After Jim Abel graduated from Montana State University with a degree in graphic design, he had a choice — be drafted or enlist. He opted to be drafted. He was drafted in May 1969 into the U.S. Army. He completed basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash.
Abel: “Assuming I am a smart guy, got a college degree, that I would be put into some kind of desk job. ... a friend of mine and I graduated from college at the same time, and we went to see the draft board to see where we were on the list. He was No. 1 and I was No. 2. So, we figure we’re not going to be around long. Let’s get a little beer and play a little basketball and see what happens. Actually, I was drafted first.”
Abel was assigned to advance infantry after basic training. He was drafted into the non-commissioned officers school at Fort Benning, Ga.
Abel: “When I found what it was — squad leaders. I thought, ‘I’m not crazy about this war. I’ll go and serve. I have no problem with that. But, I don’t want to lead guys and have my troops getting killed.’ I kind of drew the line there. They said, ‘You can drop out of this if you want, but you’re going to go right to Vietnam.’ And I said, ‘That’s fine.’ So I did. That was December 1969 — two weeks later, I am in Vietnam.
“... All of a sudden you’re in a different world. This is getting off the plane and you have guys getting ready to go home and they’re singing to us, ‘You’re going home in a body bag, doo-dah, doo-dah.’ You’re a little tense anyway.
“... I got my assignment to go to Tanhan, and (the) guy sitting next to me (was) in a different uniform and he was in a different kind of camouflage and didn’t look right, and I expected a different accent, maybe British, but it wasn’t. It was guy who was a CBS news correspondent. He had a gun — well, two guns — and he wanted to know where I was going and I said, ‘Tanhan,’ and he said, ‘Oh, Tay Ninh. That’s too bad.’
“It all kind of hit you. You don’t see a toilet for ten-and-a-half months. You get to shower in warm, dirty water when you get the opportunity. Food was awful. But there was a certain amount of camaraderie. I was assigned to an infantry unit, and a guy says, ‘I want you to come talk to an officer.’ ... So I went, and it was what appeared to be an interview for a job. The guy in front of me went into his office and stood at attention and saluted him, and so-and-so reporting for duty as ordered or something like that. And, I looked at the guy he was reporting to, and it was a captain with no shirt on, cut-off fatigue pants. His feet were up on the desk in a pair of sandals and he had the best tan I’ve ever seen in my life. I thought, ‘The guy that’s interviewing first is doing this wrong.’ He was, ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ I went in and shook his hand and said, ‘I’m Jim Abel, what’s up?’ He’s become a lifelong friend — a West Point captain who ran a finance department and he wanted me to work for him. So, I’m thinking, ‘This is better.” We were in Tay Ninh for about five months. There was some action, not a lot. We lost one guy, a couple of other guys got wounded badly. One of the other guys died by a blood clot after he got back to San Francisco.
“It wasn’t that bad, making friends, doing your job. There are seven-day weeks. There are no days off; long hours, but time went by pretty quickly. I looked at it as a positive experience. I learned a lot about people — a lot of stuff about life and what you take for granted about what’s in front of you and after it’s gone.”
Gazette: What do you appreciate because of that?
Abel: “... With its faults, we live in the best country in the world. I’ve traveled a fair amount since then and seen some things that are pretty ugly ... People here I think, don’t get it as much as they ought to. Or maybe they’re sheltered from it. They’ve not been there. They may never go. I don’t know that we’re necessarily on the right track today, but it beats the guys in second place.”
Abel was born in Washington state. His father had been in World War II in the infantry. He had lived in Billings since the third grade.
Gazette: Vietnam doesn’t seem anything like Montana.
Abel: “Surprisingly cold at night, not surprisingly very warm in the daytime, humidity unbelievable, mosquitoes awful. Rice paddies full of water at high tide, empty at low. The people there — our first experience being at war, not really knowing who the bad guys were. They weren’t wearing uniforms. The (North Vietnamese Army) did, but you never really saw them. The guys we all ran into were the Viet Cong. They were all in their black pajamas, as well as the whole rest of the population. You didn’t know who the good ones were and the bad ones were.”
Gazette: When you don’t know if you’ll come home. How do you deal with it day to day?
Abel: “The reality is you’re there and you’re going to have to do your job. You kind of push it aside, and when something goes bang in the night, it rushes in pretty quick. Sometimes, we’d have some warning; sometimes, we wouldn’t. There were a lot of silly things went on over there. The Viet Cong — the group that was around us — we had heard they had a recoilless rifle. We would have the shells come in once in awhile and they were the concussion grenades, which means the shrapnel was much bigger, which means that if you got hit with it, you were going to be in big trouble. And, that happened a lot. It was almost always at night. You didn’t sleep real well.
“You inherit an electric fan from the guy who has gone home. If you don’t have that fan on you all night long, the mosquitoes eat you. Doesn’t sound like that bad of a deal, but it was awful. The loud noises — every couple of weeks — they got hold of things they shouldn’t have gotten hold of, mortars, tear gas. Having to put a gas mask and sleep with it on, you can’t. You’ll suffocate. Somewhere at home, I have an audio cassette of a recording that someone turned on at night, just so that if we would get hit and have that as a piece of history. As I recall, listening to it, it brings it back. When I came back here, I was at dinner with a friend. We were barbecuing and we were sitting at the little table in the kitchen and someone set off an M-80 or something pretty close outside. I was under the table. My friend Chuck, he’s going, ‘What are you doing?’ I guess you adapt to it.”
Gazette: Are there certain sights or sounds that bring it all back?
Abel: “I still don’t like loud noises — a backfire or whatever. I am not hitting the ground anymore. It comes back. I used to have dreams every once in awhile. I haven’t had one in a long time. When we were going home, they were doing early outs and Nixon had wanted to get everyone out, get guys out of the Army and off the payroll, we went back to Long Binh and we didn’t know when we were leaving and we were told that we just had to be ready to go. Ready to go. Ready to go. What little sleep I got, I kept dreaming the same dream that I was physically blown up. It got almost silly. You wake up and you’re having that dream and you’re like ‘OK, I’m going to be out of here — one way or another — in a day or two, just relax.’ You couldn’t do anything or go anywhere, just sitting there with your duffel bag ready to go. One morning, they came and said, ‘Here you go. Take off.’ ... It was a commercial aircraft and there were flight attendants — stewardesses then — and it just so surreal. You’re in dirty, grimy fatigues, haven’t had a shower for a couple of days, can’t even remember eating anything. It was dark. It was 4 in the morning, as I recall. They fired it up and taxied out and there wasn’t a sound from anybody. They started their take-off run, completely silent except for the engines. And when you can feel the wheels come off the runway, everyone was just screaming, ‘Yes!’ Thirty-some hours later I was out of the Army and back in the country. ... I made it. I spent 30 days laying on the couch in my mother’s living room, having the TV on but not even watching it.”
Gazette: How was the reintroduction (to America) like for you?
Abel: “They didn’t like anybody who had been to Vietnam. It was so unpopular. In order to fly for free on military, you had to wear your uniform. I didn’t want to wear the uniform. Matter of fact, when I came into Oakland, knowing I was going to Vietnam, I was in dress greens and there’s two Hare Krishnas with the orange robes and funky hair ... and I didn’t deliberately go close to them, when they saw me, they started screaming, ‘Baby killer!’ One of them spit on me. I had not been there yet. I was going there. So, I was really tuned into not being in the Army. When I was out, the uniform went away. I never made a big deal out of being anywhere. You know, if someone asked, I was honest about it, but I didn’t bring it up.”
Gazette: How do you look back at that experience (in 1970)?
Abel: “... I had one good college friend who was killed in Vietnam, and he was in the Infantry and should have never been. He’s the kind of guy who would get to the pull-up bar and he’d just grab hold, and his face would turn red and drop. He just had no muscle tone. How he got into an infantry unit, I can’t imagine how that could happen, but he did and he was killed. I don’t know the details. I owed him $5. His name is on a memorial in Missoula, and there was a $5 slipped in there many years ago.”
To hear the complete interview, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
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