RONAN – Aside from 1967-71, when he was in the Army, 66-year-old Dale Morgan has spent his life in his hometown of Ronan. He and his wife Faye have three children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
He worked for Plum Creek Timber for 26 years, then Jore Corp., then Plum Creek again, until the Pablo mill was closed for good in 2009 – 16 months before Morgan planned on retiring.
Before all that, Morgan spent a year in Vietnam, in the Mekong Delta, much of it driving military vehicles along what U.S. troops called Thunder Road. He was 19 years old when he arrived, and 20 when he left.
“Vietnam was a pretty country,” Morgan recalls, “if it wasn’t for the war.”
Q: Tell me about your year in Vietnam.
A: I got there in March of ’69, and in June they said they were sending our unit home. I thought, ‘Oh boy, just three months and I’m going home.’ I was wrong. The only thing that came home was the colors. Everyone with two to three weeks left got put in the 9th Division, and we got stuck in the 25th.
I got there right after the Tet Offensive, so I didn’t get hit with a lot – a couple of times with mortars, a couple of times with personnel. Basically, the war was starting to shift and the Viet Cong were not as active in 1969. I had some friends who got wounded. There was a captain, who was very well liked, he got killed along with his driver on the day he was going to Saigon to catch a plane home. Another guy got a hardship discharge because he was the only son – he got ambushed the same day he found out he was going home. He didn’t die, but he got ambushed.
Q: Were you drafted or did you enlist?
A: I was 17 when I was drafted, but I enlisted after that, and took an extra year so I could go to signal school. The Army would train you for something, but 90 percent of the time you wouldn’t do it. They’d stick you where you were needed. You were always a soldier first. I ended up in a mechanized infantry unit.
Q: What vehicles did you drive?
A: Trucks and Jeeps. The first six months, I drove trucks a lot. We went every day into Saigon to get supplies. Every morning, the minesweeper would go out and sweep Thunder Road before the trucks went out. Later, they (the Viet Cong) learned how to detonate by remote control. The locals had these three-wheeled things – I called them golf carts – and (the Viet Cong) would take them and drive them down the middle of the road real slow, so our trucks couldn’t get by them. Tracs can go sideways, so we’d send them out and they’d swipe those golf carts right into the rice paddies.
We all had to take turns driving the fuel truck, go in and get 1,500 gallons of fuel, and when your time came, you hated it. You knew all it would take was one bullet, and you’d go “boom.” The next three months, I drove the commanding officer wherever he needed to go, and the last three months I ran the company club. That was all right.
Q: How did the war affect you, or change you?
A: I didn’t think it did at first. But those first 10 years back, my wife got me out from under the bed a lot of times. At first she didn’t know where I’d gone, then she figured out I was always under the bed. I’d have bad dreams, see things. I drank a lot those first 10 years back, too. Finally my wife said, “We can’t do this no more.” I got help and quit drinking heavily.
You’re 18, 19 years old and in war, you see things that are not normal – people getting blowed up, shot and killed. You never forget it. After 10 years back, I realized I wasn’t in Vietnam anymore. I was home, I had a good job and a good family, I just needed to go do … (his voice trails off).
I still, every once in a while, see something like it was yesterday. The idea that you go to war, do a job, come home and forget about it, that just doesn’t happen. The war never goes away.