Vietnam War Oral History Interview
Date: March 15, 2002
Veteran: Specialist 4th Class Michael J. Coale
US Army, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Edward Bimberg
Michael J. Coale was born in June, 1943 in Glen Rock, New Jersey. When he was drafted into the United States Army in 1966, there was no doubt in his mind that he would end up in Vietnam. At the time he was married and living comfortably in New Jersey. Although he certainly didn’t like the idea of going off to war, Coale considered service his duty and was determined to make the best of it. It never occurred to him to run off to Canada to escape his military obligation, as did some people he knew. Coale recalled that most people of that era believed the “domino theory,” which posited that should Vietnam fall to Communism, so would the rest of the countries of Southeast Asia, and that this would be a disaster to the United States.
After receiving his draft notice, Coale reported to the draft board’s physical examination center on Broad Street in Newark, New Jersey, and from there was sent to Fort Dix, where he arrived in a blinding snowstorm. It was a depressing way to begin army life, but his attitude brightened somewhat when he and his new buddies were transferred to Fort Carson, Colorado for basic training. Fort Carson was a beautiful post nestled in the Rocky Mountains within view of Pike’s Peak. It was at that time the home of a regular army mechanized unit, which ran Fort Carson’s basic training program. Coale graduated from basic and advanced infantry training with an MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) in anti-tank warfare.
After completing his training in Colorado, Coale reached the Asian war zone by chartered airline via California, Alaska and Japan. His first view of Vietnam was from the air as he flew into Saigon, and it left an impression of total greenness created by the lush tropical vegetation and rice paddies surrounding the city. On stepping out of the plane he was struck by an overpowering sensation of heat – the sticky, enveloping heat of the tropics that he seemed never to escape as long as he served in Vietnam. Coale soon learned that there were but two seasons in Vietnam, six months of extremely dry weather and six months of monsoon – and both of them were hot! While he was at the airport he also noticed a variety of unfamiliar odors, some of which came from the columns of smoke rising from various locations. He recalled that the army had no sewer systems at its base camps, and burning was the preferred manner of disposing of human waste. The smell of burning would be, forever after, a reminder to Coale of his service in Vietnam.
Coale readily adapted to the routine of military life in Vietnam. He was assigned to a reconnaissance platoon in the Fourth Battalion, Ninth Infantry, which was part of the Twenty-fifth “Tropic Lightning” Infantry Division. The Twenty-fifth’s main base camp was at Cu Chi, about twenty-five miles west of Saigon. His unit fought in no big battles, but left the base camp periodically to patrol the jungle on search missions to find local Viet Cong guerilla fighters, which was easier said than done. The Viet Cong were experts at camouflage, and their snipers hiding in the jungle could pick off patrolling Americans without being seen. When the Americans located their positions the enemy snipers would disappear further into the jungle – until next time.
Coale disliked the patrols, and the feeling of being surrounded by an unseen enemy. He hated being shot at by snipers and hacking through jungle underbrush, never knowing when he might step on a mine or set off a booby trap. On one occasion his patrol spent the night in an abandoned enemy base camp, with a pig squealing eerily in the dark until dawn. He knew his fellow soldiers were as scared on patrol as he was, but some of them wouldn’t admit it.
When on patrol Coale carried an M-16 rifle and sometimes carried the radio for his platoon leader. He respected his officers who were young men like himself and, on the whole, knew their jobs. Coale often discussed spending his R&R (rest and recuperation) leave in Honolulu with his wife with his platoon leader, Lieutenant Geiser of New York, who planned to do the same. Coale made it to Hawaii, Geiser did not. The lieutenant was killed by a booby trap, but Coale emerged unharmed.
Time spent at Cu Chi base camp was a welcome relief from the stress of patrolling. The camp provided a chance to relax and just “hang out” Coale recalled, absent the fear of death or maiming that accompanied each patrol. Although the tropical heat was unrelenting, base camp supplied crude but adequate showers made from fifty-five gallon drums to wash away the jungle crud, and the army cots in camp were certainly more comfortable than sleeping on the ground. There was a swimming pool on the French Michelin rubber plantation, but it was, unfortunately, off limits to soldiers. USO shows, including the Bob Hope show, were occasionally available in base camp, but Coale never got around to seeing any of them.
Coale concluded his interview with a few remarks on the use of helicopters for troop transport and the difficulty of effective bombing against an enemy screened from the air by the lush jungle growth of Vietnam. He also found it regrettable that it was virtually impossible to tell a Viet Cong soldier from an innocent farmer, and that except for the use of LAW (light antitank weapon) rocket launchers and recoilless rifles against occasional enemy field fortifications, his stateside training in antitank warfare proved useless in Vietnam. Coale also recalled that although the Vietnamese people lived in terrible poverty, he enjoyed his contacts with local children, who were bright and friendly.
In conclusion Coale noted that he regretted the treatment Vietnam veterans received on their return home, recalling that he was working in New York during one particularly big anti war demonstration and that the participants seemed to think “we were the bad guys.” He feels the war made him appreciate the gift of life and the fact that America is a great country, and was happy that the public’s attitude changed following the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. DC. Since the war Coal has kept in touch with many of his wartime comrades, and today is impressed by how close all veterans feel to each other, sharing a “common bond of combat” as a “band of brothers.”