Franco's first operation

Vietnam. Franco. SR #2826. Tape 1, Side 1.
Roll one. Take one.
Can you start by explaining after your arrival, how you handled the situation and the people you had to out with - the first missions you were involved in?
Well, the ah, when I got to Vietnam I felt myself ah, very fortunate from the beginning I found out because I had time to spend in the rear before going out on my first operation. So it gave me a feel to try to find out what was going on from the people that were actually fighting that were out in the field and that's the know, your platoon.
So, I spent about a week and a half talking to them, finding out, and they sent me on my first operation. And it was a short one. It was just a two-day operation, just to find some male aged Vietnamese who were combat age let's say, which is anywhere from three up.
So ah, we came back after that first operation and, you know, I thought about what I did. It was just a couple of days and, you know, you see the bamboo stakes in the ground like they tell you about and you're walking very carefully and you're trying to remember everything they taught you, and I was learning with my men and my interpreter just to find out what the people were like. Ah, I figured here I'm gonna spend a year and how long I'm gonna be in the field I didn't know.
Then they sent me on an operation to an area called the Batangan Peninsula, which I find out is ah, probably one of the most mined areas of Vietnam. And when I landed on my own, I say my own LZ, it's because it was just my platoon. They separated the whole company and here I was a green lieutenant with forty troops which were just as green as I was. And I had to get to know them also.
And we get there and they also gave me a squad of Marines, ah, this was in February of 1970, and the Marines were there for quite a while and they were trying to tell me about the area and how bad it was. Not so much that you were going to see any enemy but more so about how bad the mines were.
So, my first operation and we had to go out and they sent in, they told me to, they sent me in seven check points to follow in a circle around this peninsula. I don't know many miles or, it was a full day's operation. They wanted me to start early in the morning, run these seven check points around this area and come back. So, before I went out I spoke to the Marines who refused to go out, not that they had to unless I, you know, they were in my command but I could see they were close to going home so, you know, I wanted to keep everything on a good level in my own particular perimeter.
So I took two squads of men and ah, walked down to the village which was below our perimeter and we had to walk out the village, and we walked about 500 yards and within that 500 yards, we found about, about five mines. From ah, the smallest little ah, Coca-Cola can filled with shrapnel and glass and nails to a 500-pound bomb. The kind they tell you about - on a bamboo stake. That they say, "Lieutenant don't touch that stake," and he goes, "Oh there's nothing wrong," and you pull the stake and everybody goes with you.
At that time, as soon as we found that large one, one of my troops just totally panicked in the field. He was walking close to point. And I could see the terror in his face and it was something hard for me to understand 'cause here it was my first operation. I have new men in the field trying to keep everybody at a good interval 'cause we were stretched out in an open area, keep everybody far apart, but he just totally panicked and he was just jumping up and down.
Now here we're finding these mines and you see a man jumping up and down, everybody panics. And he just said we got to go back, we got to go back. I can't go on anymore and he just totally dropped to his knees. You know, it was just ah, hard for me to adjust because I had to keep, you know, maybe twenty other men in line and watch this guy carry on around all these mines. So I just stopped and I just calmed him down with the other men and we told him to be still and I saw what I was up against.
I mean finding those four, five mines and in an area that had been walked around maybe 100 times before me and I just said there's something wrong here, and I just said about face, back up the hill. Now in the army it's true, accomplish your mission is your first, that's the first priority. You know, the men come second. And this is true in any war. You do have to ah, there's no way you can go back. But in Vietnam, you're running around in circles. And for some reason, I caught up on this, you know...
Cut. Start rolling.
Roll one. Take two.
We went back up on the ah, I turned everybody around and ah, I didn't backtrack myself, I just called back to the people behind me and just said just turn it around and walk back at the same intervals back up the hill. So we walked back at the same interval. We get back into the village and we get back to our positions but I still had this operation to complete.
So I had already called in check point one, which is the first bomb we found, and I called that in, that we found, you know, these four mines on the way and I can ah, from the terror of the faces on the men, I knew there was no way I was going to go on that particular mission, because it was just a day's work, so to speak. It wasn't like we were sent for a week. We were just sent for a day to walk around. You know. Let's go out and have somebody blown up or something, I guess. That, that would have been the attitude later on, as I learned.
We get back up and I put my men in their own bunkers and, you know, position them, and, ah, I'm talking with my platoon, ah, my squad leaders and I said well, it's about time to call in check point two, you know. So I got on the radio and I said this is, you know, my code number and I'm at coordinates 105076, you know, whatever. And I said this is check point two. No sign of anything and then I said to the, okay, deal the cards, you know, and we'd be playing cards. It was daytime and sit back, you know, have a Coke or a beer. We had a big container there. I managed to get some beer and Coke out to the field.
And then ah, you know, fifteen, twenty minutes later, half hour later, you know, this is LT47 and this is check point 765432 and check point three, and this went on until the seventh, and finally, I said okay we're safe and secure back in our perimeter, and that was the end of the operation.
And, the next day, they sent me out again and they said this time you decide what operation you want to go on. So, I took the same coordinates only went around the back way, and I walked out, we walked through. I'd walk out because you never know. You don't want to get anybody in trouble, especially me. So, we'd walk out the first 500 yards the other way, along the beach, because I used to see the ah the people in the village walk along the beach, and wherever they walk, it's safe.
So we walked along the beach and called in check point one and we stayed there for a while and turned around and went back up and the same thing. Call check point two, check point three. Later on I found out this was so bad an area, I don't think they ever sent another operation back there. That's how bad the mines were, and we stayed on this hill, that was my first operation.
I mean, I walked out of the compound once for twenty feet and found three mines. You know, right close to where the helicopters would come up and that was the story of check point one without being there. But, that gives you an idea, ah, ah, that's where I really saw the fear in the eyes of the men. You know, it wasn't a morale problem yet but it ah, could have become.
Start rolling. Roll one. Take three.
After these operations were complete and I had called in these check points without even leaving the perimeter outside of a few hundred yards, when we got back that's where after speaking with the men I, I saw that I had gained a lot of respect, not because we didn't ah, ah, accomplish the mission, so to speak, and go out, but because of the terror that, that you can see, the fear that these men had. They had been in the field. My first squad had been in the field for about oh five, six, seven months or whatever.
So, they were really veteran troops. They knew what was going on and how to handle it and it showed a few months later, but ah I ah, I really felt that was the start of the respect that I built, which I think a lot of the officers in Vietnam fail to accomplish, was to get the respect of your troops so they have confidence in you, so that, you know, you could accomplish your missions as far as when you were sent on a long operation.

Fooling a colonel during an operation

What about the other operation with the colonel, helicopter, when you were zig-zagging down?
Oh, that's, ah, when I became company commander ah, they had given me the company only because there was nobody else to take it. I was the only officer left in the company, and, surprisingly in this man's army, there was no captains, no qualified people to take over a company. I wanted to be a civilian. It was a known fact to everybody, but I didn't want to stop doing what I was doing 'cause I was surviving.
So I just, I had to play the game out, but that particular operation we were sent to an area and the LZ had caught fire and there was smoke all over the place and my men get out of the helicopters and when there's smoke all over the place, there's a little confusion. Everybody gets out the right way, but it kind of clusters everybody. And, whenever you see people together, it's ah scary cause if it's, if, if it's Charlie Cong he can just fire a bunch of rounds or a mortar and get quite a few.
So, I was trying to spread everybody out and all of a sudden from up above on my radio I hear our battalion commander telling me that there three dinks, his exact words, "there's three dinks to your west. Go get 'em!" You know, and I said this must be Bunker Hill, you know. So, I said to my men, "Okay, the colonel said there's three dinks to our west. We're going east." Because I always felt never follow them, 'cause that's when you're gonna go. And, it worked again because I went my own way.
He never called back because in the brush they can't see where you are. They don't know if you're going the right way. You can say you, your compass, you followed your compass wrong. You didn't know what you were doing. You could say anything. I'm down here, he's up there. So, if he wants to come down and lead it, I'll follow him, you know, 'cause he's the commander. But, if he's not going to come down, then I'm going to run my operation the way I see fit. That was the story of go get 'em. And, you don't just go get Charlie. 'Cause he's a little fast.

Discovery of a tunnel complex

Roll one. Take four.
Well, one day I was ah, we were walking the whole company, I was ah, point platoon for six months. I was practically up front with my squad ah, the whole time. I was ah, a platoon leader. And we were sent ah, down the stream and my commander called to me and said I want you to check out the area to your left.
So, we start walking up about ah six, seven of us, start walking up and ah the first thing we found was a grave, a fresh grave, so we knew we were close to maybe where the enemy were and then we walked up further and as we're walking up this hill I see, I couldn't see my own point man, but I see two Vietnamese coming toward me, and I thought my men had found these men in the jungle and all of a sudden bullets are flying over my head and I hit the ground fast and they, they got the two men up there and we go up to them.
There's only six of us up there now and ah they were carrying AK47 brand new, fresh weapon, ah, and another weapon. We got the two weapons and the two men and we were ready to go over the hill and we find, we see a hooch so to speak. It was a, a, big house. I mean, it was like a one-family house built in the jungle. You couldn't even see it twenty feet from you practically. So, when we knew, we thought we came into a little village or something so...
We, ah, we've just run out of film.
End of SR #2826. Tape 1, Side 1.
Vietnam. Franco. SR #2827. Tape 2, Side 1.
Vietnam project. Camera roll #2, 42181.
Sound Roll 2. Bob Franco interview. Episode 12.
Where are we. At the ah...
We'll just start with you. Just killed these two guys and just what it meant to you see all that. What impact it had on you.
Start it rolling. Roll two. Take one.
Oh, after the, ah, after my point men had killed the two Viet Cong ah, we got to the top of the hill and we took a little peek over and we found out there was a big complex there. So, we waited for the rest of the company to get up and took platoon and stretched them across the top of the hill and just fired into this village, so to speak. I mean we saw teapots burning and a couple of pigs running around so we knew somebody had just been there.
As it turned out, there was nobody else around so we walked into the, this complex and ah, we saw signs hanging over a couple of the hooches. One was Fung 1, Fung 2, I believe it was, is the S1, S2 we find out, and we found medical books and doctor journals, and ah, you know, they consider it a very big thing in the Americal that we found this. It turned out to be an enemy base camp.
And ah, we'd look in one of the hooches and find a tunnel let's say and ah the first thing one of my men would do would throw a hand grenade in there in case anybody was down there and he looked down in the first hole and he looked over to the left with a flashlight and he found another hole going down and what it was actually was a maze, probably leading to the other side of the mountain.
And, like I just thought this is unbelievable that the, the complexity of this tunnel is unbelievable. Probably got all these people, how man were in there, when we arrived out of that area and inside of minutes they were gone. And, ah, it was really ah, amazing to think what we were up against. You know, we had to still walk out of this base camp knowing that something was going to happen but nothing happened.
I don't know. Maybe whoever was there, maybe whatever strength was there was gone. Wherever it was, we were happy they were gone, and ah, but, that tunnel complex is something that's stayed and fixed in my mind for a long time because it showed that these people that's all they...that was their whole life, was war. Because that's what they thrived on was to dig these tunnels and that's all they knew.

The Dragon Valley operation

How about explaining the time you were pinned down for a couple of days. You can cover the details if you like.
We were in an area then called Dragon Valley. My company had never been hit by the Viet Cong so, so to speak. We were fired at here and there but never strongly and this particular area called Dragon Valley for some reason any company that went in there got hit bad. Well, it was finally out turn. We were in this open area and walking down the middle and my first man gets shot and we call, call in the MEDEVACs to get him out and they shot down the MEDEVAC.
So, they called in a, we're getting sniped at in between. Every time somebody stood up, bullets came firing. So, they finally call a Chinook in to lift us out of the chopper with ah, we had a couple of wounded guys by now including one of the helicopter pilots and ah, they, they get the chopper out of there and we stand up ready to go again because now the second chopper wasn't hit at. We figured maybe they left, and all of a sudden it fires again.
So, we called out artillery on our own position practically. I mean we were getting hit with the shrapnel, and we're down and every time somebody stands up, he'd get shot. And, no matter where we sent men to try and find them, they were on the other side. And, ah, we got pinned down there for ah 24 hours and around, well, actually it was 48 hours, for two days we were down, and we decided to pull back into the heavy brush.
So, we pulled back and ah, two guys hit a mine, but we kept going and ah we get up to this one area and my company commander calls us. Now thi, this showed me how lucky I was 'cause there's no skill over there. Either God walks with you or you're not gonna be around. My company commander called for a meeting and the two lieutenants get there before me. They hit the same mine. In the same spot I was supposed to meet them and they both died.
And, ah, that night I slept on a mortar round without knowing it. I was right next to it. I wake up in the morning 'cause we sat up at night, and I wake up in the morning and there's a mortar round right next to me. By then the morale is down and the colonel calls and he wants us to ah, ah leave that particular area to go on another operation. We said, no. You know, you gotta pick the men up now. It's a morale problem. You know, we just had maybe, ah, fifteen men wounded, a couple killed, you know. Ah. He said, okay.
So, he came on the ground, which I respected him for this. Ah. He did come on the ground and he walked down with us, but he said Lieutenant Franco, you're going to have to be point man. You know, to lead. Actually, my point man was in front of me and I would direct him where to go. But, what I did is I zig-zagged down this heavy brush because I didn't want to go in a straight line because if, if Charlie Cong's all around us ah, he, he's going to know where you are. He's going to hit you. He's going to wait. He's going to see you walking a straight line, he'll wait up ahead of you. So, I would go in this direction.
I get a phone call from my commander who's walking with the colonel going do you know where the hell you're going, and I said, why don't you come up here and show me. And that was the end of the conversation. And, I wound up where we had to wind up to get the helicopters to pick us up. And, again, that's where the men say, you know, thanks, you know. You know what you're doing, and the colonel never said a word to me about my zig-zagging.
'Cause I'm not going to say look I'm zig-zagging 'cause I didn't want, if anybody's listening in on our frequency or whatever, you know, you don't want them to know. But, a, again, you know, your men have to have confidence in you there. Because you hear the stories of lieutenants being fragged or you know if your men didn't...and it was true. I'm sure, I'm sure it happened. But, for some reason, I was very ah, fortunate.

Drug abuse in Franco's company

What about drugs? What was your experience with drugs in your company? On leave as well as...?
Amazingly enough, my company, maybe behind my back there were heavy drugs being done but I, you, you couldn't see it in their face. They performed every day. The only drugs I actually saw men taking was maybe smoking grass. A little marijuana. On a three-day stand-down. Now, what I would do is when we came back, when we came back for a three-day stand-down, so to speak, or a three-day rest before going on another operation ah I would just say to the men, look, go get drunk. Go do whatever, find a little Vietnamese girl, whatever you're going to do. If you're going to smoke a little dope, don't get caught.
You know, if you do anything worse, don't come back, you know, but they'd always show up on the third day straight, and, and they frowned on drugs. My particular company. Because they knew out on the field anybody that wasn't alert, it could cost the other guy's life.
I remember the one instance where some guy took some pills. He got a hold of some kind of uppers or whatever. They tied him up. When the food chopper, when the chopper came out with supplies and they tied him up and threw him on the chopper. Sent him back in 'cause they didn't want anybody around that wasn't alert.
'Cause they know at any time he can get hit, you know, or, you know, if you're not alert to watch a mine because the mines were, that was the fear. The fear in Vietnam were the mines.

On the meaninglessness of war

What about the experience you had at the end of your stay when you were trying to leave and you wanted to be a civilian again? Explain what the men were like that...?
Oh, that's ah my last days as company commander. After they, they gave me the company at that time. The colonel said Lieutenant Franco we want you to be company commander and I said I'm sorry, sir, I want to be a civilian. I said I want to wear nice clothes, let my hair grow a little and, and, you know, go back to civilian life and he says well, I'm sorry, you, you're the only one qualified and I, I just chuckled to myself because I said there's no captains in the army? No qualified people to take over a company? Nobody that wants to be an officer the rest of his life so he can have a little, ah, experience under his belt?
It didn't make sense. They just knew I know what I was doing so, therefore, use him until he's drained and that's exactly what they did. They, ah, ah, the few days before getting out, they finally sent a captain out and they kept me on that hill for three extra days.
They kept sending the captain out. He's taking over the company. Then, they'd send him in. Then they'd bring him out. He's going to take over the company. Send him in. In the meantime, it's like they were juggling with me. You know they were bringing me up and then letting me down, you know, constantly until finally they ah, they sent me out of the field.
And, and when I did get out ah, one of my men who was with me the, the whole time practically - he was just about to get out of the field himself, but he wasn't out yet - he said to me Lieutenant Franco we had a meeting and we'd like to offer you a month's salary if you'd stay in the field another month. You know, and I just said, you gotta be kidding.
He says no the men, we, well, money means nothing here. What are we going to spend it on. You know, you can't buy anything out there. He said just stay with us one more month. This guy's going to get us killed and I said there's not enough money in the whole battalion, the whole army to get me out there for another month. Money meant nothing.

End of Franco's tour

Start rolling. Roll two. Take two.
Start about explaining your medals. Just very briefly. And how that...?
Oh, the medal thing. After that particular operation with the base camp they decorated us. There were five of us who got Bronze stars for valor. And, we were out in the field. It was a field award. You know, the colonel came out and pinned and we're standing there in our grubby know, we had to put our new fatigues on and we'd just look down and say well, you know, what is it. You know, I mean, it's a medal fine, but what is it for. What did you do? What are you going to go home and tell people you did, you know.
The funny thing with the medal, ah, it's not even funny is, is, okay, we deserved it. We did something. Let's say we, we put our lives on the line. We found the base camp. We had a successful operation, so to speak. But, I heard of one instance where a colonel put himself for a Silver Star cause he ran this operation but he was up in the chopper.
Maybe he deserves it. It was an operation. Maybe he directed. That's fine. You know, the director gets the Oscar too, you know, or whatever, but, but, the guys on the ground get nothing. You know. And, they were the ones that fought it. So, maybe they pick a few of them and give them a couple medals for morale, you know, and I think it was just a morale thing, but when you think about it you go what for? You know, what was the purpose of the whole thing? Was I fighting for my country? I didn't feel, I fou...fought for my country. I was fighting for myself. Fighting for my own particular survival.
What, what do you think the reason most people were fighting there for? Wha, what was their motivation, you think?
They didn't know what they were fighting for. They just knew they were there. And, they knew, as a group they were together and they fought together. These guys were brave. I mean I, I, I was a very lucky person to have the people I had with me because they, they got me through it.
You know, I would say to them, look you have one function and that's to protect me, cause I can get you everything else. I can get you the air mattresses because I sent in the rear still had the respect for me so anything I needed I called in for I got, you know. So, it worked out fine, but I was like you were playing your own game and I just happened to have a better group to play with, you know.
I, I, we, we were in the finals and everybody else was already eliminated so we, we, we survived and my whole platoon survived. Outside of maybe two men. Out of forty that originally started with me, they survived. And, that was ah, I mean even the priest and the doctor in the rear every time we came back from operation they would, Lieutenant Franco, are you still alive? 'Cause I outlasted all the officers. That's how I wound up with the company. I either outlived them all or somebody would get a rear job.
...Vietnam...all about. You wanted to know what the reason was.
Well, actually, ah, I'll tell you something. Before you roll them. Before you roll it.
Start rolling. Roll two. Take three.
Tell us about your medals.
All right. After I received that one Bronze star, right before leaving country, I had orders for another one and another one and I don't know where they were coming from but they told me I had a Silver Oak Leaf Cluster on my Bronze Star which meant I had five Bronze Stars and I said what did I do to get five Bronze Stars? You know.
I was getting congratulations and this and that. I just remember getting the one. Okay. The one for valor that maybe ah was important but just for being there to get a Bronze Star. So, the medal thing, was I, ah, I guess a thing to maybe give a little morale to the troops but ah, no it didn't mean anything to anybody 'cause when you got on the plane, you know, I mean you're in uniform it's fine, but when you get home it means nothing. You take the uniform off. And, that's it. It just becomes a memory, but the medals ah no, nobody cared about medals. Everybody just wanted to get home.
That's it. Fantastic.
Two hundred thousand. Would you believe that.
End of SR #2827. Tape 2, Side 1.