CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
James P. Wollner was born in February, 1945 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. Prior to being drafted into the army in April, 1967, he worked as a truck driver. Following basic and advanced training in the United States, Wollner was assigned to Vietnam, where he served with the 2nd Airboat Platoon of the 15th Engineer Battalion of the 9th Infantry Division. The 9th was assigned to the Mekong Delta, where the extensive wetlands and river and canal system made amphibious mobility a necessity. Since Special Forces advisors had used airboats prior to the arrival of the 9th Division, Wollner was trained in the use of the airboats by Special Forces personnel. His unit was the first ever army line unit to use airboats.
The Mekong Delta was the “rice basket’ of Vietnam, the most fertile area of the country in both crop and animal production. Delta peasants not only grew vast amounts of rice, but also kept large flocks of ducks as a meat source. They used water buffalo as beasts of burden to plow, haul carts and perform other labor intensive tasks. The Vietcong (VC) were well aware of the Delta’s agricultural productivity and were particularly active in the area, where they maintained control of many villages by both portraying themselves as leaders of a popular uprising as well as threatening and implementing drastic penalties on those locals who would not cooperate with them. The VC demanded a “tax’ of as much as 70% of the local rice crop. The sons and daughters of Vietnamese village chiefs who would not cooperate were often maimed in retribution and to serve as an example to others.
January 30, 1968 marked the start of Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. Although Tet had been a time of truce in previous years, in 1968 it was the occasion of a massive surprise attack by VC and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops on American and South Vietnamese forces. There were attacks throughout South Vietnam, concentrating on the country’s large towns and major cities, including Saigon, the capital. VC agents infiltrated Saigon and other cities prior to the Tet offensive, smuggling in large amounts of weapons and ammunition and thousands of mines for use in the attack. The 9th Division was actively engaged in combat during Tet, which proved a defeat for the VC in the long run, although it is often misinterpreted as a victory.
A typical airboat operation would involve sending the eight airboats up a canal to establish a blocking position into which another force would drive the enemy. Wollner’s platoon spent much of its time in an environment of water and mud, attempting to ambush the VC and destroy both them and their weapons, many of which dated back to World War II. The airboats were made of fiberglass and foam and, traveling slowly along rivers and canals, were particularly vulnerable to attack by small arms and Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) fire. Some of the boats were hit by enemy fire, but fortunately for him, Wollner’s was not, although his platoon sergeant was killed in one attack. During these operations, the platoon lived on C-Rations and beer for 15-20 days in the field. On one occasion the VC destroyed their supplies.
Wollner recalled Vietnam as a beautiful country with striking beaches, intense green rice paddies and fields of reeds, as well as trees and plants bearing a wide variety of fruits, some familiar and some not, including pear-shaped grapefruits. North and South Vietnam had different lifestyles and standards of living. The South’s agriculture was more productive and living conditions were much better.