Local veteran recalls service in Vietnam

Posted 10/29/09

He initially found the tropical heat and moisture overpowering.

“They opened that airplane door, and that hot, humid, stinking air immediately engulfed you. You were in an instant sweat. It was a big, big surprise — a big …

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Local veteran recalls service in Vietnam


(Editor's note: Leading up to Veterans Day on Wednesday, Nov. 11, the Tribune will feature men and women in our community who served America during times of war.) Traumatic” is the word Bill Locker uses to describe experiencing the Tet offensive less than a week after arriving in Vietnam for active duty with the U.S. Army in January 1968.Locker had stepped off a plane at Long Binh, 10 miles north of Saigon, just four or five days before the offensive began on Jan. 31 that year.

He initially found the tropical heat and moisture overpowering.

“They opened that airplane door, and that hot, humid, stinking air immediately engulfed you. You were in an instant sweat. It was a big, big surprise — a big shock.”

But, being young, he began to adjust fairly quickly.

“You didn't have time to worry about those kinds of things,” he said. “There were a lot bigger problems.”

One of his first also was one of the war's worst.

The Tet offensive, named for the new year holiday celebrated by the Vietnamese, was timed for the beginning of the new year on a lunar calendar. It was a massive barrage on the South by the North Vietnamese in an attempt to end the war with a decisive victory for the North.

During the Tet holiday, the city and all the little villages were shut down.

“That's when they (the North Vietnamese) attacked all around us,” Locker said. “It was pretty scary. I can still remember lying there in the bunk, listening to gunfire and gun ships — you could hear and see them.

“I was still in the processing center,” he added. “I didn't even have my jungle clothes or any of my stuff yet... I didn't even have a gun.”

However, after some time, “you got more used to the situation — it got less traumatic.”

Even so, some of his worst experiences still are too horrific to talk about, he said.

Locker joined the Army in 1963 with the intent of making it a career. He spent two years in the infantry before transferring to the Quartermaster Corps, which manages supplies and services for the Army.

In that capacity in Vietnam, he generally stayed on base and was not required to go into battle, though he was required to do guard duty and provide other military support, he said.

But sometimes, the battle came to him.

The hardest thing, he said, was trying to figure out “who was a good guy, and who was a bad guy — and it might be the same person. Someone who was a good guy one week might be a bad guy the next week.”

Often, the only way to figure it out was to watch someone's behavior.

“If someone was walking a careful route (between two points), it could mean they were measuring the length for a mortar strike,” he said.

Soldiers had to be on their guard at all times, regardless of their surroundings, Locker said.

Locker returned to the United States after a year in Vietnam. He attended school until 1972, when he again was stationed in Vietnam. This time, he went to Danang, near the border with the North.

While that area was considered enemy territory, “the military base was fairly secure,” he said.

Things hadn't changed much since 1969, he added.

“It was pretty much the same, just battering back and forth,” Locker said.

The biggest problem, as before, was determining who he could trust.

“We adopted a small orphanage, and people would send us stuff for the children — clothes, school supplies, food and things. But even at the orphanage, you didn't know who was a good guy or a bad guy.

“They would use children as suicide bombers. They would put a grenade in a child's pocket, then tell them to go up to an American and ask for a candy bar. Then they would blow you and them up.”

Consequently, “if you see a child come toward you, you have to make them stop.

“The children were innocent,” Locker added. “They had no idea. It was terrible.”

Despite the war and its tragedies, Locker said he grew to love the Vietnamese people.

“The Vietnamese people themselves were very nice, quiet and reserved,” he said. “They are very accommodating, pleasant people.”

After another year, Locker again returned to the U.S. His return came shortly before the United States pulled out of the war.

“I came home just before they withdrew,” he said. “We were standing down and turning in equipment.”

Locker said he was glad he wasn't in Vietnam when U.S. soldiers pulled out.

“That was bad times,” he said. “In a way, we kind of abandoned the South Vietnamese. Of course, the minute we left, the bad guys were on top of them.

“That's what I'm afraid we're going to do in Afghanistan — abandon them — if we pull out too soon,” he added.

Coming home from Vietnam had its challenges as well. Being a return soldier often wasn't popular.

When he and other soldiers went through the airport in Los Angeles, “people were making snide remarks and badmouthing us,” sometimes even throwing things at the soldiers, Locker said. “It was worse in '73 than in '69.”

But Locker said he never experienced that hostility when he returned to Wyoming.

“People here were very supportive,” he said. “People here were great.”

Locker said some soldiers experienced post-traumatic stress because they felt guilt over surviving, while some of their companions did not. That was particularly true of soldiers who had fought side-by-side with friends and comrades who were killed.

“In the jungle, those guys were your family,” he said. “You relied on each other for everything. You were really close.”

Locker said he never felt that guilt.

“I was happy to be alive.”

Still, he can point to the names of four soldiers on the Wyoming Veterans Vietnam War Memorial in Cody who he knew, and another 15 or 20 on the big wall in Washington, D.C.

Locker retired from the military in 1984 after serving in the Army for 21 years.

“I never had a job in the military that I didn't enjoy, even in Vietnam,” he said. “But when I retired, I never looked back.”