Tuesday, July 5, 2022 Jul 5, 2022
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QUEST FOR HONOR

Dallas Vietnam vets seek a memorial
By Aimee Larrabee |

IT’S HARD TO believe that 20 years have passed since the United States first sent troops to Vietnam. When America entered the Vietnam era, we were already on the threshold of what would be a long period of growing pains for the country. The racial tensions, the drug culture, the problems of millions of baby-boomers coming of age during the Sixties were all stresses that were accentuated and accelerated by the controversial war-the war that many people believed should never have touched America. Or, shall we say, that America should never have touched.

But we did touch. From the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, until March 29, 1973, when the last American troops left Vietnam, we were touched daily. We saw footage of the war at 6 and 10. We heard about protesters, draft dodgers and peace marchers. Many marched. Others beat and spat upon those who did. And unless we were extremely lucky, we learned about a friend, a classmate, a cousin, a brother, a husband-someone-who died.

Soldiers die, people mourn-those are the trappings of any war. But Vietnam was different. When World War II broke out, the president of the New York Stock Exchange volunteered for the army. People bent rules to get into the army, and once they shipped out, we at home rallied. We conserved meat, sugar and wheat in order to send more to the American soldiers overseas. We fasted, and we prayed. And when they returned, we threw one big welcome-home party with posters and parades and open arms.

By 1964, maybe we had outgrown wars. Whatever the reason, the Vietnam War caught the nation with the impact of a great big sucker punch. What were we doing over there? What was this place, Vietnam? And as the sons of World War II veterans were leaving by the planeload, many of us persecuted rather than praised them. While they were gone, we questioned the moral issue of the war. When they returned, there were no parades.

Now, 20 years later, many scars have healed. There are still ugly reminders now and then of the veteran who doesn’t fit in- who can’t cope-but those stories are fading.

But all the reminders won’t go away. More than 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam; almost one-third are Texans. In the Dallas area alone, there are about 50,000 Vietnam vets. Your next-door neighbor, your doctor, the man you meet in a bar, your football hero-any of them could have served in Vietnam, and you probably wouldn’t know. It’s not something they often discuss.

Within that local group of 50,000, there are 43 different veterans’ groups-clubs that meet weekly or monthly to discuss the pain they can’t seem to shake. From one of those groups has come a 19-page document, a plan for a Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Dallas. Almost two years ago, Dallas approved a site for the memorial at Fair Park. The exact plans have changed several times since then, but the current plan calls for a large granite sculpture to be built near the Cotton Bowl. Its completion date is set for 1986.

Why a memorial now? In the words of Neal Pointer, a veteran and a leading organizer for the memorial: “Ten years ago wasn’t time enough to let intellectual powers take over emotional ones . . . Five years ago, it could have been a ’woe-is-me’ situation. Now it’s just: ’We deserve the recognition.’”

Former City Councilman Lee Simpson, another veteran, says, “There are 50,000 Vietnam veterans here and 50,000 different stories-vivid recollections of how it was.”

We spoke to four Dallasites about Vietnam-four out of 50,000: Neal Pointer, president of Jones, Pointer, Winn Inc., an advertising agency; Richard Knight, Dallas’ assistant city manager; Clarence Lott, a partner in Executive Air Lift and pilot of “The Amazing Black Thunder,” a traffic report helicopter; and Lee Simpson, an attorney with Wald, Harkrader and Ross. All four veterans have made it. They have happy lives, productive careers and bright futures. And they have another common bond: They have those memories…



C’mon, all of you big, strong men. Uncle Sam needs your help again. Got himself in a heck of a jam, way down yonder in Vietnam.

-from Felt Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag by Country Joe and the Fish



I graduated from Princeton in June of 1968.I had been admitted to law school and had a Fulbright scholarship to Argentina. The scholarship was not draft-exempt, so I came home and went down to the draft board. I talked to this woman who was thehead clerk [of the board], and she said theDallas board hadn’t filled its quota formonths and months because there were somany people in college. She said, “Thething for you to do is take your physical nowand go to Argentina. That way, you won’thave to come back for the physical,” shesaid. The net effect of that was to immediately put me in the LA pool. I went to Argentina, and six weeks later-August 5-I got atelegram saying I was supposed to report foractive duty on August 19. So I came backand got inducted . . . and the woman at thedraft board told me I was going to look verynice in a uniform. – Lee Simpson



My background was political science and economics, so I was into understanding the dynamics of Vietnam-never realizing, of course, that I would be one of the players. I was at Atlanta University, and I got this thick letter in the mail that said Department of Defense. And for some reason, I had this real rush because I knew when I opened that letter what it was going to say. Sure enough, I opened it, and it said, “Greetings from your friends and neighbors.” It said I had to report to the draft board. At that moment, I really had to come to terms with who I was. There are certain loyalties you have to the country, to God, to your family, but I really had mixed emotions about what to do.

-Richard Knight



I found out I was drafted on ChristmasDay, 1969. I came home from school forvacation, and there it was. Richard Nixonsigned my card. I was 19 years old. MerryChristmas. -Neal Pointer



I joined the service out of high school. Ioriginally went to be an aircraft mechanic,but while I was there I applied for flightschool. My father was in Vietnam. When Iwas just about ready to finish flight school,my dad got injured. I couldn’t get emergencyleave, so I had to quit [school] to go to thehospital to see him. When I came back, Ihad orders to go to Vietnam as a crew chiefand mechanic. -Clarence Lott



I shipped out of North Carolina, leaving my wife there. I think I was too young. I was the type of guy who liked climbing the mountain because it was there. As a matter of fact, my mother, my wife, my mother-in-law, my granddad and grandma were allthere-they were more concerned than Iwas. It hadn’t hit. -Knight



They told us in basic that some second lieutenants who were going over had a life expectancy of less than three weeks.

-Pointer



My second week of basic was the week of the Democratic Convention in Chicago. While the rest of the country was glued to their televisions, we were polishing our boots, shining our brass and going to bed at 9 o’clock. -Simpson



You’d be surprised by all the guys I met that I’d known either in high school or college or graduate school or on some debate team. It was just strange. It was like every male in the darned country was at the reception station getting ready to ship out. I was saying, “My God, will there be anybody left over here?” -Knight



In radio school, a class would graduate every week, and they were sending the classes in rotating order to Germany, Korea and Vietnam, so there was a pretty good chance that you weren’t going to Vietnam at all. I was marching to class one night and thought: I’m going to Vietnam; if there’s anything to be done about it, I’d better do it now. Of course, there wasn’t, but there was just an abiding faith that somehow college graduates didn’t get sent to Vietnam.

-Simpson



We landed over there at night. Before we got there, this guy on the plane next to me lit up a joint-they had told us that you shouldn’t get off the plane unless you were messed up. We landed; the door of the plane opened. It was hot, it stunk, and everybody had guns. -Pointer



We arrived at the air force base and got on a plane for Benwah, Vietnam. The thing that was different about Vietnam was that youknew that, assuming you didn’t get zapped,you were gone for 12 months-that’s it. Onthe plane ride over, I started dealing in mymind with what was going to happen, andwhat I was most afraid of was being crippled. I figured if I got killed, that wasn’t going to be my problem-I wasn’t going toknow about it. -Simpson



When I arrived in Vietnam, I didn’t knowwhat to expect. My feelings at the time werepretty simple-patriotic. I wanted to be partof it. I thought I was doing something for mycountry. – Lott



I was opposed to the war on militarygrounds. I wasn’t one of those people wholikened LBJ to Hitler. I didn’t think theAmerican people had become the reincarnation of the devil. I just thought it was astrategic mistake. Sort of the wrong war atthe wrong place. -Simpson



The first people I shot over there andknow that I killed were an old lady about 60and a boy around 14. Return fire. They shotat us first-automatic weapons out of a boat.They were carrying ammunition in theboat… I started not to fire, and the sergeantkept hollering, “For Christ’s sake, fire!”And you’ve just gotta do it. That wasn’t whatI expected to see. No, I expected peoplewearing uniforms, you know, that sort ofstuff. No, not that. -Lott

The roughest period in the country for mewas probably my first 30 days and my last45.I was scared as hell for the first 30 days.Then, of course, you get wise to the ways ofthe war, and you know you have to be careful. You were careful to understand what wasnecessary to stay alive. You learn that if youreach down for that silver-and-gold-platedcigarette lighter that’s in the middle of theroad, it’s a booby trap. It didn’t just fallthere; it was planted there. You begin to adjust. The first 30 days you don’t think:”God, I wish I was home.” You may findthat a passing thought for one quick second,but you understand that hey, boy, you can’tswim that far, you don’t have wings and youdefinitely can’t walk, okay? You make goodof it. You survive. -Knight



The army dehumanized the war for you.You weren’t killing people; you were killingCharlies, Gooks, Mr. Chuck. And if youdidn’t kill Charlie, Charlie was gonna killyou. -Pointer



I’d been there before, so I knew on my second tour that it wasn’t a game. I remember when a friend of mine came over about the same time I did. He was a scout pilot. It seemed like most of the young guys wanted to be scout pilots-to be out there actually finding the enemy. To every new guy that came over like that, it was a big game. You go out every day, and you play the game. Nothing happens; everyone comes back. You get a few bullet holes in your aircraft,and you get a close call. It’s like a big gameuntil one day, someone gets killed-a friendof yours-and then the realization comesthat you’re playing for real. I saw my friendchange in one day when a friend of his gotkilled-the whole aircraft blew up right infront of his eyes. Overnight, he becamewiser. -Lott



I was on a two-man radio relay on a mountain. You could sit on top of the bunker atnight, and you could look all the wayaround-360 degrees-and not see a singlelight. You’d think: “There’s nothing betweenme and China except for jungle-justtrackless jungle as far as you could see.” Iwas on that relay when the guys walked onthe moon… -Simpson



The system was actually so organized thatI remember getting letters from home whenI was in transit. And let me tell you something: There ain’t nothin’ better-pardon myEnglish-than getting a letter from home.Ooowee! -Knight



There didn’t appear to be any organization. There was just a bunch of people doing a bunch of different jobs, and it didn’t allseem to relate. Maybe I just wasn’t in theposition to see what the master plan was. Itdidn’t appear to be a team effort-just abunch of individual players. -Lott



There are some things I try to forget, like waking up one morning, and two guys refused to get out of their bunks when we were getting incoming [shells]. They got direct hits, and we were pulling parts of them off the boards-the parts that we could find. A lot of things happened because of laziness. That’s one thing you couldn’t do-you couldn’t get comfortable, you couldn’t get lazy; that’s when you’d get hit. No matter how tired you were, you had to be alert.

-Knight



I was there during the Tet offensive in ’68. That morning, we launched our aircraft with some operations people to get a firsthand view of the roads. We found numerous bridges that had been blown up, and they were concerned about routes in and out of the city of Weh. It was an old city surrounded by a wall-the Americans were inside the wall, and the bad guys were outside the wall trying to get inside. We were trying to see how to get inside, too. Unfortunately, we were at the wrong place at the right time, and we got shot down. It killed the operations sergeant immediately-he was sitting right next to me-and one other guy, and it wounded a third passenger. We crashed right behind a house. We were helping people out of the aircraft; we were just trying to get away from the aircraft. I looked around the corner, and this bad guy was there with a rocket launcher-it fires grenades, basically-and he had it pointed at us. I just stopped, and, oh Jesus, I was so tired I just thought: “I don’t want to waste the energy tomove if we’re just going to get blown away.”He looked at us and looked at the aircraft,and I guess he decided he’d rather take thecredit for blowing it up than killing just fourpeople. We ran to a bunker, and he blew it[the aircraft] up. We were in the bunker forabout six hours before some VietnameseRangers showed up. We didn’t know theywere on our side until I saw their guns. Theywere M-16s-American. -Lott



You can really divide the people that were in Vietnam into three categories. In any of the three categories, you might get shot. You certainly would be in a place where you could get shot at. The first category was the actual grunts: the guys who were actually pounding the bush, who slept every night in the jungle and were out for weeks at a time. Those are the ones subjected to the kinds of fears you see in the movies-the tension that pounds on you day after day. They were the ones who were going to walk into an ambush or the ones the sniper was going to get.

-Simpson



Medals-I don’t think anyone really caredabout them over there. I don’t think theymake any difference; they just didn’t seemimportant to what we were doing. With threeaircraft, we killed something like 220 people in about 15 or 20 minutes. They gave methe Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with asilver star for that. -Lott



The first time I saw someone get blownup, I threw up. But just once. After a point,it became a way of life. -Knight



There were bounties on certain Americansoldiers over there. The Viet Cong put aprice on their heads. There was this oneAmerican nicknamed “Silver Dollar.”Every time he’d kill someone, he’d put awooden nickel in their mouths to claimthem. He was proud that there was a bounty for him. -Pointer



I grew up in ’Nam. I used to say, “They always say the army will make a man out of you, but I already am one.” I retract that a little bit now. I learned a lot. -Knight



I remember that I told myself toward the end that I would never look back and say it wasn’t so bad. And that if I started to think that it wasn’t so bad, that I would remember what I was thinking that day: It was bad. I didn’t want to remember it in a lighter sense. The longer you’re there, you realize that it was hopeless, and you wonder why the people who were dealing with it on the levels that they were dealing with it for such a long time couldn’t see the big picture. Why?

-Lott



One thing you just couldn’t miss the wholetime you were there was that the sky was justlike the sky in Texas. It was a huge sky-justmore tropical. The sky, the sunsets, werejust phenomenal. -Simpson



We had this guy, a warrant officer, and we called him Horrible Harry. Extremely weak stomach. And there was this stench over there-whew! When we’d drive in a jeep in the morning, he’d always sit in the back so the wind would blow fresh air in his face. And he’d always bring an apple with him- he’d take a big bite out of it and then stick the part where he’d taken the bite over his nose to block the smell. He’d do that all the way to where we were going. Boy, I’ll bet he looked funny from the side of the road.

-Lott



I had this good buddy over there, and weused to ham it up. He’d say, “Knight, man,I want to go home. Why don’t you get yourself shot, ’cause you know they alwayschoose your best buddy to go home and deliver the news.” You may think that’s morbid, but it’s not. It’s survival. He’s in Charlotte, North Carolina, now. We keep intouch. You establish a camaraderie or espritde corps that just sticks with you, becauseyou really see each other through sometough times-you build on each other’sstrengths. -Knight



There are certain things you miss whileyou’re over there. Cheeseburgers were highon everybody’s list. So were round-eyes[American women], showers.. .and freedom, I guess. -Pointer

There were these Long-Bend Grand Prix races. There was a place on a hill where the helicopters would drop off the bodies to be shipped back. You would have to unload them onto these gurneys and then take them down this hill to a central building. People would have races-tournaments-with the gurneys. Just a way to get by, that’s all.

-Pointer



You never knew when you were going to get hit. You could be walking down the road, and Charlie could put one of those mortars in your back pocket. There was no magic about when or where. That was a unique thing about Vietnam. -Knight



I had several calendars. Everybody did. I had one I wore on my helmet-I drew it on there. I had one that I marked off every day, and I had one that I marked off once a week. I had another one that I marked off once a month. It was great to be able to mark off a whole month. -Simpson



I read constantly. It was my escape. My mother would send me packages with magazines and books. I have this whole collection of books at home with dried red mud allover them. -Simpson



We were very philosophical. We’d sitaround and solve just about every problemin the world. People were able to share theirinsights with you. We played around with afootball sometimes. I did a lot of reading. I’llbet my library from ’Nam is more extensivethan my library from college and graduateschool. -Knight



The whole goal-not just for me, but for everybody there-was to stay alive. -Lott



The Vietnamese made sure drugs wereavailable. It was a large part of their economy. -Pointer



Two guys in the rear of my unit were really screwed up on opium. -Simpson.



There was more marijuana there thananything else. Both the officers and the enlisted men were really into it. It didn’t bother me as long as we weren’t on a mission andit didn’t affect their performance. What wasthe difference between me getting blitzed ondrinks in the officer’s club and them smoking a joint and listening to The Doors on theradio? -Lott



There was no respect for authority overthere. A typical statement to authority was:”What are you gonna do, send me to Vietnam?” -Pointer



I was very seldom scared during a mission -or even after or before it. It was at night, when I was getting ready to go to sleep, and I was in my bunk-in a secure area, basically-when I’d wonder if I was going to bethere again the next night. -Lott



That was a feeling that was unbelievable:The Freedom Bird. The pilot comes on andsays, “Congratulations, you’re on your wayhome.” Wow. -Pointer



Coming home, you’re torn between adjusting to the reality of being able to go to the refrigerator and open the door, hit a light switch, flush a toilet, turn on running water, watch a vehicle go down the road on the right side, while at the same time looking over your shoulder wondering if someone was going to say something snide to you because you were in Vietnam. Are they going to call me a baby killer or something dumb like that? You worry about it. I guess the other thing, too, is that you give a period of your life for the country, and it’s not like you feel the country owes you a living or anything, but you just think: “Does somebody appreciate what I’ve done?” Ticker tape andthat whole deal, I’m not into that-not forme, but for those guys that didn’t make itback. -Knight



Coming home was disappointing. You’reover there doing what you thought was right,and then you get back and these freaks comeup to you in the airport and start calling youa murderer. It hurts. And it’s not necessarily for me. I had this friend over there. Hewas a healthy, suntanned-looking guy onemorning; by that night, he’s in the hospital,he’s pale, he’s hurt and he’s had his leg amputated. You see people like that who really suffered, and the general attitude of mosteveryone is really disheartening. Why in thehell did we bother? -Lott

I’ve been in the presence of people whowere critical of Vietnam, and, like mostthings, I get furious, but I suck it in. Whytake it on? People have the right to be critical-I believe that’s what makes this country great-but I don’t understand how theycan be critical of something they don’t knowanything about. -Knight



I came back and visited a friend in New York. She asked me if I wanted to go see a movie with a bunch of medical students at Columbia. We went, and they were showing this film that supposedly had been made of American bombings of North Vietnam. There were all these doctors sitting around talking about how anyone who would go fight in the war was a criminal. I got mad.

-Simpson



When you realize what you’ve done, it’shard. God, it’s hard to even guess how many[people I killed]. Is 2,000 too few or toomany? -Lott



You have to deal with it, play it over and over in your mind. Every time you play it over, it gets less important. -Pointer



I really don’t think about ’Nam anymore. I have other things to think about. But my wife tells me I still have nightmares. On nights that I’m really exhausted and tired, she’ll wake me up and tell me I was saying stuff like, “Hit the dirt” or “Watch out!” Not a violent type of thing, but I’ll be perspiring. That’s only when I’m completely exhausted, though.. .really, really tired.

-Knight



It’s hard to forget, you know?-Lott

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