CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Army, 1st Cavalry Division
Date: February 13, 2015
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Melissa Ziobro
James Merriman was born in 1953 in Neptune New Jersey, and grew up along the Jersey shore. He attended Manasquan High School, and enjoyed swimming and surfing. Merriman recalled, laughing, that in his day surfers were deemed “outlaws,” while today they can earn a varsity letter for the sport! His “world changed,” however, in April 1971, when he was a senior in high school and just 17 years of age. On the night of the draft lottery, he and some friends grabbed a few beers and sat down to watch it on TV. They all breathed a sigh of relief after the first birth date was called. After the second birth date was called, most in the room again breathed a sigh of relief—except the young Merriman. His number, as they say, was up.
Merriman decided to go to an Army recruiter rather than waiting for the draft to catch up with him, hoping that he would have more control over the process that way. In October, 1971, Merriman enlisted to become a crewman (door gunner) on a Huey helicopter. Merriman attended Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and helicopter training at Fort Rucker, Alabama. His first duty station was Wiesbaden, Germany, where the mission of his unit, the 238th Aerial Weapons Company, “Gunrunners” was to fly along the border between East and West Germany, trying to entice Russian anti-aircraft batteries to turn on their radar so that a plane, flying some 100 miles behind the helicopter, could pick up the Russians’ location. Most of the time, he recalled, this did not work, as the Russians knew what their Cold War adversaries were up to. While in Germany, Merriman noted, “If we weren’t flying, we were partying.”
Merriman’s company was reassigned to Vietnam, where it was attached to the 1st Cavalry Division. He commented at length on the extreme difference in temperature and overall climate between Germany and Southeast Asia. The men of his unit spent some time at Tan Son Nhut Air Base getting acclimated to their new environment. While there, one man was killed in a mortar attack, and Merriman immediately realized that he could be killed as well at any moment. Soldiers always carried their M-16 rifles, which he declared to be “a very good weapon.” The M-16 did, however, require a lot of cleaning and maintenance to keep it functioning properly.
Merriman spent the next thirteen months in Vietnam, living in tents and sleeping on cots. He developed an aversion to camping that has lasted to this day. Merriman noted that he was just a teenager, living and working in a very dangerous environment, with a bunch of other teenagers. This fact is something he always tries to impress upon high school students today, when called upon to speak to them – it was kids just like them who fought and died in Vietnam.
In addition to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Merriman’s unit served at other bases located around the country, including locations at Da Nang, the Mekong Delta, and Khe Sanh, in an effort to train Vietnamese troops (a plan Merriman characterized as less than effective). He and his fellow soldiers always traveled by helicopter, not by ground.
Merriman noted that although the men of World War II units tended to train, deploy, and return home together, this was not the case in Vietnam, where twelve or thirteen month tours of duty were the rule. People were always coming and going, and “everybody was always teaching everybody.” His advice to new men was to always keep their weapons clean and at hand, to trust their buddies, and to work as a team.
During his interview, Merriman recalled two particular missions vividly. On one occasion, his unit saved a group of Marines who were pinned down by enemy fire. He said that in the aftermath, there was some good-natured teasing about Marines needing an Army helicopter to save them. Merriman also recalled a time when his unit saved a colonel. The grateful officer asked how he could repay the helicopter crewmen, to which they responded, “send us home!” Since the colonel was unable to do that, he fulfilled their second request — beer deliveries. For the next eight months, the colonel regularly shipped cases of Budweiser beer to them. At first, they drank it warm, but then they found some engineers with whom they could barter for ice. The resultant beer parties were, he recalled, the kinds of “stupid things guys did to take the edge off.”
Merriman spoke well of most of his officers, saying that only a few were “hard asses.” He recalled that most officers did not want to be saluted, lest the enemy single them out for assassination.
As his tour of duty neared its end, Merriman recalled that the army offered to train him to be a helicopter pilot, if he extended his enlistment, but he declined. He had very little notice when he was actually going to be sent home and remembers running around saying goodbye before hopping on the helicopter that would bring him to safety, and to an eventual return to civilian life.
Merriman’s return to “the world,” like that of many other Vietnam veterans, was not seamless, however. The public had many preconceived negative notions about soldiers who had served in Vietnam. He recalled ordering a beer in an airport bar, and being called a baby killer. Merriman also remembered being refused service at a bar in San Francisco – the proprietor asserted that he “didn’t serve druggies.” Once home in New Jersey, he was refused membership with the local VFW, because he hadn’t fought in a “declared war.” (Today, the VFW wants—needs—Vietnam veterans.)
On a lighter note, Merriman recalled the first big meal he had once returning stateside. Upon arrival at the mess hall, he wondered why there were garbage cans lining the front of the building. That thought faded away as he, accustomed to a diet of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), gorged on all the hot, homemade food he could manage—that is, until the meaning of the garbage cans became clear. They were for soldiers who got sick after they’d eaten more than their calorie-deprived bodies could handle!
As Merriman tried to adjust to civilian life, he found that he “shut down.” He dealt with a lot of anger, particularly at what he felt was the government’s bungling of the war. In his words, “57,000 Americans died for absolutely nothing.” At first, he didn’t want anyone to know he’d been in Vietnam. Embittered, he ripped up his DD-214 (discharge form), and he did not apply for any veterans’ benefits. He turned to drink, which led to the failure of two marriages, until he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He still serves with the fire company he joined just after his service in an effort to satisfy a need for adrenaline rushes he had acquired in the war. While he vows he wants nothing from the government, he has visited the Vietnam War Memorials in Holmdel and Washington, DC, and he does speak with local high school students about his experiences to ensure, as he puts it, that they realize that “freedom is not free.”