Steve Fenter served in the United States Army as an officer. He was raised in Montana. This is part of his Vietnam story. To hear the complete interview, go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam
Fenter: “I was at the University of Montana and I got to make a choice — and we all had to make a choice. The Selective Service was out there, stood over us. So my choice was to enter the Reserve Officers Training Corps, so I entered the ROTC for my last two years of college at the university, and I graduated in 1964 and went to a year of graduate school. So, in 1965, I was obligated to go into the army, and I went in as a second lieutenant.”
Gazette: We had advisers in Vietnam at the time, but when you enlisted, was Vietnam on the horizon for you?
Fenter: “Absolutely not. We were studying atomic warfare, and there was a huge contingency in Germany, and I fully expected to be posted to Europe at some level because that’s where a majority of people were going. That and Korea. Most of the men of my era were not even aware of Southeast Asia and only began to become aware of it in the latter part of 1963 and ‘64. It happened and developed very fast. Even when I was in officers’ basic training, I was given orders to study Indonesia in Hawaii. I was fairly ecstatic about that, and those orders were changed a month later to a restricted area overseas — that’s all you knew. So the build-up that happened, happened with lightning speed. It continued on after I was there. We were building to 400,000 people, and I think we probably got to around 600,000 in country at the height of it.
“It was kind of a joke when the presidential election came along, and I was told by a nice guy, now a professor at the University of Montana in the political science department, he said to me — and this is in the fall of 1963, so this
is when we’re voting between (Barry) Goldwater and (Lyndon Johnson) — ‘If you vote for Goldwater, you’ll wind up in an Asian war.’ Eighteen months later, I was in an Asian war. I said, ‘How would he know that? He’s so smart.’”
Fenter went into the intelligence corps. He went through infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga. He had orders for Vietnam and shipped from Fort Polk, La. He landed in Bien Hoa Airbase in the middle of the night.
Fenter: “You could see soft rain falling, and you could see flares and tracer rounds across the river. So, it was kind of a wake-up call. Vietnam was just building then. A lot of people then didn’t have a good clue as to what was going on. I was just lucky to be in the position to find out what was going on.”
Gazette: Even though you trained — as you said many cold nights — in Fort Benning, it had to be shocking to see that going on.
Fenter: “It took a while to really get acclimatized to what was really going on, but the Army is famous for total confusion. I really feel badly about most of the men and women who went over there really only got to see a very small piece of the puzzle. They put you somewhere and said, ‘This is what you’re going to do, and don’t ask a lot of questions.’ Maybe even the higher levels didn’t know the answers, but I wound up at a core level headquarters. That’s God-level by any means. This detachment that I was with, we were in charge of finding out where the enemy was. We had maps all over the wall. We got all kinds of reports — from prisoners of war, from aerial photography, interrogation reports, and we put that together in a picture. You couldn’t ask for a better position to be in as far as understanding what was going on in Vietnam at that time. I used to give a briefing for people coming into the country and explain to them what was happening and where they were and what they would see. I went to a briefing every morning on what was the current status and where people were going to fight and what operations were being planned. It was very unique.
Gazette: We had the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. A lot of folks said they weren’t sure where the enemy was or how it was acting. In a war like that, where there are guerrillas and jungle warfare, how did you know what was happening?
Fenter: “I read as much as I could get my hands on. I was sending back home for books. And there were people who were in country that could really help you. Mostly those were Vietnamese people. We had a unit of Vietnamese Army that was stationed with us. And those people spoke fairly good English and were very helpful. We also had some special forces who had been in country for a while ... we rapidly found people who could explain to us what was going on. What you have to understand about Vietnam is that it’s a country roughly the size of California. ... Within that, you’ve got four different distinctive areas. So when you talk to people about what they did over there or where they were or what it was like, you could be talking apples to pecans, it would be so different. I have a good friend who said, ‘We fought in different wars together.’
“The communist sympathizers would head back north (after Vietnam was partitioned), but they didn’t. They stayed and looked like farmers and looked like everyone else; and that was the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong would farm all day, and then they would get together once a week or every now and then, do a little harassing, blow up something. But it took them a lot of effort to put together a fighting unit large enough to attack the position. But they could do it. But, in certain select areas, they had standing regiments. ... They were the ones who could sustain themselves and fight a little more of a pitched battle. A large part of the country, you had clandestine terrorist rebels as part of the Viet Cong.”
Gazette: How did you educate someone from the States about what was going on?
Fenter: “One of the problems of the Vietnam War — reading history backwards, reading it in today’s light — is we went into it with a general and a general’s staff who believed it was a lot like World War II. So the tactics we used were the same. We had a massive amount of men, military equipment and we used a lot of artillery and air support. We were looking for any kind of target we could find. And the whole thing while I was there was if we could just find them, then we’ll annihilate them. Largely that was true. We were very effective at fighting them, but we weren’t totally effective at finding them. They became very adept at understanding our tactics and how we worked and the patience level. ... They just waited and waited and waited. That patience kind of culminated with Tet, which happened after I left the country.”
Gazette: One of the challenges of this war was that people back home didn’t seem to understand the war in Vietnam. How did you look at that?
Fenter: “The first inkling that I had that there was any degree of disagreement on the local front was a Vietnamese officer — that contingent that we worked with — his name was Wen Hong Kong. Capt. Kong and I were pretty good buddies, and he had a copy of Time magazine, and he whipped it open and he showed me these people who were demonstrating in San Francisco. And he said, ‘This will ruin it. This will be the end of it, because this is what the French did.’ And I told him he was full of baloney. That was just a bunch of college kids, don’t pay attention to it. And I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. The world that I was living in, I could see what was happening when we’d go out and engage the enemy. I knew how many bodies we found. I knew how many men we lost — which, looking back on it, you know we’d find 100 bodies and we’d lose 10 men. But that’s 10 men who had wives, maybe; who had parents definitely, who had brothers and sisters — 58,000 names on a black wall. That’s a lot of people from my generation, my decade. That’s really what we’re talking about — a decade of people.
Gazette: When you’re over there, parsing this information, did you have concerns? A lot of veterans have expressed concerns that there was not the political will to win the war, even if there was the military strength to do so. Did you share that?
Fenter: “We were winning the war. There was no doubt in my mind. Then and now. We absolutely dominated the battlefield. Our whole idea was just to find them. ... We didn’t get the hearts and minds of people in South Vietnam and that’s really what we were fighting for. We really didn’t understand that at the time. ... In fact, after I left, the Tet offensive was a devastating blow to the Viet Cong. The VC was almost annihilated because they had to muster so many resources. And what was left, and it took them a year or two to recover, but they began to send more NVA troops in to fill that void.
Gazette: You said that one of the things that we needed to do was win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese. What stood in the way, and why did we fail?
Fenter: “Gen. Westmoreland. His whole concept was: We don’t need these people. So we relegated the South Vietnamese to a minor role, and we gave them poor armaments and very little training and very little assistance because the concept he had, his staff had and Washington, D.C., was that these people are not capable of fighting the war, so we’ll fight it for them. That didn’t change until Westmoreland was relieved and Gen. Abrams came in. We began to realize: It’s their country, they need to know how to defend it and fight for it. That’s the mistake that I don’t know if we’ve made in subsequent wars, but I suspect we have.”
Fenter came back to the United States after his tour, lasting one year and one day. He was stationed in San Francisco in 1967.
Gazette: That seems like an interesting place to be.
Fenter: “I was totally, totally, totally unprepared. Nothing in my military mind had said that I was going to get anything but a warm, loving reception and a parade. I was going to be perceived as having done my duty and really won the war. I was totally unprepared for San Francisco. We got in there early that morning, and I think it was mid-afternoon before I got into a yelling match with anybody.
“We were flying toward Dallas to see my parents. ... I struck up a conversation with another couple, and the wife makes a comment about the war and people who fought in it were really dumb or stupid. I remember standing up, and being pulled down and told to shut up (by my wife). It was a jar to my soul. But then when you’re on the ground, you begin to see television and the television news coverage and what they’re saying and what’s happening back there, it’s not all jiving. And then you begin, foolishly, to try to explain it to people and educate them; it goes nowhere. It didn’t go anywhere. That took me a long time to get over.
“(President Jimmy) Carter ran on a platform that he would give amnesty to people who went to Canada. He did it. I boxed up all of my medals and sent them back to him and said, ‘These don’t mean much to you, so they shouldn’t mean anything to me.’ I thought, ‘Boy, I really told him, you know?’
“So I get a letter from some (lieutenant) colonel ... saying the president had the right to do that, if you ever want your medals back, send us a letter.
“I have to tell you I never thought another thing about it. ... My wife, she’s been all over me for years to get those medals back. My son is a veteran of Desert Storm, and his is a story you’d enjoy. Those two wrote Sen. (Jon) Tester a letter in January, and about three weeks ago, I went down to Tester’s office, my wife dragged me down there, and a very nice lady named Vickie Stevens had all my medals. I mean, I am still touched by it. I finally got my parade.”