Joe Barrera: My Motives in 1967

I have been asked my times about my reasons for fighting in Vietnam. This was especially true at Colorado College, the wonderful paradise of innocence in the early ’70s when I was a student there. My answer did not satisfy the anti-war people who made life hard for me, but this is what I would say: When I was a boy in Catholic school I would read books by Fr. Albert Nevins, the Maryknoll Catholic priest and unofficial spokesman for the Foreign Mission Society of America, as Maryknoll is formally known. Fr. Nevins was of a different time. In those innocent days of the ’50s and early ’60s America was still a light unto the world, a savior for oppressed peoples everywhere. There was truth in this and we are still a light unto the world, if we can live up to our ideals. As a young man I considered myself fortunate to be part of the effort to spread democracy and halt Communism, a sentiment reinforced by my father, a career Army man. But disillusion was inevitable. I understood later that there was also a dark, imperialistic side to U.S. foreign policy. I wasn’t the only one who realized that. As a country we learned about our own misguided decisions in the ’60s with the debacle of the Vietnam War. Vietnam drastically altered the world view of a whole generation and we have never been the same since. We behaved in less than an exemplary manner in Vietnam. One statistic is enough to bring this into focus. Over the course of our war in Southeast Asia we dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs on Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, more than twice what rained down on Europe and Asia during WWII. Imagine for a moment that you are an Asian peasant and a flight of B-52 bombers begins to carpet bomb your rice field. You run like hell, but you can’t outrun a bomb falling from 30,000 feet. I know about that. I saw it, felt it, and still live it. A 500 lb bomb from a B-52 fell right on top of my infantry company. Lucky for me I had dug a deep hole in the ground. Otherwise I would not be here today. That was some kind of “friendly fire!”

But  back in 1967 I knew nothing about this. My world view was decidedly anti-Communist, influenced by Fr. Nevins, who had written about the atrocities committed by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh after they routed the French at Dien Bien Phu and won their struggle against colonialism, at least in North Vietnam. The French, of course, were no paragons of virtue. They committed many crimes in Vietnam and later in Algeria, where they behaved even worse. But it was the Communists in Vietnam who frightened me. I vividly remember one episode in which Vietnamese Catholics had chopsticks rammed into their ears, recounted in detail in a book by Fr. Nevins, if memory serves me right. That was enough to make me a crusader against the Reds.

So, in 1967 I joined the Army and it was off to Vietnam. Influenced by my uncle, the eternal soldier who had almost been killed during the siege of Brest in 1944, I volunteered for the infantry. He called me a fool for doing it, but I had to prove that I was as tough as he was. Well, I did, but it was mostly because of sheer dumb luck that I survived. That, and my pious mother’s prayers. I went to war completely idealistically, like countless young men before and after me. My motive was to save the world from Communism, or at least South Vietnam. Communism to me was monstrous, the equivalent of Nazism and Fascism, twin evils the Greatest Generation who fought WWII had so heroically destroyed. I emulated that Generation in 1967, and contrary to Vietnam War myth, many of my fellow soldiers felt the same way. We were virtuous in our Americanism. I believed in that. I was motivated by that kind of selflessness. And then in one turn of fortune so many of us turned bitter and cynical. The Veterans’ Affairs hospitals and clinics are full of us now, not to mention the cemeteries. But, please, remember me and all of us for who were, “We were soldiers once, and young.”

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Denver Events: Share the Experience

Thank you for the warm welcome in Denver; thank you to the American GI Forum of Colorado Mile Hi Chapter, and the Colorado Society of Hispanic Geneology. The storytelling was brilliant and bold, the food delicious and plentiful.

George Autobee (FEB 15)
     George Autobee describing his experiences in Vietnam

Issue 6 contributor, Ramon Del Castillo, tells the story of his brother and cousin, who fought in Vietnam and carried their wounds home…

 

Karen Gonzales (FEB 15)
     Issue 5 contributor, Karen Gonzales, reads from her memoir, The Lady Llorona

 

Butterfly Issue 6

The one thing more fantastic than  purchasing a copy of our journal through our website, is purchasing a copy at a local bookstore. Entrepeneurs who do that — run bookstores — are real culture heroes. Having said that, The Almagre Review can be found in Denver at The BookBar, 4280 Tennyson St, Denver, CO 80212. Every purchased issue shares proceeds with your local business. Support Storytelling, Support Local Business — swing by the BookBar and ask for a copy.

The Book Bar (FB Image)

Issue 6: “Veterans, Part I” is Here…

Thank you to all who made this issue possible. We are very proud to present this amazing edition, our most content-rich to date, with great insight and narrative provided by 16 amazing writers. Please pick up a copy here at our website, or at local bookstores around Colorado Springs.

issue 6 cover official jpeg

Copies are also available at Hooked on Books (downtown), Poor Richard’s Books and Gifts (downtown), Books For You (8th Street), and Ranch Foods Direct (Fillmore Street). Whenever purchasing a copy at a store, you support brick and mortar bookstores and local businesses, two important institutions we are a fan of. Support Literature, Support Local.

The Staff of La Revista Almagre

Joe Barrera: The Christmas Truce

It was not the same as the famous WWI Christmas Truce of 1914 on the Western Front, when French and British soldiers came out of the trenches and mingled with their German enemies, exchanging gifts and singing Christmas carols, to the consternation of their commanders. The truce in my war was a ceasefire nevertheless. At least for a few hours, or even for a day or two, depending on where you were. The ceasefire had been announced by both the U.S. and South Vietnam. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese agreed to it, somewhat reluctantly. They immediately violated it, firing their ubiquitous mortars at U.S. base camps. That was our version of events. The VC and the NVA said that we were the instigators.

Christmas Flower

Christmas 1967 was a clear, peaceful, sunlit day. We were set up on a hilltop near the Laotian border somewhere west of the 4th Division’s 1st Brigade Base Camp at Dak To in the mountainous Central Highlands of South Vietnam. The series of bloody hill fights known as the Battle of Dak To had terminated a few weeks earlier. Like other battles far away and long ago, Dak To is largely forgotten. I cannot forget it and I am forever sorrowful because too many comrades died. The NVA mauled the 173rd Airborne Brigade on Hill 875 and 3/8th Infantry of the 4th Division at Hill 1338. 1/8th Infantry, my unit, had been involved on 1338, and firefights, ambushes, mortar and recoilless rifle attacks on unnamed hilltops. Now we dug in, licking our wounds and wondering when the next attack would come out of the North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Laos. Soldiers always know it. They had deliberately put us out there. We were the bait to entice the North Vietnamese out of their holes.

But for a short time the Prince of Peace reigned. Out of the bright blue sky a double-rotor Chinook helicopter swooped down and landed at the LZ we had hacked out of the thick forest. The ramp lowered and crewmen pushed bulging orange-colored sacks onto the ground. They ran back into the cavernous hold and emerged carrying mermite cans full of hot food. People we never saw out in the field appeared: the company XO, the supply sergeant, the mess sergeant, the company clerk, and the usual shammers and profile-wavers. These base camp commandos lined up the mermite cans, broke out the paper plates and proceeded to serve the less-fortunate grunt infantry Christmas dinner, turkey with all the trimmings. Others opened the orange sacks and out tumbled cardboard boxes, packages from home. The Army had come through. We were not forgotten after all.

I got two packages. The smaller one was from my lady love in Mercedes, the little dust-blown south Texas town five miles north of the Rio Grande. In 1750 my ancestors had settled on the north bank of the Big River, on “la merced,” the Spanish land grant which gave the town its name. I remembered my great-grandfather’s land. But he lost it to the American taxes he never understood. How I longed to be back there, dust notwithstanding. The bigger package was from my Dad, stationed with the Army in Kaiserslautern. The whole family was in K-Town, frolicking with the frauleins. I could have gone with them but I chose Vietnam instead. My girl had sent stationary, pens, envelopes, and sweet-smelling lotion-saturated wipes. She was ready for the first kiss and knew that I had not bathed in months. My father’s box was full of canned Mexican goodies, tortillas, hot sauce, tamales, cinnamon-laced chocolate, all the usual Mexican Christmas delicacies. How did he get all that stuff in Germany? That must have been some commissary in Kaiserslautern.

 

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera: Home, But Yet Not at Home

MVCD Button

We were on the big jet but then they told us to get off. Quickly, we filed out of the plane and sheltered in the revetment next to the runway. The Viet Cong mortars landed some distance away. Our plane was not touched. We ran up the stairs of the Freedom Bird and took our seats again. The pilots gunned the engines and we were airborne. The men cheered when the wheels left the ground. I sat in my seat silently. My tour of duty was over but I felt a strange emotion: I felt sad—I wanted to stay in Vietnam. I wanted to keep on fighting the war. For me it was not finished. I had come up against the wall, what every combat infantryman faces. I had stood there, pushed against that wall and overcome my fear, I had done my duty. But I had not done enough. I had not gone through the wall. Yes, I had stepped into it but I had not gone far enough into the other side. I had not finished my war. I had not been true to fallen comrades.The other soldiers didn’t see it that way. They were just glad to go back to “the world” but I felt differently. “There must be something very wrong with me because I am not happy.”

In Japan there was a layover. We went to the PX to buy duty-free cameras, radios, and, of course, liquor. The place was full of Marines on their way to Nam. Their uniforms were brand new, their buzz cuts very tight, their faces so young and innocent. “You’ll be sorry,” the other guys said to the youngsters.

It’s been fifty-years but how fresh the memories. We landed at Travis Air Base, late at night, the end of August, 1968. We cleared Customs, dumping the Cambodian Red and other contraband in the amnesty bins. Then they took us to a big warehouse and made us take showers. After that we filed down a row of tables and senior NCO’s dressed us in new Class A uniforms. They had to help us put on the Army insignia, lining it up properly. We didn’t remember how to do that but nobody cared. The sergeants offered us the obligatory steak dinner. I was hungry and wanted it. But all the others loudly refused. Then buses pulled up and we were on our way to the Oakland airport. By this time the sun was up. How different “the world” looked.

In those days you could walk up to any airline counter in any airport and pay cash for a one-way ticket and nobody took you for a terrorist. I paid $80.00 for a ticket to San Antonio. Finally, it started to sink in. I was going home. In the waiting area people were sitting in what looked like school desks, the fronts fitted with single curved arms. At the ends of the arms were small black-and-white televisions. You could put a quarter in a slot and get 15 minutes of TV time. Everybody was staring intently at the TVs. I stood behind one man and looked over his shoulder. Just then on the screen I saw a policeman in a white helmet with a raised club chasing a “hippie,” catching the long-haired young man and beating him mercilessly with the stick. It was a shock. I didn’t know what to think. The violence sucked me in. I didn’t want to but I was compelled to see it. The riot on TV was the scene outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. “My God,” I thought, “I’ve been gone a year and the country is falling to pieces.”

Nobody in the airport talked to me. I was a soldier in uniform and I was invisible. I may as well not have existed. People looked right through me. Later on I realized something. The myth of spit and words in airports was invented by Vietnam veterans to deal with the deep wounds our countrymen gave us. Better to get spit on than to be completely shunned.

The small San Antonio terminal was full of people. I saw a tall soldier in Army green standing in a corner. Around his neck he wore the unmistakable broad blue ribbon of the Medal of Honor. Three or four other soldiers stood around him. The crown ignored them. I joined the soldiers. The man with the medal told us how he had saved the lives of other men in one of those forgotten Vietnam firefights, so bravely won but so uselessly fought. The profile of the ancient Greek warrior on the medal seemed to approve. The word “Valor” was inscribed above the face of the warrior. I turned away, looking for home. My fellow citizens ceaselessly rushed past me, past the tall soldier wearing his nation’s highest award for honor, for courage and devotion. Nobody stopped, nobody cared.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera: Remembering the Mini-Tet Offensive

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Memorial Day is about memories. With this in mind, I visited Joe Berg, the director of the 4th Infantry Division Museum at Fort Carson. There is a soft spot in my heart for the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, 4th Division, with whom I served in Vietnam. I asked Joe about Mini-Tet and the 4th Division. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Tet Offensive, Phase One, of January and February 1968, is well-known. Not so the Tet Offensive, Phase Two, in May 1968. We called Phase Two Mini-Tet, because it had all the ferocity of Big Tet. The 4th Infantry Division whose Area of Operations (AO) was the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, was particularly hard hit. In late May 1968 I was with 1/8th Infantry in the mountainous tri-border area of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I asked Joe Berg what the historical record says about 1/8th Infantry and the 4th Division in the battles we fought there.

I knew the answer already but I wanted confirmation. The record is very skimpy. The 4th Division is a good outfit. In WWI, the division distinguished itself during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Pershing’s sledgehammer attacks on the Hindenburg Line. In WWII, the 8th Regiment, my old unit, spearheaded the 4th Division’s D-Day landings and was the first to secure its beach head, Utah Beach. But in Vietnam we never got the credit we deserved. The battle cry of the division is “Steadfast and Loyal,” and that it has always been. But in the Nam it was other units–the 1st Cavalry, the 173rd Airborne, the Marines at Khe Sanh–who got all the attention. Joe Berg showed me Erik B. Villard’s book, Staying the Course: October 1967 to September 1968–the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Villard devotes about two pages to the 4th Division’s battles in the tri-border area. There is a brief mention of 1/8th Infantry’s fight with the North Vietnamese (NVA) 95C and 101D regiments at Firebase 29 on Hill 824 and other nearby firebases near the Montagnard village of Ben Het. Villard has a lot of ground to cover, so the brevity is understandable. But I wish it wasn’t so.

I was on one of those hilltop firebases whose name I do not remember. At first we were glad to be on the firebase, relieved from humping the 75lb rucksacks we carried. But that didn’t last long.The enemy kept up a constant mortar and artillery barrage. Day and night mortar rounds fell like rain. We were a shooting gallery for 75mm recoilless rifles from adjacent hilltops. Then the two-week-long barrage by Russian-supplied 152mm NVA artillery out of Laos just five clicks (kilometers) away. Those were big rounds, coming in with a horrible shriek. The NVA gunners aimed for the U.S. artillery batteries on the hilltop. We lived like moles in trenches and deep bunkers. We couldn’t patrol outside the wire. They had us surrounded and to venture out was to risk a deadly ambush. Resupply helicopters came in at their own peril. We suffered like the Marines besieged at Khe Sanh. Not as long, but the same kind of thing.

The spirit words on the 8th Regiment’s coat-of-arms are Patriae Fidelitas–Faithfulness to Country. I ran by the  tactical operations center, the TOC, one night and tripped on something. It was the battalion placard, blown down by one of those huge 152 artillery rounds. In the glare of an explosion I saw the Latin, Patriae Fidelitas. The sentiment is powerful. Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall, guarding the empire’s remotest frontier, must have felt it too. Now the 8th Infantry held a 20th-century frontier. I propped up the sign against the sandbags and ran to the safety of my own deep bunker.

 

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Tet Offensive

On Feb. 3, 1968 I was sitting on the banks of a muddy river in the village of Thanh Canh, or as we called it, Tin Can. I never learned the name of the stream. Reflecting on that time, Tet 1968, I see a microcosm of our misadventure in Vietnam. The situation revealed lessons we should have learned but did not.

Tet Offensive (Warren K Leffler)

Convoys of U.S. and South Vietnamese jeeps, APCs (armored personnel carriers), trucks loaded with troops, M-48 tanks, dusters (armored vehicles with 40mm cannons) crossed the river on a pontoon bridge. The convoys looked powerful but it was an illusion. On one side of the bridge there was a French fort, an enclosure surrounded by berms, mounds of dirt. The defenders burrowed into the mounds to make fighting positions. We called it the “mud fort” because it was just a triangle of muddy dirt, a relic of the French Army’s futile attempt to control Annam. The fort was a harbinger for us. Along the river, bamboo hooches (shacks) stretched for several kilometers. The fort was manned by the Regional Forces/Popular Forces, RF/PFs, trained by U.S. Green Berets, part of our futile effort to control Vietnam. We called them “Ruff Puffs.” They hid in the fort at this crossing on the road between Kon Tum and Dak To and never came out. We were out all the time. We walked up to the French mission. There were dozens of kids, Vietnamese nuns, an exquisite Catholic church, an ascetic French priest–the lone survivor. The mission, the church, the mud fort. I doubt that anything is there anymore. Shades of Beau Geste and the Foreign Legion.

A horde of villagers came running downstream and into the ramshackle fort. The North Vietnamese were advancing. They were a short distance away. Immediately, the U.S. tanks patrolling the road formed a defensive lager next to the fort. We infantrymen had to content ourselves with holes along the banks. But all was quiet. That night one of the tankers fired H&I (harassment and interdiction) up and down the river with his M79 grenade launcher, which fires a 40mm projectile. In the morning the Ruff Puffs yelled and shook their fists at the tanks. The H&I had sunk numerous sampans, boats the villagers used to fish in the river. There went their livelihood. So much for winning hearts and minds.

In the afternoon loin-clothed Montagnards filed into our perimeter. Their leader, a dignified old man, sat down with us. I gave him a can of Coca-Cola. He drew a map in the dirt. We compared our map to his. The others were disdainful but I insisted that he was telling us something: a concentration of NVA troops. I read the coordinates and convinced one of the tankers to use his powerful tank radio to call in an air strike. The jets came in. That took care of the imminent threat. The Montagnards melted into the forest. Did they escape reprisals from the North Vietnamese?

We won every battle in Vietnam, including Tet, but lost the war. There are reasons why we lost in Vietnam and are bogged down in our present wars: We have good motives but our empire treads the path of older empires. We do not effectively engage the enemy. We are too road-bound, too inflexible. We build too many “mud forts.” We do not understand local cultures and alienate our friends. We dismiss nationalism, the impulse to throw out the foreign invader and recover past glories. Nationalism inspired by religion is what motivates our present enemies. It’s almost impossible to stamp out, and now it has terrible forms–the Taliban and the horribly twisted ISIS.

 

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.