James Pearcy

From WikiMarion
Jump to: navigation, search

Interview with James J. Pearcy

Interviewed by Christopher Bruns

Interviewed on May 7, 2003
At the Pearcy residence
Marion, Indiana

CB: What war or wars did you serve in and what branch of service did you serve in?

JP: I served in the Army for the Vietnam War.

CB: What was your rank?

JP: E5.

CB: Where did you serve?

JP: I served in the United States, Germany, and Vietnam. A couple different duty stations in Vietnam, Phouc Vinh and Long Binh.

CB: Where were you living before the war?

JP: I was living with my parents in Martinsville, Indiana.

CB: Why did you enlist?

JP: My father was in the Army in WWII. He was an Army paratrooper and I wanted to do what he had done.

CB: What do you recall about the first days in the Army?

JP: It was pretty miserable.

CB: How so?

JP: You got your hair shaved; you were treated like you were the lowest living specimen on the face of the earth.

CB: Tell me about some of your training experiences.

JP: We trained in everything from drilling ceremony to weapons. [I was also trained in] the uniform code of military justice, weapons training, hand-to-hand combat, bayonet training, [and] escape and evasion.

CB: Where exactly in Vietnam did you serve?

JP: I was in Phouc Vinh, Long Binh, and various other temporary duty assignments. A couple that come to mind were Tay Ninh City and Song Be.

CB: What was it like when you first arrived?

JP: It was pretty scary. We didn’t know what to expect. It looked like a normal airport when you arrived other than the culture and the people were considerably different. The dress was totally out of character for anything I had ever seen.

CB: Tell me of some experiences as a paratrooper.

JP: Basic paratrooper training in Ft. Benning, Georgia. It consisted of three weeks of intense training. We also made five Hollywood static line parachute jumps and one full combat parachute jump with sixty-five to ninety pounds of additional equipment beside your parachute and your reserve.

CB: What was your assignment as a paratrooper?

JP: Actually, I was not given an assignment as an actual paratrooper. I was a rated paratrooper. They took me in an M.O.S. [Military Occupational Specialty] as a combat engineer. I was a combat engineer rated as a paratrooper. Most of my Army life was basically combat engineer work and no parachute assignments.

CB: Did you see a lot of combat?

JP: I saw a considerable [amount] of combat as far as I was concerned. Any was more than enough. Our base at Phouc Vinh had rocket and mortar attacks usually every night. Viet Cong or N.V.A [North Vietnam Army]. would throw six to eight rockets in and maybe five to ten mortar rounds and then they’d be gone. The wire was approached on two or three occasions that I remember. They weren’t able to breach the perimeter and get into the base but we were in pretty high intensity level of combat all around us and we went out to various projects; fire support bases, bridge sites, anything were a combat engineer was working and you had to be on guard all the time. We had infantry and cavalry units with us all the time but you still had to basically watch yourself also. These guys were looking out for their own so we had to look out for our own also.

CB: Did your unit sustain many casualties?

JP: No. The only casualties that I can recall were at fire support base Pace. Charlie Company was overrun probably about a month and a half before I came home in 1971. They lost, the numbers I don’t recall for sure, I think twenty-one dead and thirty-three injured. It wasn’t called fire support base Pace at the time but the Charlie Company commander at the time was a Lieutenant Pace and they named the fire support base after him. And then about six or seven weeks before, I went to Long Binh. I spent the last few remaining days of my tenure in Vietnam at Long Binh. Some guys from the supply unit from the headquarters company [were in a convoy] going through Ben Hoa, picking up supplies, and the convoy was ambushed between Phouc Vinh and Ben Hoa and we lost three people in that ambush. They weren’t able to stave off the defensive battle line from the Viet Cong.

CB: What are some of your memorable moments in Vietnam?

JP: Just the camaraderie and the closeness that you dealt with to suppress some of your fear. It wasn’t all bad; actually Vietnam was a very beautiful country if you could over look the shell craters. It was just a beautiful, tropical country with a lot of triple, and double, and single canopy jungle. We, in what free time we had, tried to enjoy that as much as we could. Generally the fire support base’s rear area was actually cut out of that jungle with clear fields of fire all the way around the perimeter so it wasn’t like you were actually right up next to the jungle but you were close enough that you had the occasional bird fly over that was something you had never seen before, an animal you had never seen before. Plus your 4A is on patrol going out to the engineer sites. I remember a particular bridge site at Bu Dop where it seemed like we put a bridge there on Monday and on the next Monday we’d put a bridge back in some form or fashion. We had a lot of South Vietnamese civilian help that was helping the two engineer companies that were at that bridge site and I was able to see my first, in the wild, python there and that was a pretty interesting occasion. Plus it just abounded with wildlife. It was pretty much jungle clear down to the riverbank. It was pretty interesting. During free time you generally devoted to writing home and trying to keep in contact with parents. The N.C.O. club was generally nightly hang out. Once you were off duty you wanted a shower and all we had available to us was cold water. If you were fortunate enough, you got them to set your water tank pretty high up in the direct sun so that by 5:00 when you were off duty you had, at least, warm water to take a shower with and then it was either the mess hall or the N.C.O. club. We played a lot of cards, a lot of pinochle, and a lot of euchre.

CB: How did you receive some of the awards you got?

JP: You got the Good Conduct medal if you have been in for a year and had a good record, kept your nose clean. The ArComm, Army Accommodation medal, you had to be selected by a superior officer or a higher-ranking N.C.O. to be awarded that medal. I was selected by the operations officer and also by the operations sergeant because of the exemplary job that I did for the operations section for knowledge.

CB: How are some of the ways that you stayed in touch with your family?

JP: Generally letter writing. We also had a thing called MARS where some amateur hand-radio operators hook you up and get you patched through with a landline somewhere so you could talk with the party you wanted to talk to. I made three MARS calls while I was in Vietnam. I made two to my parents and one to my grandmother. On R&R, you had access to telephones so you were able to call and talk.

CB: What were the living conditions like?

JP: They weren’t bad in the rear. Although they were pretty primitive, some of the base camps still had fairly decent living conditions even in the rainy season. They were elevated up off the ground so you were at least out of the mud. In our rear area there were ten Quonset type huts that were called hooches. You had a prison style metal bunk with an interlocking spring mattress which we’d put a piece of PSP over the top of and your mattress went on top of that. We sandbagged it in so you had a mini-bunker in case you had a rocket or mortar attack and couldn’t get out into the large bunker in between each hooch and if you didn’t get out there in time when the in-coming was coming in then you could survive your ordeal underneath your bunk. The outside walls were already sandbagged outside the hooch and you had about a two or three foot buffer between the building itself. That part of it wasn’t too bad. We didn’t have running water so to speak. We had potable water. We had showers just through a gravity flow system and they used a black painted fuel bladder that held 550 gallons of fuel and they’d take those before they put fuel in them, paint them black, and use them for potable water. The living conditions were rudimentary but they were okay.

CB: Do you consider it a stressful time for you?

JP: I don’t know how to differentiate between stress and fear. I think you deal with it in pretty much the same fashion. Yes, it was a high-stress scenario. You never knew who the bad guys really were. The bad guys could be your local Vietnamese barber who was coming everyday cutting hair or it could be the Vietnamese maid that comes everyday to clean your hooch, do your laundry, you just never knew. There was some hesitation in the back of your mind as to what was and what wasn’t. Yes, I’ll say it was stressful but again I don’t know if it was more fear than stress or more stress than fear but you learned to deal with it, you learned to work with each other as a team, and after awhile you just became accustomed to that everyday stress and being worn down all the time mentally. It took its toll physically, too. Once the day was over we tried really hard to stay in shape, too. We didn’t have mandatory calisthenics or P.T. like we did in basic training but a lot of us ran. We had a company road that was around our perimeter at Phouc Vinh that was 3.2 miles. A lot of guys ran the perimeter road all the time. I wasn’t much into running so I ran on the company road most of the time that was three quarters of a mile long so I ran from one end to the other. We lifted weights, just anyway to relieve that stress.

CB: What did you and the others do to entertain yourselves?

JP: We played a lot of cards, a lot of pinochle, a lot of euchre, a lot of cribbage. We had our own baseball diamond and our own basketball court that had four goals set up on a half court system. We also had volleyball pit. We used to get a U.S.O. show about once a month or once every two months, a real American U.S.O. tour. In the extended time period in between various people would get a Taiwanese or somebody from Singapore or Thailand to bring some Southeast Asian band in or performing troupe of some kind and that was about once every one or two weeks. We were pretty fairly entertained. Plus there were movies playing every night. You might have to watch the same movie three nights in a row before a new one would get there and you could change and move on to something else. We had enough stuff to keep us entertained.

CB: What did you do on leave?

JP: I went to Sydney, Australia and Honolulu, Hawaii. I enjoyed both places a bunch. My favorite of the two would be Sydney. That was as far away from home as I had ever been. Had I known then what I know now, I probably would have done things a little more differently while I was there. The Armed Forces travel agency was set up in our hotel and they had two-day trips to New Zealand and I probably would have gone to New Zealand had I known then what I know now. They had a one-day excursion to the Great Barrier Reef and I would have probably tried to do that too but we were more interested in the social aspects of Sydney and we were there when they were having winter so it wasn’t really conducive to go to the beach. When we went to the beach one day the wind was blowing so strong you had to stay bent into the wind all the time or you’d lose your balance but they still had people out there surfing in wetsuits. It was a little bit different but it was a neat place.

CB: Were there any unusual or humorous events that happened?

JP: One that comes to mind right off is that our company had a monkey that was adopted as a mascot. This monkey was fine for about five or six months and then he started getting bigger and a little more inquisitive. We used to have a hors devourer that we prepared; pork rinds with hot sauce on them. The monkey got into some leftover pork rinds and opened a bottle of hot sauce and I think it actually damaged his brain functions to some effect. He became really mean and had never been mean to that point. We used to find him lounging in the rafters all the time. He was just as friendly as could be, loved to have his ears rubbed, loved to get the bugs picked off him. He was really decent to have around, he never messed the place and then all of the sudden, after the experience with the hot sauce and the pork rinds, he changed his whole attitude. He finally started to attack people when they walked into the hooch which he had never done before and it just got to be a really humorous situation until the day he bit somebody with an inch and a half or inch and a quarter long canine teeth. He had to be physically removed from this guy’s shoulder, which happened to be a ranking N.C.O., so that was pretty much the end of the monkey. Up to that point it had been pretty funny for a couple weeks with his antics. You couldn’t even rattle a sack that had pork rinds in them because he’d go crazy. We also had an instance [involving] the air force guys that ran the airfield at Phouc Vinh. We were right in the middle of monsoon season. All of the overflow ditches were full of water. They called and wanted to know if we had anybody that could come and unplug the culvert. All our engineer companies were out in the field and that left our headquarters company to deal with the situation so three of us volunteered to go and unplug it. We didn’t think it could be very bad, just a question of getting some bow rakes down there and just pulling the debris up and trucking it off. We got there and it didn’t seem to be really bad and the three of us finally had to get down in the ditch and start taking it out hand by hand. Somebody upstream from us decided they were going to dump at least three or four or five fifty-five gallon drums of tar in the water just to get rid of the barrel and we just happened to be caught where we couldn’t quickly escape the path of this tar and unfortunately the three of us got doused in tar. It took about a month to get that stuff completely out of your skin and out from under your fingernails and out of your hair.

CB: What did you think about your fellow soldiers?

JP: All in all, everybody from guys that had been drafted to the “lifer” or career soldier, I had only one bad experience with a non-commissioned officer while I was in basic training and that pretty much took care of its self. The guy was finally mustered out of the army for some of the tactics he used on the new recruits. That problem solved its self. An instance in Phouc Vinh, four gentlemen decided they had all they could take with the command sergeant major in the headquarters company and tried to frag him. They tossed a frag in the front door and a frag in the back door and fortunately there was nobody in the hooch when they went off. A military police vehicle, some guys who had just come off duty from the perimeter, were going back to their part of the base and saw these guys running and stopped them. Just as they stopped them, the other two guys pitched a grenade in and it went off and consequently it went off so they arrested all four of them. They were mustered out under dishonorable circumstances and wound up with some prison time in Ft. Leavenworth. Other than those two experiences, everybody I came in contact with, you couldn’t ask for better people. A lot of them were not happy to be where they were at, but they knew there was a job to do and they were going to do it to the best of their ability.

CB: What was it like for you when your service finally ended?

JP: The last thirty days are a tough road to go down when your leaving Vietnam because considered a short-timer. Actually, you’re a short-timer for six months then you start chalking your days off. When it gets down to those last thirty days your pretty much afraid to brush your teeth because you know your coming home and you’ve survived, in my case, fourteen months. I had some hardships and some difficult situations I managed to make it through. You’re brushing your teeth and your thinking a mortar round could go off here anytime or a sniper attack or somebody could slip in. All these thoughts begin to creep into your mind. Those last thirty days were definitely high-stress. You’re just trying to take care of business and mark one more day on your short-timer calendar and get out of there. And when I got my papers I was about four to five blocks from the actual departure center where we spent a couple of days before they rushed you down to Ben Hoi to leave. Catch the big bird home. That was okay. You’re pretty low-key there. They don’t ask you to do anything but get up in the morning and go eat, go readily, and then be there for taps in the afternoon. That’s pretty much the extent of it. They don’t care what you do the rest of the day. I was there for three days. A friend of mine that I had gone through basic training and M.I.T. with [was with me]. When we came back to Travis Air Force base, there were a few anti-war protestors. I don’t know how many. They were outside the gate so you were totally removed from them. The bus ride from there to Oakland Army base, we got medical examinations, got up-to-date, got our final debriefing, got our final pay. A lot of protestors outside didn’t seem to be too interested in bus load after bus load of guys coming through there but it just seemed to be a continual thing. They were there all the time. That wasn’t bad. We were processed out in thirty-seven to thirty-eight hours. We took a cab to San Francisco International Airport where we were spit on. We were called baby killers. We were called anything they could think of to call us. That was really ugly. We weren’t expecting that. We were expecting to come home like a World War II heroes welcome. We were oblivious to this pretty much. We got the news in Vietnam but obviously we were fed what they wanted us to hear. We had no idea the peace protests were as bad as they were. We were accosted by some people in San Francisco International Airport. We finally got settled in at a bar that was actually guarded by military police and shore patrol. We spent an hour or two hours in there before our flight. We flew to Chicago and were treated the same way. We were also treated pretty badly by some Shore Patrol from the Navy. Neither showed any insignia or decoration from being in Vietnam. Pretty young, probably seventeen or eighteen-year-old. Fresh out of Shore Patrol school apparently. They were not happy with the fact that we were carrying our tickets in our service hats. They asked us to remove them and we told them we wouldn’t. They started to get ugly about it and we had to give them a little speech about proper etiquette of Shore Patrol when they are talking with Vietnam veterans. They actually saw the light and they never made another comment about our dress code and carrying our tickets in our hats. We got to Indianapolis and it was fine. Parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters were there. It was pretty low-key but it was a shock to go to San Francisco and then to Chicago and see how people treated you. You were only doing a job and trying to promote a free democracy across the world.

CB: What did you do when you got home?

JP: Took about a month’s vacation, just lounged around, bought a car. Tried to pick up my social life where I left off on and went to the Army. Got a part time job on the weekends and then started coming up here [to Marion] and worked for my uncle. Just trying to make the adjustment to civilian life which I thought would be pretty well done overnight, in a snap, but consequently it was not to be. It took a long time to make the adjustment. Had an occasion to go to Bloomington to see my brother and a lot of the IU students pretty much treated me the same way the people in San Francisco and Chicago treated us. I wasn’t interested in a duplicate of that situation again so I refrained from going places where I thought I might get caught up in that. I moved up here [in Marion] in 1971. Went back and forth on weekends for work. It took a long time to make the adjustment. It took probably four or five years. Then there were some issues that I finally had to get some professional help to get through. That’s just part of it, it’s something you have to deal with.

CB: Did you make any friends in Vietnam that you still keep in touch with?

JP: Yes, Jim Herndon, who I went through basic training with. He’s now a chief executive officer for American Cultural Company at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He and I don’t talk as much as we used to but I try to stay in touch with him a couple times a year. Steve Glantz and Ed Fharlee were surveyors at my engineering company in Vietnam. I talk to them usually once a month. I used to keep in contact with a sergeant that was in my unit in Germany that was from Rising Sun, Indiana. I lost track of him about three or four years ago. I don’t know what he’s doing now.

CB: Has your experiences in Vietnam influenced your life as a civilian?

JP: I’m sure they have in some way. I don’t know if it’s good, bad, or indifferent. At this point I can’t tell you what they are. I suppose if I sit down and dissected it long enough I could give you a better answer than that but that’s all I got right now.

CB: Do you ever attend any reunions?

JP: No. I’ve never been to a Vietnam’s veteran reunion. I had read somewhere where the 20th engineer brigade and the 31st engineer battalion I was apart of was having some kind of reunion in Hannibal, Missouri and was really tempted to go to that. A couple of guys I was in Germany with lived right around Hannibal, Missouri and I wanted to go visit them but I didn’t.

CB: Is there anything else you would like to add?

JP: Not as far as my experiences are concerned. I would like to add that the current situation we’re in now, with these young kids going into Iraq, there was a lot of pressure from a lot of people not to go there. These guys put their nose to the grindstone. What a display! What an effort they showed on their part! I have nothing but gratitude for them. Those guys did a great job. Bless them all and I hope they all get home safe and sound. You just couldn’t ask for a better military force than what we got right now. War is hell but it is necessary sometimes. You have to learn to accept the fact that you’re going to have casualties; it’s all part of the game. It’s not fun but it has to be done and if want to protect the kind of freedoms we have now then that’s what is expected of us. I have no remorse about doing the job I did for three years and I’d do it again.

CB: Thank you for your time.