CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Joseph E. Gehring was born in June 1947 in Newark, New Jersey, where he lived on North 7th Street, near Bloomfield Avenue within walking distance of the iconic “Italian hot dog” vendor, “Dickie Dee.” After graduating from high school, Gehring was hired by the Western Electric company in nearby Kearny, where he was well paid and enjoyed the work. In July of 1966, he went to court in West Milford, New Jersey, to pay a $10 traffic ticket. When Gehring returned home later that day, his mother told him that he had received an official looking piece of mail. It was his draft notice. His older brother was already serving in Vietnam as an army electrician.
Gehring officially entered service on August 8, 1966. He was sent to Fort Dix, where he was tested to determine his skills and subsequently his army assignment. During the process, Gehring spotted his old high school teacher, who was serving as an army major; and he ran up and embraced him, which resulted in two sergeants pinning him against the wall and accusing him of assaulting an officer. The major chewed out the sergeants, however, who subsequently gained revenge by sending Gehring, who wanted to be an electrician like his brother, off to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for infantry training. At Fort Jackson, Gehring trained on the M-16 rifle, including the use of the bayonet, the M-60 machine gun and the .45 caliber automatic pistol. Although infantry training was the last thing he wanted to do, it worked out for him in the long run.
Following his training, Gehring was assigned to be deployed to the 25th Infantry Division, then headquartered at Cu Chi, Vietnam. He departed for the war from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, stopping in California, Hawaii and Okinawa before finally landing at Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam, from where soldiers were formally assigned to their units. To Gehring’s surprise, he was sent to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, known as the “Black Horse Regiment,” rather than to the 25th Infantry Division. The cavalry unit used tanks, armored personnel carriers (APCs) and helicopters for its missions. Gehring felt that this assignment provided him with more personal safety than plodding through the jungle and rice paddies on foot, as he, as a cavalryman, would ride in an armored personnel carrier. He reflected that, in the long run, it indeed turned out to be a good thing.
Gehring’s first assignment after arriving at his unit’s base camp at Xuan Loc, north of Saigon, was to fill sandbags, which were used for protection against enemy mortar attacks. The camp’s facilities included 12-man tents with wooden floors, surrounded by protective sandbags, and a structure that provided gravity-fed cold water showers.
Even though serving in the 11th Armored Cavalry was less perilous than in the infantry, it still presented hazards. Roads, especially those near villages, were often dangerous to ride on, since the Viet Cong planted explosives, today referred to as IEDs, intended to damage or destroy vehicles and kill or wound their occupants. On several occasions, the treads were blown off Gehring’s APC, although he himself escaped injury. Some of his friends were not so lucky. His platoon had five APCs and two tanks. Gehring was in the first or “scout” vehicle on the road, assigned to that position because he was a good map reader. The enemy would often let that vehicle pass through to hit the tanks following behind.
Gehring did not realize the danger of his situation until, one day, while manning the machine gun atop the APC, he heard three pops before a friend pulled him down into the vehicle. When the coast was clear, his friend took him out back to reveal bullet holes in the shield around the machine gun. That incident brought the war home to Gehring in a very personal way, and it scared him. It made him more aware of his surroundings as well as helped him to avoid being wounded or killed.
After five months of service in Vietnam, Gehring was promoted to sergeant and was officially an “old-timer.” He recalled that, although he thought of himself as “a new kid on the block,” he was assigned to teach classes to soldiers just joining the unit. As part of the training, Gehring would show the new men graphic pictures of what happened to casualties, as a caution to them to always pay attention to their surroundings. He wanted to be sure they were as scared as he was, because it would help them survive the war. The average age of the American soldier in Vietnam was 19-21 years old, and Gehring was one of the most experienced by the time he was only halfway through his one-year tour of duty.
Gehring stated that any American soldier in Vietnam was vulnerable. All Americans wore uniforms, and were not Vietnamese, so were immediately identifiable. American troops, on the other hand, encountered a lot of difficulty identifying the enemy, as it was their country. The North Vietnamese regular army wore uniforms, but 70-80% of the fights his regiment were engaged in were against local Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas, who did not wear any formal uniform. VC could be men, women, or even children, and they blended into South Vietnamese society. Gehring felt that he could not trust the Vietnamese, even those who were ostensibly on his side. Once an adolescent girl walked by Gehring and four of his friends, turned and fired at them, killing one of the soldiers. Gehring and the others quickly returned fire and killed her. Initially he felt terrible about taking the life of a young girl; but, once he looked back at his dead friend, he did not feel sorry anymore.
The VC dug a labyrinth of tunnels that served as hideouts, from which they would emerge at night to attack American bases. When American soldiers tried to enter the tunnels, they were confronted by various booby traps, including “punji stakes” of sharp-cut bamboo dipped in animal dung. The army developed a whole new Vietnam-specific system of training exercises, including mock Vietnamese villages complete with tunnels, and obstacle courses that taught soldiers what to avoid. Gehring posited that Vietnam was unlike previous conflicts due to the nature of the enemy and its tactics.
Although regimental headquarters would try to send one hot meal a day to the troops in the field, this wish was only fulfilled about 60-70% of the time. Gehring and his fellow soldiers mostly ate canned “C-Rations” while on operations, which usually lasted 30 to 40 days. Sometimes they purchased food from local civilian peddlers. Gehring once bought a sandwich from a Vietnamese boy and started to eat it. He liked the taste, but was not sure of the contents. When Gehring asked what type of meat it was, the boy stated that it was monkey. He was so disgusted that he threw it out, and never bought local food again. Soldiers would buy beer from locals, but always checked to make sure the bottles were not tampered with before drinking it.
Gehring’s service in Vietnam ended on January 6, 1968, shortly before the Tet Offensive. Once on the plane home, he and his fellow GIs celebrated, yelling, cheering, and drinking beer on their 24-hour flight back to the United States. On the way, they made brief stops in Okinawa and Hawaii before landing in California. From there Gehring flew back east to Newark Airport. He caught a cab from there to reunite with his family in the city for a celebratory dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. Gehring was so happy to be home that he pushed the war from his mind after returning to work at Western Electric. He did not follow the course of the conflict on the news or try to reach out to his military friends. Gehring went on to join the Newark Police Department, from which he retired after 30 years’ service.
Some years later, Gehring watched a Bruce Willis film in which the actor was visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and he decided that he wanted to reconnect with his friends from the war. He discovered that there was an 11th Armored Cavalry veterans’ organization that held reunions annually. Gehring went to his first reunion the following year in Philadelphia. Since then he has gone to every single one, only missing one for his daughter’s wedding. The reunion moves to different locations each year and hosts an average of 800-900 former members of the regiment. Gehring continues to stay in touch with these men and says that he will for the rest of his life.