Jim Greenwalt was originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee and attended the University of Chattanooga. He was on the varsity wrestling team and he says that he had too much fun there and didn’t concentrate on education. So to avoid being a burden on his parents because of his grades, Jim joined the Army in 1966. During the Viet Nam War, if you were a healthy young guy and not in college, you would be drafted.
After Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and Advanced Infantry Training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, Jim entered Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. When he was injured in the training he was offered the choice to stay for an additional ten to twelve weeks or be processed back into the regular military stream. Jim was not enjoying OCS so he took the regular military path.
Jim said, “In retrospect, I probably should have stayed. But I would probably have been an Infantry Lieutenant and a casualty.” It was well known that Infantry Lieutenants fresh out of OCS and to the front in Viet Nam did not have a high percentage rate of returning from the war.
Jim says, “I was placed in a casual company until they figured out what to do with me.” Then he was finally assigned as a Basic Training Drill Sergeant at Fort Benning. He says, “This was because I could speak in complete sentences and was in excellent physical condition.” (Drill Sergeants are the guys that break down the raw recruit and begin re-training the mind to think the Army way.)
As a Drill Sergeant there, Jim really had a very good job. He taught all the classroom classes, “because I could read all the lesson plans and replicate them and I could speak in complete sentences.” (Believe me, those of us who have been in the Army know exactly what he was saying.) “I was also in very good shape,” he says, “and they had me teach all the physical training classes as well as bayonet and hand-to-hand combat training.”
In 1968, Jim was awarded Drill Sergeant of the Year at Fort Benning. Shortly afterwards he received orders for Korea. “All I knew about Korea was that it was cold and lonesome,” Jim remembers. “And I didn’t like cold that much.” So, having just received the award, he went to the Training Brigade Commander, Colonel Lance, to plead his case.
Sometimes bringing logic to the table, especially in the military, is a hopeless cause. Jim reminded his Commander that he had just received this award and that he believed that he would be more valuable to the Army if he stayed there. The Commander concurred, but told him that he could only protect him one time. So, six weeks later, orders arrived for Viet Nam.
Initially Jim was assigned as an advisor with the Military Assistant Command as a small and light weapons advisor. He was in school for the first three to four weeks where he would train on all the weapons and customs and learn a working language of the country.
Next, Jim was assigned to Mobile Advisory Team 74 as far south as you can go in the Mekong Delta to Ca Mau Province and to a place called in Vietnamese, Binh Hung. The Chinese name is Hai Yen. And for a very good reason, this name translates to “Sea Swallow.”
This area was established by a Catholic priest in the 1950’s, who had also been a colonel in the Chinese Army. So he was a priest and a military man. When the Communists took over China he took his family and his parishioners and tried to find a safe place for them to live. Finally, the President of Viet Nam accepted them and gave them this area. It was then some of the worst swamp land, and seemed useless.
But he moved his people there and they raised the landscape, made it livable, fought the Viet Cong and cleared the area for a safe place to live. As they began growing crops for food, insects began destroying them. Then the sea swallows came, ate the insects and saved their land. So this area was named after the sea swallow and they honor that bird. Their military uniforms have the sea swallow on the sleeve patches. The United States supported them and the Green Beret provided them weapons to defend themselves against the Communists.
Strong communities were established and the U.S. Special Forces moved out and teams of Army advisors moved in. In a district headquarters there would be six or seven advisors. Jim arrived in April 1969 to a small outpost which only had two other advisors, a Captain and a Sergeant First Class. The outpost was also manned with about twenty “popular forces,” or townspeople that were part of the military.
This outpost was approximately 50’x 100’ and the team’s quarters were in a building, with mud walls, that had been a temple, about the size of a living room. This location was at the confluence of two canals. Each night the team would take turns running ambush patrols. Their mission was to “interdict and engage any enemy movement.” Two advisors and a squad of 7 or 8 men from the compound would set up a position before dark. After dark, they would move to an ambush position in a different spot.
The first night Jim was there, his duty was to stay in the compound and man the radio while the other two went on ambush. Sleep was not an option for any of them, as the intense night would settle in. Their briefing had said that there is no traffic on these canals after dark, until dawn the next morning. If any boat does come down the canal, they were to be summoned over to a small pier and inspected.
About 2:00 am, Jim heard the sound of a boat motor coming down the waterway. He went out to see what it was and how the “popular” troops would handle it. He saw a sampan boat putting along with two large containers of some kind. But instead of being stopped and searched, it putted on by, unhindered.
Jim immediately walked around the perimeter to see about the troops who were supposed to be protecting the compound. To his surprise, there was no one around. The compound was totally void of any troops. (Can you imagine – 2:00 am in a dark, hostile environment with no one else around!?) Jim says, “This made me extremely nervous!” The house was equipped with an M-60 machine gun, claymore mines and an M-79 grenade launcher. He made his way back there, readied the M-60 and his M-16 rifle and hunkered down beside the radio for the night.
About an hour after first light the ambush patrol came in and Jim related the events of the night. The Captain wasn’t too surprised, but was somewhat concerned. The next night Jim and the team leader went on ambush and Mac, the Sergeant First Class stayed by the radio. There was no activity that night and at dawn they were to head back to the compound. The light revealed that all the popular forces were gone from their ambush positions. The Vietnamese radio operator was still there because the Captain had held onto the radio cable all night.
Upon their arrival it was the same story. All the local forces were gone and none came back from the ambush. This time the Captain was very concerned and reported it to his District Commander, who in turn reported it to the Vietnamese Commander. That afternoon the local Port Commander of the outpost and all of his troops showed up. Then a boat arrived with the District Advisor, the District Commander for the Vietnamese and all his officials. Then orders came for Jim’s team to pull out of the area.
When the Americans were removed from an area such as this, all support would go away also. They relied on the U.S. for their weapons, ammunition, uniforms and all that is required for their defense. So this was a major hit for this outpost and the area. By their abandonment of their post and mission, the Vietnamese Commander had been embarrassed and lost face with his leaders. He showed his great displeasure by proceeding to beat the Port Commander with his baton. He had to chase him around the compound to do it, but he certainly got his point across.
Jim’s team was moved back to headquarters and eventually to another small outpost at Vam Dinh. By July their team was at full strength. Vam Dinh was a place where three canals came together, a very important outpost because of transportation control, and a hot bed for VC activity. Jim says, “They would throw one or two mortar rounds at us every night – never hit anything though. But we had a 30’ antenna that we couldn’t put up because it would be a target they could zero in on.”
The local soldiers in this outpost had their families with them. There were many Chinese and their families also. The Vietnamese Commander there had the only TV in the compound. Armed Forces Radio announced that the United States was placing a man on the moon for the first time on July 16. Those of you who watched this live remember what a tremendously exciting event this was to witness.
Jim’s team erected the 30’ antenna, wired it into the TV and gathered all the locals around to see this monumental event. Jim says it was very difficult to try and explain to these people what was actually transpiring. “We tried to explain and pointed to the moon and said, ‘The Americans are up there on the moon.’ But it was very difficult for them to relate to this.” We take so much for granted, being raised in our comfortable, technological country.
Jim Greenwalt also received the Bronze Star for bravery during his tour in Viet Nam. In my next post I want to relate that story and how he came to receive it.
Thank you, Jim, for your service to our nation. We are proud of you and we are very grateful that you are willing to share your story with us.