Richard Tangel was with the U.S. Army from 1967 to 1968. This is part of his Vietnam story. For the complete interview, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Gazette: What were you doing prior to entering the Army in 1967?
Tangel: "I was going to the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, and I worked, which turned out to be a mistake, two quarters. I didn't know that changed your category with the draft board, it was called 'an interrupted education.' So, I had the physical, and they said, 'You're on our list to be drafted.' I said, 'Well can I sign a paper? I'm close to graduating?' No.
"So some friends of mine were down in Lockbourne Air Force Base in the Air National Guard. They said, 'Come on down here and just join the guard and you just keep going to school.' I thought, 'OK, that's good.'
"I went down, it's all military. They swore me in and they gave me my jacket with the fur collar and all and I get a call from them a couple of days later. They said, 'You got to bring all that back. The draft board's claiming they sent a notice in the mail before you took the pledge.' They were that short on getting a quota. So I had to return all that."
Tangel went to basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C. Tangel then went to Fort Polk, La., for advanced infantry training.
Tangel: "Fort Polk is strictly for Vietnam, so you knew what was going on there. ... I knew coming out of college that you could go to Canada, get married, or you're going into the service. I wasn't about to get married or go to Canada. My father had been in the Second World War. I was too old to be acting like a 17-year-old or 18-year-old anyway."
Gazette: Vietnam was escalating. Were you afraid?
Tangel: "You just have to accept it. I had a lot of hunting, camping and fishing and ran a trap line in high school, so the outdoors were something I was familiar with. I had used weapons quite a bit. So, I thought I had that advantage. As it turned out, I did.
"There's some people who just had training with a rifle, but never been outside other than in training and that was a real shock to people to be put out in the woods at night and there's things going on"
After Fort Polk, he went to Fort Knox, Ky., for armor training, learning how to drive an armored personnel carrier.
Gazette: Did being 24 help you as opposed to being 17 or 18?
Tangel: "Oh yes. You're more mature. You're more settled down. I think you understand better. And you certainly don't blindly obey an order that would get you killed. I did refuse and people did get killed."
Tangel deployed for Vietnam and landed in Bien Hoa. He went to Dong Tam, outside My Tho. The conditions were primitive, but the advice he got from the more experienced soldiers helped him adapt. Though he was trained to drive armored personnel carriers, that's not where he was needed.
Tangel: "You're alert all the time. If you're not alert, you're going to die. I walked point for four months. You better be alert."
Gazette: Did you feel you were well prepared because of your background in the outdoors?
Tangel: "Definitely because I trapped animals. I looked for things on the ground. You could tell where something had been through. If you came right out of the city, you were at a disadvantage. Somebody with any rank should keep you in a position to not be killed.
"They wanted the new guys on point. When I said I wanted point, I was on point for four months. It didn't mean every day I walked point because sometimes you weren't in a moving situation or your platoon wasn't going to be on point. For four months, when it was our turn, I was always on point.
"I can remember feeling something on my boot and I stopped and there was a trip wire and I was watching, and there up in a tree a Claymore mine aiming at the trail. That thing was a monster."
Gazette: That has to stop you cold in your tracks when that happens.
Tangel: "You're like, 'I'm glad I didn't take another step.' ... On the other side of the canal from us, there was a different unit. They were hitting these 'toe poppers' they called them. It was a little pressure mine that would just blow part of your foot off. You'd hear a bang and you'd hear a guy scream and that was going on over there, I am on point on this other side and the captain called up and said, 'Stay off the trail.' Well, you're back in the brush or you're on the trail.
"On the trail, it's summer where the mud turns to concrete. You can see if anything's been disturbed. You can see everything on the trail. So, I stayed on the trail. But I didn't move real fast. Sometimes they want you to move faster, but it was as fast as I was moving."
Tangel was on a ship in the Mekong River Delta, too.
Tangel: "It was a World War II barracks ships, like they had in the invasion of Omaha Beach. You had all the troops down below and the Navy was up on top. It was a transport ship, but it was air conditioned and a heck of a galley. You even had ice cream. Hooked to the ship was a big pontoon, and that's where all of your weapons, grenades, ammo and rifle were left.
"You couldn't come on the ship with weapons, which was a good idea. On the side of the pontoon was the landing craft, the monitors and the gunboats we operated off of. It was tight-fitting down in there. But you're on a ship, every night, they would slip the anchors and float down the Mekong River and drop anchors because the Viet Cong would try to target the ships, but not in the day time — that could be foolhardly.
"In night, they'd try to do it, but the ship wouldn't be there anymore because it was pitch black. They ran gunboat ships around them all night. The big glop of lily pads would come floating down and they'd throw a grenade in it and you'd hear a thump in the hull of the ship and that would go on all night. It was a different world. You had the land base and you had the ships to operate off. ... Get up at 3 in the morning. ...
"You got chow if you were capable of eating, thinking about: Do you want a full stomach of food if you're going out to get shot in the guts, possibly?
"I carried eight grenades, two canteens of water and one can of C-rats, if you could fit it in. We couldn't carry packs. And my ammo load, a basic load and you got your helmet and sometimes they'd make you wear a flak vest which is hotter than hell. It wouldn't stop a bullet but it would stop shrapnel. ...
"You're down in the well deck (of the landing ship), just like you'd see in the movies. Then, there's this ramp in the front that drops. They'd form up in a river and this is all in the dark so that the VC couldn't see which way you're going, even though they know where you're going.
"You go out in a line. They'd have a couple of gun boats in front because when you got to a canal, they'd drag these anchors for mines, to get the wires for mines and strip them off. There'd be a monitor that would have the heavy turrets. Then, us."
Gazette: It's not normal mud there.
Tangel: "It's a swamp. You get stuck in the mud to the point that guys would have to come over and pull you out. Crossing sometimes it was like pudding. So, it was just so gooey you couldn't walk through it. It might be up to your waist. That's why grenades and ammo are waterproofed.
"Several times I'd see people get stuck, and I'd get stuck. In fact, I went across one canal and where I was at, I was up to my neck walking across it. I stepped in a hole and I went under water. So, I am trying to get my feet moving because you have enough weight that all the ammo and all you're carrying you're on the bottom and you're not going to float.
"I was waving my rifle around and a friend of mine came over and pulled me up. I could have dropped everything and gotten out of there, but then I would have lost all my equipment. It was constant mud and water, rice paddies are flooded and your feet skin started coming off of them.
"You didn't wear socks. Some guys tried socks and then you'd put a pair up in your helmet to dry, and you had some on, but as soon as you step in water, you're wet, and now you got like a wet towel wrapped around your foot.
"Combat boots have drain holes on them. ... Our time in the field was limited by when you start having your skin coming off because you can get trench foot, and then you're going to be on light duty and then you're missing more men. You had to always watch the conditions."
Gazette: Snakes, leeches, mosquitoes all of those things live down south in Vietnam. Were mosquitoes the worst?
Tangel: "To me the worst was the mosquitoes because they ate at you all night. Some people freaked out over the leeches, but a leech isn't any problem. ... Ants down in the delta couldn't live in the ground because of the wetness so they'd live in a tree. If you made the mistake of leaning against a tree and they got on you, you're going to have to have guys come and help you and get your shirt off because they're going to be biting you. You are swarmed by them, so you soon learn if you're going to lean against something, look at it pretty closely.
"But mosquitoes, you get malaria, and I got malaria. They had malaria pills. You didn't always get those. It's sort of like salt tablets. You're supposed to take those quite a bit, but you could only have so many with the medic. You just didn't get all that stuff. I got dysentery. ... And they said some of us had worms when we left there, but they had determined they weren't going to be any problem, and they'd finally just go away."
Gazette: You're mostly fighting Viet Cong in the south, correct?
Tangel: "Yes, Viet Cong. One of the worst battles that we were in, we thought we were going to get overrun. They have green tracers and we have red tracers. It was a hot battle and we had lots of dead and wounded. I was in a position where there was a guy shot through the groin and we didn't have any more morphine. He was miserable and loud. I thought we were going to get overrun.
"Then you had to consider what will you do? You're going to run out of ammo and what are you going to do? Are you going to let them kill you? Are you going to let them capture you? Or are you going to kill yourself? Tough."
Gazette: This is happening pretty quickly. So you're trying to weigh these options while trying to holding a position?
Tangel: "You know how much ammo you have, and you know you're not getting anymore. If you can move around and get to a dead guy or a wounded guy and get his ammo, it's all right. In this case, you couldn't. The firing was just intense.
"Before, I'm sure it was a battalion that we'd come up on and that was a big group and they were dug in. They were able to get an artillery barrage and they dropped artillery right in front of us and moved it around.
"The next day, we got the wounded together and the dead piled up and we went into their camp and I remember there was a guy laying there and he'd been — what's the word — eviscerated. He had a machine gun and definitely was not South Vietnamese. He was North Vietnamese or Chinese. He was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Any time you have a bomb and you have jets come over and drop a bomb and you see it tumbling, you can keep your head up and watch because that's napalm, one of the best things ever invented for a war like that. If a bomb drops down, coming down (straight) because that shrapnel just tears trees down. I had a big chunk thump right in front of me and without thinking, I went to move it and just burned the crap out of my hand. But I didn't think, you know?"
Gazette: How did you get out of that situation where you think you're going to be overrun, you're running out of ammo and there are guys wounded?
Tangel: "The artillery saved it. They put artillery on them and that's the end of that fight. Even though they were close and some of them were really close. We could bring our artillery real close, too."