Even while holding his draft notice, David Watkins knew he didn't want to enter the Army as a draftee.
He was 19, having just graduated high school in 1966, when the draft noticed arrived in August.
"Wonderful as it was ... I didn’t want to go in as a draftee, I wanted to enlist," he said. "My grandfather fought in World War I, my father fought in World War II, I had many uncles who fought in the Korean War, and it was my turn. Besides, I did not really want to be a grunt. So I enlisted in the Army as a 36K, Field Wireman.”
David was assigned to the 198th Infantry Brigade, and traveled with the newly formed unit by boat to Vietnam.
“The trip took 28 days," he recalled. "We had one fellow jump overboard, so it took us a little longer because we couldn’t leave the scene until they sent out a cutter out of Hawaii. He only bobbed once, and they figured he was sucked under and cut by the propeller. That was our first fatality.
“Arriving was just like those World War II movies where they throw the net over the side of the ship: we climbed down, got into LSTs and came ashore in Chu Lai. We marched through the jungle (it was a secure area to our hooches. We crawled into bed at about 2 a.m. At about 5 a.m. they woke me and a several other folks, gave us three grenades and a case of ammo and said, ‘You’re going to the field for the next month.’”
David flew to Duc Pho and trained with the 196th for a month before getting out into the field.
“I was a wireman, I didn’t go out that much, but I went out several times that month carrying a PRC-25 (radio). This was not a secure training area, you could run into the enemy. My second day there, I saw my first booby-trap. It was a grenade in a coke can. They strung a wire from the grenade across the path and pulled the pin. The can holds the spoon in place until someone hits the wire. One of the guys up front caught it, and we stopped and had a little conversation about booby traps.”
Memories of Vietnam
David recalled the first time he saw dead soldiers, and it wasn't due to enemy fire.
“One day there we heard an explosion up at the helipad. A Huey had landed with a guy they’d flown in from the field. He had grenades on his belt with half the pin broken off so it would be easier to pull. One caught on something and blew up, killed him and the gunner on that side, wounded the crew chief, and several other guys. The pilot and co-pilot were both trapped inside. The blade was still turning, but we tried to get the co-pilot out, but we just couldn’t get him out. The pilot managed to pull him out the other side but he was badly burned because the aircraft was on fire.
"It was the most incredible thing I think I’ve ever seen in my life. They don’t really burn, they melt. It’s magnesium, it just kind of melted right straight down to the skids. And before the blades stopped turning, the engine fell off. That was my first encounter with death over there.”
It also took time for David to get a handle on interacting and understanding the people of Vietnam.
“Later, heading back to Chu Lai in trucks, the truck in front of us hit a little boy," he said. "We stopped and he lay in the road in front of us. His mother came out, screaming and crying. The company commander came out with an interpreter and talked to her. After a while he handed her some money. I have no idea how much. She took the money, turned around, grabbed that little boy by the foot and threw him in the gutter like you would throw a dead dog.
"And it literally blew my mind. I have never in my life, before or since, seen something like that. I just couldn’t deal with it. I went and found the chaplin and I said, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on here, I just don’t understand it.'
“He said to me, “David, they’ve been fighting here for over 200 years. She can always have another child, but she will never again in all her life see that much money.' And it just brought home at least for me the cheapness of life. When you’ve been fighting that long and living in poverty that long, death is just another incident during the day. It literally destroyed me at the time. I’ve managed to overcome it because I saw worse things than that by the time it was over."
Carrying the radio, David spent most of his time at the base, never going downtown or where he thought he shouldn't be. His focus was getting home. But it wasn't completely safe on base.
"One thing I didn’t like was we had a lot of Vietnames kids who would come in and do a lot of work on the compound, and I didn’t like that," he said. "We had an incident at one of our other bases where a kid threw a grenade and killed six guys in a chow line, so I didn’t like that. I didn’t trust them, and I had nothing to do with them.
“I was at Chu Lai when the Tet Offensive hit," he added. "The enemy attacked Division HQ with rockets, and one hit a bomb dump. We were about eight miles away, and when that bomb dump went up it looked like an atomic bomb. There was a huge mushroom cloud, and you could see the shock waves moving through the air. My helmet was on the edge of our trench and the shock wave knocked it into the trench, we had hooches that were destroyed.
"I went down to HQ, and on the way I found two guys lying on the ground crying. I said, 'We have to go, we could get hit at any moment,' and they said 'There's no sense, that was an atomic bomb and we’re all gonna die.' There were a lot of panicked people, but when I got to the command post they told me it was just a bomb dump, and to get back and get ready to get hit. We never got hit, and I believe it was because the enemy started too late and didn’t get into position before the sun came up, and the choppers got them out in the rice paddies. We got away pretty easy."
End of tour
"I spent the rest of my time in Duc Pho, and it was probably the worst time when I was there.”
David recalled one night that would change him for the rest of his life.
“The 28th of May, 1968 is a night I will never forget. It haunted me for a long, long time. We were mortared, and at Duc Pho we were mortared about every other night. Our problem was if the shells hit a tent, they would go off when it hit the ridgepole and kill everyone in it. That night the first round hit the tent next to me. Fortunately there was nobody in it. I was laying in bed and a piece of shrapnel came through my tent and hit my dog tag that was hanging about two inches above my head.
“We had been mortared before, and my policy was that before I went to bed I would put my web gear and clothes in my bunker. The only thing I had by my bunk was my rifle, helmet and flak jacket. When that round went off I grabbed my dog tags and my stuff and out the back door I ran. There was a young man running for the bunker and I dropped in behind him. When we reached the entrance he stopped, and I just ran around him into the bunker. He stepped in behind me. The next mortar round went off right behind him and blew the two of us into the bunker. He was killed. I never got a scratch, he took all of that shrapnel.
“I pulled him in, put my bandage on him. He never moaned or cried, but he was obviously alive because he was bleeding terrible. I held him for about 45 minutes, then they took him away. The next morning I went to the field, so I had no idea who he was, all I found out when I got back was that he was killed.
“I had a thousand questions: Why? Why did he stop? If he had turned that corner it would have been me behind him. That was the part that haunted me. For years I had nightmares, always the same dream, and I’d wake up screaming. My wife knew nothing about Vietnam for the first 19 years because I couldn’t talk about it, all because of this young man. Why did he stop? Was he married, did he have children? What was he doing out there by himself? It haunted me.”
Years later, David finally found a way to make a kind of peace with the past while in semminary when a mentor forced him to admit he was avoiding Vietnam Veterans.
“I broke down and told them the story of May 28th, 1968, and they saved my life. I thought I had done nothing for him, and they said, ‘You did do something, you held him while he died. He did not die alone.’ I never thought of it that way. My supervisor told me to write him a letter asking all my questions, and had me read it to the others in the seminary. And they said, ‘You’ve done all you could do for him, now you have to let him go.’ I said I still didn’t have any answers and they said, ‘You may never have answers.'”
Eventually David visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the volunteers there helped him find out his name: Robert Randel Huff, a corporal from California.
Looking back, David says, “I did my job. I was never in a position where I knew I had killed someone. I was in several firefights. If you made it to the ground in the first 10 seconds, your chances of living were very good. But I was never face to face with someone I had to kill. But seeing that little boy, and this guy who gave his life for me, and the helicopter, these things haunted me for a long time. But if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from war it’s that the more you talk to people about it, the easier it is to lay it down.”