TOP PHOTO: Buck Sergeant and Vietnam Veteran H.R. Douglas afforded WLAF the opportunity to honor him with a story on this Independence Day.
By Jim Freeman
LAFOLLETTE, TN (WLAF) – As I sat and listened, I kept thinking how does he remember all of these stories, these details? He’s talking like it happened this morning. A couple of days later, it hit me. Everything is so vivid, because a part of H.R. Douglas never really left the jungles of Vietnam.
“There’s nothing like knowing someone’s trying to kill you. It’s constant pressure,” said Douglas who survived gun shot wounds and made it out of Vietnam alive.
“They’d drop us in the jungle for 21 days at a time looking for Victor Charlie, the VC, Viet Cong, and they were looking for us. Their trail watchers watched us and followed us on cigarette butts,” said Douglas.
Douglas remembers that when the chopper, helicopter, would drop us, we had 30-seconds to get out of the chopper. “We’d climb out onto the skid, then hang on the skid, dangling, and drop,” said Douglas.
Right out of La Follette High School in 1967, Douglas went to work for Fire Station 7 in Atlanta, at the time, the third hottest fire station in the city. It was a tumultuous year following the assassination of Martin Luther King. “You could just feel the tension,” said Douglas. In some small way, that experience may well have helped Douglas when he joined the military.
He was first out of 250 men in his basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and it qualified him for leadership school. Instead, he went to advance infantry training learning from hand to hand combat to weapon combat.
His first stint after basic was serving with the Military Police in Mannheim, Germany. He manned the front gate. From there, it was back home on leave and then off to Vietnam. “It’s an 18-hour flight was Fort Lewis, Washington, to Vietnam,” said Douglas.
Douglas said the helicopters would fly so low as they sat with their feet hanging out they would sometimes be tree top level. “Elephant grass grows very tall, and once they dropped us in a hot landing zone with enemy in the air. The Elephant grass was actually on fire, and terrifying doesn’t begin to describe it,” said Douglas.
“I learned first hand about real hunger, real thirst and real fear,” said Douglas.
It was routine for a Loach, a light observation helicopter, to fly through an area , and then be followed by a Cobra gunship (helicopter). The Cobra would then attack. “We were on patrol, and a Loach flew over. Cold chills came over me, because I knew that eight-seconds later, a Cobra would come through here and wipe us out. Our skin became so tan, so dark, we sort of looked like VC. We started jumping and yelling, and the Cobra didn’t kill us. They figured out we were Americans,” said Douglas.
“The most dangerous time of day was at first light and last light, and we were constantly on patrol. We’d clear out an LZ (landing zone) to get supplies. Choppers would be on the ground for thirty-seconds kicking and throwing out supplies,” said Douglas, who earned the rank of E-5, a Buck Sergeant. That was the highest rank that could be earned in two years.
“After getting those supplies, we stayed in the area, and we shouldn’t have. We left the next day at first light in single file, and I was in the middle of the line. We crossed a creek, went up a ridge and started getting small incoming arms fire,” Douglas recalls.
Because of the supplies drop, the Buck Sergeant’s rucksack was packed full of C- Rations which ended up saving his life. He took, at least three shots to his back and one shot on his front side in his thigh. “Those C-Rations saved me,” said Douglas.
He went into shock after being shot. The med chopper sent down a winch with a penetrator through the thee canopy jungle, and Douglas held on to the penetrator and was winched up where two medics helped place him on the floor of the chopper. “It was a ride and a half. I was glad to be sleeping between two sheets,” said Douglas.
The round he took to the leg is still with him. The surgeon told him that he had such tough skin that he’d just live it in there.
The jungle was so dark, and you really had use your hearing according to Douglas. “We’d set up NDP (night defensive position) and take turns sleeping for a couple of hours and be on watch for about 45-minutes. It was a tight 360 watch,” Douglas noted.
Douglas saw 11 people he knew during the war. Ten of them were from Campbell County.
He even survived a missile strike. Not long before leaving Vietnam, he was at headquarters at Chu Lei when it was hit by a missile.
Once stateside in California, he noticed something. “I realized that something had changed about me. They used to call it shell shock or battle fatigue. Now it’s called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). PTSD does not go away,” said Douglas.
“I was wound real tight after Vietnam,” said Douglas. Though he went right back to work with the Atlanta Fire Department. He later had opportunities at K-25, the Oak Ridge Fire Department and the U.S. Postal Service opting for an almost 30-year career with the USPS.
Thank you for your service, H.R.. (WLAF NEWS PUBLISHED – 07/04/2022-6AM)