Memories from a Time of War, 1965-68
Excerpts from Letters
History books and novels are filled with stories of young men and women going off to war. In each, the experiences and challenges are as varied as the people themselves. The stories tell of leaders and followers, cowards and heroes. In Where’s Charlie? Author Tim Soyars narrates his own story of how he came of age while serving in the US Army during the Vietnam War.
In this memoir, Soyars tells how his personality, background, and attitude contributed to his will to succeed and his desire to be involved in the Vietnam War. As a boy, he always knew he’d serve his country. With both humor and sincerity, Soyars narrates his story—his birth in Virginia in 1945, his induction into the army in 1965, his marriage in 1966, and his one-year service in Vietnam with the First Calvary from March of 1967 to 1968.
Including photos of the period, Where’s Charlie? conveys not only the sadness and heroics often associated with war, but also shares stories of warmth, compassion, and romance. It provides a glimpse into the horror of battle and offers insight into one soldier’s actions and thoughts during this unique time in history.
“Where’s Charlie” is hands down one of the top 10 Vietnam War memoirs EVER written! Tim, you wrote a dandy! Congrats!
Historian, specializing in the Vietnam War
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As a United States History Professor, I applaud Tim Soyars for his important addition to the literature on the Vietnam War. In Where’s Charlie?, Tim provides us with a personal and professional perspective on his service during the war. I always encourage my students to see history through the eyes of the people who participate in it. This book enables us all to gain a greater understanding of that trying period of our history. Tim’s inclusion of excerpts from letters exchanged with his bride Jeanie adds a special feature to this memoir, and it reminds us of the sacrifice and love taking place both in Vietnam and at home. Thanks to both for allowing a larger audience to share in their story.
Where’s Charlie? is an extraordinary history of one man – and one woman – during one year of the Vietnam War. This book contains a special richness: the organization is superb; the story is engaging and informative; the excerpts from letters between author Tim Soyars and his wife Jeanie are touching; the photos illustrate the people and places; the summary Operational Reports from Charlie Company add texture; the glossary defines unusual terms; and, lastly, don’t miss Tim’s brief “Reflections on Leadership.” I highly recommend this book – it is inspirational and informative on many levels.
Kenneth G. Alfers, Ph.D.
Professor of History
Mountain View College
EXCERPTS FROM LETTERS
Jeanie wrote to me daily, and I reciprocated when conditions permitted. She lived for mail delivery and I for mail call. In the summer of 1967, Jeanie and her family were at her parents’ lake property for a long weekend. The property was between Austin and San Antonio, but Jeanie drove to her parents’ house in San Antonio on mail days to collect the mail and then return to join the family. We both became depressed when several days would pass with no mail, and we reflected this despondence in our letters. Of course, the melancholy was temporary since soon three to five letters would arrive, and our morale went sky high. As time passed, we both knew that letters were on the way, and we learned to have more patience. We had only been married for a couple of months before I left for Vietnam and it was a tough year for both of us.
In many of my letters, I tried to give Jeanie descriptive information concerning my location. She had a map of Vietnam and attempted to track my location and movement the best she could. I was prohibited from writing about operational topics, but I tried to give her a flavor of my daily experiences and my location. I do not include excerpts from all my letters. I have used only those that I believe add to my war stories and the more poignant story of Tim and Jeanie. Periodically, I insert excerpts from Jeanie’s letters to me to show the perspective of war from the home front. While her letters do not contain war stories, they do tell the story of a young wife left to wait for her husband’s safe return. Jeanie was the most important part of my life while I was in Vietnam, and she was always on my mind. As you will see from the letters, she felt the same.
The following excerpts were reproduced faithfully as they were written. The regular font excerpts are from my letters, and the italic font excerpts are from Jeanie’s letters:
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25 March 67—Well, I’m really having a swinging Saturday night. I’m lying on an air mattress in my platoon command post (two ponchos fastened together on sticks and tied to the ground) on a hill overlooking a village and rice patties, swatting mosquitoes, using a flashlight, and writing my Gigi a letter. How’s that for excitement…. This morning we made an air assault three miles from our previous location. After we landed, the company went in one direction and I took my platoon on another air assault into the mountains. We didn’t find any VC, but we found a number of booby traps…. 1st Cav is a great assignment because the air mobility seems to be only a call away…. These are the greatest bunch of guys I have worked with. Each man knows his job and does it…. Tomorrow is Easter. I hope you got the flowers I sent…. Happy Easter … bunches of love and kisses.
25 March 67—It’s so hard to live on memories. Of course, your letters help tremendously; that’s what will get me through this year. But they just aren’t a sufficient substitute for my Timmy…. I know you are with me in mind and soul, but I sure am partial to having your body around as well…. I love you, sweetheart.
26 March 67—Good morning Baby, I hope the Easter Bunny came to see you. He brought me two Easter eggs. Every morning the battalion tries to bring us coffee and donuts. This morning we had colored hard-boiled eggs…. I am usually in a hurry when I write, so I don’t get to really explain everything. This morning we don’t leave on a mission until 1030 hours, so I have a little more time. Most mornings we try to start patrolling around 0800 hours and finish up about 1600 hours, if all goes well. We do very little night patrolling. The night before last I took my platoon out just before dark and set-up an ambush. It was an ideal ambush site, but Charlie didn’t come by…. This command really makes me feel great. Already the men, most with a lot more experience and age than me, look to me for guidance and leadership. It’s really great…. When I am patrolling, the time goes fast, but my thoughts are first with you and second on the safety of my men … eleven and a half months to go but only five and a half to R&R…. I haven’t had a shower in five days now—I should be really ripe in five and one-half months … getting close to assault time…. Be good, stay sweet and pretty. I love you bunches and bunches.
29 March 67—My morale is really sky high today. This afternoon we walked from the mountains to the valley below, about three thousand meters. The temperature is in the 100s, but when our supplies arrived, I got my first two letters.
11 April 67—Received some of your slides and they are wonderful…. I also picked up pictures made from your slides and will send the pictures of me to you in future letters. Please have more pictures taken of you…. I’m not so sure I want you to stay in the Army…. You can’t depend on staying in one place for long and especially when they need people like you in Vietnam…. I just couldn’t bear to be apart from you for such a long time again…. A life apart is not living, only existing…. Be careful and love me.
11 April 67—Hi there! This is your cheerful gift girl. (This note was included in a package Jeanie sent)
- Fold-a-note—so you won’t have to use GI postcards anymore (unless you want to, of course)
- Mailers—sorry, I could only afford five this payday. I’ll get you five more next month, okay?
- Notebook—as ordered
- The Green Beret—to fill in your idle hours and teach you about what’s going on in Vietnam
- Noxzema—as ordered
- Plastic cigarette packs—who likes moldy, soggy cigarettes anyway?
- Five ball points and five grease pencils—as ordered
- Two Army men—for you to play war with—what else?
- Water pistol—to protect yourself and is also good for taking showers
- Darts—also to protect yourself, but also to throw at large nude picture of a Playboy Bunny
- Various reading material
I Love You
12 April 67—The mailman forgot Charlie Company again yesterday. This afternoon I got nine letters! I love the smell on the letters. It must be your bath powder. I keep all of your letters in a plastic bag in my side pocket. I take them out and smell them from time to time, so I always have the smell of my Gigi with me. I love you bunches.
4 June 67—I never really expected love to be so wonderful, so fulfilling. That word wonderful keeps cropping up, but it applies to us and you so perfectly. Everything is wonderful (except being apart).
6 June 67—When I read the part about your nomination for the Bronze Star, I got all shaky and started to cry…. I’m very proud and happy, especially, now that it’s all over with and you’re safe…. I don’t want you to get any medals. All I want is for you to be safe somewhere. I want you and not a bunch of ribbons and metals…. Just keep your head down, okay?
Being shot at by the enemy is a soldier’s expectation during combat, but friendly fire is a needless and abysmal event during war. Since arriving in Vietnam, I had heard a number of stories about friendly fire causing injuries to American soldiers. In some instances, the friendly fire occurred because of someone’s bad judgment, such as calling in artillery, mortars, napalm, bombs, or rockets too close to friendly troops. In the case of artillery and mortars, generally the infantry commander in charge of the mission or a forward artillery officer provides a map coordinate to direct the fire. The ground commander directs the firing for napalm or rockets, usually by popping a colored smoke grenade to identify the location of the ground unit and by providing instructions where to drop the munitions. Each soldier in a company carried various colored smoke canisters, and, to avoid confusion, they wouldn’t pop smoke without permission to do so.
May of 1967 was a very busy month for Charlie Company. On May 7, our company made three combat air assaults before noon. All three were to follow up on reports of NVA activity in the valleys and mountains in the Bong Son area. In the early afternoon, we made our fourth air assault to a valley on the western side of the mountains with instructions to move up the heavily wooded slope toward the mountaintop to check out reports of enemy troop movement. Our landing site was a friendly LZ, and upon landing, Captain Markham called his officers together to issue orders for the mission. He put Second Platoon on point, leading the column.
As I mentioned before, the point platoon was the trailblazer and sometimes was an easy target should we make contract with the enemy, either in person or by booby trap. Platoons generally followed a prescribed formation, and in my platoon I always traveled near the front of the column and the first sergeant always traveled near the rear. The first man in the column is the point man and is most often a more seasoned soldier. Most of my men considered it an honor to be on point, and I’d have multiple volunteers if I asked for them. However, I usually called out a squad leader’s name and told him, “I want you on point today.” The squad leader assigned the point man and the marching order of his squad. Sergeant Sal and I frequently talked about the squad leaders and platoon members and their readiness for leadership roles, so I generally made informed decisions concerning the point position. My platoon usually proceeded in the following order: the point man, a rifleman, a grenadier, a rifleman, the lieutenant, the radio operator, a rifleman, the two-man M60 machine-gun crew, a squad leader, and so on to the end of the platoon column. Because we patrolled most days, often without any contact with the enemy, it was easy to become complacent. Knowing this, I led with caution and alertness, and my men followed my example.
On this day there was no trail, so we had to blaze our own way. I generally tried to keep the point man walking about ten to twenty-five meters ahead of the column, depending on the terrain, looking for danger signs. My instructions to the second man in the column were not to lose sight of the point man. I kept a close watch as well, since we had to be ready to assist if needed. The ridge was steep and heavily wooded on both sides. Fortunately, the brush wasn’t too heavy so we only needed to use machetes occasionally. To the west was a valley, and to the east was a deep, dry riverbed that rose abruptly to a much larger mountain. As we approached the upper quarter of the ridge, automatic-weapons fire erupted from my point position. Of course, we all hit the ground, taking aim at the distant trees for signs of the enemy. The point man of my column was within twenty meters of a column of NVA who apparently were blazing a trail down the ridge and heading our way. He saw the NVA before they saw him, and with the firing they scattered. I took up a position on the right side of the ridge and surveyed north and east down to the riverbed below. As I was surveying, my point man opened fire again, yelling that he’d spotted more enemy movement ahead of his position. At the same time, I noticed a small group of NVA moving in the riverbed below me. I fired and shouted for my platoon to follow suit; however, few had as clear a view to the riverbed as I did.
During this engagement, I was in radio contact with the company CO, keeping him informed. I made the point that the NVA wasn’t encamped but on the move, so he radioed battalion advising them of the situation. However, they had already called in napalm and helicopter rocket support. He ordered me to hold my position and wait for the air bombardment. From my position, I had a narrow view of the riverbed below. I noticed movement again and saw another column of NVA passing to the south. The brush and trees limited my view, so I could only see heads passing through this small opening. I saw one pass, then another. I opened fire and heard noises echoing from below. I informed the CO again that an enemy column was moving south and toward our rear. I asked if we should pursue them and suggested he consider sending one or two platoons down to block the riverbed. He reported this to battalion, who ordered us to stay put and wait for the air support. I think we missed a chance at the enemy right there.
Soon I heard the aircraft approaching our position, and the radio contact between the CO and pilots commenced. I saw red smoke about fifteen meters down the ridge from my position, and I heard the pilots identifying the target as about fifty meters beyond the red smoke. The CO acknowledged the target, but my point man was between thirty and forty meters beyond the red smoke. I called the CO and asked for clarification of the target and the payload. He replied, “Napalm is to be dropped fifty meters beyond the red smoke.” “My men are too near the target!” I exclaimed and asked him to abort the mission or tell them to identify green smoke, which I was popping. The CO said, “Don’t pop another smoke,” but it was too late. The pilots identified two colors of smoke and requested clarification. I asked the CO to tell the pilots to target fifty meters beyond the green smoke. I don’t remember him making any comment, but he complied. I called out to the point man to retreat toward my position ASAP, which he did.
I knew that my actions were disobedient, but under the circumstances I was prepared to take the punishment. The napalm hit, and the upper ridge looked like the sun had fallen from the sky. I could feel the heat, and the sound was deafening. The once forested ridge was a huge ball of fire and would soon be barren. Even with the target changed to fifty meters beyond the green smoke, the napalm blast leveled the area where my point man had been.
After the napalm, the battalion ordered our company to abort our current mission and locate a landing zone as fast as possible. The CO put the company in an about-face, and we moved to an LZ in the valley below. He set a very fast pace downhill, and we made it to the valley before our sortie of helicopters arrived. As the last helicopter lifted off, other aircraft flew over the ridge and pounded it, the creek bed, and surrounding mountains with a large arsenal of munitions. We had our sights on NVA that day, and I hoped that the bombardment took some of them. However, the NVA column was moving away from the targeted area, and I knew we had missed another opportunity by not blocking the riverbed to our south.
We made our fifth air assault of the day near another mountain to our northeast but still in the same mountain range. At the new LZ, the CO called the officers together to explain our next mission. I waited to be dressed down by the CO for disobeying orders. He did address me but only ordered me to once again take my platoon on point up the ridge. He said that battalion wanted us to move as quickly as possible and that another company was already moving up the ridge south of our position. An NVA column was on the mountain, and we were to give quick pursuit.
A well-worn path snaked up a defoliated ridge and showed signs of recent, heavy traffic. The forest line didn’t begin until the top quarter of the mountain. This would’ve been a great place for the NVA to lie in ambush. I had the platoon spread out so that, should we come under fire, we’d have room to maneuver and not provide easy targets. We reached the trees and continued to follow the well-worn path through the thick forest and underbrush. The trail flattened as we reached the top of the ridge. I now cautioned my point man to move a bit slower and watch carefully for booby traps and signs of ambush, and I then relayed this order to the rest of the company. Soon we came upon a dead NVA on the trail. Since his body position didn’t look natural to me, I instructed my men not touch or move the body. He was probably booby-trapped to entice souvenir-seeking American soldiers. The CO passed the word back throughout the company not to touch the body. We continued along the trail, seeing signs where people had been, but we found no one.
The sun was beginning to drop low in the western sky, and soon it would be dark. The CO received another call from battalion with orders to return quickly to our previous LZ and prepare to be airlifted to the east side of the mountains onto the Bong Son Plain. We were all very hungry and looking forward to setting up camp for the night. Soon the choppers arrived to take us to the new LZ, our sixth air assault of the day. Our hunger would continue a while longer.