CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Joseph G. Bilby
Joseph Bilby graduated with a BA degree in history from Seton Hall University with the class of 1965. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the army’s Military Police Corps after successfully completing the Seton Hall Army ROTC program. He entered the army on active duty in March of 1966, reporting to Fort Gordon, Georgia to attend the eight-week Military Police Officer Basic Course (MPOB). At the time he entered the service he was living at 196 Roseville Avenue, in the Roseville section of Newark, NJ.
Bilby was born September 2, 1943 in Newark, New Jersey. He grew up in Newark, where it seemed to him that most everyone’s father had served in World War II, and friends’ older brothers in Korea or the Cold War era military, either in regular, reserve or National Guard service. Patriotism was proudly proclaimed in the blue collar Roseville neighborhood and in the Catholic school system that educated him. The draft was still in force when he came of military age, and most males were liable to possible military service. As a boy Bilby believed such service was natural and to be expected. It was, in a way, an initiation into manhood.
Bilby recalled that the mood of the country in early 1966 was not what is generally portrayed in today’s television documentaries on the Vietnam era. There were no significant anti-war demonstrations then. There was a general feeling, however, that the war was getting serious, due to the large commitments of US troops the previous year and the resultant increase in casualties. He followed the news closely, noting the heavy fighting the First Cavalry Division encountered in the Ia Drang Valley in November, 1965. He read a lot about Vietnam, including books on the French Indo China war there in the 1940s and 1950s. During Bilby’s four years in the Seton Hall ROTC program, he had thought he would graduate and probably serve in Germany, something he looked forward to as he had never been out of the country. By 1966, however, events in Vietnam were moving fast. He volunteered for Vietnam service, believing he was going there anyway and that it would be an interesting experience.
Bilby did not recall much conversation about the war in Vietnam at home. He had no siblings. His father, a World War II veteran, had served in the artillery, from the Battle of the Bulge through to the crossing of the Rhine River, then in the Ruhr pocket, and he ended the war on the Elbe River. His father thought that since his son was a lieutenant, further up the military pecking order, he had done pretty well. In retrospect, now a parent himself, he thinks his own parents were probably worried that he was going to Vietnam, but at the time he was pretty self-absorbed, like most young people.
After completing MPOB Lieutenant Bilby returned to Newark on leave, and then went back to Fort Gordon, where he served as executive officer of a company in the Fourth Training Brigade, a Military Police training unit for enlisted men. He was supposed to serve with this unit prior to being sent to Vietnam at the end of 1966. He soon became bored with service in the training command, however, and, knowing that he was going to go to Vietnam anyway, called the personnel office in Washington and volunteered to go earlier.
Bilby remembered that he was kind of curious to see a war, although he was, at twenty-three, old enough to be a bit more cautious than he would have been five years earlier. As a teenager, he had voraciously read Ernest Hemingway’s novels and short stories, had plans of someday writing the great American war novel, and thought experience in Vietnam would help him in that effort. He had been a history major in college, and now he wanted to be a part of history, not just some guy passing through life with no distinction whatever. He had no great ideological reason for going to Vietnam, but thought it would be interesting and exotic, with just enough danger to get some adrenaline flowing. There was a war going on (the regular army guys called it “the only war we got”) and he wanted to see it. He said that he did not think Communism was a good thing, and still thinks that, but did not believe that if the Communists won in Vietnam they would be in Newark next, either.
Home on leave before going overseas, Bilby hung around with some of his friends from college who had not yet gone into the army – – went “down the shore,” drank beer, and watched the sun come up on the beach. Then, on August 24, 1966, he flew off to San Francisco out of Newark airport, and then to Vietnam, via Hawaii and Okinawa. When he landed in Vietnam, at Ton Son Nhut airport outside Saigon, the sticky heat enveloped him, and there was a vague odor of decay in the air. He soon saw a “hootch” that had been hit by a mortar the night before. He began to wonder what he had got himself into.
The following day he boarded a truck along with other soldiers, all replacements for the First Infantry Division. The truck left Ton Son Nhut and traveled west through villages and along rice paddy lined roads until it reached the First Division’s main base camp at Dian, near Thu Duc, about 10-12 miles outside Saigon.
During most of his time in Vietnam, although often on the road somewhere, Lieutenant Bilby was nominally stationed at Dian. He remembers that the weather there was usually quite hot, and that there were two seasons, the rainy or monsoon season, when it rained every afternoon and most nights, and the dry season, when it was hot and dry. Temperatures ranged from 75 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The two seasons were separated by a two week period of relatively cool weather. Bilby was assigned to the First Infantry Division’s First Military Police Company. The company had a platoon with each of the Division’s forward Brigades, and several platoons, including an 81mm mortar platoon and infantry type rifle platoon, based in Dian, with company headquarters and the Division Provost Marshal Office. Living quarters were tents with wooden floors, although wooden “hootches” with screens and sheet metal roofs were later built. Food was mediocre in base camp, and got worse in the field, where C-Rations were the norm. The best C-Ration was “franks and beans,” the worst “ham and eggs.” In the field and on the road, C-Rations were sometimes heated over C-4 explosive material pried from the backs of claymore mines and lit with a match, but mostly they were eaten cold.
The duties of the MP company included prisoner of war processing, supply convoy escort and security, base camp defense, occasional infantry style patrolling, and normal police duties involving crimes and investigations. Bilby was assigned as leader of a convoy escort platoon. The duties of the platoon were to provide men to protect and provide traffic control for ammunition, petroleum and other supply convoys heading to base camps and firebases across the First Division’s area of operations west of Saigon, including places named Lai Khe, Phouc Vinh, Phu Coung, Bear Cat and Phu Loi. The First MP Company also cooperated with MP units from the big American supply dump and support camp at Long Binh, and worked with MPs from the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division. His platoon helped escort the Eleventh Armored Cavalry and the Fourth Infantry Division to their base camps as they entered the country. The mission of the First Infantry Division was to pacify the area west of Saigon, which included the famed Vietcong stronghold of the Iron Triangle. Bilby conducted both day and night convoys in support of division field operations, from September 1966 through January, 1967. His jeep was always the lead vehicle in a convoy. The convoys were fired on a number of times, and a truck driver was killed once on the way to Phouc Vinh.
In late January, 1967, Bilby assumed command of the MP Company’s mortar platoon from Captain Andy Anderson, who was rotating back to the United States. He thus became one of three officers in the history of the Military Police Corps to command an 81mm mortar platoon. The Platoon’s duties were to fire illumination, white phosphorous, and high explosive shells in support of ambush patrols from units of the support command and infantry units patrolling in the Dian area. His platoon also fired “harassment and interdiction” missions against possible enemy concentration points or travel routes every night, and supported units in enemy contact on several occasions. He noted that he was very fortunate to have an infantry platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Fahey, assigned to his platoon. Fahey, a native Philadelphian and Korean War veteran, was a mortar expert who had taught mortar gunnery at the Infantry School at Fort Benning.
In Vietnam, Bilby recalled, “nights were full of tracer fire, things exploded all the time, and you just got used to it. People got shot or blown up here, there and everywhere – Vietnamese bodies were often left by the side of the road, or in it.” He just got used to seeing such things. But his nerves grew taut and he began to get jumpy as the end of his year in Vietnam approached. This feeling was really driven home when he found himself leading a reaction force and, .45 automatic pistol in hand, following the wires of an exploded claymore mine back towards the location from where it was detonated. The mine explosion, fifteen minutes before, had killed two American soldiers within a mile of Dian base camp.
When Bilby left Vietnam on August 20, 1967, he had very mixed feelings. He felt guilty about leaving his platoon, and he went around and visited every man, shook his hand and thanked him. At the same time, he was relieved to go home.
When Lieutenant Bilby landed at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey after a flight from Vietnam, with brief stopovers in Japan and Anchorage, Alaska, he felt odd – he had just come from a war, and here there was no war. Within 24 hours of worrying about getting shot, he was in line to buy a submarine sandwich and soda in New Jersey – something seemed wrong. This was certainly not World War II. Most people didn’t seem to care about what went on in Vietnam unless they had relatives there or were afraid of being drafted. Life went on as usual back here. After a brief leave, Bilby, now a first lieutenant, was assigned to Fort Dix, where he served as executive officer of the 532nd MP Company. That company was charged with policing the base. Compared with Vietnam, this was easy duty. He was separated from the service on January 18, 1968, an early separation due to his acceptance at Seton Hall’s graduate school, from where he later earned an MA in history.
Bilby recalled that several people he knew from college were killed in Vietnam, and that the worst case was Donny Leta of Irvington, who was killed while serving as an infantry lieutenant in 1968. Bilby was out of the army at that time, but he remembers visiting Donny’s fiancée with another college friend. It was a very difficult thing for him to talk about then – and still is.
Bilby served in the 303rd Civil Affairs Company, US Army Reserve for two years after he was separated from the army. He married and had three children with the girl who had written him letters while he was in Vietnam. He worked for the state of New Jersey for almost thirty years before retiring as Supervising Investigator for the NJ Department of Labor. Along the way he began to write articles and books on military history, primarily the Civil War. At present he has seven books in print. He is also part time assistant curator of the National Guard Militia Museum of NJ.
When asked his opinion of his Vietnam experience, he said he had come to the conclusion, even while serving there, that it was a “poorly thought-out intervention,” and that we should draw a lesson from that. He stated, however, that he does not regret having gone there and is proud of his service, as he would not be who he is today had he not gone. His recollection was that morale was high among the troops he knew during the time he served, from 1966-1967, and that “when you fight a war, ideology goes out the window. You fight for the guy to your right and the guy to your left.” His military experience, he believes, taught him to value courage, honor and loyalty as primary virtues, and he still values them today.