Lunch with a Veteran: The Real ‘Platoon’ Vietnam Story

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I’m Greg McIntyre and this is lunch with a veteran where we talk about the stories and experiences of people who served in our military. I’m here with Ray Kale and his wife Connie. Ray is a Vietnam veteran and Connie is a part of his story.

So, you were drafted into Vietnam. Where are you from originally?

RK: I was drafted April 26th 1966 and my best friend Tommy since sixth grade was drafted with me. We went to the induction center in Charlotte and I thought we would be able to go back home but they sent me straight to Fort Jackson. After one week at Fort Jackson they sent us to Fort Riley, Kansas. I did six weeks of basic training and then six weeks of advanced infantry training.

GM: Did they send you directly to Vietnam after basic?

RK: I got to come home for a leave after infantry training for thirty days, that was in August, then went back and while I was still doing the last bit of training in the field I got a call saying my father was sick, so I went home and he had already died. Then we left the first half of December, went to California and got on a ship for twenty-one days, and I was sick for twenty one days, that was a long way. The day before we landed they put us on a landing craft, loaded live ammunition and grenades, rifles, machine guns everything. There wasn’t a word spoken all the way to shore. We were all scared to death.

GM: You didn’t know what to expect.

RK: Right. When the ramp went down there was a band playing welcoming us there. They loaded us on trucks, there was about two thousand of us, so a long convoy of trucks, tanks and ACP carriers. The area had already been secured, I think by the 71st Airborne but I’m not sure. They cleared the area, so when we got there, it was just dirt with a berm around it. From there we started to make a couple of patrols. On the same patrols two people got killed and I’m not so sure there was any enemy out there but then we had a big ceremony and they really made up the stories. They don’t know what happens out there, they have to put a story with death or something.

Then we went to, well, I don’t know where we were. I was in recon, a thirty man squad. We wore soft hats, we didn’t wear the helmets and basically all we had were rifles and some grenades. Tommy was in the same company, Echo Company in Kansas. He was in the mortar platoon. Half way through our tour I went to the 450th Up north, I think I was in Charlie Company and he went to the Mekong Delta. They put him in the infantry there. They didn’t want everyone going home at the same time you see. I stayed a year. There was something every day, different highs every day and night. We didn’t get any rest and what people don’t realize is that it rained for six months, you basically never saw the sun, and then it’s clear for six months, you never saw a cloud. It was dusty half the year and muddy the other half.

We would ride on tanks or we were walking, that’s how we got around. We would put a handkerchief around our face but you would be covered in red dust. Your face would be like you had a red mask on.

I came home in April and went back to work where I was working before at Walmer’s Business Firms and Connie came to work there. Actually, it was a different job but the same department she was working in. That’s how I met her but she was engaged to be married and she got married a while after that. Her husband Dwayne went to Vietnam and he got killed July 28th. He was there three months in the 196th Infantry.

GM: Man, I mean war is hard isn’t it?

RK: That day I was working and my supervisor came up and said, they sent her to the front office and told her husband had got killed. That’s how it happened isn’t it?

CK: Yes.

RK: I don’t know how many got killed, I know it was a lot. In my platoon there were thirty of us and five got killed and ten or fifteen wounded. I was sick for one day the whole time I was there. I always wanted to get malaria cause then you got out of the field for one month but I got it after I came home. I was at Fort Eustace, Virginia and I got malaria and stayed in the hospital.

GM: How did you get malaria when you came home?

RK: I don’t know. You would take the iodine pills and put them in your water and it makes your water bitter. A lot of people wouldn’t do it. I don’t know if that was why but I didn’t get it. I did everything they told me to. I got malaria my last month and then when I got home I got malaria again. I went to the VA in Salisbury because the doctor here couldn’t treat me.

GM: I wonder how the natives in Vietnam deal with it? I guess they’re used to it?

RK: I don’t know but malaria is terrible. It makes you so weak.

GM: And you got it more than once?

CK: I guess something stays in your body.

GM: I guess.

CK: He would get really hot in the summertime.

RK: Yeah, I got sick at work one day, it was in July so it was really hot, and I got in my car and my teeth were chattering. I had the heater on in my car. Then I got sick at Fort Eustace and about died in my room before somebody came in. I bided my time up there.

CK: Maybe it was the leeches.

RK: Yeah, we had leeches.

GM: When you went in the water?

RK: You don’t have to be in water, they can be on the land. You would think it was mosquitos but I have more mosquitos in my back yard. We rented a place and the leeches would get all over you. You had to burn them off with a cigarette. You would have to put your boots inside your pants otherwise they would come right up on you but they still get on you. I’m trying to think of other things.

CK: You were supposed to be dead.

RK: Oh yeah. I went to a forward base camp, they were all forward base camps because we never came out of the field. I slept on the ground at least fifty weeks of the fifty-two I was there. They would come out to resupply us, and the helicopters wouldn’t even land, they would just kick it off, take our mail and they were gone.

The radio was quite heavy and someone had to carry it. This was when I was still in the 9th Infantry Recon Platoon, and there was thirty in that platoon. A normal platoon was about forty-four or something, so we split up three ways. We weren’t that far apart, but we couldn’t see each other for the brush and jungle. I asked this guy, will you carry this radio, I’ll give you five dollars if you carry it. Well, you’re not supposed to switch your squads, you stay where you were assigned. He agreed to carry it and he went in my squad and I went in his. Well they got ambushed and we heard the explosions and firing and everything, and we got all split up. So, I’m by myself and scared to death and I heard someone coming through the brush and it was the Sergeant. He had blood on his face and ears and he said they’re all dead. They weren’t all dead but he thought they were. They all got wounded. So, I went with him and went back and the guy was on the ground dead and the rest were wounded, but he had that radio. The wire so you can speak was cut and he had a spot of blood on his chest. That was the only mark on him but he was dead. So me and another guy had to carry him to a river because there was no clearing, we didn’t have time to clear, so we had to carry him to where the helicopters could come in and get him.

They called back to the camp and Tommy was there and they called out the names of the wounded and KIA’s and they had me as a KIA because that was where I was supposed to be. When I went to Washington DC to the monument the first person I looked up was that guy. For five dollars he lost his life. I saw that happen at other times too where people went where they weren’t supposed to.

I guess the worst thing that happened to me was guarding artillery, eight inch guns. You can’t hide from jets and artillery. Our artillery is fearsome. There was a one-seven-five (175) and a one-five-five (155). They were the biggest guns they had so they were always subject to attack. This was when I was with the 4th Division. It was a company of about two hundred and we had to build a perimeter around with foxholes but the artillery people didn’t dig foxholes. So, I took out what’s called a listening post. The part I remember was you set out the listening post. You have two guys and you sent them out in different directions from your camp. You take them way out there, and if the enemy comes up, they’re supposed to run back or they get killed. It was like a chicken in a cage out there.

GM: They didn’t have a radio or anything?

RK: Nope, no radio, they didn’t have anything, just a rifle and if it’s raining which it was a lot of the time, you just lay on the ground. Someone always had to be guarding. Whatever your position was, always one of you had to be awake, usually an hour at a time and then you rotate. Anyway, that night I was in a tent, we put up a tent made of two ponchos in front of the bunker and I took these guys out. That night about one o’clock, there was like a misty rain and pitch black and we started to get mortared and the LP’s, the two I set up came running back in, and the guy who was on guard he pulled me by my feet into the bunker. We would all have got killed if it weren’t for the bunkers because of the mortars. Then they tried to come in. I don’t know how many there were of them, at least several hundred because they wouldn’t have tried to attack the camp unless there was a bunch of them. It was such a roar, the noise.

When you get to the point where you’re afraid of being overrun, they take the guns and shoot beehive rounds which have hundreds of steel darts and shoot straight into the jungle. Just point blank shoot them. Then we always had artillery protection too, and they’re always set so all they have to do is fire for the effect, a fire barrage. So, the artillery strike was coming in and the two LP’s in front of me were, don’t shoot, don’t shoot, because the artillery was getting close to them. There was, we called them pom pom guns, two guns on a tank beside me and they cranked up and went over to reinforce that side where the enemy had come in.

The next morning, the Sergeant told me, you need to go over, take your men, your squad and piece up the bodies. So many times, things happened and you don’t see the enemy. I went over and there were dead everywhere, blood everywhere, they were just mangled, just mowed down. So we dragged them out.

Over in Vietnam, the goal was not to capture property, we didn’t take territory, all we did was, we were looking for the dead bodies, that’s what they were going by, the kill, so we always had to count bodies. Even the artillery kill we still had to count and call them back in. The kill ratio in Vietnam then was twelve to one, twelve Vietnamese to one American. We took them out and lined them up on the ground, I can picture it, and there was one still living, and they asked a medic to look at him and they said, don’t worry about him he’s not going to make it. So, we had an interpreter and he asked the guy what was going on, and all he said was, we walked in to a wall of steel. That was it, he was one of the thirty-seven bodies we laid out but I know there was a lot more killed. There was just so much blood, and there was a trail of blood down the trail. We didn’t go and check or anything. We loaded everything up and that day we pulled out.

There was two artillery guys killed and a helicopter that tried to come in and take the wounded out got shot down, so those four on it were killed. I didn’t see that, someone else saw it. The guy in the bunker he got wounded, shot, I got shrapnel. They were moving ammunition to the next foxhole, the Sergeant told me to send some more, I was E5 he was E6, you’ve got to do what they tell you. So, I told this guy and he said, I’m not going over there, and I said, you got to go, I’m E5 your Spec 4, so he ran over, got it and ran back. It was pitch black and I could feel my arm was all wet, warm and sticky like blood. When I woke up the next morning, I went over to get the bodies and there was smoke and the smell. Charges on our side were on fire, it looked like the forth of July. It was shooting out sparks and everything, lighting up the place. I was afraid it was going to blow up. The day after that you just move on wherever they take you. That was the worst thing. We did get ambushed, people got killed by friendly fire.

GM: I imagine it would be really confusing with everything going on?

RK: We didn’t even know where we were. They didn’t tell you where you were going, they’d just say, load up, the helicopters or transport will pick you up, especially helicopters. We were waiting on a runway in an operation and they always told us, one round will get you home, that’s what the saying was. I told my friend, you know it’s kind of dangerous us lying here all together waiting for the helicopters to come and get us. There was a roadway they were going to build, all they had was just the dirt, jungle cleared out. We were sitting there waiting to be picked up and I said to my friend Ben, we better go on the other side of the road where there’s no one else. I feared if you’re going to shoot somebody you’re going to look where the crowd is. So we went over there and a helicopter came over and they were firing because they were supporting another unit that was under fire, and they came over and I saw the smoke coming out of the guns and they were firing and went straight over us and killed the guy over in the group who had been sitting beside me. So it was a good thing we went over to the other side.

GM: Wow.

RK: Vietnam was laying in the mud and the rain, it was just being dirty the whole time, missing family mostly. The best part was when we came home. I was on interstate eighty-five sitting in a car with my mother and brother. My father had already died. To get to go home and sleep in my bed for the first time, I will always remember that, that was the best part.

CK: You have pictures that you would have to be in a totally different frame of mind to take. In our society it’s not something you would take pictures of. That always blew my mind.

RK: I told Connie, I didn’t get emotion about anything. That’s what you do when you’re on patrol. The Sergeant, he has to figure out where you’re going.

CK: He gets more emotional now in his old age.

RK: I do. When I came out of there I didn’t care. We followed this unit, there was two hundred of us, I don’t know how many of them, a bunch of them, artillery was always bombing stuff and they just buried their dead in their foxholes, so we had to dig them up and count them.

I’ll bet half of the people I served with are dead now.

GM: Just doesn’t seem like that long ago. You were young when you went. It seems like it was an absolutely crazy year.

RK: Yeah, but I’ll bet half of them are dead now. A Chinook took me out in to the field for the last time and about crashed in to a dead tree and they started walking and I thought, oh gosh, don’t let me die now.

GM: A lot of times I’ll interview veterans who spent a lot of their time learning a trade or they’re a doctor, your story is a lot different. You were drafted, went to boot camp, and dropped off to fight a war.

RK: Sometimes I’m a little bitter.

GM: I don’t know how something like that can positively affect the rest of your life?

RK: Nothing did, apart from Connie and I got married in 1970. I didn’t think much about it, but the older you get, the more sentimental you get. I think about the people who didn’t come home like Connie’s first husband Dwayne. You have your life cut off at twenty years old. They had a song out, Fortunate son, talking about the ones who didn’t have to go. You look at the last four Presidents, they didn’t have to go over there. I had a life that I didn’t want to give up but you get snatched up.

CK: Dwayne was in college in eastern Carolina and he came home, he was going to Gaston college and he took a break and they got him.

RK: My brother didn’t go, he stayed in college. I’ll be honest with you, I tried to get out of going to Vietnam. I was trying to get out because my father had died. I don’t think that was right. I didn’t get to be with my father for the last six months of his life. For my mother, my father died, I went to Vietnam, my brother was at western Carolina, my sister had a baby born dead and my mother had started to work. She was forty-two years old and I’m gone. I couldn’t help. I could have been there with her because she needed moral support. I’m not bitter but sometimes it doesn’t seem fair. I can picture a family worrying about their children who are in a war. I can say it was a good experience now that it’s over.

GM: I don’t know about that. I’m going to say, war is bad. But what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger maybe?

CK: The main part about it was how they just left and came home.

GM: Just left it unresolved.

CK: We watched a documentary the other day, the last days of Vietnam. The Vietnamese people were running trying to get on the airplanes because they didn’t want to be left there. They helped the Americans and knew they were going to be in trouble for it.

RK: I had a chance to kill two guys and I didn’t do it. They didn’t see me and they had shot down a helicopter. We would have had to go back to the village and look for whoever shot it down. I saw them, and they’re in green uniforms, you can’t spot anybody in those green uniforms, you just can’t see them. I could have picked them off with my rifle easily but I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. Other people opened fire on them. There was a little fence made out of sticks and a helicopter gunship came in and started firing rockets into the place they went. I know they got killed. We didn’t check it out, it would take too much time.

All that stuff is a lot louder in real life. It’s a lot more dramatic when you see a jet come over a tree line and you can see the pilot in there and the five-hundred pound bomb tumble out of it. We got ambushed going up a hill one night, it was real late. We should already have been set up for a start, and we shouldn’t have been on a trail either, but it was all trails and that jet came down and I saw it firing across the wings, sparks coming out from them. It could have got us. One of the guys I was with put his rifle to the Captains head and said, if I get killed I’m going to blow your brains out, if I get hit I’m going to blow your brains out. We needed to get away, or stop the firing. They had already cleared the hill for artillery. The artillery was awesome, just awesome what they could do. I could see why people in world war two got shell shock by the artillery though. It sounds nothing like it does on TV than it does in real life.

CK: Ray was saying, he has never seen a movie that really depicts how it was. All this rough talking, it was never like that.

RK: Those guys didn’t use foul language. All that extra stuff they wear, we had to stay in uniform, we had to shave every morning, no matter where you were, first thing in the morning so everybody is clean cut. We didn’t have to shine our boots though, but the helicopters pilots, people like them, spit shine boots, pressed uniforms, all that stuff. You’re still in the military when you’re there. You’re not free to do what you want.

GM: It doesn’t matter how you feel, you still have to get up and shave in the morning.

RK: I can’t tell you how many ambushes I was on where everybody was asleep but me. There was probably twenty of us, may be thirty. We were on the side of the road and I saw them coming, probably about a hundred of them, the North Vietnamese army walking down the road and they weren’t very far from us. We were up there in the brush, and all I can hear was the guy next to me snoring like crazy. So I’m trying to wake him up and keep him quiet and I’m the only one awake. I can’t call it in on the radio, I don’t know where the heck I am, I can’t call in artillery.

Another time we set one group up on the road and another group here, it was at night. It was right on the edge of the road, and they came this way and you’re supposed to call up to the other group so they’re prepared so they could shoot them when they came by. Well, I’m calling and nobody answers, I was the only one awake. Then a whole herd of water buffalo came over and almost trampled me to death, breathing over me, blowing air out.

I’ll tell you one more thing, all we did all day long was patrol, then we stopped in the evening where there was water, and there was plenty of water. We would be on high ground and dig a perimeter with foxholes. There was four to a foxhole, four feet deep and six feet long and two feet wide, just so all four could fit in there. I’m talking about the work, after walking all day with a fifty pound pack, then you had to clear a field of fire with a machete, cut down trees and take the logs, you fill up sand bags and put them on each side, put the logs across them, then sand bags across the logs, then set up the trip wires with claymore mines, and then the next morning, you take it all back down. You had to put the sand from the sandbags back in the foxhole, roll them all up, pack and go eat something. C rations, that’s all we had. The whole year I was there I did not eat ice cream, I did not have alcohol or eggs, only C rations.

CK: They would send them stuff.

RK: They would send us drinks but the people in camp would just send us the off-branch stuff. They would keep the cokes and stuff and send us the Canada Dry Winks, we loved those. And we had to drink them hot you know.

GM: Winks?

RK: Winks, W.I.N.K.

CK: It came in a green bottle.

RK: They sent them to us in cans.

GM: I know Canada Dry Ginger Ale?

RK: Well Canada Dry makes this Wink. It’s sort of like a Mountain Dew but they would give us all the crappy stuff and take all the good stuff out. We were treated like dirt. We were called grunts, the grunts were treated like dirt. They took us out one time in trucks and dropped us off, and we said, can we have one of those cold packs, they said, no you can’t have one. So, one day they said, get off the truck, and one guy grabbed the cooler and we took it with us.

They hated to see us coming. If we came into a big camp they knew we would rob them. They knew we would take their stuff.

GM: I’ll tell you, I love to hear these stories but that was a tough story, that was a tough experience.

RK: I think about my grandson, I would be going crazy thinking about it. At least in Vietnam, it was daylight there when it was dark over here.

CK: If it comes to my grandson, I’m grabbing him and running.

RK: The only time I got emotional was when those two artillery guys got killed. They were separating their personal stuff from their military stuff so they could send the personal stuff home, and I thought, you know, here it is, it’s midnight back home and their families don’t know they’re dead. They don’t know they’re dead yet.

CK: Dwayne was dead a month before I knew it. I was still sending letters, and it took a month to get the information to me. For weeks after that I would get packages in the mail where they were sending things back.

RK: We sent letters, not that they got everything but we did send letters. My mother always sent me care packages. I appreciated all the people who sent me stuff. It made the C rations a little better, Texas Pete and all that, try to doctor it up a little bit. My father died September 27th. When I went home he had already died when I got there, when I got back, I think I was there a week, when I got back to the camp they gave me my mail and it was from him. I got so confused, how can I be getting mail, he’s dead, and somebody broke in to my locker while I was gone and stole my stuff. There are thieves in the military too.

GM: I really appreciate your time and I want to thank you both for what you gave to our country, for your service and for your stories.

Contact me if you have any questions. Elder Law is what we do!

Greg McIntyre

greg@mcelderlaw.com

Elder Law Attorney
McIntyre Elder Law
123 W. Marion Street

Shelby, NC 28150

704–259–7040

 

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