by Cole Gilbert
“Our helicopter was hovering five feet over the ground as we were assaulting the firebase. Bullets were whizzing through the air like a swarm of bees. The door gunners yelled: ‘Get out!’ and the man right next to me took the first jump. He screamed in pain as he hit the dirt. I was filled with fear, but I still jumped next.” That was Joseph Taylor Gilbert’s first mission in his tour in Vietnam. He is my grandpa, a great man but often gruff and serious. When I first thought of him as a possibility for my interviewee, I was excited to learn about his service in the military but I was worried he would try to block out the emotional side of his experience. I thought and re-thought, then pondered and re-pondered, and I realized I was scared to ask him these questions. Veterans, through their tours of various places, go through far more than many of us in our entire lifetimes. After 49 long years of suppressing these memories, how would he feel bringing that emotional baggage back from the depths of his memory? Could he bring these memories back? I decided I would just have to call him and see where it went. I drew a notebook out of my overstuffed backpack and I began to scribble a header: “Interview Project.” This writing would be barely legible to anyone who didn’t know my writing well; luckily I am a master of reading my unintelligible print. Finally biting the bullet, I dialed him on my phone; on the other end his old fashioned dial phone began to ring. “Hello?” I asked politely.
“Hi, sweetheart!” It was my grandma. I explained to her that I was interested in interviewing grandpa about his time in Vietnam. To my surprise, she thought it would be a great idea, so she walked with the phone to find my interviewee. My grandparents live on an expansive lake in upstate New York, a beautiful place. I imagined it sunlit, bathed in orange evening lights, sparkling snow on all the rooftops. It would be the perfect setting for an interview; I wish I could have been there in person. As my grandma wandered into the living room calling for my grandpa, the cord from the old phone carelessly wrapped around the furniture.
“Is that my favorite grandson?” Grandpa asked into the phone, his favorite opening line as I was also his only grandson, which he conveniently “forgot” to mention. I replied that I was here to interview him, and I explained the details of my project. Unfortunately, there was a football game on, and he was not going to miss the Forty-Niners overtime game, so he said he would call me back. Then, he settled into his brown leather reclining chair, and hung up the phone. Looking back on this moment, although my grandfather loves football, I imagine this was his way of preparing to unpack all of these events and stories that he had not experienced, thought, or spoken about in years.
I began by asking him when he served in the Vietnam War, what his role was, and if he had any control over his position. He served from March of 1970 through March of 1971 as a platoon leader of the 101st airborne, first battalion, 506th infantry. As a platoon leader, he “didn’t have to do much shooting, I just had to make sure my guys didn’t get shot.” He had been called into action via the draft; however, being the organized planner he is, had joined the ROTC earlier to guarantee himself a position where he could tell people what to do, not be told what to do. Grandpa still admitted, “I still got told what to do, you have to remember, there was always someone higher up than you.”
“How did you arrive in Vietnam and how did the journey there feel?” I inquired. On his way into Vietnam, my grandfather flew in on a large passenger jet; he was filled with fear but he knew his duty. He recalls the man on the tarmac telling the new recruits to “get out quick in case of a mortar attack.” As soon as he exited the aircraft, he immediately began to choke on the soupy, humid air. The first thing he noticed was how dirty, smelly, and sweaty the whole environment was.
I then asked him what his first mission or outing was in Vietnam. He creased his wrinkled brow, his square, wire rim glasses sliding down his nose. He began to explain the first time he assaulted a fire base.
“Wait, wait, what exactly is a firebase?” I enquired.
“It is a mountaintop base that we would use as a home base,” he answered matter of factly. They were a useful strategic holdout, allowing the troops to expand outward from this defensible position. “They had five helicopters going in [to attack the base], as the new platoon, we were in the fifth, scheduled to enter the firebase last. Unfortunately, nothing ever goes to plan, and we ended up being the first helicopter out. We came down onto the mountaintop and the pilot hovered 4 maybe 5 feet above the ground. The door gunners began spraying bullets, deafening us. ‘Get out!’ they yelled.” The man right next to my grandfather exited first and screamed as he hit the ground. “I thought he had been hit by a bullet, but I exited next anyway,” Grandpa supplemented. It turned out he only sprained his ankle. He then directed his men to form a perimeter and begin firing, making sure to be directing, not shooting. My grandpa explained throughout his time he did not know if he killed anyone and he liked it that way. He tried to fire his gun as few times as possible, but he called in many artillery strikes. I scribbled this down as fast as I could, the college-ruled lines on my paper ignored by my frantically flailing fingers, striving to get all of his story on paper. He went on to explain that the rest of his tour he couldn’t recall. I paused for a minute, looking at the illegible notes on my paper, remembering the limitations of memory. Is it possible they were suppressed; or were they just eroded by the passage of time? Silence ensued for a moment.
“Did you at least make any lasting friends in Vietnam?” I asked politely, trying to coax something out of grandpa’s memory. Silence continued, he was thinking. I began scribbling a circle on my messy paper, the scratching of the pencil punctuating the silence. He shifted in his leather seat. “I remember their callsigns, nothing else. Our platoons would shift around so much I would never get to know anyone.” Grandpa continued, “One time, I had a platoon that was supposed to have maybe 44 people. Twenty-two showed up, the rest were injured, dead, missing, or sick. So you can see getting to know people was a difficult business,” he said with a nervous laugh. Personally, I couldn’t imagine being somewhere for a year and not bonding with anyone. Vietnam was clearly a different situation than what we have here.
“What did you do when you came back? How were you treated?” I asked.
“I was perpetually looking forward to the day I would leave. It was very day to day.” As he entered the jet to leave he took one last look at the Vietnamese landscape. My grandpa stood up and looked out over the vast lake outside his window, recalling leaving Vietnam. He might not have been fondly recalling Vietnam; however, he was recalling it nonetheless. “When I arrived back, I was greeted by protesters and some friends and family. We actually got spit on. It was not popular to have been involved in this war.” I connected this back to today, where our veterans are regarded with the utmost respect. What a different time. I was still scratching away at my paper, trying to take all this in.
“So no one wanted to hear your story?” I queried, hoping the answer wasn’t what I feared.
“No one wanted to hear about Vietnam, everyone just wanted the war to be over.” I couldn’t believe this new development. I set my pencil on my desk, baffled at the lack of respect people showed toward our heroes. Politically and socially this was an unpopular war, and my grandpa alluded to this; however, I still could not believe the lack of respect people had for my grandfather, Joseph Taylor Gilbert. I could tell he knew the amount of reverence and respect I had for him, and this was truly moving for my grandpa, especially after suppressing these thoughts for so long. He finished the call by saying, “I love you,” which, to me, showed his gratitude.
When I started this project I didn’t think it would have impacted my relationship with my grandpa in such a positive way. My grandpa’s opening up to me showed a more emotional side of him than I had ever encountered. Getting to know the hardship in people’s lives inexplicably brings those people together. This project did that with my grandfather and me. Hearing about the adversity he faced makes him even more of a hero in my eyes, and I will make sure he knows that.