A Veteran’s Perspective of U.S. Military Service During the Vietnam War

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My grandfather, Donn Byrne, served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. Pictured above, on the left, is his portrait from the Naval Academy as a young man. The middle image shows him and his older brother in their Navy uniforms, and the image on the left is him today, taken just after our interview ended. He started at the Naval Academy in 1960, after studying at Arkansas University, and he ended his service in 1972, accounting for a total of 12 years of military experience. The following interview includes some crucial memories from this time in his life as well as the thoughts and feelings that he experienced during his service, and how these sentiments have changed and developed over time. Today, he lives in Portola Valley with his wife, my grandmother, and likes to paint, talk with others, play bridge, and watch Warriors’ games.

 

Where and when did your relationship with the U.S. Military begin?

I went to the Naval Academy in 1960. My dad was in the air force, so my relationship with the military started the day I was born, but as a person serving in the military, 1960.

 

Can you talk a little bit about your time in the Naval Academy, like your training experiences? Was it enjoyable, difficult? Was it what you expected?

I found out that you could carry 25 academic hours, you know, where most people carry 12. I learned to fire an M-1 rifle and a .45 caliber pistol, stood #1 in German…yeah, that was fun. I learned the meaning of duty, honor, and country, and became career-minded as a result of that experience.

 

Why did you decide to enlist?

Because I thought that that was what I was meant to do.

 

Was that a common sentiment for young men of your time?

Yeah, you know, it was a very noble thing at that point in life. There were two TV shows, The Long Gray Line and The Men of Annapolis, that were very, very popular and everybody was watching them. It was a good time to be in the military.

 

Why did you pick the service branch you joined (Navy)?

I didn’t want to be in the Army (laughs).

 

Why’s that? 

Because being in the army, you get shot at more, when you’re running around on the ground (laughs). So I not only opted for the Navy, but I also opted for Naval Aviation, which kept me off of ships and off of the ground. 

 

So would you say that the assignment that you had was kind of ideal in terms of military service?

I would definitely say it was ideal, yeah. We were flying four-engine turboprop airplanes out of Silicon Valley. If you’re gonna serve, that’s the best way to do it.

 

What was your relationship to this work?

So I’ll describe the job, it was a ground job that was in addition to flying the airplane. On the ground I had a division of 150 guys that worked for me, 13 of which accompanied me on any mission that we flew. The flying job was the main reason to be where we were. Our job was primarily anti-submarine warfare. Our mission was to find submarines, track them, and kill them if we had to. And this is after the Naval Academy, beginning in 1964.

 

So, you enjoyed that work then?

I did, I did. I was definitely wanting to be an admiral.

 

Do you remember first arriving in Vietnam and what it was like?

Oh yeah, it was definitely different. First of all, most of us were wondering why we were even conducting that war, a lot of us did. I was becoming opposed to the idea of the war before I even got there. When we landed there I was kind of going: “Wait a minute, this doesn’t seem right”. And it wasn’t, as it turns out.

 

What are some of the most prominent memories that you have of your time in the Navy, particularly during your deployment in Vietnam?

Mhmm. Well, your mom had just been born when I made my first deployment. I got to hold her for a couple of days before I had to go to Vietnam. I didn’t like that too much. I had her picture all over my walls in the BOQ (Bachelor Officer Quarters), so that really stands out. She was important. Who knows what our relationship would have been like had I not gone. We did an awful lot of flying, we didn’t…. I won’t say that. I don’t want to whine about it.

Another outstanding memory would be flying out of Thailand, flying out of Japan, flying out of the Philippines, just flying out of all these different places. It was kind of a good thing because I got to see that part of the world. But it was a lot… a lot of flying time. Over 1,000 hours in the airplane. 

 

Wow.

That’s a long time.

Yeah.

 

Another memory was when we were flying back to the U.S, and we took a route that was little a bit of a gamble, but we, the crew, wanted to get back to our families. We had four engines on the airplane, and we lost two engines. We were past the point of no return, we couldn’t turn around and go back, so we had to try to make those engines work and that was pretty scary (laughs). We finally got them back obviously, I’m here.

Another time a missile was launched on us. We were able to break the radar contact that the missile was flying down, and the missile never hit us, I’m still here. That was a little scary.

 

Totally.

And there’s a couple funny stories in there. I remember flying off the coast of Russia. The Russians were not our friends at that point, still aren’t. And we saw them in the air; they came to see us, and we came to see them. This is kind of a fun story, I’m gonna tell you a story.

We were flying out of Adak, Alaska, which, if you look at a map, there’s Alaska and then there’s a chain of islands that reach out towards Russia, called the Aleutian Islands. And we were flying out of the island that was the farthest out. So our patrols took us right down the coast of Russia, and, as I told you, we were looking for submarines primarily. We were flying along and a radar was on us, and we flew down the radar beam to find a submarine on the surface who was conducting some sort of training. We dropped a sonobuoy behind it so we could categorize the type of submarine it was. We noticed the Russians turned around and picked it up, picked up our sonobuoy (laughs). 2 or 3 weeks later, we were going out on same patrol and the guys on the crew said: “Let’s have some fun with these guys”. We took a sonobuoy shipping container and we put girly magazines, Penthouse, Playboy, every girly magazine we could find into this container and dropped it behind the submarine. And they made a U-turn, and they obviously picked it up. We were returning from the end of the patrol and they had us on their radar again, and so we flew in and they were all on the sail of the submarine, that’s the part that sticks straight up, waving the magazines at us and clapping their hands. So that was an interesting cold war moment. It’ll give your report a little color.

Actually, later on I was on a tour of Russia and we were touring an old Russian submarine base, and the docent told the exact story that I just told you, and I got to say: “Hey! That was me. I did that”. So that was kind of a fun thing in the Navy. I actually enjoyed the Navy, I didn’t like the Vietnam War. That pretty much discouraged me from wanting to achieve the career that I started out to get, so I got out in 1972.

 

So was it that you enjoyed your service in the Navy up until the Vietnam War, and that was when you changed your mind?

That’s accurate, the war really turned it around for me. I was okay up until we were set to fight that war.

 

So are there some specific things about it that really changed your mind?

Yeah. The Vietnamese were trying to settle what I would call a Civil War that was being fought between the North and the South. And it was their war, it wasn’t our war. And yet we were put right in the middle of it. It just, intellectually, didn’t seem like the right thing to be doing. I mean, it’s their war, and they can settle their own borders and settle their own disputes, and we had no business trying to figure it out. And as it turns out, we were wrong, and a lot of people died in the process. So that remains strong, a strong emotion. The Vietnamese people are very nice people. 

 

Did you ever have any memorable experiences with the Vietnamese people?

Oh, I’m sure I did. Like the mission where we encountered the Russian submarine on the surface, we had some assignments that were sort of peaceful. There was a campaign for awhile where somebody in Washington had concluded that the Vietnamese people… and it’s true that they lived in very small villages. They were not, you know, all living together in society, they were just small groups of families that had been living together for years. And we called these locations “hamlets”; there were hamlets all over Vietnam. It was determined that the oldest woman in the hamlet was the person who controlled what the people in the hamlet would do. So we figured if we could get to talk to her, then we might me able to work something out minimize the casualties. And so someone said: “Well how are we gonna get to her?” and somebody said “She is the guardian of the hog”(laughs). It sounds funny. Each hamlet had a big pig in it, and that was their source of milk and all kinds of nutrition, and she ran that pig. So one day we flew from the Philippines into Vietnam to deliver a pig, a big old sow. Her name was, I think Silver Star, and getting her into the airplane and then getting her out was a chore. I never knew what became of Silver Star, but that was kind of a neat moment for me, a neat approach, trying to end the conflict in a different way. 

Another time I was in a place called Cam Ranh Bay and we had a rocket attack. I was in a bunker. When the rockets come in, you run and hide. And I was sitting in the bunker with a South Vietnamese guy, and he had wet his pants and we were laughing about that, when it was over of course. 

 

So you say that you had this feeling that the Vietnam War wasn’t really the right thing to be doing. Was that also a common sentiment among the other soldiers, or not so much?

I think it was common. 

 

Interesting.

The American public was not shy about telling us that they didn’t think that’s what we out to be doing, either. I mean, we couldn’t wear our uniforms off-base because of the crap that we were taking from people off the street, when we were just doing what we were hired to do. So the sailors at Moffett had lockers, and they’d hang their uniforms at the end of the day and put on their cities to go home. It was a major insult, major insult. So the American public wasn’t behind the war either.

 

How did you stay in touch with your family while you were deployed?

I wrote a letter everyday.

 

Everyday? 

Mhmm, I sure did. Back in those days we didn’t have the connections, communications-wise, that we have today. You had to stand in line to get to the telephone, and if you were a junior officer, which I was, you had to start back at the end of line, and wait for maybe an hour before you could get on the phone. It was kind of funny, it was on Transpacific cable. We didn’t have Internet, we didn’t have anything like what we have today.  So you had to say: “Hi honey, how are things going? Over” and you know, when you wanted it to be romantic, you couldn’t get there because you had to say “over” all the time. So there was some very limited telephone, and lots of mail.

 

How did people entertain themselves?

In our free time we would go to the Officer’s Club and drink. And of course, every place we were stationed was a beach, there was always a beach. That’s where naval forces are, right there on the water. There was always stuff going on on the beach. We were always in the club, moaning and groaning about having to be there, and drinking too much. And, you know. I played squash and handball, different court sports, played a little basketball. We had these moments where we’d all get together and shoot baskets or whatever. We never went off the bays, we were always on the bays ‘cause…. that’s what we did.

 

Did you make any close friendships while in the service? Did you remain friends with these people?

Oh, yeah. My classmates from my Naval Academy days… we still talk, and our 55th reunion is this year. I don’t go to all of them. I went to the 50th, and the 40th, and the 30th. Every ten years I’d go. I still get emails on everybody, now it’s whoever just died. I’m in contact with probably 50 guys. My best friend, Glenn, he and I went through basic training together and we’ve been friends ever since. We see each other three times a year maybe, even now. I think the relationships built in the military are forever. 

 

Why’s that? 

When you get in that airplane…. In my experience, there’s 13 guys, as you’ve noticed earlier. You could get shot down, you could crash… There’s a lot of things that could happen, all reasonably dangerous. When you’re with someone, putting your ass on the line, you get pretty close, so the relationships tend to last longer than others. I don’t have any contact with my high school guys. I did until about 40 years, but when you’re together with your life on the line, your relationship grows in a different way, a lasting way. When you find out about everybody’s history… You know, back in those days it was a different military, we had a draft. Today it’s all volunteer. I had a guy from Brown, a guy from Arizona State, a guy from Memphis, me, guys that didn’t go to college, all in my crew. We had a great mix, and it was also kind of unifying. You’d think it’d be divisive, but we were too busy to be divisive.

 

Do you remember the day that your service ended?

I don’t remember the date. I do remember that a friend and I were going into business together, and we were happy to get out. We started a couple companies, those were fun times. When Kristen (his daughter, my mother) and the boys were little, little guys, we were very happy to be home with them instead of being wherever the military sent us. 6 months out, 8 months in, 6 months out, 8 months in. We were happy we survived. While we were in the military we were always talking about what we might do. It was a relief to get out, it was a starting point in my life that wasn’t military. I started out wanting to be admiral guy, but after the Vietnam War I was ready to have my own business. I just didn’t know how to do it (laughs). And that was 1972.

 

A lot of veterans experience PTSD after their service. Was this ever something that you experienced, or, if not, did you know people who did?

Gosh, I’ve got a guy that I have coffee with every 1 or 2 weeks, he probably has some PTSD going on. He was a tank driver in Vietnam. I don’t have anything I’d call PTSD. PTSD wasn’t even a concern back in those days. 

 

Why’s that? 

It wasn’t identified as a problem for the guys who were coming back. I mean, we did see some of it, but you see a lot more of it today. It’s different. Today, a lot of guys, in the army especially, it’s their profession, as I said. So they’ve been back and back and back, 5 or 6 times. That’s definitely gonna tear you apart. But no, I don’t have any connection with PTSD really. I’m sure it’s there.

 

Did your opinion on the military change after your service?

I’m not a fan of the volunteer military. I think it’s a mistake. The idea of professional soldiers on a volunteer basis started after I got out, and a big problem that evolved with the volunteer military was that there’s nobody invested, civilian people were not invested in any military effort. Soldiers became mercenaries, they had a uniform and all that but they were paid to go and kill somebody. Like the draft with the 13 guys I mentioned in the airplane, we were there because the nation needed us there, we wanted to do service for the country. Most of us didn’t intend on staying beyond the first tour. It was a totally different community than the military today. The military today, it’s more efficient, no doubt about it. But the people in communities like Los Gatos and San Francisco, it’d probably be tough to find people in the military or people with kids in the military because people in places like that don’t volunteer for the military. They let people from other parts of the country do that job. And that’s not the same as a bunch of people from all these different neighborhoods, when you could talk to your next-door neighbor about how their sons or daughters are doing in Vietnam, it’s a different feeling. It’s supposed to be more efficient, but I’m not a fan of the military today.

 

And what about your perspective on war?

Totally unnecessary. A waste of human life. Of capital, of everything. I’m not naive, wars will continue to occur, but we should endeavor to stay away from them and to talk more, figure it out. Don’t start shooting people…. Yeah, that’s probably true.

 

How do you feel your service and deployment have impacted you and the course of your life? Do you think it’s changed you a lot, or that things would be much different for you without it?

I can only speculate how life would be different. It would have been nice to get into business earlier, it could be nice to have those 12 years back, you know. Well, if it wasn’t for military service, I would never had met your grandmother, and that would not be a good thing. It brought us together, so that’s a major impact. One of the things that happens when you get out college and you step right into something like this, it forms who you’re becoming. If you’re in an airplane, like I was telling you about earlier, and it’s about to go down, you find out what courage is there, and what it’s like to be scared. You find out what it’s like to have to hurt somebody else. It’s all forming who you end up as as an 80 year old. So the training in the military, the actual service in the field and in foreign countries and all that, that had a lot to do with who I am today, as an internationalist. I think if I had to put myself into a box, I’d say that. I’m really worried about Venezuela, really really worried about Iran, worried about things that, had I not left the states, I probably wouldn’t be thinking about today. You’re more well-rounded, and I think because of that you can make a contribution that’s different than someone who’s still driving a road truck in Fayetteville, Arkansas (laughs). I think most of it is good, I’m not complaining. I’m here talking to you.

 

Is there anything you’d like to add that we didn’t cover?

The additional thing would be that my dad was a career military man, and he had every expectation of me going further in the military than he did. He was a colonel. My brother, as you know, served in the military. So from March 1940, which is right about the beginning of World War II, I was in the military, somehow. So it was almost natural for me to stay in and do it ‘cause I knew how to do it. As it turns out, it wasn’t the car I wanted to drive. You know, your great-grandfather, my father, was in the landing at Normandy Beach in World War II. Very significant, it’s being remembered a lot these days. It was a terrible, terrible, thing, the beginning of that. The war that we said we weren’t going have. I always hang my American flag out. I’m proud to be an American.

 

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