Dennis O’Connor knew he was going to be drafted.
“In March of 1970, a friend of mine who was draft 254 got drafted. My number was 256, so on May 27, 1970 I enlisted because I figured my number was up,” O’Connor said. “I served until May of 1985 when I was put out on a medical discharge.”
Originally from Los Angeles, O’Connor came to Carlisle to work at Carlisle Barracks as a civilian. He retired from the War College in 2003. He now lives in Mechanicsburg.
O’Connor enlisted to be an Aircraft Repair Parts Specialist, 76 Tango, and served in Vietnam from December of 1970 to December 1971.
“I didn’t even think about Vietnam until I got out of AIT (Advanced Individual Training) and then my whole class went to Vietnam,” he said. “They were short of 76 Tangos. I was pretty surprised to get assigned to Vietnam. They kept us in a holding company for two weeks waiting for one guy to turn eighteen because they couldn’t send a 17 year-old to Vietnam. As soon as he turned 18 we got on the bus.
“We had two weeks leave, then straight to Vietnam. Normally people got 30 days of leave before going, but we were so critically short that we got only two weeks.”
O’Connor departed out of Oakland Army Deport, flying eventually out of Alaska. He then flew into Japan, then to Bien Hoa airbase.
“My first thought on arrival was ‘What they hell have I gotten myself into?” he said.
“We got on a bus to Long Binh and heard the sound of rockets or jet engines overhead, and everyone was looking out to see what it was, and the driver said ‘Those aren’t jets, that’s outgoing artillery. Watch that hill over there.’ And we all watched and a moment later the hill disappeared under the bombardment. It was a VC training camp, we were told.
O’Connor joined a liaison team in Saigon to work on this team at the Aviation Material Management Center under the 34th Support Group, where he spent three months. His main duty included obtaining high-priority parts, including rotor blades for UH-1 helicopters.
“We had to go to Long Binh to the open storage depot. There was a Chief Warrant Officer 4 there who was equivalent to a Brigadier General as far as his power went,” O’Connor said. “We went through the open storage area, and here were stacks and stacks of these rotor blades, and we got the stock number. I mentioned to my driver, Sgt. Mack, that I noticed those rotor blades were back ordered and we couldn’t get them. They were necessary because we have hundreds of aircraft that needed these rotor blades.
“So I went into this Warrant Officer’s office. He’s a gruff old guy. I wish I could remember his name. And he told us that we were full of crap, there weren’t any rotor blades out there, his stock control computer didn’t show any in stock. So we took him out to the storage yard and showed him where they were about 100 of them. Anyway, we got them on the next flight out, and he quit using their computers after that and went back to the card index.”
O’Connor said the only time he had guard duty came during the week of Tet in 1971 when he was a perimeter guard for the open storage area.
“So the first night of guard duty I was a little nervous,” O’Connor said. “I had a captain who was Special Forces that was the duty officer that night. He came out with a fancy rifle with a night scope, and he swept the area and it was clean. So we relaxed.”
“But on the night of Tet — you have to understand: we use red tracers. The VC and NVA use red tracers. The night of Tet, all hell broke loose at midnight. It was just firing in the air. All these Vietnamese were having a ball celebrating the New Year. But the thing that was scary was that there were more green tracers than red tracers. And that’ll get you nervous.”
O’Connor said he got even more nervous during a mortar attack.
“One time I got done with one 16 hour shift, it was midnight ... I was in there taking a shower, and it was ice cold water,” he said. “I took 365 cold showers. I don’t take cold showers anymore; I swore when I left country I would never take a cold shower again.
“So, just as I lifted my leg up to wash my foot a round went off. They sent in three or four mortar rounds that landed on our runway and blew some holes in it. I was just harassment, but we were close enough that the concussion knocked my on my butt. I high-tailed it out of the latrine to my hooch. By the time the third round went off I was in my hooch; I got my steel pot, put my pants on, got my flak jacket, and was in the bunker. I hauled it down the company street buck naked. I didn’t care; I needed my steel pot and flak jacket.”
According to Dennis, the food for most of his tour was horrible.
“We ate water buffalo seven days a week,” he said. “They said it was roast beef, but I’m convinced it was water buffalo.”
He and his buddies started liberating c-rations to avoid the chow hall.
“For the last three months I was there we ate c-rations. They couldn’t figure out where they c-rations were going, so they put a chain link fence around and on top so we couldn’t get in,” he said. “They didn’t bolt it to the floor though, so we got a forklift, picked it up, got the c-rations, and set it back down. Now these were dated 1949, and this was 1971, so you do the math. But they were still edible and better than the chow hall.”
O’Connor said all in all it was a good tour.
“I was fortunate,” he said. “I had some post-traumatic stress and dealt with survivor’s guilt for a long time, but I’m pretty well over that. My wife says I have some violent dreams, but I can’t remember them.
“I was going to extend for six months, but I had the occasion to go to the USO to use the phones and talk to my parents, and they talked me out of it. In retrospect I’m glad they did. My unit was disbanded and moved up to Pleiku. They got hit pretty hard in the spring offensive. So I might not have survived that. Coming how was a unique experience. I couldn’t talk to my parents about it, so I had no one to talk to. So I didn’t enjoy my leave. My friends didn’t know where I was coming from, so I couldn’t talk to them.”
Dennis does say much about his experiences with the anti-war movement, but when the subject came up his wife commented: “I don’t think anyone who served and wears the uniform of our nation deserves to be spit upon.”
“The Vietnamese people were good people. We did them wrong. We should have fought that war to the end. We didn’t, we quit on them. I’ll never feel good about that. But I don’t have to answer for that, the politicians do.”