tv John Walker Interview on the Vietnam War CSPAN June 1, 2018 2:31am-3:09am EDT
>> if you took humans and cleared them of all of our civilizational education and put them in their national -- in their natural environment, we would be teaming up in little bands and troops, defending ourselves against animals and other bands and troops, because that is what our nature is. that is the point of lord of the flies. you have these kids who were the pinnacle of western civilization at the time. they came from a british boarding school and almost instantly, the second you put them back in a natural environment, they become tribal and superstitious, they kill each other. that is humanity. >> watch afterwards, sunday night at 9 pm eastern on c-span 2 is book tv. this is an oral history interview with john walker,
u.s. army retired. on monday, september 21 at 3 pm. we are located at the association of the united states army building on wilson boulevard in arlington virginia. sir, before we talk about your experiences in vietnam, i would like to get a little biographic information about you if i could. >> yes sir. >> where and when were you born? >> i was born in a little town called beaver, virginia. december 16, 1947. >> you were a young man. who were your family members? >> well, i have a father who is still living today. he is 96 years of age and a world war ii veteran. my mom is also living and she is 95 years old. they are both independent. they are both living alone and they take care of themselves. >> take care of themselves. brothers and sisters?
>> i have two sisters and i am in the middle, so i caught hell. >> they kept you on the straight and narrow, though, didn't they? >> yes sir. >> and your hometown? >> my hometown is hampton, virginia. >> when did you enter the army? >> i entered the army march 7, 1947. 1967. yes sir. 1967. >> drafted or enlisted? >> i enlisted. there were reasons why i enlisted. the vietnam war was going hot and heavy and i had lost one family member, staff sergeant joy franklin walker, was killed in vietnam. he was in the first calve. -- in the first cavalry. >> what was his relation to you?
>> he was my cousin. then i had a friend i attended high school with. he also was drafted and they both were in the infantry. i decided to volunteer. the reason i decided to volunteer was i had the opportunity to choose my own career field. and i did. and i had a good career field. it wasn't combat arms. it wasn't infantry and i was very pleased about that. >> what was your sense of the vietnam war before you decided to enlist? >> i looked at the news one morning and i saw an article about vietnam and i saw some of the people and i saw the kids, some of the kids. i said to myself, i wish there is some way i can help them out. that was a contributing factor as to why i decided to volunteer.
when i volunteered, i was very pleased to get in the aviation field, versus combat arms. >> doing what? >> i was a 67 november, helicopter mechanic. >> mechanic. >> yes sir. working on the huey's and the delta models. and eventually the cobras. and the cranes a little bit and the chinooks. >> and the chinooks. >> yes sir. >> where did you do your training? basic and then advanced. >> my basic training was at fort bragg, north carolina. i will never forget, that was the unit i was assigned to. my number when i volunteered was -- check it out, you will find it is correct. >> [ laughter ] i am sure it
is. what training did you get for your mos? >> i received training in virginia. the school was very high-tech and they taught me the basic schools as to how to disassemble the uh one helicopter, how to reassemble and how to work on various components of the helicopter, very good training. >> you must've thought you are never going to get out of virginia. >> you are absolutely right, sir. it was nice, because it was only 15 miles from my home. i wasn't afforded the opportunity to go home. >> when were you assigned to vietnam? when did you leave for vietnam? >> i will never forget that day. i left for vietnam, i want to
say in march. it was fort lewis washington and it was raining. i said to myself, oh my god, what a miserable day. >> 1967 or 1968? >> 1967 when i left. it was the later part of 1967 when i went to fort lewis, washington. we left fort lewis, it was a miserable, dreary day. very depressing. it was me and several hundred other soldiers on the aircraft. then we proceeded on to hawaii. from hawaii, we went straight to vietnam. >> what were your first impressions on landing there? >> we landed at night and as
you look out the window, you could see the mountains. we heard the sounds, once we got off the aircraft, of artillery going off. i said to myself, what the hell have i gotten myself into? once i got used to the sound and the terrific odor of vietnam, it was kind of easy rolling from there. >> once you got off that plane, how did you get assigned to your permanent location and unit? >> they put us all in formation once you got off the airplane and they broke us down by mos. once they did that, there was a personnel search into came out and took whatever mos organizations needed and they assigned you from there. when i left, everyone in the aviation unit was in a c-130 and we were all flown to the
air force base. from the air force base we were trucked to a little camp called camp holloway. >> i know it well. >> yes sir. so you know about bikini beach? >> oh yeah. >> the buccaneers. yes sir. >> once you are there, what is your daily routine like? >> it took some adjusting. because once we arrived there, a few months later, the monsoon season, it rained. excuse my expression, but i am going to say it anyway, like a cow peeing on a flat rock. there was red mud all over the place and it was miserable. after the monsoon season, it wasn't that bad. there was a routine, preparing
the aircraft for daily missions. the most horrific thing i experienced, and it still sticks in my mind today, was the first aircraft that returned that had the blood inside and parts -- >> people. >> yes sir. some of the parts were so fresh, fresh is the wrong word, i don't know how to describe it, but the nerves were still moving a little bit. that was very horrific for me. if you have ever smelled the smell of blood washed out of a helicopter with water, that odor never goes away. that and burning flesh, because we did have people who were rescued by some of our aircraft. the aircraft returned to the unit and that odor was still in
the aircraft. very hard to get used to. very hard. >> what were your living conditions like? >> compared to the infantry, it was the holiday inn, but it still had its drawbacks. we lived in little places called hooch's. they were one or two men hooch's. we had vietnamese ladies who took care of our personal needs, ironed our clothes, washed our clothes, doing all the manual labor. >> polished your boots. >> yes sir, polished boots. even eating some of the child they prepared. it took some getting accustomed -- >> what were your impressions of the vietnamese people that you had anything to do with?
>> excuse me, when i first arrived, i was really skeptical of the people. i didn't trust anyone. from what they told us, prior to arriving in vietnam. i tried to watch my p's and q's, and i closely watched them, because i didn't know what they were going to do. once i began to learn them and see that some of them caused no harm, it was easier for me to deal with some of those people. even the little kids, i was skeptical of talking to or getting close to, because of things that had occurred. and i won't go into the things that had occurred. >> describe your friendships with and your impressions of your fellow soldiers, the people you worked and lived with. >> i had a good relationship
with a lot of my soldiers. there was one in particular, i can't think of his name. he was a young man that was drafted and he was going to princeton university. i guess his grades were good, i don't know, he was drafted. he and i became very close. because of him, i kind of kept on the straight and narrow path. because, mind you, when i went to vietnam i was only 19 years old. and he was 23, 24, much more mature than i point he taught me how to play chess. he taught me not to hang around with certain people and i followed his lead, because in vietnam, the aviation section, we had minorities, but we had more white than we had minorities.
i think that had a big impact on me keeping straight, because it kept me straight and i followed their lead. i wish i could think of his name, because i would like to thank him. because of him, i didn't use drugs. this is a very true story. they were trying their best to get me to use marijuana and illegal drugs in vietnam. excuse my language, i know you can't put it on the tape, but i will tell you exactly what i told him. they tried to encourage me to use drugs and i looked at those guys and i said, look, i'm not going to get involved with drugs. i lived 19 years without you s.o.b.'s, so get out of my face. they left me alone. later on, people associated with them started talking to me.
next thing i knew, we outnumbered the ones who are doing the drugs. yes sir. we started outnumbering the ones that were using the drugs. i felt very good about that, because you didn't have too many people who had the courage to say no. peer pressure was really, really tough back in those days. another incident that occurred was when martin luther king was assassinated. there were some minorities, blacks in particular, who wanted to go out and do things and say things that wasn't right. again, i stood up against them and said this isn't the right thing to do. that is when all of this, chow lines, holding up, you know what i am talking about. that occurred. there were some big racial problems in vietnam, because of martin luther king's assassination in 1968.
but i was strong enough to where it didn't affect me. >> now, you were repairing, fixing aircraft. >> yes sir. >> did you, did you have any flight duties? did you do a turn as a door gunner or anything like that? >> i was never a crew chief or a door gunner, however i did go out on recovery missions when aircraft were shot down and went down because of maintenance problems. i was part of a maintenance team and we did go out and recover aircraft. >> so you saw a little more of the country. >> yes sir. more than i wanted to see. >> did you form friendships with men from different racial and social backgrounds during your time in vietnam that you
might never have had in civilian life? >> yes sir. the one i was telling you about was the gentleman who taught me how to play chess. i became very close. i never did get close to any of the vietnamese. i don't know, there was always a thin line there, where i didn't get close. they had to show me more positive things, before i could get close to them. >> what did you do for recreation, off-duty? >> we had a theater on the compound. if we didn't receive any mortars or rocket attacks, i would often go to to the movies. i was reluctant to go there, because if someone knew we were all gathered at the theater, sometimes that is when we would get hit. i said back with that, i chose not to go.
we played football. we played baseball on the compound. that was about it. played a lot of cards. play chess. that is about it. >> what is your most vivid memory of your tour in vietnam? >> i suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder because of some of those events. it took a lot to bring them out of me, talking with other veterans, i was able to get it out. what drove me to force the issue is because of the combat situation now, where afghan and direct veterans are getting treated much better than we were treated.
as i was listening to what they were saying, i said to myself, heck, i went to vietnam and i am suffering from the same stuff that they are suffering from. that is when i applied. there were two events that stick in my mind. it took me some time to bring it out and talk to my psychiatrist about it, but i tell you. we had a man, when i was assigned to the first aviation brigade, small helicopter company. we had pathfinders assigned to the organization. those pathfinders provided outside perimeter security and occasionally they would catch vietnamese, never vietcong, but vietnamese and they would either shoot them, cut their throats, or kill them. this battalion commander would take those bodies and have those pathfinders string them up by the gate. as the vietnamese entered the compound, they would see those bodies and i guess that was to
deter people coming on base, i don't know, but to this day, i still have issues about that. but it is not the vietnamese bodies i see, sometimes, it is me. i wake up. that still sticks in my mind today. the other event, we had a helicopter out on a mission. there was a pilot by the name of mister hanson, who was in another aircraft when the aircraft went down. another aircraft went to pick him up and, you can check this story out, it is on the record. he was able to jump to the skids of the aircraft and as he jumped to the skids of the aircraft and was trying to hold on, the aircraft proceeded to take off and got about 500 feet. his hands were holding on so
tight. he couldn't hold on no more and he fell off, to his death i assume, because they never did find him. when that aircraft returned to the compound, i saw where his hands were and some of his skin from his fingers, underneath the skids on the huey helicopter. i had to clean that off. those two events stick with me. sometimes it's not mister hanson falling, it is me falling. yes. >> describe for me the best day you had during your tour. >> i guess you could say the best day i had was getting the hell out of there. >> a lot of people say the last day -- >> the last day was the best day. >> we will come back to that in
a minute. describe for me the worst day you had during your tour. >> the very worst day, being 19 years old, was celebrating the holidays. thanksgiving. i am from a real tight family, we would have a huge thanksgiving dinner. if you had duty, which i did, one out of these two days, it really bothered me because i couldn't focus on what i was supposed to do, because my mind was on that thanksgiving dinner that was prepared by the family . i missed all the relatives. thanksgiving was one of those days. the other one was christmas. even though we got care boxes from the families and the little candy bars and munchies and goodies, christmas was very hard to deal with.
>> how much contact, if any, did you have with our allies? the australians, the koreans, any of those? >> i didn't have any contact with them, however, at fort rucker, they were training some vietnamese helicopter people and i did interact with the very few of them, when they would land on the airfield at camp holloway. it wasn't really close. i didn't exchange any words or maintenance procedures with their technicians. it was just in passing. >> just in passing. >> yes sir. >> how much contacted you have with your family back home? >> the only contact back in those days was letters and talking over the phone, where
the conversation was really controlled. over. out. you couldn't say all the things you wanted to say, because it was monitored. it's not like today. >> how much news did you receive about the war? >> i received none from home. the only news that we received, and, they only reported what you wanted to hear. from the soldiers. because i think if they reported what was really happening, it would affect the lives of shoulders -- of soldiers out in the field. it was definitely censored.
>> were you aware of political movements going on back home? antiwar stuff? >> not too much sir and i will tell you later on where i experienced that, but as far as the politics and what is -- and what was going on, i didn't know much about it, except what they wanted us to know. i would hear it from other soldiers who say we can't fight this battle the way we want to, because our headquarters says we can't fire here, we have to get permission to fire there. i guess it was winding down in 68 and 69 and there were a lot of restrictions put on combat arms units, including helicopter units. you could see things and not return fire, even if you were
fired upon. >> when did you return home? what date? >> i want to say it was may or july, in 1970. >> oh, you stay two or three years? >> i stayed one year, i enlisted in 67 and with all my training, it was one year that- ites -- one year that i stayed. then i came back to fort houston. i was an instructor and i got angry with some of my subordinates so i volunteered to go back to vietnam, just to get out of there. that was seven months. i stayed one year, one year and seven months, was my tour of duty in vietnam. >> tell me about your return home. your return home from the bad
ugly. >> i returned home to fort lewis, washington. prior to going to fort lewis, they dressed us in khaki uniforms. they gave us khaki uniforms to wear. i went to the airport and looked at some of those people. i said something is not right. then i heard some yelling from other soldiers. i said something is going on, something's not right. then they came and told me he was spit on. i said who spit on you? let's go get him. he said don't worry about it, i will just change my clothes because there are too many people out there. so we went to the restroom and changed our clothes to civilian attire and we walked out. then we started talking amongst ourselves and some of them were saying they call them baby killers, they spat at some of them and got total disrespect. this was one of the reasons i
wear this hat right here. it says vietnam, desert storm, i was in both of them. a lot of civilians walk up to me and say thank you for your service, especially vietnam, because i know how you were treated. i just want to say, i apologize for all the people that mistreated you and thank you very much for your service. my response back to them, irregardless of what my feelings were, i think them for their support, because military personnel, i don't care what branch, they cannot do anything without the support of the civilians. >> what was your reception like from family and friends back home?
>> i was still welcomed by family and friends, because i was still loved. deeply. >> how much contact have you had with fellow soldiers, veterans, over the years? >> as it stands right now, every third wednesday of the month, there is a group of fellow soldiers, all sergeant major's of course, we get together and have lunch and talk issues. i am getting medical assistance from the va hospital in hampton, virginia. and to help with my posttraumatic and other medical conditions that i have, we get together as a group and talk to one another about our issues. that is a part of the healing process. i think without that, i would probably do something crazy. but i do have that outlet,
talking and communicating with other fellow soldiers. it is a very huge help. >> did you have any difficulty readjusting to life after the war? >> yes sir. i really did. i remember the first night, i was home with my mom and i had a nightmare. i jumped out of the bed. it is a two-story house. i jumped from the top floor all the way to the first floor. i was yelling out, they are coming. they are coming. this was a reflection of what happened in 1968. it was a horrific year. there were individuals outside our perimeter who tried to infiltrate and it sticks in my mind. my mom said, boy, you are crazy. the army messed you up. i said they didn't mess me up,
i am sorry, i just have reactions. loud bangs, loud noises, i am still fidgety to this day. >> is there any memory or experience from your time in vietnam that has stayed with you through the years and had a lasting influence or impact on your life? >> yes sir. one thing that really sticks in my mind is my promotion. i was in the army, i would say, eight months. i am 85. the reason for that was we had a formation one day and my first sergeant was first sergeant klein. he called all the soldiers were to be promoted by name and he called my name. i said what is my name being called for? long story short, i was the lowest e5, based on how i
performed my duties. so that sticks with me. i said to my fellow soldiers, if you do your job, do it right. you never know who is looking or watching what you do. irregardless of what you think of that person. that really sticks in my mind. >> did your experience in vietnam affect the way you think about veterans coming home from combat today? >> yes sir. i worry about them. the reason i worry about them, they do have issues. they have problems. sometimes, i think the civilian sector cannot relate to what they are going through. they need help and they are slow to respond. i am 100% disabled. i have a pacemaker. i have hypertension, i have
other medical conditions. but i retired in 97, i did not get that until about three years ago. that is too long. but i did apply, but i kept being denied, denied, denied. i think someone needs to step up to the plate and say we really need to help these veterans, because there are some out there where the issues aren't serious and there are some that are very, very serious. we need to have smart enough people to look at those guys and say, this guy or this gal has a real issue. we need to deal with it. >> how do you think the vietnam war is remembered in our society today? >> one lesson, i think that the americans will learn from the vietnam war, is regardless of
what conflict our country and our soldiers are in, they should be respected. the utmost respect for going over there and performing their duty. i think it will be remembered as a war where american soldiers were treated worst of all, once they returned, because you look at korea, look at world war i, world war ii when they return, they received the utmost respect, but not from vietnam. >> did you take away more from vietnam that was positive and useful than you invested in blood, sweat, tears? >> that is a tough question. the reason i say yes and no, i
don't want to go into detail, but yes and no. i have some bitterness today as to how we were treated. >> what lessons did you take from vietnam that you would like to pass on to future generations of americans? >> i would say, treat fellow soldiers and marines, coast guard, anyone involved in a conflict situation, even civilian personnel, with the utmost respect. treat them with dignity and try to understand what they are going through and help them when they return home. if help is needed. >> have you visited the vietnam veterans memorial in dc? >> yes sir. >> what are your thoughts when you go there?
>> having -- having friends lost in that war and seeing their names, i could only look at it one time. i was just overcome with sadness. when you see all those 50,000+ names on that wall, it is very breathtakingly sad. >> have you heard about the 50th anniversary of the vietnam war commemoration project? >> i've heard. i have heard it briefly, but i don't know complete detail. >> you think it is a good idea? >> i think it is an excellent idea. i think it should be done. we deserve it.
>> sergeant major walker, thank you. >> yes sir. this weekend, c-span's city tour takes you to fort worth texas. we will explore fort worth's literary scene and history. saturday at noon eastern on book tv, the history of the democratic party in texas, the book blue texas, the making of a multiracial democratic coalition in the civil rights era. >> the story i tell is how activists from different groups, african americans, mexican americans and whites, slowly came together and built an alliance, a coalition for civil rights and labor rights. >> then we will visit texas christian university special collections to see items from their "in their shoes" exhibit. on sunday at 2 pm eastern on
american history tv, we look back to jfk's visit where he gave an impromptu speech to thousands of spectators the morning he was assassinated. >> the other half of that day was in fort worth, where everything seems possible. where ideas were important, where leadership was important. that half of the day is important to remember. and then a visit to fort worth stockyards historic district, which was once home to the largest livestock industry in texas. watch saturday at noon eastern on c-span2 book tv and sunday at 2 pm on american history tv on c-span3, working with our cable affiliates as we explore america. this is tom with witness to war and i am here with dennis hain,