CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Thomas W. Chalfant Jr.
Thomas W. Chalfant Jr. was born in Harrison, New Jersey in April 1945. His father had served in World War II. During the early stages of the Vietnam War, the younger Chalfant was attending college at Newark College of Engineering (today’s NJIT) and so believed he did not have to worry about being drafted; because, as a student, he had an automatic deferment. The law changed, however, and Chalfant’s grade point average was insufficient to retain his deferment. He was drafted on February 16, 1966. Chalfant was granted an extension to marry his fiancé, Michelle. On February 28, he left New Jersey for Ford Hood, Texas, where he spent his twenty-first birthday during basic training. After graduating in April 1967, Chalfant was assigned to the Army Ordnance School at Aberdeen, Maryland for advanced training as an artillery fire control technician.
When Chalfant received his orders for Vietnam, his wife was pregnant, which worried him considerably. He arrived in Vietnam in late June 1967, and the experience of serving there was nothing like what he had expected. Chalfant was amazed by the extensive tropical countryside; he recalled that his advanced training did not prepare him well for service in the jungle. Initially assigned to the 4th Infantry Division base camp at Pleiku, Chalfant was then sent with a combined infantry and artillery force of 600 men to establish a forward firebase at Dak To. His daily routine in Vietnam consisted of waking up at 4:00 a.m., going to various field artillery sites, and evaluating and repairing the sighting equipment of the guns. He either drove a truck with tools and spare parts to the site or, if it was in a remote firebase, he was helicoptered in, depending on the distance from his unit headquarters.
Chalfant was not a fan of the M-16 rifle he was issued, because it tended to jam while firing; so, he carried an old French bolt action rifle instead. At the end of the day’s work at a forward firebase, he would usually settle into a bunker to avoid possible incoming enemy fire overnight.
In an unusual situation, Chalfant’s unit had to essentially babysit 150 orphans in their base camp, built around an old French airfield at Dak To, and located close to the Vietnamese-Cambodian border. A North Vietnamese Army unit was based on the other side of a nearby river, in Cambodia. The Americans were not allowed to cross over and engage the North Vietnamese, although their base camp, which was located where it was to hinder enemy activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, over which supplies from North Vietnam were transported to the Communist forces in the south, was close to the enemy camp.
Chalfant recalled that United States aircraft repeatedly dropped bombs and napalm in attempts to damage the Cambodian section of the trail. There was also an instance of ground combat in November 1967, when the enemy crossed over into South Vietnam and occupied a hill from which they used mortars against his base camp. An infantry assault to eject them, and a subsequent larger operation succeeded, but heavy casualties were suffered in what became known as the Battle of Dak To. Chalfant remembered seeing body bags coming back to his camp, which was within sight of the battle.
Food was less than desirable at the camp, with meals composed mostly of C-rations; but, the cooks were sometimes able to make the rations taste better than they normally would. Beer was available at the camp as well, although it nearly ran out on occasion. Despite these shortcomings, morale was high, and the soldiers would often roll up socks to create an ersatz football and have a game. Chalfant was scheduled to see the traveling USO Bob Hope show at Pleiku, yet was not able to attend the event, since he was called on for an emergency artillery sight repair job. Chalfant was the only person in his unit who was able to repair artillery sights, which would prove problematic at the end of his tour, because he had to train someone else to do his job before he could return home.
While in Vietnam, Chalfant kept up with the news from home, including the Newark riots of July 1967, which made him think that a war was being fought in America as well as Vietnam. He was disappointed to see the news of his division’s accomplishments on the sixth page of the paper instead of the front page.
Chalfant returned from Vietnam and was discharged in February 1968, surprising his wife and their two-month-old baby Noelle. After the war, he became a volunteer at the NJ Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Holmdel, New Jersey. Chalfant has not joined any veterans’ groups. He said that, while he enjoyed talking about his service, he did not want to “relive his military experiences”. Chalfant does enjoy working at the Vietnam Memorial and educating visiting students on the history of the Vietnam War. He believed the cause was just and that he did his part for his country. Chalfant received, along with the usual service medals, the Army Commendation Medal for his service in Vietnam.