CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Leonard Pope was working as a garage attendant for the Trenton Police Department in April 1967, when he was drafted into the United States Army. He remembered his life before his military service as being so calm that it seemed surreal in retrospect. Pope’s family had a military background that spanned five generations, so they were proud of him when his number was called. He went to Newark for his physical examination, where he was notified that he would be called to duty within the next two weeks for basic training.
The cohort of draftees Pope was conscripted with was split between the Army and the Marines, with some taking the choice of voluntarily enlisting in the Navy or the Air Force for more extended periods of service. He was assigned to the Army and reported to Fort Dix for processing, where he was caught drinking with his friends the night before training began and had to do 500 push-ups as punishment. Pope was transferred to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training.
Pope decided to have some fun with his time in the service and mailed snarky postcards from Fort Knox to the sergeants at Fort Dix as a form of “payback” for intervening in his life. It is unlikely that they cared. Following basic training, he was assigned to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for advanced training as a communications operator, and then he received orders for Vietnam. Pope traveled to Travis Air Force Base in California, where he boarded a Boeing 727 to Vietnam. He remarked that he was one of the only privates on board; almost every other soldier on the plane was an officer.
On arrival in Vietnam, Pope was suffering from heat exhaustion, so the officers unloaded his luggage for him. He was subsequently assigned to C Battery of the 2nd Battalion of the 13th Field Artillery and stationed at Bien Hoa Air Force base near Saigon, where the battery was tasked with the indirect fire defense of the base. Pope encountered several dead Viet Cong outside Bien Hoa on his second day there; he recalled that the enemy was a dedicated fighting force. He was told to not salute officers, as Viet Cong snipers saw saluting as an indication of rank and were interested in picking off officers. Pope said that the Viet Cong actually feared his artillery unit; a captured communist confessed they called his battery the “Dragon Unit” due to the unit’s symbol.
After serving for a while at Bien Hoa, Pope was transferred to nearby Long Binh, the major headquarters and supply depot for the region. At Long Binh, he had the opportunity to interact with Vietnamese civilians, who were employed to construct bunkers for his unit. Pope respected their work, and he shared leftover C-rations with the Vietnamese, yet still viewed them with suspicion. It seemed to him that it was always either wet or dry in Vietnam. The wet or “monsoon” season forced any temporary construction projects above ground because of flooding.
Pope was at Long Binh during the Christmas holiday of 1967; he received gifts from home by mail, but had no time off. His assignment was to assure that the telephone wires connecting the artillery pieces to the fire direction center were operational, since enemy fire could damage them. Although he had to make a few repairs, he recalled that the only time he ever had to climb a telephone pole was during his training at Fort Leonard Wood.
Pope was in Saigon when the Tet Offensive occurred in February 1968. He was shocked at how well-coordinated the enemy attack was, since the Viet Cong were not considered a sophisticated military force. During the Tet Offensive, Pope got serious about his service in Vietnam, as he was fighting for his life day in and day out. He was a forward observer radio operator during Tet, and was promoted to private first class during the offensive. The iconic photo of the police chief shooting the Viet Cong guerilla happened only a block away from where Pope was at the time. A small arms ammunition shortage became a serious issue during the Tet Offensive for his unit, and on one occasion they ended up firing flare guns at the enemy.
Following Tet, Pope’s battery was sent to Loc Ninh, near the Cambodian border. This was around the time when Jane Fonda visited North Vietnam, and her famous photo op angered him. He went back to being a jokester at Loc Ninh however, telling new guys to search for artillery lanyard oil and skyhook flares, neither of which existed. The fighting was fierce at Loc Ninh though; and, the trees were stripped of their bark after one firefight. Pope had to reconstruct his own bunker after it collapsed from the shock of a nearby air strike.
While stationed at Loc Ninh, Pope finally received orders to go home. He was still in combat an hour before being airlifted back to Long Binh. Pope remembered handing his rifle to his replacement and wishing him good luck, before he boarded the helicopter. He flew from Bien Hoa to Travis Air Force Base, before taking a civilian plane to Philadelphia, where he was picked up by his friends at Philadelphia International Airport at 3:00 in the morning.
Pope subsequently suffered from depression for a week after he heard news that his unit was hit hard and several of his friends were killed. He remembered his return to civilian life as being a culture shock; because, he went from the jungle to civilization literally overnight. In later years it became harder for Pope to be patriotic, after discovering that the White House knew that Vietnam was unwinnable. He also developed diabetes from his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Leonard Pope earned the Good Conduct Medal, the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross, and the Vietnamese Service Medal for his service.