By Marie Hughes
"Did you serve in the Viet Nam War?" I asked Ray Sullins, at Church, Sunday. "Yes, I did," he quietly said, his more than 6-foot 2-inch body straight and resolute in true Marine fashion, despite the cane in his hand. “Can you tell me what you expected it to be like when you arrived in Viet Nam, and what it was actually like?” I asked.
I watched as a flood of pain washed over his face, the questions releasing a myriad of unwanted memories from the deep recesses of his mind. He had locked those memories away long ago by the sheer strength of his will as a matter of survival, and it grieved me that my questions caused the pain I witnessed. He just as quickly took them captive once again his disciplined composure returning, and softly said, “No, ma’am, I can’t.” I apologetically told him I was sorry and that I certainly respected his decision.
“I was just raised that way,” he said, “I will just say this, War is Hell, but the strong are called to protect the weak. If they do not there will be no one to protect the strong when they need it.”
We, who have never been to war, cannot possibly understand the atrocities of it and the depth of depravity of the human heart. We cannot know the deep scars that penetrate the very soul of the soldiers who have witnessed them firsthand.
Unlike WWI and WWII, the soldiers of the Vietnam war returned home to a completely different reception than the heroes before them. Rather than being received with parades of honor and accolades from a grateful nation many were received with utter indifference. How difficult it must have been for these warriors who risked life and limb to serve their country under the direction of their Commanders to have most of their fellow Americans treat their service as irrelevant.
The American soldiers who served in Vietnam held to the soldier’s code of conduct which was: I will honor my Country, the Army, my unit and my fellow soldiers by living the Army Values. No matter what situation I am in, I will never do anything for pleasure, profit, or personal safety which will disgrace my uniform, my unit, or my Country. Lastly, I am proud of my Country and its flag.
However, as is the case with most people groups, not all men who are revered as men of honor are honorable. There were a handful of leaders lacking the ethics and values in the soldier’s code, the very values we as a people hold most dear. Sadly, the behavior of these few caused many Americans to paint all soldiers of the Vietnam war with a black brush. A number of these dishonorable leaders were eventually punished and the brave soldiers who stood against them received commendations for their attempts to protect the innocent. Unfortunately, it was too little too late for many of the soldiers returning home to an apathetic America, an America who regarded the Vietnam War as a war we should not have been involved in and blamed the warrior and not the war.
With respect, we salute you all!
Elridge Nicholas Bollich, son of Nicholas Joseph and Caroline Manual Bollich of Winnie, knew he would have to serve in the military. He joined the Texas A & M Officers Reserve Training Program and was part of the 1964 graduating class. However, he compressed his officers training into 3 years, taking his summer camp at Fort Sill, OK in June of 1963. He majored in business finance at A & M and graduated with a degree in finance. He received his commission at Fort Sill’s Artillery Bowl from a 2-star general who was the post commander. Nick said, “I didn’t want to go into active duty right away because I wanted to help Dad harvest the rice crop.” The day he entered active duty was the day Kennedy was killed. “I had just had lunch with my grandmother in Eunice, LA, and was on my way to Fort Gordon, GA. As I left her home going east the news of Kennedy’s assassination came on the radio. When I got to Fort Gordon, everybody was on the fence thinking we were going to be attacked.”
“In 1964 we had a big maneuver in the Mojave Desert called Desert Strike. We had 100,000 men in 4 Divisions of about 15,000 each and other units to practice war. According to the newspaper reports about the practice war, 35 men were killed during the practice. It was very dangerous, even in peacetime. Being in 115 degree temperature for the summer was not fun, especially while sleeping.
I was in the 160th signal group and I was the lowest ranking officer in the unit, so I was ready to get out of there. I found out they were sending my unit back to Fort Huachuca, AZ. and I thought, “Oh, my God, I don’t want to go back to the desert!” One of the officers of my unit got transferred to the 54th Signal Group so I called him and asked if he thought they would have a position available for my MOS. He told me to call the major at headquarters. I did and he told me they did have an opening for me and said he would cut my orders. So, I was assigned to the 54th Signal Battalion which was loaded up on the railcar fixing to go somewhere. I figured we were going to Hawaii or something!” laughed Nick. “An old Army adage is, “Don’t volunteer,” but I volunteered for this unit.”
“That was when the Tonkin Bay incident happened in August 1964. The Vietnamese gunboats attacked two or three of our destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, officially launching America’s full-scale involvement in the Vietnam War.”
“The 54th Signal Group is a Strategic Army Command, and it is supposed to go first. Our original orders were probably to go to Germany or something, but here we were, they trained us for the desert and were sending us to the jungle! They decided not to send us right then and backed us off the railhead. We spent the next year re-doing all of our equipment. We had top priority and our trucks, and everything were 100% TOE (Tables of Organization and Equipment), once we were ready to go, which we weren’t before.”
“We had a maneuver at Fort Hood at the time President Johnson made the announcement he was going to send a lot of troops to Vietnam. I was called in by my commander and was standing at attention at his desk. He said, “Lieutenant Bollich, your orders are to land on the coast of Vietnam, go 30 miles inland, and establish a base for the battalions! I suggest you do not take a jeep! Dismissed!” “Yes, Sir!” I left there thinking, “My God, how am I going to do that! I pictured myself hacking my way through the jungle with a machete!”
“When the Army tells you to do something, you do it! Another Aggie buddy of mine, Lt. James from Port Arthur, he and I moved the battalion which was the largest battalion in the Army at the time; 707 men, many millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, 200-300 trucks and vans, a lot of signal equipment, plus all the rifles and everything else needed. Shipping the equipment involved a 34-hour trip by train to the West coast, then by ship to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. The officers and enlisted men traveled the same way, the trip taking one month. I was invited to be part of the advanced party with the Colonel, we were there before all the big divisions came. The Advance party included the Commanding Officer, the S-3, and the three headquarters Platoon Leaders as well as the personnel section Warrant Officer. Several high ranking enlisted personnel were also in the party.”
“We flew from San Francisco to Hawaii. I’ll never forget when we took off the intercom was playing the song “Boney Moronie” by Little Richard. From Hawaii we flew to Guam, then the Philippines, and finally into Saigon. We arrived there in June of 1965.”
“I knew something was wrong because we came in at 30 something thousand feet and circled the runway until we got down to make a pass at it. You couldn’t glide into the runway because everything around it was controlled by the Viet Cong. The Colonel told us to stay there at the 39th signal battalion headquarters and he was going up to Nha Trang, which was 280 miles north of Saigon, to get a camp ready for the Second Field Force Headquarters and the 5th Special Forces, which is Colonel Keenan, (John Wayne played his part in the Green Berets). I got to meet all those guys while I was there and I learned a lot from them.”
“We got to see Saigon while we waited, and we were in an open bar on the top of the Rex Hotel. I looked out and they were bombing a runway right in front of us. I remember thinking, “This is weird, here I am having a drink and watching the war.” I was 24 at the time.” I met two of my buddies there, Peter Bennett and Larry Lamb who were at Fort Gordon, Ga. with me and they kind of took me and told me how to get around Vietnam. They were getting ready to go home, but they took me in hand and scared the hell out of me.”
“We went up country 3 or 4 days later by military aircraft and my job was to build a camp, so we found a piece of property on the south side of Nha Trang. I’d had engineering drawing, so I drew up a plan at headquarters and presented it to the battalion commander of how to lay out the companies. He approved my plan and we deployed. He was a WWII commander, all my commanders had been in WW II, they were trying to make their 20-years, from ’43 to ’63, 65 to get their 20-year retirement. It was really an honor for me to be serving with WWII guys, Westmoreland was too.”
“When we first arrived in Vietnam, we sprayed Agent Orange to kill out the vegetation so we could build the camps. They didn’t realize then the damage it would do. I didn’t get as much of it on me as others did as I had the wind off the South China Sea at my back. It did eat my sinuses up though. I’ve had to have several surgeries on them. The concussion from constant bombing all around also destroyed my hearing. I have catastrophic hearing loss.”
The photo above is a later photograph of Camp McDermott built according to the drawings of Lt. Nick Bollich with partitions between tent rows. He said the 3-feet high rows of sandbags around the tents were to protect from shrapnel, referencing the long range artillery shell invented by British officer, Lt. Henry Shrapnel. Nick said the high ground in the background was Viet Cong territory where the Skyraiders were dropping bombs.
“The camp we built was called Camp McDermott, named for the first enlisted man who was killed. He was flying with Lindsey Crow, who was a warrant officer, and they were shot down going over the mountain and landed in Cam Ranh Bay. We named the officer’s quarters Crow Hill, and the headquarters of the battalion was Camp McDermott. At the headquarters we had 55-gallon drums filled with sand and chicken wire strung from the 55-gallon drums to the top of the building to keep the hand grenades from coming in. We were in danger there 24/7. One of our Sergeant Majors was killed when a satchel charge was thrown in the room. The army decided we should keep our rank showing, but the first ones the enemy aimed at were the officers. As soon as I got out of sight of the camp, I would turn my collars inside out and take all the brass off. It was like cowboys and Indians over there, once you got outside the fort you were in danger of being killed”
“I got a deuce and a half truck from the air force because I didn’t have a vehicle. I managed to get an engineering company from Cam Ranh Bay, through hook and crook, to clear the jungle so I could put my tents up. I had nothing but WWII tents and they had holes in them, so I made a deal with a Sergeant in the air force who had a brother at Clark Field in the Philippines. I said, “I need 700 cots and I need enough 20-man tents to put 707 men under, and I need it now ‘cause they’re coming in about a week. I don’t know how it happened, but I’m coming over with brand new trucks. I’ll provide you with two big deuce and a half trucks, but I need this stuff now! So, here comes the big transport plane from Clark Field in the Philippines. They deliver 540 cots and enough brand new big army tents to get everybody under cover. Later years we had a reunion, and I was talking to the S-4, which is the supply officer, and asked, “how did that happen?” He said, “I don’t know, you did it all.” They really tried to help you, you know. An officer has a lot of pull and in the Army, you do a lot of trading with other units.”
“We had to set up the communications for each one of the big divisions that were coming in by carrier later on. The First Cav was the first major unit that came in and they landed in country. They lost a lot of helicopters landing right in the middle of a Viet Cong camp. Then all the others came in, the First Infantry Division, the Screaming Eagles, and many other divisions and we hooked them all up with our communication equipment for Gen. Westmoreland and Bein Hoa in Saigon.”
“During WW II they had Tokyo Rose and during the Vietnam War we had Hanoi Hannah. I had a little Panasonic radio I had bought before I left home, and I picked up her broadcasts. She would talk to us and say, “Oh, you guys in the Trang, we’re going to get y’all in 3 weeks, in 2 weeks.” This would shake us up because we got there before any of the troops. The only troops there were the 173rd Airborne Brigade protecting Westmoreland in Saigon and a few marines up north. The rest of the troops were still on troop ships trying to get there and were still 2 weeks out. We were digging foxholes and lines of fire trying to protect ourselves. We had some ethnic Chinese called Nungs that were mercenaries on the front lines as our protection. We had to check on them to make sure they stayed awake and I made sure to whistle Yankee Doodle Dandy as I was approaching. I wanted them to know who I was. Later on the battalion got some protection on the left side and we had the South China Sea at our back. It wasn’t much protection.”
“I don’t know who was flying them, but there were some pilots flying old WW II Skyraider prop planes and they were bombing around our perimeter 200 miles out 24 hours a day. They were probably retired WW II pilots. We sure were glad they were there.”
“The first major division they brought in, even before the first Cavalry was the South Korean White Horse Division, as they could fly them in pretty easy as South Korea wasn’t that far from us. The Koreans were equipped with M-1 rifles from the Korean War. They landed them in Cam Ranh Bay, but they didn’t have any food or supplies. We didn’t have much but we gave them everything we had except some cans of chili we probably got off a Navy ship. We ate chili for a month 3 times a day. Our chef had been in three wars, so he knew how to operate. He bought stuff from the Vietnamese farmers and spiced up the chili making it the best he could. It was touch and go for a while as we waited on our troops to arrive.”
B Company, 54th Signal Battalion Guidon With Bullet Hole “The first big battle was in Ia Drang Valley. We were listening to the battle because we had men there with the 1st Cavalry, so we knew exactly what was going on. We lost over 224 men, a pretty good size force. That’s more than Custer lost.”
“My job was kind of a liaison officer to the battalion staff because I’d been to Saigon, I knew my way around. South of Saigon was a town called Cho Lon, the Chinese part of Saigon and that’s where we had our supply warehouses. Sometimes when we needed something I would go down there. I had an aviation unit in the battalion, so I could fly down, but I couldn’t get back up. I had to hitchhike or get a rickshaw. One time I was hitchhiking back and here comes a white ’57 Oldsmobile and the guy stopped and picked me up. He was Ronnie Moon who was a band commander at A & M, and we were in economics classes together. I said, “Ronnie, what are you doing here?” He said he was the commander of the courier service around Vietnam. I told him I was glad to meet him ‘cause I can get down to Saigon but I can’t get back up. I told him I just happen to have a signal corps knife, which is like a Swiss army knife, I said if you make sure I get on a plane I’ll give you the signal corps knife before I leave. He said he would make sure I got on the plane.”
“They had a building the signal corps had leased called Cai Min where we’d stay when we went to Saigon. It was on the end of Louis Pasteur Street, so I could get back there by telling the rickshaw driver where I was going.”
“After we got all the divisions positioned, equipped, and hooked into the network we had to maintain it, so all my people were spread all over the country. We had three ways of communicating. One was wire line, we’d lay wire; one was H.F., which was whip antennas, and the other was very high frequency, which was shooting from mountain top to mountain top, a straight line, just like we do here. We would put a VHF crew at the headquarters of different divisions and other places all around Vietnam, mainly on the top of mountains. We had an E5 (sergeant), E4 (corporal), and E3 (private) running those things. We had to keep gasoline up there to run the generators and guess what was on the bottom of the mountain . . . the enemy. We had a way of supplying them with gasoline as long as they promised not to kill us! There was a lot of this going on during the war.”
ABC photographer shows the conditions many soldiers endured while in Vietnam.
“One of the hardest things about Vietnam was just living. It was tough to sleep in the 100 degree temperatures and it was raining and damp much of the time. You had to use mosquito netting when you slept because the mosquitoes were so thick, and they were very small so you couldn’t see them, and they would eat you up. If you were out in the jungle, you didn’t have a net, you just got bitten.”
“We were supposed to keep our trousers tucked into our boots which meant no air could get in there and it was 100 degrees. I learned to just turn the cuff up and let the air go inside. They had one water purification plant that was basically a wagon. They had another one in the United States, there were only two in the whole army. I asked General Westmoreland when I saw him at a parade one time, “Why did you send us over there with no food or water?” He said he had to get us over there fast ‘cause they were cutting the country in half and I needed the combat troops there right away.” They put us right in the middle and we had to just live off the land because we had to save our C-rations for emergencies. They had the biggest lobsters there I’d ever seen. They were so big a quarter of a tail was a normal serving. I’d go to the Green Berets tent every now and then and get a steak, they had refrigeration. One day the Colonel said to me, “Lt. Bollich, I want you to go and get a refrigerator.” I took a plane to Saigon and did some intelligence and found out the only people who had refrigerators were the Green Berets and they would transport them to the field in a truck guarded by several soldiers.” chuckled Nick. “I would have to knock off a US transport truck in order to get a refrigerator and I don’t think I can do that!” he said laughingly.”
“At Cai Min, where I stayed they had an old air force desk with a dent in the side where the inbox was supposed to be. I said I’d like to take that back to Nha Trang to the Colonel. I also found five boxes of coffee mugs that the Navy used, I guess. I got those and called my buddy in the courier business and told him, “I’m coming in with a load of equipment and I need a flight.” He said, “I bumped this full Colonel and put you on the flight.” My Commander was the only officer in the combat zone who had a regular desk. Most of them had a little bitty wooden desk they could carry around with them.”
“There’s no sanitation in the whole country, if you got a cut or a scratch, or got shot it was hard to get it to heal. They didn’t have utensils; they ate with their hands on banana leaves. There’s stuff blowing in the air all the time, it gets in your eyes, your nose, and your ears and causes fungus to grow everywhere. They had a lot of diseases there that we don’t see here. You saw a lot of people on the streets with leprosy. You didn’t know what you were eating a lot of times, but you were eating. You did what you had to, to survive. I lost 20 pounds in no time. Indoor plumbing and hot water were rare and if you managed to find an outhouse you would not want to stay long inside ‘cause someone might shoot you. Some places had large vats of water on the roof for the sun to heat it.”
Medals received by Lt. Elridge Nicholas Bollich, who advanced to Captain before leaving the Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1969
“I completed my duty and flew back to Oakland Army terminal, where I was released from active duty.” Nick said when he returned home, he was treated well. “I was one of the first officers to return from Vietnam” Nick said, “and everyone wanted to know what was going on over there. I was invited to speak at a lot of different organizations; rotary clubs, lions clubs, and schools.”
Nick said there were things he did differently when he returned home, because of the way he had to live in Vietnam. He said he would have never sat in a room like he was with me at the time, in front of a door and a window, because that would make him an easy target. He would find a spot in the back of the room with walls around him and facing the door, and if he heard a loud noise, he would hit the floor. Nick said, “I could hear everything going on around me all the time, I was conditioned that way because in Vietnam you wanted to hear them before they heard you. Once I visited Vancouver, B.C. and they have a large oriental population and you heard everyone speaking in the Asian language. I had a tough time later when I went home as it brought back a lot of memories and caused me to have nightmares. I would keep a fan running in the bathroom where I lived just to try and block out the noise so I could sleep. It was tough adjusting when you came home. It took about ten years or more to adjust and then you would still have flashbacks at times.”
Nick ended his tour in Vietnam as a Lieutenant. By the time he completed Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1969 he had advanced to the rank of Captain.