This is Jenn Walsh and Kathryn Keane, here in H6 interviewing Foster Wright on May 8th.
Q: Please state your name.
Mr. Wright: Foster Wright
Q: When were you born?
Mr. Wright: I was born March 10th, 1942. That makes me 64 years old.
Q: Could you describe where you grew up and what your childhood was like? Do you have any siblings?
Mr. Wright: I have a brother and a sister, my brother is younger and my sister is older. I grew up in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, which is right on the coast, near Portsmouth if you know that area at all. When I grew up there it was a sleepy sort of country setting, a lot of farms, a lot of fishermen. Now, it’s sort of one of those posh suburbs of Boston. I went to high school there, and went to the University of New Hampshire; majored in English literature. That gets me close to the time when I went into the Navy.
Q: What did your parents do for a living?
Mr. Wright: My dad died when I was very young. I was the “parentified” child; I was the oldest boy. My mother was a nurse; she worked for the obstetrician in town. She was one of the “fabric of the community folks.” She knew everybody because everybody’s baby was born there, since there were only one or two doctors in town.
Q: Was your father in WWII?
Mr. Wright: Yes.
Q: What was his position?
Mr. Wright: He was a naval officer like me.
Q: When were you in High School?
Mr. Wright: I graduated from High School in 1960.
Q: What were those days like?
Mr. Wright: It was really kind of a bucolic existence. I don’t know whether you know that area, but it’s a beach community. We all used the beach quite a lot, and we were only an hour and a half from the best ski areas in New Hampshire. In terms of things to do, there was a lot. I had a lot of responsibility because my father was absent, gone. What that means is that anything that needs to be fixed you end up learning how to fix. I grew up on a farm that was not an operating farm at the time, but it was a house that was built in 1725. It always needed things done to it. So I learned very young to do things.
Q: As a teenager how aware were you of world events?
Mr. Wright: I think pretty much my family was the kind of family who had dinners where there was always vigorous discussion. There were interesting segments within the family; there were republicans, and democrats. It was in good spirit. It was a very vigorous group that was aware of what was going on, and discussed it. There was even rising of voices every once and a while.
Q: When did you first hear about the cold war?
Mr. Wright: Well the whole definition of a cold war is that it’s not going on. I was aware that the Russians had somehow after World War Two had become bad guys. I never really understood when I was young, quite how that transition happened. They were our allies during WWII, and very instrumental in breaking that back of Hitler, more so than we were. They lost weight and more soldiers, but it was an ideological difference between the capitalist systems and the communist systems. I think I became more aware of it as I became a junior and senior in high school. We studied it, but not the same way you guys do, because it was happening. You were experiencing it more than you were studying it. Its like how Iraq is for you, the discussions were about day-to-day events. When Gary Powers was shot down, and we all knew that we were now spying on them, and they’re not happy with us, there was an actually, not an omnipresent fear, but there was this whole notion that you could have a nuclear war, and that might end up being the end of the world as we knew it. I don’t remember worrying about that as a thing that would keep me awake, but it was sort of there. They used to have us hide under the desks; I always wondered what good that would do. But I always conformed; I thought I’d be wearing a desk into Never-Never Land.
Q: What do you recall about the general state of the country as you came of age?
Mr. Wright: New Hampshire is a funny state. I think we’re a little backward up there, you know in Massachusetts you guys are all activists down here… I wasn’t really concerned about a lot of things. We had our friends, and we were concerned about what was going to happen next week. The ‘60’s are an interesting time. There was a whole…wonderful movement around the civil rights movement that was just starting. I wasn’t too into that until my senior year in high school. One of my best friends, we played football together, he was African American… was probably one of the only families in town that was black, because black people were not common up there. He was one of my best friends, and he didn’t like to talk about it because he didn’t want to draw attention to it. But I think his family was very passionate about it… his name was Roy Jones. The point I was making is; I got to see it through his eyes a little bit. As we became seniors it was not a nice area up there around that kind of issue because there were a lot of people who were very prejudice.
New Hampshire is a little bit like the south in that way, its better now, I think it was much harder for him than he ever let on. We were inseparable, I never got it, that I wasn’t supposed to be hanging around with him. Some people would lift their eyebrows, but I didn’t care. He knew about Martin Luther King before I did, he knew about the movement in the south before I did, and he had relatives in the south. Then the music started, I think it’s wonderful stuff, its poetry. You had all the folk singers and they were singing about all of the movements, and as I started into college I became really aware. I think when you are a literature major you suddenly become part of the more liberal groups on campus; you do a lot of reading and it’s hard for you to ignore the plight of others. I remember reading To Kill a Mocking Bird and it was actually a book on the band list in New Hampshire. I remember going home and saying to my mother, “why do you think this book is banned? There’s nothing wrong with this book!” She was very aware, she just laughed at me and said, “you know your naiveté is really refreshing.” I had no idea how strong the feelings were; it was a struggle that was worthwhile; it was a very vibrant time, but it was also a very chaotic time, and there were a lot of hard feelings.
Q: What, if anything, do you remember about the Korean War and President Eisenhower?
Mr. Wright: The Korean War started in the early ‘50’s, so I was quite young then. I do have a very vivid memory: I used to take a bus to school from Rye beach because we went to Portsmouth to school. I think I might have been in either junior high, or even younger, and I remember there were come Korean War veterans who rode the bus as well to go to work. I think they were working at the naval shipyard. A couple of them were wounded; in fact, one didn’t have a leg. I remember that having a really amazing impact on me. They were sad looking guys; they had that “hundred yard stare.” I think they had just gotten back. I probably wouldn’t fully understand that until I had my own experience with it. I do remember people being killed, but I wouldn’t say it was a huge part of what we were thinking about everyday.
Q: How do you view John F. Kennedy?
Mr. Wright: It’s complicated, I think of him as a hero, because he was, but I also see that he was just a regular person. He was not this mythological god that we have set up. I think the country would have been better if he had not been assassinated. We might not have made the mistakes that we made early in Vietnam. I say that because he had experienced war, and I’m not sure that he would have gone to it as easily as some of the people who were in leadership positions after he was killed. I loved his speeches, I loved his affect, but you know he was a flawed person, just like a lot of us are.
Q: What were your plans upon graduating from high school and college?
Mr. Wright: The Navy actually helped pay for my education, so I knew they were going to get me. I graduated in January rather than in June. I thought that I’d get to go to graduation in June because they don’t have a graduation in January. I remember getting these orders from the Navy and they said, “Second Lieutenant, you are to report to San Diego no later than ‘da da da’, and there is a plane ticket to be picked up at the post office.” I called this chief petty officer in Portsmouth, and I said “Chief,” I had worked with him all through college, “this is some mistake.” He said, “what’s the mistake?” I said, “They gave me these orders, and I have to go to graduation in June, so I’d like to hang around until June before I go.” And there was a long silence on the other end. I said, “well, I’d like to get my diploma.” He said to me, “if we wanted you to have a diploma we would have issued you one. You’re going to get your butt to San Diego.”
I had never been out of New England; I got on an airplane out of Logan, non-stop to San Diego. I had uniforms because I had been issued them, I get a taxicab to the pier, to the base, in San Diego, and my ship is sitting there. This is the first ship I went on. There was a lot going on around the ship; I went aboard. Right as soon as I came aboard they brought in the brow, which is what you walk over to get on. There were three short blasts, and we started to back out. I said, “where are we going?” And he, a fellow naval officer, said, “We’re going to Japan.” This is all within about 48 hours, and I’m on this ship that’s backing out, in tiered, “we’re going to Japan?” We were going there for two years. I said, “well, I’d like to be able to give a call to my family.” He said “we don’t have any phones on the ship; you can send a wire maybe, if the captain approves it.”
I was the navigator; you’re in charge of getting the ship there. The other navigator had already left, so here I am, and I’m 21 years old, barely. The destroyer was about a 400-foot ship; it’s not a big-big ship, it’s very sleek. I had grown up around the sea, so I had sailed all my life. I knew how to do most of that stuff, but I wasn’t used to being in charge. And we’re heading for Hawaii because that’s our first stop, Oahu. I could use the sexton, and I was talking sightings and plotting them, using the electronic systems. I remember staying up all night the night we were supposed to make landfall. The best thing I ever heard was this ukulele music on the radio. I said, “we’ve got to be close!” You could use what you call a radio direction finder, which is kind of cheating. I got the radio and I said “oh yeah, it’s right out there”, and it agreed with what I was thinking so, we got to Hawaii.
We crossed the pacific; we went down around through the Marshal islands, stopped at Midway, which is midway through the pacific. We went from there to some of the islands in the sound, and then up to Okinawa. Refueled at Okinawa, and then went to Yapuska [?] Japan, which is where we were home ported for two years. We operated off the gun line, off of Vietnam. I was in Vietnam twice; the first time was on a destroyer. The second time I had my own command.
Q: When did you first hear about the conflict in Vietnam? Did you worry about how it might impact your future?
Mr. Wright: It was a big thing when I was in college, because the beginnings of war protests were happening. Again, New Hampshire was about five years behind, but the protests were starting. Especially since I was a literature major, that group was much more apt to be current with protests and issues because you were reading the stuff. Then there were people that came through to sing the protest songs. You had hootenannies…they were big gatherings of people that were really not famous then; Joan Baez would come, Peter, Paul and Mary, all these people would arrive and sing. UNH was a little bit behind. If you were in Boston around Harvard, or MIT, or Tuffs it was cooking, but we were not cooking as much up there. We were still studying. I don’t think they ever closed down the campus there, maybe after I left it. I graduated in ’65, and by then, Vietnam was starting to really cook. Earlier than that, not everybody was really aware of what was going on there; it was sort of an advisory role, that we had some military there, not a lot.
Q: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident led to the Golf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave L.B.J. war powers to dramatically escalate troop levels. When did you learn about the controversy regarding the truthful nature of the attack on the USS Maddox?
Mr. Wright: Well the Maddox I’ve seen many times because she was a destroyer too. She was the same class destroyer, so we operated in the same areas. In fact I know exactly where she was that night when it happened, and we had seen the same kind of stuff. They did have some patrol boats that came out after us once and a while, but they didn’t have torpedoes, and they weren’t really a big threat to you. What they probably saw that night was “sea return” on the radar. I think that it is a little bit like Iraq. I think they were looking for an excuse to escalate the war then, and they got one. They ratcheted it up and they used it as an excuse to start bombing. I think some of my most conservative friends would agree that that’s what happened. Some of us kind of guessed because we were kind of salty by then, we said, “what’s that? What’s the Maddox up to?” They sent out the spot report, and even the captain of the Maddox afterwards said, “wait a minute, I’m just telling you that I thought it was a patrol boat torpedo,” but by that time it was too late. It went up to the joint chiefs, and they said “well, we’ve had it with these guys,” and that’s when they used the excuse to start the heavy bombing, and then we put in lots and lots of troops.
Q: What’s “Sea return?”
Mr. Wright: If you have bad weather, you will pick up the tops of the waves on the radar, and it will look like something is coming at you. When you are in shallow water, it tends to heave up more, and when you’re off the coast of Vietnam, it’s fairly shallow, so you can get fooled. You can actually track it, and get a course and speed on it, and it’s moving pretty fast, it might be going 35 knots. We are pretty much convinced that’s what happened, and even if there were a few patrol boats, they weren’t much of a threat to a ship like this.
Q: What would you do if you saw a patrol boat approaching?
Mr. Wright: You see these things right here? [Pointing to the massive guns at the front of the destroyer in his picture] That’s a five inch 38, boom, they’re gone. The North Vietnamese knew that, they knew that the range of these things was about 7 miles, and they are very accurate; you could put it right down their back pocket about 6 miles out.
Q: How did you get involved in the service? What was your experience like joining the armed forces?
Mr. Wright: We didn’t have a lot of money because my dad had passed away. I actually had an appointment to the naval academy and I decided I didn’t want to go. It is a very technical education and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be locked up for four years. I still needed the money, so the chief petty officer I was telling you about at the submarine base said, “you can come to drills here, (they didn’t have a Navy ROTC at UNH) we will send you to OCS for two summers.” It’s called the [ROC?] program. They paid me during that time, so as soon as I graduated, they kind of owned me.
I knew from the get-go that I was going to go, but I didn’t think that the Navy was going to get me involved in Vietnam that much; thought I was going to see the world, which I did, I got to see everywhere. Before I went to Vietnam the destroyer I was on went to Sydney, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, and all over the South Pacific. It’s a demanding experience because on a small ship you get really significant responsibilities. At age 22 I was standing on the bridge of the ship at night going 30 knots in a formation with carriers and other ships; if you make a mistake you’re in real bad trouble. You had a lot of responsibility from the time you’re very young. We got shot at out there. In Vietnam when I was in-country it was not the first time [that he had been shot at]. They didn’t miss us by much. The destroyer took us into harms way, we picked up downed pilots, we got into engagements with shore batteries, we provided support for marines that were on the beach, and every once in a while we would get in too close. They actually hit us a few times, with short fire.
Q: Describe what it was like in basic training. Where was it and what did you do there?
Mr. Wright: When I went through officer training it was in New Port, Rhode Island. It was demanding, academically demanding, you had to learn engineering and navigation. They were trying to put pressure on you to see if you could manage it. Everywhere you went you ran. It was summer and it was always hot. I was kind of skinny anyway, but I still lost weight. I was an athlete, so I thought I was in pretty good shape, but that was not the hardest training I went through.
Just before I went to Vietnam I went through the training in Coronado; which is in San Diego, at the amphibious base. We had a very hard focused training before going over seas. The training included survival skills; you go three or four days without food, you do a prisoner of war simulation, they actually do some torturing to get you to know what it would be like if you got captured, I mean, they don’t hurt you too bad. They did some mean things. They hit me in the side of the face a couple of times, I was with my crew, I had a six-man crew. When you went to survival school they had us all lined up, and they actually had uniforms on from another country. They were mean. One guy came up and asked me what my name was, and I said, “My name is lieutenant” and he hit me. He asked me my name again, and I said, “I’m lieutenant” and he hit me again with an open hand. But he hit me so hard that it cut the inside of my mouth. My radar man, he’s about eighteen, he said, “your name’s not lieutenant JG (junior grade), he just wants your name.” He got me out of trouble.
That was so hard that actually some people broke; they were looking to break you. All I kept thinking was; this is going to last five days, and I can do anything, and I’m going to be eating Mexican food at the Cinco de Mayo over in San Diego. I would just say this isn’t for real, but some guys, it affected them; they got so sleep deprived, and beat up, not having food and water, it took only five days for them to break them down.
Q: What was it like being away from your friends and family without being able to say a proper goodbye?
Mr. Wright: I was so busy at first, but then you get to the middle of the ocean and you have time to think; you would write letters, but they wouldn’t get mailed, it’s not like the mailman comes by. My poor mother got ten letters all at once. We would hit a port and they would dump our mail off. We couldn’t pick up mail either; the mail was always chasing us around. I don’t remember if I was homesick or not; it was an adventure. There was part of me that liked going to sea. We got caught in some big storms in the north pacific; 60 to 70 foot seas for days. I didn’t get seasick because I had grown up on the ocean. I was just blessed. I thought of it as an adventure, and I didn’t get home for a long time. I came home just before I went to Vietnam, so I was gone for two years without coming home.
Q: Did you bond quickly with the men on your boat?
Mr. Wright: Yeah, on the destroyer there were a bunch of guys young like me. Some of the guys who came out of the naval academy thought they had more authority than they did. They had a harder time; I think you have to show people respect. I worked for Chief Petty Officer, and he was an enlisted guy, probably in his forties. Here I am 21 and I’m his boss. I was smart enough to know that he knew about fifteen times more than I could ever know. I treated him that way, and he protected me; some of the other guys, they made a mistake, and they didn’t get protected.
Q: What was it like when you arrived in Vietnam? Where were you? How did you make the transition?
Mr. Wright: My crew and I left San Diego. We went from San Diego out to San Francisco. We thought we were going to get on a military transport, but they had a big Pan-Am; we flew non-stop from San Francisco. Luckily we had an evening in San Francisco, and I have to say we weren’t in very good shape when we got on that airplane. I had lost my shot record, and the guy said “lieutenant you can’t get on the airplane to Vietnam without these shots.” I thought for a minute a reprieve! But they had another solution; they gave them all to me again.
We flew on this air-conditioned airplane in our uniforms; we landed at Cameron Bay. The door opened and the thing went down, and we all walked into what felt like an oven; it was so hot. It was a real transition from America to Vietnam. We were trucked over to the base. There was a lot of stuff going on at this time in the delta, which is where they were going to send us. They hadn’t issued us any weapons, so here we were; very well trained, but no weapons. They put us on a C123; which is a two-engine airplane. We flew south to a place called [Wong Tao?], at the tip of the delta area. Then we took a helicopter from [Wong Tao ?] to a place called [Cat Lo?]; only we couldn’t go there because it was being over-run. Here we are, there’s traces flying around, it’s nighttime and the pilot says, “I don’t know where to put you guys down. There’s another swift boat detachment up this way, I’m going to put you down there.” There wasn’t any shooting going on there, but it was kind of a shaky proposition. He dropped us in this place, took off, and we’re standing there. Luckily, there were a couple of guys standing over by a jeep. They said, “well he dropped you about 5 miles from where he was supposed to, but we’ll take you there.”
So we drove through this semi-hostile countryside, with no weapons. He [one of the escorts] had a 45, and seemed to be all right with it. We got to the base, and that’s where it all started. We ended up going out on a couple patrols with other experienced guy, and about a week later we got our own boat.
Q: Why did you think you were going in Vietnam?
Mr. Wright: It’s hard; I knew by that time that this was a war that had all kinds of shades to it. I had some reservations, but they were kind of in the back of my head rather than in the front. I have to admit; I volunteered for this. I could have stayed on that destroyer. The captain said “I’d be willing to recommend you for an independent command. You’ve done really well here.” There is a part of me that has gotten me in trouble over the years, that has an adventurous soul. It sounded like it would be interesting; I’d have my own crew, sort of like a PT boat. They [The independent command boat] went 50 knots, they had two twelve-cylinder diesels, and they were mostly at that time doing patrols off the coast. It was only a little bit dangerous, but that changes by the time I get there.
I was a literature major, so I can’t claim I wasn’t politically aware. I had some questions about the war. I had some thoughts about why we were there, but they were not out front like they were later.
Q: Were there any other men in your group who were more against or for the war?
Mr. Wright: The other officers, maybe. Most of the enlisted because of their age were undecided; there was nobody except me over 18 years old. We had all gone through this hard training together, they were tough guys; they weren’t the offspring of people who live in Wayland. This war was fought mostly by lower class Middle America. They were wonderful guys and tough as nails. I don’t know what it was that drove them, a little bit of the adventure? Their fathers had all fought in WWII, so they had inherited this responsibility. They took it seriously.
I was a little bit different; I knew that there was something amiss. I wasn’t sure what, but I became sure fairly quickly.
Q: Did you believe in the domino theory?
Mr. Wright: We were sort of aware of that notion. I didn’t have an opinion about it before I went there. When I got there, I could speak Vietnamese; they sent me to language school in Monterey, California. I wasn’t fluent when I first went in, but I got pretty fluent. I made very good friends with an older man, who was sort of one of the head guys of the village near where we were based. I remember one time asking him, “what about the Viet Cong and the Communist party?” He looked at me and I said, “Well, are you loyal to Saigon?” He rolled his eyes, and he finally took a deep breath; he said to me, “you know lieutenant; I have never been further than maybe four or five miles from here. I go to sea and I fish; I can trace my family back here for a thousand years. I don’t know what communism is. I don’t know these guys in Saigon.” I started to think, my God, somebody should be talking to this guy! Then he said to me, “I have one son who was drafted, taken away by the Saigon government and put in the army, and I have another son, and he’s with the Viet Cong.” I said, “oh my gosh, this is like our civil war.” I remember thinking; this has nothing to do with international politics. I read Street without Joy, it’s about Bernard Fall who was killed in Vietnam; he was a journalist. I started to get this longitudinal feeling that this hadn’t just sprung up; the Vietnamese had been occupied by the French, then the Japanese. Then, we actually were on the ground advising their folks against the Japanese, we helped them kick the Japanese out. In fact, some of the precursors to the CIA, the OSS guys, the Ivy League types went there. Also, the constitution for North Vietnam is very similar to our constitution. The North Vietnamese, not the south, the guys we were fighting against. You think about irony! Once you started to think about it, the domino theory just goes away. History was vaster in my mind. There were more cause-and-effect things happening that had very little to do with somebody’s theory about whether communism was going to topple everything in South Asia. Now in retrospect, it didn’t seem to.
Q: Did you hear anybody discussing the domino theory and the fight against communism as the reason you were there?
Mr. Wright: Not so much. Our discussions went late into the night because a lot of us became very concerned by the nature of the operations. After “Tet,” and that was in ‘68, it happened just before I got there, this country got very frustrated with their ability to deal with Vietnam. They changed the rules of engagement; which are the rules under which you fight. They created what they call “free fire zones.” If Vietnamese were in those areas they could be taken under fire without any warning. They put out charts of the ocean off the coast, and then the inlets we operated in, and they declared certain areas free fire zones. They distributed those to the Vietnamese with coordinates on them. The problem was the Vietnamese had been fishing in those areas for a thousand years, and that was their livelihood. The other thing was they didn’t use charts, and they didn’t know how to read a chart. They went out, turned right, watched the point as they drifted; just as the fishermen where I grew up did. I was very familiar with what they were doing. You don’t see a Maine lobsterman with a chart very often. He knows the water so well; he drives that boat around, smells the water and says, “I know where we are.” The problem with it was that innocent people started to get killed. I remember talking with John Kerry about it. We were in our twenties and we would say, “this is outrageous,” and we wouldn’t do it. A lot of us refused to do it, but some did, that’s the problem when you have that kind of freedom given; it opens the possibility for all kinds of bad things. We knew that of all those boats that were in there fishing, maybe one out of eight hundred was a bad guy. The rest of them, they live on those boats with their whole family. Extended families were on those boats too. If you take them under fire with 50 caliber machine guns, you’re going to kill a lot of people who are just trying to fish. That is when we started to have some real questions. It got so serious, and they got so worried about our discussions, that they brought us all up as a group to Saigon to talk to us. To fire us back up again, and chew us out too, because there were guys who said, “We’re not going to do it, sorry,” and stuck with it. It was really interesting; we got a sense of power because we were chosen, because we were smart. We were given independent commands because we were smart. The mistake they made was, they chose very independent people, you couldn’t say to them “go do that” and they’d just say “ay, ay.” They’d say, “what are you talking about, that’s a stupid thing to do.” We took a lot of heat.
Mr. Wright: We had discussions long into the night. I expect like sometimes you do when you talk with your friends. We would come back off a patrol, and you know, you’d say, “you know, it was dangerous, we took a lot of casualties, a lot, lots; we had a lot of people killed, a lot of people wounded.”
Q: Do you know a specific number?
Mr. Wright: We took 75% casualties. That doesn’t mean everybody was killed, it was killed/wounded. I could get you a number, I could give you a website. They actually have a list of all the guys that were killed. I remember a fellow named Don Drose (?); I was actually just with his wife when Kerry made the speech recently at Faneuil Hall. She came back out east for it, she lives in California, and Don Rose graduated from the Naval Academy first in his class and had a scholarship to Oxford, but he put it off to serve a little bit, and he was killed there. In fact, he was killed right after his baby was born. He had gone to Hawaii to see Judy and the baby, and came back and was killed within 5 weeks on an operation down on Tonla Peninsula (?). I mean you can see a lot of what the boats looked like, there’s a color shot.
Q: How many of you were there on the boat?
Mr. Wright: Usually 6, including yourself. Let’s see if I can find some of the action shots. (Mr. Wright is shuffling through photographs). You can go through these if you want. This is a picture here of them taking some of our wounded out. This is a picture of a boat, so if you think that we were up, out on the sea, you can see how close the shore is. There’s another one, look how close, so we’re right in the jungle. Here’s another one, they’re coming right out at you. This is the Tonla (?) Peninsula, where Don was killed, right here. These are helicopters that are flying in our support. They’d come in and get our wounded. They’re called ‘dust-off’ choppers. Here’s a picture of a boat making a turn right up against the beach. So you can see how close we were to the, to the…(continuing to shuffle through photos), these are some of the guns on the boat. We were very heavily armed, not armored; it was made out of sheet-aluminum so the bullets would pass right through the thing. Here’s an overhead view of us operating on a canal. You can see how narrow it is. Here’s what’s left of one our boats that got hit, and we had four or five people killed. That’s Don Drose’s boat; he was killed on that one.
Q: How many survived?
Mr. Wright: He (Don) had a whole UDT team on board. I think he died, I think the UDT foreman died. I think there were 3 or 4 killed. Then there was another guy killed trying to come back and help him, on the 38 boat.
Q: And when you were going through these canals, what was the point of…what were you guys expected to do?
Mr. Wright: We were usually looking for trouble. You know, and the way we looked for trouble was that they shot at us, and then we banged, hit them back, and so it was kind of you always got an ambush place. It wasn’t a good idea; we always thought it was stupid. We’d say, “well, why are we going in there?” They’d say, “We’re going to show the flag, we’re going to go there so that they know that we can go there if we want to.” Sometimes we’d carry Marines, Vietnamese troops, and put them in and then pick them up later. We’d carry SEAL teams, which are the Navy commandos. We’d operate a lot at night. It was pretty scary. I’ll tell you a funny story; my crew - I had a great crew and my radar man was a very bright kid, not well-educated, but really smart, he could fix anything- we were on this operation, it was really dark; I used to operate the radio, and you had your helmsman who did the driving. You had a 50-caliber gunner, the fore-gunner, and the after-gunner, but he stood right beside me because he was in charge of navigation. He got mad at me, he says, “this doesn’t bother you at all, does it?” and I’m looking at him, and I’m not paying attention to him, you know, I’m trying to go down, it’s dark, I’m trying to watch the radar, and he’s picking at me, and he says, “you know, the rest of us are scared to death, and this doesn’t bother you at all?” I’m thinking, what the heck is he talking about, I’m so scared I can’t talk that’s why it’s quiet, and to this day, I’ve never told him because it was important for him to think that I wasn’t scared, because I was in charge. Here I was, you know I was 22, I had just to show my calmness. You know one time we had 35-40 holes where they shot us up. A bunch of my crew members got wounded, luckily, nobody seriously.
Q: This might be a stupid question, but didn’t the boat sink if it had holes in it?
Mr. Wright: Only if it was below the waterline, otherwise, ok, but being hit below the water line was not good. You know the rockets they fired at us are RPGs, the same things they fire at these poor kids in Iraq. Same weapon. Just like the AK-47, which is what they all carry over there. The things would go right through the boat without detonating – in one side and out the other -- because it was designed to hit a tank. And we weren’t so thick…we wouldn’t even know we were hit or anything, so it would explode in the water. And my fore-gunner, it went right by his legs and singed, the propellant singed the hair off his legs. He turned around, he just looked at me, and he goes (gesture…). You had to have a bit of a sense of humor…it was a dangerous job. That’s why in some ways this whole thing about Kerry is so bad. You know, they go after him for his medals… Anybody that went out on these operations, I mean you were, you deserved medals. A lot of guys didn’t get medals because we didn’t have anybody with us that had a typewriter that could write it up. He got a lot of his medals because of spot reports that he didn’t write; I mean somebody else wrote them. But, that’s a whole other story…
Q: What did you do to pass the time?
Mr. Wright: Ducked. We ducked a lot. There was a lot of boredom. You know war is funny. You know, we used to call it hours upon hours of boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror. We used to read a lot. I read lots of books, just to sleep, when I could. The thing I remember there is being overwhelmingly tired because they would put us out on patrol. They would run us, you’d go get just a couple of hours of sleep, then they’d come and get us and out you’d go again. I can remember being so tired that we got a call for a fire mission. The marine gave me the coordinates, and I can remember numbers well, because I was trained to do that, but I was so fuzzed... I don’t know if you’ve ever been really, really sleep deprived, so I had to write the numbers on my hand, and then go over to the chart and, you couldn’t be wrong. Here you’re going to put a mortar round up; you better be right, you don’t want to hit the guys that are calling the fire. I can remember thinking, ‘I got to do this really carefully,’ because I would fall asleep standing up. I would fall asleep in a hole half filled with water. I mean, I could sleep anywhere. I remember being totally tired. But, still, when we had time off, I read a lot. I had a lawn chair that I kept on the front of the boat. I would sit up there. When we would go to sea, the coast off of Vietnam was actually beautiful. I had a hammock, I didn’t like to sleep below; I slung a hammock from here, back to here (pointing at location on a photo of boat). Then I would sleep on it.
Q: Where you ever afraid of sleeping up there?
Mr. Wright: No. There’s no protection in the boat, so if you’re just there… I got bananas. The crew thought I was nuts.
Q: But you were in charge, so they couldn’t say anything (laughing…)
Mr. Wright: Right. I was in charge and they couldn’t say anything, though, we had the kind of relationship that they could say something.
Q: How would you describe your relationship with Senator Kerry during the war?
Mr. Wright: You know, he and I didn’t run into each other a lot while we were there. You know, you’re close to your crew; I expect it’s a little like flying a bomber during WWII whereas you came back, and you might drink beer with other officers you know. We (Senator Kerry and Mr. Wright) were off doing things, we bumped into each other; I actually got to know him much better when we got back here. What we had was a common experience being in this unit so we became close friends just because of having this common experience. He was down south, and I was up north; and I was down south when he was up north, you know, those kinds of things. I was there a little bit longer than he, too. I was there for over a year, which is unusual. Usually you did a year tour then you were out. I kept waiting for my orders to come and they didn’t come.
Q: So you know him better today?
Mr. Wright: Yeah, yeah. We all found each other when we got back. I mean I knew him there, but I didn’t…you are closer with two or three guys that had boats that you operated the boats with, but mostly, your crew, because you lived on the same boat.
Q: What was the hardest part of combat?
Mr. Wright: You know, once it started, I was fine. It was before it happened because we knew the areas that were bad. We’d go to the briefings sometimes early in the morning, maybe 3 o’clock in the morning, and you’d be sitting there taking a lot of notes and you’d be saying, ‘Ahhh, jeessh, we’ve got a 50/50 chance of coming back from this one.’ Then you’d have to go back to your crew and you’d have to say to them, and they’re all sitting there, with these big eyes, looking at you. “You’d say, well, we are going to go to blank.” They all knew, and they’d say, “ohhhh…” You know, and you’d be afraid, but then you had to deal with it. Then, once it starts, for some reason for me, once the stuff started to happen, I was fine. I don’t know whether that was crazy or not, but I could function; and that was important, because if you had people wounded, you had to call in medivax and get them out of there. You couldn’t go crazy, you couldn’t lose it, you couldn’t go running around. You had to stay calm.
Q: How did you feel about the enemy?
Mr. Wright: You know, it’s interesting. Some guys really hated them. I don’t know what it was, but I didn’t. Part of it was, I think, because I could speak their language. We captured guys, and I would always talk with them, and you know, they were an interesting group; some of them were very well educated. They had been educated in France, and Vietnam itself had a good education system. They were actually, as you look at it, they were fighting for the right to determine their own way of life, and we were there, if you want to look at it this way, to re-institute French-colonialism. I mean that’s the only way you can look at it. Why where we there otherwise? You could say the ‘Domino Theory,’ but that’s a little bankrupt. I actually came to respect them. They were tough guys. They’re little, but they were wiry, but they were tough. Some people think they were the best fighting infantry since the southern, our own southern soldiers. They could live off the land, they were courageous and tenacious, and I had respect for them. Some guys called them ‘gooks’ and ‘slopes,’ and all kinds of names that were derogatory, but I didn’t have that in me.
Q: Was it because you saw where they were coming from?
Mr. Wright: I was starting to put it together. It’s hard for me to separate out what I know today, and what I knew then. I was starting to put it together. You know, I got to ‘curiosity,” that’s how my brain works. I’m not prepared to hate somebody just because they’re shooting, I guess, shooting at you is a good reason to hate them, but I’m kind of curious about him. You know, you get this guy, you’ve just whacked a gun out of his hand, you’ve got him trussed-up, and you start talking to him, and you find out he’s got a mother, father, sister, he comes from a farm, you came from a farm, he fished, you used to fish, I mean, you know, at the end of the day you had more in common than you had differences, except, that you’re quite willing to knock each other off. You know, it’s kind of an ironic thing.
Q: How did seeing people injured and killed impact you both today and then?
Mr. Wright: Yeah, I know this says nothing good or nothing bad about me, but I didn’t come home with a lot of baggage. The reason I say, I’m not sure that says something good about me is I have the capacity to compartmentalize things and the more sensitive guys, who I think actually are maybe nicer, the guys that get affected are the most sensitive people, or the ones who already had difficulties in life. I didn’t have the ‘Vietnam Syndrome.’ I went, came back, and went right back to school. It was almost like, I was back here.
Q: Was it like you didn’t skip a beat?
Mr. Wright: Well, I did, but I certainly pretended that I didn’t. I was lucky, I went back to the University of New Hampshire, and I took a Master’s degree in philosophy. There were a lot of guys there from Vietnam, we found each other, we talked to each other, so, I had some decompression time. But, you know, I think it changed me forever. I’m not here to say to you that I think I’m a very different person because of that experience. I can’t tell you exactly how. I don’t get upset about things that some people do. I mean, people will get all upset, and I’ll say, “jeesh – nobody is shooting at them”. You know? I’m serious. It’s a really good thing too. I mean, people do get upset about things they shouldn’t. You know, my kids once and a while do that, and I’ll say, “aw, come on, you’re going to be alright, you’re not going to die or anything.” They don’t get it, and you know, you can’t impose your perspective on people, but if you’re running an organization, it’s healthy because you can just say, “Well, we’ll just fix this; nobody is dead, right? We can fix this.” You know, if somebody is dead, it’s hard to fix it.
Q: How did battle change you?
Mr. Wright: (sigh…), I don’t know, I found out a lot about myself. I think it tests you in a way that I don’t think you can get tested that way in any other way. I was an athlete, and it’s not even close. I mean, some guys can’t do it, and again, I don’t know that says anything good about me that I can, I mean, I don’t say it as a statement of arrogance, I say it as, I didn’t get seasick either, I mean, is it the same? I don’t know, (sigh). It does change you forever, but I was able somehow to manage, and I have friends that didn’t; I have friends to this day that it changed them in a way that it made life really hard for them.
Q: How was morale of the troops when you were there?
Mr. Wright: You know, we had pretty good morale. We were a select group. We were very independent, we operated independently. You know, they talk about drug items; I saw a drug problem there, but we were probably too afraid to do it, to use the stuff. You know the last thing you wanted to do was be compromised in terms of your ability to function.
Q: Do you think that was more the Marines?
Mr. Wright: No. I think the Marines were more like us. I think it was more the back-troop areas and I think guys when they had free time, and maybe some of the, I think it was, ah, I don’t want to castigate the Army, but some of the Army. I don’t really know about the others, but I know we had less of it. Way less.
Q: Was it because you had to be very focused?
Mr. Wright: Yeah, and we lived very closely, too. I would have known right away, and the other thing is that we carried so many weapons and we were on so much…. we did so many dangerous…why would you want to?
Q: Because you had to be responsible for yourself.
Mr. Wright: Yeah! You could be dead, you know, make a bad decision and you’re gone. Although, you know, certainly, it was there, I mean, in other places.
Q: During Johnson’s term, he greatly escalated American troop levels. Did you think that we were doing enough to win the war?
Mr. Wright: You know, I think if we had decided that we wanted to win, we could have won. I’m glad we didn’t because it would have meant, you know, a more standard form of warfare. We would have had to have gone right up to Hanoi. You couldn’t do it with just bombing. But we had the capacity to; you know, put 16 or 20 divisions in there and march north. We could have won, but at the end of the day, what would we have won? It’s a little bit like Iraq. Are you going to stay there for next thousand years?? Because, eventually, those people wanted to run their own country. And I think they had a right to. Just as I think that perhaps Iraq does to, and I hope that we can get ourselves extracted from that before we’re too caught up, if we aren’t already…
Q: The ‘Civil Rights Movement’ was front-page news at home. How do you feel racial differences played a role amongst the troops?
Mr. Wright: It made it very hard because we had a lot of African-American kids there – black kids. And, ah, he was their hero.
Q: In your section?
Mr. Wright: Yes, I had African-American kids on my boat. My gunners-mate was African-American. He was from Texas. The nicest guy you’d ever want to know, and he was…. you know, people were devastated. And I had enough – he was sort of a hero of mine by then. I had read a lot of his stuff – his speeches were magnificent, as you know, and there’s enough of sort of a liberal core that already started to form me…mostly because of what I had read. You know, you can’t read Thoreau and Emerson, and all those folks and not have it affect you in a way that sort of moves you in that direction. And, you know, I was very interested in the enlightenment in Europe – Rousseau, and Locke, and those guys. They were sort of the thinkers that put together out constitution, and I thought they had it right. And, so I thought, you know, you can’t have slaves. That doesn’t go together, and I think African-American…. you know, even after the Emancipation Proclamation, for 100 years, you know, it was terrible! I mean, in the South, everywhere, so I think that Martin Luther King was a hero. He’s probably one of the most important characters in American history in my mind.
Q: As of 1967, opposition to the war increased, reaching its height by 1970. How did you perceive anti-war protestors and how did they impact you or the morale of your troops?
Mr. Wright: Well, we didn’t know, people say, well, we didn’t think about them. You know the Kent State was tough, because we thought, “Oh my God, they’re shooting kids on campus?” That was a big thing. I mean, everybody started to think, “Is it coming apart there, back at home? It was not so much an ideological thing. It was, “What??” When did they start shooting kids on campus?” I mean, it was kind of tough, and then Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. I mean, that was pretty amazing time, when you think about it.
Q: What did you make of the famous ‘Tet’ offensives?
Mr. Wright: Well, I wasn’t…. the ‘Tet’ happened just before I got there. I knew a lot about it because I was in the Delta area, and it was the turning point in the war in many ways because the propaganda we were putting out to the people at home was that we were winning. They had very little ability to launch any kind of major offensive, and then, all of a sudden, ‘bing!’ they launch this major offensive… And that changed the war. It ultimately ended the war, but it took a long time. It was the beginning of the end, when ‘Tet’ happened, in my mind.
Q: How did you hear about the My Lai Massacre?
Mr. Wright: Actually, I heard about it just a little bit about when I got to the country. I heard more about it when I got home. It was pretty bothersome. I think two of the biggest heroes of that war are the two guys that reported it – they’re helicopter pilots; they never got anything for that until much later in their lives. I always thought that Calley should have been tried by a bunch of guys who had been there, and hadn’t done that stuff; I think that he would have been found guilty, and I think he would have been put away for life. But, basically, he basically got court-marshaled by some senior people, and they didn’t want to have a whole lot… I mean, he did some prison time, but not very long. What he did was awful; it was murder, and you can’t, there are rules within war; it sounds kind of crazy, but there are rules. It’s chaos, you’re trying to kill each other, but, these were men, women, and children who are no threat to them, and they lined them up and shot them, and these were Americans that did this.
Q: Do you know anyone who was involved?
Mr. Wright: No. No. That was Army; way up north from where we were, but similar things happened in our area. Bob Kerrey, Senator Bob Kerrey, who was a SEAL. I knew him in Vietnam; his first operation he ended up killing a lot, and, you know, he lived with that his whole life. He actually got a medal of honor, later, had his leg blown off, but he lived with that his whole life. It came out, finally, about five or six years ago, and he admitted that that’s what had happened.
Q: Had he just lost control?
Mr. Wright: He was young Lieutenant, first operation at night, took some fire, opened fire and killed a lot of men, women, and children.
Q: But he was just following orders?
Mr. Wright: Well, it wasn’t so much that. It was the confusion of battle. I know Bob Kerrey, and I don’t think he would have done that. You see, the difference with Calley was that the fighting was over. It was clear what he had done; it wasn’t at night, and he shot them in a ditch; put them in a ditch and shot them. It was a little like Nazi Germany. With Bob Kerrey, it was nighttime, it was confusing, he was not experienced, and they opened fire when they shouldn’t have; he’s lived with that. It harmed him. He was a senator, now he’s the president of a college. You would like him, he’s a really good human being, but he has nightmares about that to this day. Guess he probably should.
Q: When Nixon was elected in 1968, he promised peace with honor and to gradually turn the war to the South Vietnamese. Did this sound like a good strategy?
Mr. Wright: I think they were just trying to find a way out. You know, this was just rhetoric. You know, when politicians start talking and they say, ‘peace with honor,’ what does that mean? I mean honestly, how much honor can you have? He was looking for a way out so that he could say; you know that he didn’t run. The war was over by then, just nobody knew it; or nobody was admitting it. You know the politicians got us into that war. It was McNamara and those guys, and McNamara has written a book which is sort of an apology for it.
Q: And have you seen ‘Fog of War,’ his documentary?
Mr. Wright: I have, and I’ve read the book. There are a lot of good things that have been written about Vietnam. McNamara’s makes sense because he finally says that, he almost admits that they did it with ‘cooked-up’ stuff.
Q: Especially with the ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ situation, he really admitted the truth about it.
Mr. Wright: That’s right. That’s right, Yeah, and you know, think about that, fifty thousand guys die.
Q: Ok… What was it like when you knew you were coming home, and how did it feel?
Mr. Wright: I remember leaving. I took a helicopter; I had my crew with me, and well, we first had to take a jeep to the airstrip to get the helicopter. And, they wanted us to check in our weapons before we would take go, and I said, “no way, as it were, I’m going to be armed to the teeth before I get out of here.” They looked at me, because we were tough guys, and they didn’t dare say anything, because we had knives and guns sticking out all over the place. We took our stuff and drove in the jeep – we were all crammed in the jeep, and we drove there. Then, we get to the helicopter, and a guy’s there and said, “Well, we’re going to take all your weapons, you’ve go to check them in,” and I said, “Nope, not when we’ve still got a long flight, and this thing could fall out of the sky, we were not taking a chance.” It’s funny, we get to Thompson airstrip, it’s like a big international airport. We’re dirty, we’ve got grease all over us, but we’ve got knives, and we’ve got guns, and we look like a bunch of pirates. You would not want to mess with us. We’re literally armed to the teeth; three or four weapons a piece. And this major, with all shiny boots and stuff comes up to us, and says, “You guys can’t have guns here”. I said, “Well, we’ve got them.” He said, “Where you going to turn them in?” They didn’t have any facility for turning them in, so I said, “Sir, I’m willing to make a gift,” and I handed him all the stuff. He’s standing there, and all this stuff is piling up all around him. He was getting really upset with us, because we were being kind of wise guys; but it was clear, he’d never been anywhere close to where we had been. I remember looking back, standing there watching him, and wondering, he’s looking at us, and we’re heading for the airplane. We get on this Pan Am North American again, I looked over my shoulder, and he’s standing there, and I could tell he was thinking ‘what do I do with this stuff?’ We get on the airplane, it’s all air conditioned, and it takes off. Actually, I wasn’t going straight home. We went to Hong Kong, then we went to Japan, then we went to Hawaii. When we came back, we took a long time to get back. On the way to Hong Kong, I said to the stewardess who was nice, she was from the Midwest, I had piled up my clothing in a Hong Kong hotel, and when I came back to the hotel I said, “What is that smell?” It was us. She said, ‘Yeah, you guys stink.” Because we would go months without showering, we would just go in the rivers to get clean. We were pretty primitive when we came out. It was good to take the time to come home. My crew went directly home, and a bunch of the officers that were in my unit, we went to Hong Kong, and we went ‘hopped,’ we were actually supposed to back at Oakville Naval Hospital; we were going to be patients at the hospital because we were underweight, and I had problems with my…. But we didn’t show up for about six weeks, and they were really upset with us. They didn’t know where we had been. We said, “well, we were just kind of hopping around up there;” we’d talk to the pilots, and they’d say, ‘oh sure, get on, we’ll take you.’
Q: This was your entire crew?
Mr. Wright: No, my crew went home, this was just some of the boat officers. We were adventurers. We figured we’re all the way out here, why go straight back?
Q: See the world, and then go to the hospital.
Mr. Wright: Right, then we go the hospital, and we get in trouble at the hospital. One of my best friends, Steve Hanson, had lost his leg. He was in our unit; had his leg blown off, and he was just recovering. And we took him out of the hospital, unauthorized, with his first wooden leg. We brought him back that night, and they kicked us out of the hospital.
Q: Where did you take him?
MR. WRIGHT; Well, there was a big dance. He was not supposed to leave the hospital. We went over to this dance, and there were a bunch of Navy nurses there; and that’s where he met his wife.
Q: Good you took him then!
Mr. Wright: Absolutely! That’s what we told him, but, when we got back, and you’re lugging in this guy that is in a restricted ward and is not supposed to be out of the hospital, and he has got this primitive wooden leg on, they just kicked us out of the hospital. They sent us over to Treasure Island, to the BOQ, and nobody knew what to do with us there. We stayed at the BOQ for about five weeks, just hanging around San Francisco, and checking in every once a while. It was a good decompression time, so coming home was slow for me.
Q: It wasn’t just one quick trip.
Mr. Wright: No, no.
Q: Upon your return back to the U.S., vets were described as ‘baby killers’. Did you ever have any negative experiences?
Mr. Wright: I remember flying into Logan. You know, you get so deeply tanned, and have to take these malaria pills, which turn you a little yellow. You can tell guys that have been there, because they have this skin color, ‘jaundice.’ It’s actually healthy looking because you get so much sun, too. I had on a summer uniform; a khaki uniform because I didn’t have any civilian clothes that I could wear at that time. I flew into Logan, it was late fall, and it was cold. I remember thinking; jeesh, it’s so cold. Rye Beach is about an hour from Logan and I got there late at night. I hadn’t told anyone I was coming. I had just hopped a flight, quickly; I was lucky to get on it. I didn’t want to call in the middle night, but I was kind of stupid, too, I should have known better. I had a lot of money; I had saved a lot of money, so I took a cab from Logan to Rye Beach. It was a chunk of money, but I didn’t care. I remember I got home, it was early in the morning, and the only person up was my dog, and he almost had a heart attack when he saw me; I hadn’t seen him in three years.
Q: Did he recognize you?
Mr. Wright: Oh yeah! He was a lab, they never forget! He looked up, and ran over like a shot; he was old then. I hung around with the dog for a while. I didn’t wake anyone up. Then, I started some coffee, I drank some coffee, then my mother came downstairs, and she almost fell over. That’s how I came home.
Q: What was it like seeing your family and friends?
Mr. Wright: Oh, it was wonderful, but, you know, everything had changed. The things in this country had changed a lot. My family hadn’t changed much; my mother had gotten a little older.
Q: Did you see a difference in New Hampshire?
Mr. Wright: New Hampshire had finally changed. They finally caught up. By then they were circa 1968! You know? I had been awarded some medals. This is a funny story. I got a letter from the Navy saying they would like to award them on the Constitution, and I said, “I don’t want to do that,” my mother actually wanted me to do it, and I said, “well, I don’t want to do that,” so she respected it. The Naval Base in Portsmouth, the submarine base, that’s where I had done my training before going in, they had also gotten a letter, so they sent it to me. They have what they call a public affairs office who informed the local newspaper, which was the ‘Manchester Union Leader,’ a very conservative paper in New Hampshire, and it was even more so back then, and the paper sent out a reporter to my house. He wanted to write a story on my medals, and he found out I didn’t want to go the Constitution to have them awarded. He started to think of me as not such a good guy. I’m saying, “what is this, I don’t have any responsibility to please you,” I got mad at him, and I’m coming from an environment, where, you whack people, you know. The guy wouldn’t go away, and was actually being disrespectful at this point, calling me “one of those ‘liberals,” so I picked him up by his lapels and I pushed him out the door. That’s my relationship with the Manchester Union Leader. I remember thinking, why does he think he can say that to me? Wasn’t it enough that I was there? I just don’t want to go and do this, it wasn’t even a political statement, I just didn’t want to do it. I had enough. Also, getting a uniform on, I didn’t want to do that; I wanted to go back and find my way again. I went back to the University of New Hampshire; I took the Master’s degree in political philosophy. By then, there, they were starting to catch up with the rest of the world. It was a good way to decompress; to study.
Q: Have you been to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall?
Mr. Wright: Yep.
Q: How would you describe that?
Mr. Wright: I have a lot of friends on the wall, so it’s very emotional for me. I think it’s a really effective memorial. I think it’s symbolic. The power is amazing. I mean, when you walk down into it, it almost surrounds you, and you can’t miss the numbers of people that died there. I mean, it’s possible that at some other memorials where they have a single soldier that you can miss the magnitude of what the sacrifice was. I don’t know whether it was an accident that she was able to do that. I think she had a poetic instinct about how you present this, and she pulled it off. It’s remarkable to me that they let her do it because it’s a Taiwan memorial. I think so. You can’t list all those names and invite people to put things there without causing people to think deeply about individuals. It’s possible in war never to consider the individual. That war wall really kind of reaches out and grabs you. It’s name after name. And, if you go during the good weather, people still leave things.
Q: Also, I think the size of the font. You know, usually war memorials, the names are too small. But these you can really see.
Mr. Wright: The names are big enough to see.
Mr. Wright: My daughter was there – you know the trip that you all go on.
Q: Which we didn’t.
Mr. Wright: Oh, god. Where you bad?
Q: No, it was right after 9/11.
Mr. Wright: Oh, that’s right.
Q: And, it was April, and the war had officially begun, and they didn’t want us in D.C.
Mr. Wright: I gave her some names to look up.
Q: Did she do etchings?
Mr. Wright: No, she didn’t do that. She was going to. There were some veterans there, and she was very respectful. They were touching the wall, and she said it was pretty remarkable.
Q: Obviously you are close friends with Kerry to this day. How do you react to the role that Vietnam played in the presidential campaign?
Mr. Wright: I think that he lost because he didn’t respond to the swift boat stuff. It has become a verb, ‘he’s got swift-boated’. And, he didn’t respond the way he should have. We tried to counsel him. He was listening to some people who kept telling him it would just go away. It was still playing pretty well and hard right to the end of the campaign. I was traveling for him in Ohio and none of us that were close to him personally could actually even get to him any longer. It was really this group of political, I have a word for them, but it’s really not nice. I fault him too, because he took that advice. I said to him, “John, you know, part of being president, is knowing good advice from bad advice.” I could say those things to him, and he gets a little mad at me, but I’m still, you know, one of the benefits is I say what’s on my mind. You know, we’re paying a big price now, I don’t mean to get political, but I think we’re paying a very big price right now. He’s a very smart guy, and I think he would have made a very good president. You know, John has flaws too, but he winces at the right time. It’s like this (makes expression), ‘not good’. We don’t have a guy who winces at the right time, but anyway, I shouldn’t say that, right? It’s ok, though, I can say that.
Q: Do you see any parallels between what happened in Vietnam and what you see and read in the news, as far as Iraq goes?
Mr. Wright: I know a lot of people say that it’s not similar. I think it’s very very close. I know tactically; that’s what they mean when they say it’s not similar, it’s the desert versus the jungle, but here’s where it’s really the same: we have a group of people there who are the indigenous folks, and then you have us, we’re outsiders and that was very similar to Vietnam. Let me tell you why it’s similar. The only reason that Al Qaeda and the other insurgents can function the way they are functioning is either one of two reasons. One, the people are afraid of them, or that the people are on their side. I’ll tell you why that’s the case; because if the people were against them, or not afraid of them they would turn them in, so what you have is most of those people don’t want us there. Just as in Vietnam, they don’t want us there. That’s why the Viet Cong could attack us at night and disappear into the population, and we never knew where they were or who they were. No effort from an intelligence point of view is going to break that down, if the people are protecting them. That is the problem we have there. Once again, I think we find ourselves sort of on the wrong side of things. I think Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, please don’t misunderstand and its probably better that he’s gone, but you have to take a long view of this. People think of the Middle East as this collection of solid countries, but you want to take a look at the map sometime; there’s very straight lines between countries. Do you know why that is? The Brits drew the lines. The Brits went through the same thing that we’re going through, a hundred years ago. You know the battle of the Khyber Pass, in Afghanistan. We just forget. History; we should study it and remember it but we don’t.
It’s interesting to me that we haven’t remembered that it’s basically a tribal area out there. They’ve been warring with each other out there for a long time; the Shiites and the Sunnis. Here we are stepping in thinking we’re going to referee, in a game that has no rules, it’s chaos and we’re loosing people there. Americans are very optimistic, we think that we can go give people candy and they’re going to love us. We always want to be loved. We are always shocked when they don’t love us. They don’t love us because they want to determine the fate of their own country. Vietnam was that way. I came to realize through speaking to guys that we captured that they were like us. I would be doing what they were doing. They did not want French colonialism to return. The best book I’ve ever read was Howerson’s [?] book; The Best and the Brightest. It outlines all the way from our involvement helping the Vietminh against the Japanese.
A critical thing happened when Roosevelt died. Roosevelt had made some promises to the Far East; that he wasn’t going to let colonial powers return. When Truman took power, the old European forces and the state department screwed that back around. Then, when we made the very very critical decision after Dienbienphu; which is the battle that the French lost to the Vietnamese, we should have learned something by that, but we decided to go back in there. We did it with a little air support. It’s like a “tar-baby,” and pretty soon we were stuck in there again. We came up with all sorts of theories for why we were there, and they haven’t really stood the test of history at all.
I mean, if you look at that area, I actually think its moving more towards capital systems. I’m not going to be surprised that if in a hundred years, we’re extensively involved in training the Vietnamese. We’re already getting there; John’s [Kerry] been back there a number of times to try to work that out. John McCain, who’s a friend of mine, has been there. I mean here we are, fifty five thousand guys died, and the postscript is; ‘well, communism fell of its own weight some how in that part of the world, and even in Russia.’
Q: Do you see the Bush doctrine as the Domino theory of the 21st century?
Mr. Wright: I think he [the president] thinks at some level that he can somehow project an American form of democracy, and I think even something more, something that has a religious base to it; which is hard for me. I’m a Unitarian; I don’t think you impose on other people your value systems. I think he’s on a bit of a crusade; he actually used the word. You go like this and you say, “oh my God!” That word in the Middle East is not a word that’s going to gain you a lot of friends. I think this whole crew that he has is much more about image than substance. I think they think they can spin everything. I mean I think they’re saying we’re being successful, and what you don’t notice it that they keep backing off with what the end game is.
I’ll make a prediction to you; we’re going to get out of there pretty quickly all of a sudden, and it’s going to be, “oh it’s all fixed. We’re out of there; it’s up to them now.” They’re already saying that now.
Mr. Delaney: “Iraqification,” like “Vietnamization.”
Mr. Wright: Yeah, “Vietnamization.” I was involved in the “Vietnamization.” That’s why I ended up spending more time there than my year. I could speak Vietnamese, and I remember my boss calling me in and saying, “Everybody else is going home, but you’re not.” I said, “and tell me why this is a good thing?” I said, “I forgot!” But we were turning everything over to them. It was fast, and you know it was a tragedy in some ways. There were tragedies upon tragedies; this was like a Shakespearean play, with all of the nuance. A lot of people had bought into us, and we left them hanging. There were some really not very nice things done to them after we left. You know, we could have stopped the North Vietnamese from coming down, all we had to do was put air on them and they would have stopped, but we made a very political decision that we’re out of there, whatever happens happens.
I think we’re very…it’s almost an immaturity beyond imagination. I don’t think he’s [the president] a very smart man, and he’s surrounded by ideologues who you can predict what they’re going to do. That’s always a bad thing. You know he doesn’t change his thinking very often, no matter what happens, and that’s not the sign of a mature thinker. It’s a little like what children do, I’m serious, you’ll say, “These are all the reasons you can’t do it,” and then they’ll come back and ask you the same question again. So what didn’t you hear? It’s very similar to that.
Q: Are you a proud Vietnam veteran?
Mr. Wright: I’m proud to be part of a group of people that I have tremendous respect for. Some of my very closest friends are from that time. You become, probably as close as you can to people under those circumstances. I still am in touch with my crew. I remember when I first got married; the kid from Texas was one of eleven. He got arrested, and was in jail, and he called me, and he said, “I need $500 for bail.” I just got married and my wife didn’t want me to do it. I said to her, “I going to send $500 to this kid.” She said, “What?” I said, “You don’t understand, I’m going to do this.” We didn’t have a lot of money, we were students then, and she said to me, “You’ll never see that money again.” I said, “Yeah I will.” I sent him a wire, of five hundred to get out. Six years went by, and I didn’t hear from him. I hoped that he was ok; I tried to reach him a couple times. One day a check comes in the mail for $500 with a note saying, “I’m ok now.” That’s all he said. “I’m ok now.” You know, that’s what you do. You don’t ask a question, you just…and I think if he had to, he would do the same thing for me.
That’s why when John Kerry’s crew stood up and said, “These guys are crazy…” The people that knew John the best were his crew. You live on a fifty-foot boat for a year; there’s nothing that they don’t know about you. You cannot hide. Everything that you do that’s stupid, and wrong, it’s like a family. Only living in a fifty-foot boat; the beds are that far apart. You eat, you take your turn cooking, you get shot at together, you see people killed, you see people wounded, you are scared together, I mean you can’t be closer to someone. His crew stands up and says, “This is a good guy.” They have no reason to do that, they’re all old guys, they have no agenda politically, they’re not sophisticated political people, and yet they were…somehow their message didn’t take.
You know what the interesting thing is? An interesting lie, gossip is more powerful than the truth, and if you say it over and over again, it’s a sad commentary on society. You notice that Fox kept running that story, and they knew that it had a lot of falsehoods in it, but John should have got up…you know he never got angry at it, I would have been furious. If I were him, I would have had a press conference, I would have pounded my fist and said, “there’s nothing to this,” and I would have let them have it. There were about thirty or forty of us that were willing to stand behind him; and he never used that. It was stupid that he didn’t…He knows what I think don’t worry.