Joe Caterina (center) and his buddies in the tents that housed them in Vietnam.
by DEB WUETHRICH
When you ask a veteran what it was like to have served in Vietnam, you have to be prepared for a response of the senses — what they saw, how it smelled, and the sounds they heard. They saw what might have been a pretty, mountainous country were it not for the danger lurking everywhere. Rain and clouds were heavy companions at times.
“I had to know when I left my hootch how many steps it was to where I worked because it was raining so hard, I couldn’t see,” said Kent Naugle, who was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966 between his junior and senior year of college.
Joe Caterina, who joined the Marines in 1967, clearly recalls an experience of the senses when he got off the plane in DaNang the following July.
“It felt like walking into a furnace that smelled like manure,” he said.
Both men remember sounds such as the screaming of rockets overhead or an artillery barrage during a raid.
“You definitely wanted to know where the bunker was,” said Kent. He was there during the 1968 Tet offensive. Though their experiences are different with Kent serving with the 108th Artillery Group stationed mainly at a Firebase in Dong Ha, and Joe conducting search and destroy missions with the 2nd Batallion 9th Marines near the DMZ, the veterans share some common bonds, including one notable one — they are hesitant even today to talk of their experiences.
“It’s a lot different than people who haven’t been there perceive it,” said Kent. “It’s hard to describe that feeling; you don’t know if you’re going to be alive the next minute or not. An artillery round could come in. It’s a whole feeling nobody could understand without having been there.”
have never talked about this,” said Joe as he related how stressful it was to be in such a place. Still, sharing a stack
of photographs, he says, “But I didn’t bring a picture of death, but pictures of guys smiling, trying to keep
a stiff upper lip in the face of that.”
They could talk easily together about sliding in the never-ending mud, and how Hanoi Hannah, heard on the radio, always seemed to know things before they happened — a way the North Vietnamese would “mess with their heads,” as Joe put it. Beyond the common bonds, their perspectives differ somewhat because of their roles.
The 1962 THS graduate married his wife, Annette, on August 20 the year he was drafted and two months later, he left for Boot Camp. He took his basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, then was stationed at Fort Riley. When he was supposed to go to Vietnam, Annette was due to give birth.
“I told my 1st Sergeant and he put me TDY to another unit,” Kent said. Instead of taking a 26-day trip by ship, he was in a rear party charged with closing up the barracks. His daughter was born October 2. Then on December 8, he could delay no more and boarded a plane for Camron Bay.
“When I got there, nobody had ever heard of my unit,” he said. When he heard of a new artillery group south of DaNang, Kent said he conned his way onto an airplane he didn’t have orders for. “But that wasn’t my unit either,” he said. “There I was, wandering around with nothing with me but a baseball cap and a duffel bag.” Finally, he met someone who had seen a sign for the 108th Artillery group and took another flight to DaNang. He was able to rejoin his unit after another soldier picked him up from the airport where he was taking cover in a ditch. Then the unit was sent to a Firebase at Dong Ha.
Kent worked in Fire Direction Control, providing artillery support to the Marines. “We were shooting the big
guns,” he said. “We would decide which guns could hit the targets.” They were about seven miles from the
DMZ and also from the coast where Navy ships sat. “Sometimes there would be 10 B-52s in formation and it was called
an arch lite, and when they’d drop in the DMZ, you could feel it on the ground, seven miles away,” Kent said.
He recalled sleeping in an army cot during the day one time after a 12-hour shift. “They dropped one of those and it
threw me out of the cot onto the ground.”
Kent said he didn’t have a lot of contact with the people of the country, being at a firebase. “You couldn’t go down to the village because you wouldn’t come back,” he said. When he did get a day off, he’d sometimes join a convoy just to see some different scenery. Once, he got R&R and met his wife in Hawaii. Another time, he had a close call when shrapnel came in and shattered his glasses. He had to go to a hospital ship for replacement. As with others, music can transport him back to some of those times. Whenever he hears the Kenny Rogers song, “Ruby,” he is taken back to a time when he would visit a medical unit and still wonders how the medics spent their entire tours around such misery.
Kent was there almost a year, and when it was time to go home, he went to Fort Lewis, Washington, was discharged, and sent home within three days.
Joe followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, who had served in World War I and II, and signed up for a two-year stint with the Marines in December of 1967. He went to Boot Camp in San Diego.
“I was kind of used to the discipline because of my father being a training instructor for the Army Air Corps,” he said. When Joe got to DaNang he recalls standing in line and a Sgt. Major came up and chose five men from the line of fresh, clean Marines to go “up north.”
“I was thinking, ‘Where in the world is up north,’” Joe said, then they boarded a C-130 for Dong Ha. “I remember being there just a couple of days and we had to go out as replacements — into the boonies. Then I thought, ‘This is the end of the Earth,’ It was nothing except mountains and jungle grass. I mean nothing, no telephone poles or anything.”
Joe recalls regular ambushes by the enemy. “We lost a lot of people in the few months I was there, He said. “It seemed no matter what we did the North Vietnamese knew where we were.” He said it could get terribly hot but during the monsoon season, 18 inches of water would be on the ground in a 12-hour period.
“You’d literally slide down the hills,” he said. Also the choppers they depended on for supplies could not fly if it was cloudy. He later learned that former I-Corps generals described the conditions there as the toughest in Marine history.
Joe said the sounds of projectiles coming toward the men on the ground was hard to forget, and describes one that could be “the size of a Volkswagen Beetle” and level a mountaintop. “We were just grunts hoping the shells didn’t land on us and sometimes after they hit, pieces of trees and other debris would land on us from as far away as a half-mile.” In a place called the Asha Valley, his unit found evidence that the North Vietnamese Army had been there — and then they came out of hiding and started shooting.
He also recalls missions that would
last two to three weeks and when they came back, their clothes were literally rotting off and the soles of his boots were
“I’ll never forget how we were shipped back to DaNang for R&R to wait for replacements and we saw the South Vietnamese guys with clean uniforms and brand new weapons and boots. At that point, I had some questions about what we were doing.” He also recalls how tumultuous the times were, even in the U.S., with Martin Luther King having been killed when Joe was in Boot Camp, Bobby Kennedy when he was on the infantry trail, and the infamous Democratic convention.
“I had just turned 20 and was thinking, ‘What am I doing here when my own country is coming apart at the seams,'” Joe said.
In late February 1969, Joe was wounded and was medi-vaced out. He went to Australia for R&R, then had to return. In April, he was wounded again. This time he was sent to Okinawa, having 6 months of service time left. He was assigned to work at a Marine barracks in Pearl Harbor. “I had to have security clearance for that,” he said. “One of the funniest things when I got home in October was the people who asked, ‘What in the world did you do? The FBI came to ask questions about you.’”
While it was wonderful to be able to come home, both veterans say the transition took time. Stories of the cold reception by the American public are all too true. These men had fought in a different kind of war.
“I found out real quick, you couldn’t tell people where you’d been,” said Kent, “because it wasn’t good.”
“There were a lot of Americans who watched TV and thought we were all over there killing old folks and little kids,” Joe concurred, adding that soldiers would go to great lengths to avoid collateral damage. They said even other veterans kept their distance, which they found especially painful, even in the retelling.
“But somewhere in there, especially after 9-11, things changed,” Joe said, noting current troops come home to a welcoming public, and vets of all ages often receive thank you’s now for their service.
“We’re not the bad guys anymore,” Kent said.
Something Kent found different
when returning to Tecumseh was walking through the downtown without his weapon. “In Dong Ha, if you went out where civilians
were, you’d better have your weapon ready. It was tough to walk down the streets and not have it.”
Joe said it was hard for him to learn to sleep on a comfortable bed. “Sometimes I’d sleep on the floor,” he said.
Kent also related another experience. “In Dong Ha, we had radar scanning for incoming artillery and rockets. A siren would sound and you had seconds to beat the shell in the air to the ground,” Kent said. He lived on Pottawatamie Street near the fire station when he first came home. “I had trouble for awhile because I was used to hitting the floor whenever I heard the siren.”
Both say their experiences are never far from the surface. They don’t watch the many movies about the war. Joe walked out on Platoon. Had he known Forrest Gump had scenes from the war, Kent wouldn’t have seen that.
“There’s no way anybody making a movie can convey the horror we saw and some unbelievable circumstances,” said Joe.
Joe has never
visited The Wall, and probably won’t because he’s not comfortable in crowds. Kent said his son wanted to see Washington
a number of years back.
“I could see the Wall in the distance and I didn’t want to go over there,” he said with some difficulty. “After my family talked me into it, then I didn’t want to leave.”
The men agree that combat experience changes a person forever, and there are things that even wives, kids and ministers don’t know about them.
“I feel like the most fortunate person ever, to have been there and still
to be here, but you are never the same having experienced that,” said Joe. He said most of the men and women who serve
their country don’t consider themselves heroes; they were just doing what they felt they had to do, what veterans have
done for generations.
“I just did what any other Marine would do — what my father and grandfather, brothers and nephews did,” said Joe. “We just felt like we did what we had to do at the time.”