I was drafted into the United States Army on May 6, 1968 at the ripe old age of 19 years, 6 months and 2 days. Government policy at the time was to draft all men into the military at 19 ½ years of age if they hadn’t already joined or had a deferment of some kind. I almost joined earlier that year, but backed out to take my chances with the draft.
Although draftees were a small minority (16%) in the U.S. armed forces, they comprised the bulk of infantry riflemen in Vietnam (88% in 1969). They accounted for more than half the army's battle deaths. Because of student and other deferments, the draft and the casualties fell disproportionately upon working-class youths, black and white.
My father and stepmother drove me down to the draft board office in Smithtown NY that morning where I checked in and was put on a bus for the ride to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn for induction. I remember staring out the window during the ride into Brooklyn wondering if I would live through this adventure and make it back home again after it was all over.
We arrived in at Fort Hamilton about an hour or so later, where we were interviewed and given a short physical. They asked a lot of questions to try and find out if we were medically fit, gay or mentally challenged. Not surprisingly, some were turned down. Those that were accepted, me included, were sent into in a room with lines painted on the floor and a large American flag in front. We were told to line up along the lines and then “asked” to step forward to "voluntarily" be sworn in.
At the final phase of the induction process, a military recruiting officer will order the Registrant, and any other Registrants present, to "line up on the line.” (a line, or several lines, is/are painted on the floor). A military recruiting officer will then order all those "joining the army,” (or whatever) to “take one step forward” … THOSE WHO LINE UP AS ORDERED AND TAKE ONE STEP FORWARD JUST "VOLUNTEERED!" BY TAKING ONE STEP FORWARD, YOU CONVERT YOUR "REGISTRANT" STATUS INTO THAT OF AN "INDUCTEE"!!!!
The oath is administered:"I, (state your name) do solemnly swear that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America and will defend it against all enemies foreign and domestic, and will obey the orders of the President and the officers appointed over me, so help me God."
Well, that was it, I was now the property of the United States Army. We were then lead out of the room and broken down into smaller groups depending where we were assigned. I was assigned to Fort Jackson in South Carolina, where ever that was. My group got on a bus for the ride to JFK airport in Queens. When our plane landed in Columbia South Carolina a few hours later, we were met by someone from the Army and put on another bus for the ride to Fort Jackson where the fun really started.
As soon as the bus pulled to a stop in front of the Reception Center, the meanest man I’ve ever come in contact with up to that point in my young life, jumps on the bus and starts yelling and screaming orders. “OFF THE BUS! DOUBLE TIME! LINE UP!" and all kind of crap like that.
I spent one week at the reception center where we were given haircuts, tested a lot and were issued our uniforms. Then it was off to 8 weeks of basic training (where I met much more mean men). Next it was 8 weeks of Advanced Individual Training (AIT) not to far from where I took basic training (the men were a lot less mean here, but not nice by a long shot) where we were actually taught to be infantryman. I graduated from AIT with the rank of PFC, issued my orders for Vietnam and then given 30 days leave.
When my leave was over I caught a plane out of JFK airport in Queens bound for San Francisco California. I spent one night in a hotel room crammed in with about 8 other guys. I slept on the floor that night. The next morning I reported to the Oakland Army Terminal to begin my processing for deployment to Vietnam. I spent a few days in Oakland before getting my orders and then boarded another bus ride to the airport where we boarded a Flying Tiger Airlines plane and headed out across the Pacific on a 25 hour plane ride.
Our first stop was in Hawaii where they refueled and changed crews. We were sent to a deserted terminal while this happened, where they could keep an eye on us. When we got back on the plane, attendance was taken and one guy had bailed. Next stop was Midway Island for refueling. Midway is literally just an airstrip in the middle of a lot of small islands. We were suppose to stop in Guam next, but a typhoon diverted us to the Philippines instead. Here they refueled and changed flight crews. The whole time up to now, we flew with the sun in daylight, but the rest of the way was in the dark.
Things got pretty quite on this last leg of our journey because reality was setting in fast. I did manage to sleep a little, but mostly I just did a lot of thinking and trying to imagine what was in store. Once over Vietnam, the stewardess announced we were over the country and to wake up and get ready for landing. I remember looking out the window; I had a window seat, and seeing the vast darkness and every once in a while, a small point of light.
It wasn’t long before we were landing at Bien Hoa airbase in Vietnam which about 20 miles northeast of Saigon. The date was October 6, 1968 somewhere around 11:00 at night if I remember correctly. Just before getting off the plane, the flight crew thanked us for flying Flying Tiger Airlines and said something like “We hope to see all of you back with us in a year for the ride home”. We all looked at each other wondering which of us here wouldn’t make that flight back to the "World".
Bien Hoa Air Base was located 20 mi (30 km) NE of Saigon and near the infamous LBJ (Long Bien jail), which was the in-country military prison compound. Bien Hoa was also a huge munitions storage area. The base itself was upgraded from an old French post, and still had many of the old French buildings and small concrete bunkers scattered around the perimeter.
If you want to read the best parts, check out my Vietnam Story blog.
HAPPY 40TH ANNIVERSARY TO ME HNT!