It hit Jack Ziegler as soon as he landed in Vietnam.
The assault on his senses began with the overwhelming stink of open sewers combined with sweat from the living and the occasional whiff of dead and decaying bodies.
A short time later, the Carlisle native heard gunfire off in the distance and saw explosions on the horizon. He had arrived at the warzone in pouring down rain.
“I had taken up smoking when I was going to technical school in Williamsport,” recalled Ziegler, a retired carpenter living in Penn Township. “That day I smoked two packs of cigarettes. I was so nervous.”
It was early September 1966. Vietnam was heating up. The Navy needed skilled tradesmen to serve in construction battalions tasked with building barracks, guard towers, fire bases, bunkers and roads.
“They always kept us busy,” said Ziegler, adding how his unit of Seabees was ordered on occasion to patch up holes made in runways by enemy fire. In between jobs, the battalion was assigned to fix up native villages as a show of good will to improve relations with the Vietnamese. One “civic action” tested his resolve and physical endurance.
“We heard this machine gun fire come across the rice paddy,” Ziegler recalled. “Bullets were skipping over the water. We froze what we were doing and said ‘What was that?’ They did it again.”
As before, Ziegler and company stopped what they were doing and pondered the seriousness of their dilemma. The Navy had ordered the Seabees into a village but had not issued them weapons. They were defenseless as the enemy opened up yet again with machine gun fire over the marshy rice paddy.
While some crew members scrambled for a vehicle to retreat from the scene, Ziegler took off running in the general direction of the base gates. “The Hell with that truck,” he recalled. “I was doing a beeline. I was booking.”
Sure enough, he beat the truck back to base but was barred from entry by the gate guard. Ziegler, after all, was away from his unit. Rules were rules. He had to wait for the truck to arrive.
While Ziegler understood his duty to follow orders, situations like the one above caused him to question the “dumb, stupid stuff” that puts lives in jeopardy. From day one, Ziegler learned not everything goes according to plan.
A 1964 Carlisle High School graduate, Ziegler went on to study at the Williamsport Technology Institute where he earned an associate’s degree in building construction in early June 1966.
Ziegler thought at first the federal government would wait until September 1966 to change his deferment status and issue him a draft notice. Instead the change of status came the second week of June, with the draft notice following a week later.
Though willing to serve, Ziegler wanted to avoid being drafted into the Army because he would have no say on the selection of a military occupation. The Navy recruiter in Williamsport told Ziegler the job of Seabee would keep him away from the fighting.
So when the notice came, Ziegler called the recruiter and offered to enlist in the Navy before he was officially drafted. He knew he would have to serve in Vietnam but thought it would be in the rear echelon.
The boot camp for Seabees was in Davisville, Rhode Island. Instead of Naval personnel, they were trained by Marines. “I didn’t expect that part of it,” Ziegler said. Advanced training in Virginia also came as a surprise because it included a mock POW camp.
The purpose of the camp was to instruct Seabees on what could happen if they were ever captured. The trainers took on the role of guards and would rough up the trainees who were the prisoners.
There Ziegler learned techniques on how resist torture and interrogation and the importance of revealing only his name, rank and serial number. Wearing only underwear, he was locked inside a “hot box” with no ventilation and then forced into a pit filled with water and capped with a wooden lid.
Skilled at swimming, Ziegler made the best of the pit by floating with his head just above the surface. Compared to the “hot box,” the water was nice and cool so that simulated torture did not have desired effect.
“I could stay there all day,” Ziegler said. “They were knocking on the lid asking ‘Are you Ok?’ When we were kids we used to play war. We didn’t realize this is no game. This is for real.”
When Ziegler first arrived in Vietnam, he thought the Seabees would set up temporary camps, but he soon realized all the buildings were permanent structures. This was not a promising sign, but proof of a fundamental flaw.
“Vietnam was a political war,” Ziegler said. “It was not handled right to me and to most vets. The politicians were pulling the strings. They would not let the military make the calls.”
In his view, this prolonged the war and made it more costly in blood and treasure. When the enemy figured out that any construction would be permanent, it made the Seabees more of a target.
“They didn’t want us there,” Ziegler said. “They just knew what was coming. We were constantly being fired at. We were always in it.” His 60-man unit lost 15 men killed by incoming fire over the course of his tour of duty.
Ziegler served a year and a day in Vietnam before returning to Carlisle. He followed the war in the news faithfully until about 1969 when he put it out of his mind.
If he saw the war in the newspaper, he turned the page. If he saw footage on TV, he switched channels. If anyone brought up Vietnam in a conversation, he walked away or changed the subject.
“It disgusted me that all those guys were killed,” Ziegler recalled. Meanwhile he went on with his life. When he got married in 1971, Ziegler moved to Penn Township where his wife was from.
There the couple bought land off her grandmother and raised two children. Ziegler pressed on in the construction field by working for 46 years as a carpenter before retiring in 2010.