Douglas Kirn served in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1971. He was raised in Poplar. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the full version, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Kirn: "I was a junior. I just wasn't into school that much. Me and my grandfather used to watch these Vietnam films on the news every night. We couldn't wait for the news to come on so we could watch what was going on over there. I guess it kind of got to me so ... one day, I woke up and said, 'You know what? I think I am just going to join the service and go over there and do what I can.'"
Gazette: You knew full well what was going on there, and you still decided to serve?
Kirn: "Yes, sir."
Gazette: Did it scare you?
Kirn:"A little bit. You have to pay a price to live in this country."
Kirn did his basic training in Fort Lewis, Wash. He went to advance training at Fort Sill, Okla., for artillery, 105mm howitzers. After that, Kirn wanted to go to Vietnam.
Kirn: "This is what I wanted to do (go to Vietnam). If I can't do that, I don't want to. I had no delusions in my head about being a lifer or staying in forever. I just wanted to go to Vietnam and experience what it was like to fight in war and come home and farm and ranch."
"...We flew into Bien Hoa, and when we got off the airplane, I thought I had stepped into an outhouse. It was stinking. The minute you step off, you have wet spots under your arms, on your back — it's so hot and humid. It's dripping off your chin...You think, 'Oh my God, how am I going to make it through a year of this?'"
Gazette: Did you have second thoughts?
Kirn: "I knew well then that I had to get used to it. It's something they tell you all along: You got to get used to it. The bugs are even bigger — the bugs, the mosquitoes, the centipedes that long with a million legs on it. The spiders are huge and there are monkeys and all kinds of stuff. You're out in the jungle, the real jungle. You're sleeping on the ground and during monsoon season it rains continuously, and you're wet all the time and if you're not wet from rain, you're wet from sweat."
"...One thing good about it though was you could take a grunt shower. Grab a bar of soap, strip down, and it's like standing under a shower... it's raining that much."
Kirn is assigned to an landing zone, called "LZ Jamie." He first started on the artillery but later became a radio operator with the infantry.
Kirn: "We carried a pack and radio on my back. I'd have two batteries, they were like 25 pounds apiece, three days worth of water, three days worth of food. Then there was your ammunition, two or three grenades and 300 rounds of ammunition because you have to make sure you have enough of that, too ... I'd say close to 160 or 170 pounds. It was heavy."
Gazette: And you're going to pack that all day?
Kirn: "All day, every day."
Within three weeks, Kirn had been trained as an operator and back in the field, this time with the infantry.
Kirn: "(First) they saturate the area and bomb the area to make sure there's no enemy out there waiting for us and then they fly us into the helicopters and they hover three or four feet off the ground and we'd run for the tree line and hope that you make it and no one shoots you or nothing. After that, we meet up and we're going to head out now. They'd have platoon in front of us that would be alpha platoon, then the command post which is us and the captain, then after that it would be bravo platoon, then charlie, then delta."
Gazette: Was being with the infantry what you'd hoped it would be?
Kirn: "I don't know. I wasn't hoping for anything, but that's what I wanted to be to be out where the real fighting was, not in the rear area or back in the landing zone where they're shooting. Of course, we got rocketed and got mortars and everything every night when I was on the landing zone. You get that all the time and people die that way. We even got attacked. The night before I came up, they had a couple of platoons (that) the NVA hit. They killed 300 of (the enemy) the day before. While I was there, we got hit a couple of times like that but it wasn't that big."
Gazette: Was this the Viet Cong or the NVA?
Kirn: "Well both, really. You could tell them apart because the NVA is dressed like us. They have green uniforms ... military. The Viet Cong, they're black pajamas, usually. They dress in different stuff, too. Most of them are black pajamas and pointy hats. You could pretty much tell. They're really something, those guys. They don't fight like we do. They're underground. They'll peek their head up and pick off two or three of us and then down underground again. You don't even know where the fire is coming from most of the time."
Gazette: How do you know where to shoot if you can't even see them?
Kirn: "And one other thing, too ... they get medals for killing officers and for killing (radio telephone operators). I never knew this until I went to school and went out there. They said your life expectancy, Kirn, is eight seconds once you get off that helicopter because you have that big whip aerial on your radio pack and they're going for you. They get medals for knocking out an RTO or an officer."
Gazette: They wanted that because it would cut off your communication?
Kirn: "Yes. The officers can hide. Everybody would take their rank off and you'd just have a uniform. So everybody looked the same. You never saluted or nothing like that. That was out. Everybody was treated the same because you don't want them to know who the officer is. But, the RTO, they don't have any way to hide because they have that big whip aerial."
"I was attached to them because I was with the artillery. I would call in "Blue Macks" — the helicopter gunships and B52s and all different sizes of artillery. The other people and guys they don't call in any of that stuff. Each platoon had a radio man, so they carried about the same amount as I did. We got logged every three days. Every three days, they'd come out and give you food, water, cigarettes — whatever, mail, clean clothes."
Gazette: You'd be out there for awhile?
Kirn: "We'd be out there anywhere from 30 to 60 days and then they'd rotate us. I was with Delta company and the next one would be Alpha company. We'd pull guard duty somewhere on the rear area like in Tay Ninh, or one some firebase. While were doing that for about two or three weeks, they rotated."
Gazette: What's the jungle like?
Kirn: "It's hot. You got great big monster bugs and snakes. It's just a real bad situation. You're getting eaten up by bugs all the time. At night, they had this mosquito spray and I don't know what it was, but boy it was something else. You dig your hole, you set your air mattress down — it'd last about a week before it would get a hole in it. All it was is a plastic thing. You get your poncho and poncho liner and you put that on top. If it's raining during the raining season, you make that your pup tent to try and stay a little bit dry. You take that mosquito spray all the way around where you were and nothing — and I am telling you not a single thing, not a snake, nothing — would come in that circle where you sprayed. I don't know what it was, it could have been Agent Orange, I don't know. I know one thing: It was the best I've ever seen."
Gazette: Was it hard to sleep?
Kirn: "Not really because you're so tired... We're all different, but for me, I was carrying a lot of weight, all of us RTOs were. When it would come time, I would dig my hole, I would eat and I laid down and it wasn't 10 minutes and I'd be sound asleep. People are different and some guys might have worried more. Me? I was just plain tired. I wanted to go to sleep."
Gazette: What was it like calling in artillery and guns? That seems like it would be an exciting part of the job.
Kirn: "If we got hit, the forward observer, he was a lieutenant and he would grab the phone and do that. If we were just calling it in, you know a delta tango, that's defensive tactics, we'd call a set of grid north within 25 of meters of where we set up.... We'd also get the helicopter gunships and we'd throw out smoke and we'd direct them that way. It was really something at first, but after awhile, you get used to.
Kirn received a bronze star for one particular action.
Kirn: "This other RTO and I went out there and he taught me everything I needed to know. He was with the infantry, an infantry RTO. His name was Mike Irish. He was from California....We walked in ... and we get ready to set up and the next thing I know, boy they just opened automatic weapons, right. Guys were just dropping and screaming. Anyway, he got hit. It hit him right through his radio. He was laying out there where all the bullets were flying and stuff. They were after us, the command post. They were waiting for us. They let the infantry walk in and go through, and that's the way they were. They knew what they were doing, them guys. They've been fighting all their lives. Shit, before we came there, they'd been fighting the French. Before the French, the Japanese. Anyway, they hit us when we walked in. Thirteen guys — and out of the 13, my friend Mike Irish got wounded ... after it was all over we called in the medevacs. We took the dead ones and we put them on the helicopters first. Then we put the wounded on top."
Gazette: You're just walking along, and all hell breaks loose?
Kirn: "It ain't like that happens every day. You might go two or three months and not get much but mortar fire or this or that. They'll drop a few mortars in on us or a sniper will take a few shots, maybe wound a couple guys, maybe not, and then it's over. They don't like to attack and go head on with us, because they'd have no chance. ... They want the surprise. They want the ambush."