Early years

William Ehrhart
SR 2648, Tape 1.
This is an interview with William Ehrhart. und Reel 2648. Camera Roll 689.
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Well, I enlisted in the marines in 1966 when I was seventeen years old ahm (chuckle). When I look back on it now I think why the heck did I ever do that knowing what I know now, but I, at the time it was actually a fairly well reasoned decision. I grew up in a small town called ah Perkasie of about five thousand in rural Bucks County and all of us in in that environment simply learned to that, you know, you owed something to your country.
One heard that phrase all the time when I was growing up and of course if you were male and healthy what you owed to your country was military service. Ah. I think all along I had assumed at some point or another I would, I would serve in the military, ah, and as I was approaching...well, during my junior year of high school Vietnam began to turn into front page news stories all the time, 1964 and 1965 ah I had been accepted in several colleges, four colleges, by my senior year and then in March of 1966 I just decided, no, I’m gonna—I’m gonna join the marines, and I had to spend a lot of time talking to my parents about it because at seventeen, of course, I would not have been allowed to sign an enlistment contract in my own right.
They had to sign it too. And, I was able to give them fairly sound reasons and really what—what I think the scales in the discussion was at one point after talking for a long time I said ah this was to my mother, I said, mom, is this the way you raised me to let other mothers’ sons fight America’s wars. And, ah, that was pretty much the end of the discussion because they, they believed in their country. They believed ah ah you know they they were young people during World War II and that was it.
They hadn’t raised me that way. Ah. So, I ended up...graduated from high school in June and going in the Marine Corps immediately. Now, I specifically wanted to go to Vietnam. When I joined the marines I knew that I would be going to Vietnam. The recruiter made no bones about that and that’s exactly what I wanted and again you think, well, wow, you know why did I want to do that. Ahm. Well, I had grown up ah you know what I call the John Wayne syndrome. Ah.
When I was a a small child the the ah I have recollections of the tail end of the Korean War and, of course, my parents’ generation had just come out of ah that colossal experience of World War II. I have vivid memories of watching Way...Walter Cronkite doing what was called ah the Twentieth Century, I believe, and it was footage, combat footage from World War II. Ah.
I used to watch all the John Wayne movies and Audie Murphy movies and when we went out and played as kids as often as not we went out and we played war and ah and ah the enemy was always the Krauts or the Commies. Wan...
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Well, as I said, ah one of our one of my favorite pastimes as a kid was to outdoor games, play war, ah and I don’t’ think that’s anything unique. It seems to be the experience of most of my most of my peers but ah of course the enemy was either the Krauts the Nazis or the Japs or the commies ah. I grew up with with this combination of of really believing I think as most of most of my culture did and still does in the essential rightness of America, of the United States place in the world...it’s role in the world as the ah beacon of freedom, protectors of free peoples. Ah.
It’s something I believed absolutely. I can remember when I was in ah fifth and sixth grade having nuclear bomb drills in school. We really had to go out of the classrooms and get along the walls ah. You know. You sit down all crouched up like this and I’m ten years old and we’re all sitting there lined up waiting for the Russians to drop the bomb. I mean the Russians were bad people...
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Ah. Now, the nuclear bomb drills were probably the most one of the most vivid recollections I have in my...how my perception of communism and the Soviet Union, of course, because the Soviet Union was communism and there was no, there were no shadings of that. When you spoke of one you spoke of the other automatically. Ah. There were all sorts of subtle ways that we came to see the world as ah ah democracy embodied by the United States was an absolute good and ah communism as embodied by the Soviet Union was an absolute bad.
I remember John Kennedy’s inaugural address and his saying ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. I wrote that down in my notebook, in my ninth grade high school notebook. Ahm. And, all of those things, you know, a very sincere belief in my country and owing something to my country which as I said meant military service ah ah coupled with ah I think a not terribly subconsciously desire to be a hero. Ah.
To be like my father’s generation. The Ticker tape parades in New York after the war. Ah. All of these things came together so that during my senior year ah when—when the government said that the communists were taking over Vietnam and—and if we didn’t stop them there we would have to stop them eventually in San Diego. Ah. Ah.
I took that at face value and I saw my opportunity to really ah to be a hero. Ah. And, of course, war we’re—we’re taught in our culture that war is the ultimate test of manhood. Ah. I think every young man wonders am I am I really at heart a coward. You know, how do I find out if I’m really a man, and of course war has always been the—the forge upon which you discover that.

ARVN's morale

Ahm. And, so there I was. Off I went. Enlisted at seventeen and six months later at the age of eighteen I found myself in Vietnam. Ah. And, then a number of curious things began to happen. Ah. Most of what began to happen is that everything I had anticipated about Vietnam and I had been taught about Vietnam in school and elsewhere from the news media what I was seeing and what I was doing did not square with that pre conceived notion. Ah. And, so, things began fairly rapidly to come unraveled in my own head. Ah.
Things increasingly began to make no sense. Ah. I think one of the first things that I began to wonder about, really wonder about is the ah the soldiers who were our allies. The army or the republic eh we called them ARVN. At least in our area they wouldn’t fight. They wouldn’t fight. They spent more time shooting up marine patrols at night ah than they did engaging the enemy. Ah.
You’d see them walking around on Saturday afternoon in the market place in uniform but unarmed strolling along. Ah. And, when you needed an ARVN blocking force for a sweep through a village invariably there were never any Viet Cong when you got to where the ARVN were. Ah. And, at, this was an outfit, a 51st ARVN regiment. Ah.
But at the same time they, and at this time we were in an area just south of Danang, about twenty miles southeast of Danang, a heavily populated civilian area where the enemy was—was literally the old farmer by day fighter by night kind of thing and with—with virtually no equipment except what they could capture from the Americans and the ARVN. Ah. Tremendously outnumbered. The Viet Cong were there day after day after day picking away at us. You know, like I don’t know like gophers at the feet of buffalo or something. Ah.
And, it occurred to me these are the same people, the same race, the same culture and yet one side seems to be chicken and the other side seems to fight in the face of overwhelmingly disadvantages. And, I started wondering why, you know, why is this. Ah. And, I, it is true and I think I sensed then that people who believe in what they’re doing will—will do almost anything. Will overcome almost any hardship, whereas people who don’t believe in what they’re doing won’t—won’t put up with anything. Ah.
Let’s stop there.

American atrocities against Vietnamese civilians

CR 691
So it ah you know one couldn’t help notice this disparity between the VC and the ARVN. Ah. And, that was one of the first things that that caught my attention and ah again almost simultaneously I also began to notice it—it seemed, it seemed distinctly clear that the Vietnamese civilian population didn’t like us very much. Ah. In fact, was basically hostile to us. Ah. And, this you could pick up in all sorts of subtle kinds of ways. Ah. And, I, and that seemed odd, you know.
All this...of course, you have to figure it’s going through this very unsophisticated eighteen year old brain that’s expecting to, has visions in its head of the liberated villages in France in 1944. Ah. But that began to work on me, you know, hey wait we’re supposed to be here... We’re here to help these people. I thought they wanted our help and—and ah they don’t like us. Well, of course, again simultaneously the longer one stayed there the more I began to realize that they had all sorts of reasons for not liking us. Ahm. I don...
I can I hardly even know where to begin on something like that. We used to do these things called country fairs. They were part of the pacification program where you’d... Theoretically, you’d go, you’d take a company or two and you’d sweep through a village. Their villages were—were ah more like a small country. It would incorporate and embody a number of small hamlets and then a lot of rice fields. It could be several thousands of people and you’d go out and—and set up a blocking force behind the village and then ah another force would come sweeping through the village rounding up everybody.
Man, woman and child. Ah. You’d do this in the early morning hours and, of course, the theory was you’re gonna do two things. You’re gonna round up all these people and you’re gonna give them medical attention and ah and food, and at the same time you’re gonna search out VC infrastructure. VC political cadre. Ah. And, this would be a good thing. Ah. The end result would be a positive thing. In fact, what would happen is you’d go through these villages at ah come in at the pre dawn hours. Ah. Sweeping on line a company of marines and roust everybody out of bed.
Ah. If you didn’t, if people didn’t get up fast enough, if a door didn’t open, you kicked the door in. You dragged people out bodily. Ah. You’d, ah, everybody had these bunkers that they built under the ground ah to protect themselves from American artillery. But, ah, we’d see these bunkers and we’d go oh a place to hide a VC and you’d throw in ah some dynamite, blow it up, blow the house up with it. Any extra rice they’d have laying around, big bags of rice, confiscate that so they can’t give it to the VC. You know, like somebody has a refrigerator full of food...in this country you don’t think twice about it.
If they have any spare food it was food for the VC. You’d take, collect it. In the meantime all these civilians are being rounded up as you go along and ah in a few hours you’ve swept through the whole village and you have a big barbed wire compound at one end of the village where all these people get herded. And, I mean, literally they were herded like cattle. Ah. And, there they sit in the hot sun with no protection, no shade for the rest of the day and you get a few corpsmen in there who put on Band-Aids and ddd—administer the most primitive primary first aid and in the meantime the Vietnamese National Police...
There would be several national policemen who would go with us and an interrogation ah ah usually an ARVN solder and an American interpreter or rather I mean an American interrogator and—and ARVN interpreter ah would go through this crowd picking people out and if you had a beat ID card or—or if the national police had a grudge against you you’d get pulled out and taken into a tent ah where folks were generally ah roughed up pretty badly. Ah. Beaten, tortured, trying to get information about the VC. Ah.
And, then these folks would be turned over to the national police, the Vietnamese police, and taken off to the jail at Hoi An. God knows what happened to them there. And, it, you know, at the end of the day you’d turn all these people loose. Let ‘em go back to their homes. Many of which had been destroyed. Their cattle had been destroyed, their chickens had been shot, their rice had been confiscated and folks would go away. You’d have a civil affairs officer, S5 officer.
He’d go away and write a report about how much rice we gave, fed the Vietnamese and how many Band-Aids we applied and—and ah how many Viet Cong suspects we detained and on paper this would look like a wonderful thing whereas in fact if the people in that village were not Viet Cong when we got there they sure as hell were by the time we left. Ah.
That kind of thing. You’d get sniped at from a village and ah the response to snipers is to call in an air strike. Ah. I ah you know one could go on for just hours and hours and hours ah ways in which we did everything almost as though it was calculated to have exactly the opposite effect of winning the sympathy of the Vietnamese. Ah. The Viet Cong...
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I think when people try to understand what—what went wrong with American policy in Vietnam, American tactics. Why is it that we failed to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people that catchy point which we used? At one point the Pacification Program was called “Winning hearts and minds”. Ah. It’s real easy to look at something like the My Lai Massacre and—and understand oh this is a bad thing.
This is, this is certainly not going to win anybody’s hearts or minds ah but I spent thirteen months in a marine infantry battalion. I was in the ah in the intelligence section and so was knew what the battalion was up to. Ah. Spent a lot of time in the field myself and in that whole thirteen months I never witnessed or heard of anything on the order of—of a My Lai Massacre. Ah.
I think the most popular atrocity story is the ah the idea of American GI’s collecting ears. Ah. Cut off the ears of the VC. I never saw anyone do that and I never saw a dried Viet Cong ear. Ah. I think there were much more subtle things going on. Some of them weren’t so subtle, but things that we wouldn’t think of initially as atrocities but which in fact were the kinds of things which over the long haul—the day to day dealings with the Vietnamese—had far more impact on the Vietnamese attitude toward Americans. Things like the country fairs.
I mean try to imagine a bunch of armed people. Ah. You know I don’t want to use the word gangsters just come barging into your house one day and drag you out into the street and beat you up and empty out your freezer and maybe blow up your house cause it has a cellar. Ah. That’s an atrocity, and—and ah even littler things. No one ever told us, one of the things we did for—for kicks almost on a boring afternoon when you’re driving down the road was to see how close you could get to Vietnamese on bicycles along side the road. We would run them off the road and we thought that was great fun. Ahm.
And no one told us, for instance, that in Vietnam in—in their culture it’s perfectly proper for two men to walk down the street holding hands or two women, whereas for a man and a woman to do that is outrageous social behavior. People didn’t tell us that ah so when we saw Vietnamese men doing this, and you saw it all the time, we thought oh these people are queer. These are homosexuals ah and we let them know it. Ah.
They took a great deal of verbal abuse for that kind of thing and—and that you don’t think of it as an atrocity but that’s the kind of thing which alienated people. Ah. Hundreds and thousands of tiny day to day contacts like that which were just guaranteed to ah to make sure that that we made it as hard as possible for the Vietnamese to support anything that we were doing. Ah. Why do we go around treating...
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I, I think what—what probably occurs to someone listening to stuff like this is well, why. What kind of creeps were you, you know. Ah. Who goes...
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Now is it somehow that ah my generation just somehow turned out to be a bunch of ah ah crazy irresponsible hoodlums and I don’t think that’s the case at all. Ah. Ahm. We were, we treated the Vietnamese the way that we did because we were operating in an area, as I said, that was heavily ah heavily populated with civilians, rice farmers, fishermen, ah, most of our enemy contact at that time was not contact at all. It was mines and snipers. Mostly mines.
Our battalion, if I recall correctly had something on the order of seventy five mining incidents per month. Ah. Most of them—many of them producing casualties. And, so, you day after day you had ah dead marines, wounded marines and nobody to fight back at. Ah. In the meantime, you’ve got guys, you know, you go out, you run a patrol, somebody hits a mine.
There’s a couple of dead people and here’s—here’s Joe the rice farmer out in his field just he don’t’ even stop. He don’t even, it’s like he didn’t’ even hear the blast. Ah. And, after a while, you start thinking you—you start thinking boy these people must know where these mines are. How come they never step on them? They must, they—they must be ehh they must be VC’s. They must be sympathizers. Ah.
And, so, over a relative short period of time you begin to treat all of the Vietnamese as though they are the enemy. If you can’t tell you—you shoot first and ask questions later. Ah. There was a tremendous frustration in the whole tempo of the war. Of the, this particularly the mines and snipers were just deadly in terms, not just physical terms, but in the impact on your head. Ah.
So, it was pretty easy after a while to develop a very callous attitude about the Vietnamese civilian population, and of course, nothing in our ah ah in the military chain of command, you know, discouraged us from doing that kind of thing. I mean when you went in and you blew up a Vietnamese house because it had a bunker under it—it—it you didn’t get punished for that. You—you got rewarded for it. That’s what you were supposed to do. Ah. In retrospect now, it seems clear to me that ah the American chain of command had couldn’t possibly have had any serious regard for the—the Vietnamese population and in spite of all their disclaimers that were—were there to help the Vietnamese ah it certainly didn’t appear that way and we certainly didn’t help them.
Ah. All this stuff, you know, the difference between the VC and the ARVN ah our conduct in the field, the way in which the Vietnamese treated us. The hostility they had for us. You know, I’m trying to explain things in some rational order which, in fact, were all happening at once. Ah. You get dropped into this environment and—and nothing made any sense.

Questioning the Vietnam War

Ah. What really began to happen after a after a few months was that you begin, you could get as far as understanding that this was crazy. What was going on here was nuts. But, you didn’t dare begin to draw conclusions from that because they pointed in directions that were just terrifying. I mean America might not be the—the guys on the white horses with the white hats. Ah. Maybe we shouldn’t be in Vietnam.
Maybe I’ve gotten my ass out here in the bushes for nothing. I mean that you can’t think like that. You can’t think about that kind of stuff in a situation like that. For instance, it never occurred to me to quit. You know, to say I lay down my rifle now. I’m not gonna do this. It just never occurred to me. Ah. Somewhere lurking in the back of my mind was twenty years of making big rocks into little rocks. Ah. What you do is you develop this survival mentality.
You stop thinking about what you are doing, the implications of what you are doing. You begin counting days. I knew when I went to Vietnam that I had to be there for three hundred and ninety five days and if I was still alive when I got to the end of those three hundred and ninety five days, I could go home and forget the whole thing. And, that’s the mode that you begin to operate in, ah, fairly quickly. You just stop thinking. It, you want to stop for a minute. I’m not sure where...
When, while I was in Vietnam we very seldom talked among ourselves, my buddy and I about, buddies and I, about what was...
Start again. Maybe...
Okay. Just get my...
We didn’t ah my buddies and I didn’t talk very much about this kind of stuff while we were there. It was, as I said, a kind of a dead end. Ah. We used to gripe about the kind of tactics we were using. You know, ah, chasing around a bunch of invisible guerrillas with tanks and amphibious tractors and jet planes and ah but bigger issues. What the heck were we doing in Vietnam in the first place? Ah. We didn’t talk about those things. Ah. Though I was aware (clears throat), I think what struck me more than anything else was, you know, in grade school I learned about the red coats. The nasty British that tried to stifle our freedom ah...
Start again. In grade school.
In, in grade school we learned about red coats, the nasty British soldiers that tried to stifle our freedom and the tyranny of George III and ah and I think again subconsciously, but not very subconsciously. I...I began increasingly to have the feeling that I was a red coat. Ah. And, I think it was one of the most staggering realizations of my life that that suddenly to understand that I wasn’t hero, I wasn’t a good guy, I wasn’t handing out candy and cigarettes to the kids in the French villages, ah, that somehow I had become everything I had learned to believe was evil.
Ah. And, I never distilled it into those kinds of words at the time but I sensed it, and I know that I sensed it because when I went on R and R in Hong Kong in October of ’67 I came very near to deserting. I almost did not come back. In fact, the woman that I had met there, a Danish woman, persuaded me ah to get back on the plane and—and come back. The—you know I’ll ruin my life and stuff and I think she was right.
But, I couldn’t articulate to her why I didn’t want to go back but somehow in the pace of eight months I had reached the point from being a volunteer hurrying off to do his duty for his country to seriously contemplating desertion. Disappearing in the world somewhere. Ah. So, I know that that in spite of whatever lack of sophistication I had in my head there were things there that were bothering me, and I think more than anything else was this uncomfortable realization that somehow I was on the almost on the wrong side. Ah.
End of Tape 1, Side 1, SR 2648.

Erhahrt's transformation after returing to the U.S.

Vietnam, William Ehrhart (cont.), Tape 1, Side 2.
Now, I think in retrospect that’s been ah one of the most difficult things to deal with over the years is ah the more...I managed to survive obviously. Here I am. Ah. Got back to the states with the desire to just forget the whole damn thing. It was somebody else’s problem now. I didn’t care anymore, and what—what happened over the next few years as I said it wouldn’t go away. Of course, it wouldn’t go away cause it was, every time you turned on TV or—or even walked out into the street there was some evidence of the war.
But, but in my own mind even it wouldn’t go away. There were just too many things that had happened. Ah. You didn’t think very much about a county fair and blowing up somebody’s house when you were doing it but—but in years later those kinds of things it turned out had been making far more of an impression on my mind than—than I allowed myself to believe at the time. Ah.
Stop a second. Let’s go...
You know I—I went to Vietnam wanting and believing very much that I was ah part of the good guys to put it simplistically that that what we were doing there was right, was justified ah was proper and what finally happened in the in the years after I got back I was—was really forced to try to explain somehow in my own head what I had done and...
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The longer that I was...
Start again.
The—the longer that I was back in the states, I came back in March of 1968 and was here only a few months. I had another fifteen months to serve in the Marine Corps and requested a transfer back to Asia ah really because I couldn’t cope with the country that I came home to and was I just wanted to hide from it really. Ah. So, I ended up getting discharged in June of ’69 and starting college that fall. Ah.
And it was during that first year in college that I became increasingly aware of the fact that the war just wasn’t going to go away. I was not going to be able to forget it. I was going to have to deal somehow or other with what I had done, and I began to read a great deal trying to find out what had happened to me. Ah. The more that I read, the more that I ah you know I couldn’t learn about myself without learning about the whole basis of American policy in Vietnam, where it had come from. But, I was very slow to...
I was very, very slow to come to the—the feelings and beliefs that I have today. Ah.
Okay. Again.
I was very slow to come to the—the beliefs and feelings that I have today. I ..I still wanted to feel about my country the way I had before I had enlisted. Ah. I didn’t get involved in any kind of anti war activities until ah the spring of 1970 which was more than two years after I’d left Vietnam. It was the invasion of Cambodia which finally prompted me to try to do something. Ah. And, even at that point I—I used to get dragged out by my college peers cause I was a Vietnam veteran to go around talking to Rotary Clubs and all sorts of straight organizations like that. Ah.
And, I argued that the war was ah, you know, was tactically unwinnable, but I didn’t argue that it was wrong or that the goals were wrong because I just couldn’t quite believe that. Ah. It was really not for another two years before I began to understand the—the—the degree of duplicity that had been involved in American Vietnam policy almost from the beginning. Ah. The Pentagon Papers, of course, was a great ah the great revelation in—in those regard in that regard. Ah. I finally had to come to—to understand that we had (lied?) the American people and I had been lied to repeatedly and deliberately and systematically. Ah.
I think that that the last straw ah as I say in my own development was the night that Nixon bombed the dikes. I think that was the spring of 1972 during my junior year, and as I sat there watching him on TV announcing this he—he didn’t say as much, but I knew ah that what it meant was the flooding of millions of acres of crop land and I knew that by then we—we certainly were not going to “win” the war in Vietnam. The South Vietnamese government was for me clearly incapable of governing, had no support and that act, bombing the dikes was an act of sheer anger, of sheer vindictiveness and at that point I became as suppose as close to ah anti American as you could be. Ah.
And, for a long time thereafter I—I lived in a state of absolute rage. Ah. I finally came to another equilibrium a number of years later. Ah. I understand now that the values I had, the beliefs in freedom, the belief in democracy of a people’s right to choose their own government, that all of those things were good value, and, I still believe those things. What happened is that I believe that the United States foreign policy was the embodiment of those values and what I learned is that it was not. Ah.
I consider myself an American, a patriot. I love my country very much. I’m still here after all these years. Ah. But, for me the greatest legacy of the war in Vietnam is that I will never believe my government again. I see things in El Salvador. Ah. The kinds of reports about the government and stuff, and—and it’s the same thing all over again. And, ah, the present administration says we got to put Vietnam behind us and—and ya they’d like me to forget.
They’d like guys like me to shut the hell up and go away. Ah. But, I think that would be the greatest abdication of my responsibilities as a citizen to do that, to shut my mouth and forget about Vietnam. I learned things about Vietnam about my country, about myself, about our place in the world. Ah. And, I’m not about to forget those things and if I can help it, I’d like to make sure that nobody can forget them either. Ahm.
That’s a good stopping point.
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End of William Ehrhart. Tape 1, Side 2.