The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

Lt. Col. William Babcock

Interview and story by: Stefanie Wyss
This story is based on one of a series of interviews conducted by South Kingstown (RI) High School students in the Spring of 1998. All of the interviews were focused on recollections of the year 1968. In addition to the student's edited story below you can find on this site the electronic transcript of the interview and a quicktime recording of the encounter , as well as a table of cues and contents .

The Soldiers Didn't Lose the War

I had always wanted to be in the Army, to be a soldier. Well, I thought that I did. So, I took ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps, while I was in college. When I had to go off to Vietnam to fight the war, I think that my father felt responsible, because he had been my role model my whole life. He had been in the service and probably felt a little guilty about the fact that I wanted to be in the Army, just as he had been. My parents were scared for me and worried about me the entire time I was in Vietnam.

When I got there, I soon realized that things in the Central Highlands of Vietnam were going to be very different from the way they had been at home in Narragansett, Rhode Island. We lived very primitively while we were in Vietnam. The whole time that I was in the jungle, I lived in two ponchos put together to make a little tent. I had a small air mattress to lay on and a blanket. I was hot during the dry season, and wet during the rainy season, so it was pretty uncomfortable either way. During the rainy season, many of my men would get jungle rot, which is when the skin starts to peel off due to being wet a majority of the time.

There were quite a few times when I would be scared for my life. Once I got there, I was basically surviving to get home. I remember being on missions where they would send out the whole battalion of five or six hundred guys, and move them through the jungle in a single line. It was an impossible task due to the thickness of the growth in the jungle. We would have to walk through the jungle cutting a path for ourselves with machetes. While out, the enemy would come up and start shooting at us from behind. Other times, it would be on a smaller scale with just about thirty guys, and we would have to be the human bait, just waiting for the enemy to attack us. The tactics that we were using would be changed every time we got a new Battalion Commander, so we would need to get used to the changes. With every new Battalion Commander would come their ideas on how to win their part of the war better than anyone else.

Negative experiences in Vietnam were easy to come by, many of which turned me against the Army. Of the nine months that I spent in the jungle, I was in combat about a couple of dozen times. No big battles, but enough to scare you. The combat was mainly small fire fights with snipers shooting at us. I would tell people when they asked if I was scared, that I was scared all the time, and every once in a while, I was terrified. One day, our Company Commander walked into an ambush and was taken prisoner. I soon became the Company Commander for three days, since I was the next highest ranking person as the Senior Lieutenant. It took us three days to get into the complex where they had been taken, and when we finally got in, we found the Company Commander and two other men. They had all been executed. They had been shot in the back of the head. I don't think I will ever forget that sight. Those three days were the most scary times in my life. During those three days, there was probably two or three times when I should have been killed.

Another time, I was nearly killed by a mortar round. We were firing friendly fire and one of the rounds landed the wrong way. It ended up landing in the middle of my platoon. That incident killed four of my men and wounded thirteen others. It was extremely devastating to everyone. I had to get a new group of guys to retrain and start from scratch.

The most difficult things to adjust to were the weather, being responsible for my platoon, and having to make those important decisions. Since I was the leader, I had to keep my distance from the soldiers. I had to keep my distance so that I could order them to do things. Most of the time, I had to order them to do things that I really wouldn't want to have them do, but I had to do it. It also helped me to stay in command of my platoon.

While I was fighting the war, I had mixed feelings for the people who had dodged the draft. It depended upon why they decided to do it, though. If they had an honest reason why they couldn't go, then I would understand. If they were just scared, then I had different feelings for them. Everyone there was scared, I was scared. I think that it was the way that you were brought up, also. Many of the people who went had fathers who had served in World War II, and when they were called, they went. So when it was our turn we really didn't question it; we just went. While in Vietnam, I felt that if a man had dodged the draft because he was just afraid of dying, well, we are all afraid of dying. Sometimes, I felt that there were more important reasons than just personal safety.

I was truly happy to be going back home. Returning home was very emotional for me, although I did not allow myself to show it. When I got into Green Airport, I brushed by my parents to go get my bags. If I had stopped at them, I would have started to cry. That wasn't the thing that you did then, so I just avoided that from happening.

I never personally experienced any hatred toward me, but I do know of other soldiers who came back and that happened to them. Many veterans were called "Baby Killer," and some were spit at. I remember that when I came back from Vietnam, we landed in Seattle, at the Commissioner Airport. I was wearing the jungle fatigues that I had worn from Vietnam. Immediately after we landed, I ran into the bathroom and changed into another outfit. I didn't want people to know that I had just come from Vietnam. We heard a lot of bad stories about what had happened to guys when they came back, and I didn't want that happening to me.

Many people who came back from Vietnam would run into their old friends and they would start to tell them about Vietnam. After a while they just weren't interested any more. Many people had had enough with the war. Since they had not gone to fight in the war, it didn't concern them. People didn't understand what an important event it had been in many people's lives. It was frustrating after coming back from the war in 1970, since the war went on for three more years for American troops. It went on even longer for the Vietnamese; they were fighting the war for five more years. It was also frustrating since nothing was being done to help our situation. I would watch Nixon on the television. He said that when he got elected, he was going to end the war. He said that he had a secret plan on how to end it, but the war continued.

I think that there are still many people who lived through the sixties who are still trying to comprehend what went on then. I imagine that is why people are still talking about what went on over in Vietnam, even thirty years after the war ended. I feel that for many people, everything still isn't resolved. Many people can't fathom why something like the massacre at My Lai ever happened. I don't think that they will ever be able to explain it, either. In the massacre at My Lai, an American company went into a Vietnamese village which they thought was sympathetic to the Communists. Once there, the soldiers massacred men, women, and children, even babies. They lost control of themselves. The Lieutenant who was in charge of the soldiers had the same job as I had, and he allowed them to do this. Many people will never be able to come to grips with it. Why would anyone ever do such a thing to hurt so many people. It is important for people to learn from past experiences such as this, and not to allow history to repeat itself.

I was never ashamed of what I did in Vietnam. I just look at it on a more personal level and hope that I was able to keep the people under my command from being killed or hurt. I don't look at it in the sense of whether we won or lost the war. A friend of mine who had been in the war was talking with me about the war one day. He asked me if we had lost the war, and I said that I didn't lose it, and he said the same. The soldiers weren't the ones who lost the war. The ones who lost the war were the politicians, not the soldiers.

I was there when they dedicated the Vietnam War Memorial, and have been there about a dozen times since. Probably the first half dozen times I was there, it was very emotional. I wouldn't go there alone; I needed my wife or another vet to go with me. It's very emotional; I cried just like many of the veterans did when they visited the memorial. I think that I can go there alone now. I've been there enough so that while it still impacts me, I can handle it better. I looked up all my friends on the wall and my men who died over there. It's not the same as doing it for the first time.

Vietnam has had a great impact on me. Since then, anything that has ever happened to me, I can look back and say that it can't ever get as bad as it was while I was in Vietnam. It was probably the most significant thing that happened to me in my life. Most people feel that way about Vietnam. After everything, I still feel a little empty because of all the people who died. They all died, and I just have to wonder, what was the purpose of the thousands of deaths.

Glossary Words On This Page
draft dodging
Richard M. Nixon

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