Gary Booth lived in Billings prior to his time in the U.S. Army in 1965. He received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the full interview, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Booth: “It was kind of predetermined that I would wind up in the medics because I was a conscientious objector. So when they got all done with their testing, they wound up shipping me from Fort Ord, Calif., to Fort Sam Houston to take basic training, which was a normal basic without rifle training. After that, they went to advance individual training. and that’s when they trained us to be medics.”
Gazette: What was driving the choice behind conscientious objector status?
Booth: “Religious reasons.”
Gazette: Do you feel you were treated differently because of that status or did anyone care?
Booth: “Not really. As far as medic training, we had about half of the guys (who) were regular trainees that went through the regular basic with rifles and everything. Nobody treated us different there.
“It was after we got out of training and assigned with our units in our states and that time, the medic was just the one extra flunky you had to work with.”
Gazette: You had worked driving trucks and tankers and then all of a sudden you’re a medic. What’s that difficult, challenging? Different?
Booth: “It was a whole lot less different because when I was working on the trucks, I was hauling and dismounting tires. ... Between the tire and the steel wheel, you got about 200 or 225 pounds that you’re wrestling around. Then, mounting and installing the tires on the trucks or putting in the racks. Or just putting bearings or brakes, so it wound up a lot less physical work.
“In between basic and advanced individual training, they usually give you a 30-day leave, but with $60 a month pay, and (after) all the things that got deducted out of it, you couldn’t buy a plane ticket from Texas to Billings, so myself and three or four other guys didn’t take that leave and ... one of the guys found on a bulletin board there was a notice to learn to drive military vehicles, a two-week course. We decided to do that.”
Gazette: That’s what you did on your leave?
Booth: “Yes, we learned how to drive military vehicles for a couple of weeks.”
Gazette: Was training to be a medic hard?
Booth: “Not really. They trained you on how to bandage wounds, and if they were real bad, they showed us how to put stitches in to close them up enough to get (the soldiers) back to where they could be taken care of better. Sometimes with a real bad cut, you had to close it down a bit in order to get it to the doctors in the rear. You learned to give shots.
“A lot of the stuff we do is what a paramedic does at the scene of an accident. Later in the training, we had to learn how to make hospital beds and change the sheets and bedding. We had to do it with people in the bed. ... They trained us how to take care of people in the hospitals because some of the people might be stationed at hospitals in (support).”
Booth traveled to Vietnam on a ship. His division was being shipped over together. It took about two weeks to get over to Vietnam. He went to Pleiku.
Gazette: It looks a lot different than Montana?
Booth: “It’s a lot hotter and flat. We’re right on the coast there, so the ocean and the hills back a little ways. They’re not big hills like here.”
Gazette: What did you notice about the people?
Booth: “It’s like turning the clock back around a 100 years — as far as the look of the country. You step back. They’re not in a hurry to get anywhere.”
Gazette: You get your supplies, and did you head to Pleiku?
Booth: “From Qui Nhon to Pleiku. Then about five to eight miles out of Qui Nhon, every bridge had been blown.The engineers had either made a pontoon bridge or made a road around a bridge. ... It made for a slow trip.”
Gazette: That’s got to be kind of an eye-opener about what was going on around you?
Booth: “Other than that, it was kind of pretty country. ... I didn’t know at the time there were rubber trees in the area. A lot of rice paddies. Other than that the war was there, it was kind of a pretty country. Coming from a farmland area, I thought, ‘That must grow pretty good crops around here.’”
Gazette: What’s life at a base camp like?
Booth: “At that time of the year you get a lot of rain. With the grass down, there’s a lot of mud, and the first couple of months we were there, it rained a lot. The first couple months we were there, it was the rainy season for them. The showers weren’t set up so, when it rained, you went out and took a shower.”
Gazette: That’s primitive.
Booth: “But it works.”
Gazette: Give me a lay of the land.
Booth: “Around Pleiku, it’s at the edge of the jungle area. You’re kind of in the plains before you get to the hills, where the trees and the hills start. It was probably 10 to 15 miles to the real thick stuff. Within five miles, you got into some trees and bushes.”
Gazette: As a medic, you probably had to go out on a lot of patrols, perimeters and ambushes?
Booth: “The base camp for awhile, before I was sent out into a line company, they were sending out ambushes every night. Somebody decided that you had to send a medic out with every eight guys, so those ambush patrols wound up getting a medic with them. It seemed like my number came up every other night to go on the ambush patrols.”
Gazette: What were you looking for and what were they like?
Booth: “Late in the afternoon, you’d leave out of base camp and you had an area that you were going to go to, which was probably two or three miles out ... wherever there were trails that the enemy was using. You’d go out, and the sergeant in charge would decide where along the trails you’d set up. You’d set up an ambush patrol, set out flares, some booby traps and see if anything came along to set them off.”
Gazette: How often would that happen?
Booth: “It only happened one time on the patrols I was with. It was long, about 10 in the evening, when one flare got tripped, and within 30 seconds another flare got tripped. There was probably about eight or 10 enemy that tripped it, and the firefight started. There were tracers going in both directions for a little while.”
Gazette: How long do these last? How long is a little while?
Booth: “About 20 or 30 minutes.”
Gazette: What’s a medic doing during these? You’re not armed.
Booth: “As long as nobody gets injured, you don’t have to do anything. I usually stayed with the sergeant or around the sergeant in charge of the patrol and the radio operator. That night, the sergeant in charge and myself were the only two that were kind of experienced. The others were green troops that had just come in that day from training from the states. The grass where we set the ambush up was about 18 or 20 inches tall, and the sergeant had trained this squad that was out and was telling them, ‘Fire just above the grass.’ Yeah, Charlie’s 18 or 20 inches tall — they’re crawling in. He threw in a grenade and tear gas canister, and the only thing that helped out was that the breeze was from us toward them, so the canister didn’t do it.”
Gazette: What was being in the jungle like?
Booth: “It reminded me a bit of what it was like walking through the forests and the mountains of Montana, except they were thicker and a lot more underbrush. It was similar in a way.”
Gazette: What’s a patrol like?
Booth: “It wound up being company-sized this time, you go to certain areas, looking for certain things. You’re looking for anything that the enemy has put up or find where they’ve been. You go out and search for them. If you find anything, you destroy it.”
Gazette: What kind of things would you look for?
Booth: “We’d look for hooches, which was more or less a primitive house. If we found one and we figured where they were at ... we’d destroy them. One time we came up on a North Vietnamese hospital area. There was a couple operating room areas, and they had morphine vials. ... There was about six or eight hooches that had set up for putting stretchers in for wounded. We went through and picked up anything that was useful for intelligence. After, we made sure there wasn’t anything left that could be used, we burned it so they couldn’t use it anymore.”
The patrols would last seven to 10 days. Sometimes, if the patrol was resupplied, it could be three weeks in the field.
Gazette: Did you see the enemy or get the sense they were there?
Booth: “You couldn’t see that far in the jungle, and it was all brush. It was hard to spot them because at the end of the day, they were as good at it as some of us were getting.”
Gazette: Let’s talk about when you were injured — Feb. 21.
Booth: “We had been patrolling most of the day, and we got into the area they decided it looked good enough — there was enough openings that we could set up a fairly good perimeter. We had stopped and started to set up, and every time we stopped to set up a perimeter ... (one of the) patrols had gone out and they were almost to where they’d make a right turn, and one of the point men heard somebody chambering a round and he yelled, ‘Warning’ and the shit hit the fan.
“... The ambush cut lose on them, and within a couple of minutes, they were trying to set an ambush up on the other side for the other patrol. Within a couple of minutes, they were under fire. We were catching fire on the perimeter where we were at. We were getting fire about everywhere, and we hadn’t even dug in or nothing. The only thing we had was some trees that we tried to use for protection.”
Gazette: In that moment, what do you do?
Booth: “You find a tree that’s big enough (to) kind of hide you a little bit. A little tree gets pretty big then.”
Gazette: People are injured?
Booth: “About 10 minutes into it, we were starting to get some wounded, but I had told all of the guys in the platoon I was with, ‘Don’t holler medic and expect me to come. You holler doc.’ If the enemy heard ‘medic,’ the next guy moving was the one they shot. Because they knew he was going out trying to get wounded. So when they hollered ‘doc’ to a machine gun position — the gunner — had a wound in his shoulder ... the bullet had shot away the barrel lock and it went back and clipped his shoulder.
“... I went back to where my position was, and by now, they had sent OPs, observation post. They called in the observation post, and he was coming back in. He was out in front of me in the perimeter, and he came back about — about 25 or 30 yards out when he got hit — and I tried to get him to crawl in and do anything and I couldn’t get him to even move so I ... hollered down the line, ‘Cover me, I am going out to get him.’
“I ran out, picked him up and carried him back into the perimeter and got him behind a tree where I was, and started patching him up. As I start patching him up, the bark starts coming off the tree right around my head. If I moved left, it would come off the left side of the tree and if I moved a little bit right, it’d come off the right side of the tree. What I had done by getting him back in was that Charlie tried to drop somebody that far out and use him to draw more guys out. When I’d hollered to cover me that I was going out, they sent out a barrage that (made the enemy) duck, and had time to get him and bring him back. That upset (the enemy) real bad.”
Gazette: You were trying to fix him up, and you were taking fire, too? How did you think in that situation?
Booth: “The first thing to do was to patch him up in that situation.”
Gazette: How badly was he hurt?
Booth: “He was wounded in the back. It wasn’t too bad. He wasn’t bleeding too bad, and (I) got him patched up and the bleeding slowed down. I got another five or 10 minutes and had to go back to the machine gun position because he’d gotten shot in the foot. While I was over there trying to patch up his foot, that’s when they got me in the leg — broke my leg between my knee and hip. When I looked at it, I guess I got another joint because it went out to the left from where it should have been. A couple of guys from the platoon drug me off from that machine gun position, and a couple of other medics from the other company came over and put a splint on my leg.”
Gazette: Did you feel it right away?
Booth: “Almost instantly because it had damaged the femur and broke the femur and damaged the sciatic nerve. It was the nerve damage that hurt like heck.”
Gazette: Then what?
Booth: “I couldn’t get around with that splint. I couldn’t move. ... They covered me with a poncho, and I laid there the rest of the night. And we were getting mortar fire and some of it was explosive rounds and some of it was white phosphorous, which is a kind of chemical that if you get it on you, it burns. One of them went off in the perimeter not far from us. It had white smoke in all directions from when it went off. It was just far enough that it didn’t get the guys on the perimeter and there wasn’t anyone behind us. ...”
Gazette: You’re laying there all night as this was going on, unable to move. It sounds like sheer terror. ... What did you think about to pass the time? What do you do?
Booth: “You don’t think about much. We had called the artillery in. And the artillery was laying barrages just outside the perimeter. The shrapnel — the reason they put the poncho over me — because it was landing all over us. So all night long, the shrapnel was flying in, landing on the poncho. Some of those pieces were pretty warm.”