Elwin Valley served in the U.S. Army from 1962 to 1965. He was 20 when he went into the service. Valley was born in Iowa and raised in South Dakota. Valley completed basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and signal school at Fort Gordon, Ga. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the complete interview, go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Valley: "I got orders to go to Vietnam in January of 1963."
Gazette: A lot of people in January of 1963 are more worried about Cuba and the Russians than Vietnam, right?
Valley: "We went through the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was at Fort Gordon, Ga., when that happened. That was more scary than Vietnam was. ... You had to say, 'What's going to happen here? Why I am here? We were only 200 miles from Cuba."
Gazette: What do you remember about flying over to Vietnam and what do you remember about Saigon?
Valley: "It was a brand new 707. That airplane was so beautiful. It was the first time I'd ever flown. It was pretty exciting."
Gazette: You're going over there not necessarily knowing there'd be a war, right? What do you know? And, you're going there as military support, right?
Valley: "We knew it wasn't going to be a picnic. Nobody packed a lunch. I am sure there was concern in a lot of people's minds, but still it was kind of exciting."
Gazette: To a South Dakota kid, what's Saigon like?
Valley: "Ernie Flynn said it was the smell. And I can tell Ernie what that smell was."
Gazette: OK, what was it?
Valley: "That smell was rancid water, rotting vegetation, human waste and diesel fuel. Once it stuck in your nostrils and in your sinuses, you'll never get it out. ... Years ago, three of us — Stan Thompson and I and another guy —were standing at the auto auction out here. It was a field on a hot July morning, and they had mowed this alfalfa field, and then it rained hard that night. We're standing out there, Conrad Anderson was the other one. We're standing there watching the cars go through and Conrad said, 'It smells like Vietnam.' I said, 'You're right. How did you know that?' He said, 'I was there in ’64.' Thompson said, 'I was there in ’69.' And none of us knew the other one had ever been to Vietnam."
Gazette: That's kind of the way it's been. People don't know.
Valley: "They don't tell anybody."
Valley: "Believe it or not, people don't want to hear about it. It's something they'd just as soon leave back there and forget it. That's why I am kind of surprised that these interviews go over so well because a lot of guys have kept this for 30, 50 years to themselves, even their families don't know about it."
Gazette: So you get in country and then what?
Valley: "... We get in this truck, and there's about 20 of us. We're going up this highway. It was a modern city with four-lane highways and all kinds of good stuff. And we're riding along in this truck trying to get our bearings of 'Where are we?' and 'What's this like?' And here there's this big billboard alongside the highway that said, "Basto Cigarettes." I just remember it. If you ever smoked a Basto cigarette, you quit smoking. At the bottom of this sign at the corner, there was a sticker that said, 'Wall Drug, 9,900 miles.' I thought, 'Someone who was here before me had a sense of humor. I'll live through this."
The home company for Valley was at Tan Son Nhut Airbase, but he was sent to the 7th Advisory Team at Bac Lieu, south of Saigon in the Mekong Delta for several months before returning to the airbase. He was in charge of the emergency radio squad, a 24-7 operation, keeping in touch with 25 advisory teams in Vietnam at the time.
Gazette: When we had actual combat troops there in ’65 and ’66, there was a sense of danger — you were getting shelled and shot at. Was there that same danger when you were there?
Valley: "At Bac Lieu? We were locked in at night. You didn't go anyplace unarmed. I mean, you didn't go to breakfast unarmed."
Gazette: What was your impression of Vietnam?
Valley: "The northern part, along the ocean was beautiful; Saigon was a fantastic city. I could have lived there."
Valley: "It was a modern city, except for their sewage system. ... Right on the harbor. My favorite place was the 'Street of Flowers.' Saigon had a real French background because the French were there for 100 years. Open-air cafés, flowerpots, and people coming. Saigon was a busy town. There were a million people inside the space the size of Billings. It was a bustle. It was exciting."
Gazette: Were you homesick for anything? What did you miss about home?
Valley: "Milk ... I didn't have a glass of milk in eight-and-a-half months. Some people really miss milk, and they had powdered milk, which was absolutely putrid. That's another thing: I never drank a glass of water in Vietnam."
Gazette: What'd you drink?
Valley: "Coca-Cola and Black Velvet."
Gazette: What was the food like?
Valley: "The Army food was edible. The Vietnamese food was good. I thought it was. We'd go to town looking for food. They had the best chicken and rice soup you've ever ate in your life. They threw the whole chicken in, feet and all, but it was absolutely fantastic."
Gazette: What were the people like?
Valley: "Mostly friendly. (In Saigon), well-educated. I was amazed at how many spoke English. All officers in the (South) Vietnamese military spoke English or maybe not all of them because they were trained here in the United States. They'd been training over here for 10 years. There wasn't much of a language problem. They picked up English pretty fast, and they liked ... Americans. Americans have money. Money makes a lot of difference.
"On the other side, Bac Lieu was the armpit of Vietnam. It was down there. At the airport it said, 'Bac Lieu International Airport, Elevation 3 feet, Wet season -3 feet.' It was a soggy, stinking, rotten hole you wouldn't want to live there."
Gazette: When you were there, did you ever imagine we'd be in a 10-year war there?
Valley: "Oh absolutely. The Vietnamese were kind of laid back about the war. They'd been fighting it for — I don't know how many years. They fought the French for 100 years, and threw them out and now they got a new interloper here, two of them. The communists on the north and the Americans on the south. They were in a no-win situation. They knew that."
Gazette: You were there during the coup (of 1963). Let's start a little bit before the coup, and then take me through what happened.
Valley: "We were in a serious situation because our people were spread out all over the country. If the Vietnamese government turned against us, how were we going to get them back and out of there?"
Gazette: There weren't huge numbers of Americans either, right?
Valley: "The advisory teams were 100 men here and 50 men there. They were back in the bushes and the jungles. How would they get back to the harbor ... even if the 7th Fleet did come in. They were in a serious position."
Gazette: How did you know something was coming, and let's go up to the time of the coup.
Valley: "There had been two previous attempts on (Ngo Dinh) Diem's life, one just before I got there and one a few years before that, they tried to kill him. The word gets around. We monitored UPI, and we knew what going on. We knew there was serious problems with the government. When Diem's troops attacked the Buddhists and killed 20, 30 Buddhists and then they declared martial law, Saigon was off-limits except during the daytime. Going into Saigon, you went in armed. We liked to stay on the base. It was a pretty tense situation."
Gazette: Was it scary when Saigon went on lockdown?
Valley: "It raised the concern level."
Gazette: What was it like during the tense times?
Valley: "The base was busy. There were airplanes and truck and cars and people. ... The concern there was that there's only a few of us and there's a whole lot of them. We never left the company area unarmed. Never."
Gazette: Was there any communication with the State Department with the Army?
Valley: "That was way above us. ... We were down there in the 'you-do-it' stuff."
Gazette: Tell me about the coup when it starts.
Valley: "We first knew about it when we left Bien Hoa and the Army was forming up on the road between Bien Hoa and Saigon. They made us stay at Bien Hoa in the morning and Chuck Young and I left. We get out on the highway, and there's two (armored personnel carriers) with Vietnamese military police there. This one MP says, 'Wait there,' and so we waited there because we weren't going to argue.
"We sit there for quite awhile. We could see the trucks and personnel forming behind us — I mean, for miles. Finally the (MPs) got in the Armored Personnel Carrier and headed for Saigon. We'd move and we'd stop. We'd go and we'd stop. Finally, just outside of Saigon at the Mekong River, and the APCs pulled over and blocked the road again. The (MP) came out and waved us through. Then they shut the road behind us.
"You could see nothing but army down the road as far as we could see. So, we head for Saigon and to get into Saigon, you had to go through the northwestern part of the town ... and we met a mass of people coming out of the highway. There were thousands of people, motorcycles, but mostly people on foot. They are swarming this highway. We drove up on the sidewalk to get out of the road. We just watched all these people going by. ... It looked like you took everybody in Yellowstone County and herded them up Grand Avenue in hurry or race.
"Finally, I yelled into the crowd, 'What's going on? What's going on?' And this woman came over and said, 'Army coming, army coming. Leave here, get out of here.' Away she went. I didn't want to tell her but we just left 'army coming' and she's going the wrong way. ... Right there."
"... We drove up the sidewalk. Chuck said, 'Let's get the hell out of here while we still can.' So, we drove up the sidewalk until we saw the side street. ... We made our way back to the airbase through the suburbs of Saigon. Saigon's a big city. I was real glad to get back to the airbase. So we got back to the company area and I told the first sergeant what I saw. He said, 'Yes, we've had word that trouble's coming.' He goes to tell the commanding officer what we saw and we went down to get some supper because we've been gone since breakfast and we finally get back at supper time and the siren went off. Alert.
"That's when it started there. When the siren went off, we were officially in lockdown."
Gazette: So what happens in lockdown?
Valley: "There were three amazing things we saw. The people coming down the highway, thousands of people. We get back to the airbase and the siren goes off, so I get my boots back on, and I go up and the first sergeant says, 'Go to supply.' So, we head for supply and here's supply, and they're unboxing brand new M14s and they're throwing them on the table out front. And over here's a pile of boxes and a stack of ammunition higher than your desk. Grab all the ammo you can carry and a brand-new rifle.
"All I could think of was, 'This is a real stupid time to issue these new rifles. These old guys have never even seen one.' They were throwing them out there, and I grabbed a new one and a whole armful of bandoliers and I am going back to the first sergeant's tent to get instructions. I knew what the instructions (were), but we're going to go and get them anyway.
"I come on this master sergeant who is standing out there in the parking lot between the buildings and he's crying. Older man, probably 45 years old. He's standing there, and I said, 'Can I help you?' He babbled something about he was going to retire in three years and he didn't want to get shot and go to hell. I thought, 'Standing around here in this parking lot is a good place to get shot and go to hell.' I left him there and there was nothing I could do for him. I had other things to do.
"So, I go get my men, and I placed people along the fence with their new rifles. The man was still standing there and nobody even paid any attention to him. They didn't worry about him at all. They just left him there."
Gazette: Did you know who he was?
Valley: "I had never seen the man before. He was either new, incoming or a transit going to another duty post. But, I'd never seen before, and I never, ever saw him again."
Gazette: That had to be eerie: You're being handed new guns, on alert, the government in a foreign country is toppling and then you're confronted with this crying man.
Valley: "Fear is powerful. Now, he was older. Old soldiers know about war. Young soldiers like me were too stupid to know about dangers of war. This was exciting. Could have been terminal, but exciting."