While surfing the web sometime back I ran across a site that held "oral histories" given by veterans of various conflicts who served with the 1st Infantry Division. Among the histories archived there I ran across one given by a member of Charlie Company and when I read it it just plain angered me to no end. The individual in question was in my platoon and served during the same time frame as I did so I knew him and of him quite well. I also knew/know that most of what he had spouted in that verbiage was pretty much a pack of BS. I had exchanged emails with this individual in the past and remember quite well a portion of our exchanges during the John Kerry campaign where Kerry had claimed the "iffy" purple heart citations. During these exchanges this individual made a statement that his purple hearts and wounds were "well documented" and I never quite understood what he meant by that comment. When they are awarded they are accompanied by a set of orders for the award along with a certificate and the medal....how much more documentation is needed? Now I see that his comment more than likely refers to them being mentioned both in the Charlie Company book and in his oral history accounts and this makes me wonder if he, in fact, was actually awarded these medals or has just decided that he deserves them. From reading his oral history it could be quite possible that those awards are as fraudulent as are his claims.
Below is the oral history as downloaded from the website with my commentaries inserted. The Christmas Eve ambush of 1968 has been a subject of much controversy since the book was published and my commentary within the oral history describes the event quite clearly so I feel it should be included in this blog.
Cantigny First Division Oral Histories
Interviewer: Steven Brown
Interviewee: Curtis Gilliland
Date: July 14, 2008
Brown: My name is Steve Brown. I’m with the Cantigny First Division Oral History Project. It is Monday, July 14, 2008 at 2:30 PM. We are at the University of Kentucky at Lexington, Kentucky, and I’m here with Mr. Curtis Gilliland. Mr. Gilliland, can you spell your last name for us, please?
Brown: And you served with the First Division?
Gilliland: That is right.
Brown: In U.S. Army in Vietnam. How was it that you came into the military?
Gilliland: Well I was draft age, and I knew I was going to go in the military. I’d get a letter sooner or later. And, I initially joined the Air Force, I was going to go to the Air Force and I backed out. And so then, I got a letter later on, says, Mr. Nixon, President Nixon invite me to join the Army, or to join him in the fight.
And so I went.
Not even one minute into the interview and the first "flawed rememberance" comes forth. Nixon wasn't elected until November of 1968. Curtis was already in the Army by then and joined Charlie Company in November of 1968.
Brown: Okay, and you were how old at the time?
Gilliland: I was twenty.
Brown: You were twenty years old, so you were a couple of years out of high school, or?
Gilliland: Right. I got out of high school in sixty-see, ‘68? ‘60, no, ‘66. Went to college, University of Kentucky for two years, decided it wasn’t for me at that time, and then let the-I waited for the draft.
Brown: Where’d you grow up?
Gilliland: Somerset, Kentucky.
Brown: Okay. Tell me about your family, mom, dad, brothers, siblings?
Gilliland: I got one younger brother, and my dad, mom, of course, raised us in the waters of Pitman Creek. I tell people that that I’m much like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. They don’t have a thing on me, because we grew up on the creek and camped out and fished, and my dad, of course, served in World War II.
All my family on the Gilliland side had served in the Army or the Air Corps at the time, so it wasn’t nothing for me to expect to go into the service.
Brown: So your dad had served in the Army Air Corps in World War II?
Gilliland: In World War II.
Brown: And was that Pitman Creek?
Gilliland: Pitman Creek.
Brown: Okay, thank you.
Gilliland: Just outside of Somerset, Kentucky.
Gilliland: My dad was a carpenter, carpenter contractor.
Brown: Okay. And where’d you go to high school?
Gilliland: Pulaski County High School.
Brown: Okay. What were you doing when you got drafted? For employment or?
Gilliland: I worked for the State of Kentucky as an engineer aid. In other words, we surveyed and build highways. I done that up until the point of going into the service.
Brown: And, when did you go in? When were you inducted?
Gilliland: November, I want to say the twenty-no, no, no, no, that’s when I went to Vietnam. June 24th of ’68.
Brown: Okay. Where did they send you first?
Gilliland: Fort Knox .
Brown: What was that like?
Gilliland: It wasn’t much for an old farm boy. I grew up running, and cross country and track, in high school. I was in good shape, like to get out and hunt and fish and all that, and then, I was in good shape, went into the service, kind of like the Boy Scouts to me. Of course, it didn’t-little bit of different errors [?] than Boy Scouts had. So I-didn’t bother me.
Brown: What did you think of your drill instructor?
Gilliland: I just accepted him. It just, part of growing up.
Brown: Okay, now you grew up in rural Somerset, Kentucky.
Brown: How-how much exposure did you have to non-whites in that area?
Gilliland: I had a little bit. They wasn’t very many blacks going-or living, or went to school with me, anyway.
But, the ones that I knew were good friends of mine. It was-there was still discrimination. There was discrimination then, there was a rest-I remember, years ago, my brother, Ernest, who’s younger than me, of course. He had a good friend in Somerset, was black, and he went to one of the restaurants in Somerset, and he set down at the restaurant and the owner asked him to leave. Asked the black man to leave; he told my brother he could stay. My brother says, "No, I will leave, too." That don’t-I had no problem with-
Brown: And this was, when? When did Ernest?
Gilliland: That was probably in-in the sixties, I don’t remember.
Brown: Before you went away or after?
Gilliland: Before I went away.
Brown: Okay. So, getting along with Hispanics or African-Americans was not a big issue for you, when you got to-
Gilliland: Oh no, no problem.
Brown: You complete-how long did it take you to complete your basic?
Gilliland: I believe it was nine weeks.
Brown: Did you got to AIT [Advanced Individual Training] or other advanced training after that?
Gilliland: Mainly went to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for Advanced Infantry Training, AIT. I believe it was nine weeks down there.
Brown: What was that experience like?
Gilliland: It was much like the basic, little bit more, uh, little bit rougher. But it didn’t really bother me, like some of the guys who come from the, maybe the cities or-
Brown: Little warmer at Fort Polk?
Gilliland: I say it was pine-sand, pine trees, and rattlesnakes. It was an adventure, and I’ve always loved an adventure.
Brown: So, so, going to Vietnam, was that an adventure for you, or?
Gilliland: I was-
Brown: How did you feel about that?
Gilliland: I was scared to death for 365 days.
But I loved it. That may sound crazy, but it’s-I love to travel and I love to venture into the countryside. Like I said, I grew up in the country, wasn’t like the country in Somerset, Kentucky, but it was-farm people, we associated with, out in the country.
Brown: So you felt a kinship or a relationship to the farm people in Vietnam.
Gilliland: Yes, I think I did. I felt a-
Brown: How so?
Gilliland: Well, my grandfather was a farmer, was a Baptist preacher. And my father’s of course a carpenter-contractor, and they grew up in the country. And I see that, the country of Vietnam was so far behind, but it was-my grandfather probably grew up in about the same kind of conditions. Of course, it was in the United States, whereas they road horses and had-they’re riding oxen in Vietnam. It’s similar. They were growing corn in Vietnam, we grew corn in Kentucky.
Where they grew tobacco in Vietnam, we grew tobacco in Kentucky.
Brown: Did you have a chance to observe their agricultural processes?
Gilliland: Oh, yes.
Brown: What did you think?
Gilliland: Thought it was beautiful, the rice fields and greenery and-I was scared to death, but I enjoyed. I was scared, terribly scared, I was afraid I was going to get shot, but I just-there was something new every day.
Brown: Did you ever have interaction with the Vietnamese people while you were there?
Gilliland: The first contact I had with the Vietnamese people that I remember, that sticks out in my mind, is when I came in country and, right after Thanksgiving. And they had had some type of battle outside of Junction City, NDP-Night Defense Position-and the sergeant had-there was two or three of us. He’d sent us out, outside the NDP, to bury some Vietnamese soldiers that had been killed.
And we went out and they’d been dead for two or three-I don’t know how long. They were on top of the ground, and so, our job was to go out and bury them.
Brown: They were decomposing?
Gilliland: They were decomposing.
Brown: I’ve had some discussions with other veterans who said that the practice was not to bury the dead, in part to send a message to some of the villagers around.
Gilliland: We buried-
Brown: Do you know why you were burying those-bodies?
Gilliland: No. I just thought-Well, I just accepted it was natural, someone dies and we bury them. But I do remember burying them, we had sand bags with dirt, and we walked by the bodies ‘cause it was smelly. And as awful as it may sound, we left the toe of one of the fellows sticking out of the ground. That wasn’t-it was foolishness on my part, or our part, but that’s my first contact with the Vietnamese.
Brown: Why was it foolish?
Gilliland: Well, to-
Brown: Guys just playing a joke, you mean?
Gilliland: Right. Not to pay respect to the bodies. Even though they were Vietnamese-VC, or Viet Cong or North Vietnamese soldiers, we should’ve still paid more respect to them.
Brown: How close were they to your NDP?
Gilliland: Oh, they were, and I’m guessing here, 150 feet.
Gilliland: I don’t know if they’d had a ground attack, I don’t think they did. I think maybe just they’d had some action and they’d shot them.
Those bodies were overlooked remains of three NVA soldiers who participated in the ground attack that occurred on December 1, 1968 at 3:00 am. Everyone in the NDP knew of their origin and that they had been an oversight during the mass burial of the other 44 bodies. I'm not positive on the exact date of this burial detail but it did take place between December 18 thru December 27. Per Mike MacDonald (in charge of the detail) this took place after the Christmas Eve ambush so was probably on either December 26 or December 27. I was on OP (Observation Post) that day with Dyer and Sgambellone and we almost shot John Sommer when he came running up behind us unannounced. We were positioned about 50 meters beyond the bodies at the time. Whether Gilliland was on that detail or not would have to be confirmed by others who were. As I recall the detail consisted of Jim Soike, John Sommer, John McClure and Mike MacDonald. I may be mistaken about John McClure though. Several other bodies were discovered during sweeps and RIF's around the NDP in the days following the ground attack and it was not unusual to miss a few in that manner. We nicknamed them "The Three Wisemen".
Brown: Let me back you up a little bit: your first impression of Vietnam, you get off the plane. Well, I-where’d you go from Fort Polk?
Gilliland: Ah, came home for a leave and forget how long it was, twenty-five or thirty days. After the leave, we went-I went to Fort Ord, California, outside of San Francisco. And, went there to wait to have orders for Vietnam. They gave us a day or two pass, and I know I remember this very vivid-it’s very-
It’s in my mind, something I haven’t ever forgotten. We went downtown in San Francisco. We’d been on the trolley car there-the cable car, and some guy asked us, Where you going? We told him where we was going, and he got ready to pay the toll, he said, No, I’ll pay the toll. Just a complete stranger. No-I don’t know why I remember that, always stuck in my mind.
Brown: Did you enjoy San Francisco?
Gilliland: Oh yes, been back several times since then.
Brown: So you were at Fort Ord, you sent out to Vietnam.
Brown: Now I’m going to ask the question: what’s your first impression of Vietnam, getting off the plane?
Gilliland: I don’t-I can’t remember much about it. Things were happening so fast there for-landed-no, landed, I believe it was Long Bien. Stayed there a little while, then they took us by bus or truck to, um, Di An, Vietnam.
I just accepted it, and didn’t-didn’t have any harsh feelings or mad feelings maybe that’s not the correct word, but I just accepted and went on.
Brown: At what point were you able to start to stop and think and look around you and see the people, the agriculture, the things that you identified with there?
Gilliland: The first-and I’d been there about a month-that’s when I got, was in the ambush. I don’t know it was an ambush, we had went out on patrol-I’m sorry, I can’t remember it was the company or platoon-we went out on Christmas Eve of ’68. And we went out and set up, and then, I can’t remember the man’s name, but he his name was Red-or nickname was Red from California. Scambalone, I believe is his last name, something like that.
He and I went out and we were set up with a radio in a B-52 bomb crater, and that was afternoon. And I always felt we violated the curfew, ‘cause there was a curfew going on at that time-
Brown: What was the curfew-curfew or truce?
Gilliland: Christmas-maybe a truce.
Gilliland: Probably truce is a better word for it. And, I always felt we violated the truce, ‘cause there was truce going on during Christmas. And the North Vietnamese and the Communists were not supposed to move and we weren’t either, but we did. Anyway, we were in the B-52 bomb crater, and here come some Vietnamese soldiers down the trail there. And I knew, and Red knew, that if we popped the ambush, we were in the B-52 bomb crater, and we were between the enemy and our buddies back, all somebody had to do was throw a hand grenade and we were gone. So we let them go. And I told the C.O. [commanding officer] that they- we’d spotted communist soldiers.
He didn’t believe me, so they called in the chopper and they seen ‘em floating down the river on a San Pan [boat]. They didn’t believe me. That night, around midnight, they opened up on us, or we opened up on them, somebody did. We were on the flat ground there outside of Junction City. They opened up, and in the process, I believe-I can’t remember his name, he got shot in the foot, and we were laying down, crawling on the ground of course, flat ground, and he got shot in the foot, and my foot-or my head was beside his foot. And the next morning we got up, and they still-somebody out there alive, and he popped up and shot a pistol and they got him in the finger. And then we searched the bodies and I seen, you know, seen the pictures of his family in dirt, pictures in their billfolds. And I thought, you know, it’s just no good. ‘Cause they’re just soldiers like us, they’ve got families, they’ve got kids.
That turned me off.
Curtis was not part of the group sent out to check the bodies. Of those I recall being sent out were Fred Scott, Jim Smith and Lloyd Collins. There were probably 4 or 5 individuals sent out but all were selected off the killzone flank. See later comment on photos.
Brown: You remember what the pictures-you remember what you saw in those pictures?
Gilliland: It was some of the family. I don’t remember what it was.
Gilliland: -of the soldiers, I assume.
Brown: The dead-
Gilliland: the dead.
Brown: -Vietnamese soldier.
Gilliland: Yeah. And I thought this is no good.
Brown: Why did you think, this is no good?
Gilliland: I don’t guess I really realized when I was going through the basic and AIT training that I was going to be fighting real flesh and blood. And when I seen- course I had pictures of my family in my billfold and he had pictures-I thought, There’s got to be a better way.
Brown: And this is, a month after, if I’m right?
Gilliland: Christmas Eve.
Brown: You buried the dead?
Gilliland: Ah, two or three days after I’d gotten there, in Vietnam. And I’m-you know, it may even have been a week, I can’t remember right off. Other-one of the other fellows with me, his name was Skip, and I can’t remember his last name.
He’s in the book, Charlie Company.
Brown: The book by Mr. Goldblume?
Gilliland: Yeah-Peter Goldman.
Brown: Goldman. Yes, thank you.
Gilliland: He and I and some others buried the guy with the sand bags.
Brown: Okay, so that’s within about two or three days of getting in country.
Brown: You’re wounded, how much after that?
Gilliland: December 24. So I got in country November the 23rd or 24th.
Brown: So it’s roughly a month after.
Gilliland: --Roughly a month .
Brown: So, the-act of burying these dead guys, dead bodies, didn’t impact you as much as the second incident when you were involved in combat.
Brown: And, then you-they took on a human-sense to you.
Brown: Excuse me. Why do you think that is?
Gilliland: I don’t know, I ran over in my mind. I don’t know. I could-maybe-it may be the fact that I didn’t have any part in the first one and in the second I did have a part in, in the ambush and all that.
Brown: Were you--
Brown: I’m sorry.
Gilliland: Before, it was-somebody else had done it. Maybe that’s it.
Brown: And you were returning fire in this ambush?
Curtis did not "return fire" as he was not positioned on the killzone but on the southern flank of the AP site. If he did fire any rounds they would have been in the direction of where our 3rd platoon was positioned near the Song Saigon (Saigon River). Two days later, when back at Junction City, Joe Pentz (of 3rd platoon) made comment about our rounds snapping over their heads that evening so it's quite possible Curtis contributed to or intitiated that danger.
Brown: Let me walk back through this: you allowed a unit to pass through. You’re separated from your unit.
Brown: Just you and another man in a fox-in a crater.
Gilliland: Fox-crater, B-52 crater.
Brown: They pass through-how long after that-you receive an order to attack the next time, or how is it that-
Brown: -fire was opened?
Gilliland: Um, I don’t know. It was-probably five, six hours later. It was less than an hour later after we moved position.
This is late afternoon when we were in the B-52 crater. We’d went out and set up and we was in the B-52 crater. And then, men came down the trail, and some say it was kids, I didn’t see any kids, but that, I heard-but some came down the trail, we let them get by. ‘Cause we knew, like I said: hand grenade, we’re gone. The officer comes up and he says, he’s all upset because we let them get by, and then he calls the chopper in, and then--
Brown: Why did you let them get by?
Gilliland: Well like I said, if the communists were here, we were in the middle, we’re in between our company, or our unit, and the enemy. And all someone had to do, our side or their side, toss a hand grenade and we’re gone.
Brown: So it wasn’t the sense of the troops, so much that what you were concerned about was your own personal-
Brown: -safety. Firefight starts, how long did it last?
Gilliland: Gosh, I don’t know, can’t remember.
We opened fire twice. Once at just before 6pm and a second time at around midnight. In both instances it lasted less than a minute.
I know it started at mid-around midnight, and the next morning one fellow was still alive, one of the communist soldiers was still alive.
None of the NVA were alive the following morning. The only time we received return fire was during the probe at around midnight when Bean was wounded.
Brown: Where was he?
Gilliland: He was out in front of us, of course.
Gilliland: I-I assume he was, but he was able to fire.
Brown: Oh, he was still firing at that point?
Gilliland: Yeah, that’s what got me in the hand.
See comment farther down about Mr. Gilliland and his miraculous hand wound which actually occurred at Junction City two weeks earlier.
Brown: Okay. How did you guys deal with that situation?
Gilliland: Well, I think some of us realized-or felt the same-or some of the other guys felt the same way I did, we’d violated the truce by doing-going out there. Maybe we hadn’t, but I felt we had. And I think some of the other guys felt the same way. After it was over with, we were just happy to be alive.
Brown: Somebody shoot that one guy who was left there still firing?
Gilliland: Yeah. I think they threw a hand grenade-at him, got him.
Brown: So most of this fight happened in darkness.
Brown: So you don’t know if you killed anybody?
Brown: You know you fired, but you don’t know if you killed.
On December 24, 1968 Charlie Company moved out of NDP Junction City at around 3:00 pm, split into 3 platoon sized ambushes and began setting up for the night at about 4:45pm. While setting up an OP was sent out just before 5:00pm. At 5:00pm the OP reported that 9 NVA were moving down a nearby trail toward the Song Saigon River and a HK (hunter-killer) team was called in to check the area. While they flew around over the suspected position of those 9 NVA our platoon (2nd) relocated to a spot along the trail they had previously travelled. We were in the new position at approximately 5:12pm which was about 100 meters west of our original, planned AP site. At 5:45pm the HK team departed the area and the 9 NVA continued their travel towards the river hollering and laughing at the HK team since they hadn't been spotted. As we listened to their chatter fading off to the south 5 more NVA walked into our kill zone and we popped the ambush at 5:50pm taking out all 5 NVA with claymores and then following up with small arms. The ambush was over prior to the 6:00pm truce deadline. The bodies were searched and confirmed dead and then we sat out the night in that position as the truce dictated: No troop movements after 6:00pm. At just after 12:00am on December 25 another group of NVA (estimated at 5 to 8 individuals) probed our AP site and we popped the ambush a second time. During that brief exchange David Bean was wounded in the foot and Bill Hoffman received a wound to the leg from a claymore ball ricochet off a tree. One of the NVA in our killzone at that time was still alive, moaning and signalling with a flashlight. Several fragmentation grenades were thrown during the next 30 minutes or so and finally the moaning and flashlight signals ceased. At 1:40am we had another group of 5 NVA pass through our killzone but were not probed or threatened so let them pass. At 1:50am another 2 NVA passed through our killzone without incident. Again, at 4:50am, another 5 NVA passed through our killzone without incident. When we broke the AP in the morning we discovered two more NVA bodies bringing the total to 7 NVA dead. There were bloodtrails and drag marks so we were never sure exactly how many NVA we actually hit. No flashlight was recovered the following morning so it's quite possible that at least one was dragged off during the night. The ambush was laid out where 2nd squad was spread across the killzone and wrapped around to form the northern side of the AP site with our M-60 machine gun on the north end and 3rd squads machine gun on the south end. 1st squad was located as rear security (across the back of the AP site) and butted up against 2nd squad on the north and against 3rd squad on the south. David Bean was located about midpoint in the rear flank so I have no idea how Curtis Gilliland (in 3rd squad) could have been anywhere near him when he was wounded. I was the last man on the northern end of the killzone which is where we were probed. There were no NVA still alive in the morning and Curtis was not shot in the finger. I also know for fact the Curtis was not on the OP with Rodney "Red" Sgambellone because Red was in the 2nd squad...not the same squad as Curtis. Too, they were both new in country and would not have been sent out together. Also, there were absolutely no B-52 craters in the area. Those craters were large enough to put a house into and the whole area would have been covered with them. The photos Curtis mentions are ones I took off the NVA officer (assumed so since he was carrying a pistol) that probed our machine gun position at around midnight. One photo was of the soldier and a female, another was of the soldier and one other NVA soldier and the third was of the soldier and four or five others. All three photos appeared to have come from the same photographer, time and place as they shared the same background and framing detail (photographers set). They probably originated at a training facility or basecamp. I checked the photos against the bodies of the 6 other NVA that morning but none of them matched up to any one in those photos. Curtis most likely saw those photos once we got back to Junction City or some time later. I no longer have those photos but still have the lighter that I took from the same NVA soldier.
Brown: How did that strike you?
Did you dwell on that at all?
Gilliland: No, not really. Like I said, I was scared 365. So many of our battles we fought were people we didn’t see, we were in the jungle and we couldn’t see just a few feet in front of us. So, somebody opened up on you, you’re walking through the- through the jungle or the bush, and you get fire, you just hit the ground and start shooting. You can’t see who you’re shooting at, so you don’t know if you’ve killed someone, or wounded someone, or what.
Brown: How many of these incidents do you think you went through in Vietnam?
Gilliland: Oh, I don’t know, gosh. I never have-as far as getting fired at? Oh.
Brown: And returning fire and-
Gilliland: I-I don’t-forty or fifty, maybe? And that may be twenty too many and maybe twenty not enough, I can’t remember. I would-
Brown: Five times a month then?
Gilliland: Oh yes.
Brown: At least.
Gilliland: One time, sticks out in my mind, too: we were on a-we were in the bush, we were on a path, we set up an ambush. As I remember, it was a crossroads, cross path, and I had the radio and late in the evening-late in the night-and we were waiting for the enemy to come down the trail. And they came down the trail, and everybody was asleep except, I think, another fellow awake, and they came down the trail. And I could’ve reached out and grabbed them by the leg, and I let them get by. Because I know that-at that time, also, as close as they were to us, and I
didn’t know how many were there, and most of the guys were asleep-we were goners. So I just let them go on by.
The first time I heard this tall tale from Curtis was concerning the Christmas Eve ambush. He's obviously rethought it and made it into a second, bogus incident. For one; when we set up an AP site we would position ourselves a good distance off the trail (30 to 50 feet) so that we'd avoid any backblast from the claymore mines we placed to our front. For him to be able to reach out and touch the NVA as they passed by would mean he was in front of the claymore mines or that his arms were in excess of 30 feet in length.
Brown: So this happened to be the time that you-it was your turn-
Gilliland: I was on radio watch.
Brown: -keep guard?
Gilliland: I think we had like, twenty or thirty minutes, maybe a half an hour or something.
Brown: Half an hour of what?
Gilliland: Where you’d-to pass the radio. The PRC-25[Tactical Communications Radio], they’d pass the radio to you, and you would be on guard. You’d be laying on your stomach, normally, be laying on your stomach, and I would be there with the radio for thirty minutes, and then I’d pass it on to the next fellow, and he’d pass on to the next fellow. [telephone rings]
Brown: And then-[telephone rings]
Gilliland: Go ahead.
Brown: What would you do-what were you doing before you got the radio?
Gilliland: I was probably sleeping, too. We’d-you were dead tired most of the time we were out in the jungle, and fat mosquitoes, and trying to stay warm-I was probably sleeping, maybe wake-I’d wake the next fellow up or he’d wake me up to, your turn to watch. [telephone rings] I thought I turned it off! I’m sorry. [laughs]
Brown: What were conditions like?
Gilliland: Well it was hot, except in the-those rainy, cold-rainy nights. Be by a stream somewhere, you’d get cold, but, it was hot all the time. During the time walking through the jungle, we were-sometimes we wouldn’t walk a mile, and walk all day long, cutting the jungle down. And then sometimes we’d be out in the rice paddies, and we could walk for several miles.
Brown: What did you have with you?
Gilliland: We’d have C-rations, our rifles, ammunitions, grenades, water, our backpack- our blanket we’d use for an evening.
Brown: For a what?
Gilliland: For to sleep on, our blanket, just a poncho liner would co-or not a poncho liner, but just a blanket. Camouflage, usually.
They were poncho liners...not blankets.
And-that’s about all we’d have. Oh, unless we got goodies from the States, mom and dad sent candy or something of that type.
Brown: So how much weight are you carrying around?
Gilliland: Oh, I’d just be guessing-forty or fifty pounds. The last part of my time in the field, I carried the ammunition for the M-60.
Brown: The sixty-millimeter machine gun?
Gilliland: Sixty-millimeter machine gun. There was two of us, George Hesser and myself, and they guy that run the machine gun was Joe Box. And so we had it made up- we got in any action, we threw anything we had in front of us and then Joe would open up and machine gun.
It was a .30 caliber machine gun (7.62mm) and George Hesser carried the M-60 for 3rd squad. Joe Boxx carried the M-60 for 2nd squad up until I moved from assistant gunner to machine gunner when Joe became squad leader of the 2nd squad. Jim Soike was the assistant gunner to George Hesser and took over as machine gunner when Hesser left the field. Curtis was ammo bearer for the 3rd squad gun crew and never carried ammo for Joe Boxx. I don't think Curtis even knows what platoon or squad he was in.
Brown: Okay. How much-how many belts of ammo would you carry?
Gilliland: Oh gosh, I-been too long.
Brown: Okay. Let me ask you this: how much did you weigh you got to Vietnam?
Gilliland: I believe 128 pounds.
I think I had a twenty-nine waist.
Brown: How much did you weigh when you got out-
Brown: --of Vietnam?
Gilliland: --about 128 pounds. [laughs]
Gilliland: I didn’t loose-I didn’t loose or gain very much, I was skinny before I went and skinny when I came back.
Brown: Okay. How’d your clothing hold up out there in the field?
Gilliland: It held up good. I think I changed boots two or three times, or wore them out. I did bring my last pair of boots home with me, I’ve still got those.
Brown: Three pair of boots in a year?
Gilliland: Oh yeah.
Gilliland: ‘Cause we were sleeping in them, you know, we’d sleep in ‘em, course walk in them-
Brown: How ‘bout shoes, socks, shirt, shorts?
Gilliland: Socks-I don’t remember really.
Brown: Did you ever get jungle rot?
Gilliland: Had jungle rot in my feet, yeah. Ringworm-
Brown: How many times that happen?
Gilliland: Oh that happened a lot.
Brown: How did-what did you do about it?
Gilliland: Well we-I don’t remember, put some kind of medicine, the medic gave us the medicine, I’m sure.
We were-if it was very bad, we’d just sit back and let it heal up a day or so, then go back out in the field.
I know of no instance of "jungle rot" or foot ailments other than one suffered by Wes Lucas who had the metal plate in his boot split and cut the bottom of his foot causing him to be off line for a number of days while it healed. We removed our boots and socks whenever feasible and especially in an NDP or FSB where we wore flip-flops, again, whenever possible.
Brown: Where would you go back to?
Gilliland: Uh, we’d go back to the camp, where we were-initially set out from.
Brown: Junction City, or-
Gilliland: Junction City, or-
Brown: What other camps did you rotate through?
Gilliland: Well the NDPs-the Night Defensive Positions-they were, let’s see. Junction City, of course, Thunder One, Thunder Two, Thunder Three, um-Holiday Inn. There was one outside of Tan Uyen, I can’t remember the name, it was right across the river from Ben Wa. And, I can’t remember any of the others, but the stra-I’ll tell you a strange, kind of odd story. I’ve got a friend who’s a missionary, who was there in ’62 through ‘75-
The NDP "outside of Tan Uyen" was named Lukes Castle. Tan Uyen sits about 10 kilometers north of Bien Hoa and Lukes Castle was probably another 3 kilometers even farther north and east of Tan Uyen. We weren't "right across the river" from Bien Hoa or any other place. The nearest "river" (more like a large creek) was the Suoi Tay Lan nearly a kilometer east of Lukes Castle.
Brown: He was there from ‘62 to ‘75?
Gilliland: He and his family. He was a missionary, he and his four kids.
Brown: So he was there before-all the hostilities broke out?
Gilliland: Right. He was there with his family and lived out in the village. And I didn’t know him at the time, but they pulled us in one time to patrol the area where he lived at. And we were walking with the grenades and the machine guns and all that, and here’s an American living out there in the village that we had no idea of. He was living there.
Brown: Did you talk to him about that at all?
Gilliland: I did later. I-he’s, he’s still a friend of mine, I stay in contact with him.
Brown: Wasn’t he in some danger out there?
Gilliland: If not from the VC, from us. You know, we-we would shoot at anything that moved. We’d get a noise, we’d shoot. But he was in the vill-he was in the village living with his wife and four kids.
The operation was a village seal on Tan Uyen to search for weapons caches and harbored NVA/VC. No shots were fired and no one was injured during the two days we retained the seal (February 6&7 of 1969). In actuallity we interacted with the populace and even did some shopping. On the morning of the 7th a group of us had breakfast at one of the restaurants in the village.
Brown: Were his wife and kids-was his wife Vietnamese or was she an American?
Gilliland: No, they’re from South Carolina.
Brown: And-well, okay. You’re out on these night ambushes, did you ever have any experiences-you’re firing into the bush, it’s night time, you don’t know what you’re firing at, ever have any situations where it turned out-you had to wonder, were we hitting VC or North Vietnamese or were we hitting civilians?
Gilliland: I-I’ve-that’s run through my mind countless times-after the fact. Not at the time, it didn’t, because we took the orders. They said fire this way and fire that way, and we did. After the-after all those years of thinking, and, like I said, of prayer, I’ve gone back many times. I’ve gone back to those same spots. And I see the houses and where they’re located, in relation to where we were at.
And I’m thinking, we may have been shooting at, in houses and in villages that-
I cannot remember one time where we fired in the direction of a village or house knowingly or inadvertently. Most of our operations were in areas quite remote from the populated areas and in situations where we were near villages we always positioned ourselves to be firing away from any civilian occupied area.
Brown: You don’t have any memories of-of actually doing that at the time? Of discovering bodies, or?
Gilliland: No, no.
Brown: Okay. Do the words "accelerated pacification program" mean anything to you?
Brown: Okay. Do you remember some of the officers under whom you served?
Gilliland: Captain Arthur, it was a new-I cannot remember the command, the captain that come in-right, last part of my tour. He was a new fellow, I believe he was out of West Point. I may be way off base, but-but I remember a captain-
Brown: Not Captain Arthur, but-
Gilliland: The next fellow. I’m sorry, I can’t remember his name.
Brown: Captain Arthur was there when you got there?
Gilliland: I-I believe he was, I’m almost positive he was. My memory’s not that good. Talking to the other vets, and our stories sometimes get intermingled, things from one person to another person and all that. But-
Yeah, things get intermingled alright and his memory is horrible. He came into the company under the command of Captain Rogers. Captain Arthur relieved him in 1969 and Captain Stocker relieved Captain Arthur later that same year. What gets intermingled is the fact that he's taking other soldiers experiences as printed in the Charlie Company book, from phone conversations, from emails and making them his own.
Brown: What do you remember about Captain Arthur?
Gilliland: Seemed to be-he seemed to be a down-to-earth. Uh, one other fellow, the XO [Executive Officer], I can’t remember his-Henderson, Major Henderson, he was from Kentucky. Now I didn’t meet him till I left Charlie Company in the field and went to headquarters company. And, I can’t remember the other-Kratz I believe-Lieutenant Kratz was our lieutenant over our platoon.
Lt. Kratz was replaced by Lt. Printy who was replaced by Lt. Sweeney who was replaced by Sgt. Walker who was replaced by Lt. Kennish. We had five different platoon leaders and he only remembers one?
Brown: What were your impressions of Captain Arthur, again?
Gilliland: As I remember he just, he seemed like just an average, nice guy. And I want to say his name is Arthur, I may be-totally off.
But I believe that was Captain Arthur, and that was-the early part, cause we changed COs.
Brown: And Kratz?
Gilliland: Kratz was-he seemed to be just, like a big brother. He was business and he wanted to take care of the fellows.
Brown: So these guys in your mind, were good officers?
Brown: Have contact with any officers you don’t have such fond memories of?
Gilliland: Well the latter-the last officer-the last captain we had, I-like I said, I believe he came out of West Point, I may be wrong. May be Virginia Military Prep, but, he was by the book, and you had to do it this way or that way, and then-I remember them asking me or telling me to walk point. And, I’d been there long enough in the country that, we didn’t walk down the roads, he asked me to walk point down the road. And I told him I wasn’t going to walk down that road, that we’d walk along side in the wood line, and not walk down the road. ‘Cause I
knew land mines, and here’s a new man come in, he wants to go by the book.
And so, some other fellow jumped up and said he’d do it, he’d walk point. Well it wasn’t long after that, that they were hauling him up in a helicopter, he’d got shot.
Brown: Who got shot?
Gilliland: This-the fellow that volunteered to walk instead of me.
This incident did happen but Curtis was not even in the field at the time. The date was July 27, 1969 and we (2nd platoon) left an AP site enroute to seal the village of Ben Chua. Captain Stocker ordered us to walk down a road in single file to Ben Chua and Sgt Dave Brown argued with him over the command to no avail. Tony Lakowski was pointman and the second man in line (Bill Fleck) was the one shot and later died of his neck wound. This incident was mentioned in the Charlie Company book and it's probably where Curtis "adopted" it to be his own story. Curtis NEVER walked point nor would anyone have asked him to....EVER. His judgement was faulty and he was not trusted by anyone in the platoon. Another fabrication by Mr. Gilliland.
Brown: Oh they were hauling him off on a helicopter-
Gilliland: Right, yeah.
Brown: -he’d been shot. I take it no land-clearing unit had been down through that road?
Gilliland: Oh no, no. We were back in the jungle, back in the bush.
Brown: Okay. And, how did this officer respond to that?
Gilliland: I don’t remember how-how his response was-what his response was.
Brown: How long had you been in country at that point?
Gilliland: Probably seven or eight months.
Brown: Okay, so you-and you’d been in combat almost continuously during that time period, seven or eight months?
Gilliland: Most of the time, yes. We’d go out on patrol, or we’d go on ambush, every night or every other night. Take turns going out.
Brown: How long did you-was this officer, were you in his company then. You would’ve had another five or six months, four months, still in Vietnam?
Gilliland: I think, two or three months I was in his company, wasn’t-
Brown: Did he come around?
Gilliland: Come around how, as?
Brown: Well, your concern earlier was, he did everything by the book. Did he adapt, I guess, is maybe a better word to use?
Gilliland: I think he did. And I’m just-I think he had, I really can’t remember.
Gilliland: But he wanted to go by the book and you couldn’t do that in the jungle.
Brown: Why not?
Gilliland: The-the war in Vietnam wasn’t the war in Korea or World War II, you couldn’t-your enemy wasn’t always right-where you could see him, or, and they had so many booby traps, and mines, that you had to-fight jungle warfare, not something that’s come out of a book.
Brown: What sorts of skills did you have to have or develop in this warfare setting that weren’t in the book, so to speak?
Gilliland: Well the one, like I said, you didn’t walk down roads, cause you knew they was going-you could be booby trapped. Two is, you couldn’t see-you couldn’t see your enemy, and you had to keep, you had look-keep-look out in the trees, and listen, smell, you can sometimes even smell the enemies at these Night Defensive Positions, at nighttimes.
Brown: How-what would you smell?
Gilliland: They was high on pot, or high on drugs, or whatever drugs, you could smell them actually. I know we were at Junction City, one time, and we got the smell.
I have no idea what he's talking about and neither does he.
Brown: What happened?
Gilliland: Well we knew where the-we knew where they were, they were out there. And I don’t remember if we fired or what, but it got to-it kept them-kept the soldiers high on drugs.
Brown: The Viet Cong or the NVA?
Gilliland: Viet Cong, NVA.
Brown: When did you learn about that, or how did you learn about that?
Gilliland: I guess when I first went in country. They take, or they told me that.
Brown: Somebody told you-
Brown: --in your unit. You were wounded in the hand?
Gilliland: In the hand.
Again...see notation farther down about this miraculous wound.
Gilliland: Slight wound. Had the-part of the bullet was-came out, oh about twenty years ago.
Brown: Oh it kind of, finally kicked itself out?
Brown: What treatment and where did you receive your treatment at?
Gilliland: I got it there in the field, it was just a slight, slight wound.
Brown: Okay, the medic just took care of it?
Gilliland: Just took care of it, I think his name was Doc Cunningham, or his last name was Cunningham, I believe.
Gilliland: But it-
Brown: And you called him Doc because he was the medic?
Brown: Did you receive a Purple Heart for that?
Brown: Okay. Um, you have any other wounds, other than your finger?
Gilliland: I got a loss of hearing, partial loss of hearing. [laughs] I got that by walking by some artillery one night, and they started shooting. I didn’t realize they was going to shoot. They shot, and it deafened me for awhile, I don’t know, a couple days, and the funny thing about it is, it-later on in years, my wife-my wife would get after me for turning the TV up so loud. My wife and daughter would get after me, and she said, "Turn the TV down." That’s-I decided to get my ear tested, ‘cause I thought I could hear fine. So I came to the VA in Lexington, and they sent me over to one of the offices to examine me. And, I told them I thought I had good hearing, but they test my hearing and, lady asked me, says, "Were you around machine guns?" I said, "Yes." "Were you around grenades?" I said, "Yes." "Were you around artillery?" I said, "Yes." "Were you around helicopters?" I said, "Yes."
"Were you around tanks?" I said, "Yes." And she said, "You came all the way to Lexington to ask me why you lost your hearing, and you don’t know?" [laughs]
Brown: How much hearing loss did you have, did they tell you?
Gilliland: Oh, classified at ten percent disability.
Brown: Is it just one ear or both?
Gilliland: It’s both ears, I have a constant ringing.
Brown: Oh, okay. Do you have any other memories of combat that you’d like to share?
Gilliland: Not combat, we were out in the field. And my last day, I remember this. My last day we were setting up on another trail in the bush, and we were setting up in the late afternoon. And I looked out across the trail in front of me, and he’s two North Vietnamese soldiers looking me in the eye. And I’m looking them in the eye. And we’re not, fifty, seventy-five feet apart. And I’m scared to death.
I’m running through my mind, Here I’m going to be killed on my last day in the field. And I froze, I didn’t know what I was going to do, I just froze. And I think he must’ve froze, too. One of my buddies, and I don’t remember his name, he seen what-seen me, and seen, looked across the trail, and he grabbed my gun and opened up on him. We didn’t-or he didn’t kill him, but-but I thought, I’m going to get killed on my last day in the field. And I looked him right straight in the eye, he looked me right in the eye.
Brown: What-how did you feel about that?
Gilliland: I was scared! I was terrified! It was running through my mind, quick! You know, they say, these people say that life runs in front of them. Well I, my-I thought, I’m going to be killed on the last day! I just froze.
Brown: How did you know it was your last day in the field?
Gilliland: Well they [coughs] excuse me. They give me orders to reassign me to Headquarters Company.
Another incident that actually happened but Curtis wasn't even in the field. The date was July 25, 1969 and we (2nd platoon) were setting up a 3 day AP prior to moving to the village seal of Ben Chua. I had been moved to 3rd squad to take over as machine gunner relieving Jim Soike who was sent home on emergency leave. As I was placing my claymore mine an NVA soldier climbed over a large, fallen tree and another NVA soldier handed him two AK-47's from the opposite side of the tree. I saw them just as the handoff was being made and just as the second NVA started over the log the first one spotted me, tossed both rifles back over the log and jumped back over it. The second NVA rolled backwards off the log and they both vanished off into the jungle. It happened so fast I didn't have time to react.
Gilliland: I got shot, of course in the hand, Christmas Eve and then got grazed across the nose after that.
Curtis did NOT get shot in the hand on Christmas Eve. I don't know why he says that when he knows better. The only time he might have been wounded in the hand was back at Junction City on December 10, 1968 when he was on LP and tossed a grenade that bounced off the concertina wire and wounded all three men in that LP position. The two other guys were taken off by stretcher and Curtis only got a slight wound to the hand. It's rather hard to concieve how a 9mm bullet can lodge itself in a finger and remain there for 20 some years before falling out on its own.
And I guess, the platoon sergeant or captain realized that, you know, three times, we’d better get this guy out of the field.
Brown: How did-how was it that you got shot in the nose?
Gilliland: We were playing cowboys and Indians, basically. It was-we were the Indians, we were surfing the wagon train. We were with tanks and APCs[Armored Personnel Carrier]. And I was in back of an APC with the lid raised up, and we were knocking the bush down around this base camp. And I stood up in the back of the APC, and one of the guys, one of the soldiers, communist soldiers, seen me evidently, and shot. And it just come across my nose. My sergeant was in my, in the tank with me. He said, "I’ll put you in for another Purple Heart." Well I didn’t
care about the Purple Heart. I was-just a scratch, not much more than [coughs] a thorn caught you going through the woods.
Again, more fabricated BS from Curtis. First of all, the door/hatch of an APC swings down and not up so there's no way they'd be driving around with that thing dragging on the ground. Secondly, (and I got this from Curtis himself at an earlier date) that nose wound was self inflicted. As I recall it we were working with the rome plows out of Mons VI and the procedure was to have two infantry guys sitting on either side of the plow firing shots forward as the plow made its way through the jungle. I think Parker and I were on one plow firing shots when suddenly all the plows stopped moving. We sat around for a bit waiting to get going again and finally someone came up and told us we were stopped because "Gilliland shot himself in the face". Evidently he'd shot the back of the plow blade and a bullet fragment ricocheted off and struck him on the nose. This happened in June of 1969 and I don't recall ever seeing Curtis out in the field after that incident.
Brown: Okay. You’re about-from your nose, to your temple, that’s maybe four or five inches.
Brown: Have you ever stopped and thought about--?
Gilliland: Oh yes.
Brown: Why, or how, that happened, that you got your nose grazed, as opposed to- something through your brain pan?
Gilliland: I’ve thought about it many and many a time.
Brown: What do you think?
Gilliland: Well, I’m a-I’m a firm Christian. And I believe that all things have a purpose. And-it’s kind of like, I believe I told you, I go back to Vietnam quite often. The first time I went back, before I went back-I was deciding whether I had enough money to go. And I’m a retired military officer [mailman], and I couldn’t decide. And I looked down on the ground, and here’s a hundred dollar bill laying on the ground in front of me.
And I thought, There’s a higher power than me that’s in control of my life. And I’ve thought about the bullet: there’s a purpose, and I don’t know what the purpose is, but I’ve experienced it a lot, since that first time I went in to Vietnam.
Brown: We’ll come back to that later. You come face to face with these two North Vietnamese soldiers, your buddy saves you. What’d you think about him after that?
Gilliland: Well I’m just happy to be alive! I don’t remember what I thought about him, but I was, you know.
Brown: What was it like after having spent several months out in the bush, going back to a headquarters assignment?
Gilliland: Like being on vacation, you know, twenty-four hour vacation. There was no-we had moved at that time, at that time when I went to headquarters company, we’d moved to Dau Tieng-Dio Tieng.
And they had a large swimming pool there, and a nice camp, and I was in charge of building some bunk-or some hootches for the soldiers.
Gilliland: Uh, houses. Nothing, basically, more than sand bags and some tin over the top of it. And, Coloner-er, Major Henderson, that I spoke about from Kentucky, and then a boy from Tennessee and I, kinda hung together and so, it’s like, you know, I’m away from all the fighting now. I’m back here in a secure area.
Brown: Let me see if I understand-you and a guy from Tennessee hung together, with Major Henderson?
Brown: You guys just kind of hung out, the three of you hung out together?
Gilliland: Right, cause Henderson was from Kentucky, and then, I believe his name was Kend-er, Kendrix, he was from Tennessee, and I was from Kentucky. Of course, we’re all close, and we all knew where each other-
Had been to each others’ town, we were Kentuckians and Tennessee and we just kind of hung together. He was a major and we were Spec 4s-Specialists.
Brown: So, the-there was no boundary between this officer and you guys as Spec 4s?
Gilliland: Oh there was-in front of a group of people, or in front of more officers or soldiers. But, when we got together-
Brown: What did you guys do?
Gilliland: Well, we just had a good time. [laughs] We done what we wanted to do. I had a jeep and a old-I believe it was an old Cambodian man and young Vietnamese boy, they were my helpers, whatever I want to do. I had a jeep and I run around the camp there. Henderson, I believe his wife was in Thailand, and we answered to him and he’d take off and go to Thailand to see his wife, and Ron and I would just do our own thing.
Something’d come up to be done-nail needed to be hammered, I done that. Ron was the-his jeep driver, jeep driver, and I was, of course, kind of the battalion carpenter, I guess.
Brown: Okay. How long did that go on?
Gilliland: That went on for, I want to say two months.
Brown: And then, how long after that were you out of country?
Gilliland: I come out in November, I believe I went in 24th of November and I come out- believe it was 23rd of November, of ‘69.
Brown: Okay. So the last two months you were there, you were in that Headquarters assignment?
Gilliland: Um-hm, right.
Brown: When you come home, were you posted anywhere?
Gilliland: I came home for leave, of course, I spent I think thirty days at home. Then I went to Fort Carson, Colorado, and spent my remainder of my time there.
Brown: How much time was that?
Gilliland: It was from November to June of ‘70, so that would be about seven months.
Brown: What were your impressions of the United States on your return?
Gilliland: I was happy to be back. Had a kind of a don’t care attitude; I’ve done this now I can-we had a saying in Vietnam: What are you-when we was over there we’d get in trouble we’d say, What are you going to do, send us to Vietnam? I’d already been to Vietnam. So they had us on duty at Fort Carson, Colorado.
Brown: Did you have difficulty relating to other soldiers there, who had not been to Vietnam?
Gilliland: Well we kind-it’s kind-we’d treat them almost like Boy Scouts. We had war stories and we tried to scare them and stuff like that.
We were just-we’re just counting our time. I went to a school, business school out there. They had an operations-or transition, I can’t remember the name of the program, but Project Transition maybe? So I went to Blair Business College there, of course lived on base, too.
Brown: You weren’t married at this time?
Brown: Single guy? What-when you went home for those thirty days, what was that experience like?
Gilliland: Oh, it was great! When I came-when I came home, they had-my family were there at the end of the road with a big sign, and welcomed me home, and it was November and I was freezing, cause I’d just come out of ninety-five to a hundred- degree weather. It’s a good experience.
Brown: Did you run into any of your high school friends or neighbors?
Gilliland: Well, when I came home in November, course I ran into my neighbors and my friends.
They, Where you been? Some of been to Indiana, never been in the military, but, I came home and went back to Fort Carson, and my first cousin who I grew up with there on Pitman Creek, same age as me, got killed on January 7, 1970. So I immediately came back from Fort Carson and went to his funeral.
Brown: How’d that affect you?
Gilliland: It tore me up, because here’s my best-friend, my first cousin who I grew up with, went to school with, dated with, and he gets killed.
Brown: What thoughts ran through your head?
Gilliland: Just, real sad. I just-had to-it bothered me for awhile, but since then, I’ve, well-
In October, or October-November? November of last year, and then April of this year, I climbed the mountain where he was at when he got killed.
Brown: In Vietnam?
Gilliland: In Vietnam.
Brown: Do you know the name of that location?
Gilliland: The name of the-L Z Center. It’s south of Da Nang, about forty miles, way back out in the woods. We were there on it-a friend and I were the only two-the first ones back to the top of the mountain since ’73. We hacked the bush and went to the top of the mountain.
LZ Center in I Corps was closed and abandoned by the 196th Infantry in August of 1969. There was another LZ Center located in III Corps in the fish hook area that a major battle took place in 1970 but that was an all ARVN conflict with no US military involved. My guess would be that Curtis got this wrong as well.
Brown: What effect did military service have on you?
Gilliland: Gave me, I guess, a better respect and more of what this country is all about. But then again, there and again, like I said, prior-when I seen that-we killed that fellow at Christmas. Those people on Christmas.
That gave me more, I think a better-feeling of life maybe? Maybe a greater respect on life? Cause the fellows we were firing-were fighting were men and women just like us, or brothers and sisters just like, you know, they had brothers and sisters, they had moms and dads, they had kids. And, it-Vietnam turned me into a pacifist, I guess I want to say.
Brown: How would you characterize yourself before you went?
Gilliland: Gung-ho. They asked me when I went in to Fort Knox, there one of the S’s[?] said, What do you want to do? I said I want to go in the First Infantry Division, I want to be a Big Red One, and I want to get a Purple Heart, and a combat infantry badge. Well I got all three of them, you know, these-they would tell us this, you ask for something they’ve give you the entirely opposite. So I asked for to go in the First Division, Purple Heart, and combat infantry badge, never thinking I’d get it.
Brown: Why’d you ask for First Division?
Gilliland: I’d just heard about it and read about it. And I just-
Brown: So you knew a little bit of the history of the Big Red One, before you went in?
Gilliland: I knew just a-just a little bit, you know. It could’ve been the Second Division or could’ve been the Fourth Division, but-
Brown: What did you know?
Gilliland: Very little, just-I probably seen it in a movie or something. Seen something referring to the First Division.
Brown: What was your impression of the First Division after you got there?
Gilliland: Very organized. Course I’d never been in the-never been in the 196th or America Cal[?], so they could’ve been just as well-just as good as our division was. But, I have great respect for the First Division. The guys-the soldiers that I was around, they took care of you. They were buddies, and like the-the major and the boy from Tennessee.
I just had great respect for them once I got there. More so.
Brown: When you’re in combat out in the bush, and you’re walking point-I’m assuming you walked point on occasions other than that incident on the road.
Gilliland: Very seldom did I walk point.
Brown: Is there a reason for that?
A very good reason. Curtis was not known to be reliable or trustworthy in as much as how he would react under fire. He also had a very poor sense of direction, distance and location.
Gilliland: No, I think some of the fellows actually wanted to walk point. But I-
Brown: Why would they want to walk point?
Gilliland: I don’t know, cause in going in the jungle, that’s the first one they usually got. They-they walk through the, maybe enemy base camp, and then once you walk through then they open up. I don’t know.
Brown: Life expectancy was kind of low for a point man, wasn’t it?
Brown: In combat, what’s your motivation? Why you doing these things that normally-I would, you would think, I wouldn’t do this in a million years.
Why do you do that?
Gilliland: I guess because they’re shooting at us and we shot at them. I-it was just automatic. Was trained in basic and trained in AIT to fight back.
Brown: Okay. You went to Fort Carson, you-you hung out a little bit in Somerset before you went to Fort Carson.
Brown: You run into people in town, what were their attitudes towards you?
Gilliland: I never had any negative attitudes at all, as I can remember. They just, just an officer-the World War II vets, you know, that age-that generation just accepted it that you went-In Somerset, Kentucky, that’s-Army call and you went in the Army. And so, this stuff I hear about, I read about, where that they have all this conflicts, say in California, and protests, we just accepted it.
I just accepted I was going into the service, and Vietnam wasn’t really-as I remember, anyone argued.
Brown: Did you see that kind of thing on television, or read about it in the newspaper?
Gilliland: Then at that time?
Brown: The conflicts, yeah.
Gilliland: I probably did. The only-the only real conflict I remember was when I was high school, before I went in the service. My history teacher who was born in China, who I loved to listen to, had us debate one of the, supposedly smarter girls- smartest girls in the class, she and I debated. And I can’t remember which side I debated, which way I was pushing, go to Vietnam or get out of Vietnam, but I know I beat her in the debate. But that’s really the only conflict that I can ever remember.
Gilliland: I did-when I came back-the funny thing-
When I came back from Vietnam, came home, went to Fort Carson. They had a protest march out there, and a few of use went in the protest, got in the protest march, and here we are active duty soldiers, and we pro-walked to the draft board-
Brown: So you participated in a protest march?
Gilliland: Because then-at that time, I was against going back in Vietnam.
Brown: You mentioned some of the things that caused you to do that, and your view of humanity. Were there specifics about Vietnam and that war itself, that you felt you should protest?
Gilliland: The kids, and the older people, and the soldiers like I was telling you at Christmas-I just never-it just never sunk in that these were human beings, these were-I’d been taught through basic and AIT that these were, were the enemy. And I was supposed to shoot the enemy, which I participated in.
But once I seen that-that in Christmas, it changed my mind, though I did continue through the war, firing. But when I came back, I had the freedom to express myself, whereas I couldn’t over there.
Brown: So this was more a function of your view of human versus human relationships, as opposed to the justness of this war.
Brown: Is that a fair way to characterize it?
Gilliland: I think so.
Brown: Okay. You went out and you participated in this protest. Did you get in any trouble?
Brown: No. Did anybody know about it back at the base, or at Fort Collins?
Gilliland: Fort Carson.
Gilliland: They was a couple of us guys, I don’t know-we were, course we weren’t in uniform at the time. We marched down to the draft board, and I don’t remember, there may have been a thousand, may have been ten thousand, I don’t remember. But the funny thing, we went-
And they were going to stay there all night in front of the draft board, and we went back a few hours later and everyone was gone, so their protest wasn’t-
Brown: You went back a few hours later? Did you have to leave?
Gilliland: No, we just-we left the protest because the marchers were going to-protest and sit down in front of the draft board, and so, we left-
Gilliland: Well, we just-I don’t remember why we left, but we left. Thinking those people were going to sit there and wait in front of the draft board. But we went back two or three hours later, and they were going to stay their all night-went back their two or three hours later and everyone was gone.
Brown: What’d you think about that?
Gilliland: Well I thought it was kind of childish. They was going to protest they should’ve sit, like they said.
Brown: Do you know if they got chased off or arrested?
Gilliland: No I don’t, I don’t know.
Brown: Okay. Did that-did you have any particular thoughts or feelings towards the anti-war movement at that time?
Gilliland: Not that I remember.
Brown: Did you ever participate in any more protests--
Gilliland: No, that’s the only one.
Brown: --or anything like that. So you went back home to Somerset.
Brown: Did you-let me ask you this: did any of the people in the march with you know that you were on active duty?
Gilliland: Well, it was a couple of guys with me, but I don’t remember what their names were. They were active duty military like myself. And there may have been other soldiers in that march.
Gilliland: But of course, they weren’t wearing the uniforms.
Brown: But you didn’t know if any civilians knew?
Gilliland: No, no.
Brown: Did they say negative things about the military?
Gilliland: They were just-they protest-ing the Vietnam war, and the draft and all that. I don’t remember a lot of the words they said. But I do remember they was going to stay there all night long, and of course they didn’t.
Brown: How-I guess I’m hearing something that-interesting to me, because you’ve got these guys that you’re serving with, that you’ve counted on, and you’re in the Big Red One, and you-were in battle with them and you counted on them, you were tight with them.
Brown: And then you have these people here who’ve never been in combat before, don’t know what it’s like, and they’re bad-mouthing the military. How does that fit together?
Gilliland: Well they were all-they were all kids. I mean they were young people. I don’t really know what was running through my mind at that time, but I-I was-I knew I was getting out of the service. Maybe it was just happening and was one to-I was combating-decided I wanted to-I can’t remember my feelings at the time other than the fact that I was against the war.
Brown: Did you-how much longer were you in the service after that?
Gilliland: That demonstration was probably in March, in April? And I got out in June, the following June.
Brown: So, two, three months?
Brown: Okay. Did you ever have-when you had interaction with civilians, did you ever run into people who had negative attitudes towards the military or towards Vietnam, outside of that protest march?
Gilliland: Not that I remember. The only experience-the experience that sticks out is, when I came back, and went to-was out of the military and I went to my job, and I was-
Brown: Where was your job?
Gilliland: I was with the-engineer aid to the Kentucky State Highway.
And I went back to my job, and I was supposed to have got all the raises and other things that I’d missed out on in two years. And when I went back to my job, they didn’t give me those raises, you know. And when I protested, some of the guys in the-that outfit there, the Engineer Aid group, were aggravated because I was getting a raise after being gone two years. And they’d never served in the military.
Brown: Did you end up getting the raise?
Gilliland: I got the raise.
Brown: Did you mention to them, my life was on the line?
Gilliland: Oh I’m sure.
Brown: What about yours?
Gilliland: Sure did. But the funny-the odd-well not funny, but they both got, later on in life, got high political jobs in the county.
Brown: Okay. Did you have any adverse after affects, after being in combat.
Gilliland: No, I’ve never had any problems.
Brown: Have difficulty sleeping at night?
Gilliland: No. Never-never had the first nightmare.
Brown: He’s going to have to rewind that, we’ll put another tape in, and I’d like to ask you some questions about-
Brown: --going back to Vietnam.
Brown: And your return.
Pause in Interview
Brown: Okay, Mr. Gilliland, you came back, you went to work for the Highway Department, how long did you stay there?
Gilliland: Went back in November-let’s see, no, I’m sorry. Went back in June, and I resigned in-April, no February of ’71? Yeah. February of ’71.
Brown: Took a job with U.S. Post Office?
Brown: In Somerset?
Brown: Why did you do that?
Gilliland: Well I’d taken the test before in the service, and I passed it.
And, then, I came back out of the service, of course, worked for the Highway Department, and it was a better paying job at the Postal Service. And in the-I got ten points because I’d been-had a Purple Heart. And so I applied for it and got the ten points. And you know, I feel at that time, the reason being-not because I made-I probably wasn’t at the top of the list because I had a Purple Heart, but, I think they were hiring vets simply to fulfill the ten percent or the five percent they were supposed to fill, and-so, I was one of the guys that-one of those ten
percent or what they were supposed to have.
Brown: And, how long did you work at the Post Office, or do you still work at the Post Office?
Gilliland: I retired, almost five years ago. Be five years ago this coming November.
Brown: You had a rather-formative experience involving a Vietnamese person at the Post Office, is that right?
Gilliland: Right. Postmen-
Brown: Would you like to tell us about that?
Gilliland: The Post Master, who I deeply respect, his name was John Tohill, and one day we were-I was in the back and this-he came around the back of the Post Office, he said, Can anybody speak Vietnamese? And I said, I can speak a few words. He said there’s a lady up here sitting on the floor, she’d been sitting on the floor, squatted on the floor, in the lobby of the Post Office.
Brown: About when was this, do you remember?
Gilliland: This was probably, I’m guessing ’73 or ’74? May even been earlier than that, but I know it was after ’71 when I got hired. And so I went to the front with Mr. Tohill, and he had her sitting, at that time, sitting at his desk, and he couldn’t communicate with her. So I got-I found out, the only reason she came to the Post Office because she’d been-she’d seen the American flag.
And she knew in Vietnam, she seen the American flag, there was aid, there was help. So she married a soldier, he had left her in a trailer in Somerset-
Brown: An American soldier?
Gilliland: American soldier and he got assigned to Okinawa. And he left her, he was going to leave her there in Somerset and he was going to Okinawa. At times he would leave her in that trailer prior to going to Okinawa by herself, and she got scared. And so, she was out wandering, and she saw the American flag, come to the Post Office, and Mr. Tohill-she ended up in Mr. Tohill’s office. And I found out, through other communications, she could speak a little bit of English-and so at that time the judge, the county judge who was my cousin, I took her-too her down to him and they helped her out. But she later on got-she was a mental case, she had mental problems. She got killed by a car while walking along side the highway.
Brown: Why-okay, did you do anything after you took her to the judge, did you do anything else to help her out?
Gilliland: Not that I remember. But in ‘75, I was going to college, of course I used the G.I. Bill and I was going to college, and I had a friend-have a friend-
Brown: Where were you going to college?
Gilliland: University of Kentucky-Community College in Somerset.
Gilliland: And I have a friend who’s a Catholic nun, and she knew I’d been to Vietnam. And the church there in Somerset had agreed to sponsor four Vietnamese men.
Brown: Which church?
Gilliland: First Baptist Church in Somerset and so, she asked me if I would help. And so, like I said, she knew I’d been to Vietnam, and I said sure. That was in ‘75, and so, from ‘75 I’ve been working with the Vietnamese. My wife’s cut the umbilical cords, I’ve bought houses, bought cars, bought tickets, pressured kids for school.
It’s just like you’re-maybe you’d do your own son or daughter.
Brown: Why do you do that?
Gilliland: I thought about that-I’ve wondered about that. I don’t know, sometimes I wonder maybe if I might kind of get, make up for what I did in Vietnam. For what we did in Vietnam. That might be a big part of it, maybe. But I do know I love the Vietnamese people, and I’ve become very close-very attached to them.
Brown: These people are in Somerset, Kentucky.
Brown: Do you ever go to Vietnam?
Gilliland: I was in Vietnam in April-March and April of this year. And I made-
Gilliland: 2008. And then, I’ve went twice last year. I’ve made about twenty trips.
Brown: You’ve been to Vietnam twenty times?
Gilliland: Yeah, usually spend a month.
Brown: You ever go back to the places you were at, Junction City?
Gilliland: Oh yes.
I’ve gone to Junction City, and then, Lai Khe, Dau Tieng, Tay Ninh, Cu Chi, I’ve been just virtually where I was at when I was serving.
Brown: What’s that like for you.
Gilliland: It’s the best feeling in the world.
Brown: The best what?
Gilliland: It’s the best feeling in the world, because ’68 and ’69, we were scared of getting shot or killing someone else. And to walk-you couldn’t walk down the trails or we-we had to walk to the side. And now to go back and be able to walk down those trails and those roads, without any fear; you see kids and grandma, grandpa out there working, without having to worry about getting shot, it’s a tremendous feeling.
Brown: Do you-have you ever met anybody against whom you would’ve fought?
Gilliland: Oh yeah, I’ve met several. Matter of fact-well, I don’t think he was actually old enough, but one of my Vietnamese friends, who fought for the South, his brother is a-North Vietnamese-or a Vietnamese Communist Officer today.
Several years ago, we went and played pool together.
Brown: Here or over there?
Gilliland: Oh, over in Vietnam. So he we are, I’m an ex-U.S. soldier, and here’s a ARVN [Army of the Republic of Viet Nam], ex-South Vietnamese soldier, and here’s a Communist Officer, we’re playing pool together.
Brown: Conversations ever come up?
Brown: About the war?
Gilliland: No, not that I-I was in, see, it was March, this year, I went to a place called Kontum, out in the mountains, Montagnards were the mountain village people. And we-they had a party there and they invited us there, and this North Vietnamese-ex-North Vietnamese soldier he’d packed, no telling how many pounds down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and here’s another South Vietnamese soldier, and here I am riding a motor bike. And, we had a good-
Brown: You ever experience any hostility?
Brown: Why do you suppose that is?
Gilliland: I don’t know, I think that we Americans would be very-would be different. I think we would-but I have-like I said, I made about twenty trips. I’ve never had a bad experience. I’ve never experienced hostilities, against me or-I was sitting in the park several years ago in Saigon, at that time-and it’s probably still so-go in the park and sit down, and college kids or high school kids, would run up to you and want to talk to you, because they could practice their English. This one college-this was after Columbine-and I was-we were, this young man and I, were comparing our countries. And I was telling him what all’s bad in his country and he was telling what all’s bad in my country. And then he said, "But in your country, kids are killing kids in school." And it-I stopped.
He had me.
Brown: When you go there, are you ever-is anybody attach a minder to you? Are you limited on where you can go?
Gilliland: I’ve never been told I couldn’t go here or go there or stay here or stay there-I’ve stayed in the villages, I’ve stayed in the homes, I’ve stayed in the hotels. I’ve walked the mountains, I’ve climbed the mountain-this mountain twice. And-
Brown: That mountain where your cousin was killed?
Gilliland: Mountain where my cousin was killed.
Brown: What was that like for you?
Gilliland: Course this-that was in-the first trip was in October-I can’t remember, October or November, last year. I’d been back so many times, I’d been back in the bush, and been back in the mountains, but never been here before. Really didn’t have any great feelings on it, but I knew I was climbing-I was going where my cousin’s at-or where my cousin was at when he got killed. I’ve never had any deep thoughts on it.
I just know-just going back to where he was at.
Curtis Gillilands cousin, Gene Wells, was killed at or near Tam Ky, South Vietnam and not on any mountain top or at LZ Center.
LZ Center grid coordinates = BT050250
Tam Ky grid coordinates = BT310225
This means that Curtis climbed a mountain 26 kilometers too far west and 2.5 kilometers too far north of where his cousin was killed. Yeah, he's a fine pointman, alright. Worse yet, he signed the guestbook at the website where it states, quite clearly, where his cousin and several others were killed.
Brown: You say you-I’m going to do something here, in terms of time frame. Your cousin was buried in Somerset when you were at Fort Carson.
Brown: And you came home from Fort Carson and attended the funeral.
Brown: Was that before or after the protest?
Gilliland: I believe that was-the funeral’s, let’s see-that’s before. Cause he was killed January 7, 2000-or, 1970, ‘70-‘70 or ‘71? ‘71 I believe, yeah. [Gilliland confirmed it was 1970]
Brown: Do you suppose-so the funeral precedes the protest.
Brown: Do you suppose there’s any connection there?
Gilliland: Probably, yeah, I can see how a person can assume that. I probably-
Brown: Perhaps motivated the march, for you?
Gilliland: Probably added to the-the feelings about it.
Brown: The existing motivation, was already there? You’ve helped a lot of Vietnamese people over here, you’ve got a gentleman coming this week.
Brown: Stay at your house. You want to tell us about that?
Gilliland: His name is Samuel Trung[?]. He-we just got the-he just worked and got the first Gideon Camp in Vietnam since 1965. It was established this past December 3, 2007. The first camp. And, I was very fortunate to have lunch with him and meet him a couple of times, him and tour the camp. And we developed a friendship, and he’s coming to Louisville, Kentucky, for an international convention of the Gideons, and he’s going to come to my home and stay for four days, four nights. And to me, that’s remarkable, that we got a-a new Gideon
Camp in Vietnam for the first time since 1975.
That’s remarkable-the other remarkable thing, it’s maybe even on a higher plane, is that, I was in the Easter Services this year, the first time this church has had Easter Services without government oversight in thirty-two years.
Brown: In Vietnam?
Gilliland: In Vietnam.
Brown: You were at Samuel’s church?
Gilliland: I was-no I was at Grace Baptist Church. The Grace Baptist Church is-and you remember I spoke about the man in, missionary who’d lived there-
Gilliland: -in ‘62? This is the church he’d-started. And that’s-severest persecution was in ‘75.
Brown: He had remained in country?
Gilliland: No-he’d left in ‘75. But the church went on.
Gilliland: The pastor, Pastor Chung, had stayed there, and they suffered-suffered persecution all these years. They’re-threatening to throw his son in jail, but now the government has said that no, you can take your church and go throughout the country.
But I was in the Easter Service, the first Easter Service without government oversight, it’d be thirty-since ’75-thirty-three years.
Brown: Just this past Easter?
Brown: So Samuel will be coming here and he’ll be going back?
Gilliland: He’ll be coming Wednesday-in Louisville, he’ll be in Louisville. Then he’ll come to my home in Somerset, or I’ll pick him up in Louisville, and he’ll stay there and then go back to Louisville for a convention. And be there for a week.
Brown: Have you ever had any Vietnamese-you’ve had a number of people who were living in the United States from Vietnam stay with you.
Brown: Have you ever had Vietnamese nationals who will be returning to Vietnam-have you ever had them stay with you?
Gilliland: This is the first time.
Brown: The first time. What do you think you two will have to talk about?
Gilliland: I don’t know. He’s fifty-three years old. I think he’s a grandfather like myself.
Of course we’re both Gideons, he’s new to the Gideon-he’s a new Gideon. I’ve got several Vietnamese friends who want to meet him, and I think we can-I think we’ll hit it off. I think we’ll be okay. He seemed like a real nice fellow.
Brown: You know on that note, that is a great note, but I don’t want to walk out of here not having discussed something that you would think is important to discuss, or something that you think we need to get on tape that perhaps I have overlooked. Is there something that you want to share with us that I haven’t questioned you about or we haven’t touched on?
Gilliland: I remember one thing that happened, and it’s very-maybe very minor. When I first got in country, in Vietnam, you had orientation. And you went down-all the new soldiers, and went down, and they had a chaplain or a pastor or a priest, I don’t remember what it was.
And he told us, he said, "This will be the greatest year of your life." And I thought, this man’s crazy. And it was the greatest year of my life.
Brown: Why was it the greatest year of your life?
Gilliland: It brought me to-I could understand more-soul, what life’s all about. A greater appreciation for life.
Brown: Your life, other people’s lives?
Gilliland: My life and other people’s lives.
Brown: Well, thank you very much for being here today, and thank you for your service to the country.
Gilliland: I appreciate it. Thank you, thanks fellows.
End of interview
Final notes and an overview:
For the most part it appears that Curtis has created memories based on experiences of other individuals and very few of his own. The source for his "locked eyes" with an NVA soldier may have come from my experience north of Ben Chua but may also have come from a similar experience that John McClure had while on an operation out of FSB Bandit Hill a few months earlier. Curtis was on the operation out of Bandit Hill but he was not on the one north of Ben Chua. He very well could have been on the burial detail of the "Three Wisemen" at Junction City but he has it out of sequence with the Christmas Eve ambush as, per Mike MacDonald, that detail took place after we returned to Junction City. As for the Christmas Eve ambush he may well have been put out on the OP but it would not have been with Rodney Sgambellone and most likely would have been Keith Paine he was teamed with. Too, they would not have been in a B-52 crater as he claims but possibly in a shell crater or depression. Two OP teams of two men each were sent out; one to the east along the ox cart path we were setting up our ambush on and one to the west along the same path. The one to the east would have given the OP's a view of the trail the NVA travelled along but they would have been a good 50 meters (or more) from that trail once in position. When emailing with Curtis a few years back his account then was that they were in a bomb crater right next to that trail and he could have reached out and touched the NVA as they walked by. Since then he's broken this into two separate incidents and the second one is even more unlikely since he was in the AP site on radio gaurd. I'm sure a third recounting of this scenario is already bouncing around inside his head as is how a bullet over 3/8" in diameter could strike his finger and not do severe damage.
My impression of Curtis is based on his actions in the field and any conversation we may have had back and since our tour of duty in Vietnam. He was given the nicknames "Firefly", "Silly Gilly" and "Gilligan" for appropriate reasons. The "Firefly" moniker derived from all his false SITREP's (Situation Reports) while on radio gaurd or LP. Every lightning bug that blinked in the night air was a flashlight to him and any lizard that croaked was an NVA talking. He was pretty much in a constant state of paranoia once outside of an NDP and was more of a burden than a help. At an AP site outside of Lukes Castle were setting up in our position and Curtis laid down his poncho liner and stepped on a stick under the grass which made the poncho liner move. Thinking it was snake Curtis beat a hasty retreat at full speed literally leaping over Joe Boxx and myself. Joe and I were on the opposite side of the AP site and Curtis, after vaulting over us, continued running down the trail we were ambushing for at least another 75 meters or more. He finally responded to our yelling at him to stop, put the brakes on and walked back to the AP site without saying a word. As for conversations he always had this idea that we shouldn't shoot the NVA but should try to talk to them instead. As I remember it though, whenever we made contact (except for ambushes) it was the NVA that shot first.
I was moved from 2nd squad to 3rd squad on June 24, 1969 when we got to Mons VI. Curtis was still with the 3rd squad at that time but had the "nose wound" incident a day or two later. I believe he was either dusted off or remained back in Lai Khe when we went back for resupply on June 27, 1969. I do not recall him being in the field after that and I would have seen him because I was then in the same squad. Too, his account of carrying ammo during his last days in the field does not add up. On July 24, 1969 Jim Soike was sent home on emergency leave and I took over as machine gunner in his absence. My ammo bearer was Lopez and Cope was my assistant gunner...Curtis was nowhere in the platoon that I know of. At the beginning of August 1969 I was made 3rd squad leader and Curtis was not in my squad. I'm almost positive Curtis was back in Lai Khe from the latter part of June 1969 up until he was transferred to HHC in Dau Tieng.