Eye Witness Testimonies: Robert Feagan
Edited from interview with Carey Feagan and Van Mariner
I graduated from high school in 1969 and was drafted six weeks later. After I got my physical, the government stopped the draft and made up the lottery system, where they put all days of the year in a pot and drew them on national television. If your number was below 180 there was a good chance you had to go, if not you were “free.” So, since my number was under 180 decided to go to community college to try to get out of it. After a year I took a break from school and that’s when they got me. I had just turned twenty-one years old.
I went to boot camp at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and I ended up on a tank unit as my AIT, Advanced Basic Training. Then they took us to a big auditorium in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and told us that out of the last ten or eleven thousand trainees to come through, only six or eight of them ended up going to Vietnam. That was a relief, since no one was excited about going to Southeast Asia.
However, most of us ended up going after all. So before I left for Vietnam, I had to go through tank school. I drove a M-591 tank, which would hold about three to four people, one person driving inside and the rest sitting on top. At the end of the school everyone took a test and I scored the highest of everyone in my class, so I got a plaque that said, “Academic Achievements Award.” Then we got to go home for another month before we were shipped off.
The first place we stopped on the way over was Seattle, Washington, and the worst part of that was we got to meet up with all the soldiers who were coming home from Vietnam. The returning soldiers were real jerks; they had the attitude sort of like, “Yeah, I made it back; I’m the tough guy.” They called the ones who were on their way over “newbies,” and if I had a gun I probably would have shot half of them.
Since most of us had never been on an airplane, when they opened the gates for us to board, we all started running. We were all having a good time yelling and racing to the plane. When suddenly someone stopped and yelled, “What would our parents do if they knew we were running off to Vietnam?” That’s when it hit us that we were really going to Vietnam.
Our welcoming moment to the war was an old Colonel who said to us, “Get your blankity, blanks off that plane, you’ve got a war to fight.” Then they took us to a pavilion, they told us where we were staying and where we were going the next day. After that we had a two-day in-country orientation, where they taught us about booby traps, and other ways to survive.
The next day I took a truck out to my unit. My unit was one of the ones that stayed in the bush all the time. When they dropped me off, we were in a two-day maintenance stand down, which was something we would do every couple of months, where we stayed at a base. They dropped me off at a motor pool, by myself. But then a guy showed up and took me to the rest of the unit, and they showed me where to sleep, and my first night there the mosquitoes almost ate me alive.
About midnight that first night, I heard a bunch of people coming and it turned out it was the rest of the guys from my unit, who had gone out and gotten drunk. They were throwing each other in the mud puddles. They started to throw me in, but thank goodness they didn’t. Everyone had a nickname, and mine was Virginia, since that was where I was from. The next day we hit the bush.
Basically we had three platoons, with twelve tanks in each platoon. There were three big tanks and twelve APC’s, or Armed Personnel Carriers. What we did was set up in the old wagon formation, just like the cowboy and Indian days, where we usually stayed for about three days at a time. All day long we would ride through the bush which was more like trees, and jungle. It seemed like we were just looking for trouble every day. The first day I was there one of the guys on one of the APC’s, and the driver hit a stump and the guy fell off and hit a land mine. He had to have his leg amputated; it was not a very soothing welcome.
About once every two weeks, you had to go out at night and watch to make sure there was no movement in case the Vietcong were nearby. However, I always felt them around; they were everywhere. About six or eight of us would be sent out each night and we would take turns keeping watch. One night I went out, it rained the entire night; it had to be the most miserable day of my life; I stayed up the whole night because I was too scared to go to sleep. Usually each night you would tie a string to the whole group so you wouldn’t have to say anything if one of you heard something. You could just pull on the string. One of my first nights out there, we heard some Vietnamese making noise but they wouldn’t let us shoot because, they wanted them to shoot first.
I was there near the end of the war. Some of the guys in my platoon were there for their third or fourth tour. I had no clue why, but later I realized that they did it to escape the routine back in the states. They went with the mind set of, “I have a job to do and that’s what I’m going to do.” I knew one guy who found out he didn’t have enough money to support his family, so he reenlisted.
We got our supplies everyday by way of helicopter. We slept by setting up our cots in a little tent behind the tanks. Usually we had about one hot meal a day which wasn’t that bad. Most of the food rations we had were dated in the 1940s; you were lucky to find one from the 50s.
You had to take a malaria tablet every single day, unless you wanted to die of diarrhea. Almost every day when I woke up, I thought to myself, which one will get me first, the enemy, or the environment. The insects, snakes, and ants were terrible. One day I was driving my tank through the bush, and it felt like I ran into a brick wall, when really it was just a giant anthill that wouldn’t budge. Another time I ran into a tree, and just like rain, the ants started pouring down, and the only way you could get rid of them was to take every inch of your clothing off and spray yourself with tons of bug spray.
We moved our tanks in a formation that left about 50-60 feet between tanks, so that even if one tank hit a land mine, it wouldn’t get two of them, just the one. I did hit one land mine while I was there, but it didn’t hurt me; it just knocked the wind out of me. The Vietnamese were very smart. For instance, if they found a 500 lb bomb that was a dud, instead of making one big bomb out of it they would make a lot of 50 lb bombs. They were so ingenious, and could make something out of nothing. They could take leftover mess kits, and make traps with them. Their mortars were set by evaporating water; they would set the mortars in the water and when the water evaporated, the mortars would shoot themselves out. They also kept everything they found. Once I even saw where they used soda cans to make the siding on their houses.
There were two different groups of people in the army. The alcohol group, which the army promoted, since they would bring beer out into the field sometimes. If you didn’t fit in with them, you would fit in with the dopers at nighttime. I personally stayed with the alcohol group. The dope was everywhere over there. Once I heard some guys who were mad because they wasted all of their money on what they thought to be dope, which turned out to be only soap powder.
We saw a lot of orphaned kids, many of which were half-white, half-Vietnamese. Sometimes when we went through the villages, the kids would do anything they could to get food, and you had to hit them with your rifles to keep them from stealing from you. A lot of the time we would save some of our rations, the kind that we didn’t like, and we would give them to kids to keep them from crawling all over the tanks.By the end of my tour in Vietnam, I probably used about half of what they had taught me. We ended up learning more useful information in the two-day school when we got there than we did in the six-month training that we received back home. After the war was over, I kept in touch of some of my buddies for a while, but then lost touch with them.
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