Just 10 days after receiving his degree in history from the University of Montana, Merle Johnston went into the Army. It was June of 1968 and the Plains native figured he would rather volunteer than wait to be drafted. By November, he was on the ground in Vietnam.
"I’ll never forget that first night after arriving," he said. "Tracer rounds and the 'whump' sounds of mortars, riding in a green school bus with wire windows to prevent grenade attacks, and filling out papers. One asked if the Army was to notify our parents if we were slightly wounded. That was a wake-up call."
The world around Johnston has evolved since coming back to a nation filled with anti-war sentiments in 1970. With that evolution, the retired history teacher has been able to share his experience and the experience of other Vietnam veterans with his students through the Frenchtown Vietnam Symposium.
Q: What was your assignment in Vietnam?
A: I was trained in fire direction for artillery, but eventually ended up being an RTO (radio/telephone operator) and an armored personnel carrier driver. I operated firing charts also.
Q: What are the lessons you learned when you were there?
A: I got in the back pocket of the guys who had been there the longest. They had experience. The new guys didn’t last long if they didn’t listen. I also learned to be good at what I did and stay alert. I don’t think I slept more than six hours in a 24-hour day.
Q: What was the most difficult thing about the war?
A: I was attached to the 9th Infantry Division with the 1/84th Artillery. Our artillery unit was 155mm howitzers on tracks called M109's. They looked like big tanks. We didn’t have a base camp for months, just moving from one area to the next.
In January 1969, we moved 28 times in 31 days. We fired point blank at VC bunkers to support the South Vietnamese Army. (I had) very little sleep. (There was) a lot of artillery firing, mostly at night. (We) didn’t shower for weeks, (and) shaved out of our helmets. One of my squad guys was killed by friendly fire, another guy was killed in a convoy. My vehicle broke down and he was behind me. He pulled out around me, went down the road about 1/4 mile and ran over a mine. The 60-ton M109 he was driving ran over a buried artillery shell with a command detonator on it. It blew his vehicle off to the side. If my vehicle had hit it, all of us would have been killed.
Q: Was there anything fun about your time in Vietnam?
A: The war wasn’t obviously, but the countryside in the Mekong Delta was incredibly beautiful. The greens were almost vibrant. At night, the stars looked almost as if they were about to explode. No electricity for miles, so the sky was so brilliant. I served with some great guys. We became great storytellers to each other. I only saw two American women there in nine months. They were called "donut dollies," handing out goodies to us. We stared at them for the longest time.
Q: What did you learn coming back?
A: When I got out of the Army in 1970, I enrolled at the University of Montana for my master's degree. I learned quickly that I was not welcome. The only person I found who was friendly and treated the vets with care was Emma Lommasson, who handled the veterans’ GI financial papers. She was a wonderful woman. The campus shut down due to the invasion of Cambodia. I was excited because the U.S. was on the offensive for once. The students were protesting and because I had short hair, out-of-date clothing and bronze skin, they knew I was a vet and one kid called me a "fascist pig." I learned to keep my mouth shut about my military days.
Q: If you could do it again, would you? Why or why not?
A: I would. I grew up really fast, and I believe my character was forged to what I am now. I have confidence in who I am, and I am proud to have served. I had some close calls and was lucky I guess. I am extremely proud of all the vets and anyone who enters the military.
Q: If you had the opportunity to return to Vietnam, would you?
A: I would like to go back to Long An Province where I was, and look for some of the villages I was in. I would like to do something that is constructive. My son was actually in that same area as a civilian when he was with a Christian youth group traveling through Vietnam.