In May of 1995, I interviewed my Dad for a class I was taking at Seattle Central Community College. The project must have been about life during the Vietnam war because I limited my questions to the period between 1963-1975. A couple of days after I interviewed my Dad, I was on the phone with my Mom. I told her about this assignment and she offered to add a few supporting comments. This explains the italicized statements throughout the interview.
When did you join the army?
I enlisted on the 9th of September, 1959.
What were you doing in 1963?
Well, I was in Korea from September of 1963 to September of 1964.
And upon your return?
I went to a Supply Course in Fort Sam Houston, Texas that lasted 12 weeks. And then I went to the Atlanta Army Depot where I met your mom. We were married there in December of 1965.
What was your grade at the Depot?
I was promoted from First Lieutenant to Captain while I was there.
Tell me about meeting Mom…
Ah, the famous Mail Order Bride story. I was still in Korea, waiting to be reassigned. The Hospital XO suggested I write to LTC Franklin, the man in charge of the Assignment Branch of the Office of the Surgeon General at the Pentagon. So, I did. I wrote stating that I wanted to be assigned to a depot, and the last thing in the letter was a line about… lets see, I think I said “I wouldn’t object to an assignment to an area populated by marriageable girls.” And I got a letter back saying that assignments to depots are usually reserved for field grade officers, and that “rest assured your desire to be stationed in an area populated with marriageable young ladies will not be overlooked.” And so I got orders to the Army Depot in Atlanta, the “Home of Georgia peaches,” where I met your Mom.
That’s a funny story…
I’m not done yet! A few years later, when your Mom and I were in Hawaii on a business trip, I was in some admin building, and I saw the name COL Franklin on a name plate. I figured, “What were the chances this was the same guy?” So, I went in and said, “COL Franklin, sir, my name is MAJ Oppenneer and…” He interrupted me, “Stop! Damn it, I remember that name. Something about… yeah, you’re the son of a bitch who wrote me the funniest letter I saw in my four years at the Pentagon!” and he went on for a bit. I brought your Mom in and introduced her to the man who unwittingly brought us together.
(MOM: Not very many women were ordered from the Pentagon.)
How soon after that did you leave for Vietnam?
Oh, it wasn’t until 1971 that I went to Vietnam. A couple of months after we were married, your mom and I left for Japan for four years. That was in the Fall of 1966. We were there for fifty months (4 years, 2 months).
How old were the members of your family in 1963?
In 1963, Mom was 53, Dad was 54, and Diane [sister] was 19.
And what did your family do around that time?
Well, Dad worked until he passed away in 1969. He was a parts manager for an automotive shop. It was a lower-middle class blue collar job. Mom was a bookkeeper for years, and Diane got married and moved to Tennessee sometime in 1963.
And what did you do while you were in Japan?
For the first year and a half, I was Chief of Stock Control for the Medical Depot. After a change of command, the new Commander made me Depot Management Officer at Depot Headquarters. I became the briefing officer there, also.
Tell me more about what you did…
Well, I coordinated logistics for four Army hospitals. There was one general hospital, one surgical hospital, a field hospital, and a station hospital. At full strength the general hospital had 1000 beds, but it actually only used 250 of them. The surgical hospital had 150 beds, the field hospital was at 400 full strength; 100 actual… I think in all, at the four hospitals, we had about 750 beds.
(MOM: I worked for the Red Cross in the hospital taking care of men from Vietnam. Did a lot of exploring. Erik was born a year into the tour. Did a lot of mothering… and shopping. I went broke saving us money! I also took art lessons and practiced my oil painting.)
How did Mom cope when you went to Vietnam?
Your Mom lived on post at the Atlanta Army Depot, and was with people who were sympathetic and who also had spouses in Vietnam. Since she lived in Atlanta, she lived close to her parents so she had the support of her family (her parents lived in Macon). She handled it pretty well.
(MOM: I was always a member of the Military Wives’ Club. I could get out and be with other people, which was hard to do as a “single” married mother. The activities with the Club were safe.)
What kind of special training did you receive before you went to Vietnam?
I didn’t receive any special training. I was a Major in the Medical Service Corps. It was really just another assignment for me.
Where were you stationed?
In Long Binh about 20 miles from Saigon.
And how long was your tour?
I was in Vietnam from July 1971 to June 1972, so… eleven months.
So, that was six months after I was born…
Yes. It was tough leaving. Erik was only three, and your Mom had her hands full, but I had told her about how things would be in the army. I told her before we got married that when the army said move, I moved.
Describe your job duties while you were in Vietnam.
I was Chief of Stock Control of the Depot in Long Binh. When I got to Vietnam, there were 400 people at the depot. By the time I left, due to down-sizing, there were only 40 people at the depot and I was the commander.
What were your living conditions?
My living conditions there were excellent. Before I got there, each man had a private room, but since the army was already starting to down-size, it was two rooms per man. The hootches had air conditioning, a bed, a desk, and a wall locker. Several men shared a latrine. It was a very nice living arrangement since there was less demand for space after the draw down.
Can you describe to me the character of some of the most memorable people you served with or under? What did they teach you, or impress upon you?
Oh, the first man that comes to mind is COL Joe Savilla. He was the second commander I served under at the Army Depot in Atlanta. COL Savilla was truly an officer and a gentleman. And I mean that. If there was ever someone deserving of that title, it was him.
Why was he memorable?
Oh, his character was strong. Plus, he accidentally saved my ass. Late in 1965, orders came down for me, sending me to a classified location, which at the time meant Vietnam. I was scheduled to attend the Defense Inventory Management course in Fort Lee, Virginia, and the course was going to be paid for by the Deputy Commander. He called the Pentagon to delay my reassignment orders until the course was finished. He felt I was worth the effort, and that the Army would benefit from my being there. It impressed the Surgeon General so much that they did delay my orders. A couple of months later the 504th Medical Depot was being put together to be sent to Japan. I was assigned to the advance party going to Japan. So, without knowing it, COL Savilla kept me out of Vietnam during the worst years of the war.
Then there was COL Frank Axton. He stood by me when I was falsely accused of improperly briefing a four-star general. The Pentagon wanted to know if it was cost-effective to rotate medicinal drugs in Japan, or combine two of the depots and minimize the rotation load. I was told to prepare a brief for the general regarding the cost-effectiveness of drug rotation in Japan for this reason. The medicine stored for use by the Army hospitals had a short shelf-life, and there was a costly rotation process to keep them freshly stocked. Well, my report stated this… that yes, it was expensive, and that it would make sense to combine the depots. Well, at this time the Surgeon General was developing his little empire, and wanted to build up his turf in the East. Well, the four-star heard my brief and went back to the Pentagon to report his findings, and when the Surgeon General heard the report, he became really upset. He wanted to know who the nit-wit was that gave such a report, and got a COL Walter, who was the Chief of Logistics for the Office of the Surgeon General, at the time, to sniff out the source. It came down to a young CPT Oppenneer… and mind you, I was only doing what I was told to do, which was to honestly report on the cost-effectiveness… Well, anyway, COL Axton kept COL Walter at bay and defended my position, which was pretty valiant.
What was coming home like for you?
Coming home was great for me. It was good to see my family. You’ve got to keep in mind that I was far from the action. Every once in a while the mortar rounds would go off near enough to feel, but that was about all the action I ever saw. Many others weren’t so fortunate. I remember coming home and taking leave with your Mom and you and your brother. We had a trailer, and went to Ithaca, New York to visit friends and move into our new house.
(MOM: Literally three days after your Father returned from Vietnam, we moved to Ithaca. We had some pretty major adjustment problems since he had been gone for a year. He was in “bachelor-mode.” We stayed in the trailer until the house was ready to move into. I started teaching bread-making classes there while your Dad went to school for two years.)
Knowing what you know about war, how would you feel if your child was sent or chose to go to Vietnam? Can you compare this to how your parents felt about your involvement?
I guess I feel like my parents. Though they were never involved in a war, they supported the US, and if the US said fight – you fought. They knew what the Army was about. You went into the Army to fight wars.
What did your parents do for socialization? Where they into politics or involved in unions?
No, they weren’t involved in politics or unions. They were a true 50’s golden-generation blah post-war family.
What kind of education did they have?
I think Dad had one semester of Junior college. His Dad didn’t think too favorably of higher education, and when my Dad said he wanted to be a pharmacist, his Dad said, “No you don’t, you’re going to get out there and work!” And Mom went to a vocational school for typing and clerical stuff.
Diane would have gotten her Ph.D., but never completed a dissertation. I think she got bored with it, and I think maybe Tom (her first husband) might have had something to do with it also.
What kind of cars did you own, or covet?
Oh, geesh… they came out with a new car every September, so I was always coveting the next model. I owned, one after another, a ’65 Barracuda, ’71 Plymouth, ’74 Plymouth, ’77 Plymouth. Once you kids were born, it was station wagons!
And what about peoples’ morals?
Well, I don’t remember much in the way of divorce or drug problems. They seemed to be comparatively small. But I tell you, every guy wanted to marry a virgin, but also wanted to screw every girl around.
(MOM: I led a sheltered life. The people I hung out with were very normal. The only time I felt out of the ordinary was when your Dad and I went to the Navy Base Officer’s Club, and I was wearing a tunic top with bell bottoms. They wouldn’t let me in with pants on, but since that was the age of mini-skirts, they would let me in with a mini-skirt on, so I just took my bell-bottoms off and went in with just the tunic top on! Your Dad was shocked!)
What religion did you practice?
I was raised Protestant, and went to non-denominational services on post.
What radio shows did you listen to?
“Fibber McGee and Molly,” of course! And “The Shadow” and “The FBI in Peace & War.”
“The FBI in Peace & War,” the theme went dum de dum dum…
Were you much of a drinker back then?
Not really. Every once in a while I had a gin, scotch, or diet Coke… not much has changed in thirty years.
(At this point in the interview, I asked the subject to mention briefly whatever came to mind when I mentioned certain issues and names…)
Vietnam War –
I was a career army officer. I wasn’t for or against the war. When you join the army, you must be prepared to fight BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT THE ARMY DOES. I developed all of my opinions after the war was over, but during the war I simply served.
Ho Chi Minh Trail –
We could never interdict them. Bombing bicycles with B-52s. I am still impressed by the perseverance of the Viet Cong. It was amazing.
Hanoi Hilton –
It was absolutely terrible.
They were the innocent victims of war. We used them. They were the Mountain people. They sided with the Americans and South Vietnamese.
Anti-War / Peace movement –
I really don’t see much difference between the movements. They had good intentions, and in hindsight they were absolutely right. But they acted like a bunch of chickenshits.
Tet Offensive in 1968 –
The Offensive was shocking for its brilliant effect. We didn’t think they had it in them. In Japan, we were receiving 100 patients a day in each of the four hospitals, for a couple of days after the offensive. They were all past the state of being walking wounded. Some of the soldiers were injured only 8 hours before they were MEDEVACed.
Fall of Saigon –
I will always remember it as a time of great sadness. I can still see that picture of the last helicopter leaving the top of the Vietnamese Embassy building. The helicopter was at a back-to-front profile and there were people climbing up the ladder to the top of the building with their hands outstretched to the GIs in the helicopter.
…was the hidden war. You’ve seen that movie “The Killing Fields?” The killing fields. There were one to three million people killed. I met a CIA man when I was in Japan. We had a few drinks one night. I knew he was involved somehow with Laos, but he never told a thing. When I was in Ithaca, I gave him a call, but he never accepted an invitation for dinner. I think he wanted to erase all memories of that part of his life.
I never knew any hippies. The army was (and still is) its own little world. I was far removed from that culture. I mean, I saw them on TV, but being in the army was like being in a large cocoon.
Sexual Revolution –
At first, I thought it was great, but then it got bad. Too many people abusing their freedom.
Tune in, turn on and drop out… –
That whole scene gave me bad vibes. I didn’t care much for Timothy Leary.
John F. Kennedy –
He was killed when I was in Korea. I really feel that he would have continued on to be a great U.S. President. He was, I think, well-prepared for the presidency. And he had a big set of balls.
Robert F. Kennedy –
…was also cut down early.
I don’t think some people would have made it through Vietnam without it. There was this one black SP4 named Gill I remember. Heroin made him a basketcase. I came into the room where we kept this large tabulating machine and Gill would be hovering over it, glassy-eyed and unable to move. I’d always yell for my Sergeant to “Get me someone in here who’s not fucked up! I need this job done now!” But it helped this one SP5, whose name I can’t remember, who was so hyper he couldn’t get anything done. I think heroin mellowed him out.
Women’s Movement –
I think the Women’s Movement got off to a good start, but they became too strident.
(MOM: They were really into this “Rah rah bra-burning” thing back then. I was always content with where I was. I never wanted to work or have a career.)
…was Nixon’s moral let down. He could have been one of America’s greatest presidents.
Kent State –
HORRIBLE. Bad use of National Guard. I just think that whole situation was awful.
We definitely needed them to counter-balance PACs.
William Westmoreland –
He was too political.
Martin Luther King, Jr. –
He was a good man who would have continued to become a great leader.
Cesar Chavez –
Strong man. He was good to his people and really understood them.
Nguyen Cao Ky –
…was the most Western of the [Eastern] leaders. I remember him being a very dashing figure.
Lyndon B. Johnson –
I voted for him, but was ultimately unhappy with him. LBJ was a good legislator, but was a lousy leader. There is a big difference between legislating and leading.
Huey Newton –
Henry Kissinger –
Too smart. Didn’t trust him and I don’t know why really.
Ngynh Van Minh –
I really respected him. He could see what was happening to his country.
What was good about those years?
I think the best part of that time was the wide range of social tolerance.
(MOM: I don’t know. I’ve always lived in my own little glass house. Only a couple of years ago did I started thinking of what else was out there. I really can’t tell you what was good or bad about those years.)
And the worst?
I think that things started moving too fast.
Did the years teach you any general lessons about history?
I would say – know your enemies better.
As we closed out the interview, I thanked my father and just as we were saying good-bye, his final words were, “And for the record, I think Jane Fonda was a little moral shit.”
(MOM: I still like her. She did what she wanted to and everyone should be able to. I think she’s a pretty lady, and I like her.)