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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Lee Wilson

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Object ID: WV0449.5.001

Description: Lee Wilson tells of her life in Las Vegas, Nevada, early education, and service in the United States Army Women’s Army Corps [WAC] and Army National Guard.

Summary:

Lee Wilson tells of her life in Las Vegas, Nevada, early education, and service in the United States Army Women’s Army Corps [WAC] and Army National Guard.

Wilson primarily documents her tour of duty in Vietnam as a WAC assigned to the engineering headquarters of Ben Hoa Air Base during the 1968 North Vietnamese Tet Offensive. She tells of weathering frequent artillery barrages, the destruction of various structures on base, and fighting defensive actions during ambushes. Wilson also mentions her love of skeet shooting, and details the trips that she took to Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Other topics include Wilson’s early life in Las Vegas, Nevada; he mother’s employment at the clandestine United States air base “Area 51”; her childhood observations of nearby nuclear testing; her views on women in the military; her time in the National Guard; and her later civilian life.

Creator: Lee Wilson

Biographical Info: Lee Wilson (b. 1947) served in the Women's Army Corps from 1966 to 1969 and the Army National Guard from 1979 to 1984.

Collection: Lee Wilson Papers

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Full Text:

Therese Strohmer:

Well, today is February 17th, 2010. And I’m in Apex, North Carolina, with Lee Wilson. And we’re here doing an oral history interview for the Women Veterans Oral History collection at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Lee, how would you like your name to read on your collection? 

Lee Wilson:

Just Lee Wilson.

TS:

Lee Wilson, okay.  Well Lee, thanks for doing the interview today. Why don’t we start off by you telling me a little bit about your background—like where you’re from, and where you grew up?

LW:

Okay. I was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada. I lived there until I really joined the army.

TS:

What was it like growing up in that area at that time?

LW:

It was fun. It was a small town back then, and our fun thing to do was go downtown and watch the tourists. You know, it was still real small.

[Extraneous comments redacted]

TS:

So, it was a more rural area?

LW:

Yeah, it really was. And we just grew up like other kids out in the middle of the desert. We used to play in the desert all the time.

TS:

What kind of things did you do for fun?

LW:

Well, my mom was a Boy Scout leader. So I used to have to go along with them, because Mom couldn’t leave me at home. [laughter] So I get to go out on all the neat Boy Scout trips, and down the Grand Canyon—

TS:

So you had some brothers and sisters growing up then?

LW:

Yeah. Brian—I had a brother that was six years older. But I don’t remember much—Well, I guess growing up we were typical brother and sister. And then he joined the navy. So it was just Mom and me. I mean, it was fun growing up in [Las] Vegas.

TS:

So what did your folks do for a living then?

LW:

Well, my dad ran a gun store—called “The Outdoorsman.” And then Mom worked at the police department for many years as a—I don’t what they are. She helped with the machinery and the people that talked to the cars. I can’t think what they’re called.

TS:

Dispatcher?

LW:

Dispatcher, yeah. So she was with that for years. Then she—later on, she went and worked for the state government. So—

TS:

Now, I remember that the last time we had talked you had mentioned that you lived kind of close to where “Area 52” [“Area 51”: a secretive military airbase located near Groom Lake] was at?

LW:

Well, not close, it was like forty-five miles, maybe. But that was one of the things where everybody would go out there and—Back then you didn’t think of it as a UFO [Unidentified Flying Object] site. You know, we just knew it was a secret base. In fact, my mother worked there for a while. And I remember they’d have to go out in a bus and be brought back on a bus. But it was just out in the desert, it was one of the neat parts of the desert. So everybody would go out there and just mess around in the desert. Of course, when it says “no-no,” we’re going to go check it out anyhow. [laughs] So—

TS:

The sign saying “keep away” made you—drew you in a little bit.

LW:

Back in that area too is also where they tested the nuclear bombs, and I remember standing downtown and seeing one go off. You could see them.

TS:

Do you remember what it looked like?

LW:

Yeah. It looked like a big orange cloud going up, and then it just turned white—you know, going way up high, because it would come up a range of mountains—we call them Mount Charleston and whatnot; which was a big mountain. You could look right over that and see it going up. We just never thought of it. It was just something that was out there.

TS:

Something the military was working on?

LW:

Yeah.  I remember seeing a couple of them.

TS:

Do you know—Approximately what year was this? What year range?

LW:

Probably in the fifties, early sixties, maybe?

TS:

Yeah.  Okay, so that’s after we dropped the bomb in Nagasaki and Hiroshima [Japan].

LW:

Oh yeah.

TS:

So you didn’t have—your family and your friends—you didn’t have any concern about those bombs going off close to you?

LW:

Not really.

TS:

No?

LW:

I think later on—when the big Cold War scare and all this—and they made you climb under the tables—that was kind of scary.  We never put it together that what we were watching out there was what we were talking about, but coming from the other side of the world.

TS:

Oh, I see. That’s interesting.

LW:

But I still—like hurricanes—when they talk about the kids in school getting under the chairs for the hurricanes and tornadoes, I go “I remember doing that for a nuclear attack—not smart.” [laughs]

TS:

Might not have given you a whole lot of protection. 

LW:

No, no, not really.

TS:

Then what are some of things that you did out in the desert? You had talked about some of the caving—exploring that you did.

LW:

Yeah. I went caving and they call it “spelunking” now, I think. My brother and I used to like to catch snakes. We’d cut them up and see what they had. We used to dig tunnels, but enough times they’d fall in on us that we decided that that wasn’t very smart. And horseback riding out in the desert. The desert’s beautiful. I still to this day love the desert. We’d just go out and play with what we could—find a hill and get a box and slide down the hill on it. We made our own, like, skateboards and go down hills on them.

TS:

Are there a lot of hills in the desert?

LW:

Yeah, believe it or not. Well, maybe not hills to—

TS:

Compared to North Carolina—

LW:

Yeah, compared to that. To us they were hills. [Laughs]

TS:

So growing up then, where did you go to high school?

LW:

I went to Rancho High School there in [Las] Vegas.

TS:

How did you like school growing up?

LW:

I liked it, in a way, but never realized until I got out of school that I couldn’t see. My eyesight was so bad. And nobody—They said, “well, eyes were tested all the time.” I don’t ever remember having my eyes tested, so I wasn’t very good at some of the stuff. That kind of was a hold back in the way.

TS:

Yeah. Do you remember anything that you particularly liked in school?

LW:

Science—I liked history, but I had a terrible teacher. In fact, I quit school and he was the reason. He was just a nasty old man. I mean I don’t know what it was—and not being able to really see stuff and he must have just thought I was dumb. He would try to embarrass me in class and things like that.

TS:

So when did you decide to quit school?

LW:

Probably in twelfth grade, right before graduation.

TS:

Yeah?

LW:

Yeah. I just said, “No, I’m going to do this anymore”.

TS:

What’d you folks think about that?

LW:

They weren’t too happy with me, but I wouldn’t go back. [chuckles]

TS:

So what did you think you were going to do then? Did you see—Did you feel like you had opportunities?

LW:

Not really. Back then you didn’t think about it. You know, as a young teeny bopper you just think you know everything.   So I went out and I found a job, and I always was a good typist. My boss said, “Lee, you’re a great typist but you’re missing little things”. He says, “have you had your eyes checked lately?”

I said, “No.”

He paid for me to go to the eye doctor, and that’s when I found out that I couldn’t see. And it was like a new world opening to me, you know. I couldn’t—I remember walking out with my first pair of glasses and it was, “Whoa, this is pretty!”

So I stayed with that for a while, and then just—off times—I had moved out and had got a cheesy little tiny apartment. A lot of my friends were girls that worked out at the air force base and what not. So I got to meet them, and they had dance nights or something. They’d try to get a bunch of girls to come on out to the base. So I started meeting a lot of military people.  And I was “Whoa, these people are pretty nice,” you know.

So a while later I said, “Well, let me check on this.” So I went over to the—I wanted to join the navy, because I liked their uniforms. But they wouldn’t let me go out on a ship back then. So I said, “Oh okay, well, bye.” I walked across the hall and talked to the army guy and joined the army.

TS:

Did you ever look at the [U.S.] Air Force or the Marines?   

LW:

No. The air force didn’t ever give rank fast enough, because I knew that from all the guys working around there. So, I said “no.” And the Marines—they didn’t —I don’t even know if they even had women back then. Again, they were so stereotypical. The army wasn’t quite that bad, but pretty close at the time, which I found out. But yeah, I joined the army then.

TS:

Did you know what kind of job you were going to be doing in the army?

LW:

No, they test you. And I knew that I would get into some kind of clerical work. So when I took the tests—I think in basic training they gave you the tests, and it pointed to clerical and supply, which I wasn’t thrilled about.  But, you know—

TS:

So what was it that motivated you to actually sign up? I mean, I know you said that you were interested—in what in particular?

LW:

In [Las] Vegas you could get a job working in an office, or you could try to get—well, you had to be twenty-one to work in the casinos, and I wasn’t twenty-one, and I really didn’t want to work in the casinos. They really were not that many job opportunities believe it or not.

TS:

What year are we talking about when you joined?

LW:

[Nineteen] Sixty-six.

TS:

Sixty-six, okay.

LW:

So, you know, I figured that the army was a good way to, you know, eventually get a better education and do something different. Yeah, do something different.

TS:

Good. Well, let me back up a little bit. If this is ’66, let’s go back to ’63—you would have been in high school?

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

That was when JFK [President John Fitzgerald Kennedy] was assassinated.

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

Do you remember that happening?

LW:

Yeah, I was sitting on the couch at home. I wasn’t feeling well that day, so I was sitting on the couch watching “Midway” —the movie “Midway” [most likely the documentary “The Battle of Midway,” as the film, “Midway,” was not released until 1976]—I still remember that. And all of a sudden they broke in and I said, “Oh, no.” So I quickly called my mother, and she was at work.  I told her and she couldn’t believe it.

She said, “You’re pulling my leg.”

And I said, “Momma, get to a radio or something.”

So she went out to her car, I think, and found out. It was just—everything just came to slam—you know, a stand still. So it was—Yeah, it was pretty shocking. He was—oh, I don’t even know how to express it now. It was like the wonder king or something. Everybody looked at him and his family, and you know, he was the greatest thing since whatever. So everybody was pretty shocked about it, I think.

TS:

So a lot of high expectations for things—

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

—that were going to be happening, maybe?

LW:

Yeah. The only thing that I didn’t like was they had like three or four days of watching the parade. They just played things over and over and over, which was just kind of just pulling you down instead of—

TS:

So the mourning was very heavy?

LW:

Yeah. They over-did the mourning bit. It was shocking. I remember it clearly.

TS:       So ’66, we are actually in Vietnam. Were you aware of that at the time?

LW:

Nope. I never heard of Vietnam until I applied. [chuckles]

TS:

Later, when you were in the service?

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

So in ’66 when you joined up, that wasn’t something that you knew about?

LW:

No.

TS:

Okay, so you’re starting out. In ’66 you were in the Army, how old were you? Less than twenty-one, you said—

LW:

I think I was almost twenty.

TS:

Yeah. Do you remember, like, about your first experience in the military? Can you tell me about that a little bit?

LW:

Basic training, I hated it [laughs]. It’s nothing like today’s basic training. It was very—you lived in a big barracks with about sixty women, maybe. I was not used to that. And I mean, they were nice. We had a good range of people, but it was just completely foreign to me.

TS:

What was it that you didn’t like about it?

LW:

They made you wear these stupid uniforms. We called them blue PT [physical training] uniforms. And you had to have them starched and it hurt to walk. [chuckles] I just didn’t like that. I was so glad to get out of basic [training]. We spent—we had an extra two weeks, because we were—not—When I said “wild” I don’t mean wild, but we were real—When we worked, we all had fun, like when we cleaned the restrooms. We’d get buckets of water and just throw them at each other—you know, make a mess and then clean it up. That was the kind of group we were. We had a ball, but the first sergeant really didn’t appreciate it. She had a nervous breakdown, so we got laid over for a couple of weeks while we got a new first sergeant. Luckily, she had a sense of humor, and she knew we were not “wild,” but a little noisy. But we got through basic, and that was good.  But it was just “Yuck.”

TS:

Do you keep in touch with anybody that you went through basic with?

LW:

No. When I went to Vietnam I saw—met a girl that I went to basic with, but other than that, no. Well, a couple of them we kept in touch with—a couple of girls I kept in touch with, but not for long.

TS:

After a while?

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

So where was your first duty station at then?

LW:

They sent me to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for supply school. When I went to report in they looked at my typing skills and whatnot, and they said, “No, you’re not going to supply. You’re going to work at the—headquarters something or [a]nother”—where people are discharged from the military.

TS:

Okay.

LW:

Yeah, they go through that section. And I was in that section. You’d have to do all the paper work and all that, which was pretty interesting, you know. I caught on pretty good, but it wasn’t boring. But I hated—it was my—well, other than basic training—was in Alabama—but in South Carolina, it was my first real summer, because when I went through basic it was fall and then winter. Whereas when I got to South Carolina it was summer, and I hated it. It was the first time that I had ever been in the South in the summertime. Being from the desert, I just about died.

TS:

Humidity was something different for you.  

LW:

It was terrible, terrible.

TS:

So you don’t sound like you’re liking the army very much at this point.

LW:

No. I mean it was fun, but it was—oh, what’s the word—not sexist—but women were regulated? No.

TS:

There’s like a regimentation?

LW:

There’s regimentation for women—We had to always have our little nylons on and garter belt and these ugly-looking shoes. You had to do this just perfectly—and luckily all of my bosses realized that I wasn’t a straight-up solider, I guess. They kind of knew that I was—not rebellious—but that I had my own quirks, and they let me get away with them—it just—I didn’t like the living in a barracks kind of—where they tell you what to do, when to do it.  So anytime that I could get out of that I would do it.

TS:

How could you get out of it?

LW:

I’d say I was needed over here to do something, you know. And hell, I’d stay at work sometimes just to not go back to the barracks, and a bunch of us would just sit around and yak, or get some work done—whatnot. But it just seemed like they didn’t really want to let women get into other fields.  You know, you were a secretary and that’s what you were going to be.

One of the girls apparently had gone to Vietnam on the first wave.  I met her when I first got there at Fort Jackson, and then she departed and sent a post card, or something, saying, “Hey, they really need more women over here.”

I said, “That’s got to be better than South Carolina.”

So I applied for that. One of my roommates worked where the orders and whatnot come in from headquarters. She said, “Lee, you’ve got two orders here.”

I said, “What do you mean?” I says [sic] “I just put in for Vietnam.”

She said, “Yeah, but you also have been ordered to the Pentagon.”

I said, “Oh.”

She said, “Would you like me to lose one?”

I said, “Yeah, lose the Pentagon.”

I didn’t want to go to the Pentagon. [Chuckle] 

TS:

You rather go to Vietnam?

LW:

Well, I didn’t know what Vietnam was. There was very few soldiers had been coming back—but very, very few.

TS:

Was this still in ’66, or maybe—

LW:

Sixty-seven, probably, so I really didn’t—you know—you’d heard about it. The only thing I noticed is a lot more troops were being trained.  It was a big training base, but being sheltered in one little area, I didn’t really realize it.  I told her I wanted her to lose the one for the Pentagon, because I couldn’t afford civilian clothes, and you would have to have civilian clothes a lot more than any place else. So I put in for Vietnam and they approved it.

TS:

So how long were you at Fort Jackson then before you went to Vietnam?

LW:

Let’s see—I left for Vietnam in January of—the first part of January of ’68, because I arrived in Vietnam the 30th or 31st of January of ’68.  So—

TS:

So you arrived and that—why don’t you tell us about that a little bit? I think you have some interesting perspectives on when you arrived.

LW:

I landed the night of Tet [Offensive] opening. Tet of ’68, the major battle, nobody mentioned anything about it. I don’t remember anybody saying anything about when we took off. Until we got close to Vietnam they said, “Close your windows.” And because it was—what was it—early morning?—I think it was early morning when we were arriving. So it was—I mean—right before the sun come up [sic]. They said, “Close your windows.”

I asked one of the guys, “Why are we closing our windows?”

And he didn’t know.

TS:

You mean like pulling the shades down?

LW:

Yeah. Pull the shades down. And they finally told us that we were under fire. The base was under attack, but we were coming in and shouldn’t have any problem. And I said, “Oh, this is good.” Of course, I was in my cord uniform with high heels, short skirt—wrinkled.

And they said, “When you get off of the aircraft run for the bunkers.”

And I looked again at this poor guy next to me and said, “What’s a bunker?” Because, our training in South Carolina for Vietnam was how to get into a hole in the ground, simulated fires going off. And when I jumped in the hole it was covered with ice. So other than that it’s the amount of training we got for Vietnam. But when we landed everybody jumped off, and the guy next to me—I never did know his name—he grabbed my hand and drug me to a bunker. We came out a little bit later.

TS:

So it was happening around you as you were—

LW:

You could hear—it was slowly clearing out because it was getting daylight. When daylight comes they kind of—the bad guys, kind of, back off.

TS:

Where did you fly in to—the base?

LW:

Oh, I flew into Bien Hoa Air Base, which was—let’s see, Long Binh was about twenty-five miles from Saigon, and Bien Hoa was probably thirty miles from Saigon.  So, it was a big base.

TS:

So how are you feeling about all of this?

LW:

About what?

TS:

About flying in to Vietnam and there’s bombs and things going off, and you’re ending up in a bunker?

LW:

I said, “Oh [chuckles], well it’s more exciting than Fort Jackson, that’s for sure.”

TS:

Were you scared at all?

LW:

A little bit. I’ve been a shooter most of my life, so the sound of guns didn’t scare me. And I guess I really wasn’t quite bright enough to realize, you know, that somebody could shoot me. And we were on a—At the time Bien Hoa was the largest air force base in the world, and the base I was going to was the largest military—army base in the world at the time.

TS:

So you felt pretty safe?

LW:

Yeah. I felt it was, but it wasn’t. I mean any time we could have got zapped, I guess. I just never really thought of it. I mean when we were shelled, that kind of scared me, because you weren’t sure—you could hear it coming, but you didn’t know where it was coming from or where to.

TS:

Where it was going to land.

LW:

Land—yeah. Yeah, that part I didn’t like, but—I was just upset that I couldn’t carry a weapon myself. They wouldn’t let women carry weapons over there. So eventually down the line I ended up working at engineer headquarters, and one of my bosses was a big skeet shooter. In fact, the general of the engineers was a big skeet shooter, and he had found out that I liked to shoot skeet. He’d come talk to me. He said, “Lee, what would you think of having a skeet range?”

I said, “General, that would be fun.”

He says, “Well, I’ll have one made and you and I are going to go and be the first shooters.”

I thought, “Yeah, okay.”

I can’t even think of his name now. And believe it or not, he had one made within a month. We had a full skeet range. We had all the guns.

TS:

That wasn’t Bradley was it?

LW:

No, Bradley was my—he was the second engineer commander. He was the one—I really liked him. Later on, I met him again when my ex-husband and I were stationed at Fort Leonard Wood [Missouri]. He was our boss there too.

TS:

Okay.

LW:

But my first general at the engineering headquarters when we had the skeet range made.

TS:

So did you get to be one of the first ones to shoot there?

LW:

Yeah. The general and I, we had—I think there were five of us—we made a team—shot the first round. It was kind of funny because in the background you’d see incoming rounds coming in, and they were far enough away—well, you could hear them—but if you heard them incoming you were too close. But if you saw them off in the distance you were pretty safe.  You got to have some fun, and that’s where I spent most of my off time—which wasn’t much.

TS:

At the skeet range?

LW:

I’d go out to the skeet range. I met a lot of friends. The general suckered a bunch of people from up north that wanted to come shooting, and we had a big tournament. The general said, “Oh, we’ve got a handicap though—we’ve got a woman on our team.” I smoked them all [chuckles]. That was so much fun.  

I said, “General, you’re a bad man”. I wish I could remember his name. He was such a nice guy.

TS:

He was trying to lower the bar, when he knew what you could do.

LW:

Yeah. But that’s where I also got hold of a sawed-off shotgun, because sometimes I’d go into Saigon—not by myself—I’d talk somebody in the company, or in the office, that was having to go into Saigon to take me along—just to get out of the office. And so, I’d drive along and then we’d stop by and I’d pick my shotgun up just to feel a little more comfortable.

TS:

Now, wasn’t there an incident that happened once when you had your shotgun? What was that? With your shotgun, you had your shotgun?

TW:      Yeah. We were ambushed.

TS:

Okay, tell me about that.

TW:      It was just an ambush [chuckles].

TS:

Were you headed to Saigon?

TW:      Yeah, we were headed for Saigon.

TS:

And who were you going with?

TW:      A guy I was dating—he was the driver—who was it—Colonel Droke I think. Maybe not Droke—I don’t know—that sounds sort of right—was going in for something, and I sweet talked him into taking me along. So yeah—we were ambushed. Luckily it wasn’t a big, big ambush—in other words they didn’t use rocket grenades or anything like that—just rifles. We just jumped out and got on the right side of the jeep and used that for cover. I think we ended up in a ditch, and just started firing back. I don’t know if I hit anybody—shotgun doesn’t have that good of a range—

TS:

So you were using your shotgun?

LW:

Yeah. It’s only good for short ranges.

TS:

So were you nervous at all during this exchange?

LW:

At the time you’re not nervous. You’re in survival mode at the minute. You kind of just say, “They’re not going to get me.” You just kind of go with the flow and most of the time the people I was with knew exactly what to do.

TS:

Was anybody injured?

LW:

No. No. Well, the guys that were shooting at us were, because there was another jeep behind us and they had—what do you call it—they had a mounted machine gun. Because they were—I don’t know how many jeeps in the convoy—it wasn’t really a convoy, but it—

TS:

More than one vehicle was going down the road?

LW:

Yeah. It seemed like there were a bunch of people on the road going, so we all just go together.

TS:

Followed each other?

LW:

Yeah. The convoy got—the machine gun in the jeep behind us got them. It was scary. Like I said, at the moment, other than you’re trying to get your face down in the dirt—you’re also trying to survive.

TS:

Now, at that time—you were dating one of the men that you were with?

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

Do you remember what his reaction was from having you been there with him?

LW:

Oh, anytime that I got into trouble, or something, the guys would always put themselves in danger for me.  And that—that’s why I think that women don’t belong in direct combat, because guys are putting their lives for mine.

TS:

So did they do anything in this particular incident?

LW:

Yeah. I think Del had grabbed me and pulled me—you know behind the tires or something like that. A couple of times—other places—the guys would put me in front them—or push me out the way.

TS:

They weren’t putting you in front of them, were they?

LW:

No. I hope not! I hope not! That’s one of the main reasons that I disagree with women in direct combat. And I’ve had some arguments with women. They say, “Oh, but we deserve to be able to do that.”

I say, “Yeah. You go out there do it in real life and do it and tell me.”

You are not—it’s just the way that we’re brought up. I don’t care how they do it or change things. The man will always try to protect you. Even if you don’t want him to, he will try to protect you. So I knew—I mean once I got behind a tire I knew what to do, but standing there like a dumbo—we don’t have the training even now—with the training they have—a guy will put his life out in front of you. Yeah, it was scary, but I survived.

TS:

Yeah. Thank goodness that you did. So you have—tell me a little bit about the type of accommodations that you had to live in when you were in Vietnam—and maybe compare that a little bit to what you had in Fort Jackson to show the similarities and the differences.

LW:

Well, in Fort Jackson, they were World War Two barracks—wooden barracks. And they—other than the [fact that the] boilers didn’t work too well, they were comfortable.  Then I went to Vietnam and started out in what we call the old barracks. It was like a wooden barracks, except the boards were slanted out. In other words, they were open and then they had mesh on the inside to keep the bugs out—which didn’t work very well. And they had fans in each cubical. It was an open bay, but, oh, I’d say maybe ten foot each cubical. And then they’d have the two lockers—two or four lockers—I think four lockers facing the next cubical. And that was our wall, and then you’d—My roommate and I strung up some beads, or something across where the lockers had joined. You know, to make like a doorway. Some of the girls had the folks send them shower curtains, or towels—curtain thing that they could put across.

TS:

A curtain rod?

LW:

A curtain rod, or something like that. So we tried to make it kind of homey. There were double—we had double—yeah, beds—what do you call them?

TS:

Bunk beds?

LW:

Bunk beds. There we go. My mind went dead. 

TS:

That’s all right.

LW:

We had bunk beds and we had mosquito nets over them, which was a necessity. And we had a fan over each one, and an electrical plug, and they were comfortable. I lucked out and got a—Whoever was in the area before me had put sandbags all around. The only trouble with that is during monsoon season all the water would come in and it stayed in my area; because the sandbags would keep a lot of it out, but a lot of it would come in the little doorway. So that was fun.

TS:

What were the sandbags for?

LW:

To lay next to for incoming rounds, and—yeah—was it there?—no—Over at the new barracks we had a close hit. I think we stayed in those about almost a year, and then we went to the new barracks which were double-storied. [They were] enclosed and they had A/C, but man you’d freeze your butt off. So we very seldom—I think there were supposed to be four to a room, but I was put in a room with four others; because I was going to be leaving within three months. So, all of us got along well. So I slept out in the front area on my bunk. But it was nice. One of the girls had a hot stove. One of them had a little refrigerator—a little bitty thing. It was kind of homey. We were up on the second floor.

Again, we were the rebellious crew, because when they had sirens go off—you were supposed to run downstairs and get in a bunker. But before you ran you had to put your uniform on—we never did [chuckles]. We didn’t—Finally, the first sergeant got on us enough [to] where we finally did carry our helmet down there. That was kind of silly. When you were inside of a bunker, why would you wear a helmet? After we would watch her for awhile—When she’d go to sleep we’d go outside, because it was too stuffy in the bunker. And you could tell when something was coming close to you. Like I said, you could hear it.

One night the—oh maybe from here to that house over there—really a little bit closer than that, was the finance company. And we had our barracks and then a fence—wooden fence—a dirt road—and then the finance company. I got a direct hit one night. And we got shrapnel. I think one of our windows was broken. So, and that was the night the headquarters where we worked—the mailroom got a direct hit, which really pissed people off.

TS:

Why? Why did that piss them off?

LW:

That’s where your mail came from and went out from. And I had my ex-husband—He was medevaced back to the states, and he’d given me some cash and he wanted me to change it into travelers checks or something—or did he give me a check? —I don’t know what—and he wanted me to mail it to his grandma, I believe. So I carried it down to his mailroom and put it there at the headquarters. Well, it was hit that night, so I always worried about it. But I wrote Mike, he was in Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]. I says [sic], “Find out if your grandmother ever got that money, because the mailroom got blown up.” [Laughs]

TS:

Did she ever get it?

LW:

Yeah, she got it. So that was good.

TS:

Oh, interesting. So his name is Mike?

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

So what happened to him?

LW:

He was one of two—first of two people that had a disease—contracted a disease. His left arm shriveled up. It was just completely shriveled up. They thought it was arthritis or something—or some kind of strange—They did finally come up with a name for it. But it just shriveled up—just complete shriveled. And so they sent him to Walter Reed and he was in there for six months maybe. Yeah. They finally figured out what it was, and then he was under therapy for a couple of months.

TS:

Did he recover from it?

LW:

Yeah, yeah.

TS:

Now were you married to him at this time?

LW:

No, no. It was—we got married—He got out of Walter Reed in, I think, June of ’69, and we got married in July.

TS:

July of ’69?

LW:

Yeah. He had recovered, but it was the weirdest damn thing that anybody had ever seen. Found out down the line that he was the first one of some kind of strange disease. He was a “medical interest.”

TS:

I guess so. How did you meet him?

LW:

On the skeet range. Well, I met him at the office really. He worked downstairs, and he had heard something about shooting and come and asked me.

And I said, “Yeah, come on out.”

He had a jeep so he would pick me up and a couple of other guys. We’d all go out to the skeet range. We started dating and were supposed to go to R and R [“Rest and Recuperation”] together, but his arm got in the way. So when I came home he called and asked if he could come out and visit, and proposed to me. That was nice, yeah.

TS:

Can I take you back to Vietnam for a little bit. Now tell me—In the office where you were working in the headquarters there, tell me a little bit about a typical day.

LW:

Well, when I first started, it was just typing everything, but eventually I wormed my way into—our sergeant major, who was really—we had a colonel, but the sergeant major really ran the office—I became his left hand girl [chuckles], and I learned a lot. He taught me how to do things that most women weren’t supposed to be doing.

TS:

Like what sort of things?

LW:

Well, women were only really supposed to type. You know, we weren’t smart enough to do anything else. Serious—I’m serious! So he had let me get in on—I don’t even know if we have viewgraphs anymore. He let me get on making those for some of the projects.

We had our engineer projects that we’d take them down to General—what’s his name—I’ve forgot the general’s name. He would approve them.

TS:

What’s a viewgraph?

LW:

A viewgraph is like a plastic sheet and you—not paint it, but you mark it so that when you put it on a projector like thing, it would go up on a big board. I don’t know why. [Viewgraphs are pictures consisting of a positive photograph or drawing on a transparent base; viewed with a projector]

TS:

So you were making those?

LW:

Yeah, I was making those.

TS:

Briefing and things like that?

LW:

Yeah, for briefings and collecting different information from the sergeant major—who would be requested form the bosses to get done.

TS:

Like what kind of information?

LW:

Well, we were engineers and we handled the counting of rubber trees, certain water purification equipment—a lot of weird stuff. It seemed like every little engineer group had little things that needed to be acquired, and we would acquire them for them. And like water purification was a big thing out in the field. So we would have to go here and find a piece of this and that, you know, like a supply depot almost. So we had to get all the—the work finding the stuff. And—

TS:

Kind of like [the character] Radar in M*A*S*H [A popular military-themed movie and television series], huh?

LW:

Pretty much, yeah, pretty much. And the sergeant major was teaching me, as I was going along, all these different skills. We had—we were in charge of counting rubber trees, because we had to pay the French for each rubber tree that was shot. So I got in on that detail because I could go up in a helicopter and that was fun. Then we had bridges that were damaged or needed to be built. We had to go out and do blueprints—mostly from the air—of what needed to be done; and then we would take it back, and almost break it down by photograph of what needed to be required to do it.

TS:

So you’re saying that this—So, flying on a helicopter, is that something that women normally did in Vietnam with their jobs?

LW:

No. We were not allowed to go off post or up in the air.

TS:

So how was it that you got away with that?

LW:

I didn’t tell them. [laughs]

TS:

Who was it that you weren’t telling?

LW:

My company commander.

TS:

But people knew about it though?

LW:

In my office, yeah. 

TS:

In your office. This sergeant major, yeah—

LW:

The sergeant major and the colonel knew—he knew. But women—we were—Let’s see, how do you explain it? The WAC [Women’s Army Corps] detachment had our living and feeding—[that] was their priority. Like in the states, the WAC detachment—whatever they call it now—that was their thing, but they weren’t really my boss. My boss was where I worked, but I was attached to the WAC detachment.

And so we figured, “Hey, you know, they don’t need to know.”

The sergeant major and the colonel, they all knew what we were supposed to do and what we weren’t.

So if I were to ever get into trouble they would have stepped up and said “Excuse me, we’re the boss.”

Because sometimes we worked—I got out of a lot of details because we worked like six and a half—sometimes seven days a week—like twelve to sixteen hours, longer sometimes. So we were busy. When they wanted something done, you know, I always volunteered.

They said, “Hey, you don’t know how to do that!”

“Yeah, I’ll learn.”

Anything like that—but it was just so interesting. And again that’s—you know—We would go up in choppers and I’d take photographs—classified photographs—and that would give us what needed to be done on the ground.

TS:

So why do you suppose in Vietnam—in the Army—were women were only supposed to have certain types of roles? Why do you think you were permitted to do these things?

LW:

Because I think they saw that we could do more—my bosses did.  I don’t think the company commander of the WACs there—

TS:

Is that a female?

LW:

A female, yeah. Really they were not old school, but they—That’s how women were treated back then. We were only supposed to do these certain things. A lot of—most of MOSs [Military Occupation Specialties] were not open to us.

And I think that’s—I’m positive that those of us that were in Vietnam opened the door to a lot that’s opened up now for the women. It’s like the women in World War II—the nurses—they were sent to combat, and that opened the door for all the nurses with the enlisted women back then—there were very few of them—and the ones that were, were doing office duties. But in Vietnam—like in Europe they were stationed in London, or someplace like that—but in Vietnam there wasn’t a safe place to hide. So a lot of us did things that proved and opened the doors for the women nowadays that have—I get tickled when I see women helicopter [pilots] and things like that. I still don’t like them in direct combat, you know, there’s so many doors open to them now; whereas we had very few doors open.

TS:

It sounds like some of the men that you worked with were more willing to help you achieve a certain skill level to maybe—

LW:

I think over there they were more open because they realized that, “You know, hey, these girls over here, they’re pretty smart.” And most of us were young, and I think that back then I was young and our CO [Commanding Officer] and company commander and the supply sergeants—they were old. They had to be at least thirty [chuckles], so you know we saw them as the old ladies. But I really think that everybody’s eyes were opened back then—the men especially—the officers and whatnot.

“Oh, these women are pretty good.”

And when we came back most of us came back and kept pushing until finally it’s—the army has opened up—all the services have opened up real good. That’s kind of neat.

TS:

Did you also see the flip side of that? In that there was maybe some discrimination too, because you were a woman at all?

LW:

Oh yeah, yeah.

TS:

Do you have any examples of that?

LW:

My first job placement in Vietnam—they said that this, this, this, and this is open. And almost like a job placement place. I forget what it was called.

They said “Which one do you want to go see?”

I said, “MPs [military police] look pretty interesting. I could go see what they needed.” Of course, it was a clerical position.

So I went in there and the first question out of the captain’s—or whatever he was—mouth was, “Do you make coffee?”  And he said, “There’s really not much for you to do here. You could empty the garbage. The coffee pot’s always got to be made.”

You know, I hadn’t learned to use my temper yet, which is good. So I just didn’t feel—You know, I wasn’t thrilled with that at all. So I went back and they asked me something else, checked another place. And I can’t even remember what it was, but it wasn’t anything good. They finally sent me over to the engineers.

I said, “Yeah, I think I like that.”

I liked the sergeant major. He was an old soldier, which surprised me that he was so keen on helping the younger soldiers. I talked a couple of the other people in there, and felt comfortable. I knew that I wasn’t going to be stuck doing coffee and emptying garbage.

TS:

It kind of mattered who you ran into as to how they would treat you?

LW:

A lot of the women—I think most of us, when we first got there, were stereotyped as secretaries and that’s it.  So—

TS:

We didn’t talk at all about how your parents felt about you joining the Army. How [sic] did they think about that?

LW:

Well, they really didn’t know.

TS:

They didn’t know?

LW:

My mother—I had to call her up and say, “Mom, I’m joining the army and they want you to fill out a paper that says it’s all right.”

TS:

Because you were under twenty-one, right?

LW:

Yeah.  So, I was staying up in San Mateo, California, and with a friend. So I called her, and she says, “You sure?”

I said, “Yeah, I can’t find anything that I want to do here.”

She said, “Okay.”

So they sent her the forms and she filled them out. They never said anything bad about it. So that was good.

TS:

And you said that you father was in the service, right?

LW:

Yeah, he had—World War II, he was—in fact, I went to Fort Jackson— he was stationed there too. So that was kind of neat.

TS:

So how did he feel about it? Did he ever say?

LW:

I never asked him. I don’t know why. You know, they knew that I was going to do what I wanted to do anyhow.

TS:

How about your brother?  He joined the navy, right?

LW:

Yeah. He was navy and he was living in California—I think at the time—I never asked him. He was there when I came home, you know—but he never said. He went to Vietnam on a—really before anything was going on. His navy ship docked there to unload something. He was on a LST [Landing Ship, Tank: a genre of heavy transport ship that specialized in amphibious landings by tanks along unimproved shorelines]—whatever that was—or LSD [Landing Ship, Dock: a ship similar to an LST, that launched small troop boats instead of tanks]. I’m not sure. So he was there for a short two-hour stay, or something. But it wasn’t during the conflict.

TS:

So it was earlier in the ’60s?

LW:

Yeah.  Yeah. But I just never asked. Maybe I should have, but I think they knew that I was doing the best thing for me.

TS:

So, let’s see, let’s talk about how—well, you did a lot of this skeet shooting on your off-time. What other kinds of things did you do on your off-time?

LW:

Skeet shooting.

TS:

[chuckles] Did you ever travel anywhere?

LW:

Oh, on R and R. Yeah.

TS:

Where did you go?

LW:

I went to Hong Kong twice. I loved Hong Kong.

TS:

Why?

LW:

It just—well, the water—the toilets—the bathtubs.

TS:

Okay, tell me more about that, Lee. What do you mean?  

LW:

[chuckles] Well, in Vietnam you had very little water. And you never drank much water, because you would get annoying disabilities. The bathtub and toilets—you could flush the toilets—that was fun. I think everyone when they got off the airplane went around and found toilets and flushed them. But Hong Kong—It just sounded exotic, I guess. And let’s see, the first time that I went my aunt and uncle—I don’t know how I ever found out—Mom must have told them—were going to be in Hong Kong. So, we stayed in the same hotel and I went on some things with them and that was pretty boring [laughs]. And then we—you know it was fun—it was fun, but the second time was even more fun. Because I went—when I extended I got another R and R and went back to Hong Kong without my aunt and uncle.

TS:

You could do what you wanted to.

LW:

Yeah, and there was a bunch of Aussies [slang term for Australians] on the airplane. Those guys are crazy and I don’t drink and they drink. We had more fun running around with them. Well, I was the only female that they picked up along the way. They were just so much fun to be with. We partied all the time and just had a good time seeing the sights. We went to some restaurant. It was a local restaurant, so nobody spoke English and they wanted some kind of Bacardi [rum] drink. And the lady brought them a bottle of Bacardi rum, but not whatever it was supposed to be mixed with. They never could get it across to her. I remember having a good meal. The food was wonderful over there.

And I’d go down—They had a flower market right outside the hotel. And every morning I’d go down and buy armloads of flowers to put in my room, because they smelled so good. I’d get my hair done every morning, get it washed and they’d massage your head. I just fell in love with place.

TS:

How long where you in Hong Kong on your R and R?

LW:

Seven days. For somebody from a big glamorous town like Las Vegas, this was an eye-opening experience. It was so neat. I loved it. I enjoyed the people—very nice, very nice—even communist people—which we weren’t supposed to go in their shops, but we did.  So we had a good time. It was fun.

TS:

You weren’t supposed to go into the communist shops?

LW:

No, it was a “no-no”.

TS:

How did you know that they were communist shops?

LW:

They had big red stars on them. [chuckles]

TS:

Oh.

LW:

At least we didn’t take the train that would have taken us into China.

TS:

Yeah, that might have been a big “no-no” at that time.

LW:

The shops they were marked. But I did buy a carved ivory chess set, but I was surprised that when we left Vietnam nobody said anything about it. So—I said, “Okay.”

TS:

That was your Uncle Downy and Aunt Billie that you went with?

LW:

Yeah, Aunt Billie, yeah.

TS:

So who was Vickie Lupinski [?]?

LW:

Vickie Lupinski [?] that’s right. We went on a—

Okay. The first tour you get an R and R and another something—a seven day leave. And then when I extended I got another R and R. So when Vickie, myself, Vickie’s fiancé, and another guy from the office—which I can’t think of his name—we all picked—we went to Malaysia. That was fun except Vickie and I both got food poisoning the second day. So we were sick about three days. It was not a fun time.

TS:

No, that wouldn’t be as fun.

LW:

The only thing that saved us is the bathrooms. Everything was tiled, and they had a drain right in the middle of the floor. It was the only thing that saved us. [chuckles] It was not a fun trip, but it was beautiful country. Vickie ended up marrying Bill.

TS:

So why did you—So your first tour was a year?

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

Then you extended to extend for another year?

LW:

No, I extended for four months—

TS:

Okay.

LW:

—Because, if you had less than three months when you left, you got out early.

TS:

I see.

LW:

So I extended, so that when I came back I could get out. 

TS:

So you mean for your enlistment?

LW:

Yeah, for my enlistment.

TS:

So you extended for another four months?

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

I see.

LW:

So that way I think that I had three months left, but that was considered early out.

TS:

So you got there during the Tet Offensive—’68 was a pretty tough year in Vietnam for Americans.

LW:

Oh, yeah.

TS:

Did you have perception of what the American people—how they were reacting back in the United States at that time?

LW:

Not until mid ’68—late ’68 —we started seeing some of the papers, which very seldom we got papers, but some families would send them—or the newspaper—or the Army News [Army Times]—whatever it is called—might have a small article. Of course the people coming to Vietnam would tell us some stuff. That kind of—“Huh, that’s not good”—I don’t think any of us really realized it until we stepped off of the airplanes.

TS:

When you got back?

LW:

Yeah, when we got back—how bad it was.

TS:

What about the—because there were two assassinations that year, with Martin Luther King Junior assassinated and Robert F. Kennedy. So what—did that have any impact on you in Vietnam at all? Was there any—

LW:

I think that Mr. King was—I think I was in Vietnam when that happened. Or was I?

TS:

I think that would have been in March of ’68—March or April.

LW:

I think it happened right before I got home or right after I got home, and I was in—let’s see—Mike and I got married in July—

TS:

Of ’69 though.

LW:

Of  ’69.

TS:

He was assassinated in ’68, so you would have been in Vietnam then.

LW:

Oh, yeah,  okay, yeah, we did, that’s right.

TS:

Like you said, it’s not like the TV was blaring in your WAC shack.

LW:

No. We didn’t have—We had a radio, but it had very little news on it. I had heard later that when I came back that one of my cousins was in on some of the riots in Long Beach, California. He wasn’t too smart.

TS:

What do you mean by he was “in on it?”

LW:

He was out harassing the Blacks. And, I told him, I said, “You’re a dumbass.” You know. So—

TS:

So okay— so what—So you spent about a year and a half in Vietnam at, really, the height of the war. Did you have any—So you said that you didn’t know much about Vietnam before you went there—did you have any changing views on it?

LW:

Not so much when I was there, I don’t think. It was when I came back. Because when you’re in the middle of something like that, the only thing you’re thinking about is how quick can you dig a hole.  But when I came back, the first thing that we met was [sic] the stupid protesters. And—

TS:

What was your specific experience with that?

LW:

Well, when we got off of the airplane there was a wire fence—a big tall fence—and all these people on the other side yelling at us.

TS:

This was in San Francisco probably?

LW:

Yeah. Yeah. Not really nice people.

I mean they were—and going [saying], “You guys killed a bunch of babies!” —just nasty people calling us names and whatnot.

You just want to go over there and slap them upside the face. I’m surprised some of the guys didn’t. They just didn’t know what they were talking about. I still agree that that was their problem.

I’ve gotten into a couple arguments with a couple of people over the years, “Oh, we were right.”

I said, “You didn’t know what was going on over there!” 

You know, call us what you want, there was a couple of incidents—unfortunately—but there’s always going to be a couple, but to blame us all—that was not called for at all. And I never have really nice things to say about the protesters. I still don’t agree with them. And they got their information from news reporters who stayed in hotels, and who would go out to the field for a couple of minutes and run back and report all of these terrible things happening. Don’t like news people either. [chuckles]

TS:

So you don’t think that there wasn’t a fair portrayal of—

LW:

No, not at all. The few incidents like My Lai [Massacre] — Me Lay—they—well, it was covered up for a long time. That was an atrocity. That should have been caught, but they just went overboard: “Look at these poor children running in fear,” and all this. Why didn’t they show all the soldiers and the people who would pick up the kids and shelter them? You know, the good parts. But, no, they had to dig down and dig up dirt that probably wasn’t dirt at all.

T S:      Or maybe just one sided.

LW:

Yeah, very one sided—very, very one sided.

TS:

Well, it’s interesting because you just returned from Vietnam not too long ago where you went back after all these years.

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

Was this the first time that you had returned?

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

What don’t you tell us a little bit about that? I’m not even really sure what to ask of it.

LW:

It was scary. Out vet [veterans’] group—

TS:

Tell us why you decided to go back.

LW:

Because, I hated the Vietnamese for so many years. Absolutely hated them, and then I started questioning myself. And I had met some Vietnamese people here, that I just adored them. They were just such neat people. They had no animosity to me, and these were people in my same age group. I started questioning myself and the group, when they started talking about it—I said, “Well, if I can raise some money then I’ll definitely go.” I scrimped and saved and got enough money together where I could go. There were twelve of us. We had eleven Vietnam vets and another lady, who was a friend of one of the vet’s wives that was very interested in the veterans. And we all kind of wondered until we met her, and just she fit dead in. She was a character. Of course, her and I were roommates. I didn’t get a male roommate [chuckles], but she was fun.

TS:

Were you the only two females that went?

LW:

Yeah, all of them were other guys. I think we were all kind of apprehensive, but of course you get kind of silly. You could see all of us—when we got on the first airplane, you know, everybody was nervous and whatnot. And it was such a long, long trip. And we went to New York—New York to Vancouver, Vancouver to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Vietnam. We landed in Saigon, Vietnam, and I think it was a whole day flying. I remember coming in and it was early morning and it was kind of cloudy, and I looked out the window and I kept looking at the ground. It took me a minute to figure out what I was looking for—I was looking for bomb craters. Any place when you’re back in the ’60s you would fly—the place was pock mocked with bomb holes. And I looked and it was this beautiful lush landscape. I saw one place that could have been a bomb crater—a B-52 [Stratofortress bomber] it looked like—but I wasn’t sure. And I looked at Ron next to me, and I said “Ron,”—he was in the other seat by the window looking out too. I said, “Ron, do you see any bomb craters?”

And he says, “No.”

We got coming in Saigon—it was the original airport where we landed. It was Tan Son [Nhut Air Base]. It was—I kept looking around [and] I still didn’t see any bomb craters. When we taxied in and landed and then turned around and taxied—The brick bunkers were still there for the aircraft. And, believe it or not, there were still aircraft in there. I’m sure they were—you know—Vietnam—North Vietnam—well, it’s Vietnam now—military aircraft in there—helicopters—and a whole bunch of them. So that was my first introduction—just beautiful from the air.

TS:

A little different than “Shut your shades and—”

LW:

Yeah—

TS:

—“Run to the bunker” when you landed. How were feeling—emotionally—How were you feeling when you were going back?

LW:

I was excited and scared—leery—but once we got on the ground we met our guide, Mr. Song. He was a sweetheart. He was in the South Vietnamese army when the war was on, and then he got out of the South Vietnamese army. Remember the picture of the tank going through the gate at the presidential palace?

TS:

I think so.

LW:

That famous picture. He was standing right there.  And he eventually—Apparently the Communists put out a notice that anybody who was in the army had to report. And Mr. Song reported, and he was held prisoner for six years—and survived—because he was in the army. But he—soft spoken—He’d answer anything we asked. He showed us the best part of Vietnam—the people. I felt so comfortable, that I could walk down the street alone. I walked down to the market one morning, and the people are so friendly: not just “give me your money” friendly, but really interested and wanted to talk. Wherever you’d went they’d offer you tea.

TS:

What language were you speaking?

LW:

Mostly they were talking and I was—like this, I—

TS:

Nodding.

LW:

I have no ear for language.

TS:

So they were speaking in Vietnamese and a little bit of English.

LW:

Mostly. The young people—The average age in Vietnam now is thirty-five, whereas when we were there it was a lot older. So we were surprised that there were not that many older folks. But a lot of them do speak English—the kids especially. The kids speak English. It was just fun. They just want to ask us why we were there and what we were doing.

TS:

So why were you there?

LW:

Just to—For me it was to get rid of the hate and to see the country again. It is an absolutely gorgeous country—absolutely gorgeous. I wouldn’t mind going back and staying there.

TS:

So this is like forty years from the time you left.

LW:

Yeah. I was impressed with the people a lot.

TS:

Did you get to go to any of the places that you had been stationed at when you were there?

LW:

We went by it—Long Binh—we went by there, but the base is not there. It’s a big shopping mall now. In Saigon—the airport— we could see the bunkers there. It was the original airport main building, but other than that—no—there is not much.

TS:

What about the other veterans—the men that you went with—how were they feeling? These are guys that you have known for a while?

LW:

Oh yeah, most of them—yeah. I’ve known for years and years and years and years. Susan—she fit right in, because she just enjoyed everything. One guy, he was obsessed with one particular event. That’s all that he would constantly—We could understand it, but after somebody keeps obsessing over this same thing all the time you just want to hit him upside the head. 

TS:

What was he obsessing about?

LW:

He was on a POW [Prisoner of War] rescue team in the air force, and apparently news had gotten out before they got to where they went to rescue the POWs. So there was nobody there, and he just felt like he had let everybody down in the world.

We said, “Bobby—you didn’t do it. Let it pass. You tried. Your whole group did. Don’t blame yourself.”

Eventually down—oh in the middle of the trip—we went from South Vietnam all the way up to Hanoi, and about midway in the trip we made a side trip—Well, they did, I didn’t go on that one. About six of them went to this prison camp, where Bobby had gone in to see if they could do anything.

He was excited that they had found something, but he still—even towards the end of the trip—he was blaming himself—“Oh, we didn’t do this and we didn’t do that.”

So it didn’t help him, but I think everybody else—We spent one night on the Mekong Delta. One of our guys was a chopper pilot and three of his men that flew in the chopper with him—his co-pilot and two gunners—all went. So—

TS:

All went on the—

LW:

On the trip.

TS:

The trip.

LW:

Yeah. We spent one night at Mekong. The guy who ran it was a colonel in the North Vietnamese army. He couldn’t speak English. Mr. Song had to interpret him. But he sat with us with dinner and was very nice, you know, and afterwards we had a big round table. Everybody was sitting around and drinking and talking. I was exhausted, so I had to go back into our bunk area. All of us slept in the same room— a big bunk over the delta—a water room—it was fun though, mosquito nets. They spent half of the night just talking to him.

And Dave had acquired a rifle from a Vietnamese that they shot. In the butt of the gun was a diary, and he couldn’t get it translated. But he brought it back to Vietnam, because he wanted to give it back to the family.

So he asked the colonel if he would do it, and the colonel said, yeah, he was going to do it.

So that was a highlight.

You don’t feel bad, because it was war. But then again when they found that diary—and it was pretty—the colonel said that it was pretty hard, it was getting real fragile. He was going to try to hunt down the family. Each of us had our own special moments of seeing something—

TS:

What was yours?

LW:

Just the beauty of the country and the people. Just absolutely—I was just fascinated how beautiful it was. Because I remembered Vietnam—the smell. It hadnuoc mam, which is a fish sauce. That’s what it smelt like to me back then.

TS:

Did it still smell like that to you?

LW:

No.

TS:

What did it smell like now?

LW:

Green—forests—almost. Wherever you looked there were flowers. Wherever you looked there were trees bearing fruit. Even downtown all the trees—they looked kind of weird at first until you finally look at them—everything was—what do you call those trees that they cut—

TS:

Bonsai?

LW:

Everything is bonsaied [sic] I guess. I don’t know what you’d call it. They’d start them as little bitty—we went to a bonsai farm in fact—they said that he had one tree that was huge, but it had  been intertwined and trimmed and he said “This is my family.” Here was aunt so-so, and there’s a nephew and like this—it was so interesting. It was just absolutely gorgeous. And let’s see—

TS:

Well, if you look back now, let’s see—forty years ago—forty years after you were there and we were fighting this war—and you go back and it’s all a united country now—right?—under communism—it was originally—did you have any thoughts about that politically?

LW:

No. No.

TS:

No?

LW:

The only thing that I did notice was that down south I saw very few of the police—or whatever they’re called—with the little helmet with the red star. I saw very few of it. But up north in Hanoi you didn’t see many of them, but you saw some more than down south.

TS:

More of a visible presence there? 

LW:

But the people were very free and they seemed comfortable. They’re becoming more of an economic country. Well, politics I never paid much attention to anyhow, but it seemed more open. A lot more [open] than I thought.

I had thought, “Oh God, we’re going to have to deal with these communists” or something, but we never did.

They did—you always saw at the tourist places or something—you would see the political stuff. We had one of our side trips was in Hanoi—well, we walked there—the “Hanoi Hilton” where what’s-his-name was in—[John] McCain. But I wouldn’t go in, [because] to me that’s supporting the communists. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s how I felt. So I stayed out on the street and talked to people and walked around and looked at stuff. I enjoyed that.

But people who went inside said, “Man, it’s not the real thing.”

But it was close. It was typical tourist thing with the propaganda stuff and all of that. They have it, but I not like I thought—I really thought that there would have been a much bigger communist presence. So that was nice.

TS:

In your mind before you went you had certain expectations maybe?

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

Maybe fears, too, a little bit. It was little bit different than you expected?

LW:

It was more open than I expected—a lot more open. The only dangers that I could see was the traffic, but not much else. Traffic was wild. I loved getting—I got brave enough—we all did—well, a couple of them didn’t—when you’ve got—and I’m not joking—a thousand motorcycles and bicycles coming at you—the only way to walk across is to take a deep breath and wait for a little gap—take a deep breath, and hold your hand up. Don’t look at them—you just walk—because they would go around you. It was amazing. The first time I almost froze. Who was it—Dave, Joe, and I were walking across the street and he grabbed my arm and he said, “Don’t stop, don’t stop.” After that I got brave enough. It’s amazing. The traffic is monstrous, but it’s very easy to cross the street. It’s a lot of courtesy—something like—if they had that here, you know, you wouldn’t have the wrecks and not, because everybody is courteous to each other. And that was very nice—very nice.

TS:

That’s an interesting way to put it.

LW:

Yeah. No matter where you went—it’s not—you know how when you’ve been on a trip and you go some place and they’re overly courteous and it’s a put-on? It’s not a put-on over there.

TS:

More sincere, you think?

LW:

Yeah, very interested in what you need or what you think, what you want, or anything.  And I jokingly one time got tired of eating oriental food, and went to this one place, and I was just joking, and I said, “Do you have spare ribs?” And she did [chuckles]. I couldn’t believe it. Spare ribs.

TS:

How were they?

LW:

Oh, they were wonderful. Yeah. Yeah. I thoroughly enjoyed the people and I got the hate out, I think. I’m pretty sure I did.

TS:

Is there anything else you would like to add about that trip?

LW:

I think a lot of veterans need to go back. I’ve talked to a couple and they’ve said, “No, we’re not going back. It’s communist!”

I said, “Go back. You’ll find out differently.”

The people that we arranged the trip through—the travel company is—pretty much deals with veterans. So it was very, very well organized, and Mr. Song, being a veteran himself, made it even more comfortable.

TS:

Well, very nice.

LW:

And we got from one tip to the other of the country. I just wish that it would have been longer.

TS:

How long were you there?

LW:

Thirteen days?

TS:

Tough to see that much in thirteen days.

LW:

Yeah. Yeah. Certain parts—The beach is nice, but it’s kind of boring. The hotel that we stayed at in Da Nang—no I don’t know where it was—it wasn’t Da Nang—but we stayed in a hotel on the beach and it was like a villa. It was absolutely gorgeous. We would go down the beach. But after a while you can’t do much on the beach. It was real windy. We were going to get skidoos—or whatever you call those things—and go out, but it was too wavy. But the guys found the bar and they had a good time. They took over the singers and everything else. But I’m not a drinker, so I missed it. I should have gone down there anyhow, just to—

TS:

And watched them sing karaoke or something.

LW:

Yeah. Yeah.

TS:

Well, let me take you back to when you came back here after you left Vietnam. Did you get out immediately upon—

LW:

Yeah. When I came back the first time—the one time—from Vietnam, I went back to Las Vegas. I knew Mike and I were going to get married. So, you know, he got out of the hospital and came out there and proposed and we set the date. He went back to the hospital and checked out. We weren’t sure if he’d go back on duty or not. But they put him on—I can’t think of what it’s called. It’s almost like a temporary duty or something like that.

TS:

Like a light duty or something?

LW:

Yeah, a light duty or something like that to see if he would be able to work. So he came back and we decided to get married. And we got married in July. In the end of July—When was the moon? When they landed on the moon?

TS:

Sixty-nine?

LW:

Yeah the day they landed on the moon is the day that we showed up in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. [We] Couldn’t find—nothing was open—luckily we found a little hotel that was open, and then we were stationed there almost three years I think.

TS:

But you were out?

LW:

I had gotten out then. Then we were stationed at Fort Belvoir [Virginia] for a little over a year, then we went back to Fort Leonard Wood. And Mike got caught in that big—they were letting a lot of the officers out—and Mike got caught in that. That’s when I thought we were going to go back to Vegas, but we came back here.

TS:

Here as in North Carolina?

LW:

Yeah, because he was from [Cape] Hatteras [North Carolina].

TS:

I see.

LW:

So we came back here in ’74, I think. And that house up on the corner over there is the house that we had had, and that’s where we were.

TS:

Now, didn’t you join the reserves at some point?

LW:

Yeah, I think in ’75. We both joined the reserves for the National Guard.

TS:

The National Guard?

LW:

Yeah, the National Guard.

TS:

What was the reason behind you doing that?

LW:

Money, I think. Mike—I was putting him through college—he was getting some money from the—

TS:

GI Bill.

LW:

GI Bill, yeah.

TS:

Did you ever use that yourself?

LW:

Some, not a lot, should have—I don’t like school that much.

TS:

Well, you’ve got your glasses now.

LW:

Yeah [chuckles]. So we—I stayed in —I don’t know—ten years—ten, fifteen years. And he retired from the National Guard.

TS:

So you kept the connection for a long time.

LW:

Well we had to—we both worked at the same place. So yeah.

TS:

Let me get you a Kleenex there.

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

So let me ask you—just to sum up there a couple of feelings about it—you have a couple of things that you’ve said about women in the military. Your experience in Vietnam and the way you were able to forge some inroads for women that came later.  You’ve also remarked that women can do a lot of things, but not necessarily in combat. So what do you think about what is going on with Iraq and Afghanistan with the women?

LW:

I think, you know, I wouldn’t want to do it. As long as I said—As long as they’re not in direct “dig a foxhole and wait for the enemy” thing, which I don’t think they’re doing. If they are they’re hiding it because I haven’t noticed it.  I notice that they carry their weapons now, and they’ve got female pilots and all this other stuff. It’s a—I don’t think that they should be in direct combat, but in first-line combat—yeah.

TS:

What do you think that the difference is between that?

LW:

First-line combat is like the truck drivers and pilots and other things like that. They’re going to have to fire their weapons, yeah, of course, but I don’t think that you’ll ever have a squad of women and men going out on the ground to search and destroy. Because, I don’t care how long it will be enforced, you’ll always have—not segregation—but the guy will always put his life in front of the woman. I don’t know why. I wouldn’t step in front of a guy to save him. [chuckles] But I think it’s their ego or something—they always have—somebody might disagree, but for me that’s the main reason—why should somebody give up their life for me? But I wouldn’t be out on the front line either.  I’d dig a hole.

TS:

That’s right. Now is there anything that you would like to say in this interview just to people who aren’t familiar with the military service and the women in the service. Maybe you’d like to speak to them?

LW:

Women in the military are no different than any other woman in any other job. We just have to wear a silly uniform all the time. The uniforms aren’t bad. It’s just like any other job. It really is. I think women have more opportunities in the military now to do whatever they want. Whereas when I was first in, women were slotted in and that’s it—just like in the civilian life now. If you want to go become a doctor, you can start out as a private and end up a doctor in the army. And the opportunities are there and the educational benefits, everything.

TS:

Did you feel like you were treated fairly?    

LW:

At the end, yeah. But I earned it too. It could have gone further, but back then—for that time period and the way thinking was—I think I did pretty good. I think a lot of the other girls did pretty good—to show how much women could do under a stressful situation. Vietnam and the military back then was completely different.

TS:

Did you see or hear of any specific incidents of sexual harassment or something like that? I don’t know if it would have been called that, necessarily, at the time.

LW:

Yeah.

TS:

Yeah? Did you experience anything first hand?

LW:

Yeah. Well, that one guy told me that we were only good for making coffee. I was put in an awkward position a couple of times where—you know—sexual propositions and nobody would listen. If I would have beat them up, or something, they would have gotten me for something probably. I think all the women, hopefully, handled it well. I did know a couple of women that did get caught in some bad situations and nobody believed them.

TS:

Oh really? What happened to them?

LW:

They got raped. I jumped out of a car in the middle of the woods one time—around Fort Jackson [South Carolina]. The guy wouldn’t listen, so I jumped out of the car.

They just thought that, “Hey, you’re a WAC—or whatever—that’s my right to get what I want.”

That was just the thinking that some of them had.  I don’t think that they think that way anymore. I hope not. I know some women who had some bad, bad things happen to them.

TS:

In your experience did you report the person that you jumped out of the car of?

LW:

I don’t think so.

TS:

There was a fear that maybe—like you said—that they wouldn’t—

LW:

Yeah, probably—probably.

TS:

Did you tell anybody about it at the time?

LW:

Not for a long time. Not for a long time.

TS:

Do you think that it was different—I guess when you went into the National Guard—did you notice if there was any difference in attitude about things like that? Because that would have been the mid-seventies—I think you said—so almost ten years.

LW:

They were getting there. They still had some opposition, but there were very few women when I first joined the guard. It was more like a “good ol’ boys” club. It didn’t take them long. I had enough stripes at that time where I didn’t have to do the KP [kitchen patrol] duty and all this other stuff. They grew out of it. Once more women came in, it became a lot easier, but there were some dumb women.

TS:

What do you mean?

LW:

I had one girl—I was acting first sergeant—she got brought up to me on charges that—I forgot the exact name of the charge—but she was supposed to be a truck driver. They brought her in to me, and I sat her down and she was whining and crying.

I said, “What is it?”

I asked the guy what the charges where and he said, “She’s not qualified to be a truck driver.”

I said, “Why?’

He said, “She won’t change her tires.”

She said, “Well, I don’t know how to do it. It’s too heavy for me.”

I looked at her and said, “Do you change the oil?”

“No, I usually get somebody to do it for me.”

I said, “Do you fill the gas tank?”

“Well, no, the guys are standing there.”

I was surprised that she even knew how to change gears in the truck. You know, stuff like that. The women were taking advantage for once, which is not right, either. They wanted to be—you know—“I’m a girl, I can’t do this.” That ain’t going to cut it. I remember that so clearly. That was so funny. She couldn’t understand why she had to change the tires and put gas in the truck and all this.

TS:

So what happened to her?

LW:

I made her go down and work in the cooks. [chuckle]

TS:

Reassigned, huh?

LW:

Yeah, reassigned her. She wasn’t happy with me.

I said, “Too bad. You go out and I’ll go down and watch you, soon as you change the tires and put gas in the truck and all the maintenance that needs to be done.” I said, “Then I’ll let you be a truck driver.”

It just amazes me, you know, it works both ways. I think it’s better now. I don’t get to meet any women anymore that are in the service now, so I don’t know how it compares. I’m sure they have their problems too. But I don’t think that it’s as bad as it used to be.

TS:

How would you characterize your experience in the service then—knowing that you had these issues going on—but overall how would you characterize your experience?

LW:

It was the best thing I ever did, really. It grew me up. It made me more self-aware of all the things I could do. It just—overall, it was the best thing—I kind of wish I would have stayed in longer. But it was good.

TS:

Excellent. Well, is there anything that you would like to add to your interview that we haven’t talked about?       

LW:

No, I can’t think of it. It was good.

TS:

Well, thank you, Lee. I appreciate it.

LW:

Oh good.  

[End of Interview]