Beaver Tallbull was born in Forsyth and raised in Lame Deer by his grandmother. He served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. This is his Vietnam story. For the full interview, go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam
Tallbull: “Our grandmother actually got me interested in the warrior ways — no better term for it. My great-grandfather on my dad’s side, Chief Tallbull, was in the Custer battle. He later was killed on the Tongue River by Birney — that is, white Birney because there’s two Birneys down there. The Battle of the Butte: He wasn’t riding his normal warrior pony, which is a big bay. He was riding a white horse that he was training. He went down to bring up one of the warriors that was laying at the base ... and his horse fell with him and crushed him. He was the last Tallbull to fall in battle. ... Our grandmother took us down to the old Mennonite church, which is no longer there in Lame Deer, and they had Cub Scouts back then. Scouting was really big on the reservation and much to my dismay, it’s not like that anymore. ... I went as far as you could go in Cub Scouts, which is Webelos, and subsequently into Boy Scouts. I am a child of a broken home and I wound up in the boarding school in Busby, but I continued my scouting career there with the aid of a science teacher, Mr. Raymond, and the librarian Mrs. Coffman. I was a troop of one. I wanted that coveted Eagle Scout badge. They helped me achieve that goal. From there, I started into the Explorers and finally got out of that school and went to St. Labre and lost contact with scouting for the last two years of school.”
After graduating high school in 1968, Tallbull pumped gas at a local station. One day, his friend said he was going to Forsyth to enlist in the Army. Tallbull then decided he would, too.
Gazette: Were you worried going into a war that was becoming not very popular?
Tallbull: “I really wasn’t because I had an older brother who had already been to Vietnam. He was a sniper over there, and he was wounded. He was shot through the face with .25 caliber. ... When I graduated, he was already home from the Army. ... He came home for my graduation. ... We talked about it. He said, ‘I know you’re going to go into the service.’ And this was before I had even thought about going into the service.”
Gazette: How did he know?
Tallbull: “We’re warriors. I told Gen. Prendergast, he was the state adjutant for the National Guard, I said, ‘You got to realize that I am only one generation removed from when we fought Custer.’ (My brother) told me when you go into basic training, ‘Don’t shoot as good as you’re capable of shooting. No matter what you enlist as, you’re an Indian, they’re going to enlist you as a sniper, if you shoot expert.’ He was in college here at Eastern (Montana College) when he got drafted, and he did not want to be in the infantry, because he shot “expert” he was a sniper. So when I went into basic training, I didn’t. I shot just marksman. I’d miss on purpose. When I had to go to Vietnam, I had to requalify, of course. It’s like it says on my 214: I qualified expert on every weapon I touched. I knew what was going on.”
Gazette: What does the warrior culture mean to you?
Tallbull: “It’s an honor and a service thing. By service, I mean ultimately they could come here. ... Intellectually do we know they’re going to get here? We doubt it, but there’s that chance. What we’re doing is fighting so that our people — by that I mean the Northern Cheyenne people — don’t have to put up with what you see happening in the Middle East and those areas. ... So in a way, we’re trying to preserve a way of life — our way of life. We — I mean the dog soldiers — were like our current day special-ops people.
If another tribe came and raided us, then we went back and avenged it.”
Gazette: What’s a dog soldier?
Tallbull: “It’s a society amongst our tribe. We were the police. Our people and the Arapaho, we consider each other “brothers of the dog.” Not many people back then consumed dog, but we did. And the dog hunts low to the ground. And that’s the way we hunted the enemy, low to the ground — down low. That was Custer’s demise, you know, warriors 50 feet laying in the dirt, and he didn’t see them.”
Three Tallbull brothers enlisted during Vietnam. Tallbull has a son who served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tallbull: “It’s an unwritten, unspoken thing you just follow in the footsteps. My dad wasn’t in during Korea, but he was in Europe. His older brothers were code talkers, but they took that with them because of the vow of silence. That’s one thing about our people, when we take a vow of silence, we take it to our grave. It’s an honor thing. We’ve done it for so many generations — that we’ve fought, it’s just kind of a way of life. ... There’s more enrollments in peacetime, and enrollments go off the books during times of war (for Northern Cheyenne), and I think it’s because that was our way of life. ... You fought for what was yours. And we’re just carrying on that tradition — fighting to protect the United States.”
Gazette: Did seeing your brother come back wounded give you pause?
Tallbull: “No. I thought, ‘I’m going to get some.’ Payback.”
Tallbull went to basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash. He enlisted with his friend on the “buddy program.” He had enlisted as a mechanic’s helper, training at Fort Rucker, Ala., after basic. Tallbull goes to northern South Vietnam, close to the demilitarized zone.
Tallbull: “I remember getting off that plane in Cam Ranh Bay, and it was hot. It was like stepping off into a wet blanket. ... There was mountains, but not like our mountains.
“We went up north. ... I got stuck in a tank company. I had never seen a tank before in my life.”
Gazette: What was a day in the life like at the DMZ?
Tallbull: “We basically lived underground. Our firebase was Alpha 4, that was it as far as going north. Behind us, about five miles back was our base, Charlie 2.”
Gazette: How do you cope day to day when you live in a bunker or someone is always shooting at you?
Tallbull: “Think about hamburgers and steak.”
Gazette: Anything else?
Tallbull: “I really don’t recall anything else we tried to do. We played cards. In your mind, you were invincible. That bunker was going to stop everything because they threw everything they had at us. The only thing they could hit on that firebase with any regularity was this outhouse. And yes, one guy was in it when it got hit. He didn’t get killed but blew the outhouse out all the way around him. They’d blow it away, and we’d build it back. But they had something to hit. They were happy.”
Tallbull spent six months in tanks, usually as the tank leader.
Gazette: Triple canopy jungle. What’s that like?
Tallbull: “Well, you have grass. ... It’s eight feet over there. It’s eight feet — elephant grass — and you can’t see anything. The jungle is so dense that we carried what they called a ‘canister round’ which is like a shotgun shell round. In order to see, we’d shoot three or four times in the jungle to clear away the foliage so you can see. I pulled a few foot patrols there, and it’s like stumbling around in a dark room.”
Gazette: Did you ever think you may not return to Montana?
Tallbull: “No. It never entered my mind. ... You’re going to find people if they thought about that, forget about it. You couldn’t think that way. And when your buddy got tagged next to you, you looked at him and said, ‘Sorry, I got to move on.’ Sounds cold and callous and if you let it get to you, then you’re next. So you had to move on. I remember looking at my first one. He was actually the guy who taught me everything I knew on a tank. He took a piece of shrapnel right in the heart. And I remember looking down thinking, ‘That cut — that opening — was no more than a half inch. My God, that tiny hole killed him.’ I was mesmerized for a minute — I don’t know how long. Then I just moved away and forgot about it.”
Gazette: How did your time in Vietnam change you?
Tallbull: “Besides making me crazy?”
Gazette: Besides that.
Tallbull: “We had a deal here in Billings called a rap group to help us adjust, because each individual thought they had only experienced those experiences, unique to themselves. There was other guys out there. Originally, they dubbed it the “40/20” syndrome — you had experienced what a 40-year-old had by the time you were 20. We changed it to 60/20 — life, death, tragedies, highs and lows, by the time you were 20.”
Gazette: You had injuries. Can you tell me about that.
Tallbull: “Actually, the first time was on my forehead. ... ‘Tallbull’s hit in the head. He’s hit in the head.’ I thought, ‘I’m OK,’ but you know, scalps bleed a lot. It wasn’t much. The second one was on the top of my head — I was loony toons from that for about five days. Concussion or what. But the big one was in a place called “Fishhook.” ... We were going to get in a big firefight that day because we were going to raid a big cache of arms. ... What they did was sent two out — one had a launcher, and the other had a (rocket propelled grenade). They were in a hole in the ground. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I had what they called ‘jungle rot.’ I had it everywhere. I even had it under my eyes. It’s like athlete feet and your skin peeled. ... I was supposed to go back to the battalion aid station, which meant back in the rear. I already had my orders for Frankfurt, Germany, so I was done for Vietnam. ... They were rumbling out of the base that morning. ... We had 23 tanks running, but they didn’t know we had pulled in an infantry unit and three (armored personnel carriers) and Charlie Company had 24. They knew to count 23, pop up out of the hole and shoot the last tank and hopefully get away — run; they had no other weapons. ... Everyone knows I’m done, and they’re never going to see me because I am leaving. My tank was the last one. Prior to relinquishing, I showed a guy from the First platoon what they needed to look for out front — shoot down at the ground. I said, ‘Monkeys aren’t going to shoot at you.’ ... My tank came along — and to this day I can’t explain why I ran out there and jumped on that tank. I can only come up with one explanation. And I have given this a lot of thought over the years.
“My tribe — the elders used to go to Bear Butte, which is a sacred mountain to us. They went down during World War I, World War II and Korea. They fasted and they predicted the outcomes of the war. When they went down there when Vietnam was first starting, we were kids then. Me and my cousin went with my grandpa and grandma. Well, nobody is supposed to be on that mountain until they come down there on Sunday. And our grandmother sent us out to look for this little fern that grows next to the ground. They use it, and I use it now. It’s where I get my power. Outside of the tribe, people refer to us as medicine men, but I don’t. Anyway, Ross and I went looking around, and we wound up on that mountain. We weren’t supposed to be there. He got in trouble with the law and went to prison. He’s all scarred up from car wrecks and whatnot. I think that’s why I went out there and got on that tank. I don’t think I was destined to come back from there fully intact.”
Gazette: That’s a punishment?
Tallbull: “For going up the mountain. He received his, and I received mine. There’s no other logical explanation for me to go out there and jump on the tank when I am headed out of Vietnam and I know there’s going to be a firefight.
“Forty-five minutes later, an RPG — they popped up out of that hole about 30 feet from the tank, and they shot. We were sitting on the outside of the tank, and I was thinking, ‘I left two beers in this and I wonder if I should drink one of them?’ It was 7:45 and should I wait until we come back in. ... The gunner is sitting right in front of me (outside of the tank), and a round comes this way and blew both of his legs off. I got the side blast. I had to jump off. Joe grabbed me and threw me on the back deck, and they started opening up. A gunner in the tank in front of us saw (the enemy) and smoked them with the 50-caliber.”