From 'Rocket Boy' to Vietnam
January 1, 2012
Wars, according to author and Vietnam veteran Homer Hickam, should be fought by old men.
As a young man in the '60s, he was idealistic and eager to experience what he thought would be the adventure of war. But if someone asked him to go secure a hill today, he joked, he would just sit back and ask for another gin and tonic.
He knows what he's talking about. The former combat engineer volunteered for duty in Vietnam in 1967 as a first lieutenant. He found his adventure -- a little too much of it -- with the 4th Infantry Division in the jungles of South Vietnam's central highlands.
In late October of that year, intelligence reports suggested that the North Vietnamese Army in the area was moving the bulk of its regiments from the Cambodian border into Kontum Province, according to Allay W. Sandstrum in "Seven Firefights in Vietnam." On the night of Nov. 2, NVA Sgt. Vu Hong defected to the Americans and confirmed their worst fears, claiming five regiments were converging on a post known as Dak To and another camp at nearby Ben Het.
Sixteen American and Republic of Vietnam battalions and support units rushed to Kontum where they found an area that had been carefully prepared with expanded trails and roads, trenches, bunkers, tunnels and well-constructed defenses with overhead cover. The NVA also controlled much of the high ground. They wanted to annihilate a major American unit in an effort to force more U.S. troops to the highlands and away from the cities, which the NVA was already planning to attack during the Tet Offensive, according to Lt. Col. Leonard B. Scott in his paper "The Battle for Hill 875, Dak To, Vietnam 1967."
A series of bloody engagements, known collectively as the Battle for Dak To, exploded the next day, and the United States lost hundreds of men attempting to capture hills where the North Vietnamese were deeply entrenched.
Hickam had just arrived in Vietnam, and as an engineer assigned to Charlie Company of the 704th Maintenance Battalion, his job was to help keep the tanks and armored personnel carriers running. He didn't participate in the Battle of Dak To directly, but he had an excellent view of much of it.
"It was astonishing to see draftee units fight so hard for those highlands," he remembered. "It was horrible. As soon as they started going up the hill, medevac choppers were just constantly going in and out. It was essentially a killing zone."
"What the heck had we gotten into?"
Next, Hickam headed to Blackhawk Firebase, which was just east of Pleiku on Highway 19. Highway 19 was a strategic east-west route that ran from Qui Nhon on the coast to the highlands and the Cambodian border. The U.S. used the highway to convoy supplies from the port to troops throughout the country. The convoy trucks, including Hickam's M88 armored recovery vehicle, were frequent targets because the road was a favorite ambush site of the NVA and Viet Cong. They were very good, Hickam explained, at not only disguising mines and bombs along the roads, but also at concealing themselves in the vegetation that grew next to the highway. That was what Soldiers really dreaded.
Paving the road and cutting back the brush helped, but it didn't solve the problem. Hickam remembered racing to one ambush site in particular: It was barely five miles from Blackhawk, and along a wide-open stretch of road surrounded by rice paddies and farmland that they thought "was very, very safe."
Viet Cong guerrillas dressed as peasants had ambushed a company of the 54th Transportation Battalion. The Soldiers held the VC off until helicopters, tanks and Hickam's M88 arrived.
"It was an awful scene," he recalled. "Many trucks were burning, had been destroyed by B-40 rockets. When the cav unit ahead of us arrived, the Viet Cong were still attacking, and they didn't stand much of a chance against the armored units. When I got there, it was just like a scene out of the Alamo. It was awful. There were bodies everywhere, and some of the VC were still fighting. They didn't last very long."
It was unusual, Hickam said, because attacks in the highlands normally came from NVA regulars. He didn't know it then, but it meant the NVA had begun to reserve its troops for the coming Tet Offensive.
The enemy attacked major southern cities in the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 1968, ignoring a two-day ceasefire both sides had agreed to in honor of Tet, the lunar new year and Vietnam's most important holiday. By this time, Hickam was at Oasis, a small firebase near the Cambodian border. It was a brigade headquarters, but most of the units were in the field, leaving primarily support units behind.
The NVA marched into the local village clanging cymbals and gongs and announced they were there to take over, expecting the local citizens to rally to their cause. Because it was a holiday, and the ARVN had woken them earlier with celebratory gunfire, the Americans didn't think anything was wrong when they first heard the commotion.
"They pretty well wiped out that little ARVN unit and then they turned on us," Hickam said. "We were kind of caught up short on it, and essentially we just turned into infantry for the day. We all picked up our rifles and went down to the perimeter, and the North Vietnamese kept charging up and getting into the wire and yelling and screaming and shooting. It was a pretty crazy day. We thought we were going to get overrun for a long time."
Air Force F-100s finally arrived from Thailand late in the day and "kind of saved our bacon. The F100s were stationed at Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, S.C., which is where my mom lived, so I laughed and said 'Mom sent the F-100s to save her little sonny boy.'"
Except for a few weeks in an old French Foreign Legion barracks, Hickam lived in temporary shelters for his entire deployment, either in a house bunker he'd built himself, or a tent, which could sometimes cause problems. Hickam's company moved south to a large city called Banmethuot in August, camping in a field that "quickly turned into a great, big mud hole," where many of the men came down with dysentery and malaria.
They were stationed near the 173rd Airborne Division, Hickam remembered, calling them a "'North Vietnamese magnet.' Any time you were around those guys, you were going to get hit by the North Vietnamese. They just followed them around. It wasn't real good to set up beside them because you knew trouble was going to happen. I don't know why they picked on them all the time, but they did. It was a rough lot to pick on. I would have picked on us before I picked on them."
They fought a number of small skirmishes and then the NVA chose to attack the section of perimeter Hickam's men were guarding.
"Our wire was just filled with North Vietnamese," he recalled. "We fought them through the night." After Hickam radioed for air support, Cobra helicopters almost strafed them instead of the NVA soldiers.
Hickam earned a Bronze Star for his actions that day, but it was also the day he realized that the war was affecting him more than he had thought.
"It was clear to me that something had kind of gone wrong with me in a way because after that action in Banmethuot, we all went down to the wire and there were dead people down there. But that didn't affect me as much as the fact that we had also killed a little deer. I just broke down when I saw that. It made me wonder about my own sense of humanity, that I cared more about the deer. I don't think that was true. I think it was just that that animal was so innocent, caught in this crazy war, and all wars are crazy. All wars should be avoided."
When he returned home, he explained, he compartmentalized the war in a little box that he can take out if he needs to. It did give him a sense of adventure, though, and he swore he would never live a boring life. It was Hickam's inspiration for worldwide scuba diving expeditions.
After leaving the Army, Hickam went to work for the Army Missile Command as a federal civilian on the Hellfire missile program, and later, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
"I loved it," he said. "Every day I worked for NASA, I woke up in the morning and said, 'Oh boy, I get to go (to) work for NASA today. How cool is that?' I worked in spacecraft design, principally an experiment module that went in the cargo bay of the shuttle called the space lab. From there I segued into astronaut training. I trained the astronauts how to work in space in their suits, and then also traveled all over the world working with scientists on building their experiments to fly in the space lab and then later the space station, and then training the crew to operate them."
Hickam retired from NASA in 1998 after publishing his second book, "Rocket Boys," a memoir about building rockets as a boy in a small West Virginia mining town. The book was optioned as a movie titled "October Sky." He went on to write three other memoirs about his boyhood, a biography and six novels (a seventh will be published in April). He used his combat experience, he explained, in a World War II-era series, exploring how combat changes Soldiers.
"I can take my combat experiences that I had, plus what I know of other guys there (who) saw a lot more combat than I did," Hickam said. "I saw how their personalities became brittle over time and how they changed over time, and became almost exaggerations of their own personalities. That's what's happening to Josh Thurlow through 'The Ambassador's Son' and 'The Far Reaches.' We see Josh gradually spiraling downward although he doesn't realize it."
Hickam returned to Vietnam a few years ago as part of the International Institute of Education, a largely State Department-funded program designed to help educate Vietnamese students about America and the war, which he said isn't taught in Vietnam. Incidentally, he said we won the war thanks to young Vietnamese positive opinions of America. Hickam discussed the war with a Vietnamese writers' group, many of whom had fought on the NVA side, and "We all just kind of went 'What were we thinking?'"
He doesn't talk about Vietnam often, however, and hasn't written about it. He doesn't know if he ever will. "I just haven't gotten to that place yet. It's a lot easier to do when you're writing about a fictional character rather than about yourself. I've got it filed away somewhere, and maybe that's the last thing I'll ever write before I move on to the next plane of existence."
Editor's note: Hickam was recently honored with the Excellence in Arts award by the Vietnam Veterans of America.