©2014, Aaron Elson
Cleo Coleman, of Phelps, Kentucky, was a gunner in the 712th Tank Battalion in World War II. His son Doug served with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam.
Pittsburgh, September 1996
Cleo Coleman: My grandfather fought in the Civil War, in Tennessee; that’s where he was originally from. He got to Kentucky when he was a small boy, and raised two sets of families. The first time he was married he had a bunch of kids, and then his wife died. The second woman he married had been married before, to a Hatfield, but he died. So they got together and had three more kids – my mother, one sister and a brother.
One morning, when my mother was 13, they were sitting at the breakfast table. It was in the fall, and my grandfather was supposed to pick beans. He was eating breakfast, and my mother asked him, did he ever shoot anybody? He said, "Honey, I don’t know. I was shooting at them and they was shooting at me."
Then she said, "Did you ever get wounded?"
He said, "No, but I was hit. Through the sleeve, one of my arms, I don’t know which one." It went through the sleeve of his coat and missed his arm. But he said that a miss is as good as a mile.
So he went to this field to pick some beans and never did show up and the family was worrying about him, and went to look for him. He’d fell dead from a heart attack. And Mommy was only 13. I don’t remember him; this is before she was married.
Aaron Elson: How old are you, Doug?
Doug Coleman: I’ll be 48 next month.
Aaron Elson: And you, Cleo?
Cleo Coleman: If I live to see January the 21st, I’ll be 75.
Aaron Elson: How old were you when you went into the Army?
Cleo Coleman: Twenty. I was 21 when I was taking my basic training.
Aaron Elson: Did you enlist?
Cleo Coleman: No, I was called.
Aaron Elson: And Doug?
Doug Coleman: I was drafted. At 19.
Aaron Elson: You finished high school?
Doug Coleman: Noooo, I dropped out of school when I was in 10th grade and started doing construction work. And when I turned 18, that’s when they drafted me. I got drafted May the 10th, 1968, and stayed in 19 months. But when I came back from Vietnam, I got credit for two years.
Aaron Elson: If you were drafted, how did you get into the Air Cav? I thought that was an all-volunteer outfit.
Doug Coleman: No, I was drafted into that. When I went into the service, I took my training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and they made me a field wireman in communications. So when I went to Vietnam they made me a grunt. They used to send me right out into the boonies. I was in a mortar platoon for six or seven months. I never saw a mortar platoon in my life until I got there. I mean I had no training for it. And I was a medic guard for about three months. If somebody up front of us would get shot I’d go up there with the medic and pull them back to the rear so we could medevac them out.
Cleo Coleman: Didn’t you operate a telephone, too?
Doug Coleman: No. Well, I carried a telephone. And when I started having all these problems – I suffer from post traumatic stress – they claimed I wasn’t a combat veteran. I had gotten the Air Medal and all of these medals, but they had me listed as a field wireman. And they said, "You were attached to Headquarters Company. You didn’t see any combat."
I said, "No, I’m a combat veteran." My mom had kept all my papers over the years. When I went to Vietnam I was a Pfc, and then I made Spec-4. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta – those are the body companies. It showed in the papers, "Private Douglas Coleman, promoted to Spec-4, Alpha Company." So when I took that to the VA, and he looked at all these medals and he looked at all of my orders that my mother had kept – a lot of Vietnam veterans destroyed everything they had – he said, "Well, you’re a combat veteran," and they awarded me a 50 percent disability. That was about four years ago.
Aaron Elson: What was your first Air Cav assault like?
Doug Coleman: I was scared. I didn’t know what I was getting into. They’d shown us some films about it before I went to Vietnam. But when I got on the choppers – there’d be anywhere from seven to nine choppers, and they’d each carry five to seven infantrymen, and they might have to make two or three rounds with the choppers to set everybody down in the field – I was real scared. I’d heard of companies being ambushed and wiped out once the choppers left. I know that happened to a couple of companies in my division, like Delta Company, Charlie Company, they almost got wiped out. And you’d hear a lot of talk between the guys, "We hope we ain’t in an L-shaped ambush when we get off of that chopper." It happened, like in that book ["We Were Soldiers Once and Young, by Col. Harold Moore and Joe Galloway], when they set down, Joe Galloway and all of them them, that’s what was waiting, an L-shaped ambush.
Aaron Elson: Can you describe an L-shaped ambush?
Doug Coleman: It’s where you set all the choppers down, and the North Vietnamese army knows that you’re coming. When you set down and the choppers leave, you’ve got fire coming in from two different ways. You’ve got crossfire and direct fire. In other words, you’ve been had. So I was always scared. I think I did 25 lifts. That’s what you call a hot LZ [landing zone] when you go down. Maybe there might be an LZ that was hit the night before, when they try to overrun the LZ, like a Japanese suicide mission. We’d go in there sometimes the next day, and we didn’t know what we would find.
Aaron Elson: What are some of the things that you found?
Doug Coleman: Well, you’d see GIs wounded, or you’d see a bunch of dead gooks laying around. Sometimes they’d already have the Americans in body bags ready to be put in the chopper. I’ve seen that a few times. But see, I only went through 25 air assaults, but I lived out in the jungle, sometimes it’d be two or three months before we’d come back. I carried my home on my back, and we would walk what you call clicks. In other words, maybe five or ten miles a day, and then at night we’d dig foxholes. We’d set a perimeter up, we’d set our tripwires out, we’d set our claymore mines out and we’d guard all night. And our mission would be search and avoid or search and destroy. If an LZ would get hit, we’d have to clear an opening out in the paddies and all these choppers would come in and pick us back up and take us back into this hot LZ. In other words, we were going where the action was at all times. That’s the way the First Cav was.
Aaron Elson: Who would cover you while you were doing the work?
Doug Coleman: Our support was artillery. We had a big base camp. And also air strikes. There’d be napalm and bombs, and then we had the Cobra helicopters. That’d be our support.
Aaron Elson: You must have worked under fire a lot.
Doug Coleman: Yeah, I did. For about ten months. We’d get C rations to last us for five to seven days. We’d carry ten to fifteen canteens of water, all your bedrolls, all your writing material, your smokes. You’re carrying that, and every few days you’d get a food drop. I was getting my mail anywhere from three to seven days, when they’d bring our C rations out. Because the choppers weren’t coming out to us every day.
Aaron Elson: How high was the casualty rate?
Doug Coleman: Well, I got a list when I was in Washington, D.C. I told them I can’t remember names, but maybe I could if I saw somebody’s name, I said I’d like to have a list of the First Cav, the casualties, between ’68 and ’69. I haven’t thought about it for a while, but I could go and get a stack of papers, I’d say, up in the thousands got killed, after the First Air Cav was in two years. There were ten thousand people killed in the First Cav. There were like 58,000 killed in the war.
Aaron Elson: You must have had some close scrapes.
Doug Coleman: Yeah, I have, boy.
Aaron Elson: Can you describe a couple?
Doug Coleman: Well, we got pinned down. We found out we’d run into a North Vietnamese Army hospital base. It was one of the biggest hospital complexes ever found in Vietnam. There were two helicopters shot down and I saw four pilots get killed, and I saw a lot of dead gooks, with their heads blown off.
Aaron Elson: Were you on the ground when you found the hospital?
Doug Coleman: Yeah. See, that’s what I was telling you; our mission would be search and avoid or search and destroy. We might walk ten miles every day, and you’re walking through the jungle. You didn’t know what you were gonna come on. I was down south, around Saigon. I was in Cambodia when we weren’t supposed to be in Cambodia.
Aaron Elson: Was the hospital complex heavily guarded?
Doug Coleman: Oh yeah, it definitely was. We had to call another company in to help us take it. I think we called the 11th Armored Cav in, plus all the air strikes. It was all bunkers underground. Above the ground there wasn’t very much.
Aaron Elson: What were some other close calls?
Doug Coleman: Well, there’d just be a firefight we’d happen to run up on because it was on the Ho Chi Minh Trail – that’s along Cambodia. Then you start shooting at each other, and you call your air support in or artillery. And then, after they put so many rounds in, you go back where you made contact and see if you could find any kills or any wounded.
Aaron Elson: You must have seen some close friends get killed.
Doug Coleman: Yeah. I didn’t actually see them get killed, but they got killed at the time all this was going on. There were quite a few guys.
Aaron Elson: How did you react?
Doug Coleman: It got so I didn’t care. It seemed like a dead gook, they were like animals. I guess he probably feels the same way; they weren’t human. When you saw an American get killed, it bothered you. But you got over it pretty fast.
Aaron Elson: How did you keep your sanity?
Doug Coleman: I used to drink a lot. They sent beer out, like every seven or eight days you’d get beer or Coke. And there were a lot of blacks; they’d go in the rear and they’d come back with a bag of pot and we’d set around at night and pass a joint or two around and take trips home. You smoked a little dope. I didn’t smoke a whole lot, really I didn’t.
Aaron Elson: Was there racial tension?
Doug Coleman: There was before I came home. That’s during all that rioting they had back in what, ’69 or ’68. And they were starting to come into Vietnam then, before I left. There was a lot of racial tension back in the rear. There wasn’t even no war going on back there. There was a lot of crazy stuff. They were pulling grenades out and throwing them in bunkers or in tents.
Aaron Elson: These were blacks throwing them in white tents, or whites throwing them in black tents?
Doug Coleman: I don’t know. It happened at night. I know we had a few incidents with some black people. But see, you had a lot going on. Martin Luther King got killed. What else was going on? A lot was going on back in the States, and everybody in Vietnam was replacements. Guys that hadn’t got drafted yet were in this rioting going on in the States. Then they were getting drafted, and they were bringing it to Vietnam.
Aaron Elson: How did that affect you? Did you feel abandoned by your own country?
Doug Coleman: No … I never did think about that. I got drafted in ’68, and I wasn’t a news person at the time. I didn’t really know how much racism and war protesting there was. I found out about it before I came home. They told us to watch ourselves, to hang together, and that there might be a lot of protesters. Then I found this out not too long ago – I never really had thought about it – they started flying the Vietnam vets home late at night so the protesters wouldn’t be there.
Aaron Elson: When your nerves started to go, what were you conscious of?
Doug Coleman: I don’t know. It’s taken me a long time; I’m just nervous about everything, and I have trouble sleeping. I have to take nerve pills to sleep. I’m sort of hyper. I keep busy, or I keep to myself.
Aaron Elson: When you were in Vietnam, how did you get taken off the line?
Doug Coleman: I was getting ready to go on R and R. I took my R and R and went to Australia, and had some dental work done. I had maybe two and a half months left. After I was out of the field for a while, I’d think about having to go back out there, and I started getting all nervous. I started passing out, and I started not eating. I started losing weight. So it had to be the thoughts of going back to my company out in the jungle. I started seeing different doctors. I had something like fifty days left. Then it got down to thirty-some days, and they said, "We’re going to send you back home, because we think you have," what did they used to call that? They call it post traumatic stress now. They used to call it shellshock.
When I came home, they told me to take a physical. I went to Cincinnati, and I brought all my medical records. It took all day to take the physical. Then, at the end of the day, they told me they misplaced all my medical records, and I let it go at that. A few years after that I went to reopen my case and they upped my disability from 10 percent to 30 percent. Then I had a nervous breakdown just a few years ago. When I was down in Chillicothe I saw guys that never were in Vietnam just walking around; they were getting 100 percent disability, and I’d been having all these problems, and I was just getting 30 percent. When I went down there – that was about six years ago – I weighed 137 pounds.
Aaron Elson: And how tall are you?
Doug Coleman: 5-10. That’s when I reopened my claim again. Then I got 50 percent, because I’d kept all my papers and I proved to them that I was a combat veteran.
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