Ernie Flynn graduated from Poplar High School in 1967. Like everyone after high school, he was anxious to go out and make money — “and make it in a hurry.” He went into the oil field as a roughneck. He entered U.S. Army in 1968. This is part of his Vietnam story. 

Flynn: “All that time, I knew I was going to be drafted at any minute. It was hanging over my head all that time. It was pretty nerve-wracking, actually.

Gazette: It weighed on you so much, that you actually asked the question of where you were in the draft status?

Flynn: “I called the draft board one day and said, ‘You know I am probably coming up for the draft, and so they asked me, and she said, ‘Oh yes you are. You’re going to be going in December.’ ... I talked to some friends who were already in the military, and they said, ‘If you go in in December, you’re going to go in training and then come back for a 30-day Vietnam leave and go over. But if you go earlier, you’re probably going to get a Christmas leave, plus your Vietnam leave.’ So, I talked to the draft people, and it was on a Monday or Tuesday in September and I asked them if I choose to volunteer draft, when can I go? They said, ‘Friday.’ I said that I need time to wrap up some loose ends, but I said, ‘How about the first week of October?’ She said, ‘You got it. I’ll send the notice in the mail.’ The next day, I got a notice to report to Butte on Oct. 8, 1968.”

Flynn went to Washington for basic training at Fort Lewis.

Flynn: “From that time to the time I left Vietnam, my guard was always up. There was always something that was going to jump on you. The drill sergeants were always on your case all the time. Now I look back on that, and that was a good thing. They readied us for combat. If you got hit and you were in combat and you just stood around and cried about it, you’d get wiped out. Usually, when they hit you in the first wave, more comes after that. All that time, they were torturing us we call it torture they were readying us. I see now that it was a good thing. We were truly ready.”

Flynn went to Fort Sill, Okla., where he began artillery training in the first part of December 1968. After that, he received orders to go to Vietnam. He remembers flying out of Oakland at night.

Flynn:”You’d get on the bus (for the airplane). I heard that it was going to be that way, and I didn’t believe it. But we left at night because there was so many protesters around. I don’t think they could have gotten in that area. ... So these buses pulled up in a big, long line however many it takes to fill a 707, that’s what we went over on. And so we file out, and there was two or three MPs on each side of us with M16s. They said they were locked and loaded. I don’t know that they were. But they had their M16s held up.

“Before we got to Okinawa, the pilot said, ‘If you look out to your right side, there’s two MiGs that have been following us,’ for however many miles, but we saw them out there and ... they were just letting us know, I guess. We flew to Bien Hoa, and we were on our approach ... and here I’m sitting there and paying attention to everything, and this guy across the aisle from me is crying and reading the Bible out loud, and I thought, ‘Man, you’re not helping anything.’ ... When we got off, the guys that were coming home were really razzing us.”

Gazette: What were they saying?

Flynn: “Good luck, suckers. They were all tan and had big mustaches. They’re clothes were all faded, almost gray. After you were there for awhile, your clothes fade quite a lot. We were all bright green and white, you know? They all called us snowballs. ‘Good luck, snowballs,’ because we were so white. But the first thing I noticed when they opened the door was the smell.”

Gazette: What was it?

Flynn: “Awful smell, and it just hits you because it’s so humid. It’s a smell that you can’t even describe. I can’t say what it was. It was just an awful, awful smell. Gunpowder. It was just a real bad smell. That just stayed with me until the time I left. It’s just the way the country smelled.”

Flynn was assigned to “The Big Red One,” — the 1st Infantry Division. From there he attended “Danger University,” a two-week school that trained soldiers for the jungle — from plants to snakes to warfare.

Flynn: “We got mortared all the time. Shortly after we were there, a Chinook helicopter was loading this giant bundle of rice. It must have been 500 pounds of rice in a net. And they were hooking it up, just tightening the straps on the net and one of the Viet Cong stuck his head out of a hole and shot a (rocket propelled grenade) and it hit the helicopter right in the back he was good at shooting that thing because he knew where to aim. Those props then beat each other to pieces because it knocked the transmission. They weren’t in sync anymore and it came crashing into our firebase area....Most of (the helicopter crew) had broken ankles from crash landing. They came in there and they were bouncing all over and flying all over. They finally came running out, thinking it would explode, but it never did. That night the infantry set up a perimeter around (the helicopter) and guarded it all night. At first light, then we had one of the flying cranes, the big helicopter, took it back to the rear area where they could probably repair it. That stuff went on all the time.”

“We’d line up for chow and almost every time especially at noon here comes the mortars ... boom, boom they’d hit. Of course, we’d fire a counter-mortar.”

Gazette: One of your experiences that you’ve written about is right after jungle school, you had just started to take fire and you were kind of stunned when it started to happen.

Flynn: “You take those malaria pills every Monday morning either Monday or Tuesday everybody has to take it, and it’s a big orange pill. Well, we took the malaria pill, and it makes you go to the bathroom almost within an hour. If you feel the urge coming on, you go out there because what they have is outside our perimeter these boxes that are built and there’s part of a 55-gallon drum fits in there and that has diesel in it. You sit on that box and that’s where you do your job into that box. After you take your malaria pill, everybody’s lined up and there’s three of the (toilet boxes) in a row. This one guy from Gun 4, his name was all we ever know each other by was nicknames we called him ‘Pancho.’ He played that guitar fancy Spanish guitar. He could play that so well. He’d be playing, and every would just listen to him. He was standing right beside me and everybody is there to do a job you’re not worried about chatting too much. It’s not good to bunch up anyway, you know? He’s on the left of me, and all of a sudden, and I hear this big explosion and he’s just rolling around. What it reminded me of is when a dog gets run over on the road and they’re just flipping all over the place. He’s flipping around. And his left arm was just spinning around. I could see there was only a piece of meat about the thickness of a ruler holding his arm on. The bone was just sticking out, the blood was pumping out like it was coming out of a garden hose. ... I was in shock. The proper thing to do would have been to tackle him and put a tourniquet on him. But he was fighting. You couldn’t even grab him. I was standing with my mouth open. I should have been hitting the dirt because if that had been a mortar coming in, there was probably more on the way. It was so shocking to have that happen right beside me. When it all happened, I felt all this stuff go past my face. Just right past me, all around me and all around my head. We had a medic who was a good medic, and he came running over there like a football player and tackled Pancho and knocked him down and put his arm and put it beside him and fastened it somehow with a tourniquet. Meanwhile, he was slapping him in the face saying, ‘You big baby. Shut up, you big baby.’ You know making sure he didn’t go into shock. At the same time, he started an IV and fought him all the way and had him down. He was on top of him. The tourniquet stopped what blood was left and I’m sure he loaded him up with morphine right away because he quit screaming. I could tell he was still alive. His eyes were fluttering, and he was laying on the stretcher. Other guys were helping with the stretcher. As soon as that explosion went off, somebody must have called a medevac. It happened almost immediately.

“But I was still standing there, dazed. This thick red blotches of blood was all around me on the ground, and I just couldn’t even believe it. One minute he was there and the next minute his arm was blown off. ... I’m getting ready to go to the latrine, and I go over and here on the right farthest from me there was this guy laying there ... the whole top of his head was off, and he must have died instantly because there was almost no blood... It looked as if you took a knife and cut all the way around the forehead all the way to the back on each side and that top of the head, that skullcap was laying there. His brains were laying in that skullcap and they weren’t even bloody. I was looking at that, and I said, ‘Hey, there’s another one over here.’ ... I got the oddest feeling that I wanted to put my hands in those brains, and I thought, ‘Why?’ I thought maybe I should put them back in. I didn’t, but that was the weirdest feeling, but I had never seen anything like that. ... And it all went by me by my face, and I had felt it.”

Gazette: How long had you been in Vietnam at that time?

Flynn: “Probably about a month.”

During his time in Vietnam, Flynn sustained a severe concussion from incoming shelling. Despite that, he was able finish his tour in Vietnam, returning home.

Flynn: “In later years, some of the VA doctors that I was around figured that maybe what happened was that my retinas became detached or partially detached from the concussion. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but after (the concussion), I was always having problems. I didn’t have any night vision. And then during the day, I would have to move my head all over because it was almost like I was looking through gas fumes or through heat waves. I could see something, but it was like looking through a jar of water. I kept telling them about it for months. They think you’re faking so you can get out of the field, but I kept telling them about it and telling it. It seemed like it never got much better.

“I got home and thought, ‘Man, I did everything. I did it. I went over. I made it. I didn’t get wounded. I can do anything I want in my life.’ Little did I know, four years later I went totally blind and lost most of my hearing. All of sudden. The thing about that was my dad said, ‘We’re going to send you to the Mayo Clinic.’ So he paid to have that air ambulance to the Mayo Clinic. I wasn’t helping the doctors though, because I was so sure that I had made it through Vietnam without a scratch.

They said, ‘Were you overseas?’

I said, ‘Yeah.’

‘Did you ever get hurt?’

‘No.’

“So they were looking in my eyes, seeing all these strange things in my retinas. They could not explain this. They made a diagnosis ... of inflammation of the retina. Well, they said it was based on the fact that I was in Vietnam. They came up with different theories. The reason they did that was because they didn’t know what it was. The VA ophthalmologist ... came up with the (detached and reattached retinas) scar tissue had set in. That’s why it took later to lose my sight.”

Gazette: You think you escaped unharmed or unscathed. That’s like a nightmare.

Flynn: “I wanted to kill myself. It was terrible. When I was laying in Rochester (Minn.), and I willed myself to die every day. I was ready to die. I wanted to die. Every day I went through that. These two young nuns would visit with me and go walking with me and talk to me and they’d pray over me. All of a sudden, I got a feeling like everything’s OK. It’s all right. I never felt so comforted in my whole life. ... That really helped me.

“Even then, I was determined not to go blind. In fact, Social Security called me and said that I had medical evidence, but they had to take the claim for me. And I said, ‘No, no, no. You don’t have to do that because I am not going to go blind. I am going to see here. Soon.’”

To hear or see the full interview with Flynn, go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam

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