Editor’s note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of troop on troop combat in Vietnam as well as the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. Standard Journal is honoring Vietnam veterans throughout the year, continuing today with an Army veteran who served in the late 1960s.
MILTON — He vividly remembers his first steps on Vietnamese soil in 1968.
“The heat and stench, it just hung in the air,” said Larry Fletcher, who served with the Army’s First Field Artillery in the II Corps Tactical Zone near Nha Trang in the Central Highlands. Nha Trang is just north of Cam Ranh Bay, where many GIs flew into country for the first time.
Brutal conditions, which included a lengthy monsoon season followed by sweltering heat and humidity, were endured by the men who served in Vietnam.
“We would sit on these long benches at night and watch movies,” said Fletcher. “It would be raining cats and dogs, but we’d sit there. It was our entertainment.”
Work for Fletcher varied, as it did for many of the men in service.
“When I got there, my job was to take documents from the general’s headquarters to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City),” remembered Fletcher, a 1968 Warrior Run graduate.
Fletcher would fly via Huey, armed with a .45-caliber pistol and a top-secret clearance to make his periodic deliveries. The Department of Defense clearance was due to the fact he was handling information about weapons caches and communications, among other information.”
When he wasn’t making deliveries, he’d pull duty at “The Compound”.
“It was a job anyone could have had,” he said of his trips south. “Deliveries were sporadic. They had other lines of communication.”
Fletcher, as most who served in Vietnam, had nothing but praise for the helicopter pilots, who flew re-supply missions, transport, troop transport and troop insertion and extraction.
“My hats off to the chopper pilots,” he said. “They took soldiers into battle, picked up the wounded. They were brave.”
Fletcher grew up in Watsontown and upon graduation, went to work in Lewisburg, then enlisted in the Army. His basic training was at Fort Dix and he was to be assigned to an artillery unit. However, as anyone with military experience can attest, things don’t always go as planned.
“You would go there expecting to do one thing and end up doing something else entirely,” said Fletcher.
Another job he had was to formulate maps for those in the field.
“We’d figure out the terrain and print out maps, print information on strike zones where they would be sending troops,” said Fletcher. “I was fortunate not to be wading out in the jungle.”
The jungle is not the only dangerous place that existed in Vietnam, though. Guerilla tactics employed by the Viet Cong (VC), especially in the southern areas of the country, had bases and outposts on near constant alert.
“There was not good place in Vietnam,” he said. “You could be working beside someone who was a VC. We hired Vietnamese to work alongside us.”
The VC would hit and run, conduct night ambushes, all in an attempt to deflate morale of American troops.
“It was more harassment than anything,” said Fletcher. “Even with the mortar attacks, they were just trying to break morale.”
Fletcher landed in country just after the Tet Offensive, but was there during the Battle at Dong Ap Bia, better known as “Hamburger Hill” in May 1969. Nearly 80 American troops were killed in the week-long battle with more than 370 wounded.
“We heard what officers wanted us to hear,” he said. “I never got the full impact of it until I got home and saw the stories and the documentaries.”
On a trip to the South China Sea, he saw firsthand what the VC would do to soldiers, and not just American troops.
“We had some down time and we took a trip to the South China Sea,” he remembered. “All of a sudden I see a crowd of Vietnamese standing in a huddle. There in a washed out area laid a South Korean soldier with his throat cut. Next thing I hear a roar of jeeps coming down the beach. South Korean soldiers arrived to recover the body and took off. That next night, they sent out a recon unit and all hell broke lose in those mountains.”
There were good times, too.
“Being with your buddies, just trying to make the best of it,” he said, “those were the good times.”
Fletcher considers himself lucky to have not been mired in heavy combat. Proud of his service, he was taken aback by the cold reception many veterans received upon returning from Vietnam.
“I’ve never been looked down upon, frowned upon,” said Fletcher, of his experience returing to the states. “There were words coming through the airport. I wondered, ‘What did I do wrong? I was serving my country.
“On the flight from Washington State, I was sitting beside this gentleman,” said Fletcher. “I had my uniform on. I was proud to have served. He looked at me, right in my eyes and said, ‘Are you coming back from Vietnam?’ The next thing I know he’s calling the stewardess over and told her, ‘Give this guy anything he wants.’ We drank scotch the whole flight. That was my first warm welcome I got other than friends or family.”
Fletcher got a taste of his future career while stationed in Vietnam as well. A South Korean group of soldiers had a compound near where he was stationed and he became acquaintances with some of the friendlies.
“The first time I walked past their compound, they were training in the martial arts,” said Fletcher. “There were hundreds of them practicing their martial arts. That was my first taste of it.”
Today, Fletcher is a grand master in kung fu and teaches the art at the Greater Susquehanna Valley YMCAs in Milton and Sunbury.
As with most Vietnam veterans, Fletcher kept his service in Vietnam to himself, outside of a circle of friends and family. It wasn’t until a recent decision to join another Vietnam veteran, Don Steckel, in the Union County Veterans Fourth of July Parade in Lewisburg, that he felt the appreciation of the community as a whole.
“Don asked me several years back to be in the (Union County) Veterans Parade,” said Fletcher. “That’s the first time I got choked up. People were standing, saying, ‘It’s about time.’ It was the homecoming we should have had.”
The camaraderie shared amongst veterans of Vietnam is similar to that other soldiers of like wars, however with Vietnam veterans, it’s perhaps a little more special, a little more intense.
“Nobody realizes what it’s like to be in a war unless you are part of it,” said Fletcher. “You see things. You have someone shooting at you and you don’t know who it is or where it’s coming front. You just hear the shots hitting the sandbags.”
He returned in 1969 and finished his duty in Arizona.
Prior to leaving for Vietnam, he was engaged to marry Marian. “I didn’t want to get married before I left and leave a young widow,” he said. The two married upon his return and have shared 44 years.
Fletcher and his wife have a daughter, Lisa, two grandsons and a stepgranddaughter.
Chris Brady is managing editor at the Standard Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.