Les Mattern served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1970. He graduated from Billings West High in 1966. He attended Montana State University Billings (then-Eastern Montana College) and worked for his uncle for several years. This is part of his Vietnam story.
Mattern: "I really didn't know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. The Army — or I should say the military — at that time, you never knew when you were going to be drafted. At that point in 1968, the Army came out with a two-year enlistment program rather than be drafted. Because if you were going to be enlisted, it would be three years. I thought, 'Well, two years. I think I can give two years of my life right now since I am not focused on what I want to do for the rest of my life. It might be a good time to take a break and get the military service out of the way.' Sort of on my terms, not theirs."
Gazette: So you thought military service was inevitable?
Mattern: "I did, but it didn't bother me. I wasn't averse to joining the military ... My father served in the military. He was in the Army, and I kind of thought of it as my obligation."
Gazette: By 1968, you knew there was a war going on in Vietnam? Did you have any apprehension?
Mattern: "When you're young, you're invulnerable to things — at least you feel that way. One of my jobs before I went into the service was also a cameraman for KULR 8, ... I would always get the news because it was on 5:30 and 10. I was always very familiar with what was going on there from the Tet Offensive up to the time I enlisted, so I knew I was getting into something. I knew by enlisting for the two-year program, I was going to end up in the infantry no matter what, which was fine."
He went to Fort Lewis, Wash., for basic training. Advanced individual training was done there, too. He came home for a leave and then went to Vietnam. Training was done during one of the coldest winters in Washington history.
Mattern: "We were practicing for Vietnam in the snow."
Gazette: How do you practice for a tropical climate in the snow? How does that work out?
Mattern: "It's the Army's version of doing things correctly, I guess. It would have been a drastic change anyhow from Billings because of the humidity and hot temperatures. You adjust in two or three weeks."
Mattern landed in Da Nang. From Da Nang, Mattern flew to the Saigon area. For the first couple of months he was assigned to help protect artillery bases, which were in areas with lots of rice paddies.
Mattern: "Our job was to protect them during the day and go out and do ambushes at night and go out and see if anything was out there. After that, we went up into the jungle area. That area was around Xuan Loc, Firebase Blackhorse. I belonged to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, which is actually a small unit ... We had our helicopter. We had our own tanks.
"... We worked in the jungle there for the next five months, for me."
Gazette: What did you think of Vietnam as a sense of place?
Mattern: "Probably the first thing that impressed me was the quality of life there. People don't have much of anything. You'd be driving through towns, looking out the bus windows, and you're seeing, I guess by our terms, it would be squalor. By their terms, it would be the natural order of life. It's just that we have so much and they don't. And, I think that's probably the first thing that impressed me ... You can appreciate your life as compared to how it could be if you were from a different country."
Gazette: What's an average day?
Mattern: "You would be pulling guard duty at least two hours every night, so you probably got six artillery pieces surrounded by sandbags, barbed wire, things like that. Your duty is to be aware at all times with what's going on outside the wire. Usually, you are in the middle of nowhere. During the day, you go out on patrol to make sure there's no activity around you. At night, it's the same way. You go out and set up an ambush in the area in case anything is moving. Again, just to protect the firebase."
Gazette: Does it scare you when you are out on ambushes or patrol? I mean it seems like you might be looking for trouble.
Mattern: "That's true. It's a matter of protection. You get out there just before it gets very dark. You set out your positions and your Claymore mines, things like that so that it's not so much looking for trouble, but preventing trouble for the artillery. Every night, a different position, but it's always about the same thing. You have an hour of guard duty, because it's usually about a 10- or 12-man patrol, so we all get our turn at guard duty and in the morning, pack up and head back to the artillery base."
Gazette: What's nighttime in Vietnam like?
Mattern: "Two different things: The rice paddy area, lot of water and moonlight and not as much area to hide, so you have to be more aware when you set up ambushes. When you go to the jungle area, it's dark — I mean in the canopy in the middle of the night, you see nothing. The slightest noise is amplified at night, so you have to be careful where you set up so you make sure you position each person so the one that's going to be doing the next guard duty is next to you so essentially you have to shake them awake, give them the radio and pretty much take their turn without having to say anything."
Gazette: Isn't it hard to guard when you can't even see in front of you?
Mattern: "You're mostly listening. You don't see anything, but you listen. The times that you see North Vietnamese, they would use flashlight taps to go through the jungle at night and you'd sit there and all of sudden you see a flashlight come at you, you start shaking. You get so scared. So, a lot of the time you're out there, you're shaking. It doesn't prevent you from doing what you have to do, but it makes you aware of the situation is going to go bad. But, you still do your job even though you're hindered a little by that."
Most of the enemy Mattern faced was Viet Cong. On a few occasions, he and his fellow soldiers were inserted where the North Vietnamese Army was suspected.
Mattern: "We would go to areas and get into them and actually find training camps in the jungle where the NVA were training the Viet Cong. You walked through and you wondered what this is, and all of a sudden, 'Wow, this is a training camp. They're teaching them how to do this here and this there.' It was eye-opening when you got to stuff like that."
Gazette: That must have been a little unnerving seeing evidence of them being there, training.
Mattern: "Absolutely. But you're always aware of it and when you do get into a firefight, particularly in the jungle, you don't see the enemy as much because of the thickness of foliage and the large trees and the things like that."
Gazette: If you're in the jungle and you know you've got guard duty and enemy could be there, how do you manage to sleep?
Mattern: "You're so tired that you have no problem sleeping. The thing of it is that you sleep very, very lightly. The slightest noise, you find yourself awake. Probably within two or three weeks (in country), you realize that. With my outfit in the 199th, once you're in the field for eight or nine months, they like to pull you out and give you a job in the rear — in the base camp. They figure you put in your time and you get a break. It happened to me that I was there (in the rear) for two weeks and you get the incoming rockets that are coming in around you and I actually slept through one of those because the mindset is: I am safe, even though you're not as safe, but a lot safer than you were before ... in the jungle."
Gazette: You slept through a rocket attack?
Mattern: "I did. My roommate came back in and woke me up, and my roommate was in the rear the whole time so he's very aware of that when rockets come, you flee and head for the bunkers. But my mind was set on safe and secure and I can sleep well. He woke me up and said, 'You missed the rocket attack.' I went, 'OK.'"
Gazette: How often are you getting rocket attacks?
Mattern: "The rocket attacks when I was in the rear were once every two weeks. We didn't get fired at too often when we were in the rice paddy area, it was more of a searching and making sure we didn't have any Viet Cong in the area. When we went up into the jungle, it got more dangerous. When they handed out extra bandages before you went into the field, you knew there was going to be trouble. And they put you on a helicopter when you needed to go help someone else out. So you knew as soon as you got on a helicopter you were heading for danger."
Gazette: When you're on a helicopter and you're going to somewhere like that, what's on your mind?
Mattern: "I would want to say by the time that would happen, you were pretty much used to it all. Again, in your mind, you might get hurt, but you won't get killed. And so you're going there, just planning on doing your job."
Gazette: We don't experience a rocket-propelled grenade or mortar in Montana. What was that first experience like for you?
Mattern: "When you get shot at, you hear the crack of the bullet going past you before you hear the round being fired. ... You realize as soon as you hear that bullet going past you, you got trouble. The best you can do is return fire and get rid of it."
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