Day in the life of a Vietnam Soldier

By Dane Huber 

“One day, I was just like you, walking down the street. I had a brand new car and everything and a beautiful girlfriend…24 hours later I was down in Fort Dix sleeping in the parking lot because they didn’t have enough room for us. They had boarded so many people at once, [I would] spends nights in the parking lot on the asphalt before they could even give us a bed” recalls Sargent Lawrence Galiano on his first moments as a solider preparing for the Vietnam War. [1] His plans to attend architectural school following his graduation from Barringer high school in downtown Newark, New Jersey would now be forfeited to fight for his country. Drafted on July 10th, 1966, Sargent Galiano would go onto serve in Vietnam from February 5th, 1967 to February 1st, 1968 with Company C of the 1st Battalion 12th Infantry Regiment 4th Infantry Division, also known as the Red Warriors. [2]

Lawrence Galiano in Vietnam

H.W. Brands, the author of American Dreams, provides a memoir of Marine Corps second lieutenant Philip Caputo, as he “and his fellow junior officers frequented the Officer’s Club in Okinawa, waiting and doing what off-duty officers do while waiting: drinking.” And “for seven weeks Caputo’s battalion saw no action,” when finally sent out into the jungle. [3] Sergeant Galiano’s experience does not deny Brands depiction of the battle in Vietnam, but offers a typically overlooked perspective of a drafted soldier fighting in the central highlands of Vietnam.

February 5th, 1967, Galiano was headed to Saigon, Vietnam with 90 fellow Americans on an Air Force c-131, but orders were quickly altered following a pit stop “in Wake Island to refuel for about an hour…they recut our orders and sent us to a 4th division in Pleiku, [Vietnam].” [4] Pleiku was the location of Camp Enari, the 4th division headquarters. [5]

Once arriving in Vietnam, preparation for battle consisted of “a little bit of training, [a] little country orientation, a couple Vietnamese words, and we had a chance to zero in our m16s.” [6] The zeroing of his m16 was a first, as Galiano was trained on an m14 prior to the war. However, there was little time to adjust to the environment of war Galiano recalls, as on “the morning of the 12th of February, [the United States] put us on helicopters and sent us out into the field.” [7]

Galiano’s first day in the jungle transpired so quickly, he didn’t even have a moment to touch ground before under attack. He remembers “everything was under fire…when we land, we cover about ten feet out of the helicopter; we got thrown out.” [8] But the next moment his luck would change along with his role in the war. After his ejection, he jumps into a “foxhole where one of the guys was dead; he was the gunner…So, because the gunner was dead, the assistant gunner had [to] take his place, the ammo baron became the assistant gunner, and I became the ammo baron.” [9] The gunner squad gave Galiano protection and comfort in a war that provided little. Unlike other members of the infantry, the machine gun squad had to stay together at all times.

The Red Warriors spent time along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an area where all three boarders of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia meet. Galiano’s regiment’s main objective was to protect the area and conduct bomb assessment. [10] Between August and December of 1967, it was an intense period as the “Americans bombed almost every target of military and economic importance in North Vietnam, flying 55,000 sorties and dropping 100,000 tons of ordnance.” [11] The intensity of the bombs imposed on the enemy could be heard and felt by the soldiers themselves. Galiano states they would wait “to hear the bombs fly over [and] the Bombay doors open” to then “feel the jungle bounce” as they hit the ground. [12] Following the bombings, the regiment would enter the area under attack, to conduct analysis on accuracy of the bombings and gather death intelligence information. Galiano can remember going in to “dig up bodies and see what rank [the soldiers] were” because the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) would hide the bodies. [13]

Dak To, a village in the central highlands, was home to a US Special Forces Camp “composed then of mountain tribal mercenaries led by experienced and canny Army noncommissioned officers.” [14] The US learned of NVA development and preparation of attack in the area. [15] Early in November of 1967, the US decided to bring in the 173rd airborne Brigade and battalions of 4th infantry under Major General William R. Peers. [16] Though not directly involved from the beginning, Galiano and the 12th regiment were called in for backup during the final battle of Hill 875 after many casualties. He recalls the 173rd airborne, “was on guard duty…and a couple of their guys…fell asleep and the NVA came through the wire, cut their throats, and started blowing up anything they could find.” [17] The US army finally forced the NVA out and decided they must follow them up Hill 875. Galiano states this was a costly mistake because the “army did exactly what the NVA wanted them to do. They chased them up the hill. And when they chased them up the hill, they ran into a whole regiment of NVA’s.“ [18] Leadership is key to success in the military, and on Hill 875, those leaders failed their soldiers.

The lack of leadership was not only issue during Galiano’s time in Vietnam. According to Brands, the US was far superior in every category of firepower and logistics compared to the NVA. [19] However, Galiano’s experience does not reflect Brand’s opinion. The weapon given to Galiano and his fellow soldiers was an m16, while the NVA were provided AK47’s. The AK47 was a far superior weapon to the M16 rifle because “[an AK47] didn’t jam [and] you could hold it under water and it would fire.” [20] The enemy was not only better equipped, but often outnumbered the United States military. Galiano, as sergeant, had a platoon that “fluctuated, sometimes it was 12 guys, maybe there [were] 15” and his infantry company was “supposed to have 120 members and at best we had maybe 70.” [21] As stated earlier, The United States felt no need to better equip or reinforce their troops because they believed their airstrike capabilities were plenty to support the troops. Galiano and his regiment would be sent out into battle with a 9 enemy to 1 soldier disadvantage in hope of support through the air. However, Galiano explains that the “operations were up in the high canopy jungle, sometimes 3 [level] canopies…and when they fired artillery, [the soldiers] would get airbursts” as backup. [22] And the environment not only affected airstrikes, but resupply of replenishments. There were days, Galiano says, “we were on our own, and we would have to fight our way in and fight our way out” of the jungle. [23] 

Home was the jungle for Galiano in Vietnam. Following his departure from base on February 12th, Galiano would only return “three times because [he] had malaria…and once to go to Hawaii.” [24] His infantry was resupplied every six days if conditions permitted and received one hot meal throughout his whole tour on Thanksgiving. He can recall, “everyone got sick because no one was used to eating hot food, we were used to C-rations.” [25] As a member of the 4th infantry division, the war took a burden on your body.

The bodies of the soldiers would eventually recover; it was the mind that suffered lasting impacts. When Galiano finally returned home February 1st, 1968, he states his “head was so messed up, I really didn’t want to think about [war]…I just couldn’t sit in chair.” [26] However, his time as a solider for the United States was not complete, as he had to return to Fort Campbell in Kentucky for 3 months. This was a difficult time for Galiano, as his mother was recovering from breast cancer and he was newly engaged to his girlfriend. He often flew back and forth from Fort Campbell to his hometown of Newark to see his family. [27] His treatment from people at the airport was disturbing, as he states “they used to curse me, spit at me, if I had my uniform on. And that was the only way I could afford to fly because I used to fly military standby.” [28] Many disputed the acts of disgust towards returning veterans, such as professor Jerry Lembcke in his book The Spitting Image. [29] However, employees of the airport understood how people treated the veterans. A stewardess approached Galiano in the airport and handed him a student standby pass. He recalls her saying, “it’s breaking my heart to tell you this, but from now on you fly student standby and this card will say that you are a student. Please take your uniform off.” [30]

Galiano’s life was put on hold for his country, fighting a war that lacked direction and leadership. However, no matter how much harm, mentally and physically, was inflicted on him during and post war, Galiano states, “I love this country. That is one thing. I have learned from being in Vietnam there is no country like this country.” [31]

[1] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[2] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[3] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States since 1945 (New York: Penguins, 2010), 143.

[4] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[5] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[6] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[7] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[8] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[9] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[10] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[11] Buzzanco, Bob. “The American Military’s Rationale Against the Vietnam War.” Academy of Political Science 101, no. 4 (1986): 559-76. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2150794.pdf.

[12] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, December 5th, 2017

[13] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, December 5th, 2017

[14] Sheehan, Neil. “David and Goliath in Vietnam.” The New York Times , May 26, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/26/opinion/sunday/david-and-goliath-in-vietnam.html.

[15] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, December 5th, 2017

[16] Sheehan, Neil. “David and Goliath in Vietnam.” The New York Times , May 26, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/26/opinion/sunday/david-and-goliath-in-vietnam.html.

[17] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, December 5th, 2017

[18] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, December 5th, 2017

[19] Brands, 137

[20] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[21] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[22] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, December 5th, 2017

[23] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, December 5th, 2017

[24] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[25] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[26] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[27] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[28] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[29] Sirota, David. “The myth of the spat-upon war veteran.” Star Tribune, June 7, 2012. http://www.startribune.com/the-myth-of-the-spat-upon-war-veteran/157945515/.

[30] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

[31] Interview with Lawrence Galiano, November 6th, 2017

Interviews 

-Audio Recording, Carlisle, PA, November 6th, 2017

-Audio Recording, Carlisle, PA, December 5th, 2017

Selected Transcript

Q. Where did you first land in Vietnam?

A. “Well, from Texas, we went to Oakland, California. And then from Oakland, California we flew over to Vietnam. We stopped at Wake Island to refuel. When we stopped at Wake Island to refuel my original orders from Oakland California were to go into south, south Vietnam below Saigon because I was originally trained as an army personal carrier driver. And that was the only place they used them, the APCs. All right, so once we landed in Wake Island to refuel for about an hour, they recut us. There was 90 of us onboard the air force C1 31 and they recut our orders and sent us to a 4th division in Pleiku. When we landed, we landed at Pleiku airstrip in central Vietnam, in the central highlands. We stayed over there for a couple nights and they moved us into camp Enari, which was the fourth division headquarters.

At that point, so say we landed on the fifth, they gave us a little bit of training, little country orientation, a couple of Vietnamese words, and we had a chance to zero in our m16s. Prior to that, I have never shot an m16. I was trained on an m14. The morning of the 12th of February, they put us on helicopters and sent us out into the field. That morning was a good morning for me and a bad morning. Because during that time, the day before that, my infantry company, which was C company of the 1st and 12th infantry of the 4th division, came under heavy heavy attack on hill 501. And I never even been in a helicopter before, but there was six of us as replacements. We were thrown in early in the morning on the 12th. The place was like flying into hell. It was, everything was under fire. We were trying to overthrow the perimeter. When we land, we cover about ten feet out of the helicopter; we got thrown out. And when we got to the ground, I looked around and there was one helicopter on the other side of the delzida. They had cut through the jungle mountaintop and that was on fire and I jumped into this foxhole and that’s where my luck changed.

So the foxhole I jumped into was part of an m16 machine gun in place. Now, I landed in the foxhole where one of the guys was dead; he was the gunner. The they way they run a machine gun slide, you have a gunner, assistant gunner, and an ammo baron. So, because the gunner was dead, the assistant gunner had take his place, the ammo baron became the assistant gunner, and I became the ammo baron. Which was a lot better than being just a regular infantry simply because the machine squad, the machine-gun squad had to stay together at all times. So when they sent other troops out for ambushes and mission posts, we did not. Only a few times was I sent out away from the machine gun squad. So I was protected from that. And I ended up become a machine gunner for six months. And I eventually moved up the rank of sergeant and then I became a sergeant in charge of a platoon.

And that about, I don’t know, fluctuated, sometimes it was 12 guys, maybe there 15. We were always under strengthened because the infantry company is supposed to have 120 members and at best we had maybe 70. So, and basically that was it. The other thing I wanted to tell you, which was important, when we landed, or first came into Vietnam, we landed in Pleiku airstrip. We stayed overnight there one or two nights at a reception center. We were called on guard duty and I happen to look around and I saw these two big build boards. They were basically two pieces of 4 by 8 plywood and they were painted over and they had a sign on it. One was the 25th division, with its emblems and all the other stuff that go along with the 25th, and the other sign was the 4th division along with all its emblems and everything that went along with the 4th. And they were having a contest, who can stay out in the field the longest. And when I got there, the 4th tact was beating the 25th by 20 days. Both divisions were in the field for over a year. So that meant when we went, unlike a lot of these what I’ve seen on TV and and when I came back and talked other guys, when my company and my regiment went out, we stayed out in the jungle.

We were supplied every 6 days with food. The only time we came back, and you know I came back three times because I had malaria three times and I came back once to go to Hawaii. But other than that, once I left that division headquarters on February 12th, I didn’t come back out of a jungle. You know like other people, I’ve seen marines on TV. They would go out for two weeks, come back for two weeks. Go for a week, go out for 3 days, come back get some hot meals. We got one hot meal and that was on thanksgiving. Everyone got sick because no one was used to eating hot food, we were used to C-rations”


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