A little over a year ago I received a request for an interview from a high school freshman from California.
She was given a project to report on the Vietnam War and a friend on another net sent her interview questions to me. I thought this young lady ask some good thought provoking questions, I thought a lot about her questions, and tried my best to give her my most truthful and sincere thoughts and answers to each one. As you can see from her reply she seemed to appreciate my effort.
Interviewee: James (Jim) W. Burns
1. How old were you during the war? I was born in 1941 and you can range my age during the war between 20 and 34, depending on when you consider the war to have started and ended.
2. Where were you during the war? I was a helicopter crew chief. I was stationed at Clark AB in the Philippines in 1964 where I was sent on temporary duty to Nakhon Phanom (NKP), Thailand, for my first involvement in the Southeast Asian (SEA) war.
I was with the first Air Rescue helicopter unit sent to SEA and our mission at the time was to provide rescue coverage for the Air Force and Navy photo recon aircrews that were flying over Vietnam, N. Vietnam and Laos. I was at NKP when the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred. I spent about four months there before returning to Clark. I then served at Clark until 1966, when I returned to the States.
In 1967 I returned to the war and was stationed at Nha Trang AB, Vietnam. During this tour I was a UH-1F Huey crew chief and flew as a door gunner. Our unit, the 20th Special Operations Squadron "Green Hornets", was the only Air Force "Huey" unit in the war. We were assigned to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies & Observation Group, which is, known by the initials MACV-SOG. MACV-SOG was one of the most highly classified missions of the war.
Our mission was to insert and extract Special Forces teams (usually two Americans and four Montagnard mercenaries) along the infiltration route known as the Ho Chi Minh trail, in Cambodia and Laos. All of our helicopters were un-marked (no U.S. Star or any U.S. Air Force painted on them) and only had a "Green Hornet" painted on the side. The reason for this was that we were flying into countries where our government was telling the world we were not going and if we were to be shot down, our aircraft would have no U.S. markings on them. We were part of what is now known as the "secret war".
After this tour was over in 1968, I returned to the States and then in 1969, I was again assigned to the war, this time back at NKP, Thailand, where I was a flight engineer and door gunner on the CH-3E helicopter.
My unit was the 21st Special Operations Squadron "Dust Devils" and we were again performing the same MACV-SOG missions, except we were now inserting and recovering teams further North along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and N. Vietnam. We also supported the Royal Lao Army in their war against the Lao communists.
After this tour was over in 1970, I again returned to the States and never was assigned to the Vietnam War again.
During my Vietnam War tours, I was awarded five Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star, and thirteen Air Medals. My units were awarded Presidential Unit Citations.
3. How did the war affect your life? It made me miss over two-years of my daughter and son's childhood and being away from my wife. I do not have any lingering effects (at least as far as I can tell) from my involvement in the war.
I went on to serve 20 years in the Air Force and retired as a Senior Master Sergeant in 1979.
During my tours there were not any members of my units that were killed in action, although there were several wounded, fortunately I was not one of the wounded. My roommate, two pilots, and another flight engineer in Thailand were all killed when their helicopter was shot down. This occurred shortly after my tour was over and I had returned to the States.
4. How did you follow the progress of the war? While I was in the war, we got most of our news of the war from the Armed Forces Radio Network and the Stars and Stripes newspaper, and of course we knew what we were up to while we were there.
When I was back in the States I followed the war like everyone else, watching TV and in the papers, also I had contacts with others that were returning from the war and got information from them.
5. What is your most vivid memory of the war? There were several missions where the enemy had discovered our SOG teams and we had to land and pick them up while under fire. I would say that the most vivid memory would be the few minutes of shear hell when we would be landing while being shot at (and of course we were shooting back).
Being on the ground trying to load the team on board, all the time shooting back and having our gunship helicopter flying overhead firing their mini-guns and rockets to try and help us get into the landing zone and back out in one piece.
6. What was your attitude toward the war? I believed I was there to do my job and although I did not care for being shot at and being away from my family, I felt we were doing the right thing by trying to prevent the spread of a terrible form of government. I felt we were trying to keep the people of SEA free. Did it change as the war went on? Not really and it hasn't changed as of today.
7. Did you know anyone who served in the war and what did they say about it? As you can see from what I have already said, yes I knew a lot of men and women who served and for the most part they all pretty much felt the same as I.
8. How did you feel when the United States withdrew its forces in 1973? It was a very sad day for me when this occurred. First, because we were not able to accomplish our goals (we lost), and also because we had lost so many service men and women, who were serving our country in the cause of freedom.
There is a saying that's used a lot "Freedom is not Free", and it goes directly to the cost we suffered in the lives of our troops then (as we are today) for the goal of freedom for all peoples.
Freedom is a great and noble goal, but it sure is not free and once you have it, then it is up to all of us to defend it.
9. Why do you think the United States failed to win the war (or do you think the United States won)? No, I don't think we won, there is no doubt we lost. I felt while I was in the war as I feel today, that once the decision is made by the political leaders that we are going to war, they need to stay the hell out of the way, and let the military leaders call the shots about how to win the war.
If our military had been allowed to fight the war on military terms, rather than political terms, I'm convinced we would have easily won in Vietnam.
10. What conclusions would you draw about the war? Again, I would say that my conclusion would be that once we enter a war, then the actual prosecution of the war should be the responsibility of the military leadership, not the political leadership.
What lessons can it teach us? First lesson would be that war should be a last resort and that once we enter a war we must accept the cost and win.
11. What are your feelings about the war today? I've pretty much expressed that already.
12. Was the United States a hero, villain, or fool in the Vietnam War? Great question! I guess we went in as the hero, but I think you would have to say it ended with us looking pretty foolish. I don't feel we were villains though.
I thought you really ask some great questions in this interview which made me stop and think just how I really felt before answering.
Thank you for taking the time and thought to conduct this interview and good luck with your project about the Vietnam War.
It sounds like Woodbridge High School has some interesting subjects for you to study, especially interesting to me since I was a part of the war.
Here are a few web site links to some of my photo's from Vietnam and Thailand, might be something in here that interests you. You should be able to view them by clicking on the "View Photo" button when the page opens up. If you have trouble opening these, let me know and I'll try to send them a different way.
Here is one more site that might interest you, It is a site called "In The Shadow Of The Blade" and it is about the movie of the same name which I got to have a small part in.
Again, thank you for your interest in my war, study it hard. It is important that one generation learns from another, it makes us all stronger.
If you have any follow up questions, feel free to ask and I'll try to answer as best I can. Good Luck.
God Bless The United States of America.
Here is the young lady’s response:
Subject: Re: Vietnam War Interview
WOW! Your interview was the most amazing I have received yet. Thank you for taking the time to answer the questions so thoroughly; I can tell you put a lot of thought into your answers and your interview will probably be the most helpful to my project.
Woodbridge High School is in Irvine, CA. I am a freshman and at my high school history is optional freshman year, however, I don't think it should be because I think it is the most important subject in school.
Because freshman history is optional, there is no curriculum for the class, so my teacher, Ms. Malkin, chose to teach the Vietnam War for part of the year because she believes we need to learn from our mistakes in the past.
I will tell her that you are proud that our class is paying attention and learning from the Vietnam War. Again, thank you so much for the wonderful interview, and for the follow-up sites and pictures.
Your information will help me to inform and teach my fellow peers more about the war. I cannot thank you enough! Thank you for your time, your thorough answers your extra links, and most of all, for serving our country.