Monte Dvorak was with the U.S. Army from 1967 to 1970. He had worked and been raised on a farm and ranched. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the complete interview, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Dvorak did basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash. Then, he went to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland and went into track and mobile mechanics. He did maintenance on howitzers, and was trained on replacing parts on armored personnel carriers.
Dvorak: "All of us had to qualify with the M-14. It rained a lot in Fort Lewis. On that last day, when we had to qualify, it was pouring. We wiped it off our eyes so that we can see the targets. I'm thinking, 'I don't want to take basic over if I flunk this.' I did the best I could. Evidentally, I did superb because I got 'expert' on it. After the fact, they came up to me and said, 'What would you be interested in?' And I told them I wanted to be a mechanic. At that time, they were starting snipers more and more. They said, 'Your score shows you hit them and the conditions were terrible.' I said, 'Well, I hunted all my life growing up on the farm. As a kid, I had a gun when I was tall enough to walk.' He said, 'Would you like to become a sniper?' I didn't even know what a sniper was. He said, 'They go out and shoot the enemy and you'd be in an elite group.' I said, 'I joined to be a mechanic and I am going to stay a mechanic.' He said, 'If you change your mind ... let us know.'"
Dvorak landed in Long Binh in Vietnam at night.
Dvorak: "When we landed, they told us don't hurry, but get off in a timely manner because they had been getting mortared. When we stopped, there was a lot of trees and bunkers. As soon as we got off, we ran to the bunkers. At that time, the mortars started coming in."
Gazette: So one hour, you're on a plane, heading to Vietnam. The next hour, you're taking shelter in a bunker in Vietnam.
Dvorak: "Then it sunk in: This is real... As we were flying, everyone is talking, bullshitting and telling stories. As soon as we took off from the Philippines (to Vietnam), it was deadly quiet."
Dvorak went to the First Infantry Division at Phu Loi with the artillery. He was on what is referred to as "Thunder Road."
Gazette: What's it like there?
Dvorak: "There's a lot of jungle. You can't see from here to 100 yards in front of you. You can't see the trees for the forest. It's kind of eerie. As soon as we got off the plane, the smell, if it was the smudge pots or what, but there was a mildewy, smoky smell. Even after I was out of the service for years, it seemed like my nose would just (smell) it."
He was part of the group that kept the road open, safe for travel from the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, near Loc Ninh close to the Cambodian border.
Dvorak: "There was a rubber tree plantation (close to the next town) and I didn't know it at the time, but found out that it was a big place for the NVA and they used it as a fortification and then they spread out... They would move us every so often, but the 155-mm had to be set to fire. They could fire moving, but they had to be set because they rocked big time. We protected each other as we went because they next base could cover us as we went."
Gazette: What's going out with the company like?
Dvorak: "We're all bright green. Here comes the rookies. The camaraderie was unbelievable and everybody knew that you depended on each other to make it day to day, hour to hour, whatever it come down to. We wanted to see everybody make it home or make it back to 'The World' as we called it."
Gazette: When you were out there on the firebases, were you worried about being overrun because you were so close to the border?
Dvorak: "Yes. Our lieutenants would keep us informed as to what was going on in the other parts of Vietnam. The one time it was Special Forces got overrun not too far away from Loc Ninh and we had just left Loc Ninh. ... And it was like, 'You're kidding me.' It was a daily thing that you never knew. We'd hear from the lieutenants that they were getting information that there was a regiment of NVA coming through. All hell could break loose at any time."
Gazette: When they said things like that what did you do?
Dvorak: "Being a mechanic, they said, you just mechanicked. Well, first off, whether you're a cook or whatever, you're first infantry. We packed our rifle with us all the time. We had our bandoleers with extra ammunition and our clips and everything. We always kept everything clean because you didn't know from one day to the next. When it was dry season, it was dusty. It was terrible. It was a rifle, don't call it a gun. Keep it clean. We found a good use for prophylactics — put them on the end so that dust and the rain out of the barrel. It was a good way to keep the barrel clean, because when it was raining, it was pouring. It was splashing through water no matter whether you were in the rice paddies or in the compound. Vice-versa with the dry, that dust would boil up."
Gazette: Where was your fire powered aimed?
Dvorak: "Mostly we were firing into the jungle, supporting the infantry. To this day, when I hear a helicopter — oh my God. We'd see a column of five or six helicopters and we'd be alert that something was coming down because they were infantry and they'd be dropped down and then pretty soon, we'd start getting the call."
Gazette: What was the feeling like when you started firing the guns?
Dvorak: "You hope you don't get a short round so that you're not killing your own people. Get the coordinates right. The ones in the field, they took a helluva lot more than us. It was our duty to protect them when all hell broke loose. If we didn't do our job, lives could be lost. It was gratifying, it was kind of ... you hoped they all would come out and we kept going the best they could."
Gazette: How often were your guns targets for the enemy?"
Dvorak: "The NVA came in and we did have several firefights with them. We had two guys killed and they were with the infantry... We were fortunate enough that we didn't get overrun. It wasn't real common, but you never knew how things might happen. I just remember that night that we got the news that they figured a regiment of NVA were coming through and we thought, 'Holy crap.' There was no sleep that night. It was scary. We all thought about what could happen. Our guns and then the infantry -- they had twin 40s and quad 50s. I was put in charge of the machine guns. The big guns were able to fire point blank. If they came -- and they come in bunches -- but we never did run into a regiment size. They must have passed."
Gazette: What happens on a night like that?
Dvorak: "They said just keep your eyes open and watch for satchel charges because they'd try to sneak up to the perimeter and cut the perimeter wire and get inside. That was their main objective. Of course, we had concertina wire around, but they were good. With all the tunnels, it was unbelievable. I didn't realize it until after the war that there was so much tunnel work. A friend I went to school with was a tunnel rat. He got killed. ... But they had been fighting with the French. I never was in them, but after the fact, I thought, 'No wonder nobody was there and the next thing you know, they were there.'"
Gazette: What was a firefight like?
Dvorak: "First, we're told we're getting enemy movement outside the wire. So, be on the lookout for anything. In daytime, you may see them move in the brush... It was very scary (at night). If we needed, we could shoot up flares. That would give us an advantage so that we could see them."
Gazette: Were there happy memories from Vietnam?
Dvorak: "Oh yeah. I just remember after the monsoon got over, it was such a relief. I remember laying out on one of the APCs and looking up at the sky and it was clear. The world is here — all around us."
Six months into his tour of duty, Dvorak was injured.
Dvorak: "I had a torsion bar break and hit my hand. I was med-evaced out. It just about tore off my hand. I was two weeks from going to Australia. When it first happened, and it broke. I looked down and said, 'Oh shit.' I could see through my hand. That's how hard it hit. It shattered all my bones. I went to the medic ... and they called a helicopter. I went to Long Binh and spent a few nights there and kept it so I wouldn't bleed to death. They sent me to Cam Rahn Bay, and I spent a few weeks there and then went to Japan and sent me home. I thought, 'They'll sew me up, and I'll be back in action.' And that was my end of Vietnam."
He spent a year recuperating and having surgeries to repair his hand.
Dvorak: "I was proud that I served and I did what was right and be treated like you're a wacko. That's what I felt. I didn't want to wear anything with Vietnam on it, or saying I'm a Vietnam vet. I felt so uncomfortable. So, I just for years I didn't wear anything."
Gazette: It's not been something you've talked about?
Dvorak: "Not so much. My wife said, 'Well, why don't you want to talk about it?' I said, 'Well, I don't have nothing to say.'"
Gazette: Did Vietnam change you or influence your life?
Dvorak: "It definitely influenced it. I was so happy that I came back alive and knowing so many didn't at 18 or 19 years old their life was over. I was proud and happy that I came back. I had a good girlfriend, and we got married and good father-in-law and mother-in-law and they thought the world of me. The gratitude was there. I finally kind of thought that not everybody thinks we were rotten."