, when you here Vietnam veterans saying, ‘welcome home’ to another Vietnam veteran, we say that because we didn’t get that. I’m glad things have changed and the people who are serving are getting that. People have changed, if you have anything on that says ‘Veteran’, people go out of their way to come up to you and say, thank you for your service. I am so thankful that they do that.
Vietnam was a tough war and a tough time. It’s not fair to be under that much pressure and stress and go through everything Vietnam vets went through, and come home and be treated like crap by a lot of the people in this country. Regardless of your opinion on the war, it’s not an eighteen or nineteen year old kids fault, they just got drafted and went over there under orders. You served.
BH: Exactly, you served.
It does take a certain person to serve and sacrifice. You hope we have the leaders who will use the military right because the military is a tool at the disposal of politicians in Washington. If they don’t use the military correctly, it is not the fault of the people serving. I feel Vietnam veterans today are still fighting for the legitimacy of their service. That’s not right. They get more recognition now than when they came home.
LG: Yes, absolutely.
BH: I think you’re right. As I said, anywhere you go, if you have something on that says ‘Veteran’ on it, people acknowledge it, young people who weren’t even here at that time.
Vietnam does have some of the best movies, ‘Platoon’ for example.
BH: I remember going to the Cleveland mall when that movie started, I don’t know if I could watch the whole thing. Did you go with me Larry?
LG: Yeah, I think I did.
BH: I had to get up and walk out of there. It was real, that movie was real.
Well, I appreciate your service. I served in the Navy, I served with a lot of Marines. I don’t think people realize how close the Navy and Marines serve together. Now, I did not serve in an environment like Vietnam. The Middle East was an intense environment, like when I was showering in a gas mask, that’s an intense situation. That has to be multiplied a hundred times for what you’re talking about, things rattling and you know something is coming in, or blowing up fuel tanks next to you all the time, that must have been nerve wracking.
Bill, Larry, I appreciate your service and thank you for coming in here and talking with me.
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