The Vietnam War – Dave Harris – Army training and Vietnam deployment

We have begun learning about Cottonwood’s Dave Harris, who was born in 1950 in Fresno, California, to Violet Harris, but mostly raised by his grandma Ruby Lee in Torrance and, later, Redondo Beach, California.

Dave was a handful growing up. He convinced his grandma to let him drop out of school at 17. That newfound freedom did not last long as he soon ended up in criminal court. The judge offered him an out if he would enlist in the military. His grandma once again signed on his behalf and Dave enlisted in the Army for three years. It was May 1968.

The Army bused Dave with other recruits and draftees to Fort Ord, California, for basic training. The drill instructors treated them all to an abrupt introduction to the Army.

“That was a bad time. I learned real quick to keep my mouth shut and do what I’m told. When we got to the gates to Fort Ord a little guy in a Smokey the Bear hat came on said, ‘Okay, ladies. You have 10 seconds to get off this bus and nine of them are gone!’ (Dave laughed) You move! You got all your clothes and boots. Then they put you in big, cattle trucks to take you to the hill. It was in the evening and I saw a bunch of guys standing there in Smokey Bear hats. They were saying, ‘You are on my truck! I want you off my truck! You have 10 seconds to get off my truck and nine of them are gone!’ There were duffle bags flying and guys jumping off. They had guys crawling. They had guys doing the crab walk. I saw guys throwing up. Then they ordered, ‘Everybody in the building!’ I happened to be on the fourth floor. We ran all the way up and then another drill is yelling, ‘What are you doing on my shiny floors? Get out of there!’ (Dave laughed) Then we’d run all the way back down.”

Dave described an advantage his mom had taught him for basic training.

“My mom was particular about making a bed and had shown me how to make hospital corners. Out of thirty guys, mine was the only bed that the drill instructor could bounce a quarter on. (Dave laughed) I thought I was in trouble because he had me in the middle of the aisle. But he said, ‘Mr. Harris here is the only bed that I could bounce a quarter on.’ I had to teach each one of those guys how to make their bed.”

That strict discipline extended throughout basic training from mess hall meals to physical training to rifle qualification ranges. The trainees were nearing the end of basic training when the drill sergeants really got them down and dirty.

“They constantly had big sprinklers on this field. It was all dirt and looked like a mud pit. I never thought much of it until the last weeks. We had white patches on our uniforms because they had spinal meningitis there, so we were quarantined. They made us low crawl through that mud. (Dave chuckled) I never laughed so hard in my life. Guys were turning around and all I could see of their faces was where they took the mud out of their eyes. We got to the other end with the drill sergeant standing there and he’s all pissed because we got his white patches all dirty. (Dave laughed) So, we had to crawl back.”

Dave completed his eight weeks of basic training and the Army flew him to Fort Lee, Virginia for Advanced Individual Training (AIT).

“It was running fuel or oil lines and checking for explosives. We were checking for all of that and then, for lines that were clogged, to run something called a pig through the line. For gas lines we ran this stuff we called skunk piss because that’s what it smelled like. You poured it in the line and if there was a leak, you would find it.”

The training environment was a striking contrast to basic training.

“We had weekends off and after you were done in the evenings you could go to town. But the people in those towns didn’t like military people. Younger people had been brought up that way, so they’d pick fights with the military people. So I kept to myself and stayed out of bars. Better to be safe than sorry.”

Dave completed AIT and received surprising assignment orders.

“I went on leave and then went to Karlsruhe, Germany, for two weeks. Then I got orders to go to Vietnam. We was told they needed soldiers to reinforce Vietnam, so they were taking them. I thought for sure that everybody went infantry and I didn’t want to go infantry. Then they called me and said, ’71st Aviation.’ (Dave chuckled) All right!”

Dave retraced his steps back to the U.S. to deploy to Vietnam.

They flew me back to the States (Dave laughed) to Fort Lewis, Washington, and I went out with a group to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. You were in line to get off that plane and you step to the doorway (Dave made a “phoosh” sound) instant sweat and it smelled.”

Dave hopped a ride on a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter north to Chu Lai, home of his 71st Aviation Company, and a surprising welcome.

“I got there just in time. (Dave laughed) They were having a stand-down party with steaks and beer and everything.”

Please contact me at prairieviewpressllc@gmail.com with any comments about or story suggestions for “Prairie Lives.”


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