Thomas Neidigh graduated from Big Spring High School in 1965 and joined the Army to help out his family.
“There was a lot of talk about activating the National Guard and Reserve units. My brother had been in the Reserves for two years, had just gotten married and bought a house. At that time as long as there was one son from a family on active duty the other one couldn’t be called up. So I volunteered.”
On the train to basic training, Neidigh met other recruits. “I went to Harrisburg where I got on a train to Fort Gordon, Georgia, for basic training. It was a passenger train but it was mostly full of draftees from the area. We stopped on the way and picked up more along the way. You could see a lot of concern, there was a lot of nervousness, but there were some guys like me that didn’t worry, it was just a thing we had to do.”
Neidigh adjusted well to infantry training. “I was young and it didn’t bother me. I was an outdoor type. I hunted, a rifle was no problem. To me it all went pretty smooth. Others, they had a hard time. We had a couple who really went over the wall, they went AWOL. They just weren’t mentally cut out for it. I had my mind made up before I left. I really had no fear about what I was about to face, but that was just me. There were a lot of guys that had a hard time.”
Early on in his military career, Neidigh got some advice from an officer who had been to Vietnam.
“He said: ‘Try not to make any close friends.’ He said: ‘The reason I’m telling this is that either you or one of your friends is probably going to get shot and maybe killed. And the reaction that one or the other of you has to that could ruin you the rest of your life.’ I had friends but I didn’t really pursue the closeness ... but I would have done anything, if it came down to it, to help them or get them out of trouble if I could.”
After arriving in Vietnam, Neidigh was assigned to the Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).
“Every place we went we flew in. I was in country eight days when we were sent to a village where there was supposed to be a North Vietnamese regiment. We took the whole battalion; there were probably 60 to 70 helicopters in the air at one time, plus gunships. We were supposed to land on the outskirts of the village and fight our way in, but that didn’t happen. We landed right in the middle. That was my first taste of combat, and it was my worst.
“We had choppers shot down. My squad leader got killed. There were 11 of us in the squad, one was killed, four were wounded. We spent the night in a rice paddy, lying in the water; all we had for cover was the dike. The next morning we did an assault, but the enemy had slipped out in the night and gone into the mountains. We were picking up dead and wounded lying around from the initial assault. We called for medevac, but we were constantly under fire.
“We resupplied and started preparing to assault up the mountain. Before we started they brought in a B-52 strike. That was a first for me. I was amazed and awed; they were just blowing that thing to smithereens up there. After the strike was over we advanced on the ridge, and they must have caught them pretty good up there because there were just pieces of bodies all over the place.”
Picked up from that operation, the battalion was flown straight to another area for more action. “We were out in the field for 90 days at a time before we got back to base camp, and we were normally only in there to change clothes.”
Eventually, the unit fell into a routine. “We were out on some patrols. We found a few Viet Cong and we killed them. Then everything turned to night operations. Every two or three days we were going to a different village. We’d fly into an area, stabilize and set up about 5000 meters from the village we were going to check into. We would go in at night. Just before daylight, artillery would fire illumination rounds, and anything that came out of the village we shot. And we had body counts, 30, 40, at times because we had every route in or out completely covered.”
Neidigh developed coping mechanisms for dealing with the stress of war. “I never really let it get to me, even at that point. It’s probably going to sound odd, but I treated everything, as far as bodies goes, more or less like an inanimate object. A piece of wood, timber, cinderblock, something that didn’t get to me. But it wasn’t fun. There was nothing fun about it.”
Christmas provided one Neidigh’s brighter memories. The day began as usual: “Rain, rain, rain.”
“That Christmas morning they flew us up onto a mountain. We cleared an LZ, had foxholes dug all the way around the perimeter, they were three quarters full of water. The thing that I’ll never forget, it was short of a miracle, I’ll put it that way, that’s the only way I can see it: It had rained probably ten or fifteen days straight. They said the Chaplin was inbound, the food was inbound, and the sky opened up. The sun came out, and it just was a beautiful as could be. That lasted for about four hours. As soon as the Chaplin was back on the helicopters and they loaded the empty containers on the other aircraft, the skies closed up and it started raining. That part there ... I’m no religious man, but someone was looking over us right there. That stays as clear in my mind as the day that it happened. It was just unbelievable.
“After that we went and set up on the Ho Chi Minh trail for Tet. We got orders: Don’t let anything through. We weren’t supposed to break the Tet (ceasefire), but we got orders: don’t let anything through. The first night was calm. The second night, here comes a train. I say train; there were elephants, water buffalo, Viet Cong, North Vietnamese regulars coming down the trail. We had all of our firepower set up in a horseshoe. We had claymores set up, trip flares behind us in case anyone got through we could see ‘em when they hit the wires. Claymores back of that so if they started running they’d hit that. We had 123 bodies that night, seven elephants, nine water buffalo, plus all the ammunition and supplies they carried. We didn’t lose a person or have one wounded, and we figured we saved a lot of lives. Then you hear ‘They broke the Tet, we broke the Tet”, but there was never a Tet to start with. You did what you had to do to preserve life. And if that meant taking lives to help someone stay alive, that’s what you did.”
As time went on, the pace of operations slowed, but only a little. “By that time it was starting to be spring, things started changing, we got a little more relax time. We were running patrols on the coast. One day I was preparing to take my squad on patrol. There again someone was looking out for me, I was told to stand down, we were going on another operation. Second squad took our place. We had reports of seeing Viet Cong in a little valley, so I took my squad and we went to that valley.
“Well, second squad, they all got killed. I got back and learned of the situation. They were on their patrol, and as near as we could figure, there was probably a Viet Cong sitting back in the bushes. He had buried a 155 howitzer round, they walked over it, he had a small battery, he touched two wires together, and blew them up. It took us two and a half days to cut trees down and find body parts. So that was the first time that I had really felt like I was really saved, because we would have probably walked through the same thing. After we cleared everything out we flew back to base camp and we were there for three days drinking, raising Cain. It got crazy because everyone just let everything out.”
Towards the end of his tour of duty, Neidigh took some shrapnel wounds and spent six weeks in a hospital. But the Army still needed him. “They wanted me to extend (my tour), and they guaranteed me Staff Sergeant, but that didn’t mean crap to me. I wanted to get the heck out of there, I’d had enough.”
Asked what homecoming was like Neidigh said, “Rough. No respect, no nothing. I hated it. It almost felt like you were a foreigner coming into a foreign country. Just in that years’ time ... some of the friends you thought you had when you left ... they were hell-bent and determined on the war, period. They didn’t really want to associate with you.”
Neidigh admits the war is still with him today, and that he is guarded around other people. “It’s always been in the back of my mind, and it’s always going to be there: you make friends with someone and something bad is going to happen, and it’s going to terrorize your life. It something from that war over there that’s been with me, and it never left, and it never will.”