Chuck Gilje graduated from high school in 1960 and from college in 1964 from North Dakota State University. He went to law school at the University of North Dakota, graduating in 1967. After passing the bar exam that summer, he received a draft notice from the U.S. Army. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the full interview, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam
Gilje: “In a small town like Carrington, N.D., everybody kind of knows everybody, and the local draft board, including the person who was the secretary of the draft board, were people we knew. My dad was a local newspaperman. It would be very difficult to do anything other than accept the draft. It never occurred to me do anything except to accept the draft. Small-town America like that, you’d never be able to ... face anybody again if you took off for Canada.”
Gilje was 25 when he was drafted. When he went to basic training, he said he was “the old guy.” He completed basic training in Fort Lewis, Wash. He did advance training in Fort Sill, Okla., for artillery and fire direction control.
Gazette: You were older than most and you were a lawyer — at least passed the bar. Did that give you a different perspective?
Gilje: “You just kind of have the attitude that if you’re called, you just do your duty.”
Gazette: When you got drafted, was it a surprise?
Gilje: “It wasn’t a surprise. Actually, one of the people involved with the draft board would ask me about every six months when I was I getting out of college. ... So she was waiting for me.”
Gazette: Fire direction control. That must have had something to do with aiming and coordinates.
Gilje: “What we trained to do is how much powder to put in. There’s variables with weather and humidity and everything. Frankly, I can’t tell you our calculations because it was so long ago. That was our training. If you’re shooting a shell that’s going to go three miles or five miles or whatever.”
Gilje was a math major before going to law school, so he found the work interesting.
Gazette: When you got your orders to go to Vietnam, were you nervous?
Gilje: “When I got my (orders) indicating I was going into fire direction control, I went and researched what that was, and the research I did showed that you had to go ahead of everybody else. ... In other words, I had the idea that I would be in some helicopter, but as it turned out, I didn’t have to worry about that. They didn’t put enlisted men like me. Officers did that. Officers were assigned to go and see where the shell landed. To say, ‘One click this way, one click that way back’ to adjust the (direction).”
Gazette: What was going to Vietnam like?
Gilje: “They fly you over there commercially, and I remember looking down. The pilot came on and said something like, ‘Welcome to Vietnam.’ Everybody was kind of concerned. ... Looking down, though, and seeing the country and all you saw was a mass of trees — the jungle. It was kind of disconcerting to say the least. ... We landed at Tan Son Nhut airport, and I remember walking off the plane, and you walked by fellows who were getting ready to get on the plane to go home, and that was quite a thing. Because those guys looked pretty bedraggled. Some of them had just come out of the field, getting ready to get on the plane. They had a few catcalls about what we were going to get into. ... These guys were so excited and relieved by the fact that they were going home and that they had made the year. Whatever it was they said, I perfectly understood, because in retrospect, I felt the same way when I finally came home.”
Gazette: You’re going in there not really knowing what you’re going to do or what to expect. Your thoughts can probably run wild with the unknown. That’s got to be difficult.
Gilje: “Thoughts about am I going to make it back. I was probably praying. I did a lot of praying over there. A lot of praying.”
Gazette: I imagine Vietnam doesn’t look a lot like Carrington, N.D. What do you remember about the country?
Gilje: “Heat. Even landing in Guam (to refuel), getting off the plane being struck by the intense heat and humidity. Vietnam was the same thing.”
Gilje was assigned to a place called “Bearcat,” a basecamp for the 9th Division in May 1968.
Gilje: “One thing I remember very vividly (as they were traveling on a truck to the base) ... I was sitting in the back of the vehicle; it was an open-air vehicle. You could look out the back and you were driving along and you went to a village ... we met a small jeep heading the other way. That jeep ran into a young kid as the kid was crossing the road ... They hit the kid and the kid must have flown 30 feet, spinning over and I said, ‘Good grief.’ I rapped on the window — maybe there was no window, I can’t remember — but said, ‘Hey, did you see that? A kid just got killed. We better stop and go back and give a report — you know, do something.’ They said, ‘No, we don’t stop for anything.’ They just kept going. I don’t know what happened. I never heard what happened for sure. I don’t even remember if the jeep that hit the kid even stopped. I don’t recall if he stopped or not. I think so. I was thinking, ‘Boy, this is quite a way to come into this country and see the way people are going to be treated.’ ... The jeep that hit this little guy — I assume it was a boy — was going really fast. That was the other thing: You never went slow when you’re driving because of the enemy.”
Gazette: You see that and it’s a shock. How do you work through that?
Gilje: “It was difficult. I really had trouble with that, and kind of still do because I think of it every once in a while.”
Gilje was part of a howitzer unit.
Gazette: What was a day in your life in Vietnam like?
Gilje: “When I got there, they saw that I knew how to type. I look back to the time that I learned how to type in high school, and I am grateful that I knew how to type because it got me a pretty good job in Vietnam. The most difficult jobs there were the guys in the infantry. ... They would go out stomping in the bush and spend nights wet and miserable kind of a thing. I always had a lot of sympathy for the guys in the infantry. But eight or nine out of 10 were not in the infantry and probably didn’t have to do the stomping around that they did. I ended up in a good job, and I am very thankful for that. I had a job in battalion headquarters, and I was the battalion clerk. I was trained in fire direction control, and we had fellows that were in that area, but they made me a clerk and I was happy to do that and have that kind of assignment.”
Gazette: What does a clerk do? Sometimes when we think Vietnam, we’re probably not thinking about clerking or the paperwork to be done. Tell me about that.
Gilje: “Two or three of us that answered the phone and did typing. There were the regular LAN lines, but you also had a second kind of a phone system which was perhaps more secure. We’d answer phones. We would type orders. There was a battalion commander — I think he was a lieutenant colonel ... we didn’t have dictaphones. If they wanted some order written up, they’d often just pencil it out and hand it back to us and we’d type it up. We also did ‘OERs’ — officer efficiency reports.
“Whenever an officer left the battalion, either the battalion levels, or company or battery levels, there would be an OER submitted on a particular officer. We would spend a lot of time doing those things. The reason it took a lot of time, they had to be prepared virtually perfectly. We often joked because the officer efficiency reports all read the same way: This particular officer was the best we ever had. He was superior in all ways — dah, dee dah, dee dah.
“But if he wasn’t a good officer: This is the worst officer ever. He’s just absolutely a disaster. He shouldn’t be in the military. ... We’d joke because the only difference between one officer efficiency and another one was the typing. If there was a typing error, that would be the only thing that would differentiate the two. ... We had manual typewriters, and we would type, and retype and retype. You could never do it perfectly, it seemed like. You’d type very carefully and get to the last letter, and you’d hit it and make a mistake. And you had to do it over again. You’d show it to the officer, and he’d say, ‘Do it again.’ It’s probably silly for me to be talking about that kind of thing, given that I was so lucky to be doing what I was doing, compared to what the other people were doing.”
Even though Gilje was back behind the front lines, the command was still a strategic site for taking enemy fire.
Gilje: “The buildings themselves, outside were stacked about five feet high sandbags so that if a rocket landed outside, the sandbags would absorb. We were ordered to go into bunkers every once in awhile when there was incoming. Every once in awhile, a siren would go off and we’d head for the bunkers. We’d stay in there until someone said now you can get out.”
Gazette: Was that scary?
Gilje: “Yes, because you could hear things. You could hear the sounds. We had a couple that landed fairly close. You always thought to yourself, ‘All that one would have to do is 30 feet over this way and it would have got you, you know?’”