Florida Voices: Vietnam Veterans | Al Davis, Marine Corps, 1967 to 1968

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Anyone familiar with the tragic boot camp experience at Parris Island that is depicted in the film “Full Metal Jacket” will recognize a thread in Allen Davis’ personal history. Davis says author Gustav Hasford arrived at Parris Island not longer after, and Hasford later collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on the 1987 film. Our conversation took place Aug. 8, 2017, in the hallway outside the UF Health Shands Ear, Nose & Throat clinic, as he was there for a follow-up appointment stemming from his cancer derived from Agent Orange exposure. He doesn’t know the exact moment he was exposed, but he said it likely came as he was lying in water looking over his rifle scope. Agent Orange dropping was widespread, and Davis believes some of that water he laid in was contaminated. He lives in Port Orange near Daytona Beach and is a nurse practitioner.

My birth date is Aug. 10, 1948. I was born in Baldwin, New York.

What’s your current city? How long have you lived here?

I grew up in New York but in present I’ve lived in Port Orange, Florida, for 30 years.

What is your educational background?

I have a master’s degree in medicine. I specialize in family practice and have become a nurse practitioner.

When do you recall first hearing about the conflict in Vietnam?

I was 16 years old. I first began to pay attention as a teenager in those years. I lived in a family filled with educators and so we always watched the news and were very aware of our surroundings. The argument in my home was that it was a waste to send men there. One of my close friends in Levittown was killed there in the early going —1965. Quite a few special operators were in country at that time, trying to work with the Vietminh. None of us knew the true political ramifications, but because we were young, my recognition of the war was around 1965, and I began to develop a desire to participate. What we saw on television were soundbites of murders and what became the Vietcong murdering innocent civilians and Buddhist monks, trying to enforce the idea that communism was coming and nothing was going to stop it. As long as this regime would not give in to Ho Chi Minh’s regime, there was going to continue to be violence. It began to rev me up. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I think that was the sentiment. We felt we were doing the right thing.

Were you drafted or did you enlist?

Photo courtesy of Al Davis

I joined the Marines. I had a heart murmur and didn’t have to go. I went to my pediatrician who had known me since I was a fetus and said, ‘I’m not signing a letter.’ … At the age of 17, I was a very good football player. I was extremely fast, had scored a lot of touchdowns the prior year. The coach of the varsity wanted very much for me to come and play on the varsity team, possibly taking over quarterback. I was short but extremely fast. That was my claim to fame. I was excited and ready… My uncle was the coach of another school and came to me while my parents were away and said my mother wanted me to play for another school. I started practicing with his school and at the end of the summer, that varsity coach came to me and said you didn’t come to summer camp, but he was giving me a chance to come out and play. My supposed friends have kind of rejected me and feel that I abandoned them. I said I had never abandoned anyone in my life. I thanked him for the opportunity and said I’m joining the Marine Corps. Besides feeling it was a worthy opportunity in Vietnam, that is one of the main proponents that pushed me into the Marines — being betrayed by my uncle and not having the opportunity to play football, then being shunned by my friends for something that was not my fault. When you’re young, it’s hard to think clearly.

Where and when did you serve?

I went to Parris Island in November 1966. That was a tremendous experience… From Parris Island, at the time they were trying to push people into Vietnam. We were there for 9 or 10 weeks, and normally it was 12, but we were the 10-week guys. From there, you don’t get to go home. Your parents come down to watch you graduate. You’re proud, you’re finished with boot camp, and then you go to infantry training regiment, and that’s in Beaufort, South Carolina. You get more advanced training for going into combat. Nothing prepares you for combat, but this is supposed to do that. It gives you advanced skills.

From there, I went to Memphis, Tennessee. You don’t find out what your military occupation is until the last day of training, the day when you’re not being called something vulgar by the military drill instructors. It’s really just a psychological ruse, to make you feel less of a person if you don’t succeed and do the thing they want you to do. I’m standing at my bunk, which is called a rack, at strict attention. The drill instructor steps in front of me. I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to be an 0311,’ which is what I wanted to be — a grunt. He says, ‘You’re going to A-school in Memphis.’ Believe it or not, I was a little disappointed I wasn’t going to be in the field. I was going to be working on aircraft or something. I questioned him, and he said, ‘Don’t question me. These are your orders.’ From Memphis, I went to Cherry Point, North Carolina, and worked on the flight line. A set of orders came in, and this was September 1967. The gunnery sergeant who was there at the time called me into his office. I knew the orders could come at any time. He said, ‘I have four orders for Vietnam, and not one of them is for you… what would your mommy think of me if I sent you off to Vietnam when I could keep you right here, training people?’ I said, ‘Is that really fair to the other people?’ He said, ‘Do you really want to go? … Son what I’m telling you is I can keep you here. You can be in the training modules.’ I said, ‘I joined the Marines to go to Vietnam.’

…I didn’t have to go because of my heart murmur… and because of my gunnery sergeant, but when you’re determined and you feel there’s others there from your hometown, from all over the country, with all that was going on in the country, how could I reject my opportunity? I arrived in country in November 1967. I went initially to Da Nang. I landed from Flying Tiger airlines, as green as you can be — seedlings, getting dropped off into this tropical jungle. Many people have said this: When we walked down the gangway… we see bags and hundreds of men going in every direction. It was so easy to see the men who had been in country who had finally gotten their call to board an aircraft to go home. You’d look at them, and they would look at us, and there was such an emptiness in their eyes. They didn’t look at us for very long, not the way you and I are looking at each other now.

They loaded us into a truck, and … this set the stage for my thinking as an 18-year-old. We got loaded into a half-track truck to go to a place called Marble Mountain, which was on the coast in the Da Nang region. We were going to a staging area for me and other Marines, Navy, Army personnel… Suddenly, the convoy stops. Everyone looks around. We didn’t have weapons or anything. There were lots of Vietnamese around now that we’ve come off the airstrip and are headed to the sea. To our right was a Buddhist cemetery. There were monks in there, yelling and screaming at one another. Suddenly, one took a can of kerosene, poured it on his head, got down on his knees and lit himself on fire.

This was on the first day?

That was in the first 30 minutes. I didn’t know the man sitting next to me…. I turned to the man next to me, who was looking at me already. Our eyes locked onto each other, and I said, ‘I’m really not sure what we’ve gotten ourselves into.’ He said, ‘Me either.’ We had to just persevere. We started going again. That was one of the first times I ever saw anyone die right in front of me. That was the first thing. But the other point was how could there be such a feeling of desperation and desolation to burn yourself in front of your comrades because of this war? That’s what this was about…

How did your parents feel about your determination to serve?

At this point in my life, they felt good about it. I had been a very resentful young man because my dad died. I blamed anyone I could — God, mostly, for taking dad, who was such a soft-spoken principal of a high school. …Building his family, then boom. Had an acute coronary syndrome and hit the ground.

How old were you?

I was 10, and it was extremely devastating to me… That was a great turning point in my life. That episode caused a tremendous amount of resentment… My mom and step-dad wound up sending me to military school. I learned everything there was to know about close-order drill, inspections, military jargon — everything there was to know about it. When I got into boot camp, these guys were so scared and nervous and anxious about the people yelling in their face. I thought to myself, this is going to be easier than military school…

Talk about Parris Island and how your experience mirrored scenes from “Full Metal Jacket.”

Let me preface this by saying the man who wrote this book, Gus Hasford, actually came one month after me. He arrived for his platoon maybe a month after me. It says he went there in 1967. I got there in 1966, so as I was exiting, he was coming. Whatever incident he portrayed or depicted in his novel was either totally fiction or taken from the incident I’m about to tell you. He was a journalist who was sent to Marble Mountain and ultimately came up to follow the Two-Nine Marines. I was convinced for many years it was my mates in boot camp. The incident I think could have prompted him to write something a little different — fictionalized — was we had one particular recruit who never became a Marine and fell out on every run. He couldn’t do the pull-ups, the physical activities of running, jumping, going up this high tower… The bigger guys could reach right over the top log. The logs get slick. You had to go over the top, on the other side, then go down. He couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it. Was holding onto a log and had to be pried loose. When you’re in boot camp, every phase of boot camp is rewarded with a flag that goes onto your guide arm. The drill instructors won’t accept anything but 100 percent. In this case, we were supposed to get 10. He kept causing us to almost not get every flag when everyone else in the platoon was killing themselves.

What happens to you in the Marine Corps, if you were the one that could not climb the tower, we all stood that evening in the squad bay and had to pick up the footlocker and had to hold it out in front of us straight-armed. If you dropped it, you had to hold it longer. The person who caused the trouble could sit on their bunk and write a letter. That’s what the drill instructors would do (to you). They psychologically taught you that as a team, you can overcome your enemy. If you stand together and succeed, you’ll move forward on that hill against the machine gun fire. If one member of the team is weak, and you allow that, it begins to infiltrate the company. Then you’ve got a number of weak people. So when the s— hits the fan, and you’re out in a rice paddy, and someone starts running away, you’re going to die…. Marines don’t give up. It’s not in our creed. This guy would fall out every day. Subsequently, they had a number of blanket parties. They would put soap in pillowcases and hit him. Thank God I was in a platoon with guys who were level-headed and weren’t going to beat this guy to death. He got obliterated verbally. Don’t ever believe … that these drill instructors beat people up physically in the 1960s. They did not punch you in the face or punch you in the stomach… They were very humorous men just trying to make sure each man was going to survive the war. He got set back and finally in the rifle range, the most intense time of your boot camp, you point your weapon… You click and fire and learn what a sight picture is and learn to hit a target 500 yards down range. Then, they give you one bullet. From 25 yards, everybody lays down and the drill instructors (give step-by-step instructions). ‘Aim, ready, fire!’ Apparently, the man who got set back was now in another platoon at the rifle range. All of a sudden, we hear BOOM. Everyone jumped… All these tough Marines-to-be jumped, and this guy had taken the weapon and shot himself, trying to hit himself in the finger to really be able to get out. Unfortunately, he lost his hand. That was it for him. I was convinced, years later, as this story came out, the book first and the movie in 1987, that story was used for the storyline, but I’m not sure.

What did you think of Vietnam — the land, the people, the culture?

If one were to step out of a space ship onto another planet, I don’t think there would have been any less disorientation. You’re totally disoriented. The people are different from anything else you’ve experienced as an 18-year old…. You’re seeing them as live human beings who have been suffering but who you hope have been looking to these proud Marines… We hoped we would be able to save them, not create a hell on earth. That’s what did happen, and when that hell became too overwhelming for the Americans, we left. Those people paid dearly for it.

Do you recall your first encounter with the enemy?

Don’t forget that historically, the Vietnamese were contracted to build all our bases. They’re building everything. They’re erecting the buildings, designing and building bunkers for shelter and to get out of harm’s way, also machine gun emplacements, the high towers… Right up until 1967, men were allowed to go out into whichever little village was close outside the gate within a mile. They’d either be with women or smoke pot, whatever was going on in those days. Now, you’ve interacted. Take that question and you didn’t even know what to say to these people. You do learn little words and buy things from them. Some people have sex. I personally didn’t and had a girlfriend all through high school. In 1967, it gets to be Christmas. Maybe a month before, no people were allowed to leave the base anymore. There was a furor about that, but it was true. We were all brought together and told the North Vietnamese and VC were all around us. I found a letter and wanted you to hear this. This is from a kid that just got that intelligence report. Just before the Tet Offensive:

I was taken out of flying and put on guard duty. Myself and a couple of other men from my squadron were placed out at the front gate. Lot of sandbags and everything. On January 1st, as the clock goes past 12, every base in Vietnam was attacked. Ours was attacked big time. The very first thing that happened, I was leaning bag against sandbags, thinking what are they going to do — big towers, concertina stretching out 30 yards, another tower, all with 50 cals. I had an M-60. Just a tremendous amount of firepower. How could they come in at us from rice paddies? Muddy, sandy banks out beyond. Where were they going to come from? How are they going to get here? But they did. They started attacking the ARVN boot camp. From our camp, a dirt road curved to the right to a garbage dump, then back straight. Four or 500 meters away were the concertina wires. The very first thing that happened was white phosphorus mortars started hitting their boot camp… closer and closer. Men started coming in. Marines above us started firing, we started firing. They never made it to us. I never confronted them. They turned and went in another direction. At the end of the night, which is probably where I lost my hearing, there were tremendous numbers of casualties on the Vietnamese side. These were not Vietcong anymore, but North Vietnamese regulars with helmets, stars, heavy gear. I can’t remember if it was in the thousands, but a lot of people died. I don’t know if any casualties were lost on our side because of the intensity of firing, and the airstrikes. The airstrikes that went by went so close, we got burned from the napalm. When the enemy moved up closer, no one was going to get into this base.

Did you hit anyone?

I don’t know. I didn’t see anyone go down from my power… You’re not standing up; you’re shooting through a hole in a sandbag.

This was the helicopter Al Davis often flew within in Vietnam.

What about at other points of the combat?

In our helicopter, we would land at hot and no-fire zones. For me personally, I was firing at muzzle flashes coming out of the tree line… As we came over the canopy, the pilot banked and I was just sitting there looking down at a clearing in the jungle, and they had a Chicom 30-calibet, quad thirty, four barrels, water cooled, on a huge tripod. They heard us coming and let go at us. I started firing and probably fired 50 or 60 rounds. I don’t know. All I saw was one person flop backwards, so I don’t know if he died. I don’t know. It was like this… That was in the Secorsky 34, the most dependable aircraft in Vietnam. It was a 12-cylinder radial engine similar to a fixed-wing airplane engine was incredibly strong and dependable and could take 10 or 15 rounds into it and keep going. We had armor plating underneath. My friends who flew in Hueys, a lot of those crew chiefs didn’t make it because of the nature of their air asset. It was .. very fast and maneuverable and carried rockets. That was an attack vehicle. As they went in, they were vulnerable… Death is random in war. We landed in zones and got hit with a flurry of small arms fire that hit the plane. Nobody got wounded. Other times people would land, any crew would land, and they would get killed with one round.

How was your readjustment back to the world?

Your rotation back to the states for soldiers in Vietnam is very unceremonious. You were in the field. I medevaced one of my friends from Kay Son under siege for 72 days with massive artillery. A lot of Marines lost their lives there. We got the call to medevac someone and it turned out to be one of the kids I went to high school with. … After what you’ve been through, some traumatic events, your whole way of looking at life has changed. Suddenly, someone walks in, hands you a sheet of paper and says, ‘You’ve got 30 minutes to get on that C-130. You’re going home.’ It’s like — huh? You’re kind of baffled. Really? I’m leaving? A million different things begin to course through your brain. I’m leaving Jim, Dennis, Pat, whomever you’re tight with. You’ve flown with them. You’ve worked side by side. Observed people die. A lot of men did heroic things. You think I don’t want to go home. You know what’s waiting for you at home. My girlfriend had broken up with me. My parents were so proud of me as a Marine, but I knew once I was home for a short period of time, it would be life as usual. Where do I go from here? Will I be prepared for this? But also, the other half of you says, ‘I’m outta here.’ I didn’t get killed.

That was December 1968 for me… You’re there 13 months if you’re a Marine. When I got down to Da Nang with thousands of men, all with that same look. I don’t think I had it… I flew 60 missions in combat… That moment of easing of tension and loss of the angst of leaving began to dissipate in Da Nang… They would call names and you’d get on that plane… On the third day, I was one of the people. We flew to California, then back to New York on commercial. I got to Kennedy (Airport), and as I got my seabag, this giant Irish cop was standing around, and as I started to walk, he said, ‘Hey, Marine… You going out that door for a taxi?’ I said, ‘Yes, I have to get a taxi over to Penn Station.’ He said, ‘I’ll walk with you.’ We’re walking down the corridor, and there, below these three steps are the hippies. I hadn’t seen them yet, except in San Francisco.

Were you aware of them while in country?

Oh yes, because just before I went to Vietnam, our plane broke down, and we had to stay in San Francisco for five days — myself and this other sergeant I’d met. We kind of lived with the hippies, right on Haight-Ashbury. They said, ‘Come stay with us, stay with us,’ because we had to get a hotel (otherwise). It was the epitome of the flower children. They tried so desperately to convince us to desert. They said, ‘We can take you to a commune. We can take you to Canada. We can do anything you want; you don’t want to go there.’ We hung out and interacted with them. That was my experience with pot — didn’t last much longer than Vietnam — but at that time, we partook of that.

You had a much more direct contact with those in the counterculture than watching it on the news.

Oh, absolutely. They were peaceful, though. They were really trying to save our lives. They said, ‘Look at you two. You’re so gentle. You’re just people like us.’ I said, ‘What do you think we’re going to go do over there? Aggressively kill innocent people? No. We’re trying to stop the communists from taking over a country that doesn’t want to be communist.’ Them: ‘Oh, that’s bull, and you know it. It’s the government that wants this war, because they’re making money.’ I said, ‘I know that part. This is my decision, and even if it wasn’t, and I hated the government and got drafted…’ They couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘You volunteered to go to that place?’ I said, ‘Yes, because I was under the impression and still am today that so many people are getting drafted into the Army.’ And the Army is a wonderful branch, but there were so many people getting drafted into the Army that didn’t want to go. They did not want to go…  I felt that if you wound up in combat with half your platoon that got drafted against their will, didn’t take their training seriously, just muddled through, you’re going to get killed in combat. I was hardcore. Then I wound up in the air wing, so I didn’t have to be on the ground. I spent two weeks on patrol duty, and that was enough for me. Two weeks, looking for the enemy. I carried the base of a 50-caliber machine gun. I’d set it down, set it up, and everyone would string out in an L-shaped ambush. Then I got sent to Phu Bai.

So you walk out of JFK…

And there are these people. Right away, they start yelling slogans: Baby killer. Make love, not war. This is 1970. The war went on for five more years… The policeman started pushing people out of the way. This one guy comes up to me with a rifle with a flower on the end of it. Shoves it at me like this, and that poor guy got hit over the head by the policeman — ‘Don’t you touch him!’ I said, ‘Please, please don’t do this. Don’t hit these people.’

They weren’t spitting on you?

Right. If I had dropped my seabag, I could have dropped a few of them, but I wasn’t in that mode. I just pushed my way through. They weren’t hurting anyone, they were just protesting.

In the near future, almost immediately was Kent State. It just disgusted me. I went to a number of Veterans Against the War meetings. Lo and behold, I met Ron Kovic, who established a huge following of veteran protesters. He was wheelchair-bound. Ultimately, he got in trouble with the law later in his life, but he lived right in Massapequa, and I lived in Levittown (five miles apart). He came over to the community college with Veterans Against the War signs and T-shirts while he was still mentally stable. I believed wholeheartedly by 1971 that what I’d been through was nothing I wanted to send anyone else to. But not even what I’d been through; I went through nothing compared to my friends that were grunts. If they sat here and told you stories, you wouldn’t even believe what they went through.

Was that realization gradual or immediate?

Gradual. I was so dedicated when I went, so awestruck by the burning of the monk and disoriented by it, mentally. When I was in Marble Mountain preparing to go to my duty mountain up on the DMZ where the North Vietnamese regulars were, I thought to myself, ‘You better snap out of this feeling of being unsure, indecision, of was my decision to come and really try to make a difference right? Or am I really one of these people just sold a major bill of goods by the government?’ I did think about my father quite often. Look what the Americans did for the world in that war. But Vietnam, in my opinion, should never have happened. The fact they had just fought with the French and destroyed them at Dien Bien Phu. The same general, Giap, took over the North Vietnamese regulars again. They had millions of miles of tunnels. They had gun emplacements. We were walking into a cauldron that was going to be inescapable. We were never going to make any difference. We weren’t going to make a difference over there, but you don’t think that way when you’re 18. Never should have gone there. Why did guys volunteer? You’re 18, not 40. You’re not political. You haven’t had an education. You might not even have much of a social education, much less anything academic about the country, their people, what the government’s really up to. Who does that when you’re 17? You’re chasing your girlfriend around.

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

How did you end up in Port Orange and Florida?

I joined the Navy Reserve in 1984. I was out of the military for 14 years and never dreamed of going back in. The only reason I did was I got a call from the recruiter. I went into teaching and hated it, then into nursing. Met my wife, and she said a lot of guys that are Vietnam vets and have had trauma experience are going into nursing. ‘It would be a great career for you in the ER.’ That’s what I did. The Navy called me… and said, ‘We would love to have you come aboard, and if you do, we would give you one step up.’ So I went in as a lieutenant JG. By the time I finished my 21 years, I got diagnosed with cancer — Agent Orange. Somehow was exposed to Agent Orange while in Vietnam. I left as a commander in 2005. I went to Operation Desert Storm and was recalled for Operation Iraqi Freedom and then Operation Enduring Freedom. That’s what took me back to the Navy was my dedication to the country.

This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

About Ethan Magoc

Ethan is a journalist at WUFT News. He's a Pennsylvania native who found a home reporting Florida's stories. Reach him by emailing emagoc@wuft.org or calling 352-294-1525.

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