CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Army, 25th Infantry Division
Date: April 21, 2017
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, Kristine Galassi
Summarizer: Kristine Galassi
Richard “Rick” Geffken was born in August, 1945 in Jersey City, New Jersey. Geffken’s family had a history of service in the United States military. His paternal grandfather served in World War I, and his mother and father in World War II.
Geffken’s father fought with the United States Army’s 43rd Division in the Solomon Islands Campaign, and he was severely wounded while attempting to save several comrades. He was, in turn, saved himself by another soldier. The elder Geffken earned a Purple Heart and Silver Star for his valor, and Richard bears the name of the soldier who saved his father’s life. Geffken’s mother was a member of the Women’s Army Corps, an X-ray technician, and then she worked at the Pentagon. While at a ”ladies’ tea” in Washington, a photographer took her picture, which was subsequently used for one of the most iconic World War II WAC recruiting posters, “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.”
Geffken attended St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, where he majored in Mathematics and Economics, and he joined the school’s Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program. After graduation, he was commissioned a US Army second lieutenant, and so he became the third generation of his family to answer his country’s call to military service. Geffken was assigned to the Army’s Military Intelligence branch, and he initially was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia to complete the Infantry Officer’s Basic Course. Following that, he attended the Intelligence Officers’ Basic Course at Fort Holabird, in Baltimore, Maryland, where he learned the skill set needed for aerial surveillance and photographic interpretation.
In February of 1969, Lieutenant Geffken landed in Saigon, South Vietnam. He then traveled to Cu Chi, approximately 30 miles northwest of Saigon, where he was assigned as an aerial reconnaissance officer in the 25th Infantry Division Headquarters G-2, or intelligence section. Geffken recalled that the unit worked with interpreters, Vietnamese Army intelligence staff and local informants in addition to reconnaissance. After initial work at headquarters, he flew as an Aerial Observer passenger in a Piper Cub “Bird Dog” small plane and took aerial photos. Geffken recalled that actually taking the photographs himself “greatly enhanced” his interpretation ability and gave him a much broader knowledge of the division’s area of operations.
Geffken noted that initially the view from above was somewhat detached, and he did not really begin to take in the massive devastation that was being wreaked upon what was once a beautiful country. As time went by, however, scenes of horrific destruction on the ground became very apparent to him; and, he began to question both the goal and the validity of the United States presence in Vietnam.
Geffken, as with many other veterans of the Vietnam War, became aware of the stark differences between the experience of veterans of World War II – when the men and women who served, as well as the country’s civilian population, had had one united purpose, to defeat the enemy and thus save their country and the world – and the almost haphazard and conflicting course of the war he was involved in. As the Vietnam War dragged on, the United States was becoming seriously divided as to the war’s purpose and necessity. After serving many months in Vietnam, Geffken concluded that most of the American people, including those who had once been in favor of the war and the soldiers actually fighting it, were becoming convinced of its futility.
Geffken recalled the tragedy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, the deadly chemical defoliant that was sprayed over enormous swaths of the country, which ultimately proved responsible for large numbers of deaths, illnesses and abnormalities suffered by both the Vietnamese people and United States servicemen in the postwar decades. He posited that there was no escape from Agent Orange for anyone, in the air or on the ground.
Lieutenant Geffken spent the last months of his tour in Vietnam in a headquarters building working for high ranking officers, giving him a unique opportunity to observe how they lived and what they thought in the middle of the seemingly futile destruction going on all around them. He recalled several very interesting and unusual incidents that occurred during this phase of his deployment.
One of Geffken’s daily duties at Headquarters was posting the “body count” casualty figures for the morning briefing on enemy activity. He came to believe that these numbers were often somewhat fictitious estimates, designed to be a metric giving the impression that the United States was winning the war.
In June 1970, Geffken rotated back to the United States. In a series of letters exchanged with his father during the last months of his deployment, both men initially expressed very different viewpoints on the war, with his father a supporter of the effort. By the time Geffken returned, however, his father came to see the validity of his viewpoint, although remaining very proud of his son’s service.
During his interview, Geffken also reflected on the tragedies that he witnessed, along with his own personal struggles, in Vietnam. He also, however, shared humorous and unusual anecdotes. Geffken ultimately summed up his experience by saying that he was proud of his service, but not the cause.
In the postwar years, spent time and traveled with fellow veterans. Their mutual respect and shared experience created a mutual understanding, which has greatly assisted in healing old emotional wounds.
Geffken concluded by reflecting that, several years ago: “We all visited Arlington National Cemetery together, the site of my father’s grave.” He summarized the experience as “like the close of a circle of events; an emotional and healing time for all.”