Vietnam oral history interview
Veteran: Specialist 4th Class Clark McCullough
Date: 28 JUL 2003
US Army artillery: B/1/40, B/3/6
Interviewer: Dave Dombroski
Summarizer: Walt Borkowski
Clark McCullough was inducted into the US Army at Jacksonville, Florida on November 30, 1965. McCullough recalled that prior to being drafted, he was in the process of joining the United States Air Force, but that his draft notice took priority over his enlistment efforts. He had wanted to join the service because he was bored with his part time job at a grocery store and the classes at the junior college he was attending. At the time he entered the military, McCullough was living with his parents, who had moved to St. Petersburg from Brooklyn, New York shortly after he graduated from John Jay High School. McCullough said that in the early 1960s his “family did not discuss what was happening in Southeast Asia, but I did with my friends. No one was really concerned about Vietnam in 1963.”
McCullough recollects his basic training at Fort Benning Georgia as being “very hard and very difficult and [it] was the hardest part in being in the military.” He recalled that “basic got us into real good shape. Running and doing chin-ups before breakfast was kind of hard, but by the time I got out I was probably in the best shape in my life.” He also noted that he qualified as a marksman with the M-14 rifle and was never issued an M-16 rifle, a weapon usually associated with the Vietnam War, throughout his military service.
During his advanced training stint at the artillery school at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, McCullough received instruction in all of the separate skills necessary to load and fire both the 105 millimeter towed howitzer and the self-propelled 105 millimeter howitzer. McCullough described the self-propelled howitzer as a tracked vehicle, similar to a tank, and said it had more fire power and range then the towed version of the gun. Training on the self-propelled howitzer included maintenance and instruction on the use of the M-60 machine gun mounted on the vehicle.
After Fort Sill, McCullough spent a month’s leave at home and then traveled by plane to Oakland, California. In Oakland, he boarded a military transport ship, which took twenty-two days to cross the Pacific to South Vietnam, including a two-day stopover in Okinawa. Like most of the other soldiers on board, it was his first time on a ship. He recalled that the food was good, but that quarters were tight, and the men had to sleep in hammocks. He didn’t get seasick, although many of the other men did.
McCullough’s unit, Battery B, 1st Battalion 40th Artillery, landed at Da Nang, where he remembered “setting up our tents on the Da Nang beach, which was beautiful, but the tide came in, and we found everything floating in the morning.” He said “the Da Nang weather had a reputation for being hot, but I was from Florida, and Fort Sill was very hot, so the heat didn’t bother me.” He remembered that his unit remained in Da Nang for about a month while a large convoy that would take up five miles of road space was assembled for a trip north to Dong Ha, where Battery B would be assigned to support the Third Marine Division, which was fighting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), and “trying to clear them out” of the era.
McCullough recalled that the convoy to Dong Ha was “huge.” He remembered that “we had had air support, helicopters and jets, and yet it took three attempts to get out of Da Nang. The Viet Cong (VC) had blown up bridge after bridge. It took us at least two weeks before we got up to our base camp at Dong Ha. Once we got rolling, though, we didn’t stop.” He remembered passing through the old Imperial Capital City of Hue, which would later be destroyed during the Tet Offensive in 1968. He recalled riding in the self-propelled howitzer as being “noisy and cramped,” and said that “the crew sat on top most of the time.” McCullough’s battery reached Dong Ha in October 1966 and set up a base camp on a Buddhist graveyard. He recalled that Seabees attached to the Marines “came in and leveled the area and moved the dead bodies out of there. They paid the Vietnamese for the body removal.”
McCullough began his artillery service as a cannoneer, and worked his way up to assistant gunner. He explained that the job of a cannoneer was to load a round into the gun’s breech, while an assistant gunner would verify the direction of the shot using a compass and inform the gunner that the requisite sighting numbers were accurately aligned and the piece was ready to fire. Later in his Vietnam tour of duty at Pleiku, he was assigned to the fire direction center, “a different job,” where the appropriate elevation and deflection numbers needed for accurate shooting were plotted before being relayed to the guns.
McCullough recalled that about two and a half months after arriving at Dong Ha he was involved in combat while assigned as a radio operator for a forward observer on a reconnaissance mission with the marines. McCullough recalls heading “south out of Dong Ha for about fifteen miles looking for VC so we could call in the artillery. We didn’t find any on that mission, but on other missions we were fired on by the VC. Under fire we had to keep moving and shooting. They were well-hidden, and everybody was scared. It’s a scary thing being shot at.”
McCullough also recalled an especially large fire mission at a mountain that was called “The Rock Pile,” [Con Thien] as a result of reports that over 1,500 VC were living within the mountain, which was located about fifteen miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). “We surrounded the Rock Pile,” and fired day and night at the mountain, while the air force bombed it with B-52 strikes. “It was the largest operation undertaken up until that time” he said. McCullough and his battalion stayed near the Rock Pile for about three months, and then returned to Dong Ha, where they found that the Marines had constructed an immense base, encircling their old artillery camp.
McCullough served on other missions away from Dong Ha. He remembered being under rocket fire while at Camp Carroll [near Cam Lo]. “It was the first time the NVA used rockets against us,” he said, continuing that “it was kind of scary, but did not cause too much damage.” On another occasion the battery moved to a position to protect the town of Kon Tum. McCullough then returned to Dong Ha for several months, until he was transferred Battery B 3rd Battalion 6th Artillery in Pleiku, where he completed his tour of duty and “we fired a lot less rounds, and it was a safer area then the DMZ.”
McCullough said that he did not have any experience with “friendly fire” hitting American soldiers, but he recalled receiving some letters from his buddies who had remained in Vietnam about some problems they had with friendly fire, and about a tactic used by the VC of getting and staying close to the American lines and causing a problem with artillery support. “I didn’t save the letters, unfortunately” he said. He then mentioned that his battery was very fortunate and never lost a man while he was in Vietnam.
McCullough told the interviewer that he had very little personal contact with Vietnamese civilians or South Vietnamese soldiers during his time in Vietnam. When asked if he was ever afraid of the villagers being Viet Cong, McCullough answered: “Absolutely. You didn’t know who was who, day or night. Even the little kids we had to be worried about - at least I was.” He thought the Vietnamese peasants were unfriendly and were afraid of the Americans. He also believed that “the South Vietnamese (ARVN) soldiers should have been fighting more then they did, since “it was their country.” He recalled going through a village and seeing an ARVN soldier sitting on a chair waving at the Americans, who were headed towards a fight.
McCullough said that he never took Rest and Recuperation (R&R) leave during his time in Vietnam, but that he did go to the Philippines to spend some time with his brother who was serving with the US Air Force at Clark Air Force Base.
The interviewer asked McCullough if he ever questioned his involvement in the war. “Everyone did their job,” he responded, “but I think later on when there was a lot of student turmoil in the States, there might have been some of that. I was fortunate to be there when I was.” When asked if he got much grief from civilians back in the United States for serving in Vietnam, he answered, “No. If I had come back to New York or New Jersey, maybe, but not in Florida. At that point I was just glad to be home with my parents.”
McCullough recalls how he was “a little ticked off” about the mood of the country when he returned home from Vietnam “because I felt these people didn’t really know what was going on over there. There were a lot of Americans getting killed every day over there, and I was very concerned about that. The soldiers and sailors over there were just being forgotten about by the young people.”
McCullough said he had no regrets for his service. “At that time we had the draft, which was later abolished. I think it was good training, and the experience of Vietnam was unlike any other war. It was the longest war we were involved in, and the politicians made a lot of mistakes running the war and got a lot of people killed needlessly.” He feels the politicians tied the military’s hands “absolutely. We had a lot of ‘no fire zones’ and couldn’t do a lot of things we should have done. If we had gotten more help from the South Vietnamese, we could have saved their country. For the most part, they were unwilling to fight, and we never really trusted those that were attached to us.”
McCullough says today’s youth “should remember that you are Americans first, and the goal of the country is to be basic peaceful people. Think about what is right and wrong. Maybe in the long run some people were right, and we shouldn’t have been there, but our leadership thought we had to be there to protect American interests. And the thing that galls me more then anything else is that Robert McNamara comes out in a book and says now that we shouldn’t have been there, and he was the prime ‘Hawk’ during the Vietnam War. He was as much the problem as was Jane Fonda. Other than that, the American people have always done the right thing and will continue to.”
McCullough was “certainly not happy” about Jane Fonda going to North Vietnam and thinks something should have been done about it. “If she had to go somewhere, she should have gone to visit the American troops.” He felt “most of the troops were angry at Jane Fonda at that time and are still angry and will probably never forgive her.”
Clark McCullough, who resides in Middletown, NJ, is a member of Chapter 12 of Vietnam Veterans of America, but feels he should be more active, and it has been some time since he was last in touch with any of the men he served with. He is active in Revolutionary and Civil War Reenactment Groups and has been especially involved in trying to protect New Jersey’s military monuments. He has spoken about his Vietnam experiences to classes at several schools, and displayed for this interview an array of photos, military patches, and military manuals, such as the “ Soldier’s Code of Conduct,” “Vietnamese Phrases” and “Vietnam History Guide,” which he usually shows to the students during his school presentations.