Gordon Cormier, Vietnam Voices

Vietnam veteran Gordon Cormier wrote a book about his experiences during the war called "Everyone Had His Turn."

LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff

Unlike nearly every other veteran interviewed for The Billings Gazette's "Vietnam Voices" series, Gordon Cormier doesn't have many memories of Vietnam.

That may be the only positive thing about his battle with Alzheimer's.

You won't find his video online or a transcript of the interview. And many of the things he experienced were terrifying — like watching an artillery round come in short, killing fellow American troops.

He couldn't help but wonder if he, as an officer and forward observer, had called in the wrong coordinates. Or maybe the round had just gone short — a term meaning that the round was sighted incorrectly, hitting too close, killing or injuring "friendly troops."

Cormier believed the short-round incident left him a marked man, a target for "fragging," the term which means an officer being killed by enlisted or drafted troops unhappy with his leadership.

Those memories are mostly gone now. But, through Cormier's relentless and meticulous reconstruction of events and use of his diaries, he was able to leave a substantial record of his service in Vietnam. In 2006, he self-published his memoirs and diaries of Vietnam, "Everyone Had His Turn: An Odyssey Through The Vietnam War and Beyond." The 699-page book describes the challenges of being an officer in Vietnam and living with the memories.

Cormier was born in Billings in 1943. What started as a whim helped him preserve in precise detail many events during his time in Vietnam.

"One fine day while wandering around in downtown Billings, I walked into the F.W. Woolworth Co. store on North 28th Street. Ambling about, I noticed a large box of small diaries that were on sale. On a whim, I picked up a diary. Perhaps my Viet Nam adventures might be worth recording. I picked out a second diary. I might have exciting days when all my adventures couldn't be written down in just one daily entry of a dairy ... "

As a dedicated letter writer, Cormier would write his father and brothers often. They kept some of that correspondence, which is also included in the book. 

'Check Fire'

Cormier's entire perspective — and maybe life — changed on Feb. 2, 1968, just north of My Tho City in heavy fighting with the Viet Cong. After engaging in a firefight with the enemy, killing at least one, Cormier, a lieutenant and forward observer with the artillery, called in 155-millimeter projectiles for "protective cover."

"What's this that flashed in the corner of mine eyes? The initial fog of my lack of understanding began burning away at an accelerating pace in the dawning light of comprehension. Suddenly the calamitous realization burst forth!"

Artillery had hit an American armored personnel carrier.

"For some seconds I was struck speechless! Then for some seconds I became a hysterical, gibbering idiot before I recovered my wits! Then I shrieked into my radio mike, 'Check Fire! Check Fire! Short Round! Short Round!' 

"That single, short 155-mm projectile struck the road's west side near the lead track. Someone over there uttered a low-in-volume animal scream that began low in pitch, then rose, then fell again to fade away into nothingness.

"Some minutes later, I walked over to the west side ... that short artillery round hit and exploded very close to the patrol, blowing many of them away. Two wounded from the lead track had been laid out beside the track. Now they too are both dead. I walked down the road. Stretcher bearers followed me. The men on those litters were very badly chopped up, were blood covered and were quite dead. I overheard a medic giving a casualty report to Capt. Bishoff. 'Six dead, six wounded and most of them are amputees.' I'll never forget that statement. A squad leader sergeant was walking back and forth, cussing, swearing and repeating over and over that almost his whole squad had been wiped out.

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Turn book cover

Gordon Cormier's book "Everyone had his turn."

"An APC crewman commented to me that those men were unlucky. I stared at him, saying nothing. What could I say? That I was sorry? That this wasn't the way it was supposed to happen? ...

"I kept thinking over and over again, 'Killed by our own people! Killed by our own people!' It wasn't my fault! (But I had directed the artillery fire!) Three of four artillery rounds hit where they were supposed to! (And that cursed fourth one?) I had lost much face, much faith. Feeling traitorously deceived, I would never, ever trust the artillery. I tried to swallow my tears but I could not. ...

"Just off the left front corner of the lead track, I stopped to look at the fresh stinking shell crater that was empty now. Beyond the lead track, I paced a short distance up and down the road twice, estimating the length of my base line. I took the compass direction to the target point northeast of me near that tree line corner. I wrote down all this information. Later using trigonometry, I'd calculate about how short of the actual target grid that particular 155-mm artillery round had fallen. This short artillery round was an unmitigated disaster for us! (Stop thinking about it! But I couldn't!) ...

"I walked back down the road to the center of the APC column. In a large gap between two tracks, five stretchers lay on the road with five bodies upon them. I sat down on the west edge of the 15-foot wide gravel road. I gazed upon those now lifeless bodies. One body was covered with a poncho. He had no face left and not much of a back either. After a few minutes of looking at the gory results of this bloody work, I could not stand to look at these bodies anymore. Bodies and body pieces, covered with red and dead! ...

"(It) left us with six wounded and five bodies. We found little of the sixth body. All we had was an arm that didn't belong to anyone else. Where the rest of the missing man was, we knew not. Presumably the rest of his body had been blasted to smithereens." 

For two days, Cormier's diary and memories read like a physics and trigonometry textbook — calculating and recalculating the distance. Cormier tries unsuccessfully to determine what went wrong, trying to clear or condemn himself in the deaths or injuries of nearly a dozen men.

"The most common human errors in quadrant or deflection (left or right transverse) settings are either one or 10 mills caused by missetting the numbers on the adjustment knobs of the artillery piece. A 13 mill quadrant deviation probably ruled out a careless error. Was it bad powder or was it human error?"

Remaining questions

Ultimately, the Army settled on bad powder, but the memories and questions never left Cormier.

In just a few weeks' time, he not only became disillusioned with the artillery and its power, but also critical of officers who seemed more concerned with the loss of equipment than life, or the ones that didn't follow the Army's own protocol.

At one point, Cormier was nearly court-martialed for refusing to go out on a night mission, pointing out that using the artillery forward observers as commanding officers of infantry leaders was against protocol.

He was arrested, but the charges were later dropped as a "misunderstanding."

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Gordon Cormier's letters

Gordon Cormier's letters and diary from Vietnam.

Instead of worrying about short rounds or spending two years in the brig (the punishment for an Article 92 hearing), Cormier learned that he wouldn't be going out on any more patrols.

"At 1500 hours, Marcello stopped by my hooch. He told me I wasn't going out on tonight's patrol. 'They might kill you,' said he. Stunned by this revelation, I stood gaping at him for some seconds. I could hardly believe the troops might actually try to kill me! After reflecting on the events over the past two weeks, I decided the troops might indeed do that. I now feel like I'm a mouse in a house full of cats. Everybody is trying to kill me! A river of bitterness has arisen between the infantry people and I. I packed my war bag and cleared out of the 4/47th Infantry Battalion area in 15 minutes."

Cormier was transferred to an artillery battery of 105-millimeter howitzers that supported other combat troops. He thought the change of scenery, being back with an artillery unit instead of a forward observer would keep him safe from the enemy and troops.

"My tour of duty was cut short the same hard way it is for most people who routinely engage in close combat operations in wartime. I was wounded in action. After suffering a gunshot wound to my right flank, I was hospitalized for five weeks and one day."

In 2006, he described his yearslong effort to preserve his memories, letters and diary entries.

"Now 28 years later, those extraordinary days in that exotic and far-distant land have become the fabled time of my life. There were dragons in that place at that time. Then, too, the world was so young in those days! Actually, the world wasn't young in those days. I was."

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