Ralph McKinney couldn’t decide what to do after graduating from high school and attending college. A guy he knew had been in the Marine Corps, and he thought the work sounded kind of exciting. He joined the Marines in September 1964. This is part of his Vietnam story.
Gazette: So America didn’t commit combat troops until 1965. We had advisers. Did you know what you were getting into then with Vietnam?
McKinney: “No, at that point I didn’t. There wasn’t much talk of Vietnam, no.”
Gazette: At that point, Korea is over. What did you think the Marines would be like?
McKinney: “It’s different than when I went in than it is today. I went in and you just went into boot camp and you took a battery of tests in
boot camp. And when you got done with boot camp, they told you what you were going to be. Today, the young kids — which is good — can say, ‘I want to be a tank driver, or I want to be a truck driver.’ They got some choice. You just took what they needed at the time. I got into electronics. I went into electronics school. I went to almost a year of electronics school. I was in radio relay, which is basically microwave radio. That’s what my job was — communications from one place to another.
In 1965, after radio school, McKinney was stationed in radio communications in Camp Lejune. He volunteered for Vietnam as it was beginning because they were looking for men to go over. He arrived in 1966.
McKinney: “Before you went to Vietnam, you went to Camp Pendleton, and you went through what they referred to as ‘staging battalion,’ and all that was was indoctrination to Vietnam. Training, lot of shots, all that kind of stuff. They told you about the different things to expect. We were there about a month.”
Gazette: What are some of things that you prepare for?
McKinney: “They showed you the different booby traps they’d be using and things like that. The funniest thing I always remember about staging battalion. Right at the end of staging battalion, they marched the whole unit — and we marched up to the medical facility. This medical officer came out on the porch thing they had there, and he stands out there and says, ‘OK, raise your right hand. Now, extend your index finger.’ And he says, ‘Bend it.’ Everybody did. He said, ‘Your trigger finger works. If nobody has any special problems, then you’re done.’
He arrived in Da Nang and went to Hill 55.
Gazette: What was that like?
McKinney: “It was hot and new and exciting.”
Hill 55 is southwest of Da Nang. 55 because it’s 55 meters above sea level. After a short time, McKinney got sent to Anh Hoa, farther southwest. He was a radio technician, keeping the equipment running 24 hours a day as well as the generators that powered the radios.
McKinney: “We didn’t have a lot of power. We could light a lightbulb (from a generator). ... There was one generator for the whole hill. It was maxed out so you had to watch what you did with power. We had a little issue. For some reason — and I don’t know where we came up with it — but somebody came up with an iron, like you iron your clothes. But they tipped it over, and we used to fry stuff on it. That’s what we used it for. I don’t know if you’ve messed with irons, but they consume a lot of electricity, so we had to really watch it so they didn’t catch us. Somebody would watch while somebody cooked. We could get SPAM and stuff at the PX, and we’d fry that up on the iron. It seemed kind of unique.”
Gazette: That was life on Hill 55?
McKinney: “Most of the time, like in Anh Hoa, all we had is C rations. That’s all we ate there. Some places had mess halls. Most places we had C rations.”
Gazette: What was life like on a diet of C rations?
McKinney: “There’s 12 meals. Twelve different ones. It was a little bit of variety. After a while, it boils down to three or four you like to eat. Of course, you’re sharing it with other guys, so everybody had to take their choices some days. Some things like ham and eggs chopped and ham and lima beans, they got to where you couldn’t even eat them. And of course, you didn’t eat near as much, either. You just got to where you got to one or two meals a day, that’s all you wanted in the heat. You lost a lot of weight.”
Gazette: Were you a target because you were a communications center?
McKinney: “I suppose to some degree. That antennae sticking up to some degree, probably. I didn’t go out in the bush. I wasn’t like an infantry person. We did take a lot of incoming. ... I know several people on the (Vietnam Wall). A lot of my friends got wounded, some worse than others.”
Gazette: How do you survive in an environment where you’re always on guard?
McKinney: “You’re always listening. That’s one sound you’ll never forget — the incoming, the whistle. You can hear that.”
Gazette: So you can hear that whistle? It’s not just a sound effect on a movie.
McKinney: “You got in a hole and a bunker.”
Gazette: How often did that happen?
McKinney: “It all depended. Sometimes they’d be almost daily. Sometimes it’d go for a week without something.”
Gazette: “Did it happen at a particular time?
McKinney: “Mostly it was at night. See, the bad thing was like at Dong Ha, they could fire from the other side of the demilitarized zone. They were in caves. They could come out, shoot two or three or five — whatever number — they’d go in their caves and go back to sleep. Then, you’re wide awake, you’re fired up, you know? It was impossible for our artillery to return fire because they didn’t have a target.”
Gazette: When you’re all fired up like that, can you go back to sleep?
McKinney: “It takes a while. You know, later on, the more you’re around it, the more you get accustomed to it. At first, you’re wide awake.”
Gazette: During your 13 months (in country), did you feel you had changed?
McKinney: “Lot more appreciative; a lot more aware of things. You’ve seen what can happen. You establish some very, very close friendships. You’re living with these guys 24/7. You get to know these guys pretty good. Even when we get together for our reunions, it’s just like we’re back together again, you know? It’s amazing. It really is. The first reunion we had was 2005 in Branson, Mo., that was the most exciting because it was the first time we saw each other in 40-some years.”
Gazette: How did you interact with people who actually lived in Vietnam?
McKinney: “At the edge of most camps, they had a little commercial area where they sold these sandals. You could get haircuts there. You could get laundry done and a few little trinkets you could buy. Then, when I was there at Anh Wa, the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines was by the airstrip, and we were about a half-mile away in an (Army of the Vietnam Republic) compound because it was higher ground. Of course, we’re line-of-sight radio, you have to be at a high point. We were set up — three of us Marines and two Army advisers. The rest were all Vietnamese. That was interesting. We interfaced with them a lot. We visited with them. You learn to communicate. I couldn’t speak (Vietnamese), but they speak enough broken (English), and different things. They use a little French and so we could communicate. ... C-rations in the meal — there’s a little package in there. In it comes a pack of cigarettes, some toilet paper, some instant coffee, salt and pepper. None of us smoked so we gave them all to the Vietnamese, and that was a big deal. It was a little pack of five cigarettes. But you got some every day. We’d trade that. We trade them out of a little rice just for a little variety to go with our C rations.
Gazette: What did you learn about the people?
McKinney: “They were friendly. It was loose. One of them even had some of his kids there. It was interesting to see and meet the (RVN Army).
Gazette: Let’s talk about the sandals you brought.
McKinney: “These are just sandals made out of tires and straps made from inner tubes. We used them for sandals to go to the showers. We referred to them as ‘Ho Chi Minh sandals.’ ... Everybody had them.”
McKinney’s daughter is a teacher. He goes to speak about the Vietnam War.
Gazette: Why do you do it?
McKinney: “To help her out, but it’s kind of fun. Some of the questions the kids have, some of the things they have. You know that I always remind them when I was doing that, I was the same age they are. We were 18-, 19-, 20-year-old people — same as they are. This is what we did. This is how we lived. I don’t know if they can relate to what we did.”