Vietnam veteran and author Homer Hickam takes a break from digging for dinosaur bones in Montana. Hickam credits Vietnam with instilling his love for adventure. The Vietnam Veterans of America recently honored him with the Excellence in Arts award.
Photo courtesy of Homer Hickam, Jan. 1, 2012
January 1, 2012 -- Wars, according to author and Vietnam veteran
Homer Hickam, should be fought by old men.
As a young man in
the '60s, he was idealistic and eager to experience what he thought
would be the adventure of war. But if someone asked him to go secure
a hill today, he joked, he would just sit back and ask for another
gin and tonic.
He knows what he's talking about. The former
combat engineer volunteered for duty in Vietnam in 1967 as a first
lieutenant. He found his adventure -- a little too much of it --
with the 4th Infantry Division in the jungles of South Vietnam's
In late October of that year, intelligence
reports suggested that the North Vietnamese Army in the area was
moving the bulk of its regiments from the Cambodian border into
Kontum Province, according to Allay W. Sandstrum in "Seven
Firefights in Vietnam." On the night of Nov. 2, NVA Sgt. Vu Hong
defected to the Americans and confirmed their worst fears, claiming
five regiments were converging on a post known as Dak To and another
camp at nearby Ben Het.
Sixteen American and Republic of
Vietnam battalions and support units rushed to Kontum where they
found an area that had been carefully prepared with expanded trails
and roads, trenches, bunkers, tunnels and well-constructed defenses
with overhead cover. The NVA also controlled much of the high
ground. They wanted to annihilate a major American unit in an effort
to force more U.S. troops to the highlands and away from the cities,
which the NVA was already planning to attack during the Tet
Offensive, according to Lt. Col. Leonard B. Scott in his paper "The
Battle for Hill 875, Dak To, Vietnam 1967."
A series of bloody engagements, known collectively as the
Battle for Dak To, exploded the next day, and the United
States lost hundreds of men attempting to capture hills
where the North Vietnamese were deeply entrenched.
Hickam had just arrived in Vietnam, and as an engineer
assigned to Charlie Company of the 704th Maintenance
Battalion, his job was to help keep the tanks and armored
personnel carriers running. He didn't participate in the
Battle of Dak To directly, but he had an excellent view of
much of it.
"It was astonishing to see draftee units
fight so hard for those highlands," he remembered. "It was
horrible. As soon as they started going up the hill, medevac
choppers were just constantly going in and out. It was
essentially a killing zone."
"What the heck had we
Next, Hickam headed to Blackhawk
Firebase, which was just east of Pleiku on Highway 19.
Highway 19 was a strategic east-west route that ran from Qui
Nhon on the coast to the highlands and the Cambodian border.
The U.S. used the highway to convoy supplies from the port
to troops throughout the country. The convoy trucks,
including Hickam's M88 armored recovery vehicle, were
frequent targets because the road was a favorite ambush site
of the NVA and Viet Cong. They were very good, Hickam
explained, at not only disguising mines and bombs along the
roads, but also at concealing themselves in the vegetation
that grew next to the highway. That was what Soldiers really
Paving the road and cutting back the brush
helped, but it didn't solve the problem. Hickam remembered
racing to one ambush site in particular: It was barely five
miles from Blackhawk, and along a wide-open stretch of road
surrounded by rice paddies and farmland that they thought
"was very, very safe."
Viet Cong guerrillas dressed
as peasants had ambushed a company of the 54th
Transportation Battalion. The Soldiers held the VC off until
helicopters, tanks and Hickam's M88 arrived.
an awful scene," he recalled. "Many trucks were burning, had
been destroyed by B-40 rockets. When the cav unit ahead of
us arrived, the Viet Cong were still attacking, and they
didn't stand much of a chance against the armored units.
When I got there, it was just like a scene out of the Alamo.
It was awful. There were bodies everywhere, and some of the
VC were still fighting. They didn't last very long."
It was unusual, Hickam said, because attacks in the
highlands normally came from NVA regulars. He didn't know it
then, but it meant the NVA had begun to reserve its troops
for the coming Tet Offensive.
The enemy attacked
major southern cities in the early morning hours of Jan. 31,
1968, ignoring a two-day ceasefire both sides had agreed to
in honor of Tet, the lunar new year and Vietnam's most
important holiday. By this time, Hickam was at Oasis, a
small firebase near the Cambodian border. It was a brigade
headquarters, but most of the units were in the field,
leaving primarily support units behind.
marched into the local village clanging cymbals and gongs
and announced they were there to take over, expecting the
local citizens to rally to their cause. Because it was a
holiday, and the ARVN had woken them earlier with
celebratory gunfire, the Americans didn't think anything was
wrong when they first heard the commotion.
pretty well wiped out that little ARVN unit and then they
turned on us," Hickam said. "We were kind of caught up short
on it, and essentially we just turned into infantry for the
day. We all picked up our rifles and went down to the
perimeter, and the North Vietnamese kept charging up and
getting into the wire and yelling and screaming and
shooting. It was a pretty crazy day. We thought we were
going to get overrun for a long time."
F-100s finally arrived from Thailand late in the day and
"kind of saved our bacon. The F100s were stationed at Myrtle
Beach Air Force Base, S.C., which is where my mom lived, so
I laughed and said 'Mom sent the F-100s to save her little
Except for a few weeks in an old French
Foreign Legion barracks, Hickam lived in temporary shelters
for his entire deployment, either in a house bunker he'd
built himself, or a tent, which could sometimes cause
problems. Hickam's company moved south to a large city
called Banmethuot in August, camping in a field that
"quickly turned into a great, big mud hole," where many of
the men came down with dysentery and malaria.
were stationed near the 173rd Airborne Division, Hickam
remembered, calling them a "'North Vietnamese magnet.' Any
time you were around those guys, you were going to get hit
by the North Vietnamese. They just followed them around. It
wasn't real good to set up beside them because you knew
trouble was going to happen. I don't know why they picked on
them all the time, but they did. It was a rough lot to pick
on. I would have picked on us before I picked on them."
They fought a number of small skirmishes and then the
NVA chose to attack the section of perimeter Hickam's men
"Our wire was just filled with North
Vietnamese," he recalled. "We fought them through the
night." After Hickam radioed for air support, Cobra
helicopters almost strafed them instead of the NVA soldiers.
Hickam earned a Bronze Star for his actions that day,
but it was also the day he realized that the war was
affecting him more than he had thought.
clear to me that something had kind of gone wrong with me in
a way because after that action in Banmethuot, we all went
down to the wire and there were dead people down there. But
that didn't affect me as much as the fact that we had also
killed a little deer. I just broke down when I saw that. It
made me wonder about my own sense of humanity, that I cared
more about the deer. I don't think that was true. I think it
was just that that animal was so innocent, caught in this
crazy war, and all wars are crazy. All wars should be
When he returned home, he explained, he
compartmentalized the war in a little box that he can take
out if he needs to. It did give him a sense of adventure,
though, and he swore he would never live a boring life. It
was Hickam's inspiration for worldwide scuba diving
After leaving the Army, Hickam went to
work for the Army Missile Command as a federal civilian on
the Hellfire missile program, and later, NASA's Marshall
Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
"I loved it,"
he said. "Every day I worked for NASA, I woke up in the
morning and said, 'Oh boy, I get to go (to) work for NASA
today. How cool is that?' I worked in spacecraft design,
principally an experiment module that went in the cargo bay
of the shuttle called the space lab. From there I segued
into astronaut training. I trained the astronauts how to
work in space in their suits, and then also traveled all
over the world working with scientists on building their
experiments to fly in the space lab and then later the space
station, and then training the crew to operate them."
Hickam retired from NASA in 1998 after publishing his
second book, "Rocket Boys," a memoir about building rockets
as a boy in a small West Virginia mining town. The book was
optioned as a movie titled "October Sky." He went on to
write three other memoirs about his boyhood, a biography and
six novels (a seventh will be published in April). He used
his combat experience, he explained, in a World War II-era
series, exploring how combat changes Soldiers.
take my combat experiences that I had, plus what I know of
other guys there (who) saw a lot more combat than I did,"
Hickam said. "I saw how their personalities became brittle
over time and how they changed over time, and became almost
exaggerations of their own personalities. That's what's
happening to Josh Thurlow through 'The Ambassador's Son' and
'The Far Reaches.' We see Josh gradually spiraling downward
although he doesn't realize it."
Hickam returned to
Vietnam a few years ago as part of the International
Institute of Education, a largely State Department-funded
program designed to help educate Vietnamese students about
America and the war, which he said isn't taught in Vietnam.
Incidentally, he said we won the war thanks to young
Vietnamese positive opinions of America. Hickam discussed
the war with a Vietnamese writers' group, many of whom had
fought on the NVA side, and "We all just kind of went 'What
were we thinking?'"
He doesn't talk about Vietnam
often, however, and hasn't written about it. He doesn't know
if he ever will. "I just haven't gotten to that place yet.
It's a lot easier to do when you're writing about a
fictional character rather than about yourself. I've got it
filed away somewhere, and maybe that's the last thing I'll
ever write before I move on to the next plane of existence."
Editor's note: Hickam was recently honored with the
Excellence in Arts award by the
More photos available below
By Elizabeth M. Collins
/ U.S. Army
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