Lunch with a Veteran Tom Haines – Vietnam SNAFU!

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I’m Greg McIntyre and I’m here with Tom Haines, (not Tom Hanks) and his wife Nancy and she has just handed me this awesome art of Tom Haines, the author of ‘SNAFU My Vietnam Vacation — 1969.’ The art shows Tom standing as the peace symbol. That’s a big gun.

TH: That’s a M60.

GM: And the ammunition.

TH: That’s some heavy stuff. The rucksack that we carried was sixty pounds, then whatever else we carried was additional weight, boonies for an entire day being designated as the bearer of M60 ammunition, and at six foot three and one hundred-sixty-five pounds, it wasn’t easy.

GM: My grandfather was part of a three man machine gun unit in world war two marching from Le Harve, France into the battle of the Bulge, but three of them would split up that gun and carry it. Did you have a team you carried that with?

TH: No, but let me start from the beginning. I got my diploma and a BS in Marketing from Gannon University in one hand and my draft notice in the other.

GM: Where’s Gannon University?

TH: Erie, Pennsylvania. I graduated in 1967 and my dad was in the post office and I hadn’t got my draft notice handed to me but he knew I was on the list. He gave me a heads up and said, well, now you’ve got your choice. You can go into the Marines, or Coast Guard, or Navy, or Air, or Army, whatever and pick out what it is you want to do. That way you’re not stuck on going straight to combat for your training. Without a lot of thought I choose the Army because that was what my dad was in during world war two. In fact, he was shot in battle which took him out of action for six months.

So, I picked the Army, and then as far as what branch I wanted to go into, I got to the induction at the recruitment center and the gentleman there said, you are perfect material to be an officer. What I did was, I ended up being accepted at the officer candidate school at Fort Benning. I went to Fort Dix and went through basic training and then went through advanced infantry training. Then I was sent to Fort Benning for twelve weeks of officer candidate infantry training, so I was really qualified for the infantry. I decided to shorten my stay in the twelfth week along with seven other guys that quit as well. We were headed to the center for sending you to Vietnam. We were going to that compound and there was a First Sergeant behind a building looking around the corner out of a B-Movie going, ‘Pssst, psssst,’ he was giving us the sign of, come over here I need to talk with you. So, we went over and he said, Guys, I’m the First Sergeant of the Scout Dog Unit, I need four scout dog handlers. The training will take an extra twelve weeks and who knows, the war may be over by then. I remembered the only advice my dad gave me, don’t ever volunteer. So, what did I do, I volunteered.

They took us to the scout dog unit and next morning he calls us in to give us our assignments and he said, guys, I lied to you. We all went, oh no. He said, I don’t need any scout dog handlers, what I need is a truck dispatcher, a veterinary technician, a clerk typist and a supply specialist and luckily each one of us picked the one we wanted and there were no conflicts. So, for the next year I was at Fort Benning in the scout dog unit.

I had about nine months left in the service and every time my orders came down from Vietnam my First Sergeant would pull them. He said, I can’t let this guy go. He’s too crucial to the running of this unit. Well, he was on vacation when the orders came in so there was no one to pull them. So, we got our orders to go to Vietnam.

When I got there, I had three days for my processing, and when that was done we went to this one room and everyone there was saying, the guy behind that door is going to send everyone in this room to somewhere in Vietnam. We had no idea where, whether it was safe or not, of course there was nowhere safe in Vietnam but it was all up to that guy. So, it came my turn to go in the room and he had his head down doing some paperwork and then he looked up and I said, you’ve got to be kidding me, he was one of the other four guys who didn’t volunteer for the scout dog unit. He said, he got off the plane and they saw he had a college degree and sat him right down and he hadn’t been more than a mile from that building the whole time he was there. So, he said, where do you want to go? And I said, some place safe. He said, I can’t make you as safe as the gold in Fort Knox but I can send you to some place that’s not showing much action right now. I’ll send you to Pleiku. At Pleiku and I went to sign in with another First Sergeant and he looked at my orders and just about blew it. He said, what shit for brains sent you here as a specialist for supply? I said, I don’t know why, this is what they gave me. So, he said, I don’t need you in supply let’s look at your records, what’s your secondary MOS. Well, I was more qualified for the infantry than almost 95% of people in Vietnam. He asked me, do you have a military driving license? No. Do you know anything about engines? I can’t tell the front from the back. Can you drive a jeep? Not really. And he said, you’re not making this easy for me son. Then he said, do you know where to put gas in a jeep? I said, yeah, there’s a hole in the front next to the driver on the side. You’re my man, CO’s driver, you start tomorrow.

That was twice I was taken out of the infantry because of my college degree. At one point while I was there, I got really irritated because I was pulling guard anti-reaction, all these things where you’re on the ready to go out into the field if need be at the last second, which happened once, the rest of the time I was driving but I didn’t much of that because I kept getting put on the list. Well, he was walking up the plank and I had a bar of soap and I slammed it on the ground and he looked at me and said, you got a problem son? I said, yeah, when was the last time you saw me? He said, I don’t know, a week or two, I said, yeah, because I go on guard duty and right to reaction and back to guard duty, that’s not what I’m trained for. I want to go out in the field. He said, no, what I’ll do is send you somewhere about sixty miles away back in supply. Again, this was because I had a college degree. A lot of people said that didn’t take place but it did, a lot.

Being a driver ended up being a minus because I was all over the two core area of Vietnam where I was exposed to agent orange, and I am now suffering from that exposure.

GM: So, what’s the moral of this story?

TH: Get your education.

GM: But the military is always selective on who they send out and put in harm’s way.

I went in to the Navy before I finished my college degree and finished up while I was there and one of the main motivational factors to knock that out and move forward was that I knew the only difference between me and the officer was essentially a college degree. That’s important and it sounds like it had a big effect on what happened to you but you weren’t satisfied with that, you really wanted to see some action.

TH: Yeah, I was in that category, I’m invincible, I was 23 or 24 years old and it’s amazing how many people think that. When I was a kid I used to play war with those little green plastic men, creating situations but of course none of those guys were dead. They were all alive and aiming their rifles. You don’t really think of the fact that, well, it might be in the back of your mind but, I might get killed.

My dad might easily have died, he got shot in the back in a crossfire sniper attack, the bullet ricocheted of his trenching tool and missed his heart by this much. So, I knew that, and if you’re going to be in a battle, there is a chance you’re not coming back. I made a lot of impetuous decisions. The reason I dropped out of OCS was because it dawned on me that I was going to be responsible for the lives of 43 other people and I wasn’t prepared for that.

GM: They showed that in the movies of those days, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, there was a series at one time about Vietnam where they would put this young green officer out there with the enlisted gristled war vets.

TH: If you didn’t do your job, there was a chance that your own men would take you out. That happened more than once. My room-mate who went through all this with me until we got to that little room, they put him in an MP unit and I’m not sure where it was but he told me some stories where you just shake your head and say, this is insane. The war was insane in itself, there was no reason for us to be there.

The reason for being in Vietnam changed a number of times. Now we’re here for this reason, now we’ve got to stay because of this reason.

GM: Now, I wasn’t actually alive at that time but from what I’ve read, the initial reason to go in, or at least the way it was sold to the American people was to fight the spread of communism, to hold that line between North and South Vietnam.

TH: That was the initial reason. It changed because the head of the country, Diem died and the new guy coming in made everything worse. It was basically a civil war between North and South but we were fighting it as a regional kind of thing and afraid that communism would overtake the entire region, and thus make our situation a lot worse.

 

GM: That seemed to be the legitimate reason to be there in the beginning perhaps.

TH: Then we didn’t fight the war to win it.

GM: In fact, it was never declared an official war.

TH: It was not a war it was a conflict. What I got out of it was really interesting stories. I was only there for 5 months, 13 days, 12 hours, 7 minutes and 6 seconds, give or take a second, because I was short going over and they allowed you to get out of the Army early to go back to school. I didn’t want a Masters so I went to East Carolina University to their School of Art. I have a BFA candidate, and the reason for that is, I did all my course work, everything done but I never did my senior show which was a requirement to get your degree. That was because I went into the night club business and it started eating up all my time.

GM: Looking at your bio, it’s very interesting going from college in Pennsylvania to Vietnam to college in ECU and then to being in the night club business hanging out with all these cool cats in the day.

TH: The reason I ended up in the night club business was they tripled the tuition for out of state students. I’m from upstate New York in a little village called Endicott. That little village was the home of IBM. Because I was from New York my tuition was going to triple and I knew I couldn’t afford that but if I dropped out of school and went to work for six months in North Carolina then I could become a resident. So, I just went around looking for places to work and I found this night club that was closed, it was a pretty big one, capacity was close to eight hundred. I got an appointment with the owner and I said, I’m going to make this easy for you, I know what beer tastes like, I know what rock and roll sounds like, I’m your man. He said, okay, you know what beer tastes like, you know what rock and roll sounds like, you’ll work on commission won’t you? So, I did. We struggled for a year or two and the club ended up staying open for thirty years and a week. The main reason for that was, we decided early on that we weren’t just going to be a rock club. We did jazz, we did beach music, we did heavy metal, punk and pop, even Christian music two or three times a week.

GM: Did you evolve with the times?

TH: We didn’t change with the times because we never got involved with disco. That came in really heavy during the time. We picked and choose the music we were going to do. We never did rap or country but we did a lot of country rock and blue grass. Then we latched onto comedy and starting doing that, and that got me into the comedy business after twenty years at the Attic. I switched over came to Charlotte and worked with the comedy zones, the largest comedy club.

GM: Did you manage the zone?

TH: I was part club owner and I did most of the booking. In fact, between me and one other guy at the company we booked more comedians than any agency on earth.

GM: Did you meet everyone personally?

TH: I met quite a few of them.

GM: Who are some of the people that you met?

TH: Let’s see, Ellen DeGeneres, Steve Harvey, Greg Allman, the list was quite extensive, I’m just drawing blanks right now. We did the Pointer Sisters and we did that when we were selected to do a concert on NBC at primetime. It was called the Blue Jean Network and we were the only night club in the history of the state to ever have a full concert on national primetime TV. That was a nice feather in the cap, and then a few years later Playboy magazine selected us as one of the top one hundred college bars in the country.

GM: That was the Attic in Greenville North Carolina?

TH: Yeah. We were also on the cover of Performance magazine which was the international magazine for the industry.

GM: It’s not your standard career path getting involved in night clubs and promotion and management but a career path and quite fun I guess.

TH: Oh yeah, it was, and going back to what you said earlier about Tom Hanks, I used to call Hollywood on a fairly regular basis, I never had a problem getting through because the second the secretary answered the phone, I’d say, just tell them Tom Haines is calling, and they heard Tom Hanks, and I never had a problem getting through to anybody.

GM: There’s a couple of things that interest me about military service and about the Vietnam war in particular, one is your experiences, and two is the psychological effects of what was going on between the different movements, the peace movement and the movement to end the war. You were over there at the time, right?

TH: It actually started before I went, the summer of love and all that.

GM: So, you were affected by that prior to going over?

TH: Right, in fact we were called into formation one morning but not at formation time so everybody was saying, what’s this about? They got us out there and usually it would be a First Sergeant or a Lieutenant who would talk to us, but it was the Captain. He said, gentlemen, the rest of our day is going to be focused on riot control. There were four or five different ways to control a riot, then he said, then we’re headed out to a college campus, but it ended up not happening, thank God. That was something I would definitely not been into.

GM: I feel the whole country was behind our world war two veterans but Vietnam veterans did not get that full backing, and it was because of the different views of whether this was a just war or what the purpose was, and how that affects you as a soldier who is over there, or do you not worry about it? Is it demoralizing?

TH: And the thing is one of the key elements of the war was, it was a guerilla war which gave us a slim chance of winning.

GM: I have spoken with people who said, during the day they worked with people who might have been an office clerk or something who might actually be involved with the movement on the other side who you would be fighting at night.

TH: I was driving back from, I wasn’t in a jeep, it was a two ton truck and I had just come back from delivering something, and there was this little boy walking down the road dragging this box behind him, he was real thin and really pitiful looking, and I stopped. I didn’t know there was a little girl straddling the ditch urinating, and she just jumped up and started bolting across this field, she thought I was going to molest her. There were all kinds of feelings about the Vietnamese people towards Americans, North Vietnamese, the Vietcong, and even the French before we got there. They’d been at war for three hundred years. So, then I looked at him and he was kind of startled, and I said, you want a ride, and he recognized the word ride and said, yeah, yeah, yeah, and he said, take home, and I said, yeah, I’ll take you home. So, he jumped in and I had a sub sandwich on the seat and he kept on eyeing it and I said, hungry, and he went into that thing and it was gone in a matter of seconds. Actually, when I stopped and picked him up, you know when you pick up a gallon a milk when you don’t know it’s empty, that’s how it was when I picked him up, I threw him into the air because I thought I would need the strength to pick him up, but I didn’t. He got a big kick out of that. So, we drove down into Pleiku and he said, house, and I said, I can’t take you there it’s off limits. He didn’t understand of course There was a sign that said, no military personnel beyond this point. Well, rules are meant to be broken, and so I broke a rule and turned into the neighborhood so to speak. It was just an unbelievable third world. The Vietnamese took care of their own homes very nicely, cleaned them and swept them, but once you were out of the house, the streets were just piled high as far as you could see with garbage. How often someone picked it up I don’t know, but it smelled pretty bad. So, I’m driving down the road and after about a half mile or so, he hits the floor hard, he went down and covered up his head and said, VC, VC. I looked out the window and there’s a guy standing there and he had a package in his hand, and our eyes locked and stared. I’m feeling for my M16 and there was a water buffalo crossing the road and we just stared at each other. The buffalo made it across the road and I started up again and I looked in the rearview mirror and he was just starring at us the whole time. I said to the kid, you sure he was VC? He nodded and said VC. He was very insistent. The people in Pleiku knew who were VC and who weren’t. That’s one of things that made the war so difficult, it was a guerilla war. Somebody said to me, you were in Pleiku, you must have been pretty safe during the war? No, rocket attacks would take place and there was always that fear of death but most people just accepted that they were going to get by. I ended up with about thirty percent PTSD from the experiences I encountered.

GM: Do you go into all those in your book SNAFU?

TH: Oh yeah, not all.

GM: I was reading the book and you have a very funny writing style.

TH: I was in the comedy business for twenty years and I wore all the hats. I was club owner, booker, I wrote comedy, I ended up on Jay Leno’s facts team and he closed with one of my jokes one night. I wrote for Carrot Top and a bunch of comedians, I also managed comedians. I co-managed Rodney Carrington, and I was on Carrot Tops management team.

GM: How do you think your military experience affected your life? How did that help, hurt or stimulate different course?

TH: It definitely set me on a different course, unintentional but it worked out pretty good in the end. If they hadn’t tripled tuition for out of state students, ECU was a party school but they did have a really good art school, school of medicine, school of business. It was a really good school but these people knew how to party, so, being ion the night club business, it was a good town to be in.

GM: Some people are interested in experiences, some are interested in going into the military and for me, going into the military enabled me to sort some things out, become independent, get out on my own and be disciplined I guess. I won’t say the military gave that to me but it certainly provided some structure that I felt I needed at the time. I was not ready to go to a place like ECU at eighteen.

TH: I had a lot of leadership positions when I was at Gannon, I was president of three different organizations, which is why they thought I would be perfect as an officer.

GM: You already had those leadership qualities at Gannon before you went into the military?

TH: Right. I want to tell you one more story before we wrap up because this was an interesting one. I had just gone on twenty-four hour guard duty, I had an eight or nine day beard growth because I was never in base camp I was always out doing other things, and some guy came up to me and said, do you know how to type? And I said, yeah, and he said, okay I got a thing for you, and they had me type up the death reports of two of the guys who were killed by our own men. It was a helicopter accident that decapitated one guy and killed the second one. They assigned a guy to work with me and this guy was like luney tunes to say the least. He was going through the guys things and putting this to go home and that to throw away but he decided to reverse it. He took a pack of condoms and a Playboy magazine to go home, and some letters he had written to his parents to get thrown away, and I said, what are doing? I made him change it over and that was the end of that, but while I was finishing it up, and you had to hit the keys on the typewriter pretty hard, this guy comes in and he says, is your name Haines? I said, yeah. He said, CO’s got a detail for you. I said, while don’t you go tell the CO to find someone else, I’m busy. He said, you can’t do that, anyway I’m off duty. So, I went up there and knocked on the door really hard and came in and immediately I said, sir whatever assignment you had I’m not going to be doing it, and he said, okay. Now, when someone says to their commanding officer, I’m not doing it, and the CO says, okay, that’s not right, so, I turned and said, just out of curiosity what was it you wanted me to do? He said, well, I saw you were from up-state New York and Miss America and her runner ups are going to be here and I thought you might just want to escort Miss New York state but you said you weren’t interested so. So, he said, sit down and we’ll discuss it, and he looked at me and said, when was the last time I saw you? Because of my nine day’s hair growth. Take today off, take two days off and make shaving part of that detail.

We went to pick up the girls and they flew in on a helicopter. They were coming towards us when another helicopter with all their stuff was landing and it was noisy. They were trying to introduce each other, and I shouted, which Miss state are you? And she said, huh, which mistake am I? I said, no, no, which miss state? She was Miss Kentucky and asked where I was from, and I said New York, and she grabbed this other girl by the arm and pulls her over, and said this is Patricia Burmeister and she is Miss New York state.

So, we were there escorts the whole time. There was a big show they were putting on that night and I checked the duty board and my name was down for guard duty so I was going to miss the whole show and I thought, that ain’t going to happen. What I did was go to her and I said, I’d like to see your show tonight, and she said, of course you’re going to see the show, why would you not, and I said I was put on guard duty. She said I think I can talk to someone and get you off, and she did. I watched the show and was back on guard duty the next morning.

GM: The book is called SNAFU and you can read about it at thebooksnafu.com where you can read three chapters of the book. Thank you, Tom for taking time to talk to me and thank you for your service.

TH: Thank you, I appreciate it.

If you have any questions you can contact my office at 704–259–7040.

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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