Carl Solberg served in the United States Army from 1964 to 1967. He grew up in Dodson. In junior high and high school, he was a trumpeter in the school band, called upon to play taps at graveside services for veterans. This is part of his Vietnam story.
Solberg:”I had it set that I was going right into the service after graduation. That’s what I did, and nobody tried to change my mind.”
Gazette: In 1964, we had advisers in Vietnam, but not combat troops. Did you know about it at the time?
Solberg:”We did. From our perspective, we saw a few articles, but there wasn’t much happening in Vietnam from our point of view. I know that there was if you study our history.”
After basic training, he served at the Pentagon.
Solberg: “Back in those days ... the computers weren’t as elaborate or sophisticated as they are today. The Army kept its strength reports on punchcards. It was my job to take these punchcards to the Pentagon and we’d drop these off at different places. I thought back in those days, most of my driving was done on the backroads of Montana — northern Montana — on gravel roads. Here I was an 18-year-old kid courier to the Pentagon. I have to smile about it now, but I am sure the gentlemen at the motor pool, the sergeant, had this old 1961 Ford Fairlane car, stripped down. (He) probably assigned me the biggest junker he had in the motor pool.”
Gazette: What was the Pentagon like in 1964?
Solberg: “I don’t think there’s been a lot of changes. My experience with the Pentagon was that we were assigned to what entrance I had to go and what parking lot I had to go to; the room numbers. There were a handful of different rooms where I dropped off these punchcards. I don’t think there was much difference than it is today. It’s huge. ... I thought it’s pretty important for the Army to know where their troops are being sent.”
After the Pentagon, he went to Germany. He was assigned the 37th Field Artillery, about 10 miles from Munich in Dachau. In 1966, the barracks for the Army were the former site of an SS training camp.
Solberg:”What was interesting about that was people didn’t take the time or effort, right above the main entrance of our barracks, you could still see the outline of the swastika. At the front entrance way, of course all military installments had flagpoles, and below the flagpoles still engraved in the concrete at the base of the flag was still a swastika. And again, that had not been etched out. I lived and stayed at the 37th Artillery for 18 months. I think, at that time, I didn’t know that I would eventually end up going to Vietnam, and I think when I was at Dachau, my biggest concern about Vietnam was what I had seen about the atrocities that had taken place at Dachau was becoming a prisoner of war in Vietnam.”
Gazette: You were living in the middle of what it meant to be a prisoner of war. You couldn’t escape it.
Solberg: “Dachau campus at that time was about 20 acres. The barracks that we lived in was three floors, well built, well constructed building; stone walls, stone floors. It would make a good bomb shelter, in fact. But it’s all been turned into a museum now as I understand. We went and toured and walked by the crematorium at Dachau and the prison. We walked to that place several times. We didn’t want to go there a lot. At that time, the railroad tracks that took people there were still in place. I thought you could smell the odors of death when I visited. I don’t know if that was a figment of my imagination or if that was true fact, but I had others say that, too.”
Gazette: Did Vietnam weigh on you when you were in the Army?
Solberg: “It didn’t bother me. My philosophy was: Do whatever you need to do. ... By this time, you visit and you are in touch with people who have gone to Vietnam. And you hear stories of people in Vietnam. It wasn’t anything personally that was a concern to me. The concern was get in there, clean up the mess, and let’s get on with it.”
Solberg was sent to Vietnam from Germany, with a 30-day delay for a stopover at home. Solberg left California for the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam.
Solberg:”As we were flying toward Saigon, I could see tracers down below. I knew, of course, every round is not a tracer. It looked like they were just coming up. They weren’t reaching us. But yet, you know deep down, the tracers more than likely burned out before they reached their target. But then we landed in Saigon, and everything was uneventful from there to our trip to Can Tho in the Delta.”
Gazette: What was your first impression of Saigon?
Solberg: “I remember flying over it and thinking, ‘There can’t be a war down there. Things look so nice and peaceful and green.’”
He was assigned 13th Combat Aviation Battalion, which was one of the only units to give direct support to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He was a charge-of-quarters clerk. He would work nights, coordinating troops.
Gazette: What’s an interesting night doing that job?
Solberg: “I remember getting a phone call and there was some activity nearby. They needed donations of blood. First of all, you call your supervisor and brainstorm. I remember going through the different hooches. It was 3 in the morning, and they wanted as many blood donors as possible. During the nighttime, it was very active.”
Gazette: Because that’s when the attacks would happen?
Solberg: “Exactly, right.”
Gazette: Was it scary?
Solberg: “I wasn’t afraid. I took one day at time. You just do what you need to. Sure, you get an adrenaline rush inside you, no doubt about that.”
Gazette: What was it like to support the ARVN? Not many people had direct experience with them like you did?
Solberg: “I had a lot of respect for them. I didn’t see anything adverse from them, but I heard stories, which I don’t know how true they are about them being reluctant to get out of the helicopter and had to be forced out. I didn’t see it and I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard stories about that.”
Gazette: Would you support them in combat if they started taking fire?
Gazette: Were you fighting the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta at that time?
Solberg: “That’s the interesting thing about the Vietnam War. You didn’t know really who your enemy was. There was no front lines in Vietnam. Consequently, you watched who you talked to, what you said.”
Gazette: What’s the terrain like where you’re fighting?
Solberg: “The delta is swampy. Back then, two-thirds of the food supply is grown there. So there’s a lot of vegetation and lots of swamps and rivers. Lots of hiding places for Charlie. Our helicopters ... flying at tree-top level. Vietnam in san pans, floating on the river. They hear you and I see and visualize and saw them jump out of their san pans and breathe through reeds underwater so they can keep out of your sight. Those memories are pretty much gone. I block those out if I can.
“The most difficult thing for me to say and see was the color of the water as it changed from a muddy dirty water to splotches of red when they were fired upon. Other than that, I’ll leave it at that.”
Gazette: Do you fight side by side with ARVN? Are you with them?
Solberg: “They ride our helicopters. We take them in and we take them out.”
Gazette: Was there any animosity between the two?
Solberg: “I didn’t see it.”
Gazette: What do you miss about home and Montana?
Solberg: “The big thing I missed was good food, cold milk to drink, good tasting water.”
Gazette: The water there wasn’t good?
Solberg: “The water there was terrible. Very bad.”
Gazette: Did you think about what you were going to do when you got home?
Solberg: “You talked about it all the time.”
Gazette: So when you got home, what were you going to do?
Solberg: “We didn’t use ‘when I get home,” we used the phrase, ‘when I get back to the world.”
Gazette: So you were not in the world.
Solberg: “We were not in the world. ... We were going to go to school, and we were going to buy a new car, play with friends.”
Gazette: What did you do in your spare time, if there was such a thing?
Solberg: “I wasn’t interested in doing a lot of the things that people liked to do — drinking beer, carousing. That did not interest me at all. Our chaplain at Can Tho referred me to folks at an orphanage at Can Tho. There were several hundred children in an orphanage. And of course these were all children who lost their parents in the war. I spent countless hours volunteering at this orphanage. We did things such as building new playground equipment, digging post holes, putting up swingsets, filling lots of sandbags because we wanted a perimeter around this whole orphanage to keep the kids safe from what was going on outside. When worked and volunteered at the orphanage, there was this little 9-year-old boy named “Kim Hong.” He kind of became my buddy. We kind of hung out together back there.”
Gazette: You’re over there in a war zone, combat, and yet you’re also volunteering at an orphanage. That’s pretty remarkable. That’s a lot of children there. What’s it like? What is the orphanage like?
Solberg: “They range in age from babies to 9- and 10-year-olds. This orphanage was run by the Catholic church. There were Vietnamese nuns who were the administrators there. I didn’t see it to be any different than orphanages anywhere else except there was a lot of children. A lot of children.”
Gazette: Kind of a demonstration of war?
Solberg: “It was. It was a demonstration of poverty. They had nothing. The little boy, Kim, who had kind of taken a liking to me and I to him, his family, I knew came from a very poverty-stricken home. They had one bicycle. That was the only mode of transportation for the entire family. When I bought a used bike for Kim, he thought he was the richest person in that orphanage because he had his own bike, and that was something that was unheard of for many of those children there. The children appreciated anything and everything that was given to them, even a cookie from your care package that came from home.
Gazette: That gives you a unique perspective on Vietnam because you worked with the kids.
Solberg: “It did. It was a good time. It really passed the time quickly. ... What else was there to do? Sit and feel sorry for yourself? Or do something constructive? And something fun? Actually those children were like 11 or 12 years younger than I myself.”
Gazette: Did they treat you differently?
Solberg: “No. I don’t think so. The children there were respectful, very respectful. They appeared to enjoy having you around. You asked me why would you want to volunteer? When you walk up to the main gate and see a 9-year-old Vietnamese boy ... come running to come meet you because they know when they see you you’ll do something fun, that makes it worthwhile. It made it worthwhile.”
Gazette: Tell me about Kim. It must have been hard leaving that — not the war, but you knew you were leaving behind kids.
Solberg: “They gave us a day or so to ... clear post, that means get all your affairs in order and get your things ready to ship back to country. So on my last day when I was clearing post, I went to the orphanage and I had to tell Kim my goodbye. Of course, when I spoke to Kim, I spoke in short, choppy sentences. I said, ‘Kim, I leave. I go to America to see my mamasan and my papasan.’ I could see the expression and sudden change in him, and he hung on to my arm and he called me ‘Sajent.’ He says, ‘Sajent, I go to America with you. Sajent, I come with you.’ I said, ‘No, Kim.’ He was clutching harder and then of course, he was crying. Then, the workers there at the orphanage saw the dilemma I was in, and they came and took him and took him away. Then of course, he watched me leave. He was crying. I never saw Kim after that.”
Gazette: Hard for you?
Solberg: “I thought about him. Wondering how he was doing. Or if he was still alive. He would be in his mid-50s now.”