The letter below is excerpted from Annette Langlois Grunseth’s award-winning book, Combat and Campus: Writing Through War, which chronicles her brother Peter Langlois’s combat experience in Vietnam. This was Peter’s first full letter home after landing in Vietnam two weeks earlier. We’re grateful to Annette for sharing this letter with us. You can order signed copies of Combat and Campus at annettegrunseth.com or by emailing Annette at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aerial view of MACV HQS, Tan Son Nhut Air Base. 13 July 1968 (courtesy of manhhai on Flickr)
Saturday, 3 August 1968
Dear Mom, Dad, and Annette,
Thanks much for writing. Mail is one of the few contacts G.I.s in Vietnam have with the “world.” I spent 5 days at Cu Chi taking a refresher course on how to stay alive in Vietnam. From there I was flown to Dau Tieng near the Cambodian border. This is the rear base camp for the 2/22 infantry. I only stayed there overnight, long enough to be issued my M-16 and field gear.
The next day I flew over to Ton Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. My entire battalion is set up in a perimeter defense around the airport and the outskirts of Saigon since they’re expecting another NVA offensive here any time.
Sgt. Peter R. Langlois (courtesy Annette Langlois Grunseth)
The 2/22 Infantry is mechanized. In other words, the primary means of movement is with armored personnel carriers (“tracks”). There is one APC for each squad within a platoon so in one company, there are 16 APCs, each with a 50-cal. machine gun and 2 M60’s. Everyone but the driver rides on top of the APC because the inside area gets completely blown to hell if the track hits a mine in the road. The APC also serves as the squad’s house. We sleep eight men in our track at extreme close quarters. Hammocks, and ammo cans seem to make the best beds.
Normally, my company operates up north near Trang Bang but the monsoon season is in progress now and it’s too muddy for major offensive operations with the tracks. So for now and probably until the end of November, we’ll be camped in the mud (knee deep in spots) outside the air base.
During the day we clean weapons and take it easy. However, every night we go out on ambush patrols and set-up waiting to nail any VC or NVA trying to probe the perimeter. I will admit it scares the hell out of me. There’s a 7:00 p.m. curfew in this area so anyone we see coming through our ambush site gets zapped.
Sometimes, we have a daytime mission. Three days ago we rode the tracks about 10 miles out into the rice paddies, then dismounted and waded into the paddies about 3000 meters in order to provide a blocking force for another unit’s operation. We were about 1⁄4 mile behind the battle area but could see everything that was happening. I’m still shaking from the experience. We could hear the mortars and artillery shells whistling over us; complete with rockets and machine guns, and jets with napalm made for quite a display. At any rate, the VC were wiped out and we never had to react to the other units for support.
Last night I was on an ambush patrol in the rain. More than likely each night is spent sitting out in the boondocks and getting soaked. We can’t use ponchos because they reflect light and are noisy – this might give away our position, so we just wear jungle fatigues and no underwear – helps dry you out faster. At any rate, last night it was pouring like hell so the patrol leader decided to set up the ambush in a Vietnamese “Hootch” i.e. thatched house the locals call home. I spent the night behind a machine gun set up in the front doorway.
[Vietnamese] children are around all day trading cold soda and ice for “chop chop” i.e. C-rations. A few enterprising girls have set up a “boom boom” house outside the perimeter; however, the CO threatens an instant court martial for anyone he catches there.
Peter’s Alpha Company, 2/22, 25th Infantry Division assembling for patrol on top of their “tracks” (courtesy Annette Langlois Grunseth)
So that’s what Vietnam has been like so far – hot, smelly, muddy, wet, rainy. Whoever said “war is hell” was absolutely right. I’m sure when God created earth he forgot about Vietnam. It is just a stink hole of a place full of vermin and filth. I swear I’ll kiss the ground when I get back to U.S. soil.
Of course, everyone here seems to be good sports and everyone acts and treats his fellow soldier like a brother. We find humor one way or another with everything to keep our minds off the tragedy and the idiocy of this war.
Things I need:
- Rubberized rain suit (parka and pants) with zipper or snaps on front of the parka. (Most of the guys have sent home for this item.)
- Plastic case to put writing material in (zipper type plastic envelope).
Tropic Lightning News, March 10, 1969
Among Peter Langlois’s souvenirs of Vietnam was a clipping of the article excerpted below from the March 10, 1969 edition of the Tropic Lightning News, the weekly newspaper of Peter’s 25th Infantry Division. Annette says her brother always found it funny. Written without a hint of irony, the article touts the career benefits of Vietnam Army service.
Uncle Gives Opportunities And Bennies During Your Viet Tour
Everyone knows there is a job to be done in Vietnam. Your career counselor would also like to make you aware of the benefits and opportunities available to you during your tour here.
For example, have you ever given any thought about how much additional money you make and save while in Vietnam? First off, all pay and allowances for enlisted men are tax-free. That’s just a start. Add the extras. Depending upon your rank, you receive an additional $8 to $22.50 a month foreign duty pay. Hostile-fire pay means another $65 a month.
There is free postage and up to seven days of R&R for every 12 months of service. For this R&R, the Army flies you free of charge to such locations as Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, Singapore, Australia and Hawaii. You may also go on a three-day pass within Vietnam.
When your one-year tour of duty is over, and if you decide to extend in the country for an additional six months, you will be given 30 days of non-chargeable leave, including free round-trip transportation to almost any point in the free world that you select.
So, as you see, a tour in Vietnam offers both financial and career advantages. Your career counselor has all of the details about this and other career opportunities. He welcomes your visits. Just call Cu Chi 5234.
In addition to Peter’s candid and sharply-worded letters, Combat and Campus: Writing Through War also contains Annette’s reflective poems that trace her and her family’s heartache during and after the Vietnam War. Below are two selections that beautifully reveal some of the hidden trauma of war.
Just the helmet shows as a GI crouches in a foxhole dug into a rice paddy dike by the Viet Cong as snipers opened up from a treeline against an American company searching area on the fringe of the Mekong Delta, about 20 miles south of Saigon, Vietnam on April 17, 1967. (manhai on Flicker)
Growing up in the shadow of WWII my brother
grabs a pear from the Green Stamp fruit bowl,
pulls the stem out with his teeth, pretends to throw it,
Making hand grenade blasting sounds.
He arranges green army men on the floor for attack and retreat,
plays war games in a foxhole dug into the empty lot next door.
As a Boy Scout he learns survival, camping out
on weekend bivouacs. With Dad, he hunts pheasant,
partridge, and sometimes deer. He becomes a good shot.
Like his father, uncle, and grandfather
he grows up to serve in the military.
His draft number comes up at college graduation, 1967.
After basic training he flies off to Vietnam hastily prepared.
He is issued old weapons from past wars; has no rain gear
for monsoon season. My parents buy a rainsuit and mail it to him.
His letters tell of living in a track as they sweep the jungle,
rolling through rice paddies, dodging snipers, and ambushes.
His letters describe mortar attacks, direct hits, and missing limbs.
Scouting and hunting skills keep him alive in that jungle.
He tells me, You have it easy because you’re a girl,
you weren’t forced into war, or that kind of fear.
Maybe I have it easier, but whenever I eat a pear
I feel his burden — my guilt ignites
as the taste of pear explodes in my mouth.
— Annette Langlois Grunseth
A Second Chance to Live
A fox hole saved you in Vietnam
on that miserably hot, humid night.
You told us how your buddies
opted to sleep above ground
to escape the stifling heat in that bunker.
The mortar landed on top of them,
but the depth of that fox hole saved you,
the blast blowing you into the wall.
You came home. They didn’t.
Partly deaf from ruptured ear drums,
and shrapnel peppered in your flesh.
You were given a second chance,
to marry, have children,
become a husband and dad,
to be a news reporter,
a public relations pro
for an insurance company,
and two paper companies.
It was a good second life
with family, some skiing, sailing,
a little camping thrown in.
It would’ve been happily ever after
except for buried anger,
your knotted silence,
and those cancer cells,
burning bright orange.
— Annette Langlois Grunseth
Sgt. Peter R. Langlois returned from Vietnam with the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals. He worked in journalism, public relations and marketing until his death in 2004 at age 59 from Agent Orange related cancer.