Ilan Kaufmann was in the U.S. Navy from 1966 to 1970. He graduated from the University of the Pacific, with a degree in business administration. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the full interview, go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Kaufmann: “I knew darn well if I didn’t enlist, I would be drafted. So I chose the Navy. My first assignment was an ocean-going tug from Treasure Island. ... I wasn’t enamored with the deck crew, so I chose to go to supply school in San Diego. That’s when I got my orders for Vietnam. I spent a year on land in Vietnam on two separate bases about a half a mile apart. Totally different functions for each base. After that year, I was told by personnel that because of my hazardous duty that I would have my first choice of duty upon returning, so I asked for a base 50 miles from my home, and they put me on a ship going right back to the South China
Sea for a year and a half. I was actually in the Vietnam arena for more than the year I was on land.”
Gazette: Tell me what supply school means. What does that entail?
Kaufmann: “My rating was storekeeper. Basically, handling all the goods that are involved. All the physical things that sailors or soldiers need. We handled barrels of Agent Orange on my first base. It was called ‘Market Time.’ We supplied swiftboats with their needs. Then my second six months was a radar base on the top of the hill, and we checked all incoming and outgoing traffic by vessel into the harbor in Qui Nhon.”
Gazette: You go into the Navy, and you think that you may not be in Vietnam. Then you get your notice to go to Vietnam, not near it, in it. Take me back to what you were thinking.
Kaufmann: “As I read my orders, I was flabbergasted that I would be on land rather than on a ship at large. I left Travis Air Force Base in California on a charter commercial plane, not a military one. As we were landing at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base in Saigon, I could hear and see that we were being shot at in the plane by, I guess, the enemy. So that night, I spent a night or two in Saigon, we got artillery noise all night. I thought, ‘This is going to be interesting.’ You know, God was with me the whole time I was in the Navy and actually all my life. So I dealt with it.”
Gazette: In the first couple days, you’re hearing shots in the distance. How do you get used to that?
Kaufmann: “You have no choice. Deal with it.”
Gazette: How did Vietnam strike you when you got there?
Kaufmann: “It has elements of beauty. It’s not stark, it’s lush and tropical. To achieve that lushness and tropic, you get monsoon rains, which are torrential. I have never seen rain so hard, duration-wise as well. Just an incredible amount of rain in a short amount of time. The people were, essentially, friendly — the South Vietnamese. You never knew if there was some Viet Cong or North Vietnamese infiltrators there in South Vietnam.
Gazette: Was it hard not knowing who was friendly and who wasn’t?
Kaufmann: “We were allowed to go into Qui Nhon, the town, but we were warned that it was a risky situation. Of course, we would wear civilian clothes, but it’s pretty obvious you’re not Vietnamese, even in civilian clothes. Our bases were protected in the sense we were not in Qui Nhon, in the town — we were across the bay. The only access would be by boat to our bases. But there was a time, three months into my first base, that we were infiltrated by three suicide (Viet Cong). You know, they might have been sympathizers, but they infiltrated our perimeter, and I was in my quonset hut with about 25 others. It was 3 in the morning, and all of a sudden, a VC stood in our doorway of our hut with a machine gun. Everyone that stood up was either injured or killed. I laid flat. I didn’t get up. Between that maneuver and God’s will, I didn’t get hurt.
“There was someone across the street. We didn’t have bathrooms in the quonset huts. We had to go across to the building. There was a fellow who was sitting on the toilet, and he was killed instantly. There were three of them, and we had about five huts.
“What transpired after that? They called the army helicopters from Qui Nhon, who came within seconds actually, it seemed like, and shot rockets at them because they knew (the suicide shooters) were escaping; the ones who could escape. The one in my hut, it took 30 rounds to put him down. They were definitely on some kind of drug to fortify their bravery. They knew that they weren’t going home. The other two escaped up the hillside, which was heavy brush. We were told to get out of the hut and stay low against the bottom of the hill. The helicopters did their rockets right over our heads. I’ll never forget that.
“We slept in a bunker on the beach instead of a hut for the next few nights. I had an offer to go up to the radar base, which there was no way you were going to infiltrate that base. There was no brush around. It was a safer place, so I thought it might be interesting to do that. It was during that time I got to drive a “five by” truck, which was very interesting because it would run on any kind of combustible fuel. It had a special kind of carburetor. You could run it on kerosene, gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, anything combustible it would accommodate.”
Gazette: Let’s go back to the suicide shooting. It’s 3 in the morning. How do you make sense of what is going on?
Kaufmann: “I guess I was just in shock. I can hear people saying, ‘I’m hit.’ Something told me to stay flat because you’re less of a target.”
Gazette: I imagine the next couple nights the sleep doesn’t come easy.
Kaufmann: “Ooh, no. But thank God I don’t have any issues with (post traumatic stress disorder) or anything like that. It was just a one-time occurrence, compared to those poor infantry guys who had it every day.”
Gazette: When you’re laying low and you have helicopters firing rockets right above you, that must be extremely loud.
Kaufmann: “Extremely terrifying. Oh, am I going to get a rocket? They’re good shots. They know what they’re doing.”
Gazette: Does anything prepare you for that experience?
Kaufmann: “No. I guess maturity a little bit was on my side in that I was older than most of the guys.”
Gazette: Does maturity play a role? You were 23. You weren’t ancient by any stretch, but you were five years older. In those situations, do you think that five years make a difference?
Kaufmann: “I think so. Being so thankful to God, saving my life.
Vietnam Voices: Video Playlist
Vietnam veterans talk about their experiences in the Billings Gazette studio.
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