Russ Ponessa served in the U.S. Army from 1970 to 1971. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the complete interview, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Ponessa graduated from Hysham High School in 1969.
Gazette: By 1970, you knew what was going on in Vietnam. And you volunteered for the draft so you probably guessed you'd be sent to Vietnam. Did that worry you?
Ponessa: "I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Vietnam. When you're 18 and 19, you're wanting to prove things to yourself probably even more than to someone else. I had several cousins who had been there in Marine Corps and friends in the Marine and Army. Some of them hadn't come back, some had come back wounded. So, I knew what was going on. Plus you saw it on the news every night."
Ponessa completed basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash. He then went on to advance training in infantry. After 17 straight weeks of training, he went home for a 30-day leave and then to Vietnam. He was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, and went to a firebase near the Cambodian border.
Gazette: What does Vietnam look like for you?
Ponessa: "Most of the time, we were in the hills and mountains. This particular base was in pretty rough country. We ran patrols there. At that time, the cav had come back out of Cambodia. The guys who were there, the short-timers, they were really squared away. They'd take a newcomer like me and pair them up with one of them for a month."
Gazette: What was it like being with one of those guys and being new?
Ponessa: "There was a black guy named Sam Mahan, and he was a short-timer but still in the field. He said, 'Forget all the training stateside because this is what is going to keep you alive right here."
Gazette: So what did he teach you?
Ponessa: "How to spot trip wires; how to spot bunkers. Things like that. ... Not only that, but there was so much friendly fire that you had to learn how to watch for other people and hopefully they were watching for you."
Gazette: If you're in hills and tall grass, it's hard to know were everyone else is?
Ponessa: "I think there was probably friendly fire casualties every day somewhere in the country."
Gazette: Was it good advice what he gave you?
Ponessa: "Well, I am here."
Gazette: It had to be kind of a change going from Hysham to Vietnam, or was it?
Ponessa: "We have rough hills here, like where I grew up around Hysham and Bighorn. Of course, it doesn't have the foliage. Some of the terrain in Vietnam is straight up and down on the borders. But you have a lot of foliage and a lot of trees and a lot of brush, more than you do here."
Gazette: What was that first month like for you — out on patrols?
Ponessa: "We had a little contact, but nothing serious at that point. We had a few firefights, just small ones. We had some friendly fire incidents, where a couple of platoons got cross-ways with each other and didn't see them and shot each other up and killed a couple of guys. A new lieutenant had called in artillery on a couple of his guys and killed a few of them. That was just going on, it seemed like, all the time, somewhere."
Gazette: Do they teach you about that in basic? That's a reality that many probably didn't realize — that some of those names on the wall were because of friendly fire.
Ponessa: "I don't remember hearing anything in training about friendly fire. Some of those new lieutenants that would get there new from officer candidates school would be reading a map and calling in a fire mission and a friend of mine who was an excellent map reader stopped one because in five more minutes, we would have been blown up. He was giving our coordinates of our position. You see, there was something happening all the time that you had to look out for."
Gazette: Being close to the border and being 1970 and 1971 are you worried about North Vietnamese or are there some Viet Cong? Who scares you there?
Ponessa: "There was both. But the NVA were way more dedicated and more trained. They wouldn't surrender like the Viet Cong would."
Three months into his tour, he was transferred to the Americal Division, in the northern part of South Vietnam, headed to Chu Lai. He was stationed at a firebase.
Ponessa: "The whole idea was after about a month, those firebases were going to get turned over to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese and then we'd go north to Da Nang."
Gazette: What do you miss about home and Montana?
Ponessa: "You wonder what your friends are doing and why none of them ever wrote to you. Your family and your mother and sister will write once a week and you write them when you can. So you hear a little bit from home and they send you cookies and a pictures from home. I remember one time my mother even sent me a clump of sage brush just so I could feel home."
Gazette: Did living in a bunker on a base make you a target?
Ponessa: "It was a fixed a target. This is why I preferred to be out in the field instead of a firebase. A firebase isn't going anywhere. If they get a fixed position, you could get rockets or anything. If you got out in the jungle or hillside, you never stayed in the same place more than one day. You kept moving out there.
" ... If you were moving during the day, you always cut a new trail, you never used an old one because they were the masters of booby traps. You'd cut a new trails. They would follow you on the new trails to get close to your nighttime position. So you always mined the backtrail when you'd come in at night and send out a night ambush. You send out a squad size because if they got in trouble, somebody would help them. Their job was to sit there and hide with some Claymore mines and automatic weapons. That pretty much went on every day and every night."
Gazette: What's the best piece of advice you learned in or took from Vietnam?
Ponessa: "When the guy was training me, going down the trail, anything could be booby trapped — even a stick laying in a funny direction. We had a guy get killed from a stick one time. It had a grenade under it. When it went off, it blew the stick right into him just like a shell. Usually if you went real slow and we used dogs a lot, the dogs would take the point and they'd find the trip wires and explosives, so if you had them along, it took a lot of the load. The dogs saved a lot of American lives. ...
"Even now, if I see a box on the road or piece of something. Before I even think, it's the first thing that hits my mind — don't touch it. A lot of people pull over, pick up a box and see what's in it. That's what they wanted you to do."
Gazette: Do you remember the first time you got into a firefight?
Ponessa: "There was a sniper in the tree, and I forget whether he hit the point man, but he took a shot at him. Well, then everybody just drops and just opens up and up to that point, I didn't know that you shot if you saw anything or not. You just started putting lead into the brush whether you saw anything or not. After five or 10 minutes, you stop and look around. You have this rush of adrenaline. You can almost become addicted to that after a while. ... When the firefight is over, you're just wringing wet because of the tension, the adrenaline. You might even have tears coming down your face just from this rush that's been inside you. When it leaves, you're just completely exhausted."
Gazette: What do you do after that?
Ponessa: "Usually, after a firefight, if you didn't have any wounded — if you did, you had to have a med-evac come in to take care of that — usually, the squad leader or platoon sergeant would say, 'Rock up,' and that meant that we'd have to get moving again."
Gazette: Was that hard to get going after that?
Ponessa: "The hardest part was when someone got wounded bad enough or killed and they were leaving and you knew they weren't coming back. The hardest part was to see that gap there. Of course, the next day there would be a new guy in that spot and that was his spot. That guy there if he was wounded or dead and that was the hardest part for a day or two thinking about that. Pretty soon after that, you got to know the new guy and you just kept on going.
" ... And then sometimes things happen. I had been med-evaced a couple of times for malaria and pyrrhea for my gums, and every time I was gone, it seemed like something happened. So I came back one time ... I had been gone three or four days and the whole squad was gone. They had hit a booby trap artillery and it took out like 12 guys. At that point, it was all new guys taking their place and they made me the squad leader because I had five or six months in country. Here I was with all new guys that didn't know nothing. ... It was pretty tense and dangerous when we have to take all new guys on a night ambush who just got there."
Gazette: How did you get the Russian SKS (assault rifle)?
Ponessa: "We had a big mission. It was supposed to be secret. Nothing over there ever was, but this time it actually was. They had taken us to Da Nang. It was going to be a battalion-sized mission, which was unheard of, like 400 guys, five companies on a mission.
"... They took us all to these big airplane hangars and locked us in there so nobody could talk to each other. They brought in these helicopters, just rows of them. This mission was going to be that the North Vietnamese had a radio that they were broadcasting with in this valley and they knew it was underground. So it was going to be this battalion-sized siege of this valley in one day.
"We had two or three trial runs where we thought we were going, and they'd rev up the engines and we'd run out onto them and they'd sit on the pad for a minute or two and shut them down. They did this a couple times until the second day. We thought it was just another trial run and we run out onto them and they take off. We're heading out for Happy Valley. It was a tributary of the Ashaa Valley. There was a lot of activity there. That's where most of our missions were.
"We get out there. We were all landing in different parts of the valley. Me and my squad, we were in one Huey. They set us down almost on top of this village.
"Everywhere we were going was considered enemy ground. Right when we're landing, you can see the fires and smoke from where they were cooking. They heard the Hueys and they were taking off.
"They set us on the edge (of the village) and we surround it and start searching it real careful because we figured it probably was booby trapped. Everybody was fanned out and I poked my head around the side of this grass hut, and there's this old guy looked like Ho Chi Minh sitting there. He had this SKS that is leaning next to me a few feet away. He's sitting there not doing nothing, just staring straight ahead. He looked like he was about 80 years old. He might have been just 40 or 50.
"I took aim at him and I told him to chuy hoi, which means to surrender. He put his arms up and he never reached for his weapon and I didn't shoot or anything. I go over to him and have him guarded. A couple more guys come around the corner and one of the guys was a translator, a South Vietnamese scout.
"We asked why he was there and no one else, and he said everybody else had run when they heard the helicopters coming, but he was too old to run or fight anymore. He said that if we wanted to kill him that he had no reason to live anymore. We didn't, but we tied him up, his hands and feet and put him on a Huey and sent him in as a prisoner. I don't know what happened after that, but that's how I acquired the weapon."