Sam Rankin served as a medic in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1970. Rankin was born and raised in Billings and graduated from Eastern Montana College. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the complete story, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Rankin: "I applied to the Peace Corps in 1965, before Vietnam. I had never even heard the word. I applied to the Peace Corps and got accepted in 1966. I ended up going to training to be a health educator in India at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the summer of 1966, and then they trained us over into 1967.
"I actually went to India in 1967 as a health educator. I was the lowest-level foreign service diplomat. ... So I was actually in India before I was ever in Vietnam. I got an infection, was put in a hospital ... I was there probably six to eight weeks and went out to my village and I was still sick and emotionally and physically drained. I asked to come back because it's a voluntary role.
"They actually let me come back. I finished college because I hadn't finished my degree.
"Two weeks after I graduated in 1968, I got my draft notice. A lot of people asked why I didn't stay in the Peace Corps and not been subject to the draft. But, the Peace Corps was just a deferment for two years. I thought, 'That's not me.' At that point, I was young and foolish and thought you can do anything — you know, young, bullet-proof, invisible and all that other stuff. So, it didn't worry me.
"I had hopes of going to medical school. My grades weren't stellar. That's one of the reasons that I was in the Peace Corps health training program. We basically cross-trained with Marquette medical school which was in Milwaukee. I thought if I go into the service, I hopefully can get in the medical corps.
"They didn't have too many slots for the medical corps people, but they needed officers, and I had just graduated from college and I had been in the state department prior so I had a whole bunch of pressure to go to Officers Candidate School. And I said, 'Well, what do I do?' And they said, 'Well, you'll be in infantry or armor — one of the combat units, that's where we need you.' I said, 'What about the medical corps?' They said, 'We got all the spots filled. And all lieutenants. You can do it, but you're going to be pushing pills and counting bed sheets and all this other stuff.' I said, 'I'm going to pass, and I'll have to go for an extra year (to be an officer).
"They sent me to training at Fort Sam Houston, and I ended up going to Vietnam as a combat medic. I was assigned to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, which is designed as an urban warfare — small skirmishes.
"In Saigon and after getting in-country 10-day or two-week acclimation, my first assignment was my unit was guarding a bridge. This was six or eight months after Tet. There was still a lot of upheaval over there. We were guarding a bridge and for the first couple of days, I just slept in the ditch, and I didn't have a weapon. There was garbage and everything. I remember a rat. It was big and its fat belly coming across my face when I was sleeping one night. I thought, 'Oh, this is not good.' I didn't have a weapon and here's this rat running across me, and I didn't know where I was."
Gazette: There was pressure to send you OCS, but you said no. You let them draft you, and you did get into the medical corps.
Rankin: "They wanted me because of my education, but I would have never gotten any medical training and my grades weren't stellar, but I still had hopes that would work out. I thought that with the training in the Peace Corps that I wouldn't be a brain surgeon, probably, but I still had hopes. I thought, 'Where am I going to get the experience?' They said, 'You'll be in combat.' I think they thought that would scare me. But I thought, 'That's alright.' Because if it was medical, that's kind of where I'm headed. That's the experience I want.' They said, 'Yeah, we can accommodate that.' They had a high turnover."
Gazette: In 1965, you didn't know where Vietnam was, but 1968 you did? Was that scary?
Rankin: "I'm the typical western, country mentality that the Army or any company loves. I thought, 'Well, that's part of the deal.' This is my country. I wasn't gung-ho for the war, but as a medic, I am under the Geneva convention, the lieutenant can't tell me to do an offensive act. I am strictly there to take care of the enemy alive or the troops, our troops first. So I thought, 'Isn't everyone else — my friends — over there with me?'
"I hadn't been indoctrinated with the anti-war stuff because I was from this part of the country. You read about it and kept up on current events, but I thought, as a medic it's an OK thing. It's not really pushing the war and morally, I could live with that. It was going to be a good experience for medical school. It was kind of an adventure."
Rankin was stationed just North of Saigon.
Rankin: "I never had any big battles. Skirmishes. In the jungles and sometimes south in the Delta, in the rice-growing regions. That was all inhabited by the Viet Cong — I don't think we ever saw North Vietnamese Army. Pretty much after the Tet they were kind of decimated and disappointed. Anytime we had any skirmishes, they'd pretty much fire some rounds and retreat and then be gone.
"Of course, that would slow us down all day or a couple of hours at least, trying to figure out what would happen. We'd call in the gunships or the loaches, the small observation helicopters. But, they pretty much faded with us. ... A lot of booby traps, IEDs now.
"I never put a dead soldier in a body bag or on a chopper. But, I put plenty guys that were wounded from the land mines. We never had any long-term battles. Doc Pickard is an old friend of mine and he was in the Marines up north. My God, he was in a six-hour battle. I never had any of that. I know what bullets sound like flying overhead and artillery."
Gazette: What was getting to Vietnam like?
Rankin: "All these articles that I've read, everyone talks about the heat and the smell. Well, I had had that happen in India, same thing."
Gazette: Did you think you'd know what was going to happen?
Rankin: "Well, the shock of heat and humidity and the smell. So, it was not much of a shock to me."
Gazette: Did the training in the Peace Corps help in the Army?
Rankin: "For the culture shock, once I got out in the field. The younger 18-year-old or 19-year-old guys would say, 'Look at these people doing something this way. Look at how they live,' kind of dismissive and in a semi-negative way. I accepted it. It was just the way they live. It was easy for me to be comfortable in the country, maybe more so than anyone else who had never been to, trained or was taught about other cultures."
Gazette: When you saw the conditions in Vietnam, what did you think? You probably were a better observer than most.
Rankin: "Up until a few years ago, I truly didn't know what the word 'refugee' meant. I thought it was poor homeless people who were wandering. They're just average people who don't care one way or another, basic middle-class people who like us, were just doing their thing and all of sudden, their town or home is blown apart. What do you do?
"That's kind of what happened in many cases in Vietnam. The old 'We had to destroy the village to save it,' whatever the phrase was to burn a village down. I witnessed a couple overreactions by the military against a village for really no casualties on our side — pretty rough stuff. Most of it was in IV Corps, down south. I don't know who was commanding, but they were extremely brutal with the Vietnamese people. I saw that and had some sympathy. Of course then, I put a guy on a chopper."
Gazette: When you get out and look around at Vietnam, what's it like? What do you recall thinking?
Rankin: "When I got there it was dry season and the rice paddies were the little dikes that you see people walking on, and you see the water in them... The tanks would roar around on it. I got some good pictures, lush and green."
Gazette: You got there at an interesting time, right after Tet — right on the heels of that. Public sentiment at home after that was changed, yet militarily, it was a huge victory, killing the enemy at a 10-to-1 ratio.
Rankin: "My unit was around Saigon anyway. We took the brunt of the attacks. We were the ones who were attacked and we got a presidential citation for protection of Saigon. ... We lost a lot of guys. There were people in the unit who were short and had been in some pretty heavy battles. ... So, it flavored everything. Any of the skirmishes we ever got into, we were ready. We were ready for a long battle, but it never materialized. We'd have snipers shoot at us or someone from a village, and you could hear the AKs. They never hit anybody. I don't know if they were kids, or if they were just trying to slow us down, but it sure did slow us down.
"Then we'd either call in helicopters to come in and look, and we'd retreat as best we could because the American military didn't want any more casualties because of the American sentiment at that time. Anytime we got close to anything, we had to pull back and call in the artillery or air support. I remember one time we found ... a huge bunker complex in triple canopy jungle, couldn't see a thing. All of a sudden, and it's funny how all of sudden you're walking and it's quiet and you're spread out, and all of a sudden you close back. What's up front? 'I don't know.' So we sat down just kind of waited.
"It turns out there's this huge bunker complex. The point man eventually spotted and so he pulls back. For the complex he described, we're not a match for them. We're a platoon, and we have two platoons on either side of us, so company strength. We thought, 'We're in big trouble if they're on the sides of us, setting us up for an ambush.'
"Anyway, we pulled back and the lieutenant calls in a Navy airplane. We always had somebody on station, either helicopters or Navy Air Force jets, heavy ordnance jets with big bombs. We popped smoke, and I forget which color was our position. He flew over a couple of times. He was southern guy, but he was talking. I was close to the lieutenant because I was the medic and close to the radio. He said, 'If I get hit and I don't make it, you boys will all take care of me, if I come down there. You'll find me right? You'll find me and take care of me?'
"Then he said, 'OK, this time I'm coming in and it's the real one, I'm coming in, and you get your heads down and I think I know where you are.' Boy, I'll tell you what we got down low and he dropped, I don't know what it was, maybe 250 pounds, maybe some Air Force guys could tell me. Anyway, we went back up, after we figured there was no enemy there. I am telling you that complex scared me. You couldn't see it until you started looking. It was set up against the hill. Then, you could start to see the firing ports and how they had it all hidden. It was damn impressive. Nothing was there. Nothing."