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Veterans give living history lesson on life at the front, aftermath

Visitors line the pathway in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., on Friday, May 2, 2014.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By TOM VOGT | The Columbian | Published: November 5, 2017

VANCOUVER, Wash — After a disastrous night mission, Army helicopter pilot Jim Voorhees walked into the base operations center. A clerk stared at him and stammered:

“You’re dead!”

Voorhees wasn’t dead, but two of his friends were. And their commanding officer spent more than 40 years trying to forget that night.

Forgetting doesn’t come easily for some people when every day brings another 50th anniversary of some aspect of the Vietnam War. The “50 years ago today” rolling chronicle of military action, social upheaval and political maneuvering is not always the only reminder:

The Marine Corps tattoo on Dave Pruett’s arm — created decades after he left Vietnam — practically glows.

The CIA’s Secret Operations calendar for 2017 shows where Ann Holland’s husband was last seen 49 years ago.

Marion Mullin, a retired nurse, hears echoes of artillery shells in Fourth of July fireworks.

They are some of the local people who played roles in the Vietnam War, including combat veterans such as Voorhees, Pruett, former Special Forces Capt. Larry Smith and Marine Corps veteran Bob Ferguson.

Pruett now volunteers at the Veterans Museum on Vancouver’s Veterans Affairs campus, near the local Vietnam Memorial and the “Lady Bell” helicopter.

Ferguson’s memories of the conflict were rekindled recently while watching Ken Burns’ film, “The Vietnam War.” Ferguson is not a fan of the documentary.

Different tours

Smith and Voorhees both served two tours in Vietnam. Each tour reflected a different approach to the war.

Voorhees first arrived during the thick of American involvement; the second tour came after the U.S. handed off the fight to the South Vietnamese.

“It was two different wars,” he said.

From May 1968 through May 1969, Voorhees flew troops into combat operations. When Voorhees returned in 1972, most American ground forces had left. He flew a Cobra gunship during the Easter Offensive, when North Vietnam’s army moved south in force.

“It was a lot more sophisticated enemy,” Voorhees said. “We hadn’t seen tanks before.”

Voorhees was one of several local veterans who participated in a recent Library of Congress oral history project. In a discussion with U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, who hosted the event, Voorhees said that he had a choice of assignments in 1968.

“I picked the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company. I was told it was based at an old Michelin rubber plantation and was 10 degrees cooler.”

That’s one example of how a young soldier might make life-changing decisions, by the way. Voorhees was training as a field artillery officer when he had a chance to go to flight school.

“I got flight pay, plus it delayed my Vietnam deployment by eight or nine months. Maybe the war would be over,” the Salmon Creek resident said. “It sounded better than a second lieutenant forward artillery observer. They didn’t tell us that one out of 12 Vietnam helicopter pilots didn’t come back.”

Going to a ‘goat rope’

Those deaths included two of Voorhees’ comrades. Arnold Sanford and Roger Auld were killed on April 23, 1969, during the night mission that almost claimed Voorhees’s life. As a short-timer, approaching the end of his tour, he worked in the operations center rather than flying missions, Voorhees said in a follow-up interview.

Then the unit, nicknamed the Robin Hoods, was assigned a lights-out night mission. It shaped up as a disaster waiting to happen: a “goat rope,” as Voorhees called it. Sanford wanted Voorhees to fly with him.

“You’re great flying at night,” Sanford told Voorhees.

When Voorhees was eating lunch in the mess hall, the commanding officer walked up and announced that Voorhees would be flying with him instead.

Auld replaced Voorhees in the seat next to Sanford. Voorhees was in the commanding officer’s aircraft, above the landing zone, when two helicopters collided.

“I’m looking out the window and I see two aircraft spinning, on fire,” Voorhees said. “We knew who it was: Arnie and Roger.”

When the Robin Hoods returned to the base they called Sherwood Forest, “My ops clerk was as white as a sheet.”

“You’re dead,” the clerk said, and pointed at the board where the mission was drawn up. Voorhees’s name was still listed on Sanford’s aircraft.

“Every April 23, I remember,” the 75-year-old veteran said. For 40 years, Voorhees would call their commanding officer on April 23 to talk about their fallen comrades, until about five years ago.

That’s when the CO told Voorhees, “I’m starting to forget. I love you, but don’t call me again.”

Smith had a similar close call with death.

“I was getting aboard an observation aircraft on a reconnaissance mission, to take a look at a trail network. I got called back. I needed to be at a meeting,” said Smith, who on Thursday will be honored as Clark County’s First Citizen.

“The guy was shot down an hour later.”

Ferguson recalled one situation that flipped on him, thanks to the family status of his commanding officer, Charles Robb. He was the son-in-law of President Lyndon Johnson.

Ferguson thought: “I’ve got to be in the safest place in Vietnam!”

Uh, no. Other Marines told Ferguson that Robb actually was a prime enemy target: “They’re trying to kill that guy.”

Ferguson was a forward air controller, which had absolutely nothing to do with working in a tower at an airport.

“You go out with the ground troops, and when you get in a bad situation, you call in air strikes,” Ferguson, 74, said. “A couple of times, I could feel the heat from the napalm.”

It was also the observer’s job to log the battlefield damage, including the casualty assessment that became known as the body count. He still has a couple of those pages.

Ferguson was in Vietnam for eight months, less time than he spent in military hospitals. He was on a supply run when an enemy soldier detonated an explosive just as the vehicle Ferguson was riding in drove over it. He was badly burned.

Ho, Ho, Ho

One of Pruett’s early memorable experiences came on Dec. 25, 1967, and it involved preparing for a bearded visitor from the north.

Pruett had just started his 19-month tour with an artillery unit when he heard a propaganda broadcast from North Vietnam. It was a special holiday greeting.

The radio personality known as Hanoi Hannah told the Marines at Pruett’s base that North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh would be coming for Christmas dinner.

“The base was on high alert,” said Pruett, who was working in the mess hall. “I was slicing bread with an M-16 slung on my shoulder.”

Two or three years ago, Pruett chose to get a permanent reminder of his service: a tattoo. The Marine Corps’ globe, anchor and eagle insignia is emerging from a flaming phoenix.

“I’ve always been proud of being a Marine,” said Pruett, who was part of a 155 mm howitzer crew.

The tattoo also represents his transition from boy to man, Pruett said, marking a process that started in boot camp. When you emerge, “You are a warrior.”

Pruett learned more about the warrior’s craft when he arrived in Vietnam, including recommendations for sleepwear.

“We were told on the first day to leave our boots on overnight. For three weeks, I slept with my boots on.

“Come on, I can take them off for one night! And that was the night we were hit,” the 69-year-old Vancouver resident said. “I ran to the bunker in my socks.”

Attrit till they quit

After graduating from college with a history degree, Larry Smith went to Vietnam in February 1966 as an Army platoon leader.

The war frequently shared headlines with news from the civil rights front. Smith, 75, grew up on an integrated naval base in South Carolina, but when he and a friend went to high school, they caught different buses to go to different schools: one for white students, the other for black students.

When Smith started college, Clemson University was segregated. His surroundings definitely changed in the Army.

“In 1966, a third of my platoon was African-Americans,” Smith said.

The mission of the Army’s 173rd Airborne could be summed up in one word, Smith said. Actually, it was more like half a word: Attrit.

It was shorthand for war of attrition, Smith said — inflict such heavy losses on Communist forces that the enemy would come to the bargaining table.

Smith returned to Vietnam as a Special Forces officer in late 1968 when the U.S. tried another approach, the Phoenix Program. The CIA project targeted Viet Cong officials who provided the infrastructure, known as VCI, for the guerilla war in South Vietnam.

Each province had a reconnaissance unit, manned by 50 to 175 Southeast Asians. Smith and his master sergeant were the only two Americans in his unit. It was a mix of Laotians, Cambodians, North Vietnamese who had come south and Montagnards — highland tribesmen who were nicknamed ‘Yards.

Despite that diversity, “I was impressed with how deeply loyal they were,” Smith said. “I never had anybody desert while I was there.”

That loyalty cost them.

“Anybody who was in Phoenix was marked for life,” Smith said. “By the end of the war, the VCI knew who they were. They all died.”

When their particular tours ended, the local veterans represented many now-familiar elements of the war.

Voorhees said he returned home in 1973, and “at the San Francisco airport, two girls spit on me and called me names. I thought that was a little unfortunate.”

Pruett said that he had some post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) issues. He was told that it was a result of “too many life-threatening situations in too short a time.”

Ferguson said that a grandchild posed a question that seems to reflect more than one little boy’s curiosity.

“My grandson asked why I lost the Vietnam War,” Ferguson said.

It’s a daunting question for any individual Vietnam veteran.

“They were kids who thought they all were in the right place, doing the right thing,” Ferguson said.

That’s one reason he takes issue with the Ken Burns documentary. Ferguson sees it as an incomplete look at the war — particularly from the perspective of the young Americans who fought in it.

“I’m not looking to vilify Ken Burns,” Ferguson said. “I want those young people to be remembered in the vein in which they served: with honor.”

©2017 The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)
Visit The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.) at www.columbian.com
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