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Florida Voices: Vietnam Veterans | David Colburn, Army, 1966 to 1967

David Colburn emerged from the ROTC program at Providence College and was eventually promoted to the rank of captain in the Army. He said he didn’t serve on the front lines, but he was mortared and shot at. The beauty of Vietnam and the goodness of most civilians captivated him, and he said he realized after returning to the United States and entering a doctoral program that American involvement there was a “horrific mistake.” Our conversation took place Aug. 9, 2017, at the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service, where he is director.

(I was) born Sept. 29, 1942, in Providence, Rhode Island.

How long have you lived in Gainesville?

Close to 50 years. I arrived here as an assistant professor in history. I have an AB and MA in history from Providence College and a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina.

Do you remember when you first became aware of a conflict in Vietnam?

Probably the Gulf of Tonkin. It was on television every evening on "Huntley-Brinkley," Walter Cronkite CBS News program, so you lived with it. Most people had become caught up in their televisions and would sit and have dinner and watch the news, which was not terribly pleasant, but everyone was aware of Vietnam.

Do you recall your or your parents’ reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin incident?

I was in Army ROTC in college, so I was paying close attention to what was going on. My parents — I can’t say they were really caught up in it. I don’t remember us ever having a substantive conversation about it until I got orders to go to Vietnam.

After I finished ROTC, my obligations were two years of active duty, three years’ active reserve, and one year inactive reserve. I served in the Signal Corps. I was never in the heat of Vietnam, like the Marines and American divisions that were caught up and right on the front lines.

What years were you in country?

I was there from 1966 to 1967. The assignment for almost everybody was one year of duty in Vietnam, which was probably a mistake in retrospect, to fight a war with constant turnover and inexperienced men and women coming in, particularly when you had an enemy as strong and well organized as the North Vietnamese and Vietcong. Roughly September 1966 to August 1967. I got out a little bit early because there were lots of troops they were bringing in at that time. I was a 2nd lieutenant and was promoted to 2nd lieutenant while there, then captain before I stepped out of the military. I was all over the III Corps area that covered from Tay Ninh in the eastern part of Vietnam to the coast around Cam Ranh Bay, then down to Saigon and just below Saigon. I was in much of that area.

They were trigger happy, and you had to make sure you knew where you were or they might end up shooting at you, which happened on occasion.

My unit, the 40th Signal Battalion, was initially assigned to Long Binh, which became one of the major areas of American military officers that commanded the tactical activities throughout that area of Vietnam. When we got there, we were the second unit into Long Binh, but ultimately there were over 60,000 men there by 1969 in Long Binh. It built up fast, which created some chaos in itself. When we got there, we didn’t do anything in the way of Signal Corps activity. We basically filled sand bags, erected tents, and built sand bags around the tents and around the compound, then fencing around the compound. We made sure the military police got around and informed everybody where the other American units were because everyone was anxious. Everybody had been watching Vietnam on television and assumed when you got there, you’d be right in the midst of the conflict with no rest — which was not the case. That was what new troops felt. They were trigger happy, and you had to make sure you knew where you were or they might end up shooting at you, which happened on occasion.

When you first arrived, what were your impressions?

My impressions at first, and remained so, was it was a stunningly beautiful country. Beautiful coastline, beaches. We came in by ship from San Francisco or Oakland, and we had a good view as we dropped off some units in Cam Ranh Bay... Then the rich landscape and the mountains, which I came to know (while) supplying equipment to the 1st Division. I flew on a helicopter all around III Corps, making sure men got paid. Most men had their money sent home, but some kept some aside to buy things…

Did you personally have contact with Vietcong?

Only being mortared and shot at. I saw a dead Vietcong in the road one day. That was about the extent of it. We were mortared. We had our supply depot destroyed by the Vietcong. I helped to supply the 1st Division, but I was removed from the battle lines. They were out in the jungle; we were providing support at their central base, which was a good distance away from the battle itself.

To give you some idea of security and our perception of things, the huge buildup in 1966-67 made areas feel secure. I was supply officer when I was transferred to the 267th Signal Company, and I went back and forth every day to get supplies for our operations. What we found was there was nobody shooting at you when you drove from Bien Hoa Air Base to Saigon — about 20 to 25 miles. I even stopped taking my pistol, which was stupid, but I had done it so often and never saw anyone, never been shot at, it seemed safe. When I drove it the year before Big Tet, I was stopped by the MP’s, who warned everyone it was the Tet anniversary and there’d be a big celebration and that the Vietcong might take advantage of it. He said, ‘Sir, where’s your weapon?’ My driver had his weapon, an M16, so I felt pretty silly. I carried it every day after that experience, yes.

I was really taken with the Vietnamese people. There was an innocence about them.

I was really taken with the Vietnamese people. There was an innocence about them. There were some who tried to sell their daughters to GI’s for sex, but that wasn’t widespread. Among the families that had some values that we could relate to, they didn’t do anything like that. The young women — people have commented — they dressed in white and looked like angels. They were very decent people and friendly to American soldiers, at least for the period of time I was there. They were anxious about what was going to happen to their country, and not dedicated to the leadership of South Vietnam. That caught my eye; they wanted to live their life farming. The few that lived in cities like Saigon and Bien Hoa were different. They had a commitment to the government.

Did anything surprise or shock you?

The one thing I still recall: I was involved in 32 court martial cases, 28 of which I represented enlisted men who were being charged with some offense. I had one soldier beg me: ‘Sir, I will do anything you ask if you can get me out of this prison.’ It was a barbed-wire enclosed area. He said there were gangs in the prison and weren’t enough soldiers to guard the facility to protect those in there. He said he was being attacked every night and he wanted out. I talked to the commander of the base and said, ‘Are you aware of this?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but there’s not much we can do.’ There were homosexual gangs and other gangs who for no other reason associated with each other and who took things from others who didn’t have support. That one stuck in my mind. I was thinking here these guys are over here, yeah they’ve made some mistakes, but they’re fighting for their country and we can’t protect them from this kind of thing.

Did you have any knowledge of antiwar activities while there?

The only way you can know about what’s going on is if your spouse or your friends wrote and talked to you, and those letters could have been edited. The military leaders did not want you to get information that might sour your commitment to the war and the conflict. What we got was Stars & Stripes, a very thin newspaper, which would talk about American successes, never the challenges we faced with the government of Saigon, other military leaders in Vietnam, the expanding efforts of the North Vietnamese. That didn’t come through. If my wife wrote me about that, I don’t recall ever reading about it. I doubt they would let that through.

Was there anti-war sentiment among the GI’s you served with?

For the most part, my unit was mostly quiet in terms of protest, drug use, knowing what was going on, and because we were mostly in secure areas, there was not the anxiety that the next group would have after the Tet Offensive.

Hear more stories from this series, "Florida Voices: Vietnam Veterans"

How did the war change you?

I came home, not absolutely sure, but thinking we’d done the right thing, that Vietnam was a war worth fighting and my service to my country was the right thing to do. But as I got into graduate school and read extensively about the war as part of the PhD program, I began to think back on things and realized that the war was a horrific mistake and we were sacrificing a generation of young men, to the conflict, who would be permanently scarred, if not killed.

Your immediate time back home — how did that unfold?

I was a PhD student at Chapel Hill. We went and visited our families. Both fathers in our families had served in World War II. They were proud of our service and sacrifice. When I got to Chapel Hill and was a teaching assistant in the program, demonstrations started on campus. Kids wouldn’t let you teach your class during the height of the protest. That was in 1968 and again in 1971. They would bang on the windows, bang on the doors, and keep that up until you stopped whatever you were doing. It was clear the nation was racked by Vietnam, and the young people in the colleges were leading that protest against it. I wasn’t averse to what they were doing. I didn’t like the fact they disrupted my class, but I also respected their decision to come out in the streets and say this is wrong. We have to stop.

You were not targeted, correct? The protests were widespread?

Correct. That was widespread. The whole campus.

Did you follow the efforts in the 1990s to build a Vietnam memorial?

I did, peripherally, and I read about it and have been to the Vietnam memorial. I think it’s the most moving of all the memorials, to have the names of all those who died, the 58,000-plus who died in Vietnam.

Popular culture-wise, how do you feel the war has been depicted overall?

I think it’s been depicted as a mistake of the Cold War era. Those involved in the decision-making process, from President Johnson and President Kennedy to Nixon, all were so caught up in the Cold War and not losing any more territory in Asia to the communists, and the fear that all of Southeast Asia would fall, that they couldn’t see an alternative path. They were smart people who were captured by the time and put the lives of 500,000 men at risk and 58,000 dead and probably three times that wounded. And at least that number permanently affected by the war — psychologically.

What haven’t I asked that you want to share?

They didn’t make eye contact. Mostly their heads were down when they came in. They were glad to be back in, but they also knew they were probably going back out again.

Some of the ironic things that happen in the course of a conflict. We set up base at Long Binh, and as I mentioned were only the second unit there. The second week while we were either in bed asleep or whatever the case might have been, there were at least a couple of shots fired. Our men were panicked. They came out and fired off 16,000 rounds of ammunition. It was completely undisciplined. We’d been training for months to go to Vietnam for a similar kind of event. The colonel took all the ammunition away from the men and said, ‘Tomorrow, we start training them all over again.’ I thought to myself this is going to be one heck of a war.

When we landed in Vinh Long when we first arrived, there was an advance party led by our battalion major. There were 15 or 20 men who flew over in the advance party. We arrived by boat and my unit was the first one ashore. The colonel told us to dig in and prepare for being attacked. It must have been 100 degrees, and I thought my brains were going to bake. We dug foxholes, and then I saw this jeep off in the distance driving toward us. Turned out to be the major in the advance party. He had a weapon on him, and they were just driving merrily down the road, clearly not concerned about anything. He pulls up to me and says, ‘Lieutentant Colburn, what the heck are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, sir, we’ve been told to dig foxholes and prepare to be attacked.’ He said, ‘This is a rest and relaxation area. The only Vietcong here are on R&R, as are the American soldiers. Having a chance to see what was happening to other men — when I went to Tay Ninh, I could see some units coming back from the jungle, men of the 1st Division — it was clear that their experience was brutal. They were not traumatized by it, but they were clearly affected by it. I saw the same around the 25th Division, where I spent a little time. The war was extremely hard on these men, and the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were not letting up.

They didn’t make eye contact. Mostly their heads were down when they came in. They were glad to be back in, but they also knew they were probably going back out again.

This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Ethan is the Managing Editor in the Innovation News Center, home to WUFT News.He is a Pennsylvania native who found a home reporting Florida's stories. Reach him by emailing emagoc@wuft.org or calling 352-294-1525.