Charles W. "Wes"Boyer trained with the 82nd Airborne Division in 1943, but went into combat with the First Infantry Division as a replacement in 1944. He later fought in Korea and Vietnam. Boyer’s wife, Angie, sat in for part of the interview.
©2014, Aaron Elson
Mount Bethel, Pa., October 1995
Aaron Elson: You know, it amazes me that you were in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. That really puts you in a very small club. There aren’t many people who can, from a firsthand point of view, put things in perspective. I’ve heard stories about how when World War II veterans came home, the reaction they got was tremendous. You hear from Vietnam veterans, how they came home...
Wes Boyer: We didn’t get that much. Korea didn’t either.
Aaron Elson: What did you think, here you survived World War II and then Korea broke out. Did you expect that there might be anything like that?
Wes Boyer: No, you didn’t. No soldier did.
Aaron Elson: Where in Korea were you?
Wes Boyer: In Pusan. That’s where our outfit wound up. But they had a lot of people in body bags. Loads of them. Truckloads.
Aaron Elson: So I guess you could say it was worse than...
Wes Boyer: Oh yeah. Because you couldn’t see the enemy. It was bad.
Aaron Elson: Did you ever have any close calls yourself?
Wes Boyer: No, I had close calls with the Vietnamese people. We went into a city one time, and there was some sergeant just sitting there. I watched him get shot. I watched the people in the city shoot him. Vietnamese. He was on a bicycle, got off his bicycle and shot him. And then we went after him. And he hid in a village, and we went in all these houses, but those people won’t tell you nothing. They’ll protect him. We were gonna shoot him up. But we never got him. He got away. If we’d have got him he wouldn’t have got away. We’d have shot him.
Aaron Elson: I guess that must have happened more in Vietnam than in World War II...
Wes Boyer: Oh yeah. There was a lot of soldiers got killed in the city, in the towns and villages, for no reason. Because that’s where they lived. But you don’t know if he was a communist or if he was a good man who lived in the village. You didn’t know who it was.
Aaron Elson: In Vietnam, you must have had people who abused drugs.
Wes Boyer: We had a couple in our platoon that had drugs. But they live on it over there. They smoke it over there. That’s their life. So it was easy for a soldier to get it. You’d have to look at everybody before you went on patrol, to make sure he wasn’t doped up. If he was you’d dismiss him, report him to the c.o. or the colonel, they’d take him to a hospital or something. But that’s how they got killed, abusing drugs. They didn’t know what they were doing. But we’d dismiss them before we went on, we wouldn’t take nobody on patrol that had drugs. We’d get somebody to replace him.
Aaron Elson: Would there be a stigma attached to that, or would you discipline them afterwards?
Wes Boyer: Oh yeah, the commander would. But then if they’d see he couldn’t do nothing, they sent him back, send him back of the line, or to a hospital.
Aaron Elson: What can you recall about the first time you saw a buddy, or somebody you were real close to, get killed.
Wes Boyer: Well, you feel bad about it. It hurts. But you’ve got to keep going. I mean, that’s it, he’s dead. You’ve got to go and get somebody else. You can’t just stop what you’re doing because he died. You just have to put his rifle upside down and put his helmet on there and keep going.
Aaron Elson: You actually did that?
Wes Boyer: Yes. You can’t stay there. You’ve got other men to worry about. We had a couple of them got killed, but out of 15 we might have had 13 come back. The commander would say, "Where’s the other ones?" "They’re out there in the jungle. They’re dead." But you can’t take them, you’ve got to leave them there. Because you’ve got another 13 men to worry about.
Aaron Elson: What’s the morale of the platoon, when you lose a couple of people like that?
Wes Boyer: It’s down, a little bit. But then later on it gets all right. They work it off.
Aaron Elson: Did you lose many officers?
WesBoyer: Yeah. We lost officers. We had a general came, he was giving citations, he was flying in with a helicopter to give citations to the unit, and he was shot when he got out. He was bleeding. But he had his pilot wait right there, and he gave the citations, and he should have been in a hospital.
Aaron Elson: Did he survive?
Wes Boyer: Yeah, he got back in his helicopter and they left. And he was bleeding, because he got shot coming in.
Aaron Elson: Did you ever go into Laos or Cambodia?
Wes Boyer: Laos I did, not Cambodia. Cambodia, we had a lot of trouble there too.
Aaron Elson: But Laos was a secret? Did they make it clear that if anything happened it would be kept quiet?
Wes Boyer: Oh yeah. They wouldn’t say nothing. It would be hushed up.
Aaron Elson: Who would explain this to you?
Wes Boyer: Either the captain or the lieutenant. Most of the time it was the captain.
Aaron Elson: And what would you go looking for?
Wes Boyer: Underground installations.
Aaron Elson: Did you find any?
Wes Boyer: Yeah. We found quite a few. But you’ve got to be very careful in Laos. If you got caught, you had to keep your mouth shut.
Aaron Elson: What would they do if they captured an American?
Wes Boyer: They’d shoot him. Tie his hands behind his back and shoot him. Because they wouldn’t take him prisoner. We didn’t neither.
Aaron Elson: Did you ever go into any of the tunnels?
Wes Boyer: No, I was too big to go in there. They’re small people. They go in them tunnels like nothing. They’d have one in the house where they live, and maybe their wives and children are in there.
Aaron Elson: And they would be Viet Cong?
Wes Boyer: Yeah, they’d go underground. Some of them, you couldn’t get in there. Small kids could get in. We didn’t bother going in there, we’d just throw a hand grenade in. And I had a flamethrower with my platoon. We’d open this thing up, and he’d shoot the flamethrower in there. You’d hear ’em scream. Burn ’em up.
Aaron Elson: That must be a haunting experience.
Wes Boyer: But they’d do the same thing to you. They would never take you prisoner. But you could never find their bodies, because they took their dead with them.
Aaron Elson: Of the three wars, which would you say was the most significant for you?
Wes Boyer: Vietnam.
Aaron Elson: Why would you say that?
Wes Boyer: I don’t know, it was the country, I think. There was more fighting in Vietnam. There was a lot of fighting in Vietnam. Of course they don’t recognize that here. They’ve still got prisoners in Vietnam. They’re not all out. They’ve got them over there.
Aaron Elson: Why would they do that?
Wes Boyer: They didn’t all come home. They’re either over there as prisoners or they’re over there dead. Somebody’s got them. Because they’re not all here. There was a lot of soldiers in Vietnam. A lot of units.
Aaron Elson: You were how old when you went to Vietnam?
Wes Boyer: I went to Vietnam when it first started. I was 39 or 40 years old.
Aaron Elson: Were you considered an old man by then?
Wes Boyer: Oh yeah, I was an old trooper.
Aaron Elson: Did they respect you for that?
Wes Boyer: Oh yeah, they listened to me. Even the officers. We had a new lieutenant in one time. Vietnam is very muddy, because they get a lot of rain. And the lieutenant came in, he was gung-ho, shine your shoes, and jungle boots, and all that, and I told him, "You’re way off base." I was old enough to be his daddy. And the captain called the lieutenant in. He says, "Let me tell you something. You listen to that sergeant. He knows what’s going on. You don’t. This is not West Point." I got him clued in. And we took him out one night. He got scared.
Aaron Elson: Like shellshock?
Wes Boyer: Yeah, he got real scared. I told him, I said, "See this, Lieutenant? You don’t shine boots here. You’ll get shot."
Aaron Elson: But he got scared, and not shot?
Wes Boyer: He got scared to death. He didn’t want to go out. And then he never went out again. He wouldn’t go on patrol again.
Aaron Elson: What was it that spooked him like that? You must have seen that happen to several people.
Wes Boyer: Yeah, because when we got under fire, he didn’t know what to do. They don’t teach you that in West Point. In West Point, nobody’s shooting at you. But over there, it’s the real thing. And I told him, "Lieutenant, we can’t do what you want to do. These men have been out on patrol quite a few times. We’ve been shot at a lot of times. You’ve never been shot at. Those shiny boots you’ve got will never give. But he wanted to do like West Point, with everything up to date.
He was gonna come in and be a commander. I said, "We’ll never do that." Because in Vietnam, you know, they trained the bees to know where you are.
Aaron Elson: The bees?
Wes Boyer: Yeah. They knew that American soldiers, when they shave they put certain aftershave, and they trained the bees for that smell. And then sent bees in to kill you.
Aaron Elson: When you were on patrol, you’d be attacked by bees?
Wes Boyer: Yeah, because they’d train them for that lotion that you were wearing.
Aaron Elson: You saw that happen?
Wes Boyer: Oh yeah. I’ve seen that happen.
Aaron Elson: That must drive somebody crazy.
Wes Boyer: Yeah, because you get bees all over you.
Aaron Elson: What was that like when that happened?
Wes Boyer: Once you get stung, your eyes close up and everything else. You don’t know what you’re doing.
Aaron Elson: Did that ever happen to you?
Wes Boyer: No. It happened to a couple of people, though.
Aaron Elson: And you saw it?
Wes Boyer: Yeah. You have to douse him down with stuff to kill it. So his eyes don’t close up on him.
Aaron Elson: Were you ever in a fire base that was overrun?
Wes Boyer: No. They tried to overrun it, one night. But they didn’t get it overrun. Because we had a lot of bunkers, and they didn’t know that. A lot of barbed wire all around. We built bunkers ourselves. They tried. But they didn’t get in.
Aaron Elson: How close did they come?
Wes Boyer: From here to that house. To the barbed wire. That barbed wire would be right there, where that house is. But then we’d have our bunkers here, and they couldn’t get in. We made sure of that.
Aaron Elson: Were you wounded in Vietnam?
Wes Boyer: No.
Aaron Elson: Don’t tell me you made it through all three wars without being wounded?
Wes Boyer: Yeah.
Aaron Elson: You either were very lucky or very good.
Wes Boyer: I was lucky. I didn’t even get hit when I got the Bronze Star. But I watched everything I did.
Aaron Elson: But a lot of people who watched everything they did, there still was a shell fragment with their name on it.
Wes Boyer: We had someone in Vietnam who had a M-79 shell stuck in him. It didn’t go off.
Aaron Elson: Was he killed?
Wes Boyer: Uh-uh. They operated on him and got it out.
Aaron Elson: The doctors should have gotten a medal.
Wes Boyer: They probably did. But they got it out.
Aaron Elson: Did you ever write anybody up for medals?
Wes Boyer: No, I recommended them to General Westmoreland.
Aaron Elson: And what were the circumstances of that?
Wes Boyer: Oh, it was when a guy, he took off to get some people in a village, underground, and he wasn’t supposed to go there. But he got sidetracked and went there anyway. We stayed there to protect him, because there was nothing we could do because we were pinned down for a while. And then finally we got up and went over where he was. And he had five or six communists there sitting down with their hands over their head in that one little hut. He routed them out of there all by himself. He’s lucky he didn’t get killed. Because they had machine guns and all kinds of equipment. But he did it. So we recommended him to General Westmoreland.
Aaron Elson: For what kind of a medal?
Wes Boyer: A Bronze Star. They gave it to him. But there were a lot of people in body bags. They’d load trucks up with twenty, thirty, forty people at a time, take them to the air base. Loads of them.
Aaron Elson: That must be very demoralizing.
Wes Boyer: It is. Especially when they’re in body bags. They just unload all the body bags, you’d count ’em, two, three, four hundred at a time.
Aaron Elson: And then when replacements would come in...
Wes Boyer: They’d see the body bags, when they came in, the replacements, at the Air Force base, because that’s where the morgue was, where they did identification and all that.
Aaron Elson: Did anybody ever commit suicide?
Wes Boyer: No, I had people shoot themselves in the foot, just to get out of there. Get the Purple Heart.
Aaron Elson: Even if they did that?
Wes Boyer: Yeah, they’d get away with it. They’d do that so they wouldn’t have to go out and fight. Shoot themselves in the foot. Stab themselves with a bayonet.
Aaron Elson: Did you yourself have any brush with or indication of combat fatigue?
Wes Boyer: No. It didn’t bother me. It didn’t bother me at all, what I did. It was a job.
Aaron Elson: What do you think that makes that possible for somebody like you, and somebody else will go nuts, like that lieutenant, his first day, or the first time he was shot at?
Wes Boyer: It all depends how they can take it, their system and everything. Because later on it was just like a job for me. When I first started it wasn’t, but then later on, just like a job. It’s just like in the paratroopers. They tell you, when you join the paratroopers, there’s a day you join, and don’t forget, there’s a day you hang your boots up. The day you hang your boots up is when you’re up in that airplane and you say it doesn’t bother me to jump, because you’re gonna make a mistake. When you make that mistake, that chute ain’t gonna open, you’re gonna hit the ground. They tell you, don’t never forget the day you’re gonna hang your boots up, because you’re gonna make a mistake, you’re gonna get careless. When you have to put all those strings together, maybe you’d cross a string that you weren’t supposed to. When you pack a chute, you’ve got to pack it right.
Aaron Elson: Now in all those years, you must have gotten careless once.
Wes Boyer: Oh, I did a couple of times.
Aaron Elson: What happened then?
Wes Boyer: Nothing, really. Just got careless, that’s all.
Aaron Elson: But what were the circumstances, one time, when you got careless? Did you say, How could I have done something like that?
Wes Boyer: Yeah. One time. I went out someplace and I didn’t have my helmet with me, and everybody else had helmets, and they had their gas masks, and I didn’t have any of that with me.
Aaron Elson: This was in World War II?
Wes Boyer: Yeah. I was just by myself. And people started shooting, and I didn’t have a helmet. I had my gun, but I forgot the rest of it. I was in a hurry. I shouldn’t have been. But I got out of it. But you get careless sometimes. You don’t wear this, or you take your boots off. You never take your shoes off. Never. Take your shoes off, maybe you can’t get them on.
Aaron Elson: So how long did you keep your shoes on?
Wes Boyer: All the time.
Aaron Elson: For a week at a time, or a month at a time?
Wes Boyer: Oh yeah.
Aaron Elson: I just had somebody tell me he had his shoes on for six weeks without taking them off. Is that possible?
Wes Boyer: Oh yeah.
Aaron Elson: What do your feet feel like? Mush?
Wes Boyer: No, your feet are all right. The boots are uncomfortable, but your feet are all right. Maybe the day when you take them off, that’s when you get hit. You’ve got to be able to move fast, and if you don’t have your boots on, you’re in trouble, because it’s not easy to put them on. Maybe your feet swelled up and you couldn’t get your boots on.
Aaron Elson: Was it the same thing with clothes, you wouldn’t change your clothes?
Wes Boyer: Yes.
Aaron Elson: What was the longest you’d say you went without changing?
Wes Boyer: Fifteen days. Never shaved or nothing.
Aaron Elson: And slept on the ground?
Wes Boyer: Yep. When you come everybody goes, "Oooh, you stink." And you did.
Aaron Elson: Would you have food with you all that time, or what would you do for food?
Wes Boyer: We had C rations. Little canned stuff.
Aaron Elson: Were they able to keep you supplied?
Wes Boyer: Yeah. C rations. You could take them out of there and carry them anyplace you want to carry them, so they won’t be bulky, out of the box. But they were C rations. They taste terrible.
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