John Tomek served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1967 to 1970. Tomek was born and grew up in Lincoln, Neb. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the full interview, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Tomek: "I wasn't doing very good in school, I was put on academic probation and the draft was in, and I had an acquaintance in high school, a classmate, that was over in Vietnam in the Marines Corps. He stepped on a mine and blew his foot off. Anyway, I was having a good time. I finally said, 'Why should I be here having a good time and he's over there?' I was going to get kicked out of college and they were drafting and I wasn't going to let them draft me, so I fooled them and ... I went down to the Marine Corps and said, 'Sign me up, what do you got going?' And he said, 'You have to sign up for four years.' I later came to find out that was untrue. They had two and three-year enlistments at the time. I was a naive kid."
He went to boot camp in San Diego and advance training at Camp Pendleton. After that, he went on a 30-day leave, and in December 1967, he went to Vietnam, landing in Da Nang. His first in-country assignment was in Phu Bai.
Gazette: What do you remember going to Phu Bai?
Tomek: "It was up Highway 1. Phu Bai was on the other side of Hue ... and it was a beautiful city. This was before Tet. Phu Bai was another military installation, smaller. They did have bunk housing facilities, pretty primitive. We were all herded and green guys. ... They said, 'This is your cot.' The new guy always got the radio, and every platoon had a radio man. I actually kept the radio all the way through and wound up with the company commander as his radio guy. I must have been good at it, right? Or stupid."
Gazette: What does Phu Bai look like?
Tomek: "It's a coastal. It's not on the coast, but it's flatland rice paddies. The first night I'm there, which is Christmas Eve, 1967, there's supposed to be a cease fire — a Christmas cease fire. Of course, we go out on a squad-sized patrol, my first patrol, and it's a bright moon and they put me at the back of the line.
"I am looking around and it's pretty light out, and we're walking through rice paddies and we're walking through the dikes on the rice paddies, pretty scared, I guess. There's nothing going on. There's supposed to be a cease fire, and I am thinking, 'Oh, what can happen?'
"We go out and set up a little ambush. There was a little church or a religious place and there are guys out there that set up Claymore mines and machine guns and whatnot and you kind of doze off. You kind of sit there. All of a sudden a Claymore goes off — boom — and the machine guns starts firing and the illumination flares start going off. Holy crap, what's going on here? It's my first night. Everybody's shooting and I'm looking out there and I don't see what they're shooting at. I don't see anything."
Gazette: A lot of the veterans say that the first time you get into something like that you're more stupefied and try to figure out what's going on than fighting. Was that your experience?
Tomek: "It was because I didn't see anybody. But everybody was firing so I was, too. There was a little bridge there and there was a pathway and there were Viet Cong there that set off the Claymore mines. There were a couple dead Viet Cong at the end of this. So there was somebody there. And everybody is shooting at this opening under the bridge. But there's nothing to shoot at that I could see. But it's what everybody else is doing, so I am shooting, too. ... I know what's going on, but I don't see the point."
Gazette: So you had dozed off by the time the Claymores go off. That's got to be something to awaken to.
Tomek: "I can't remember if I was allowed to doze off. A lot of time when you're out at night, you're partnered up and trading off, one guy sleeping, another guy awake, for an hour or two at a time, and then you switch off. I was laying down and dozing because as soon as that thing went off, I'm up."
Gazette: Was that an appropriate Vietnam for you?
Tomek: "It woke me up. ... Out of Phu Bai, that's what we would do: Run these little patrols at night. ... In my experience, with all the different places that I was, which was fire-support bases, and artillery pieces where there's always a guard garrison around and you'd rotate troops in and out and guarding the perimeter.
"During the day, you're setting the patrols. During the day, you're going out to see what you can find to see if anybody is out there. At night, you're sending out listening posts. A two-man team goes outside the wire with a radio to listen. Those were a little scary at times. ... You couldn't talk on the radio, but you'd click the handset. You had a code because you were on a listening post. Those were not fun going out, just two men beyond the wire. They'd send you out quite a way. You'd listen for people sneaking around."
Gazette: Does your mind play tricks on you in the dark?
Tomek: "I don't really recall that it did. But maybe so. There were times when you think you heard something — But did you hear something? — because it wasn't repeated."
Gazette: What are nights like in Vietnam?
Tomek: "If you like outdoors and camping, sleeping under the stars. The terrain varied from the coastal plains. Most of my time was spent in the mountains. You're in semi-jungle, so different animals and different bugs. Snakes, bugs, rats, which you're sleeping with all the time."
Gazette: During the day, you're looking for someone. In other words, looking for trouble. Is that nerve-wracking?
Tomek: "Maybe not so much at Phu Bai. We had intelligence, and they'd say, 'We think there is a Viet Cong battalion in this area or a (North Vietnamese Army) division over here.' When we got to Khe Sanh, they thought they had indications there was enemy around, so they'd send out patrols to make contact to confirm the intelligence. So some of that was based on intelligence.
"You're going out to see what's there so that you can better prepare expected attacks. We were up in the I CORE, you had infiltration through the (demilitarized zone) and through Laos and Cambodia down the whole Ho Chi Minh Trail. We weren't over there. After Phu Bai, I was at most of the Firebases, Con Thien and Alpha 3, and ... finally wound up in Khe Sanh. ... We would run patrols out of there."
Gazette: Are you looking for NVA or Viet Cong?
Tomek: "There were more NVA up there, but up in the DMZ, because there's not as many villages or city, it was more NVA. They were coming across, and our company actually found a new road they built up there. ... We weren't supposed to be in the DMZ, but we operated there all the time. They cut a road down ... They built an underwater bridge with timbers they had laced together a foot underwater to make it less visible in the air because any bridges would be destroyed by aircraft.
Gazette: Was it spooky being on the DMZ?
Tomek: "It is, because you're facing NVA regular soldiers typically. There was a night or two there were rumors of NVA choppers operating up there, which really put the scare on us because we saw what helicopters and aircraft in general could do to the enemy. The thought of them raining down some of that on us was disconcerting. That was a rumor, and they could have been flying choppers on the other side of the river, but that never panned out. But there were a few nights that we were on high alert."
Gazette: Are you always getting fired at on the DMZ? How often did you take fire?
Tomek: "I was lucky. Our unit wasn't involved in a lot of heavy action. There was a fair amount of small activity, like the first ambush — a squad-sized VC traveling through the area. Khe Sanh we ran into some bigger outfits. ... Some of the soldiers that we captured were 20-year-olds, just like we were."
Gazette: What was it like capturing them?
Tomek: "We captured them. This was some of the smaller skirmishes, you might capture some. We always had interpreters, the South Vietnamese, and we tried to get what information we could. At our squad, platoon or company level. Then it'd be sent back up the chain. I am not sure what happened to them after that."
Tomek spent part of his tour in Khe Sanh
Tomek: "Khe Sanh was set up to interdict infiltration coming down from the North. ... There, we would send out platoon-sized patrols to make contact with the NVA, and make contact they did. We'd always lose a couple of guys. At night, you'd hear the battles going up the 861 Hill and you'd get the radio reports and hear the fire ... coming across the wire. Each base had concertina wire around. We have it set up good, but still. There was a lot of activity around there from the NVA."
Gazette: How do you sleep or rest when you hear guns in the distance?
Tomek: "You just do. Or maybe you doze. You never have a real good night's sleep. I probably didn't for 13 months. The listening posts out of there were scary. I was on one one night. I was with one fellow and we went out our prescribed distance in this tall elephant grass and we set up and nobody was sleeping.
"Between us and our base — our wire — I hear an AK-47 bolt go home. That is not too far away, but you only hear the one. Then, your mind does play tricks on you because 'Did I really hear it?' And when the noise is between you and your safe zone and there's only two of you with rifles, maybe a grenade or two, that's a little frightening."