CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Prior to the outbreak of the Vietnam War, William Ehrhart lived in Orange, New Jersey, where he was born and raised. His father served in the U.S. Army during World War II and fought in the Pacific Theatre; yet, he rarely spoke of his experiences, although he did bring back several war trophy souvenirs, including a Japanese rifle and a bullet-riddled scarf.
While in high school, Ehrhart decided that he wanted to join the army, and even thought of dropping out to do so. His father cautioned him during his senior year about that course of action, advising that his military job options would be very limited if he did not have a high school diploma.
While in high school, and for a while after his graduation, Ehrhart worked as a gas station attendant, pumping gasoline and changing oil on vehicles. He did not think much about the escalating war in Vietnam, and the growing political furor surrounding it. In 1967, Ehrhart enlisted in the army. He informed the recruiter that he wanted to serve in the Infantry. The recruiter told Ehrhart that branch was for draftees who were doing the fighting in Vietnam, and that he should select a branch requiring more sophisticated training and expertise.
Ehrhart was assigned to Fort Dix, New Jersey for his basic training, which he recalled as being more difficult than it might have been because it was winter. It was cold and snowy, and upper respiratory infections were rampant in his training platoon as well. Ehrhart was fortunate enough to miss some time in the field when he was assigned to barracks fire watch duty. After completing basic training, he was assigned to Redstone Arsenal in Alabama to attend Air Defense Artillery school, where he was trained as a missile repairman with an MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) of 22M20 – Nike Hercules Missile Repairman. The Nike was an air defense missile, initially called the Nike Ajax, and renamed the Hercules after being fitted with a nuclear warhead.
On completing his training, Ehrhart was assigned to a Nike Missile base in Edison, New Jersey; but after spending only an hour there, he and some other men were sent to Fort Dix and assigned to the 519th Military Police Battalion. The battalion was a “STRAC” (military acronym for “Strategic Army Corps”) unit designated for emergency deployments in the United States and abroad and acted as Infantry on occasion as well as Military Police. The 519th had been deployed to guard the Pentagon during antiwar demonstrations. Ehrhart recalled soldiers in the unit telling him stories about protestors placing flowers in the muzzles of their rifles and trying to kiss them. On their return to Fort Dix after the demonstration, the MPs had bought newspapers to see if their pictures made the news.
Ehrhart was concerned that, since he was in the 519th, there was a strong possibility he might be deployed to a combat zone in Vietnam. He and several other men who had been arbitrarily transferred to the battalion got passes and traveled to the Pentagon to speak to a personnel officer and clarify their positions and military occupational specialties. They were then transferred to Redstone Arsenal.
From Redstone, Ehrhart was reassigned to Germany in June 1968, where his unit, the 2nd Battalion 56th Air Defense Artillery, was composed of six anti-aircraft missile batteries. His particular MOS was not needed; and, he was cross-trained within the unit to become a missile launcher repairman. Ehrhart recalled that he had mixed feelings about the German civilians he interacted with. On one hand, he frequented a restaurant and tavern where he ate dinner on Christmas and New Year’s Day and was treated well by the owner and the other customers, some of whom had been German soldiers during World War II. On the other hand, Ehrhart often had to deal with trucks he believed were purposefully blowing smoke out of their exhaust at him while he was on the side of the road. He became engaged while he was stationed in Germany; and, after his tour of duty there ended, he was transferred to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he married and then received orders to go to Vietnam.
Ehrhart remembered the rush of heat and humidity he experienced on stepping off the plane in South Vietnam in November 1970. His assignment there at US Army Vietnam (USARV) headquarters was to work in a Data Service Center office for twelve hours every night, awaiting calls for equipment repairs, which rarely came. He recalled the assignment as being extremely boring, since it was a desk job that wasn’t really needed. Ehrhart didn’t have any transportation, so the only way he could get off the base was by hitching a ride into Saigon on one of his friends’ trucks. His only interaction with the locals was when the maids came in and cleaned the barracks, and often brought their kids, who he felt sorry for.
Ehrhart was able to take Rest and Recuperation (R&R) leave and used it to meet his wife in Hawaii, a week that he counted as their honeymoon. He also saw Bob Hope’s 1969 Christmas Show, and received and sent mail to his parents on subjects other than Vietnam. Ehrhart returned home in November 1971, after spending a year and a week in Vietnam. At the time, he supported the intervention in Vietnam and agreed with the Domino Theory, which posited that if Vietnam fell to Communism, then the rest of Southeast Asia would follow. Ehrhart was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, Vietnamese Service Medal, National Defense Medal and Vietnam Campaign medal with star during his service.
After leaving the army with the rank of Specialist 5, William Ehrhart reunited with his friends and organized a reunion at the Star Tavern in Orange, New Jersey, perhaps the best pizza restaurant in the state.