With Memorial Day having taken place on this past Monday, I started thinking about the military and veterans, and I thought it would be interesting to interview my father-in-law, Don, who served in Vietnam.
Don in his garage, 5/30/2010
Don Fredrikson served as a Specialist 4th Class (E4) in the United States Army for two years (1965-67). He worked in the 10th Transportation Company as a Tractor/Trailer Driver. After boot camp and AIT – Advanced Individual Training – he spent about nine months in Cam Ranh Bay and Nha Trong, both in the South Central coastal province of Khanh Hoa, Vietnam. He spent 3-4 months in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) at TC Hill. He came back to the states in January 1967, and after a short 30-day home leave he was sent to Carson, Colorado where he spent the last six months of his two years in the Army.
Don was 20 years old and living with his parents, John and Alice, and his sister, Donna, in Lauderdale, MN when he was drafted into the Army in August 1965. He remembers getting the letter in the mail. His parents cried when he told them – they didn’t want him to go.
Don was called to Basic Training in Fort Leonard Wood in September 1965. Fort Leonard Wood is located in central Missouri, halfway between St. Louis and Springfield, MO and is still an active Army training center.
First Days in Service
Basic Training lasted for about ten weeks. I ask Don what boot camp was like. “Lots of marching. Lots of running”, he says. He remembers the drill sergeants as being tough, in-shape, no-nonsense. “There was no fat on these guys. They would jab you with their gun butts and call you all sorts of names. Dick Skinner,” he chuckles ruefully, “I remember that one.”
He talks about how the drill sergeants would make his unit run to the farthest firing range on the base even when closer ranges were open. Don had lots of nosebleeds in basic training, and once he tried to hitch a ride on the truck that would carry the sick guys out to the range. His sergent told him “Nope, get back in your squad, dick skinner!”.
How did he get through basic? “I toughed it out. It was only two years. I didn’t have a real choice.”
Don in the Fort Leonard Wood “Yearbook” (November 1965)
Don knew he didn’t want to be a foot soldier, so he signed up for Advanced Individual Training (AIT) to become a Tractor/Trailer Driver. In AIT he was trained to drive light weight utility vehicles, but when he arrived in Vietnam he was assigned to lumbering 5-ton supply trucks, which was an intimidating transition. He would drive trucks for the majority of his time in the Army.
Don’s first assignment started in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam in January 1966. He remembers lots of deep sand, living in a tent, and a very hot and humid climate. He said the temperature got up to over 100°F in January. When he first arrived, he played football in the sand with the other guys, but the never-ending heat soon made any kind of physical exertion unappealing.
“I was always sick from the heat, and eventually I got down to 140 pounds.” Don was used to Minnesota winters and cold drinks. The drinking water in Cam Ranh was warm and filled with chemicals. “It always gave you the runs,” he groans. He remembers always being sick. He’d go to the dispensary every day reporting fever and sickness, but was turned away each time after a cursory examination. One day he showed up with a temperature of 104°F, and he was dehydrated and couldn’t eat. Only then did the dispensary finally admit him. He received IV fluids and stayed in the dispensary for seven or eight days before being shipped off to a hospital in Nha Trong, where he recuperated for another four to six days. Before he had fully recovered, he was called back to Cam Ranh. “They picked me up from the hospital in a jeep. I was still sick – do you know how bumpy those roads were?” The road between Nha Trong to Cam Ranh was filled with potholes, and Don was bounced around in back, still sick. He sighs to me, “Ah well. You had to be tough or die”.
Working in the 10th Transportation Company
During his shifts, Don drove huge 5-ton supply trucks that went up to about 35 mph on the rough Vietnamese roads. As an aside, when he got back to Minnesota two years later, Don bought a brand new 1967 Chevelle. It was so light and responsive compared to what he had been driving in the Army that driving at normal highway speeds was terrifying to him and took some getting used to.
In Vietnam Don would drive for up to 12 hrs/day. He transported food, ammo, beds, pop, beer, bombs, garbage and water, and when he wasn’t driving he was maintaining the trucks.
I ask him about his daily work and if had ever seen combat. “There were times I was worried about being shot or blown up.” He describes some shifts where he had to drive all through the night, sometimes without a gun. He remembers it being scary: Pitch black, silent, and everybody on the alert for snipers. Soldiers weren’t supposed to smoke at night, but he did…carefully. He demonstrates to me how he would hold the cigarette, shielding the lit end with his cupped hand and exhaling downward toward his feet.
He never saw any action, but sometimes the sergeants would say “take your gun with – you may run into VC”. He recounts stories that were passed around his unit: Mines taking out military vehicles, and village kids throwing grenades into the trucks. “You can get killed just as easy in a truck. We’d shove sandbags in every area of the truck that we could in case of landmines. That stuff could save your life.” There were no casualties in his unit while he was in Vietnam, but years later one of his ex-Army pals told him that some people died in their outfit after Don left.
Going through villages was always tough. If they drove too slowly through some areas, villagers would steal stuff from the back of the truck. When they would stop to rest they would immediately be surrounded by villagers. “One boy tried to sell me a puppy, but you can’t take care of a puppy in the service.”
Life in the Army
Day-to-day life in the Army was pretty mundane for Don. His outfit always had plenty of food and supplies. He didn’t have any lucky superstitions to get him through the days. He received most of the letters and care packages that his family sent to him, and he wrote home often. “They didn’t think it was enough, but I thought I did pretty good.” He guesses he wrote about 25 letters home during his year or so in Vietnam. Many years later his mother gave Don back all the letters he had sent to her and the rest of the family. He still has them packed away somewhere.
He didn’t pull any pranks while he was in Vietnam, but there was a rivalry in Cam Ranh. More than half of the men in Don’s unit were black, and those black soldiers would play their music loudly. “We didn’t like their music, but they’d play it all the time.” One day one of the white guys in their group, Buddy, went down to the PX and picked up a record player and some country music. “They [the black soldiers] hated country music!” For a while there was a music war to see who could out-volume the other, but a truce was eventually reached.
Don even had a chance to see some ASO concerts. He eagerly remembers seeing Hank Snow in Saigon, and especially the song I’ve Been Everywhere. “He really brought you back home. I had tears in my eyes, because you know, you got lonesome.” He also remembers seeing Bob Hope in Cam Ranh Bay. Don grins, “I saw him from a distance…I was supposed to be working.”
Another story he shares is about laundry. There was an Army laundry lady from the Army who would take care of everyone’s clothes, but he didn’t like the way she over-starcheded his uniform. “It’d be so stiff you had to practically peel everything apart to get into it!” So he found a local Vietnamese lady who would wash his clothes for him. He wasn’t supposed to do that, as it was against regulations, but she always did a good job with his laundry and he was able to drop it off and pick it up on the down-low.
Don’s Laundress in Cam Ranh Bay
R&R in Bangkok, Thailand
Don had one R&R during his entire time in Vietnam. He spent five days in Bangkok, Thailand. He didn’t do much partying, because he never felt completely well during the entire time he spent in Southeast Asia. “I never felt like partying. I think I had one beer the whole time I was there, and that was on my 21st birthday. It was black label. You had white label and black label, and it was all warm.” He describes bars filled with women. “They would have numbers on them and you would pick a number and pay to take them out. I kept the same one for all five days, but I should have traded.” I ask him if the women were prostitutes, and he nods. “Yeah they were, but they also spent time in the city with us. We went swimming in the hotel pool and visited snake farms. We went shopping. Thailand has beautiful buildings. We saw the big Buddas”.
Left: Thai souvenirs: Empty cigarette pack, currency exchange rate card and To Man Jewelry business card
Right: Postcards of Budda statues in Bangkok.
Everything was very inexpensive in Vietnam and Thailand, and Don sent back and brought home quite a few souvenirs. He purchased a photo album, dolls, a jacket for himself. He brought back some paper money from Vietnam. In Bangkok he purchased two rings – one for himself and one for the someday girl of his dreams. The rings were gold with star black sapphires, and together they cost him $43 (USD). He has had them recently appraised, and the appraiser’s initial impression are recorded on the slip in the photo below.
His sister, Donna, wanted Don to send her a very specific souvenir: She wanted him to find a camera that cost at least $100. A $100 camera in Vietnam would be a high quality, $200 camera in Minnesota. Don ended up buying two cameras during his time overseas. He bought one for himself at the PX for $50 (which he recently sold in a garage sale last year for $5), and he found Donna’s camera – a Minolta SR-7 – in Nha Trong, which he still has at the house:
He took a lot of pictures and slides while he was overseas. He tells me that he forgot to develop some of the best pics from Thailand and Vietnam, and only found them 20 years later – still in the camera. He tried to develop them but the pictures were gone. His son took a lot of the slides and converted them into a VHS tape a couple of years ago, which they both still have copies of.
Life After Vietnam
Don came home from Saigon in early 1967. He spent 30 days at home with his family in Lauderdale and was then sent out to Fort Carson to serve the last of his six months with the Army. He had one 14-day leave during that time, and his service ended in September 1967, exactly one day before he had reported for duty in 1965.
Don in uniform with his Father and Mother
When Don came home from Fort Carson in 1967, he got down to the business of living. He went to a lot of parties with his old friends. He bought a brand new 1967 Chevelle in 1967 and he picked up a motorcycle in 1970. He began a career at Team Electronics in March of 1968, and he worked there for 17 years as a Receiving Lead Man unloading trucks and doing a lot of heavy work. On July 4th, 1970 he met a pretty lady named Sandy at a 4th of July party in Lauderdale. She became his wife, and together they bought their first house in Roseville, MN in April 1972. They had one son in 1974 and a daughter in 1977.
Even though he was “close like brothers” with some of the guys from Vietnam, Don lost touch with all of them once he left the Army. Except for Chuck.
Don and Chuck shared a tent in Cam Ranh Bay. In the spring of 1971 Don received a call from Chuck. Chuck said he wanted to visit, and could Don come and pick him up? From Dakota?
Don and one of his buddies drove out to pick him up. “It was either North or South Dakota, I don’t remember which. He turned out to be a real shyster.” says Don. Chuck ended up staying with the Fredriksons for several months. Chuck kept telling Don that he was going to be getting some money in the mail. “One time he got his hands on a police uniform…said he had gotten a job with the Roseville Police.” That turned out to be a scam. The uniform was old – out-of date – but Don didn’t know that at the time. Don thought that Chuck was married, but during his time in Lauderdale, Chuck proposed to two or three women, including Donna. Don shakes his head at me, “Donna, boy she has some stories about Chuck!”
Finally Don and his family kicked Chuck out. They took him to a hotel and left him there. Over the next couple of months Chuck would call Don up with all kinds of stories, begging Don to let him come back to stay with them. First he told Don that he was with the CIA, then that he had leukemia. Don eventually tracked down Chuck’s wife’s phone number – “I thought he was married!” – and she told him that Chuck was no good and that they should be done with him.
“Even in the Army he was a scammer.” Don tells me about how Chuck would always steal Don’s pop from his footlocker. “I even put a lock on to keep him out, but he just busted it. Said he was thirsty.” Chuck was the one who told Don that people from their outfit were killed after Don left.
Don received a Vietnam Medal for the time he served in country. He also received a Sharpshooter Rifle Range Medal in Basic Training. He acquired several patches during his time in the Army. I ask him, “Like boy scout badges?” He nods matter-of-factly, “Yeah, like that.”
Don’s name patch. The green round top patch indicates that he was a Specialist. The red diamond was his 10th Transportation Company badge. The sword against the yellow-blue-red back ground is the United States Army Republic Vietnam patch. The significance of the patch with the white arrow is not remembered.
Thank you for your service to the country, Don.
Don Fredrikson with Taz, 2009
The Library of Congress has a Veterans History Project website that provides sample questions and suggestions for how to interview a veteran. The VHP allows anyone, anywhere to conduct an official interview with a veteran, which can then be submitted for inclusion in the Veteran Collection. This interview was not conducted to VHP submission standards, but the guidance it provided was critical to my interview experience and the final write up.